We perish because we know not… #TLENews
For the next few months the Phoenix/Scottsdale “Valley of the Sun” will be one of most popular destinations in the country. A week after Sunday’s Pro Bowl comes both the world’s most attended golf tournament, with over half a million at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and the nation’s most watched sporting event of any kind, the Super Bowl. Almost immediately afterwards, Major League Baseball begins spring training here, and for recreational golfers, spring is prime season on more than 100 top public courses.
Scottsdale’s fast-growing Entertainment District, adjacent to the Western-themed Old Town, will be jammed and vibrant for months to come. If you are part of the visiting horde, you will almost certainly find yourself here at some point, in this zone of mostly new and large bars, restaurants and nightclubs. But if you want to experience the high energy of the Entertainment District while actually relishing your food, it is hard to do better than Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row.
The name is only half accurate, because while they do have a very full bar, the place has no whiskey theme or connection. But one of the partners is local hero and multi-platinum country recording artist Dierks Bentley, with a dozen number one hits in the past decade. As a result, music videos often play on some of the many big flat screens, along with lots of sports, and the large four-sided island bar in the middle of the restaurant has a unique stage over it for live performances, held every weekend. Bentley himself has played here, but it’s usually a local band, and they clear out some tables for dancing.
The space has a manufactured, corporate look that could be anywhere, is too dark, and too closely resembles the other mega bar/restaurants surrounding it. But several things set it apart. It tries and somehow succeeds to be all things to all people: bar, sports bar, music venue, restaurant and nightspot, depending on the day and hour. It opens to the street to take advantage of Scottsdale’s warm weather, and in addition to dancing and countless televisions, has skee-ball and foosball. But the most unique attribute, besides maybe the elevated crow’s nest stage, are the self-serve beer and liquor taps built into the booths. This concept was introduced a few years ago by Guinness in pubs in Ireland but only a handful of places in this country feature the technology, which charges you by the ounce. Besides the novelty and never having to wait for service, the appeal is that your beer is always cold, because you can pour it a few sips at a time. It’s fun and different, and while it may not be reason enough to visit, the place also has pretty amazing bar food.
Reason to visit: The twisted bar food – Buffalo chips, Southern fries, fried pickles, sliders, corndogs and most of all, the Mac & Cheese Burger
The food: Someone had a lot of fun designing the eclectic menu at Whisky Row, which features regional oddities with Southern flair and inventive riffs on bar food classics. You’ll have fun too, because the pleasure comes through in the eating. Even the dishes that slightly miss the mark, like the Alabama BBQ Grilled Chicken, are still satisfying and unique. Smoked chicken with white sauce is a hyper-local specialty of Alabama, where it was said to have been invented 90 years ago at legendary Big Bob Gibson’s barbecue joint. But even in Alabama it’s rare, found only in the north, and a dish I have never seen outside the Cotton State until Whiskey Row, which makes it a must-try. The white sauce is mayonnaise-based and not sweet like most red barbecue sauces, but rather creamy, tangy and uniquely suited to poultry. The classic version is smoked, albeit at higher heat than ribs or brisket, then dunked in sauce, but this one is conventionally grilled and drizzled, so you get less smoke, less cooked-skin goodness and less sauce – but it’s still good.
Whisky Row succeeds more in its original dishes, and we need look no further than their most jaw dropping innovation, the Mac & Cheese Burger, a burger topped with macaroni and cheese. Bearing in mind that someone else has probably done this without my knowledge, I still have to ask: why doesn’t everyone do it? Combining two favorite comfort foods doesn’t always work, but usually does, and in this case the combination is so addictive my friend found himself adding even more mac and cheese from our side skillet to his burger to up the decadence. The three-cheese skillet version is also pretty good on its own, especially since it’s topped with “bacon bread crumbs.”
If this comfort food mash-up sounds good to you, Whiskey Row has several others, like the Buffalo Chips, which basically reinvent nachos by using homemade potato chips – always a great idea – and smothering them in shredded Buffalo chicken with bleu cheese dressing, Fresno chilies and green onions. Just try to stop eating these. The similar Southern Fries cover a mound of better-than-average fries with shredded Alabama white-sauce grilled chicken, cheddar, bleu cheese dressing and red barbecue sauce. It’s good, but not as good as the Buffalo Chips, mainly because the red and white barbecue sauces cancel each other out and the bleu cheese isn’t a natural fit as it with hot sauce. If I were cooking, I’d drop the bleu cheese and red sauce and add bacon and that would be something. Even the sides are funky combos, like Deviled Egg Potato Salad, another twist on Southern favorites. Not everything here is tweaked – the fried pickles are a standard Southern staple, but the coating is very good, and they use spears, which in my opinion are always better than slices. The corndogs are equally basic, except made with high-quality handmade sausages from Schreiner’s, a Phoenix encased-meat artisan since 1955.
The menu has a few main dishes like the grilled chicken, but the way to go is to share lots of apps, sides and smaller plates, and Whiskey Row helps you do this with its fun sliders. The veal meatball with tomato marmalade and provolone was like a mini meatball sub, delicious, and in addition to a couple of more standard burger varieties (cheese, bacon, grilled onions) they have a tasty fried chicken with crunchy apple jicama slaw, packing a lot into three bites. All are served on soft, sweet Hawaiian rolls, which for some reason are wildly popular in the Scottsdale region, and deservedly so, because they are better than typical slider buns.
With the possible exception of the Mac & Cheese Burger, there is no one standout dish you need to go for, but given the bar-centric, music-centric setting, the inventive “fusion” bar food is surprisingly good, fun, very different, and hits the spot. This is why they call it comfort food.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: No, but it is the place to eat in Scottsdale’s Entertainment District.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 4420 N. Saddlebag Trail, Scottsdale; 480-945-4200; dierkswhiskeyrow.com