We interrupt our regularly scheduled roundup of one-off restaurants to bring you this quartet of intriguing chain eateries.

No Chain, No Gain

Written by M.V. Moorhead Category: Food Reviews Issue: December 2016
Group Free

The term “chain restaurant” conjures images of cheesy theme décor and equally insincere cuisine, engineered for maximum economy and minimum subtlety. But it’s worth remembering that if an eatery is in a position to branch out to more than one location, it probably has something going for it. Case in point: Flagstaff’s “non-stop noodle shop” SoSoBa has taken its act on the road to Phoenix, with savory spins, unfettered by orthodoxy, on ramen bowls served in a hip Downtown setting. The Mic Drop ($12) is a tasty concoction of thick udon with pork belly, ham and other porcine goodies along with kimchi in a spicy tonkatsu pork broth; even better, the Mr. Karl Katsu ($12) combines ramen and katsu-style breaded chicken with corn, carrots and narutomaki (fish loaf) in a savory miso broth. Wash them down with a tart, acidic red raspberry lemonade ($4), but skip the Hatcho miso carrot cake ($8), a baked good so bland it can’t be rescued by a topping of luscious whipped goat cheese. It should be noted: SoSoBa also has the most ambitious cocktail program of any ramen joint in the Valley.
Must try: Though the sweet chili calamari ($12) – tender breaded squid in a fruity sauce on a bed of greens that serves as a de facto salad – comes from the “shares” menu, you will almost certainly not want to share.
214 W. Roosevelt St., 602-795-1005, nonstopnoodleshop.com

Eddie Merlot’s Scottsdale
This Fort Wayne, Indiana-based upscale beefery has inevitably landed in Scottsdale, surely one of the republic’s busiest upscale carnivore hubs. With white tablecloths and plenty of substantial stained glass, the place manages to generate an old-school steakhouse atmosphere without resorting to faux Victorian gentleman’s club furnishings, and the menu exudes a similar air of refinement. The New Orleans mixed grill ($35.95) is on point: a small-ish but extremely tender beef filet blanketed by andouille sausage, two big, fiercely seasoned shrimp and garlic mashed potatoes. The filet mignon potstickers ($13.95) sound promising, but alas, the slightly over-crisped dumplings envelop only a sub-postage-stamp-size portion of cow. For dessert, both the crème brûlée ($7.95) and carrot cake ($9.95) are delicious, if perhaps overly ambitious: The latter is billed as “The World’s Best.”
Must try: The prime meatloaf ($27.95), an exalted, oniony take on the American favorite in a red wine sauce, is decidedly not just like your mother used to make. Or if it is, why didn’t you ever invite me over for dinner?
23207 N. Scottsdale Rd., 480-699-0480, eddiemerlots.com

East Valley
Like the Phoenix original on the I-17 near Dunlap, this new Mesa outpost of Bob Sikora’s beloved barbecue joint is carefully engineered to look ramshackle, like the HGTV version of the Addams Family manse crossed with an abandoned brewery. Inside, you can still get straightforward barbecued pulled pork, brisket and chicken, though my favorite is the generous catfish filet ($18). The slider and soup ($9) sounds lighter than it really is – the slider easily slips into sandwich territory, size-wise – and the beef ribs were named one of the three best of their kind by PHOENIX in our July 2016 issue. Also great: the brisket, especially paired with the ham and bean soup. Bobby-Q’s expansion was overdue: Even when it was a one-off, its corny-fun, touristy feel made the place a natural candidate for replication.
Must try: Forget dessert, as the complimentary robot-made, cinnamon-sugared doughnuts should more than satisfy your sweet tooth.
1610 S. Stapley Dr., Mesa, 480-361-7470,

West Valley
First Watch
For many years, the Metro Center-area First Watch was a semi-weekly breakfast-and-lunch destination for my family. But about a year ago, its tone shifted. The changes were partly cosmetic, but the menu and amenities also took an irksome turn. Favorites like the Acapulco Express omelet and the pecan pancakes vanished, replaced by similar but not-quite-as-good dishes like the chile chorizo omelet ($9.29). The changes may have been an attempt to create a snazzier, less diner-ish image, but they have had a parsimonious effect. There are no longer jelly packets on the tables, for instance, only preserves on the side – admittedly excellent, but skimpy and limiting. Salsa is no longer offered, only pico de gallo. And the flavored iced tea First Watch used to offer – maybe the best in the Valley – is gone as well. None of this, however, seems to have impacted the popularity of this new Glendale location, which is reliably packed with waiting crowds, especially on weekends.
Must try: Among First Watch’s juice bar blends, the science-fiction-green Kale Tonic ($3.99) is bracing and refreshing. But it still doesn’t make up for the missing tea.
18255 N. 83rd Ave. Glendale,
623-561-0555, firstwatch.com