Go east, Beaver Choice. Shuttered last spring, the European comfort-food favorite reappears in SanTan Valley with a new name and trimmed-down, fast-casual menu.
For a while there, Hannah Gabrielsson was a Euro-cuisine rock star. Valley diners flocked to her oddly named Tempe restaurant, Beaver Choice, where she turned out the carb-heavy classics of her family’s various homelands – Poland, Sweden and Canada – to rave reviews upon its opening in 2010. Neither critics nor customers cared that her cooked-down comfort food lacked avant-garde edge. Authenticity and humbleness were its appeal.
Then the dust settled and Valley diners did what they always do: They moved on to the next big thing and buzzed about that for a while. Gabrielsson eventually moved the restaurant to Mesa and retained a loyal customer base until she closed Beaver Choice this past May, citing a “crazy landlord.”
Well, the Beave is back – now operating out of a former KFC in Sun Lakes. For reasons unclear, Gabrielsson also changed the name to BeCe Kitchen and pared down the menu, serving up a handful of her most popular mains and sides from a steam table, à la Chipotle and Panda Express.
It was probably a brilliant move – Sun Lakes being a retirement community and Gabrielsson’s grandmotherly food being pleasantly old-fashioned. I don’t know anyone under 40 who yearns for Swedish meatballs or stuffed cabbage, but there are plenty of 65-plus folks who’ll drive pretty far for just such a hearty, no-frills meal. In fact, on one visit, I chatted with a couple who’d schlepped 40 miles for dinner, loading up their cooler with additional goodies to take back to Florence with them. Worth the drive, evidently. For me, that’s not so clear-cut. Although I love most of this food, I’m not sure I’d drive 40 miles – or even 20 – to get it. If it were in my neighborhood, that would be another story altogether.
Vinyl tablecloths in floral prints, colorful plastic flowers and posters of European cities lend kitschy charm to a space that conjures fast-food plasticity and cozy grandma décor in the same breath. The menu includes five main courses, two rotating daily specials, four starchy sides and five (mostly forgettable) veggie sides. A meal, which includes a side from each category, rings in at $10. And if that isn’t bargain-priced enough, Gabrielsson will break down the pierogi meal or the golabki (a pair of sturdy cabbage rolls), offering them without the sides, to lower the cost. I can’t think when I’ve been to a restaurant (uh, never) where the person dishing out the food has said “tell me when” – as if I were free to have as much as I wanted.
Of everything on the menu, I like the meatballs best – tiny, cardamom-scented Swedish meatballs, fine-grained and impossibly tender, bathed in a beige cream sauce I could slurp by the spoonful. Danish meatballs, a daily special, are larger and more coarsely textured, and I love them, too – slightly flattened, four-ounce spheres smoothed with pale, dill-speckled cream sauce. In second place: lightly breaded pork schnitzel, crispy-crunchy outside and tender within. Sturdy, dill-flecked mashed potatoes ladled with velvety mushroom sauce make a dreamy accompaniment.
I never met a pierogi I didn’t like, but these mashed potato-filled dumplings, sided with sour cream, would probably be better served piping hot and straight from the skillet. They’ve cooled and firmed a bit on the steaming table – still good, but not drive-worthy, which would be fighting words if I said them about the golabki, the Polish stuffed cabbage customers favorably compare to family recipes. Tender cabbage wrappers practically melt away on the tongue, while the filler, a combination of minced pork, chopped onions and rice, offers toothsome resistance, the whole thing drenched in wondrously simple tomato-cream sauce.
Bigos – Poland’s sweet-and-sour version of hunter’s stew – combines pork, kielbasa, onions, carrots, sauerkraut, allspice and bay leaf for a thick, tomato-rich dish best eaten with mashed potatoes. Nevertheless, I’m not hung up on that flavor profile. Where’s the Canadian food – e.g. Quebec poutine and Montreal lamb loin? Gabrielsson says it’s coming this winter when the snowbirds arrive.
For dessert, Gabrielsson steers us toward an excellent rhubarb crumble with a buttery streusel topping. Somehow, I’ve managed to miss the famous Beaver Supreme, made with meringue, whipped cream and mandarin orange. I’d say “next time,” but I don’t picture a next time unless Gabrielsson opens a second location in North Scottsdale, which is one of several expansion possibilities she’s considering. Would her old-fashioned food and new-fashioned business model fly in Scottsdale? If she builds it, the 65-year-olds will come.
Cuisine: Polish, Swedish, Canadian
Contact: 9542 E. Riggs Rd., Sun Lakes, 480-696-0934, becekitchen.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tu-Su
Highlights: Swedish meatballs ($10); Danish meatballs ($10); pork schnitzel ($10); golabki ($10)