How an Old Timey British Pastry Got Super Popular in Arizona

The Cornish pasty is an unlikely desert staple.

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Aug 27 2018, 6:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Chris Goldberg

If you set out to create a totally unsuccessful restaurant, there’d be a few things you might do to ensure its failure. You’d want to specialize in a single, deeply British item that’s prone to mispronunciation, eludes meaningful comparisons to any other dish, and has an origin story involving arsenic poisoning. And then you’d want to set up shop somewhere with a year-round climate incompatible with consuming the kind of food that you intend to serve.

Yet despite having all these things working against it, the Cornish pasty (pronounced “PASS-tee”) is thriving in Phoenix—a place that has little in common with Cornwall, the county that forms England’s southwest tip. And even Dean Thomas, the man whose Cornish Pasty Co. restaurants have introduced Arizonans to this distinctly English dish, isn’t certain how to explain the pasty’s desert renaissance—or how to describe his restaurants’ namesake to a first-timer.

“It’s hard,” the Cornwall native admits. “The closest, I think, is a handheld pot pie,” although he notes that a pot pie’s crust uses puff pastry, rather than the shortcrust pastry used to enclose a pasty’s filling. “Obviously," he says with an an air of amused indignation, "there are people who reference the Hot Pocket. I think we have slightly more history than the Hot Pocket.”

That history dates to around the 18th century, when the pasties were eaten by Cornish miners and other working folk. The traditional pasty contains steak, potatoes, rutabaga and onions. The bit about arsenic poisoning? That’s a widely held origin explanation for the pasty’s shape, although it’s disputed by some historians. The story goes that miners would hold the pasty by its crimped edge, which then would be discarded so the miners wouldn’t eat the arsenic that was on their hands.

The fact that Phoenix is worlds apart from Cornwall is exactly why Thomas ended up there. He visited the Valley of the Sun in the 1990s to escape England’s dreary weather. He was (and still is) into BMX biking, and he and his friends would ride at a now-shuttered BMX park on Phoenix’s west side. “I’d always get the blues when I went back [to England],” he says, and eventually, sunny Arizona became his home. He worked as a chef at Pita Jungle, a Phoenix institution, for five years, then set out to start his own restaurant—one that appealed to “dirtbags” like him.

Thomas grew up with the Cornish pasty, and while some of Phoenix’s handful of English pubs and restaurants had a pasty on the menu, no one in the area had ever tried building a whole business around the dish. In fact, the only other place in the U.S. where pasties are really a “thing” is in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which was flooded with Cornish miners in the early 1800s—and also isn’t far, latitude-wise, from Cornwall. So a piping-hot pasty makes sense there, where you’re often buried under a foot or two of snow. It makes less sense in Phoenix’s kiln-like summer temperatures.

Undaunted, Thomas opened the first Cornish Pasty Co. in 2005, in a 1,000-square-foot space in a Tempe strip mall. “It was a tiny little place,” he says. “We realized we could make it work if we sold a hundred bucks a day, as long as I was willing to work for free. Which I was.” He wasn’t sure the concept would catch on, so he had a backup plan. “We figured we’d give pasties a go,” he says, “and if they didn’t work out, we figured we could turn the restaurant space into something else, like a sandwich shop or something.” But after 150 people crammed into the restaurant on opening day, Thomas says, “I could tell we were on to something and we weren’t going to be selling sandwiches.”

Thomas’ business has expanded deliberately since then. The original Tempe location is bigger now, and there’s another one just to the east, on downtown Tempe’s Mill Avenue, near Arizona State University. There are locations in Scottsdale, Mesa and downtown Phoenix, too, along with up north, in Flagstaff. And Thomas recently added his first out-of-state Cornish Pasty Cos., in Las Vegas and Boston.

But the Phoenix area remains the chain’s epicenter, and while its success here seems unlikely, it isn’t completely inexplicable. The price point helps: The traditional pasty, served with red wine gravy (or ketchup, if that’s what you want to do), sells for under $10, and Thomas’ more contemporary creations max out at around $12. Those creations include the popular Cajun Chicken (with bacon, ham and Swiss, and served with chipotle sauce), the Pulp Fiction-referencing Royale With Cheese (hamburger, french fries, onions, bacon, mushrooms and a cheddar-Swiss blend) and the Chicken Tikka Masala (served with yogurt or tahini). There are plenty of vegetarian options, too, and Thomas eventually wants to roll out gluten-free pasties at each of his Phoenix locations.

Beyond that, Cornish Pasty Co. gets a boost from the seasonal population of "snowbirds" escaping the Upper Peninsula. Many of the descendants of those original Cornish immigrants—plus other locals who have simply been exposed to their legacy of regional fare—flee the icy Midwest come winter to hit the Valley's golf courses when it’s 70 degrees in January. Thomas credits those so-called "Yoopers" from Michigan for getting his first restaurant off the ground. “We still get a lot of them in here,” he says.

The restaurant's “underground” vibe—Thomas doesn’t advertise, and he doesn’t plan to start—keeps Cornish Pasty Co. cool despite the desert heat, the confusing name and the pasty’s indescribable nature. The large selection of cold beers on tap doesn’t hurt, either. “I read in reviews [of the restaurant], sometimes, where people say the place isn’t pretentious; it’s just real,” he says. “So I think that’s an appeal. And then, you know, I think the food is tasty.”

Just don’t call it a Hot Pocket.