Every so often, I stumble across the most out of place eatery. Often, it is stuck in some cruddy, little strip mall that hasn’t seen fresh paint in decades. But it is always mixed emotions for me because I dearly fear walking in, ordering, paying my hard earned dollars and then sitting back and trying to enjoy food made by people who had grand dreams of being the next Durant’s, but ended up being something worse than Taco Bell.
Granted, most of these little places are passable, but some are downright scary and I wish I was bold enough to engage them in conversation and say, “You know, you can do better than Kraft American Singles on your sandwich.” Alas, I just finish my meal, shake the dust off my shoes and vow never to go there again.
Thankfully, I won’t be saying or doing such things with regards to Bertha’s Cafe, a small, almost overlooked restaurant near 40th Street and Thomas Road in East Phoenix.
I had seen the sign outside because the post office I frequent (along with the Auto Zone next door) are just around the corner from Bertha’s. So, I passed it a gazillion times before I finally decided to stop in and try it out. Bertha’s is the middle shop in a three-store strip mall right on 40th Street, about 50 feet from Thomas Road. The strip mall is tiny and was built circa 1960, complete with a handful of parking spots.
I pulled into the lot and got a space right up front. I walked in and was pleased that the place had cranked down the AC to the lower 70s. Perfect for a summer’s day. The interior was decorated with black and white photos of New York City and the Sonoran Desert. An odd mix, to say the least, but it did work. There were only about five tables in the place, plus two outside shaded by umbrellas. I noticed the menu board up on the wall above the kitchen and saw that it was small, but had enough to suit most tastes.
The menu focused on a half dozen breakfast selections followed by sandwiches and wraps. The right side of the menu was exclusively about the homemade desserts that were sitting on display in a very visible display case.
I walked up to the register and the owner greeted me and asked me if I had been to Bertha’s before. I hadn’t and she gave a pleasant, but restrained, PR guide on how the desserts are homemade and everything is made on location, except for the packaged goods like the chips and sodas.
I reviewed the menu for a moment and chose the following items for my lunch: the Roast Beef and Blue Cheese Sandwich ($6.00), the Homemade Bread Pudding ($1.75), and a bottle of Diet Coke ($0.75). The owner tried to entice me with one of their individual cheesecakes, but the bread pudding looked fantastic. I will note, however, that the little cheesecakes were quite yummy looking and there were about a half dozen flavors.
I was given my bottle of soda and a glass of ice and I took my seat. A gentleman sitting at a table near me told me how good the food was here and that “Bertha” had really put her heart and soul into the place and he ate here about once a week.
About two minutes passed before a tall, slender young man arrived with a plate containing my sandwich and a small cookie. The owner immediately came over and asked if I wanted my bread pudding right away or after I finished my sandwich. I told her to wait on it and she smiled and left. I noticed the sandwich had a good amount of medium rare roast beef that was thinly sliced. It was layered with arugula, a couple of thin tomato slices and then crumbles of blue cheese. I took a bite and noticed that the bread was very fresh and soft and had a very mild sourdough taste to it. The mixture of the sourdough, blue cheese and roast beef was excellent. The arugula was green and crisp and added a nice bitter component to the whole sandwich. There was plenty of meat and extras to satisfy my taste and my hunger.
I finished my sandwich and caught the attention of the owner and requested my bread pudding. She asked if I wanted it heated or cold and I took the former. As I waited, I munched on the small cookie that had accompanied my sandwich. It was a chocolate fudge cookie with white chocolate chips. It, too, was fresh and homemade and quite good, but very rich.
Another few minutes passed and my bread pudding arrived. In front of me sat a very large rectangle of the pudding, dusted with powdered sugar and served with a small plastic cup of maple syrup. The owner told me that she thought the maple syrup really enhanced the flavor of the pudding, so who was I to doubt her. After dousing the pudding with the thick sauce, I took a bite. It was excellent. It was moist and firm and had a great egg and bread flavor that really matched well. The maple syrup really gave it a nice kick of sweetness and an earthy taste. By the time I had finished it, I was stuffed.
The richness of the sandwich and the bread pudding quickly had me clamoring for a nap. I pushed the empty plates aside and the owner quickly cleared my table and asked if I would like anything else. I declined. I would have loved to have tried a taste of one of the cheesecakes, but that would have to wait for another day.
My total lunch was $9.19 including tax, which was a decent value. The portions were sizable and certainly satiated my hunger. Service was sweet and professional.
I was really glad I took a chance on this place. The food was good, the prices reasonable, and the owner eager to please her customers. As I left, the owner thanked me again and said she hoped I would become a regular patron.
After my experience at Bertha’s, I don’t see that as too much of a problem.
2916 North 40th Street
Phoenix, AZ 85008
Notes: Open for breakfast and lunch only. Closed Mondays.
An additional photo is available at www.feastinginphoenix.com