Downtown Tempe has been a magnet for national chain restaurants for so long that it seems almost odd to walk into a place without an illuminated menu board or snappy advertising slogans on the walls. Even the absence of uniformed staff can be a bit unsettling. But then you walk into Nocawich, the sleek, understated breakfast, lunch and soon-to-be dinner spot on College Avenue, and settle in with a life-affirming sandwich and a cold beverage, and it feels like the beginning of a new era in Tempe dining options.
The times, as the man once said, they are a-changin’.
If you ever visited the original Nocawich – restaurateur Eliot Wexler’s gourmet sandwich concept inside Noca, his now-shuttered James Beard Award-nominated restaurant in Phoenix – then you have an idea of what to expect at the Tempe location: flawlessly executed dishes, exceptional ingredients, and food so balanced it appears effortless.
Let’s start with the sandwiches. Wexler fabricates these architectural wonders with exquisite material like dry-cured country ham from Virginia’s S. Wallace Edwards & Sons; soft and tawny house-made English muffins; intensely flavored sauces; and dense and chewy bagels along with thin, silky slices of Nova lox from New York’s H&H Midtown Bagels East and Russ & Daughters in Manhattan, respectively. The genius of Wexler’s burritos, which feature locally procured Schreiner’s chorizo and tortillas from La Sonorense Tortilla Factory, may be the inclusion of crunchy, triple-cooked French fries. And the patty melt – a deliciously messy and substantial creation centered around a well-seasoned Snake River Farms Kobe beef patty surrounded by gooey Gruyère, grilled onions, pickles and a thin, wine-enriched bordelaise sauce between grilled marbled rye – might be as gourmet as comfort food gets.
What you might not anticipate are the impossibly good French fries, cut in long strips from fresh potatoes and thrice-fried until they’re crisp and slightly hollow; or the What the Cluck?, a towering masterpiece of a chicken sandwich built up with a hunk of moist and crackly-skinned fried chicken breast, slaw, sweet pickles and Dijon mustard on a pillowy Parker House roll. Those who remember Wexler’s infamous fried fowl served at Noca’s once-monthly Sunday Suppers can hardly be blamed for waxing nostalgic.
But you could be happy eating nothing but the pastrami. Made of rich and succulent Wagyu beef seasoned with coriander and pepper, steamed to a near-perfect tenderness, and cut into thin, glistening strips, it’s the kind of thing that meat lovers obsess over. You’ll find it packed between pieces of griddled rye with a spicy slaw and a creamy Dijonnaise sauce; layered between bagels with egg, aioli and cheddar; and sometimes – if it’s listed as a Saturday breakfast special – strewn atop a potato knish imported from New York’s Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery and splashed with that luxurious bordelaise sauce. Superb.
Are Nocawich’s thick chocolate chip cookies, crisp and crumbly and sprinkled with sea salt, sweet symbols of a brighter future for Tempe’s restaurant scene? I’m crossing my fingers as hard as I can.
Cuisine: Gourmet sandwiches
Contact: 777 S. College Ave., Tempe, 480-758-5322, nocawich.com
Hours: 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m. M-Sa
Highlights: Meyer Lansky ($12); What the Cluck? ($9); patty melt ($9.50); breakfast burrito ($6); New York bagel and lox ($14); Southern Trail ($6)
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