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June 09, 2011

Welcome Diner

The Diner's Hoppin' Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: I've spent a little time hanging with Zac, who was cooking with Payton Curry the first night I visited. They threw a couple of extra tastes in my direction, which I compensated for on the tip line, as usual.  

UPDATE : Welcome Diner, as written about here under Payton Curry, has closed

Three nights a week, it's a funny little scene on Roosevelt.

Phoenix' Welcome Diner already had a history as colorful as the neon. Built in the '50s in Wichita, trucked over to Williams, and eventually relocated to Phoenix, the nine-seater small enough to slap on a flatbed truck had been producing diner standards off and on for the better part of six decades. Until recently, however, it had been sitting vacant, its most recent operators throwing in the towel after a car accident destroyed the outdoor area and left two mangled wrecks on the front lawn. Mercifully, the main structure was left unscathed and it's now been resurrected in somewhat less retro fashion by Payton Curry, who was seeking a home -- or perhaps more accurately, a playground -- after leaving Caffe Boa back in February. For the past few months, he and his wife Shantal have made the Welcome Diner their home, bringing a little stylistic incongruity, some classic rock, a culinary gunslinger's mentality, and some pretty damn good food.

Potato Salad with Fried EggDominic Armato

But before you even get to the food, you get the sense there's something a little special going on here. Even on a Tuesday night at 10:00, you're bound to find a crowd on the front lawn, having some food at the outdoor picnic tables or just hanging around and talking while Curry slings a lot more than hash inside. There's indoor seating as well, nine tiny stools crammed together along a bright red, L-shaped melamine counter, behind which Curry squeezes everything he can out of the diner's old griddle, bringing his creative, slightly twisted and often decadent vision to the freshest stuff he could pick up that week. As beautiful as the late night weather has been lately, I find that combination of kitsch and kitchen irresistible, not to mention the little bit of community that seems to spontaneously emerge from whoever's sitting around you. There's a vibe here. It's an energetic, casual and friendly one that would make a visit here a blast even if the food weren't really good. Except that it is.

Though he's extremely well-respected around town, I'd never tried Curry's food before setting foot in the diner. Hearing reports that he -- along with every other freaking chef in Phoenix right now -- would be putting out refined comfort food, I feared more of the same and took my sweet time stopping by (Really, it would be nice if somebody would cook something else for a change). But this turned out to be a big mistake. There's the occasional sly reference to traditional comfort food, but this menu deserves better than to be lumped into that category. If it must be called comfort food, consider it chefs' comfort food, creative fare with fresh ingredients, big flavors and very, very little restraint.

Dungeness Crab SaladDominic Armato

The first dish I tried was as close to comfort food as I'd get. A chunky potato salad, saturated with vinegar and piled with fresh herbs, attempted to apply the modern rubric of "everything is better with a fried egg on top." I'm usually on board with that theory, but it's not infallible. I dug the potato salad, and there's nothing not to dig about a beautiful, runny fried egg, but they didn't do each other any favors. It didn't work for me... the first and last dish about which I'd feel that way. Also fairly straightforward, though not diner fare by even the most liberal interpretation, was a creamy Dungeness crab salad with cabbage, citrus segments and some buttery, toasted brioche. This wasn't a supremely delicate approach, almost like slaw meets crab salad, but it was sweet and creamy and it absolutely worked.

FG&J (Foie Gras & Jelly)Dominic Armato

I'd quickly learn that, at least at the Welcome Diner, restraint isn't one of Curry's hallmarks. The FG&J (Foie Gras & Jelly) hit the table with an emphatic, "One-hundred eighteen grams of the finest foie you've ever tasted!" from the chef. Let me tell you, the foie is fine, almost embarrassingly naked, and there's no way that was only 118 grams. Foie's an ingredient treated with such reverence, even when presented in pseudo-downscale fashion, that there's something hilarious about seeing it treated so casually. It's a huge slab, just barely warmed and slapped between two slices of brioche with a sticky, tart strawberry jelly. Eating this makes you feel like you're getting away with something... like chopping up truffles for your cream of mushroom soup, or slapping a fistful of beluga caviar on top of your tuna salad (neither of which, for the record, I've had the pleasure of trying). It's just an absurdly large chunk of foie with a little jelly and some bread so it doesn't get all over your fingers. And really, there's nothing not to love about that.

Soft Shell Crab Po' BoyDominic Armato

Slightly more refined and less brash, though only in relative fashion, was a soft shell crab po' boy. This was actually the dish that finally got me into the diner. I'm now two years removed from Baltimore, and when photos of fresh softies go up on the internet, I respond like Pavlov's dog. Some of the Baltimorons with whom I'm still friendly may squint at such an elaborate treatment, but this is soft shell cookery of the maximal as opposed to the minimal variety, and it works as well. Cornmeal crusted and deep-fried to a crisp, it came on a salty pretzel roll with an assortment of veg and a spicy aioli, and it was really fabulous. Crisp and hot crab, cool and crispy vegetables, salty and spicy zip... when faced with such a delicate and hard to come by ('round here, anyway) ingredient, it's hard not to put it on a pedestal, but here it was just part of the team, and I could've eaten three of these.

Cabeza FettuccineDominic Armato

Pasta is one of those things that I tend to like very, very straightforward and traditional. I'm not opposed to creative takes, but too often they mimic the form while losing the spirit. Not so with the cabeza fettuccine, which I absolutely had to try. Conceptually, it's really smart, and I found both delicious and hilarious. That tender, stewed meat plays a lot like a ragu, albeit more salty and funky. This stuff is intense. The meat's potent, with a kind of silky, fatty feel and the fettuccine has great bite. I think it would benefit from a clingy rather than a thin sauce (or a different pasta, if it's going to sit in a broth), but either way, it's a sauce that slaps you around a bit, and I mean that in the best way possible. It's a great dish. The flavors aren't remotely Italian, but the spirit absolutely is, and on that basis it's a huge winner.

Lamb Belly RouladeDominic Armato

Watching Curry prepare the lamb belly roulade is a full-on sensory experience. A log of lamb belly, stuffed with a paste made with figs and dates, is sitting in his pan, merrily sizzling away, the aroma filling the diner as it gets brown and crusty. Then he tosses on a few sprigs of fresh thyme and in that motion so familiar to chefs, he tips the pan and using a spoon, starts basting with the oil and the room explodes with the scent of thyme. After a few minutes of this, in goes a handful of butter, and the basting continues, as the scent gets richer and richer. When the third basting ingredient hits the pan, he tells the assembled crowd what he's doing, but there's really no need. Smells don't get much more distinctive than bubbling, liquefied foie gras, and the basting continues until the meat emerges from the pan, crisp and brown and hot. Once it's sliced and plated, the big surprise is that it isn't as rich as the butter and foie would suggest. The crust has that character, to be sure, but the meat is tender and juicy, and the fruit adds a little sweetness without going too far. Add some sour, pickled ramps, and that powerful prep turns out a dish that's undeniably bold, but very nuanced and almost delicate in its sensibilities. It's big, big food, but it has some serious depth. I absolutely loved this.

Sweetbreads with Broccoli Salsa VerdeDominic Armato

Similarly chaotic and bold were the sweetbreads. I think the photo doesn't quite do them justice. That fried thymus gland there is -- and I say this without the slightest exaggeration -- the size of my fist. Like the foie, it's an almost gluttonous approach to an ingredient that's usually treated so delicately. Breaded and fried, meaty with just the slightest variety meat funk, it hit the table along with citrus segments, a bright salsa verde made with, of all things, minced broccoli, and a "citrus aioli" that made me laugh for all the right reasons. Lusting after somebody else's plate a few minutes prior, I assumed the creamy, white base of the dish was pureed potatoes, or some other pale root vegetable. It was only after my first bite that I realized it was mayonnaise. A lot of it. Okay, aioli... though I wasn't getting much in the way of garlic. But really, it played more like mayonnaise (albeit an exceptionally rich and deliciously citrusy one) and I do NOT mean that as a criticism. Even setting aside the fact that it was delicious, it just seemed to sum up the entire experience. An almost grapefruit-sized chunk of sweetbreads atop half a cup of mayonnaise sounds absolutely absurd, and it is, but it's also flat-out good and so perfectly in keeping with the menu's style. A meaty abundance of a fine ingredient, pounded with big flavors that nevertheless maintain their balance and work together... this was some seriously good stuff.

Lemon CurdDominic Armato

I barely touched the sweets. Too many savories I couldn't pass on. But the little taste I had of the lemon curd was wonderful, a semi-frozen, thick and creamy version made with limoncello, piped across a tender cantuccio. I think the curd's normal presentation is in a jar with the cantucci (you probably know them as biscotti) for dipping. It's a nice, light finish after some serious decadence. I've been to Curry's pop-up at the Welcome Diner twice now, and had great meals both times. I love everything about the place. I love the vibe, I love the people, I love the kitschy diner, and I love the food. Curry's plainly having a ball back there in that little postage stamp of a kitchen, and it shows in the food. Every week, he's getting the best bullets he can find, and then he just starts shooting from the hip. He's often wearing suspenders, but he might as well be wearing a bandolier. None of which is to suggest that this food is hastily or ill-conceived. Just the opposite, most of it is extremely thoughtful and creative. While some have termed it upscale comfort food, I think that has it backwards. These are more like downscale versions of what you'd ordinarily see in a more refined context, upscale ideas presented in a quick and dirty and unrestrained fashion. I don't know what his situation was at Caffe Boa, but he calls Welcome Diner "A Theraputic Project" and the food plays like it's being made by somebody who's fiercely cutting loose. Everything is big and brash and potent and, in keeping with the whole package, an awful lot of fun.

Sadly, this plucky venture has an expiration date -- July 4th -- which will be the final blowout before he and Shantal close up shop and start making plans for a more permanent place. While I'm anxious to see what he'll do in a more traditional context, I'm sad that Curry's Welcome Diner will be going away. I don't know how you recapture this unique breed of mojo, but maybe that's the beauty of it. Just be sure to get in there while you can. In four weeks, it's gone.

Welcome Diner
924 E. Roosevelt Street
Phoenix, AZ 85006
Sun - Tue5:00 PM - Whenever


Neat concept but I'm sad they're only going to be doing it for a month longer. Really curious about the foie gras sandwich. What are the prices on some of these dishes?

Shawn... Yeah, I know, I'm kicking myself for not getting in there sooner. As for prices, if you click through the link to Curry's website at the bottom, the last couple week's menus are posted.

Dom, I've been a fan of your "disclosure" item. Question though: in the cases where they add an item to your courses that might not be on the menu or is a menu item of an altered portion size, how do you do the calculation on your compensatory tip?

Jon... Estimation. Easy if it's something that's on the menu. Less so if it isn't. I realize this isn't a scientific endeavor, it's just a good-faith effort. I can still try the dish, I avoid the awkwardness of refusing something, and I'm still paying an amount for it that's probably close, if not perfect. It's kind of silly, but I think it's not an unreasonable way to handle that situation, and it's allowed me to make my peace with it.

That sounds... absolutely fantastic. One of the most decadent things I ever ate was a slab of warm foie gras on a fig tort, with a basalmic reduction drizzled over the top. Ever since I have associated foie and fruit very positively.

On a completely different note, I live in Boston (Cambridge, actually) and was wondering if you could recommend any good local food blogs. I have this nagging sensation, that I am somehow missing out on a vibrant, active foodie culture here, but I cannot seem to lay ahold of it. Frustrating.

One of life's real joys is a taste so good all you can do is laugh. Lord, I wish I could eat here...

I am possibly drooling a little bit. Giant sweetbreads with mayonnaise? YES PLEASE.

The style of this place actually reminds me of M. Wells Diner, which opened up a year or two ago in New York. It's another small, old diner building taken over by an adventurous and maybe slightly crazy chef... the food there is super rich, over the top, and yet still perfectly balanced. Plus, they will add foie gras to any dish the way that other restaurants might add a side of fries.

Not sure if they do a foie-and-jelly sandwich, though. I guess that's something I'll have to dream about from afar!

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