Cornish Pasty Co. thumbs nose at meal tradition

Dean Thomas knows a thing or two about pasties.

I don’t mean showgirl apparel (pronounced PASTE-ees) but rather the sturdy, hand-held turnovers (PASS-tees) eaten by the tin miners of Cornwall, England, for generations.

This is seriously good food from a guy who doesn’t take tradition too seriously.

Thomas, who grew up in Cornwall, went to culinary school in England and owned a Mexican restaurant there before moving to Arizona 10 years ago.

While working at Pita Jungle in Tempe, he decided that opening a small restaurant selling imaginative but affordable eats and beer in a college town might be a pretty good idea. Brilliant, it turns out.

He opened the first Cornish Pasty Co. in Tempe in 2005 and the second in Mesa in 2009.

Setting: Although the narrow Tempe shop probably looks more like a tin miner’s hangout, I prefer the lighter, roomier Mesa store, which offers the same counter seating as the original plus a handful of long tables flanked by church pews.  Same black-and-white color scheme, same casual ambience.

Food: Brushed with egg to give them a little shine, they look a bit like golden loaves of braided bread, so big and so heavy it’s hard to eat them by hand politely.

The Oggie is Cornwall’s traditional pasty, filled with steak, potato, onion and rutabaga, sided with a small cup of red-wine gravy ($6.50). I have eaten it before and liked it a lot. Bu I didn’t order it this time for one obvious reason: so many pasties, so little time.

Instead, I tried the Royale with Cheese, a new recipe composed of hamburger, fries, grilled onions, mushrooms, bacon and Cheddar-Swiss blend, sided with my choice of ranch, Thousand Island, ketchup or BBQ sauce ($7.50). It was good, but oddly enough, I liked it better the next day.

Thomas is not afraid to break with tradition, outing just about anything in his pasties, including carne adovada, Philly cheesesteak, and eggplant Parmesan. Ambitious menus usually scare me, but for the most part, this one works.

Take the Lamb Vindaloo, stuffed with pleasantly spicy, carmine-colored, lamb vindaloo, soft cubed potatoes and basmati rice, sided with bright mint-yogurt dressing ($8.50). Now, that’s fun, as is the Cajun, a tasty mix of blackened chicken breast with bacon, ham and Swiss, sided with chipotle dressing ($7).  The Reuben, a combo of pastrami, corned beef, homemade sauerkraut and Swiss, sided with Thousand Island, remains an all-time favorite ($8).

Meanwhile, the Pilgrim rolls up roasted turkey and chicken, sage-accented stuffing, cubed sweet potato and a dab of red-wine gravy into one delicious holiday shebang, complete with a side of cranberry sauce ($8).

My hubby and I were well into our pasties when our server mentioned how good the soups were. We had already gotten over the it’s-too-hot-outside-to-eat-hearty-food hurdle, so what was to stop us from a cup of lovely mushroom-spinach-walnut or dreamy potato-leek with Stilton ($2.50 cup; $4.50 bowl)? Both came with thick slices of moist and springy house-baked bread with butter.

Dessert: if you can actually follow your entrée pasty with a dessert pasty (and more power to you), you’ll want to consider the apple-caramel pasty with whipped cream ($5). If not, the graham cracker-crusted Banofee Pie, made with bananas, caramel and fresh whipped cream is stellar ($5).  Meanwhile, chocolate bread-and-butter pudding, its top crunchy with coarse sugar, is one of the best bread puddings in recent memory, especially with a small pitcher of crème Anglaise poured over it ($6).

Drink: A handful of American craft beers are dominated by UK and Belgian classics such as Strongbow Cider, Boddingtons, Murphy’s Irish red, Smithwick’s, Skull Splitter, Hoegaarden, Chimay White and Duvel.

By Nikki Buchanan – Southwest Valley Restaurant Critic