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March 22, 2012

Beaver Choice

Gravlax Dominic Armato

When it comes to restaurants I feel a great urgency to visit, I have a "short" list, scare quotes highly intentional, since "short" loosely translates to "containing more new restaurants that I can really expect to get to before the end of the year." It's more of a crowded customs clearinghouse, where certain spots are fast tracked through immediately upon arrival, and others somehow get lost in a bureaucratic morass, until a year and a half later I find myself saying, "Man, I still haven't gotten to that place?" Such was the case with Beaver Choice, which has turned out to be yet another reminder that no matter how much ground I cover, it's never enough.

Norwegian PastafarianismDominic Armato

Beaver Choice has been open since the end of 2010, and though it's a small, relatively new, family-run joint, it hardly qualifies as a charity case when it comes to getting the word out. With glowing Yelp reviews in the triple digits and copious love from the New Times and Seftel, I'm definitely behind the curve on this one. But I'm thrilled that a humble little shop has gotten so much attention. There's nothing fancy here, six or seven Ikea tables (natch) and a counter to place your order, plus a mantle covered with coloring books, dominos, card games and other diversions, a tacit admission that the food might come out of the kitchen at a leisurely pace. But I will personally come out and egg the house of anybody who complains about this. Priorities, people. This is a laid back joint, where Polish-born Hanna Gabrielsson and her family cook up and serve the specialties she's picked up in Sweden and Canada en route to the United States, and the food's hearty and simple and all kinds of wonderful.

PoutineDominic Armato

Though it would seem incongruous on the menu if not for the family's stop in Canada, the poutine is nonetheless the kind of warm, hearty food that fits right in. A bachelor weekend in Montreal (not mine) put me off poutine for a great many years (there are only so many times you can eat the stuff in a three day span while maintaining a positive experience), but in recent years I've returned to the place where I can enjoy it again, and Beaver Choice's version is appropriately authentic and gluttonous. Poutine's the "dress up a junk food" du jour, and it's nice to get a version that's as straightforward as it comes, thick fries topped with chunks of soft cheese (not curds here, I think, but no complaints) and a smothering coating of thick, rich, beefy gravy. Somewhat classier, if equally delicious in very different ways, is the house gravlax, dill-cured salmon that's only just barely so, right on the edge of straight-up raw. It's got a delicate, silky texture and freshly herbed aroma that's really exceptional.

Jansson's TemptationDominic Armato

Swedish specialties aren't my strong suit, but a couple of dishes make the case that they ought to be. My Italian genes find a special cross-cultural kinship with the Jansson's Temptation, a casserole of sorts made with shredded potatoes, Scandinavian anchovies, onions and heavy cream. Though Scandinavian anchovies are a different beast than those abundant in the Mediterranean, they have a similar impact, and this is a combination of flavors that's unimpeachable, and it's delivered in a warm, creamy format with a crusty hash brown-like top. Like a few of the other items marked as such on the menu, Jansson's Temptation takes about 45 minutes to come out of the kitchen, so calling ahead might be wise if a leisurely lunch isn't in the cards.

Flying JacobDominic Armato

Another dish on the 45 minute list is the Flying Jacob, and if you'd served me this dish and asked me to guess its ethnicity, I never in a million years would have come up with Swedish. A recent addition to the culinary lexicon (most sources peg its creation to the '70s), my first thought upon tasting it was that I have no frame of reference for something like that. Another casserole, this one's composed of chicken, bananas and peanuts, smothered in a sour cream sauce that's spiked with curry and commercial tomato-based chili sauce. I mean, really, where and when does something like this come from? A Swedish air freight worker in the '70s, apparently. And though there's something completely haphazardly over the top about it, as if its invention were either chemically induced or the love child of a voracious appetite and an almost bare pantry, it's oddly compelling, a freakish cross-cultural combination of sweet, tart and spicy that I have a very, very hard time putting into context. But I know I really like it.

GolabkiDominic Armato

Far more conventional is the golabki, a straightforward expression of Gabrielsson's Polish roots, and a gentle, comforting version of a dish with which I don't have a ton of experience. Stewed cabbage leaves wrapped around fist-sized lumps of ground meat (Beef and pork? I only got a couple tastes of this one.), doused with a lightly sweet tomato sauce or, at your option, mushroom sauce, this is Eastern European comfort food at its simplest and most heartwarming. The meat's tender and delicately seasoned, the cabbage cooked to a perfectly tender consistency before reaching the point where it starts to fall apart, and the tomato sauce -- lightly acidic and just a touch sweet with a little hit of cream -- finishes the dish with aplomb. That I lived so long in Chicago while only tasting this once or twice is bordering on criminal, but this provides an excellent opportunity to make up for lost time.

FrikadellerDominic Armato

Meatballs of a less gargantuan size come in multiple varieties, the familiar Swedish version beefy and spongy and smothered in a creamy gravy. But the one that really caught me off guard -- and I mean that in the best way possible -- was the Danish version called Frikadeller. I'm not certain the Danes would identify these as such, since I understand they're generally flattened and pan-fried, but I'll leave the semantic debate to those who are well-versed in the finer points of Danish cuisine and simply express the important part, which is that these are freaking delicious. These pork meatballs would be a winner if served completely naked, impossibly light, tender, moist and... dare I say... even juicy. They're the antithesis of every bready, leaden lump of meat that's ever caused you despair. But if that weren't enough, they're doused with a delightful sauce, a light sweet and sour gravy heavy with dill. I got two meatballs. I wish I'd had two plates. I love these.

Schnitzel Cordon BleuDominic Armato

Seftel has waxed rhapsodic about Beaver Choice's Chicken Schnitzel Cordon Bleu, going so far as to list it among his favorites of 2010, so I felt a certain obligation to try it, or at least its kin. I opted for the porcine version thereof, two thinly pounded pork paillards sandwiched around brie cheese and sliced ham, breaded and pan-fried in butter. Served with a light, creamy and very peppery mushroom sauce, this falls into the category of "nothing here not to like," and even if I'm not quite as enamored of it as I am some of the other offerings, I say that only in relative fashion. It's perfectly done, molten cheese oozing from between lightly crisped schnitzel, and it's nice to have a sauce that's unafraid to feature pepper so heavily.

RöstiDominic Armato

Clearly, this fare isn't hearty enough, so almost all of the entrees are served with a standard complement of sides. These start with a single side dish, which may as well be called the potato dish since five of the six offerings feature them. French fries are unremarkable, but rösti is a respectable preparation of the Europeans' version of hash browns, though, to my personal dismay, more tender than crisp. Creamy dill potatoes are tender and warm and simple and a perfect accompaniment to just about anything on the menu. You also select three from a lengthy list of "side salads" that includes, in part, a lightly creamy beet salad, simple sauerkraut, and a really exceptional herbed cole slaw that's notable for how successfully it keeps the focus on the vegetables rather than the binder. It's a seriously killer slaw.

Beaver CookieDominic Armato

Desserts like Beaver Cookies, Beaver Balls, and Beaver Supreme inspire snickers and smiles in equal quantity. I didn't have the opportunity to sample the Beaver Supreme, a layered chocolate and meringue concoction, but I was reasonably enamored of the Beaver Balls, a chocolate and coconut concoction with a delightful texture. My undying love, however, is reserved for the Beaver Cookies, which ensured that somebody who ordinarily glosses over desserts would be forced to stop and sing its praises. It's two cookies, actually, thin, crisp and crumbly, made with oats and caramelized sugar, between which is spread a not insubstantial layer of lime butter. It was, to me, a novel combination, and it was all I could do to limit myself to two.

This is the kind of restaurant that makes me glow a little bit. Great food, great people, a family bringing their recipes to Phoenix from far-flung locales, a casual place to stop in and get some killer food wihout a lot of fuss. There's a ton of love here, and the only thing I like better than the restaurant's food and vibe is the fact that I'm one of the last people to write about it. When I get frustrated (read: despondent) that some fabulous places are overlooked, seeing the love for a quirky little restaurant like Beaver Choice gives me hope again. It's a wonderful little spot, and I wish I'd gotten here sooner.

Beaver Choice
1743 E. Broadway
Tempe, AZ 85282
Tue - Sat11 AM - 9 PM


God I love Poutine. The DC area Poutine truck recently shutdown. (The poutine was mediocre.) But, isn't poutine in Phoenix like having Iced Tea in Alaska?

"chicken, bananas and peanuts, smothered in a sour cream sauce that's spiked with curry and commercial tomato-based chili sauce". That is horrifying. Reminds me of a kid back in 3rd grade who would put Dorritos and Elmer's Glue on top of his PB&J sandwich . . .

And yet, it works...

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