Down on the Farm: Handelbar
With the development of air conditioning after World War II, the population of Phoenix exploded in all directions. People like sunshine and dry air, as long as they can cool off.
In the arid Valley of the Sun, a tacky modern shag carpet was slowly rolled out over the rustic desert floor, covering all in its path--a carpet of 16-lane superhighways, a Walgreen's every mile, and endless trailer parks, housing developments and strip malls.
When the carpet of development hit Indian land or National Forest, it stopped dead in its tracks, leaving dense, groomed suburbia on one side of a street and sage-mottled desert on the other.
Apache Junction, thirty miles to the east of downtown Phoenix, developed late. If you look real hard, you can still find swatches of the old West in between the strip malls and gated communities.
Or, instead of searching for the good stuff, you can cheat. I heard about the Handlebar Pub in Apache Junction from the folks from whom I am renting. We met there last week.
Located on the Old West Trail, which is now six lanes wide with a groomed median, you have to squint to find the little place. Smoke pours from the grill out back. The doors stand wide open. Inside are six small tables and a bar. And a ping-pong table.
This is the Handlebar Pub, and the proprietor, Jeff, will be right with you. When Jeff finally comes over, wiping his hands with a towel, he looks more like a diesel mechanic than a bartender.
Glasses smeared with grease, shirt untucked and unbuttoned a bit far, dirty and ripped baseball cap having lost all shape and crispness drooping from his head, the main thing evident about Jeff is he's a hard worker.
Jeff asks you what you want to drink. It is a loaded question, for Jeff is a purveyor of dozens of craft beers, and the discussion of what to drink is never short.
"Whatcha got?" some newcomers ask, and Jeff points to an old slate chalkboard on the wall where dozens upon dozens of beers are listed in smeared letters.
"Take your pick," Jeff says, deadpan, knowing that the chalkboard isn't much help. Eventually, Jeff gets you to describe what you like. Something hoppy? Something dark? Something bitter? Something wet?
"I'll tell you what," Jeff says, like the mechanic who just decided he's going to try a little trick on your carburetor which won't cost a thing, "let's start you with a Dipsy Doodle Amber."
When the Amber comes, Jeff checks back often for reactions, results and discussion. He's already planning what you might like next.
Then, a second surprise: The menu. In this dive-like joint, the simple menu reads like a foofy upscale eatery. Bruschetta. Polenta. Heirloom mushrooms. Grass-fed beef. Micro-greens. All reasonably-priced. Without a deep-frier on the premises, the main side dish is potato salad which, in the Arizona desert, is appropriate for all seasons.
This is no ordinary potato salad. Jeff doesn't give measurements, but he gives ingredients: Bleu cheese and a long list of fresh herbs. Fantastic. My heirloom mushroom burger was so delicious I never thought to ask for ketchup.
Two nights later, I returned for pork shank, a rich, hearty bone-in cut of pork served with polenta, prepared like a corn meal version of mashed potatoes.
For dessert after the burger, Jeff suggested beer. This dessert beer came in a small snifter. Jeff described the beer like a wine snob would describe a 1927 Mouton Rothschild. Overtones of caramel. Hints of coffee. Remnants of pear.
We split one snifter three ways. One person thought it too rich, so that got us down to two. While we barely sipped, Jeff told us about the Handlebar's surprisingly brief history.
Jeff and his wife Alec took over the run down building behind Burger King and turned it into a pub just two years ago. Only the building is a remnant of the old Apache Junction.
However, in a sprawled-out metropolis known for its monotonous, chain-dominated, development-saturated, moon colony-like atmosphere, it was good to find a hidden and original treasure.
We left responsibly early in the evening after a homespun experience under a mesquite tree in a gravel parking lot, happy to find some originality around the corner from the Valley of the Sun's one-thousandth Walgreen's.