Phoenix Drive-In1715 Phoenix Avenue Fort Smith, Ark. (479) 648-9776
Phoenix Drive-In is that colorful, Sonic-like place next to Jerry Neel’s BBQ. The one you’ve likely been wondering about.Phoenix Drive-In is in a repainted Sonic building. We remember when the old Sonic was there, but even if you didn’t, you can see the resemblance if you’re familiar with the cherry-limeade-tater-tot icon. And, like Sonic, Phoenix Drive-In is, in fact, a drive-in restaurant. But its resemblance to Sonic, or any other chain-fast-food food, ends there.
The menu: Well, it’s surprising. It sure surprised us. It’s…expansive. Very expansive. And eclectic as anywhere we’ve seen. It has lots and lots of options, from the expected drive-in fare like burgers and chili dogs and fries and o-rings to interesting side items like fried green beans and green chile fries to breakfast foods like scrambled eggs & ham steaks with biscuits & gravy to full plate lunches and dinners like meatloaf and and chicken-fried steak, spaghetti & meatballs, and homemade lasagna (the priciest item on the menu at $5.69 with salad and bread). A menu of Americana, folks, pure Americana.
Phoenix Drive-In’s humble abode. Don’t let the small building fool ya.
Our first meal experience at the Phoenix was the fried shrimp basket — and we knew even before tasting it that we’d come back again. It was fresh, hot, delicious. The basket included lots and lots of shrimp and (this is how Phoenix assured our return) — CRINKLE-CUT FRIES!! You know those are always going to put us in our happy, we-are-Fort-Smith-Eats-and-we-rock place.
Crinkle-cut fries: the sure way to Fort Smith Eats’s heart. And – with seasoned salt! It’s the little ordinary joys.
Phoenix Drive-In’s Shrimp Basket. Not jumbo shrimp, not coconut-breaded or beer-battered or anything fancy like that. Just hot breaded shrimp, crinkle-cut fries-of-delight, and Texas toast. Yumbalaya.
Since that first we-found-crinkle-cut-fries trip, we’ve sampled several other “main dish”-type items. Grilled cheese sandwiches. Foot-long chili-cheese coney dogs. Frito chili pies. Our fave of those is the simple grilled cheese sandwich.
Back to basics. Some days the only cure is a hot and melty grilled cheese sandwich in a simple paper wrapper.
Sometimes, we harken back to ye ole days of childhood, and we want a grilled cheese sandwich like Mama or a drive-in makes. The grilled cheese at Phoenix doesn’t disappoint. It’s made with thick slices of Texas toast, plenty of butter, and melty American cheese, grilled up right fine. Hot. Melty. Crunchy. Buttery. $1.39 of yum. Sometimes simplicity is the best food.
The Extra-Long Cheese Coney looks even Extra-Longer when you meet it at eye level.
We’re not sure whether to characterize Buffalo Chicken Bites as main-course or side-dish, but whatever they are, they’re interesting. They’re good, yes indeedy, but we couldn’t help but continue to marvel over the whole concept as we ate them.
Phoenix’s Buffalo Chicken Bites are perfectly round balls of chicken, cream cheese, bleu-cheese and jalapenos, fried. They are very uniform in their size and shape — like fried chicken golf balls, we thought — and obviously are some mass-produced frozen item. But the flavor is interesting. Chicken, mainly, with hints of heat from the jalapeno and creaminess of the cheeses. Not health food, natch, but a neato snacky vittle. They’d make good Game Day snackage.
Chicken Poppers: Chicken. Cheese. Breading. Jalapenos. That’s four food groups ya’ll. Mr. Nutrition from our 3rd grade film strips would be proud. Bonus side of tater tots means an extra helping of veggies. Should probably still take your Flintstones vitamins, just to be safe.
The Phoenix frito chili pie was fine, but not spectacular. The fritos-chili-cheese ratio is good (very important), and the chili is tasty enough, though a little greasy. But your tastebuds really would prefer a trip into frito-chili-pie-dom that takes you instead to Ed Walker’s or Yellow Umbrella or George’s.
Onto some side items. If you aren’t in love with crinkle-cut fries like we are, despair not. Phoenix Drive-In provides your deep-fried Southern palate with plenty of other fried side items to pair with your burger. Yeah, we’re getting to the burgers and (spoiler alert) you won’t want to miss them — don’t turn that dial! They’ve got regular (crispy-cut, seasoned) fries, gravy fries, bacon ranch fries, battered green chili fries, tots, onion rings, queso cheese stix, spinach cheese stix (we haven’t tried these yet, but we’re intrigued), fried pickles, and who knows what else. Every time we look at their crazy menu we find new things. Burritos! Banana splits! Nachos! Fish hoagies!
Wanna guess the first side we tried? If you’ve paid the slightest attention to our Facebook page, you probably already guessed there was no way we could pass up fried pickles. We love a restaurant that offers fried pickles because, heck, we just love fried pickles. Phoenix’s pickles are good. They’ll pacify your craving right well.
It’s not that this picture is out of focus. It’s that our eyes (and apparently camera) completely glaze over when we get near fried pickles.
Fried pickles 101. They generally come in 2 varieties: pickles spears or pickle slices. Both varieties are then dipped in a batter and deep-fried. Phoenix’s are of the slices variety, which we prefer over spears, and the batter is good. Has a little spice to it. The one minor complaint we might have is these are pretty THICK pickle slices. That surprised us at first — but we still finished off the order and have ordered them again. You should do the same.
The fried green beans are another addiction. We don’t remember ever hearing of fried green beans before TGI Friday’s started offering them a few years ago, but if Mr. or Ms. Fried-Green-Bean Inventor is reading this, we want to offer our thanks and a hearty kudos to you.
We like green beans — especially dun up southern-gramma-style in bacon grease with onions and cooked until they’re soft — but frying them and dipping them in ranch dressing?!?!?!?! That equals some serious haute cuisine in the Fort Smith Eats lexicon of yumness. And Phoenix’s are really good. So good that we’ve eaten them, oh, 6 times in the past two months. For real, ya’ll. We could nosh on fried green beans dipped in ranch all the live-long day.
TGI Fry-Day. Phoenix Drive-In’s Battered Green Bean Fries should be a controlled substance. Because when it comes to them, we have none.
Mini-rant: Phoenix is basically drive-in fast food, so we don’t much care how things are packaged so long as fries aren’t spilled all in the bag and nothing gets smashed. But the little square styrofoam containers — so convenient in some uses — lead to a little soggyness with a few of the battered-and-deep-fried items. Like the fried pickles. And that may be because the pickles ARE so thick and the batter sticks to them so well, but we found that the pickles on the bottom, the ones against the styrofoam, are a little soggy by the time we get to ’em. A paper basket may be in order for a few of the menu items. End of mini-rant.
Major rave: The Phoenix Burger. Let us first list the things it is not: Small. Greasy. Flavorless. Overthought. Ordinary.
Meet the Phoenix Burger. She’s quickly becoming one of our favorite burgers in The Fort.
This beauty is in the center of the menu for a reason. This burger, in fact, may be Phoenix Drive-In’s raison d’etre. Heck, it may be ours. The best part of the burger? The bun. Yes, the bun. We don’t know where they get their buns — we’re guessing the Magic Bun Angel —but we were in love before our teeth even reached the meat. The menu tells us it’s a sourdough bun, but this is the sweetest sourdough we’ve ever tasted. Soft and fresh, thick and chewy without being tough, and full of a remarkable sweet flavor we could not get enough of. The 1/3-pound all-beef patty was completely satisfactory and strangely un-greasy but not dry. The green leaf lettuce and tomato were perky as they look in a farmer’s market and the grilled onions — yes, grilled — were tender and savory-sweet. Mustard and a couple of pickle slices completed the burger. Not too fancy, not too plain.
We’re telling you. It’s very, very good. A burger joy.
We wish we could say the same about the apple pie. It was our only true disappointment at Phoenix.
We love pie. Almost every pie. We wanted to love Phoenix’s. Let it be said that the apple filling was perfectly serviceable once we picked it out of the sodden, stale crust-lumps, though our appetite was mostly gone by bite #3. Maybe this isn’t their usual pie; surely it’s usually better than this one. This was a pie that seemed like perhaps it’d been forgotten and left in the church kitchen after a potluck. You know, the pie that no one at the potluck feels tempted to eat and so it gets left there in a corner because someone thought the church secretary would take it to the pastor or the Sunday school class would eat it or maybe the janitor might like a slice since he works so hard and yet it just sits there for days on end until someone finally gets peckish enough to give it a trial bite or two before dumping it in the trash and settling for a Diet Coke to wash away the taste.
It was that kind of pie and it made us sad.
It’s a good thing we loved the burger and the crinkle-cut fries and the fried green beans and everything else we’ve tried on the wacky Phoenix Drive-In menu so much. Because sad pie might otherwise be enough to keep us away for good. But no worries, Phoenix Drive-In, we’ll keep coming back. Next time we’ll just end with the banana split. Or maybe some battered green chili fries, whatever the heck those are.
How about ya’ll? Find any great discoveries on the Phoenix Drive-In menu? Anything you’re planning to try? Your friendly neighborhood anonymous Fort Smith food blog wants to know.