I’m talking with Ken Likewise, chef and co-owner of Rehab Burger Therapy in Scottsdale, when a young couple from Alabama comes by our table.
“This was fantastic,” they drawl. “When are y’all going to open one of these where we live?”
“We get that all the time,” Likewise says. “People from beach towns in Mexico, California and Florida. I say, ‘Don’t you already have something like this?’ They say, ‘Yeah, but they don’t have the food and the atmosphere and the service.’ Then I say if they have the money to open one, I’ll be happy to come out and help them get it started.”
Rehab Burger Therapy has figured out how to combine a laidback, beach funk vibe with very good food and service and wallet-friendly prices. Starters are in the $6 to $8 range, ribs are $10 to $12 and burgers are $12 to $14. Burgers are available in 5-ounce (“relapse”) and 10-ounce (“rehab”) sizes. That’s helpful for folks who want to satisfy a burger craving without downing half a cow.
It’s the creation of Likewise, Denise Nelson and Wiley Arnett. For 18 years they ran Oregano’s, a pizza restaurant that grew into a chain of eight Valley locations. The trio eventually parted ways with the chain. While they’re careful not to criticize the organization they left behind, Wiley makes it clear bigger wasn’t better for them.
“I’m thankful for my Oregano’s college but [I] eventually disagreed with the professor,” he says. “With growth you seem to incrementally sign up for things that seemed horrible when you were a little place with just a few locations. We ended up having the best paychecks we ever had but somehow we felt broke.
“We kind of traded money for bragging rights,” Wiley says. “I was ready to take less money to have that kick-ass feeling again. We needed rehab and we checked in here. We’ve been going about slowly getting those bragging rights back.”
They came up with the idea for their restaurant during a barbecue in the summer of 2011 at Likewise’s house. They were reminiscing about simpler days when the subject turned to food—specifically barbecue—as therapy. The concept was born, and the next spring, Rehab Burger Therapy opened south of Old Town Scottsdale, in the former Bonfire Grill.
Surfboards, bikes and beach paraphernalia (much of it from Likewise’s house), hang from the walls and ceiling and reggae music pumps through the room, pulsing but not so loud as to drown out conversation.
The formula is working; RBT has placed at or near the top in several local “Best Burger” and “Best Service” rankings, and it opened a second location in Tempe, at Sixth Street and Mill Avenue earlier this year.
Great service is key to its success, Nelson says. “Our servers say it’s easy to work here. It comes from us showing them that this is our No. 1 priority. If we believe in it and we treat our staff with respect, and they believe in the product that they’re selling, it comes across.”
Servers and cooks also get involved in the menu. Someone can come up with a new burger idea and show it to Jeff and if he likes it, it shows up on the weekend burger menu. And if it gets really popular, like the burger with peanut butter, grape jelly, chile, bacon and sriracha, it can end up on the permanent menu.
There also are secret menu items created by Likewise, a Culinary Institute of America grad, as ingredients inspire him. One they’re serving now is the Bigger Bistro Burger: a 5-ounce beef patty, 5 ounces of thinly sliced ribeye sautéed with butter and poblano chiles, onions, Havarti cheese and wasabi mayo. “It’s to die for,” Nelson says.
On a recent visit, I had the 5-ounce Hatch chile burger, a slab of grilled chile (Anaheim this time as Hatch wasn’t in season) and cheddar on a brioche bun and served with a side of chipotle aioli, one of 11 sauces available for pairing with burgers and wings.
At its heart, burgers are simple—good beef, minimally handled, well-seasoned and served on a bun that doesn’t collapse into Wonder Bread thinness at first bite. Like many simple things, this can be deceptively difficult to pull off, but RBT hit on all the bases with this combo. I can’t say as much for the PB&J burger—though it’s a big success with other diners.
Sides were another hit. The fries were fresh, crisp and hot, perfect with the chipotle aioli. The mac and cheese with poblano and jalapeno peppers, green chile, bacon and corkscrew pasta topped with a drizzle of sriracha was redolent of good-quality cheeses.
The standout was the “pig wings”—little pork ribs in a killer pineapple-laced barbecue sauce. Spare ribs and pork ribs too often have a soft, almost flabby texture, but these were meaty—call it ribs al dente. And I wish they bottled that sauce.
Its signature dessert, Pot Brownies, have a cult following, and it’s easy to see why with its layers of chocolate brownies, marshmallow fluff, a Reese’s peanut butter cup or Hershey chocolate bar, then an extra brownie on top. Ice cream, chocolate syrup and/or caramel sauce can be added. I hear it’s great, but that’s for another visit.
Rehab Burger Therapy
7210 E. Second Street, Scottsdale | (480) 621-5358
21 E. Sixth Street, Suite 146, Tempe | (480) 773-7307
– Majorie Rice, Phoenix.org