In both 2020 and 2021, the annual Burning Man event in Nevada has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The yearly gathering will no doubt eventually return, but even without a densely packed temporary city arising over Labor Day weekend, Burning Man’s cultural impact can be felt in small and subtle ways. On Washington Street on the east side of Phoenix, Walter Station serves beer brewed on site with matching food and a loose connection to Burning Man, firefighting, and nearby Sky Harbor Airport, all in an unlikely combination that somehow works.
The “Walter” the station is named for was originally an airport fire truck. Once its service ended, it was converted into a giant replica of a Volkswagen bus suitable for cruising the playa at Block Rock City, not to mention appearances at local events. Walter became the centerpiece of the Walter Productions company, which collaborated on a brewery in a building that was once the fire station for Sky Harbor airport. With the active station now located at the airport itself, the old firehouse, with its tall ceilings and roomy interior, now functions as a brewery and restaurant.
If it’s still confusing how this all fits together, what’s important is that there is now a functioning brewery that pours its own beer and serves a well-crafted menu of pub food just three blocks west of the 44th Street / Washington light rail station. The location puts Walter Station just north of the airport, making it a place to stop before or after a flight, and just south of the Grand Canal, with its recently improved multi-use path. Despite the canal’s proximity, there’s no bike rack; however, it is usually possible to park a bike where it can be seen from any table inside.
Because of the firehouse design, the distinction between indoor and outdoor dining is fluid much of the year. When the big garage doors are wide open, there is free-flowing traffic between the bar counter, the tables inside, and the seating outside on a back patio. The brewery operations are behind a door, but bags of grain stored in the dining room make it clear that this is a production facility and not just a tap room. A chalkboard over the bar lists Walter’s current beer lineup, and a smaller board near the entrance lists food specials available on any given day.
Both beverage and food options are reiterated on printed menus brought to each table. The beers are predominantly those brewed on site within the station, but there’s usually a guest brew or two of local origin. Enduring beers include Baja Girl blonde ale and India pale ales like Turnout and Hazing Arizona. Seasonal brews include Winter’s Coming, a dark spiced ale, and Salt and Sour, with tastes described by its name. The staff can sometimes suggest combination pours, mixing half a pint of one brew with the same quantity as another for a distinctive drink.
The food at Walter Station is produced in partnership with Saffron Jak, originally a food truck known for its thin crust pizza with a Persian influence. In the larger kitchen the old firehouse provides, there’s plenty of room not only to make pizza, but also to create appetizers, salads, sandwiches, and even weekly burger specials. The theme is slightly Middle Eastern and Mediterranean with a few local Southwestern touches, but it is also firmly rooted in comfortable traditions of hearty and casual pub grub designed to accompany a pint or pitcher of beer.
The original Saffron Jak product, pizza, takes the form of elliptical pies with a crust reminiscent of lavash or any number of flat breads. The Lambhops pizza, topped with onions, peppers, scallions, and ground lamb and accompanied by a cucumber, yogurt, and dill dipping sauce, is a subtle nod to both the kitchen’s Persian roots and the IPAs and other hoppy beers produced in the adjacent space. The Super Greeky pizza has a tangy toppings assortment of peppers, black olives, and feta. Any pizza can be served at half size with a side salad as a combination meal.
Full-size salads include a standard Greek salad with toppings similar to the Greek pizza on top of mixed greens and an elote salad with roast corn, tomatoes, cotija cheese, and a cilantro lime dressing. Appetizers meant for a table to share repeat the Southwestern theme with nachos topped with onions, jalapeño, tomato, and the usual gooey beer cheese. A giant pretzel can be ordered by itself, accompanied only by the usual cheese and mustard dipping sauces, or as a component of a charcuterie board accessorized with salami, assorted cheese, and dried fruit.
Sandwiches are built with thin, crunchy baguettes as their foundations. They arrive toasted and still warm in paper wrappers. Fillings include a caprese combination of fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil; sliced meatballs with melted provolone” and an Italian assortment of cold cuts and cheese. Sandwiches are sometimes added as weekly specials like a California club with chicken and avocado or Walter’s take on the ubiquitous Nashville-style hot chicken trend. On Wednesdays, the usual sandwich lineup is typically augmented with burger specials.
While the restaurant’s menu incorporates most of the major food groups, it does not make any room for dessert. Perhaps a small glass of a dark beer such as a barrel-aged stout can fill that role. Otherwise, that particular desire will have to be fulfilled elsewhere. While there are no light shows and campgrounds to recall Burning Man at Walter Station, the loose link to the annual event is part of an intriguing collection of influences that shape this establishment. If a fire truck can become a VW bus, it’s no surprise a fire station can become a brewery and restaurant.
4056 E. Washington St., Phoenix AZ 85034
44th Street / Washington Station