Cha-ching! That’s the sound of Fox Restaurant Concepts founder Sam Fox adding another new restaurant to his ever-expanding empire – this time, an upscale pizza and rotisserie chicken operation called Doughbird in the white-hot strip of East Phoenix scenesters have dubbed “Arcadia Lite.” People may scratch their heads over the restaurant’s goofy name and mascot (a bow-tied aviator chicken) and counterintuitive concept – what does rotisserie chicken have to do with pizza, anyway? – but there’s a certain brilliance in the simplicity and wide-ranging appeal of Fox’s 16th “concept” and most mainstream restaurant to date.
The restaurateur is famous for giving people what they want, and what they want, apparently, is hummus, mac and cheese, Buffalo wings and nachos. For a culinary idealist, this is deflating, but who am I to argue when customers gladly wait 30-40 minutes for a table at which to eat these very items?
The fact is, Doughbird does precisely what it was designed to do: offer healthy, updated comfort food in a sophisticated, high-energy setting. Granted, “pizza” and “healthy” probably don’t belong in the same sentence, but Fox and crew – including long-time culinary V.P. Clint Woods, corporate chef Chris Curtiss (Bourbon Steak, Noca) and Doughbird executive chef Chris Barch (The Henry, St. Francis) – have included enough light, fresh options to lure legions of Arcadia soccer moms who will surely burn off those pesky pizza calories at Orange Theory the morning after. So yeah, Doughbird is killing it.
God knows the yoga pant crowd will be on board with creamy Lebanese hummus, sprinkled with heirloom cherry tomato halves and rimmed with za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice mixture). It tastes like chickpeas, the way hummus is supposed to taste, the way hummus did taste before we started buying it in a dozen different flavors at Whole Foods. I could live without the hearth bread that comes with it, though. Made from pizza dough, it has a faintly crumbly texture that’s much less hummus-friendly than smooth, unleavened pita.
Charred shishito peppers, another light starter, are impossible to stop eating, thanks to an addictive little dip containing soy sauce, citrus-y yuzu and other ingredients (including yeast extract) that lend umami flavor. And although I like the faintly spicy Buffalo wings just fine – the sauce includes zesty dashes of celery and carrot, in a sort of deconstructed treatment of the classic side-veggies – it’s really the house-made ranch dip that keeps me gnawing each crispy wing to the bone.
But the best starter by a country mile is the truffle cheese stromboli – a long, split-topped turnover fashioned from pizza dough, stuffed with cheese and baked in the wood-fired oven until it’s browned and crusty on the outside, hot and melty within. Sprinkled with a snow flurry of truffle cheese, it’s earthy and ethereal at once.
Surprisingly, Doughbird’s entrée-size salads don’t do a thing for me – not the pretty but pedestrian garden chop, tossed with overly acidic Champagne vinaigrette; or the chicken and avocado, a mix of butter lettuce, glazed bacon, tomato and Gorgonzola over-dressed with ranch.
I’m not that keen on the sandwiches either, probably because they’re served on the same thin, puffy hearth bread that comes with the hummus. Although pastrami and Gruyère, juicy with coleslaw and Thousand Island dressing, makes for a satisfying combo, I’d like it better on rye bread. Meanwhile, the ranch chicken club – with avocado, bacon, heirloom tomato and provolone, and pegged as the most popular of the bunch by our server – strikes me as predictable and snoozy.
The real standouts – no surprise! – are the pizza and rotisserie chicken. Curtiss created the signature dough recipe, using organic flour from prestigious Central Milling while following Fox’s mandate to create a lighter, healthier crust. Although I’ve noticed a slight variation in the final result on two different visits (crusts are lighter and puffier one day, denser, chewier and more uniformly browned another), they’re good either way. As for toppings, I’ve liked every wacko pizza I’ve tried so far, including the slightly overcooked Spiral Ham (a riff on the classic Hawaiian, topped with shishito peppers, spicy pineapple, Thai basil and smoked mozzarella) and the Bacon and Truffled Eggs (fennel sausage, roasted onion, smoked mozzarella and arugula), which I would gladly eat for breakfast any day. But my favorites are the Crispy Pastrami (aged Gruyère, pickled mustard seed, purple kale and rye salt) and the Wild Mushroom (black truffle, fontina, Swiss chard and rosemary).
Did I suggest that Fox is playing it safe? True enough, but he’s still riding trends, and rotisserie meat is one of them. Dry-rubbed chicken, served as a half or whole bird, arrives at the table hot, plump and juicy, varnished a deep mahogany brown from a slow turn on the rotisserie. It’s very good, especially with a $5 side called “perfect” potato purée, which actually is. A slab of rosy pink prime rib from Creekstone Farms, marinated overnight in an herbal blend, then cooked on the rotisserie for two hours, boasts big, beefy flavor but lacks the crackling crust that makes prime rib such a primal experience.
Unique dipping sauces, another trend for 2017, abound at Doughbird, including Jamaican jerk marmalade, jalapeño pesto, horseradish crème fraîche and pineapple teriyaki. At a buck each, they’re inexpensive enough to order by the six-pack, so dip, dunk or douse to your heart’s content. Except for lemon and roasted garlic, which has an odd undertone, I like them all.
Side dishes are another affordable way to augment your meal. Crisp-edged potato wedges work, but creamy mac and cheese needs salt and sharper cheese. Meanwhile, Brussels sprouts with kale and asparagus with broccolini are decent enough, but I feel more virtuous than happy for eating them.
The desserts (all $7) are strictly hit or miss. The hit: warm butterscotch cream cake with vanilla bean gelato. The miss: a toothache-inducing peanut butter and chocolate parfait with banana, whipped cream and savory bacon sandies, the latter being the only part worth eating. Streusel-topped peach pie falls somewhere in between: good but not very memorable.
I have two more minor complaints: The beer selection should be better, considering that pizza (arguably beer’s supreme bedfellow) is one of Doughbird’s claims to fame; and my Indy School Mule (a classic cocktail given a five-spice twist) tastes wimpy and watered down. That said, I still maintain that Sam Fox knows exactly what he’s doing here – turning out familiar crowd-pleasers that won’t bust budgets or present any challenges. I could kvetch ‘til the cows come home, and no one would care. They’re all lined up for another crack at Doughbird.
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