By Kenneth LaFave
Imagine a truck stop massively upgraded and plopped down in the middle of affluent north Scottsdale.
Actually, there’s no need to imagine it. Just drive to 9393 E. Bell Rd., and there it is.
The Thumb, formerly known as Tom’s Thumb, is a place to relive those cross-country road trips where every truck stop was an oasis of greasy burgers, cheap souvenirs and expensive gas — only this one has award-winning barbeque, high-quality gift shop and gas at competitive prices.
Oh yeah, and there’s a car wash.
And a bakery. And a wine club.
(There are no apartments – yet. But if there were, it would be conceivable to live one’s entire life on a single square block.)
“There’s a bit of a truck-stop feel to The Thumb, except that you don’t usually find truck stops in the middle of neighborhoods like this,” says Michael Lawson, The Thumb’s general manager.
“We’re really branded as ‘Just your average gas station’ ” –the phrase used on The Thumb’s website, thethumb.com – “but it’s really a lot of different things. The food is number one, but gas and gifts are also important.”
That name, by the way, comes from a nearby geographic outcropping called “Tom’s Thumb” that looms over the Tom Thumb Trailhead. “The Thumb” is not a deliberate reference to the piece of Michigan attached to the “mitten.”
Appropriate for the Airpark area, the restaurant’s reputation flies high. Phoenix Magazine readers polled it the Valley’s Best Restaurant, period. How many top restaurants also are voted Best Car Wash 2016 (AZ Foothills Magazine)? The automobile detailing service is just as good as the brisket.
The TV show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” praised it in an episode a couple of years back. Maria Rodriguez, The Thumb’s social-media manager, says the uniqueness of The Thumb draws a lot of people of different backgrounds.
“A lot of them see the gas station and stop to fill up, and then they notice what’s inside,” Rodriguez says. “I get a lot of ‘I had no idea there was a restaurant and gift shop in here.’ ”
Once they taste the food, they come back for that, as well as a tank of regular (racong fuel also available).
What are some of The Thumb’s unique dishes? Rodriguez names two:
“The pigs and grits. The brisket stack.”
The menu describes pigs and grits as “crispy pulled pork over creamy grits topped with local cheddar and jalapeno bacon” ($10). The brisket stack is just what you might imagine: alternating layers of beef brisket and pancakes ($10 for the short stack; $15 for a large).
But don’t forget your old favorites here. If the richness of catfish is something you avoid because you’ve had too many inferior filets encrusted in tasteless batter, step up and order the blackened-catfish sandwich with chipotle aioli ($10) and be pleasantly surprised by succulence. The tacos are good, too – so good that the Arizona taco festival named The Thumb’s beef tacos among the top three in the Valley.
Most sandwiches and tacos come with a side of chips in a bag, but do your taste buds a favor and ratchet it up with the basked Mac ‘n’ Cheese ($4.50) or the Collard Greens ($3).
If that isn’t enough, The Thumb also boasts an impressive wine cellar.
The menu is oriented to barbeque, Lawson says, because chef and owner Kipp Lassetter got a taste for smoked meats while traveling Texas. There are influences from South Carolina and Memphis, as well. The food is redolent of outdoor cooking. Even the desserts, which include apple and peach cobblers, are cooked in cast iron. And everything goes down smooth, a sign of fresh ingredients and savvy preparation.
The Thumb serves breakfast, including everything from French toast to a chorizo-egg- and-cheddar burrito.
Cross-country car travel is too often accompanied by Twinkies and day-old hot dogs. The Thumb gives the traveler food to match a cinematic vision of the Great American Road Trip.
9393 E. Bell Rd.
Restaurant open 7 a.m.-8 p.m. daily.
Coffee bar and bakery open 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday.
Convenience store/wine shop/gift shop open 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday.
Car wash and detailing services open 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily.
Fuel pumps always open.
480-513-8186 or firstname.lastname@example.org