The lone survivor of the great Binkley’s purge of 2016 has a new chef and a stunningly delicious makeover.

Café Bink

Written by Nikki Buchanan Category: Food Reviews Issue: October 2017
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Cochinita pibil tostada. Photo by Rob Ballard.
Spinach-artichoke garganelli pasta. Photo by Rob Ballard.
Chicken liver mousse. Photo by Rob Ballard.
Peach cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream. Photo by Rob Ballard.
Exterior of Café Bink. Photo by Rob Ballard.

The lone survivor of the great Binkley’s purge of 2016 has a new chef and a stunningly delicious makeover.

When Kevin and Amy Binkley announced in 2016 that they were pulling the ripcord on Cave Creek and moving their flagship Binkley’s Restaurant into their Bink’s Midtown space in central Phoenix – closing Midtown and its twin, Bink’s Scottsdale, in the process – the decision to downsize and refocus on the original Binkley’s brand made perfect sense. 

Nevertheless, Binkley-ites were nonplussed. Nervously, they pondered the fate of Café Bink, the casual American bistro the couple opened on Tom Darlington Drive in neighboring Carefree in 2008. It had become a neighborhood fixture over the years, beloved for its cozy environs, shaded patio and more-affordable, comfort-minded renditions of Binkley’s mad-scientist cuisine. In fact, longtime servers Donna and Deb had become fixtures themselves, treating the café’s many regulars like family. For any halfway-sophisticated diner in that northernmost neck of the woods, losing the Binkley’s mothership was bad enough – the prospect of losing Baby Bink as well just seemed cruel, even if a series of young chefs who came and went in recent years meant the food could sometimes be spotty.

And then the Binkleys did a really smart thing: They made Chef Justin Olsen their partner in the cafe, turning over the reins and 50 percent of the business to the talented Texas boy who had worked alongside them for five years – first on the line at Binkley’s, later as head chef at Bink’s Midtown and, later still, as the chef who oversaw both Midtown and Bink’s Scottsdale. As an experienced cook and manager who wears the genre-twisting Binkley’s ethos like a second skin, Olsen was the perfect choice, a creative workhorse capable of pulling off a sophisticated Binkley’s experience while following the brash dictates of his own heart. I’ve had four meals there since early April, and I think Café Bink is the best it’s ever been. 

Olsen and Binkley agreed that a refresh was long overdue, and to that end, Olsen instituted Tequila Tuesday – five Mexican-inspired cocktails (all $7) and five seasonal, always-changing Mexican dishes, offered every Tuesday night. Masses-pleasing sacrilege? Only if you’ve never tasted Olsen’s heavenly tamales. Wrapped in a banana leaf, the green chile-studded sweet corn version I reluctantly share with a pal is incredible: light, fluffy masa and toppings of queso fresco, lime-pickled onions, sesame seeds, smoky-bittersweet salsa negra and crema that add loads of flavor and textural contrast. 

Meanwhile, a crunchy-bottomed huarache – the sandal-shaped fried masa cake made famous on the streets of Mexico City – is every bit as good, piled with caramelized mushrooms and onions, refried black beans, pickled chayote (squash), Oaxacan cheese, lettuce and chipotle sauce. I can’t get enough of queso fundido either. It’s a hot, melty dip of spicy, house-made chorizo and mild Chihuahua cheese, lightly spiked with tequila and served with crispy tortilla chips. Three plates in, I envision many a drive to Carefree come Tuesday.

On Friday and Saturday nights through the end of October, the cafe also offers an elegant, six-course “Chef’s All Things Summer” tasting menu with wine pairings for $54 (no, that’s not a typo). One weekend’s Italian theme begins with zippy, chile-flaked focaccia, its crispy top the result of griddled potatoes added to the dough. Offered with lemony ricotta, it’s a fantastic introductory nibble, and I’d love to see it on the regular menu. The second course is just as memorable: an octopus and calamari salad, bolstered with creamy white beans, scented with fennel and garlic and given another Texas-style hit of chile heat. 

But why am I torturing you with descriptions of beautifully plated, delicious dishes you will probably never have? Bottom line: This menu in any version (Southern, Spanish, French, whatever) is a smoking deal, and you should get to Café Bink before it goes away.

If that doesn’t work out, however, rest assured you can find happiness on the regular menu just as easily, beginning with complimentary corn muffins dripping with vanilla-scented honey butter or an appetizer of dreamy chicken liver mousse, smeared on toasted chile rye bread and dotted with cherries. Pickled apricots, which I love inordinately, effectively cut the mousse’s richness. 

Menu standbys such as the french fries (served with truffle ketchup, aioli and sauce verte) and the pulled-to-order mozzarella are always great, but do yourself a favor and branch out. My friend and I find ourselves indulging a lot of superlatives while trying out the menu’s newest offerings – namely, a starter of creamy pork mac and cheese, imbued with burnished bits of ham (brined and cured in-house) and a crunchy topping of bacon bread crumbs; an entrée of flaky Alaskan cod, swathed in crisp beer batter and served with green tomato-corn chow-chow and smoked chile aioli; and a rich-but-not-too-rich garganelli pasta with spinach, artichokes, olives and shallots in a cheesy Mornay sauce jacked up with Calabrian chile. 

There isn’t a single dish here I wouldn’t happily order again, including an appetizer of mojo shrimp with charred bread, brightened with chile de arbol, cilantro and black garlic mojo ($16), and a juicy Arizona grass-fed burger, served on a fluffy challah roll smeared with smoked onion aioli ($15). If you visit at lunch, go for the Cemita, a two-napkin sandwich loaded with moist, savory hunks of banana-leaf-roasted pork, pickled onions, Oaxacan cheese, black beans, avocado and shredded lettuce ($13). 

It’s hard not to notice that Olsen has added his Texan touch to just about everything, including desserts. His peach cobbler is topped with pecan-studded oat crumble and served with vanilla ice cream, and the sinful chocolate cake is served with caramel ice cream and more pecans, which prove a heavenly match to the cake. 

Perhaps I’ve gushed too much, but I can’t think of an instance when I’ve been more pleasantly surprised about a comfortable old standby made new and exciting again. When it comes to cooking the sort of sophisticated comfort food I love to eat, Olsen hits the mark every time. In his able hands, Café Bink will surely be around for years to come.

Café Bink
Cuisine: American
Contact: 36889 N. Tom Darlington Dr., Carefree, 480-488-9796, cafebink.com
Hours: Lunch M-Sa 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; happy hour Tu-Sa 2 p.m.-5 p.m.; dinner Tu-Sa 5 p.m.-9 p.m., Su 5 p.m.-8 p.m.; brunch Su 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Highlights: Tamale ($7); huarache ($10); pork mac and cheese ($11); chicken liver mousse ($12); mojo shrimp ($16); beer-battered Alaskan cod ($22); spinach-artichoke garganelli pasta ($24); buttermilk chocolate cake ($9)

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