Gourmet cafeteria dishes eclectic eats, communal noshing for the Downtown masses.
Food is more than just a basic human need. Dining offers an opportunity to socialize – whether it’s pot roast with family at the dinner table or pasta and vino with friends at a cozy neighborhood Italian joint.
It was in this spirit of brio and bread-breaking that manager and co-owner Shawn Connelly created DeSoto Central Market, a 17,138-square-foot gathering space featuring a full bar and gourmet food court. There’s no guarantee that you’ll bond with a stranger here – after all, this isn’t Portland or San Francisco, legendary dens of hippie-dippie openness where folks will chat you up in a checkout line. But in post-work twilight hours, it’s not unusual to see singles swapping business cards at the bar or seat-starved patrons shaking hands at DeSoto’s concrete community tables.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and rehabbed last year, the DeSoto building was originally home to a Chrysler dealership. Its 1928 roots remain in original brick walls and elaborate stucco adornments on the front of the building. Inside, developers opted for a modern, open-concept design with polished concrete floors and a mezzanine with hi-top tables overlooking the main dining area. Meeting rooms and conversation couches provide cozier nooks for lunchtime gabfests.
DeSoto is a perfect fit for its Roosevelt Row neighborhood: trendy, yet homey, with an eclectic selection of cafeteria grub that ranges from fair to fabulous. As of this writing, six of the seven onsite eateries were open: Chef Allan Inocencio’s Adobo Dragon Asian-Latin fusion, DCM Burger Joint, Radish, tea & toast, yard bird + the larder and Walrus & The Pearl oyster bar. Connelly tapped former Blue Hound Kitchen + Cocktails chef Stephen Jones to head up most of the kitchens.
Radish’s salads are the weakest of the lot, with items such as Jamaican Me Healthy jerk chicken salad ($6/$10) and Hungry like the Wolf ($7/$11) – a bland grilled steak number with herbed potatoes – standing out only by virtue of the clever branding. Dished in standard plastic to-go containers with veggies and overly dry proteins segregated in little heaps, the former lacked the eye-opening spice bouquet of its namesake island. If you’re game for meat, opt instead for Adobo Dragon’s pork bao with moist carnitas, salty pepitas and fragrant blue cheese tucked into an airy steamed bun ($9.50) or the flavorful teriyaki of the bulgogi beef bento box ($11).
DCM Burger’s meats are moist, if a bit well-done. Relish the subtle inferno of DCM’s South x Southwest with poblano and candied jalapeños atop a juicy pork patty ($10) or the crisp onion crunch of The Whiskey Downer, served with a shot o’ Jack ($14/$19 with shot). Topped with purple slaw, pepper jack, potent whiskey jam and a chunky slice of pig head terrine, this monster burger was so thick and loaded with flavor contrast that – even cut into manageable bites – I could barely squeeze it into my mouth.
Mah Boy Blue ($12) is an explosion of contrasting flavors, with the pungent smokiness of Rogue Creamery blue cheese battling with peppered bacon for attention. Acidic port ketchup acts as referee, holding back toppings that could otherwise overwhelm the beef. The burger joint’s lone loser is an “ol’ skool” grilled cheese and bacon sammie ($7). Overloaded with grainy beer mustard and greasy smoked cheddar slices textured à la Kraft singles, this childhood staple is too reminiscent of bad brown-bag lunches for adult tastes.
On the other hand, Walrus & The Pearl’s dine-in raw bar is classy and mature. Jones clearly knows his stuff when it comes to ocean-fresh catches. Around a half-dozen varieties of oysters are offered on any given day, served by the piece or dozen. The Pacific Paradise variety ($2 each/$12 half-dozen/$24 dozen) – plucked from British Columbia waters – is like a perfectly bottled drop of fresh bay water, while the intense brininess of Washington’s Hood Canal oysters ($2.25 each/$13.50 half-dozen/$27 dozen) are best downed with a hearty dollop of vinegary shallot mignonette.
Those with a textural aversion to raw mollusks can find relief in firmer yellowfin poke ($15) and spicy tuna tartare ($7). The poke is lightly rolled in Sriracha and sesame seeds for a dish that’s refreshingly clean yet flavorful, while purple-tinged seashell “dishes” are the seeming highlight of the latter. Presentation aside, the gentle acidity of green tomato combines with meaty diced tuna and dollops of creamy avocado-citrus mousse for a well-balanced tartare that had my dining companions playing rochambeau for the last shell.
The flagship of Jones’ mini food stall empire (and perhaps the best kitchen of the six) is his Southern comfort-food kitchen, yard bird + the larder. Jones is no stranger to pork belly – Blue Hound’s offerings of the succulent cut have graced everything from sliders to flatbread. Yard bird’s version ($12) is crisp and sanguine, with a texture reminiscent of pulled pork and a taste closer to fried chicken. Served over delectable chili-spiced greens, this homey dish was a table favorite. Crispy pig ear “Cheetos” ($7) were an unexpected hit, the chewy collagen cooked until soft and dusted with finger-licking-good cheese powder, while firm cauliflower tossed in buffalo wing sauce is piquant and pleasant enough to eat as a main dish ($6).
Boiled Cajun-spiced shrimp fares well in a bracing brown-bag boil or tangy tomato broth atop grits ($7-$13), though the hominy meal was al dente enough to cause concern for guests’ dental work. Yard bird’s lackluster catfish ($13), presented on newsprint paper à la classic fish and chips, would benefit from a hefty dose of the crustaceans’ tasty herb blend. Jones barks up the right tree with nicely seasoned, golden-fried hushpuppies studded with snappy corn kernels. The barbecue joint staple makes an appearance as a steaming hot foil for velvety chilled corn soup ($7) that’s equal parts savory and sweet.
DeSoto Central Market captures the spirit of community while offering a little something for every palate. Not every dish amazes, but that’s the risk you take with food courts – even upscale, chef-driven ones. Even if you gamble on grilled cheese or salad and lose, the upbeat atmosphere and creative repurposing of a historic gem make DeSoto a win for the neighborhood.
DeSoto Central Market
Contact: 915 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-680-7747, desotocentralmarket.com
Hours: 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Highlights: Pork bao ($9.50); The Whiskey Downer ($14/$19 with shot); yellowfin poke ($15); pork belly ($12); pig ear “Cheetos” ($7); cauliflower ($6); chilled corn soup ($7)
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