December 31, 2012

The Deliciousness of 2012

Beef Pies @ Chou's Kitchen Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: Though I loved their food before getting to know them, the folks at Baratin, Noca, and Crudo are all friends.  

Okay, I surrender. I love this. Seriously, I've been looking forward to this all year. Of course it helps when your year starts off with a trip to China and Japan, but still... so many delicious things to remember, and it's so much fun to rifle through them again.

This year's also a little special because going back through the things I've written meant not only rereading a lot of Skillet Doux, but also so many fabulous discussions over at PHXfoodnerds. I love blogging. But I'll take discussing and learning amongst a crowd of fellow food nerds over that any day.

When I look over this year's list, what's striking to me is that it's filled -- Asia trip aside -- with old favorites and new downscale discoveries. While there were plenty of great mainstream openings in Phoenix this year, on the whole I didn't find them a fraction as exciting as some of the little family-run ethnic joints that came onto the scene, either because they were new or because we finally discovered something that had been sitting under our noses. I don't know if this is a wider trend or a food nerd niche phenomenon, but either way here's hoping it continues. While many of this year's high profile openings are fine restaurants and wonderful additions, none of them, in my estimation, do as much to increase the breadth and depth of the Phoenix restaurant scene as places like Hue Gourmet, the revamped Cafe Ga Hyang, and our dearly departed Zaidi's Grill. For restaurants like the latter, this was an exciting year, and if that pace of discovery can carry over into 2013, I'll be a happy, happy food nerd indeed.

In any case, The Deliciousness -- now in its (eep!) eighth iteration -- isn't so much about naming the BEST dishes I've had this year. With so many wonderful and disparate experiences, I'm loathe to quantify in so rigid and exclusive a fashion. Rather, when I look back over the year, these are the dishes that stick with me; the ones that I just can't get out of my head for one reason or another. As always, clicking on the dish name links to the post that first mentioned it (if I got around to posting about it). So without further ado, in completely random order supplied by random.org, here's The Deliciousness of 2012:

Dominic Armato

Chongqing Chicken
San Xi Lou - Hong Kong

Every once in a while, if you're lucky, you have one of those meals that completely obliterates your expectations, raising the bar so high that it insidiously ruins you for so many other places that you previously would have enjoyed. For me this year, that meal -- perhaps more than any other -- was the Sichuan lunch I had at San Xi Lou in Hong Kong. And if I had to pick one dish that exemplified my shellshocked amazement (really, I could've put almost any of them here), it was the Chongquing Chicken. This was so far beyond eleven, a mix of heat, spice and huajiao electricity so potent that it forced me to reevaluate my overuse of the word "explosive." And the best part? It was practically two dishes. When hot from the wok, it was all fire and zing, sizzling pyrotechnics on the tongue. But as it cooled, and as some of the Sichuan peppercorns dropped through the basket, the dish mellowed slightly and the other flavors -- the ginger, the onion, the sweetness -- started to emerge and it became a completely different, rounder dish. This was one of those experiences that was so good I almost wish I could forget it, because I suspect that at every Sichuan meal for quite a while, I'm going to be thinking of this.

Dominic Armato

Burnt Miso Ramen
Gogyo - Tokyo

One of my goals for the three days in Japan was to cram in as much ramen as possible, and though I had some killer bowls at some widely reknowned establishments, my favorite caught me by surprise. I wasn't even specifically targeting a burnt miso ramen, but Gogyo's late hours made it an easy stop and, as it turned out, one I'm very, very glad I made. It would be perhaps a little silly to suggest that only good things can emerge when the creation of your dish involves six foot flames leaping from the wok, but regardless of one's position on the pyromania spectrum, there's no denying that this is a situation where fire = good. I don't know what, precisely, was going on in that copper-lined kitchen, but it produced a bowl of ramen black as pitch, a rich tonkotsu broth infused with smoke and fire and brimstone and so fabulously delicious that it ended up being my favorite of the trip. Even the noodles seemed to have been forged in fire, thin but extremely dense and chewy, refusing to go down without a fight. I understand a couple of places are doing this in L.A., which if we're lucky, means we'll have it by 2020. I can wait if need be.

Dominic Armato

Spaghetti dei Martelli
Noca - Phoenix

Though the Noca chef situation involved a couple of twists and turns over the past year, I'm in the camp that thinks Eliot Wexler and Claudio Urciuoli have found in each other the perfect partner. What I've had since Urciuoli took over the kitchen certainly indicates that something special is going on over there, and nowhere was it more evident than in the Speghetti dei Martelli, which stopped me dead in my tracks. I love pasta. I eat a lot of pasta. I make a lot of pasta. And I completely marveled at this pasta. It was so clearly made by an Italian, with a contemporary spin but rooted in the spirit of traditional Italian food. Essentially, it was an elevated Aglio e Olio, enhanced with a splash of colatura -- the Romans' version of fish sauce -- and a few creamy, briny, rich pieces of sea urchin gently laid on top. What makes it Italian? It's about the pasta. It's about enhancing the pasta. And it's about taking just a few ingredients and pulling the most out of them, and resisting the urge to add more than is absolutely necessary to make the point. Also, it was just unbelievably tasty. It's exceedingly rare that I enjoy a pasta as much as I did this one. And I really need to have some more.

Dominic Armato

Nigiri Sushi
Sushi Dai - Tokyo

I'm kind of obsessed with benchmarking. When there's some dish, I always try to seek out a really good traditional, no frills version -- a baseline against which I can compare others. And that's exactly what I was seeking from Sushi Dai. While American-style mayo maki are still little more than a curiosity over there, there's plenty of edgy sushi and sashimi to be found in Tokyo. But I wanted to go someplace that would do straight-up fish and vinegared rice, no tricks, relying only on stunning fish, experienced knifework and perfect rice. And if I weren't already somebody who already has a deep respect for tradition, there's nothing to expose the folly of so much poorly-conceived creative sushi than the parade of fish I tasted there. I can't narrow it to a single piece. I refuse to narrow it to a single piece. Rather, consider this entry an ode to the glory of raw fish over vinegared rice, and the VW Bus-sised sushi bar at Tsukiji from whence it came.

Dominic Armato

Xiao Long Bao
Lin Long Fang - Shanghai

Speaking of benchmarking, man, I would have done a three or four joint xiao long bao crawl in Shanghai if I'd had more than 24 hours. But if they get better than this -- and maybe they do -- I'm having a hard time imagining how. Here you've got one of foodnerdia's most elusive foodstuffs, the holy grail of the dumpling world, so rarely spotted in even mediocre much less excellent form. And then you hop on the Shanghai metro, trudge through a residential neighborhood, find the right door with a little luck, and there they are, in a tiny little restaurant with stools and communal tables and a few cooks -- kids, really -- folding as fast as their fingers allow. And they make it seem so effortless that it makes you wonder why the magic that emerges from the steamer seems such an impossible task for so many who try to emulate them. But these little morsels are all detail... the precise thickness of the bun, the right texture achieved by the folds, the perfect balance of flavor of the broth held within, that telltale sag when it's delicate enough to groan under the weight of the filling but just resilient enough to hold on. You miss any of these variable just a degree or two in either direction and the whole thing falls apart. Except here, where they don't, and where they're hot and juicy and bursting with pork and crab, and where if you didn't have a tight itinerary for your one day you could sit down and inhale five dozen dumplings without breaking a sweat. A rare treat, indeed.

Dominic Armato

Naeng Myun
Cafe Ga Hyang - Phoenix

There's no restaurant in the Phoenix metro area that captured my heart more than Cafe Ga Hyang, for all kind of reasons. It's run by the sweetest of people, a cross-generational and cultural odd couple that turn out killer Korean food in a casual place that, owing to its late hours, became the preferred late night hangout for so many of my friends. But in the end, it's about the food, and the food is so, so good here, so bold, so simultaneously striking and comforting, as typifies Korean food to me. And the dish that struck me the most, and made the long, hot summer bearable, was Sun and Nick's naeng myun. This is a Korean dish I hadn't tried before, their version consisting of chilled noodles swimming in an ice cold beef broth -- sometimes (when I was lucky) with crushed ice still on top -- and topped with hard cooked egg, chilled sliced beef brisket, pine nuts, cucumbers, and some kind of fruit like nashi pear or watermelon. The final touch is some house-made mustard, squirted into the bowl and mixed around to give the otherwise clean and sweet dish a little bit of earthy heat. Now, when it's 115 degrees out, there is nothing in the city I want more, and if for no other reason, that's why the naeng myun sticks out in my head over a dozen other dishes that could just as easily have been in its place. This place was such a glorious find (thanks, Helen!), and in short order it's become one of my most beloved restaurants in the entire city.

Dominic Armato

Crispy Pig Ears
Crudo - Phoenix

All I can say is it's about damn time. While Cullen Campbell's original Crudo received plenty of love in the press, it seemed like the admittedly odd salon lobby location was a total dealbreaker for Phoenix diners. Which made me angry, because the patio was charming and, really, can't we look past that? And then he closed, and it made me even angrier. And then he reopened in a more traditional space, got rave reviews and was booked solid for months, and it made me even angrier because I wanted to take Phoenix by the shoulders, shake it and shout, "Where were you the first time around?!?" But I'm happy to be angry, because Cullen has finally (finally!) found his audience, and he's turning out all kinds of fabulous crudi, mozzarella dishes and such, and though I feel I'm doing him a disservice by glossing over the rest of the menu, the truth is that I got roped in by, of all things, his bar snack. And let me tell you how happy it makes me that Phoenix has managed to embrace pig ears. He never thought they would sell, but by golly, he's saddled with the dish now. And this isn't a bad thing, because Best Bar Snack Ever. He slices the ears, puts them through some multistep process of boiling and frying, tosses them in a sweet and vinegary dressing with plenty of fresh chile heat, and the result is crisp, crunchy, sweet, sour, salty and meaty all in one. And against all odds, it isn't just one of my favorites, but it's garnered enough press that it could reasonably lay claim to the title of Phoenix's dish of the year. I'm down with pig ears. Always have been. But I confess, I'm a little surprised to find myself rabidly craving pig ears. And if I'm surprised, I can't imagine how most everybody else feels.

Dominic Armato

Corn with Fish Sauce and Shallots
Baratin - Phoenix

Would it be blasphemous of me to suggest that I've been enjoying Baratin even more than FnB lately? Is it the incredibly brief menu? Does the fact that only five items make the final cut mean that we're being offered only the best of the best? Whatever the reason, what I know is that I've been to Baratin a dozen times and haven't tasted a miss yet. But if I had to pick one that I just can't get out of my head -- which is tricky, because there are quite a few -- I'm going to have to go with the corn, which somehow seems so appropriate for Charleen Badman's kitchen. I actually had corn a few different ways at Baratin this year, and I loved them all, but this one -- mesquite grilled, cooled, dressed with a sweet fish sauce reduction and topped with crispy fried shallots, was absolutely brilliant. It all starts with the corn, apparently sourced from some poor farmer who sold his soul to the devil for the ability to grow perfect corn, and then that sauce -- a really, really intensely sweet and salty fish sauce reduction -- makes it irresistably big and bold while somehow letting the corn come shining through. A few crispy shallots for texture, and there's a killer dish. This is why she's known for vegetables.

Dominic Armato

Com Hen
Hue Gourmet - Phoenix

For months, I thought I was the only one who had fallen in love with Hue Gourmet, but seeing the New Times call it the best Vietnamese restaurant in town gives me hope. This is the kind of place that Phoenix -- and to be fair, plenty of other cities -- loves to overlook, tucked into the food court in the back of an Asian mall that always seems to be in varying states of disrepair. But it's about the food, and the food here is so vibrant and such a refreshing departure from the standard pho joints. Is there anyplace else in town that does Quang Mi, or Banh Canh Cua, or Com Hen? That last is the one that grabbed me the most, a bit of broken rice buried in a crazy symphony of colors, flavors and textures: thin vermicelli noodles, roasted peanuts, baby clams, some kind of sesame brittle, shredded herbs, bean sprouts, slivered green apple (a substitute for starfruit) and large sesame crackers, all served next to a small bowl of hot, salty clam broth. You moisten the rice with the broth, stir everything up, and there's so much going on that the dish is a joy to eat.

Dominic Armato

Chicken Qorma
Zaidi's Grill - Phoenix

Oh, random.org, why do you taunt me like this, ending the deliciousness on such a downer?! See, there was a Pakistani fellow who was in biotech. Only he got sick of biotech and decided he wanted to cook. So he opened a little joint in South Scottsdale called Zaidi's Grill (named -- you'll be shocked -- after himself), and he made absolutely killer food -- curries, grilled meats, steamy and tender breads and more. But for some reason, despite our best efforts and a glowing New Times review, either the word didn't get out or Scottsdale wasn't ready for killer Pakistani on the corner of Thomas and Granite Reef. I'm not going to speculate, because now I'm just making myself sad again. But suffice it to say that Syed Zaidi's qorma squeezed perhaps more earthy spice into one dish than any other I've had, so brilliantly intense that it pushed right to the edge of being too much and then stopped right there, rich and oily and studded with all kinds of whole spices, cloaking tender, juicy chicken unlike any qorma I've had before or since. Syed's out of the restaurant business now, and it's Phoenix's loss, as well as a reminder that those of us who write obsessively about this stuff online and fight to get the word out are, hopefully, doing something just a little bit noble. The closing of Zaidi's feels like a failure -- not his (he did his part), but ours. And all it does is make me want to do what I can to make sure it doesn't happen to any other restaurant that deserves to be packed to the rafters as much as Zaidi's Grill did.

Ugh. I hate to end on such a downer. And thankfully I don't have to, because as usual, there are scads of other dishes that could just as easily have been among those ten, so for the heck of it, here's fifteen more that I'm thrilled to have tasted in 2012:

Beef PiesChou's KitchenPhoenix
MantooKhyber HalalPhoenix
FrikadellerBeaver ChoicePhoenix
Trout Rillettes with PicklesBaratinPhoenix
Haemul PajeonCafe Ga HyangPhoenix
Grilled Beef TongueBekohiraTokyo
TsukemenRokurinshaTokyo
Gnocchi alla RomanaAndreoliPhoenix
Cabeza and Tripe TacosEl Rinconcito del D.F.Phoenix
Pecan-Roasted LambLon's at The HermosaPhoenix
Duck Confit SandwichNocawichPhoenix
Lamb PaninoPane BiancoPhoenix
Smoked Brisket SandwichThe House at Secret GardenPhoenix
Miso-Marinated FoieShinBayPhoenix
Salt Roasted ShrimpHaiba RestaurantDongguan

As demoralizing as the closing of Zaidi's Grill and Contigo Peru was, there was just as much to be extremely excited about this year. Maybe it's just wishful thinking on my part, but I feel like this town is on the verge of making a quantum leap. I feel like folks are getting more curious, more adventurous in their dining, and more willing to step out of the refined comfort and Italian-inspired rut. I feel like places like Khyber Halal, Chou's Kitchen and Cafe Ga Hyang have a real chance to thrive. I feel like more mainstream chefs are starting to feel a little more willing to step out on a limb and take a chance again. And I hope that what we saw in 2012 is just the beginning of this trend.

Happy new year, everybody! Keep exploring, keep tasting, thanks for reading, and thanks for making Phoenix a more and more exciting dining town with each passing year.

2005   |  2006   |   2007   |   2008   |   2009   |   2010   |   2011   |   2012

December 30, 2012

The Quarterly Report - Q4 2012

Taco al Pastor @ Taqueria y Birrieria Jalisco Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: Eliot Wexler, who runs Noca, is a friend. He sometimes throws food at me. I make up for it in the tip jar.  

It's the Quarterly Report: Cram Everything Into The End Of The Year Edition!

See, this is what I get for trying to launch a food chat site and continue to run a blog at the same time. A lot of full posts suddenly become end of the quarter blurbs. Which is better than not getting around to them at all, I suppose, but... well, let's just say I'm hoping PHXfoodnerds goes gangbusters in 2013 so I can give this poor, neglected blog the love it deserves.

Anyway, as always, here's a bunch of stuff I tried over the past three months that I didn't quite get around to including in a full-length post. Random.org is going to get a workout tomorrow, so let's go alphabetical this time. Why not, right?

Char Siu and Wonton SaiminDominic Armato

Aloha Kitchen
www.alohakitchen.com

What I don't know about Hawaiian is a lot, so when the opportunity arises to pop into a local Hawaiian joint with a couple of ex-residents of the Aloha State, I'm not about the pass that up. I'm not sure that Aloha Kitchen is the best representation of what Hawaii has to offer to the culinary pantheon, but that isn't to say that it doesn't have its charms. I had my first bowl of saimin here! Saimin's bandied about as a Japanese/Chinese fusion dish that most closely resembles ramen, but since the type of ramen that this most resembles is basically a Chinese dish anyway, it plays a whole lot more Chinese to me. This one's a salty chicken broth, probably employing a healthy amount of bouillon, with egg noodles that have good bite, some cabbage and scallions, meaty wontons and char siu that has the somewhat disturbing ability to turn the entire bowl a not-so-subtle shade of pink if you don't eat it quickly. It's more something you're going to seek out to satisfy a craving than to experience something special, but it satisfies. The bulkogi's sweet soy glaze is similarly craveworthy, even if the beef's texture is something of a workout for the jaw. I could go to town on the thick, creamy macaroni salad, though, so it's probably a good thing they only give you a good scoop. Manapua were, sadly, disappointing -- undoubtedly reheated freezer fare, complete with the paper still stuck to the bottom. But there's a fun vibe here, and I'm willing to wager there are a couple of things on the menu that are worth going back to try.

San Dong Garlic ChickenDominic Armato

Chef Chiang
4929 W. Chandler Blvd. - Chandler, AZ 85226

The thing that gets me so frustrated about Phoenix is that I KNOW there's so much more out there than we've found. Case in point, Chef Chiang. Most of the menu is completely unremarkable, mediocre Americanized Chinese fare. But if you know to ask for it, there's a shorter menu featuring a number of Shandong dishes, as well as some of the natural Chinese/Korean crossover cuisine that's the result of Shandong province's proximity to Korea. After a few visits, I can't say that the menu at Chef Chiang is chock full of winners, but there are a few real gems, and they're certainly well out of the Americanized Cantonese/Szechwan/Hunan mold. Chief among them is what's listed on the menu as San Dong Garlic Chicken, which is first fried and then steamed before being chilled and served over lightly crushed cucumbers doused with a light, vinegary sauce heavy on soy and sesame oil. It's incredibly flavorful, and delightfully refreshing. Another interesting dish is the Liang Zhang Pi, one that has no English translation on the menu (fourth item down under the "Cold Dishes" section on the Chinese menu), but it's a beautiful plate to behold, a grand presentation of rice noodles, stir-fried vegetables, shredded omelet, cucumber, shrimp, carrots and more, all tossed with a light mustardy sauce. The more expensive variants on this dish add, I believe, some specialty seafood items like sea cucumber. They also do a solid Gan Jia Jiang Mein, which Korean food nerds will recognize as Jia Jiang Mein -- thick, tender wheat noodles topped with vegetables and pork sautéed in a black fermented soybean paste with a flavor far mellower than its color suggests. But you see what I mean? How many other places like this are out there?

Chicago Style Hot DogDominic Armato

Dazzo's Dog House
www.dazzosdoghouse.com

I have said before that there is something magical about a truly great Chicago style hot dog. Anybody can buy the dog, the bun, the condiments, and it would seem that assembling them is something a trained monkey could do. And yet, there is some kind of inexplicable magical synergy that good hot dog stands hit that elude the masses. Dazzo's Dog House is one of those dog stands. They find that magical steamy fusion that brings these ingredients together into more than the sum of their parts. The bun's tender and warm and squooshes down to nothing when you bite, the dog's a natural casing Vienna that's all garlic and snap, and the fact that the place serving them looks and feels like a real Chicago hot dog stand, and serve the more minimal style to boot (sans tomato, pickle and celery salt) only further endears them to me. Throw in some excellent fresh-cut fries and man, this is tough to beat, especially for a homesick Chicagoan. They do Italian Beef, too.......... stick to the hot dogs.

Ravioli di ZuccaDominic Armato

Dolce Vita Italian Grocer
www.dolcevitaitaliangrocer.com

Good Italian delis have a special place in my heart, and it's always so discouraging to see so much love thrown at so many lousy ones. Which is why it's so nice to see a pretty darn good one getting its due. Close on the heels of the PHXfoodnerds crew discovering the place, they got a lot of favorable press and now seem to be doing quite well. This is one of those joints that doesn't do too much. It's just a carefully stocked grocery run by an exceptionally friendly and hilariously odd fellow named Walter -- incidentally, the first fellow I've met named Walter who's from Bergamo and sports a thick accent. In any case, Walter runs a tight shop with a well-curated selection of pastas, oils, tomatoes, etc., as well as some fabulous cheeses and cured meats (including guanciale... finally!!!). There's a small menu, mostly cheese and charcuterie plates, sandwiches and a few simple pastas that he can prepare behind the counter without too much trouble. The selection of Italian cheeses he put down in front of us was dynamite, the cheese ravioli tender and rich and drowning in sage butter, and the butternut squash ravioli almost candy sweet (surprisingly, not an issue for me), similarly swimming in butter and topped with crushed amaretti cookies. When a friend told him his sandwiches were excellent, he replied, "NO! Not excellent. Just normal, I assure you. Everyone is just used to bad food, and this is what normal is supposed to be." Point being, he gets it, and though he's right in that this is simple, humble food that doesn't require a lot in the way of facilities, it's obviously made by a guy who has taste and cares.

Torta AhogadaDominic Armato

El Original Tacos Jalisco
3060 N. 68th St. - Scottsdale, AZ 85251

The landscape here is choked with little divey taquerias, and given that for the most part one's just like the next, a food nerd could be driven to madness trying to explore and catalog them in even a semi-comprehensive manner. So it's nice when a standout dish pops up, and that's the case with the torta ahogada at El Original Tacos Jalisco, which has thankfully outlived its similarly named compatriot around the corner so I don't have to do the, "No, no, not that one, the other one" routine anymore every time it comes up. I've had a few things here -- some tacos, a couple of other items -- and nothing has stood out. But the torta ahogada is a keeper. For the uninitiated, torta ahogada means drowned sandwich, and generally speaking it's pork on a semi-hard roll that's completely doused in a hot tomato and chile sauce. This one's undeniably a corner taqueria version -- no artisanal specimen here -- but man, it still sings, full of fairly tasty pork and oozing a searing hot tomato sauce from every space available. Man, it's hot. And it's good. And now I want one. It's almost midnight... are they open?

Spaghetti dei MartelliDominic Armato

Noca
www.restaurantnoca.com

Now that we've all made our jokes about the rotating chefs at Noca, can we agree that the most recent, Claudio Urcioli, is killing it? I wrote about Noca three years (read: two chefs... oops) ago, but the feel of the food is markedly different under Urcioli and desperately in need of some additional attention. Besides which, I need to figure out some way to work in the Spaghetti dei Martelli on the left, because that's so completely going to be on the Deliciousness of 2012 tomorrow. Anyway, I've hit Noca a couple of times since the chef change, and man, am I thrilled about this regime. There are a lot of chefs in Phoenix who do "Italian," which isn't a slight -- people do their own things with those flavors and techniques and sometimes the results are fabulous. But what's going on at Noca now is contemporary Italian food that's so clearly being made by an Italian, and so it tugs at my heartstrings in addition to being stupid good. Take that pasta. At its heart, it's aglio e olio. But it gets an extra push from a splash of colatura -- the Roman equivalent of fish sauce -- and a bit of briny, rich brightness from a little bit of sea urchin gently placed on top. I'm not sure that Urcioli is still making it quite the same way, but this is one of the best pastas I've had in years. It's a matter of sourcing killer ingredients -- Eliot's specialty -- and putting them in the hands of somebody -- Urcioli -- who knows how to do incredible things with just a few simple ingredients. When these guys do a burrata and tomato salad, it explodes because it's amazing burrata and amazing tomatoes. When you have beautiful spot prawns, you treat them gently, like Urcioli does, perfectly seasoning it with little more than olive oil and salt, searing it and setting it atop perfect controne beans that resist for just a moment before melting away. This is going to be a beautiful relationship.

Birria de ChivoDominic Armato

Taqueria y Birrieria Jalisco
615 W. Broadway Rd. - Phoenix, AZ 85041

A torta ahogada quest recently brought me to every restaurant I could locate in town that had either "Jalisco" or "Guadalajara" in its name, and while I was at first saddened that Taqueria y Birrieria Jalisco had no torta ahogada to offer, I got over it right quick. I'd actually hit this place a few years back on the birria blitz, and then somehow promptly forgot about it. So on a chilly afternoon, I partook of a bowl of goat birria that was actually a good deal better than I remembered, big pieces of meat swimming in a ruddy, slightly oily broth that had a nice, smooth, meaty flavor on its own but really shone once I tossed in a few of the accompaniments. The real find this time, however, was the tacos al pastor, pictured at the top of the post, which were really, really damn tasty. The meat had huge flavor, and I would have sworn it had been cooked on a trompo if they didn't tell me about how their trompo was being repaired. Whatever their backup system is, man, it works. The pork was really beautiful, full of flavor, hitting the right balance between tenderness and crispy char, and the big bonus was a thick, handmade tortilla that had been griddled moments before it came out to me (something they only do with the larger size -- the smaller are prefab, I believe). Killer lunch in an open air South Phoenix dive that appears to be completely off the radar for anybody outside of the neighborhood. Here's hoping that changes.

Carne en su JugoDominic Armato

Tortas Ahogadas Guadalajara
518 N. Arizona Ave. - Chandler, AZ 85225

Did I mention I've been on a bit of a torta ahogada kick? You'd think the place with torta ahogada in the name would serve a pretty kickass torta ahogada, but I can't say I was terribly enthused by Tortas Ahogadas Guadalajara's offering. Middling pork, flat sauce, desperately lacking heat... a disappointment. Ditto the carne en su jugo, which I'm so thrilled to have found in Phoenix at all, but which leaves me wanting. Perhaps I couldn't get past my craving for a bold, beefy consommé, but their is the far less common stewy version that was short, of all things, on beef flavor. Still, taken as a beef stew with potatoes, beans and a bit of crispy bacon, I suppose it's a decent enough dish... certainly hearty and comforting, if not what I was hoping for. It's a popular spot to be sure, something of a cultural experience to visit, particularly around 11:45 when the nearby high school lets out for lunch and there are suddenly two dozen teenagers in line. In any case, I've heard tell there are other bites here that are more worthwhile, but I'm having difficulty summoning the will to move it back to the top of the list.

Chao Tom CuonDominic Armato

UnPhogettable
www.unphogettable.com

I am so frustrated and torn by this place. UnPhogettable is the Vietnamese standard bearer over at Mekong Plaza, and it's hugely popular with big crossover appeal -- the non-viet crowd seems to greatly outnumber the viet crowd at lunchtime. And it isn't hard to see why. It's a supremely clean and friendly place, easy to approach, and all of the food is carefully executed and crisply presented and pretty and tasty and... well... just kind of lacking, in my estimation. The pho's solid enough... a little lean, a little clean, a little light on the aromatics for my tastes, but it satisfies and as a technical exercise, it's beautifully prepared. But y'know, the more I try, the more things just kind of fall flat for me. The first time I had the Chao Tom Cuon, I dug it... shrimp sausage wrapped with fresh vegetables and rice noodles, some crisply fried wrapper in the center for crunch. But on a subsequent visit when the novelty of the texture had worn off and I felt the flavor wasn't there, I pulled out the chao tom to taste it and found it really, really lacking, underseasoned and flat. And the bun bo hue, again, crystal clear and meticulously prepared, just had this clinical sterility to it, and didn't hold a candle to the bun bo hue from Hue Gourmet, the food court Vietnamese joint in the back of the mall. I keep trying because so many people like this place, but the more I try, the more I feel like UnPhogettable, fresh and friendly though it may be, is too much like Vietnamese Lite at times.

LiempoDominic Armato

Wholly Grill
Mekong Plaza - 66 S. Dobson Rd. - Mesa, AZ 85202

Speaking of the Mekong Plaza food court, now that I've finally gotten that monster Hue Gourmet post off my chest and have been able to shake free to try some of its neighbors, I've really enjoyed the little Filipino joint next door called Wholly Grill. It's run by an exceptionally sweet woman (Choena?), who in the restaurant's infancy wisely decided to focus on foods that she could quickly prepare to order. Rather than loading up the steam table with the kind of Filipino specialties that need turnover to stay fresh and tasty, she opted to focus on grilled items that could quickly be cooked to order. As the restaurant solidifies its footing, she's introducing more and more of those stews, noodles and other colorful items that will have a tougher time finding a wide audience here, but the heart of the menu is still the grilled meats, and man, they're pretty damn tasty. I'm especially fond of the Liempo, a sweet soy marinated pork belly charred on the grill and sliced, especially when served with sweet and sour atchara, pickled papaya. The pork BBQ is similarly delicious (and leaner, for those enigmatic souls that get freaked out by pork fat), or one can swing the other way and do the lechon kawali, deep fried chunks of pork belly that are downright crunchy on the outside, but tender in the center with meltaway ribbons of fat, big bites of rich pork cut through with a little vinegar to dip. The steam table rotates dishes on a daily basis, and I've tasted quite a few items, ranging from the very approachable Ginataang Kalabasa, a light pork and squash stew with coconut milk, to the somewhat less approachable bitter melon with shrimp paste. A) When they say bitter melon, it isn't false advertising. B) This particular breed of shrimp paste was seriously funky. C) Exactly. File that one under "C" for "Challenging." But for somebody who isn't terribly well-versed in Filipino, it's really a joy to stop by every once in a while and try something new from the steam table. You really couldn't ask for a more enthusiastic and friendly guide. And if the stew of the day just doesn't do it for you, there's always grilled pork belly.

November 15, 2012

Baratin

Tomatoes, Garlic, Olives Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: While my love for their restaurants predates our friendship, I'm lucky to have spent a good amount of time hanging out and chowing with Pavle, Charleen and much of the FnB/Baratin crew.  

Would it be blasphemous of me to suggest that over the past few months, I've been enjoying Baratin even more than I've enjoyed FnB?

At this point, Baratin should need no introductions, though the fact that it isn't jam-packed every time I set foot in the place suggests that some of you need a reminder. When Pavle Milic and Charleen Badman of the near-universally beloved FnB opened a second place, they went decidedly downscale and quirky (in the best possible sense), turning three adjacent storefronts into Baratin, Bodega, and AZ Wine Merchants. Bodega's a great little grocery, featuring a small but impeccably-curated selection of mostly local foodstuffs, fresh, dried, or canned. AZ Wine Merchants is both shop and showroom, where Pavle fulfills his position as unofficial ambassador of Arizona's wine country. And Baratin is where Charleen puts out dishes that are, in theory, simpler and more casual than the fare at FnB, but in practice are every bit their equal.

Castelvetrano OlivesDominic Armato

Bodega and AZ Wine Merchants have since merged into one space, with the resulting vacancy under construction for a purpose not yet revealed. But Baratin is as it ever was, a small footprint standing taller than it is wide, minimally presented, bathed in light and altogether exceptionally pleasant, a perfect metaphor for the food if you're inclined to overexamine these kinds of things. The hook, though I don't mean to imply that it's contrived, is that the entire menu is six items long: one snack, one salad, one vegetable, one pickled or cured, and one sandwich with butterscotch pudding for dessert. I've no doubt that some are taken aback by its brevity, but there's a lesson here for those who are willing to listen. Baratin is the epitome of "Do Less, Do It Better," combining a tiny, stripped-down kitchen and the very best local, seasonal produce to extract more flavor and joy from six plates than most menus get out of sixty. I've visited six or seven times now, usually sampling three or four dishes each visit, and I haven't had a single one that was less than delicious. This curated approach of taking limited resources and energy and putting them into making dishes better rather than making more of them is a practice many would be wise to emulate, and one can only hope that here is where the trend is kicked off locally.

Crispy Plantain with Black Bean DipDominic Armato

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have somebody like Charleen steering the ship, and her style explodes off every plate. The "snack" of roasted Campari tomatoes, elephant garlic and olives was one such salvo, textbook Veggie Whisperer Badman, extracting maximum flavor out of a handful of great ingredients. This fellow arrived HOT, the resulting juices meeting up with olive oil to create a fabulous, sweet, pungent mess in the bottom of the plate. Another riff on the same flavors (a different day, naturally) bathed Castelvetrano olives in a light tomato sauce so heady with saffron that we smelled them a few paces away. Here, simply serving the whole olives piping hot made for a delightfully novel spin on what might have otherwise been a more typical dish.

Peach, Fresh Mozzarella, Pistachio SaladDominic Armato

Of course, some of the snacks fall more in line with the traditional sense of the word (though I'll happily snack on roasted Campari tomatoes any day). Crisp plantain chips, sliced longitudinally to an almost paper-thin thickness, were fried to an airy, light crispness, salted and served with a spritz of lime and black bean dip. With the dip, Charleen refused to emulate the spackle-like consistency of most black bean dips, instead suspending tender whole beans in a light but flavorful puree, more the consistency of a light black bean soup, oozing cumin and garlic while mimicking the fresh, light character of the chips. A sprinkle of cotija cheese completed the dish, simple in construction but elevated by an exceptional amount of care.

Chicken and Couscous SaladDominic Armato

Charleen's got a way with salads as well, and though I only stole a fleeting taste of this one, lest my ladylove start getting territorial on me (and rightfully so). But a simple salad of peaches, fresh mozzarella and toasted pistachios, with a dressing just tart enough to play off the peaches without getting distracting, is so refreshing when measured next to so many overwrought salads that lose their fresh essence, and works only because of the flawless ingredient selection and careful, restrained balance. The salads, of course, are not always so dainty an affair. Shredded chicken, tender and juicy with just a whisper of mesquite smoke came together with chilled couscous, sungold tomatoes, red sorrel and a couple of other collaborators for another atypical concoction that had some gravity while still maintaining fresh, light, distinct flavors.

Pickled Shrimp and MusselsDominic Armato

I'm hopelessly addicted to the "Potted, Pickled & Cured" section of the menu. Have I just become a vinegar fiend? I don't know. But in a pretty darn good eating year, some of my greatest joys have been found four lines down on the Baratin menu. The Pickled Shrimp and Mussels have been making frequent appearances as of late, and while half of me is always excited to see what shows up next, half of me doesn't want to let this one go. The plump mussels and shrimp were lightly pickled with fish sauce, vinegar and sugar and tossed with fresh herbs. To accompany, pickled carrots, a hard-cooked egg, crisp grilled bread rubbed gently with raw garlic, and a creamy sauce the composition of which I couldn't nail down, but suffice it to say that it's rich and garlic and ginger prominently featured. For somebody who makes a habit of gathering a crowd and ordering half the menu (or, in Baratin's case, all of it), it's a rare occasion when I find myself thinking that I could stroll on over, park on the patio, order this dish and a glass of rosé and leave wanting for absolutely nothing.

Grilled Trout RillettesDominic Armato

My feelings about the grilled trout rillettes are no less enthusiastic... so much so, in fact, that my delight at my five-year-old's ability to destroy something as sophisticated as trout rillettes with horseradish cream was sharply at odds with my annoyance that that was MY trout rillettes he was destroying. I've since returned solo and rectified the situation. The rillettes are simply fish, oil, herbs and a whiff of smoke, simultaneously light and meaty and beautifully accentuated by a subtle, light horseradish cream and an assortment of pickled vegetables. The bread has body, even more so when carefully grilled, and there's nothing on this plate that isn't improved by a chunk of beet-stained egg. The whole thing is so satisfying, and so expertly done.

Lemongrass Turkey SandwichDominic Armato

I'd be happy before even getting to the sandwiches, but I'm thrilled they're there. The lemongrass turkey sandwich was a delight, tender and thickly sliced with a smidge of sriracha mayonnaise and a cool, crisp slaw of carrots, cucumbers, cabbage and onions, perked up with a splash of fish sauce. There's an obvious comparison here that will occur to most but which I'm not going to make because I kind of feel like it's unfair to put this sandwich in a box like that. It deserves to be praised on its own terms. It was delicious and so carefully done, right down to the perfect, crisp edges on the bread. Not to be outdone, a sandwich take on the peach and mozzarella salad above puts those theme ingredients between toasted focaccia and adds bacon, which is a killer combination. When I first arrived here, I was taken aback by how Arizona peaches weren't the sugar bombs that I grew up with. But I've come to appreciate that subtlety, and I like how in this case the lack of overwhelming sugar actually works better with the sandwich.

Peach, Mozzarella, Bacon SandwichDominic Armato

As though the menu at Baratin is somehow lacking for vegetables, the last slot on the menu (dessert excepted) is specifically devoted to them, and in usual Charleen fashion they're hyperseasonal and gussied up just enough to make them new and interesting without getting away from their natural essence. On my most recent visit, I rather enjoyed a plate of roasted Brussels sprouts with pickled onions, lemon, and a blast of fresh tarragon. But the vegetable that's been blowing my mind lately in more than one instance is corn. The first time I had corn at Baratin it was grilled and served alongside padrón peppers, slathered with pimentón butter and finished with cotija chese and cilantro. It was so fabulous, that natural combination of corn and green chiles, the smoky scent of pimentón... a natural combination, but done so carefully and with such fabulous ingredients that it was one of the most memorable corn dishes I've had.

Corn with Crispy Shallots and Fish SauceDominic Armato

And then, on a subsequent visit, I had another that completely blew me away and almost made me forget about the first. Charleen's been playing with a lot of Vietnamese flavors recently, and this dish was such a brilliant integration thereof that I still marvel at how natural it seems. The corn was grilled over mesquite, and then dressed with a shockingly intense fish sauce reduction, clear and sweet and a little viscous, almost like a salty anchovy liqueur, and to finish it was generously topped with crispy fried shallots. I can barely express how much I enjoyed this dish, and that such a pungent, intense sauce could work so well with delicate sweet corn was completely magical. It's so simple, and I'm still in awe of how brilliant of a dish this was. I'm really, really hoping to see it again.

Brioche Doughnut, CajetaDominic Armato

There is, of course, Charleen's widely-beloved butterscotch pudding, and it's tough to ask for a much better finish than that. But I confess that I've gotten into the habit of taking a few steps next door to Bodega to nab one of her brioche doughnuts (though they've always been more than happy to nab one for me), and when it's available, a jar of Muñeca Mexicana's Cajeta de Celaya, a sweet, deep and wonderfully complex evaporated goat milk caramel, produced locally by one of Charleen's former line cooks, Minerva Orduño Rincón, and sold in small Ball jars that are always rendered half-empty before I even walk out the door. Charleen's doughnuts aren't quite the same when they aren't fresh out of the fryer, but even off-peak they're pretty damn good, and frankly, any vehicle for that cajeta is welcome.

So to be clear, when I say I find myself enjoying Baratin even more than FnB these days, it certainly isn't because I think any less of FnB than I always have. It's just that this kind of stripped-down, picnic-ready version of Charleen's food strikes a resounding chord with me. This food is so soulful and so vibrant, rustic in appearance but so careful in composition that its refinement is almost stealthy. I eat this and I think about how we commonly think of refined food as very carefully crafted, cleanly presented, sanded down and buffed until it shines. But the food at Baratin, to me, flies in the face of that convention, demonstrating that refined is not synonymous with prissy. A chaotic-looking pile of chicken, couscous, tomatoes and sorrel can be just as carefully crafted as a meticulously chopped and finely plated ring mold tower of the same, and often it's more honest. There's an abundance of honesty and joy in this food, which means there's an abundance of flavor, which means I often find myself trudging off to do some exploring and researching when what I'd really like to do is just go back to Baratin.

Baratin
www.fnbrestaurant.com
7125 E. 5th Avenue
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
480-284-4777
Wed - Sun11 AM - 8 PM
Fri - Sat11 AM - 10 PM

November 05, 2012

Spelunking in Tucson

Cheese Tortilla with Guacamole Dominic Armato

Oh, the plans I had for a stunning 600x200 pixel vista of the natural wonder of Kartchner Caverns. Sadly, cameras are not allowed therein. And I fear Mi Nidito's cheese crisp is a lame substitute.

When the school year starts, our littlest starts a week before my son, which leaves a week where he actually gets the kind of nonstop attention that he always deserves, and usually a special trip or two. This year, a daylong jaunt down to Tucson seemed just the ticket -- far enough to feel like an adventure, close enough to be manageable -- and who doesn't think massive underground caverns are completely breathtaking? My son, unfortunately. But hopefully it's a memory that'll grow on him over time.

Chicken ChimichangaDominic Armato

And why not take the opportunity to stop at a couple of Tucson culinary landmarks while we're at it? Rather than do deep research, since we now and for the foreseeable future live just a couple of hours away, I figured we'd hit two tourist stops. Hey, sometimes those reputations are deserved! I'm not so sure that's the case with Mi Nidito, however. I was shocked, arriving just 15 minutes after they opened their doors (11:15 AM), to discover that we'd need to wait half an hour for a table. Was there a massive line out front at 10:30? It's undeniably a popular place with a reputation that's bordering on ancient. The atmosphere's sort of a corny pseudo-Mexican throwback to the Chi-Chi's of my childhood (there's a shudder-inducing memory). Or vice-versa, more likely. But Mi Nidito's, if somewhat corny, is of an almost charming neighborhood quality. It's nothing if not genuine, down to the immense amount of pride clearly invested in the scads of celebrity 8x10s that adorn the walls. It's also, judging from the crowd, the place that's received the gringo seal of approval.

Carne SecaDominic Armato

Is it blasphemous that I've lived nearly three years in Phoenix and only just had my first cheese crisp in Tucson? I hope this wasn't a premiere example of the genre. My tolerance for yellow cheese grease is unreasonably (read: embarrassingly) high, but let's just say that this was one of the more flattering photos I took. The little fella recently became obsessed with chimichangas, and given its status as iconic Arizona foodstuff (even if research seems to suggest that they did, in fact, exist in Mexico before appearing here) I certainly wasn't going to argue. Sadly, he took two bites of this monster. I might've managed four. It was delightfully crisp, and disappointingly bland. Even so, I was most disappointed by the Carne Seca. Precisely what does and doesn't constitute machaca is a hotly debated topic, and I'm thrilled to absorb all of the variants I can. But as reconstituted preserved meat goes, Mi Nidito's Carne Seca doesn't make a strong case for the practice. It's less reminiscent of earthy, dried meat, and smacks more of masticated pot roast, over-reduced to the point of being unpleasantly salty and acrid. That the accompanying tortillas were bone dry didn't help.

Hot Dog, Sonora StyleDominic Armato

Following a visit to Kartchner Caverns that was emotionally moving for at least one of us, and particularly considering the disappointment of our lunch stop, an early evening snack was definitely in order before our return north. I really wanted to hit one more of Tucson's iconic stops, and the original South Tucson location of El Güero Canelo fit the bill nicely. It felt significantly more genuine than our first stop, a small stand on a dusty corner with a permanent tent out back, filled with a crowd tucking into hot dogs, even at 4:30 in the afternoon. Though the menu is filled with other standards, your first order here is a given, no? And with good reason. It's not art, but it's undeniably tasty. EGC's standard issue arrives with bacon, beans, onions, tomatoes, mayo, mustard and a "jalapeno sauce" that might as well have not been there. But the accompanying grilled guero chile was PLENTY hot to make up for the lack of zip from the jalapeno sauce. There's an extensive condiment bar, I doctored it a touch before diving in (but left it mostly intact), and was struck by three differences between this and other Sonoran hot dogs I've had. First, the sweetness of the bun. Not pastry sweet, but not at all subtle. I'm still not sure how I feel about this. Second, crisp bacon. Yes, I've had too many Sonoran equivalents of the dirty water dog at Nogales Hot Dogs. It's nice to have bacon that was cooked two minutes ago rather than four hours ago. Third, it's very carefully put together, and this is definitely a good thing. This is the most I've enjoyed a Sonoran hot dog. But I feel compelled to qualify that with the statement that if this is the ceiling, to me these fellows will probably remain a diverting tangent rather than a paragon of hot dog awesomeness.

I've heard it suggested, however, that EGC is by no means the pinnacle of Sonoran hot dog awesomeness. I was struck, as we rolled out of town, by the vast number of little street carts we passed that were also serving Sonoran hot dogs. The dish's popularity down there is apparently no joke. Which raises the question, will the next trip down to Tucson be a carefully-researched affair where I hope to visit some less widely-renowned gems? Or do I drop the kids at school, grab a friend or two, race down to Tucson and stuff as many street cart Sonoran dogs in my face as I can before I have to sprint back for pickup time? Decisions, decisions...

Mi Nidito
www.minidito.net
1813 S. 4th Avenue
Tucson, AZ 85713
520-622-5081
Wed - Sun11 AM - 9 PM
El Güero Canelo
www.elguerocanelo.com
5201 S. 12th Avenue
Tucson, AZ 85706
520-295-9005
Sun - Thu10 AM - 11 PM
Fri - Sat10 AM - Midnight

October 30, 2012

Tumi Fine Peruvian Cuisine

Aji Rocoto, Canca, Aji Verde Dominic Armato

Call it a hunch, but something tells me the story behind Phoenix's Peruvian restaurant scene would make a good soap opera.

Upon arriving here nearly three years ago(!), I was both surprised and delighted to see just how many Peruvian restaurants there were around town. It's such a vibrant, exciting cuisine, and I'd never been in a city with so many places to explore -- Rincon Peruano, El Farol, Inca's Peruvian Cuisine, Villa Peru, Inka Fest, Contigo Peru, the mysterious weekend menu at Darwin's, and now Tumi Fine Peruvian Cuisine... did I miss any? On first glance, it seems like a stunning array of Peruvian restaurants to choose from. Of course, then it turns out that Walter Salazar, who's currently heading up the kitchen at Villa Peru, used to be the chef at the original Inca's down in Tempe. Meanwhile, Oscar Graham leaves the kitchen at Contigo Peru, helps get Inka Fest off the ground, then shortly thereafter departs Inka Fest and opens his own restaurant, Tumi. I fully expect we'll eventually learn that El Farol is run by Graham's brother-in-law and Rincon Peruano is owned by Salazar's college roommate, right before the surprise reveal that Graham and Salazar are actually fraternal twins whose long lost sister just leased a restaurant space in Glendale. Point being, there's an abundance of good Peruvian in town, even if the chart of who's working where and when looks almost incestuous at times.

So there was a big shakeup this weekend -- a extremely sad one, at that -- when Contigo Peru closed their doors. Contigo had been my runaway favorite of the crowd, and for me this is one of the most painful restaurant closings of recent memory. But after all of the requisite wailing and gnashing of teeth, the news of Contigo's imminent demise sent me scurrying back to resample some of the others, and to get a couple of good passes at Tumi to see if Graham's new kitchen stands up to his old one. And the answer is... sort of?

Causa de PolloDominic Armato

For the uninitiated, since I haven't sung its praises in, oh, seventeen minutes or so, Peruvian is all kinds of fabulous, a natural fusion cuisine borne of a diverse immigrant population that draws influences from Andean, Spanish, Chinese, African, Japanese, Italian and more. And what's remarkable, even beyond the food's sophistication and exciting flavors, is how quickly and seamlessly these influences have all been integrated and adapted to local ingredients like corn, potatoes and chiles to produce dishes that are completely unique, yet seem oddly familiar to fans of the world's great cuisines. We keep hearing year in and year out that Peruvian is going to be the Next Big Thing, and those of us who love it keep lamenting year in and year out that it doesn't quite catch fire in the American public's consciousness. Arguably, the closest we've come, even though most of us don't even know it, is the success of Nobu Matsuhisa, whose fresh, vibrant, citrus heavy sashimi dishes with accents like onion salsas, cilantro and rocoto chiles made him the standard bearer for neo-Japanese in America for the better part of a decade. His food may be chiefly Japanese, but so many of those signature creative touches are courtesy of the years he spent running a sushi restaurant in Lima before moving to the United States. When Peruvian hits the big time -- and it's bound to eventually -- it'll be tremendously overdue. So in this much, Phoenix can proudly brag that it's ahead of the curve, even if Contigo's closure is a not insubstantial step backwards. But thankfully, Tumi is there to pick up the slack, for the most part.

Papa RellenaDominic Armato

Tumi is tiny -- a small fraction of the size of either of Graham's previous dining rooms -- and would be bursting at the seams if 15 people all dropped in to eat at once. But the menu's diverse, the food is solid, and here's hoping that's a fate that befalls it with more and more frequency. Right when you're seated, cancha are placed on the table along with a little bit of aji rocoto and aji verde. Cancha are corn kernels toasted in oil until they take on a deep color and a satisfying crunch, reminiscent of corn nuts, but with a nutty, salty, natural beauty that no amount of artificial enhancement can replicate. The aji rocoto and aji verde are essentially table salsas, the former ruddy with a nice kick composed of, I suspect, little more than the chiles themselves. The aji verde is a more complex construction, anchored by the vaguely mint-like huacatay, a Peruvian herb for which I'd really like to know their source. I can't hit a Peruvian joint without ordering a glass (if not a pitcher) of Chicha Morada, a drink derived primarily from purple corn, often mixed with pineapple or apple juice and scented with cinnamon and cloves. Tumi's is perfect, cool and refreshing with just a bit of spice, and not so much sugar that it starts to get sticky.

Ceviche de PescadoDominic Armato

Causa de Pollo seems an unholy marriage at first, but is remarkably satisfying, a mayonnaise-based chicken salad -- one that would be equally at home between two slices of white bread -- layered with mashed potatoes seasoned with lime and possessing a good amount of zip, courtesy of aji amarillo, another chile native to Peru. It's just one of many odd cross-cultural dishes that doesn't seem like it should work, but does. Papa Rellena is less of a Frankendish, and is among my favorites at Tumi. Seasoned mashed potatoes (they really like potatoes in Peru) are formed around a brilliantly delicious savory/sweet filling made with ground beef, raisins, hard boiled eggs and onions before being fried to a crisp exterior. They're served with an aji amarillo salsa that adds a great spicy, vinegary punch to an already hearty and flavorful dish.

Ocopa con CamaronDominic Armato

I'm always taken aback by the complexity and body of a good Peruvian ceviche, and though I wouldn't call the Ceviche de Pescado one of Tumi's strengths, it's a solid entry. A healthy portion of tilapia (can we PLEASE use something other than tilapia, people?!) is bathed and partially cured in a spicy, acidic and slightly sweet dressing before being buried in slivered onions and paired with tender slices of sweet potato. It's missing a handful of cancha, a common accoutrement, but that bit of textural contrast is conveniently already sitting on the table. I've found Tumi's ceviches to be a little on the astringent side -- too heavy on the lime, I think -- but getting a little bit of sweet potato in every bite helps the balance greatly. The Ceviche de Camaron is less successful, mostly because the shrimp are cooked before hitting the marinade. I've no doubt that shrimp cured only with citrus would be a tougher sell, but I think par-cooking them makes for a far less compelling dish.

AnticuchosDominic Armato

Ocopa con Camaron brings together more potatoes and more shrimp, generously bathed in a complex, lightly creamy sauce with huacatay, garlic, nuts and who knows what else. Though I'd enjoy this version if the flavors were a little bolder, it's still a tasty dish, and the shrimp are perfectly seasoned and cooked. Another old Peruvian restaurant standby is anticuchos, grilled skewers of seasoned beef heart. This is a great intro to beef heart, like strips of intensely flavored ultrasteak with a slightly springy texture. Tumi's is heavy on the seasoning, which I personally appreciate, though it's perhaps not as tender as I'd prefer. (I'm of the opinion that Villa Peru isn't the restaurant Tumi is, but the texture of their anticuchos is one place where they excel.) If tenderness meant more to you than flavor, however, you wouldn't order beef heart in the first place. Hopefully my affinity for beef heart makes it clear where my priorities lie. Consider this mild criticism, however. I really enjoy Tumi's anticuchos, served with a fiery salsa and a little bit of soothing plain corn and potato if you go overboard with it.

Aji de GallinaDominic Armato

Aji de Gallina is one of my very favorite Peruvian dishes, and Tumi does it justice. Looking through recipes for Aji de Gallina is an exercise in double takes, raised eyebrow stacked upon raised eyebrow as you wonder how the hell they came up with this, and how the hell it actually works. Chicken is stewed, drained, and cooked in a creamy sauce made with onions, walnuts, white sandwich bread, parmesan cheese, evaporated milk, hard boiled eggs, garlic, aji amarillo and more. The result looks like something Lunch Lady Doris would have come up with if her father were Italian and her mother Latin, but these seemingly incongruous ingredients come together into this remarkably creamy, satisfying, comforting whole, with just enough chile zip to keep it lively. It's Chicken Mole meets Chicken a la King, and by god it works. Tumi's is a very good rendition, and for Peruvian novices, it's an absolute must.

Arroz con MariscosDominic Armato

Arroz con Mariscos is predictable, and pleasantly so. A heaping pile of rice is cooked with all manner of seafood -- shrimp, crab, mussels, clams, squid, maybe more -- and seasoned with tomato, chiles and a bunch of other aromatics that make for a seafood dish that's comforting but stops short of timid, and will seem reminiscent to many of seafood paella. I find myself wishing the flavors were a little more aggressively applied, but this is still a solid dish. One Peruvian dish I've not tried elsewhere is the Seco de Res. It's a large helping of tender beef stew meat (I'm unsure of the cut), slow-cooked in a thick but light gravy with cilantro and chile accents, playing almost like Peruvian pot roast. It's served with no shortage of starches, a small mound of steamed rice, large batons of fried yuca, and -- there's the Italian influence again -- some really delicious, tender, almost creamy white beans that nearly steal the show.

Seco de ResDominic Armato

Refugees from Contigo Peru will probably want to know how I feel Tumi stacks up, and while I'd be lying to myself if I didn't admit that I'll be acutely feeling that loss, this is a preference that isn't completely cut and dried. If my favorite Peruvian joint in town had to close, I have to say that Tumi is a fallback for which I'm supremely grateful. The standards are well-executed, the ingredient sourcing and execution is there, the menu leaves no gaping holes in my personal hit list. I feel like I have to get pretty darn picky to find fault with these dishes. And if Tumi's offerings fall just short of the standard Graham set under his previous employ, I have a hunch that a few more visits and a little more time may change that. While the ceviche or Aji de Gallina make me pine for my previous favorite, I'm delighted by dishes like the Papa Rellena or Anticuchos, which I think are stronger here. Plus, delicious hits like the Seco de Res give me hope that there are still some serious gems on Tumi's menu that I've yet to discover. Most certainly, I'll be back, as Tumi is now unquestionably the local Peruvian restaurant about which I get the most excited.

Tumi Fine Peruvian Cuisine
www.tumi-restaurant.com
2160 N. Alma School Road
Chandler, AZ 85224
480-821-1717
Tue - Sat11:30 AM - 9 PM
Sun11:30 AM - 8 PM

October 12, 2012

The Quarterly Report - Q3 2012

Potato Salad @ Pane Bianco Dominic Armato

Quarterly Report, XL-style. For reasons unknown, this quarter's collection of random little tidbits is especially large -- a couple hits with tiny menus, a couple of random dishes, a couple of places I don't really care to spend more time with to write something bigger... for a variety of reasons, time to do a little housecleaning. As always, in order determined by random.org, here are the places I've eaten over the past few months that didn't quite inspire a full post:

The L.P.Dominic Armato

LAMP Wood Oven Pizzeria
www.lamppizza.com

I'd like to spend more time at LAMP, even if the drive is a little prohibitive for me. We're certainly not lacking for good wood-fired pizza around these parts, but folks up north must be thrilled to have LAMP in their backyard, and if they aren't, they should be. I dropped in for lunch a little while back, and was really impressed. The arugula and white bean salad was a great start with crisp, bitter arugula, white beans with a little bite, slivers of onion and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano with a light vinaigrette. I loved the confident simplicity. The pizza I had was similarly excellent, seated on well-developed bread with great flavor, a cornicone with some crispness and just the right amount of blistering. And I appreciated that The L.P., as it was titled, was even on the menu to begin with, a brash, briny mouthful of capers, anchovies and cured black olives that might be a little punchy for some, but suited me just fine. It's hard to get noticed for pizza in this town, but this pizza deserved some notice. And there's nothing wrong with a slice of ricotta cheesecake with Sambuca-soaked figs to finish... nothing at all.

Steak ShawarmaDominic Armato

Pita Kitchen
9915 W. McDowell Rd., Avondale AZ 85392

I'm always a fan of little gems hidden in dingy strip malls, but if Pita Kitchen flies under the radar, it won't be due to an obscure location, but rather because it's practically camouflaged. It's nestled into a perfectly vanilla looking strip mall in Avondale along with Smashburger, Chipotle and Rumbi's Island Grill, and it has the sanitized look of a fledgling franchise in the making, but they serve up some pretty fabulous vertical meat. The gyros is a cone direct from Chicago, which wouldn't merit mention even if it does hold a special place in my heart. But the steak shawarma is made with a lot of care, marinated, stacked and roasted tri tip that's shaved off the spit when done and given a quick flash on the griddle before service. I wish it had been carved directly off the spit, but I was told it was an intentional choice to keep it from overcooking. While I'd personally like a little more char, I'm having a hard time arguing with the results, which are positioned kind of halfway between your standard gyros joint and more traditional/artful restaurants and are undeniably delicious. The meat is moist and tender and incredibly flavorful, gently spiced with a solid dose of vinegar, and amply piled on pita that's prefab but treated well, tender, steamy and lightly griddled. There's some nondescript veg and a touch of light tahini sauce and-- oh, hey, look, I inhaled the whole thing in about 30 seconds. I don't want to oversell it. I can't see driving across town (again) for it. If I tried, I probably wouldn't make it past Al-Hana. But if this were in my 'hood, or even within casual striking distance, it'd be a regular stop. I envy Avondale this place.

Kids' Cheese CrispDominic Armato

Kitchen 56
www.kitchen56.com

Is this a cheap shot? I'm not the one who served the "cheese crisp" you see pictured here. Which isn't to say that lunch at Kitchen 56 was all bad. The calamari was bad. It was coated with cornmeal, deftly fried and tossed with cabbage, and that's all fine and good if not for a cloying, one-dimensional sauce, liberally applied. I'm not opposed to peanut butter as a shortcut to peanut flavor in a sauce. It's peanuts and sugar, and I see no reason why the fact that they're pre-combined should make any difference. But there's a difference between adding peanut flavor and making a sauce that tastes like slightly thinned-out peanut butter. The Burger Deluxe wasn't bad! Flavorful and juicy (if a step past where I ordered it) with onion marmalade, fontina and sautéed mushrooms, I'd happily eat it again, even if it isn't enough to make Kitchen 56 a burger destination. And the fries could have used a little more crisp, but they were fresh-cut and had nice flavor. When you decide to humor your progeny with a cheese crisp off the kids' menu, however, and get a barely warmed tortilla with a slice of processed cheese on top, it seems like a good opportunity to point out that just because kids have inexperienced palates doesn't mean they want or should be fed lazily-prepared crap. Seriously, guys, this is just embarrassing.

Italian BeefDominic Armato

Jimmy's Hot Dogs
4022 E. Broadway, Phoenix AZ 85040

You could do a lot worse than Jimmy's if you're looking for a Chicago style dog, that's for sure, but I can't say it doesn't leave me wanting. The elements are all in place: a Vienna natural casing dog and the usual accoutrements on a steamed poppyseed bun. But the sausage doesn't quite have the right pop, and the whole package fails to capture that elusive steam table magic that the great spots nail. I'm at a loss to explain why some places catch that lightning in a bottle and others don't, but Jimmy's comes up just short. Still, a solid dog. I'm less enthused about the Italian Beef, which looks the part but is on the weaker end of the spectrum, with a bit of an odd, rubbery texture. I'm guessing it's the Vienna prepackaged stuff. And the juice wasn't particularly flavorful, with an off flavor I couldn't pin down. Most disappointing are the fries, cut fresh right in front of you and then terribly fried, resulting in a tough, greasy mess. It's rare that I feel a place would be better off sticking with frozen spuds, but this is one such exception.

Patty MeltDominic Armato

Pomeroy's
5555 N. 7th St., Phoenix AZ 85014

I suppose everybody's line for what constitutes a dive bar is drawn at a different point, but for me, Pomeroy's is more homey and well-worn than divey. And "well-worn" seems especially appropriate when it comes to their patty melts, which are... wow. This isn't half-assed bar food. This is a griddle with experience. The patty melts are exactly as they appear here, shatteringly crisp, actually cooked to the requested medium rare, oozey and gooey and absolutely saturated with grease. I'm not one who believes there's a platonic ideal for patty melts -- I'm pluralistic that way -- but this has to be best of breed in the hedonistic grease bomb category. I gave the "Allen" melt a try as well, which adds bacon and mushrooms. I enjoyed it, but for me, the purity of the regular patty melt works better here. I should really try some other items on the menu, but man, I don't know how I walk in the door and not get one of these.

Birria de ChivoDominic Armato

¡Hola Cabrito!
4835 S. 16th St., Phoenix AZ 85040

¡Hola Cabrito! is the poster child for do less, do it better. They serve birria and... birria. Sometimes goat and lamb, sometimes just goat. On this particular day, the woman behind the counter apologized profusely for having only Birria de Chivo and nothing else. I cannot think of a situation less worthy of an apology. The restaurant is humorously located in what looks like it was once the entry vestibule for a much larger restaurant space, currently going unused. And I love the minimalism here. You get a plate of roasted goat, with or without a bowl of consomé, a side of tortillas and some condiments. Done. This is no-frills chivo -- as a matter of personal preference, I like it when the mole is a little more aggressive. But that's not to suggest fault with this. It's a tasty plate of roasted meat. The consomé is similarly minimal, more of a starting point for the condiments than a complete soup, but it has a nice deep flavor and acts as a great canvas for when you start doctoring things up. A little cilantro and onion, a little bit of earthy dried chile salsa, a spritz of lime... good to go, and priced at $10 for about half a pound of meat with soup and a coke. Even the hours are minimal, as they're only open until 2:00. Oh, and they serve menudo on the weekends. I haven't partaken, but here's hoping they don't overextend themselves.

Pork Sirloin SandwichDominic Armato

The Café at MIM
www.themim.org/visit/the-café-at-mim

One visit and the Musical Instrument Museum is already among my must-visit recommendations for visitors to Phoenix. What a cool museum. That the cafe is exceptional -- really exceptional for a museum concession -- is a fabulous bonus. Hyperlocal is the mantra here, and though I've encountered a couple of odd oversights, there's no denying the fantastic freshness of the ingredients and the care that goes into preparing them. It's a cafeteria. But everything's made fresh that day, thoughtful and creative and for the most part, quite delicious. Deconstructed salads seem to be a common offering, and the lemon chicken salad I tried had an official name that was an epic work of prose spanning two volumes, must've taken as long to compose as the food took to cook, and named half the farms and ranches within a 200 mile radius of the museum. But it was a really nice deconstructed roasted chicken salad, with things like pickled beets, a sort of cake made from potatoes and goat cheese, roasted eggplant and some crispy fried root vegetables. Good stuff. A roasted corn soup with Sonoran chiles and Meyer lemon oil was flat, long on freshness but short on salt, spice and brightness. And one of the sandwiches I tried featured tender, chilled roasted pork sirloin, potatoes and zucchini between two slices of bread that certainly made me feel like I was eating something healthy. That it was criminally undersalted was easy enough to remedy, though with so much care put into individual ingredients and local sourcing, it seemed odd that the only available option for a sandwich desperately in need of some lubrication was foil packets of mayonnaise and mustard. Still, a delicious sandwich. This'd be a fine establishment if it weren't a museum concession, and given the context it's cream of the crop. To say nothing of the warm fuzzies it'll inspire in locavore types.

Lamb and Escarole PaninoDominic Armato

Pane Bianco
www.pizzeriabianco.com

I've already expressed my admiration for Pane Bianco, but I recently stopped by a couple of times, my first shot at them since they took over the space next door and added a large dining room. And man, am I glad they did, because it's made one of my favorite spots even more accessible and comfortable. Menu expansions are always fraught with danger, particularly when it seems like the kitchen facilities haven't gotten an upgrade, but I certainly don't see any issues here. If anything, they seem even sharper than usual. A vegetable and tepary bean soup was mighty fine, flavorful and hearty with great body, big chunks of vegetables and tender beans. Exceptionally satisfying. A side of potato salad was some pretty intense stuff, chunks of fingerling potatoes in a sweet and lightly tart dressing with olives and huge, rough hewn chunks of pickles and celery. The sandwiches are exceptional as always, but a special I had for the first time -- roasted lamb with escarole -- was of the skull-exploding variety. Roasted lamb and escarole. That's it. Sweet and simple and so fricking delicious, a minimally seasoned, tender, juicy ode to the beast. Pure lamb. You know how when you're trying a new protein, since you're not familiar with it, sometimes you aren't sure where the meat ends and the accompaniments begin? This is the opposite of that. Take a bite. Now you know what lamb tastes like. And now they do desserts, too. The flourless chocolate cake was practically ganache, dense and dark with a scoop of lemon marmellata. The rice pudding is massive -- the size of a breakfast porridge -- nice and creamy with some bite to the rice, a heavy dose of vanilla (flecks throughout), and a few toasted pecans to finish it off. Pane Bianco has expanded and improved at the same time. That's not easy to do, but man, they nailed it.

October 03, 2012

Zaidi's Grill

Beef Haleem Dominic Armato

UPDATE : Zaidi's Grill has closed

No matter how obsessed with food knowledge you may be, you can't know everything. Heck, if somebody like Jiro can spend an entire lifetime studying the tiniest little niche of one nation's cuisine and still feel like he hasn't learned it all, then what hope does anybody have of becoming even remotely well-informed? There are times when this drives me crazy -- when I look back over six and a half years of food blogging and feel like I still haven't learned a damn thing. And there are times when I remember that the ability to always experience foods for the first time is a gift.

Of course, Pakistani isn't even remotely obscure. And yet it's a cuisine with which I have precious little experience. So when I start hanging out with somebody who has an interest in food, a keen palate and some pretty deep knowledge about a cuisine that I lack, man, I just want to keep going to Pakistani restaurants, tasting as much as possible and absorbing whatever I can. So it was with my friend Omer and Zaidi's Grill, where I had the pleasure of chowing with him.

PakorasDominic Armato

Zaidi's Grill, in what is starting to seem like an odd trend, is another place run by an engineer -- biotech, in this case -- who changed careers five years ago for love of food. Since then, Syed Zaidi had been running a catering operation with his wife, Tabassum, until the right storefront became available, and they opened shop, a little spot in south Scottsdale with a handful of tables, a television playing Bollywood musical numbers, and a series of Puerto Rican landscapes, courtesy of the previous tenants. The food is inexpensive, it sometimes takes a little while to meander out of the kitchen, and it's so, so good. Pakoras, in my experience, are rarely so crisp, or so plentiful. They arrive, chaotic clumps of shredded vegetables the size of your fist, battered and fried to an almost shattering level of crispness, with a heady scent and heavily spiced flavor, turmeric and cumin and more. Fried vegetables that retain so little oil are hard to come by, and they remain tender and moist despite the fine texture. It's a little surprising, and then I remember they're made by an engineer, which seems appropriate somehow.

Afghani BotiDominic Armato

Grilled items, as the name suggests, make up a substantial chunk of the menu, and the ones I've tasted have ranged from solid to exceptional. Afghani Boti was a touch dry when I had it, and I wish the marinade had come through a bit more, but when this is the weak link you're in really good shape. Because then you have something like the Chicken Tikka, legs and thighs marinated in a deep, complex spice mix and grilled -- no, downright charred -- bringing this fabulous contrast between aggressive char and tender, juicy meat. This is why meat is put to fire. Another standout for me is the Beef Seekh Kabab, little more than seasoned ground meat seasoned and squished around long skewers for a turn on the grill, but sweet with onion and seasoned with with a beautifully balanced blend of spices that I find it far more compelling than what I'm accustomed to getting when ordering this dish.

Mixed GrillDominic Armato

Though the grilled items are delicious -- some of them extremely so -- I'm of the opinion that the curries are where Zaidi's really shines. It's only recently that I've been introduced to the joys of Haleem, "a big bowl of grain" as Omer put it. This is grain that's been pulverized and transmogrified and otherwise turned into a thick, heavily spiced sludge -- and, if possible, I use that word as a compliment -- that's intensely flavorful. Wheat, barley, lentils and some manner of meat are stewed for a very long time, such that they break down and turn into a thick, meaty porridge spiked with fresh chiles, ginger or cilantro to brighten it up. I've had Haleem that I've enjoyed more (I wish Z-Grill's were more consistent), but this was still mighty tasty even if isn't a strength.

Chicken QormaDominic Armato

I could save my favorite for last, but why be coy? The Chicken Qorma is a strength. Boy howdy, is it ever. My first inkling of what was in store came in the form of the scent, an intense, toasted fragrance laden with spices that hit like a shockwave while it was still four paces from the table. The second was the appearance, a thick, oily concoction that looked like a magical marriage of meat, spices, and lots and lots of time. The third was Omer's face, of Pakistani heritage, granite-jawed and usually stoic, suddenly twisted into a look that started as surprise and quickly melted into pleasure, as an experienced palate was taken aback by a Pakistani dish for the first time in a long time. Upon tasting, I've no doubt that I was at least as emotive as he was, because this stuff is completely mind-altering in its intensity. It's total spice overload, pushed right to the brink of being overpowering and left teetering on the edge, held back only by a kind of buttery richness that keeps it from being unbalanced. Strewn with whole spices and packed with tender meat, it's the kind of dish that makes me feel like I really need to be careful to save the word "explosive" for the dishes that most deserve it. A discussion of the dish with Syed revealed yet another indication that these folks have their hearts precisely in the right place. When Zaidi's first opened, the Chicken Qorma was made with bone-in pieces of chicken. After receiving some complaints, Syed switched to boneless chunks of meat. But not long thereafter, he switched back to bone-in. The reason? That's how it's meant to be. That's how it's best. That's how people need to experience it, even if they don't yet see the wisdom of that technique. I can only hope that their recent good press (thank you for that, New Times!) will make it easier for them to stand strong and continue to make these foods the way they know they're meant to be made.

Chicken KarahiDominic Armato

Though I hesitate to use the word "similar," the Chicken Karahi seems to come from the same place as the Qorma, but branches out in a different direction, replacing the Qorma's earthy, spicy intensity with a kind of easy, natural sweetness courtesy of tomatoes and some other vegetables. It's mellow only in comparison. This is still heady, complex stuff, but in a broader, less narrowly focused way. It's another fabulous dish. The Goat Paya, when I had it with a crowd of friends, was quickly dubbed "liquid goat," and that pretty much covers it right there. It's too bad I neglected to get a photo, because its appearance plays like a punchline, a small pile of almost naked bones sitting in a bowl, looking as though the meat had simply melted off of them and taken liquid form, ready to be spooned or sopped up by whatever method most convenient. When I'm in a debilitating accident and eating through a straw, this is what I'll be sending friends to retrieve for me.

Beef NihariDominic Armato

Beef Nihari is another dish that's relatively new to me, despite its iconic status within the pantheon of Pakistani cuisine, and it's one of those standards that makes me regret not discovering it sooner. Huge chunks of tender, stewed beef sit in what amounts to something of a beef gravy, though to use that word undersells it in all kinds of ways. What sets this apart from the other versions I've tried is the stunning, velvety texture of the sauce. I suggest this not to undersell its beautiful spicy, beefy flavor, but the feel of it is a silken richness that can only come from stewing bones and marrow for long periods of time. No thickening shortcuts here. For me, it's just the right amount of heat, possessing both an immediate sting and a lengthier, building burn without getting distracting. This is a seriously beautiful dish, a revelation to somebody who's relatively new to Pakistani, and one of the best treatments I've had of beef in a while.

KheerDominic Armato

And still there's more. I got but a fleeting taste of the Paneer Masala on one visit, too small to photograph or mentally dissect in detail, but enough to know that I wish I weren't sharing it. The naans are excellent, representing tender, crisp and charred all in one piece. And when it comes to sweets, though I'm highly inexperienced with Kheer -- this may have been my first -- I don't for a moment doubt those who have told me that sampling Zaidi's is starting at the top. It's a thick and creamy rice porridge, very sweet and scented with cinnamon and cloves, topped with toasted pistachios and shaved coconut. Between the almost custardy viscosity, playful aroma and textural impact of tender grains of rice and crunchy motes of toasted nut, it's yet another winner.

Zaidi's Grill is one of those places I just want to drag people to. Though the catering business is booming, it seems the restaurant is struggling a little to find its audience. Part of the issue might be a reportedly subpar lunchtime buffet (order off the menu), but more, I suspect, it's simply that being unwilling to compromise on the food can be risky. Scottsdale, much to its detriment, doesn't appear to be clamoring for liquid goat (yet). But that's all the more reason to make sure they succeed. These are great people, they're making fabulous food, and they're steadfastly making these dishes the best way they know how, without sacrificing quality for accessibility. I hope they're rewarded with the success they deserve, and based on what I've tried at Zaidi's, they deserve a lot of success.

Zaidi's Grill
www.zaidisgrill.com
1617 N. Granite Reef Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85257
480-947-4435
Tue - Sun11:30 AM - 9 PM

September 27, 2012

A Good Day

Okay, that's pretty sweet... Dominic Armato

I've always said that I write this blog for myself; that I was happy doing it before anybody read it, and I'd keep on doing it if everybody stopped. And that's all true. But over the nearly three years I've been in Phoenix, I've found myself thinking more and more about what I can do to contribute to Phoenix's food scene, and to find some small part that I can play in helping to make it better. It's the reason I launched PHXfoodnerds, and it's also why I find myself leaning more and more towards trying to find and write about lesser-known places that are awesome and deserving of more attention than they get.

Thing is, writing a blog isn't like posting on a community board that thrives on interaction. It sometimes feels like shouting into the void. Is anybody reading? Does anybody go to the places I write about? Do they like them? Who knows!? There are days when I think I'm spending hundreds of hours every year doing nothing but gazing at my navel, and if that's the case, no problem... as a journal, this blog means something to me and that's plenty. But there are days when I think that maybe I can do a little something to contribute to the greater community. And when the Phoenix New Times staff sees fit to name Skillet Doux the Best Food Blog of 2012, it's definitely one of the latter.

This post is already beyond maudlin, so let me just say two things.

First, let me say thanks... thanks to the folks at New Times for the honor, thanks to everybody for the congratulations and kind words, and thanks to those who've been so supportive to this extremely long-winded and annoying obsessed fellow who's trying to make Phoenix's food scene home (third person... that's for you, New Times :-). Today, especially, it feels like home.

Second, and waaaaaay more importantly, let me say get out there! That New Times Best Of Food & Drink list is packed with so many fabulous places! Cafe Ga Hyang, Crudo, Beaver Choice, Zaidi's Grill, Andreoli, Baratin, Chou's Kitchen, 'Pomo, just to name a few personal favorites. Go! Eat! Support these guys! Find more great places and support them too! (Do it especially during the long, bleak summers.) Learn about the fabulous foods they make. Come on over to PHXfoodnerds, tell us what you thought and discuss it with the crowd. Get the word out however you can, make them all big successes and show that we appreciate and will support folks who put an exceptional amount of love and care and skill into their restaurants, sticking to their guns even when they're producing the kind of food that sometimes has to fight for an audience. The more we do that, the better and better an already exciting and burgeoning food scene is going to be. Don't sit back and hope it happens. Help to MAKE it happen. Sometimes all it takes is writing a little something online.

The honor makes me want to work at this even harder. And that's a gift I really, really appreciate.

Thanks, everybody. Lots more, very soon.

September 07, 2012

Hinotez

Otaku Chic Dominic Armato

With one night remaining in San Diego and the rest of the crew crashed out in preparation for what would be a busy departure morning, I found myself without a good plan and trawling the 'net in search of some late night grub for a solo diner looking to get one more fix of some kind of Asian cuisine before heading home. Korean was mighty tempting, but seemed better suited to a larger group. Meanwhile, out in front of Yakitori Yakyudori, there had been a markerboard suggesting that if the wait was too onerous (it wasn't), we could try their sister restaurant, Hinotez, about a mile down the road. Well, okay then.

Hinotez is a bit of a seating hodgepodge, a mix of standard tables, counter seating, and formal-looking tatami rooms with sliding panels in the back. The place is strewn with pop culture paraphernalia, and the almost 'round-the-clcck hours pretty much peg it as a hipster hangout, if one that comes with a pedigree. Much of the small crowd that night was, indeed, conversing in Japanese, and like Yakyudori, Hinotez is part of a restaurant group that extends back to Nayoga. There's a lot of crossover with the Yakyudori menu, including a limited amount of yakitori, but a little heavier on the noodles, including more ramen options and some udon and soba as well. But I knew what I was coming for.

Tonkotsu RamenDominic Armato

I figured I could get in at least two bowls of ramen. Same as Yakyudori, Hinotez offers half bowls of ramen. I'm still trying to decide whether I think they're a good thing. They certainly aren't from a value proposition. A reduction of at least 50% in size knocks $1.50 off a bowl of ramen that ranges from $6.50 - $8.00. More importantly, I've had so many bowls of ramen that seemed okay at first, but whose charms truly emerged only once I was halfway through the bowl and deep into it, tongue now coated with the oil and fat. Sometimes, when it comes to a great bowl of ramen, I feel like the first half of the bowl is just the warmup. With this, there's no second half. For that reason, I doubt I'd make the half bowls a regular practice if I lived in San Diego. But having only one crack at a good-lookin' ramen menu before heading home, I was exceptionally grateful for the option.

Goma RamenDominic Armato

It's no small wonder why milky, rich tonkotsu broth now dominates the Tokyo ramen scene. Again, as with Yakyudori, I had an impossible standard still fresh in my mind. But I thought this was a really nice, smooth, rich bowl of tonkotsu, a little salty from the miso but not overly so. Good chashu, some scallion, nori and ginger, fairly firm noodles... the only outright complaint would be a cold egg. But it was a solid bowl, and I'd be flipping ecstatic to have this back home. The spicy sesame ramen was tasty, but I was a little disappointed with its construction. No fresh ground sesame, here. It was a viscous (and delicious) chicken-based broth that had been spiked with rayu (a chili-sesame oil), whether purchased or made in-house, I'm not sure. It had a really nice flavor, very subtle on the sesame and a nice, subtle burn. I was hoping for a little more sesame, but I suppose I can't fault it for what it is. And so, with two half bowls of ramen in my belly, I got to thinking... hey, it's vacation... I'm going home tomorrow... who knows when I'll have a shot at a good spot like this next? I could do one more small dish.

Tonkatsu CurryDominic Armato

Oops. The tonkatsu curry was not so much with the small. Not evident from the angle of the photo is that the plate must've been 16" long. But it was quite good. The tonkatsu was hot, crisp and well-seasoned. The curry seemed underpowered at first, but after a couple of bites the subtlety came out. It had a really nice flavor, an almost chunky texture and was strewn with ground meat. They offer curry at breakfast, and I wonder if the lighter approach is so that the same curry can do double duty? In any case, I'd have this again in a heartbeat. I did, in fact, since at least three-quarters of it went into a box to take home for breakfast the next morning. Speaking of which, one of the most interesting-looking offerings at Hinotez is the breakfast menu, where three bucks gets you a tray with rice, miso soup, cold tofu, pickles, nori and tea, and then for either $1 or $2 more you add your main dish which includes options like grated yam, a three minute egg, natto, grilled salmon, mini udon, gyoza, etc. It makes me wonder if I got to Hinotez about five hours too early.

Which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it. This was by no means top notch ramen by Japanese or even SoCal standards, but it's a cool little joint that's practically always open and serves some tasty grub. There's a big menu here, and I'd love to sample more of it. And while that'll have to wait, I suspect it won't be too long before we return to San Diego.

Hinotez
balboa.hinotez.com
7947 Balboa Avenue
San Diego, CA 92111
858-565-4244
Mon - Fri7 AM - 2:30 PM5:30 PM - 2 AM
Sat - Sun 5:30 PM - 2 AM

September 06, 2012

Kaito Sushi

Sunomono Dominic Armato

When it's date night -- and traveling with another couple and their kids affords such a rare opportunity -- one of the easiest meals to sell in our household is sushi. Particularly when on the West Coast. Particularly when there are places with the reputation of Kaito Sushi to choose from. So, from our perch on Mission Beach, we trucked up north to Encinitas to a place that bills itself as a purveyor of old-school Edomae sushi.

HotateDominic Armato

I knew Kaito was a small neighborhood joint, and it's certainly not a complaint, but I was surprised by just how spartan it is. Tucked into a strip mall, hidden behind a freestanding building, no overhead signage -- we passed it three times before I finally spied it. It's no sushi speakeasy. This isn't a trendy "come and find us" approach. Rather, one just gets the sense that big, bold declarations isn't their thing. The restaurant inside is very plain and highly functional, with no effort made to conceal a good deal of kitchen equipment on a long counter behind the bar. In short: perfect for scaring off those who aren't primarily concerned with the food. We'd made a reservation at the bar, and were seated in front of the elder itamae, whose name I didn't catch (Update: His name is Ryoichi, aka Joe... thanks, Yao!). Subsequent research seems to indicate that the other fellow, Morita-san, is the star of the show which -- if true -- makes the place all the more impressive. We told our itamae we'd like to do his omakase, set him free with no restrictions, ordered a few beers, and settled in for an exceptionally good meal.

ScallopDominic Armato

If I'd started counting when we sat down, I don't think I would have made it to ten when the sunomono hit the table, a carefully shaved tangle of vinegared onion and daikon flecked with pink threads of surimi. It was light and refreshing -- sunomono and July get along just fine -- and did a fine job of setting the stage. And then he went right for my soft spot. I adore raw scallop, and this was a fine specimen, fresh and sweet with firm texture and just a touch of funky character. But we weren't done with this fellow. His less universally beloved parts were chopped, cooked with snow peas in a light and sweet soy glaze, and served hot. I cry a little every time I see a scallop dish that serves only the muscle. Which is to say I cry a little almost every time I see a scallop dish. I wish getting the coral and the other bits weren't such a rare treat.

Hamachi, Toro, BakagaiDominic Armato

What followed was an abundant but focused assortment of sashimi. Starting on the left, the hamachi was from Japan, and I didn't catch the precise subset thereof but it was a beautiful piece of fish. In the middle was something that I'm increasingly regarding as a very, very rare treat. Bluefin is something I've decided not to eliminate from my diet completely, but rather save for a special treat once or twice a year. I'd really like for these fellows to still be around a decade from now (and far beyond). In any case, this specimen came from the waters off Spain, and though it wasn't one of those impossibly creamy cuts of toro that's oozing fat all over the place, it certainly couldn't be described as lean and it had great texture and flavor. On the far right, the orange clam -- bakagai, I believe -- was from the East Coast (New York, probably), briny and umami-laden with just enough resistance to make chewing a pleasure.

NigiriDominic Armato

Then came the nigiri! Starting on the top left and working clockwise, we were first served hirame (halibut), clean and elegant with just a touch of fiery, citrusy yuzu kosho. Beyond fish selection, these guys are on the ball. It's a tender rice, just barely warm and packed just enough to hold together, laid back in character and complementary to the fish, even though they use red rice vinegar which is a little more assertive in terms of flavor. The hirame was followed by a slice of aji (Spanish mackerel), and I'm always impressed when I get a good piece of this in the States. If it isn't handled well, it goes very off very quickly. But this was excellent, with a little bit of scallion and grated ginger to play off the subtle, natural funk. I don't think the maguro (tuna) was marinated. If it was, it was very lightly so. But maguro is the boneless, skinless chicken breast of the sushi counter, and it's so nice to encounter some that's actually compelling, like this. He followed this with more tuna -- chutoro from the same fish, I believe -- medium fatty and downright succulent. Incidentally, it was around this time that the small group sitting at the bar to our left started chatting about the healing powers of various crystals -- you know, just in case we'd forgotten that we were in SoCal. Next up was the only locally sourced seafood of the night (meaning everything else was flown in, Phoenix), uni plucked from the Southern California coast. This, along with scallop, is probably the sushi standard I look forward to the most, and I don't think I've ever had San Diego uni before. These fellows, at least, didn't have the same natural sweetness that I associate with the widely-beloved Santa Barbara uni, but they were impossibly fresh and they had a soft texture and a lovely, almost mineral-tasting complexity that made them no less, in my eyes -- just different. There's Exhibit A for the joys of eating locally. We rounded out the nigiri with my ladylove's request, some sweet and silky-textured Scottish salmon. I get the impression that it isn't a cut with much cache back in Japan, and I wonder why that is. I'm always more than happy to piggyback on her order, particularly when it's this good.

Negitoro Hand RollDominic Armato

The official end of the meal was a narrow, almost cylindrical negitoro hand roll, fatty tuna minced with scallion, nestled in with a handful of the fabulous rice and wrapped in crisp nori. I find myself loving hand rolls more and more these days, and that crisp nori is so key, which they nailed. At this point I wasn't quite ready to throw in the towel, so I requested one more item -- his choice -- and was rewarded with a special hand roll, the complete contents of which still remain a mystery. The uni and ikura made themselves perfectly evident, but I think there were two, maybe even three more items lurking below. This was pushing my tolerance for sushi complexity. You pass the two ingredient mark when it comes to roll fillings and I start getting suspicious, but these items were carefully chosen and well-balanced. It was smartly done, and mighty tasty.

Special Hand RollDominic Armato

The problem, when going for sushi, is that I get to this point and realize that I could keep doing this all night, but we decided to leave well enough alone and tap out. This is a really, really good sushi bar. And that I enjoyed it when I still have Tsukiji fresh in my head from January probably says something. One thing that surprised me was that what we received actually wasn't entirely representative of their repertoire. The menu isn't short on bastardized maki (it hurts me to see cream cheese on the menu in a place like this), and a couple of folks around us were partaking, but whether by means of years of experience or Betazoid lineage our itamae nailed us... keep it simple, do it well. His omakase was very straightforward, very traditional, very minimal, and I loved that. Kaito isn't cheap. The total tab for the two of us plus beer (x2 of what's pictured for all of the nigiri and hand rolls) came out to about $200. But man, if it's a question of where to put your dining dollars, one omakase here over two (or three, or four) mediocre meals elsewhere is a total no-brainer. Although looking at the menu, if you were a little more selective and careful about ordering items individually, I've no doubt you could have a killer meal here for $50. This is a great place run by folks who know what they're doing. It isn't just slapping fresh fish on rice. It's artistry. It's in all of those little details -- this place feels Japanese. And it has the benefit of being significantly closer.

Kaito Sushi
www.sushikaito.com
130-A N. El Camino Real
Encinitas, CA 92024
760-634-2746
Mon - Sat5 PM - ???

September 05, 2012

Yakitori Yakyudori

Tsukune Dominic Armato

It wasn't my intention to turn a trip to San Diego into a tour of Japanese joints, but somehow it worked out that way. I dunno... when it's late and I'm sneaking out once the kids have crashed, for some reason there's usually little that sounds better to me than some raw fish. Or a bowl of noodles. Or tasty little chunks of grilled meat.

Yakitori Yakyudori came highly recommended by a trusted friend, and it was immediately evident that he's not alone in his assessment. While word was mixed on the ramen, the namesake yakitori seemed to be almost universally appreciated. Combine that with late hours, and it was a total shoo-in for the schedule.

The Robata GrillDominic Armato

I loved it the moment we walked in. I'd just visited Japan for the first time in years this past January, and it was so refreshing to walk into a Japanese restaurant in the States that felt like it could have been plucked from Tokyo. Well... if they packed it into half the space, anyway. No over-the-top faux decorations, no lame mysteries of the Orient vibe... just a stripped down, casual joint for people to hang out, have a beer and get some good food. One place where it differs is in the size of the menu. There's a lot on there, including all kinds of little bites, bowls of ramen, an entire section devoted to fried items and more. It makes me a little sad that a place that does it this well still feels the need to do everything. But the yakitori is clearly the focus, and that's where we expended most of our energy. They're not taking the crazy artful sand pit route, but they do it right here, grilling skewers over imported binchotan, the almost smokeless, clean burning high carbon charcoal that's the stuff of choice for those who are serious about the stuff. It ensures that the smoke you taste is generated by the drippings, and makes for a very clean grill flavor that doesn't overpower the food.

TakoyakiDominic Armato

But before getting to the main event, we decided to take a token crack at the rest of the menu. I love takoyaki. It's snacky booze food all over. When it's good, the batter gets a nice crisp exterior, it stays soft and volcanic within, it's slathered in sweet and salty takoyaki sauce and sticky mayonnaise -- the scent of the bonito, a chunk of octopus in the middle to gently chew on... this stuff makes me happy. What threw me what that it was on the fried section of the menu. They're usually made on a griddle with semi-spherical pits the size of golf balls. But these were, indeed, deep fried, almost resembling hush puppies in appearance. The result was an unusually extreme textural contrast between the shell and the interior -- crisp bordering on cruncy for the former and just barely set for the latter. And while I can't say they'll be supplanting the griddled version in my heart, there was something to be said for the variant and they were very well-executed.

YakitoriDominic Armato

And then the yakitori started to roll. And while it wasn't flawless, for the most part, man, it was good. The tsukune, pictured at the top, was exceptionally light. In truth, I'm unsure whether I consider that a good or a bad thing. There was clearly a fair amount of filler in addition to the ground chicken, but I like to think that isn't necessarily a bad thing, and the flavor certainly wasn't lacking. As with most of the skewered items we tried, the small plate was almost a tease. Working clockwise from the top left, next up was the negima, tender and juicy chicken thigh skewered with green onion, bearing just a touch of char and smoke, killer flavor, prepared by a cook who's unafraid to use salt as an actual flavor rather than simply as a neutral seasoning. This is a good thing. The Buta Shiso Maki, pork rolled with peppery shiso leaves, wasn't one of the stronger offerings. Though tasty, it came out a little dry and I wasn't getting as much out of the shiso as I would have liked. But the ume puree was an awesome salty, tart foil for fatty pork, and on that basis I still dug it. The Gyu Oroshi Ponzu is so easy to like. It's great beef, a chewy and flavorful cut, topped with tons of grated radish, ponzu and shredded scallion. It's a crowd pleaser. Perhaps a little less universally appealing but dearer to my heart was the beef tongue... juicy, salty and intensely flavored with a satisfying chew. It would be, I think, a great intro to the cut for the tongue curious, unashamed about its true nature but made in a very approachable manner. The chicken liver was dynamite, a touch of char on the edges but mostly cooked so that it was just barely set, and still jiggling in the middle. I realize that for a lot of people I'm not making the sale here, but for me this is heaven. And we rounded out the evening's yakitori offerings with some simple, fresh shishito peppers, topped with shaved bonito flapping in the breeze.

Spicy Miso RamenDominic Armato

Though Yakudori is clearly about the yakitori, the paucity of good ramen back home led us to take a little detour into that portion of the menu. Though the scant $1.50 discount means they aren't exactly cost effective, I loved that half bowls were on offer for those who didn't want to make a complete meal out of it. I went spicy miso ramen, and though I'd recently gorged on some impossible standards, this wasn't a bad bowl of ramen. It wasn't operating at the level of a place like Santouka or, from what I'm told, the products of the recent Los Angeles ramen boom, but it had some nice flavor, solid noodles, and was clearly made with some care. If I could get a bowl of ramen late at night like this on a regular basis, it could be a problem. I also snagged a taste of my friend's shio ramen, which was deliciously clean and salty (shocker), and had a lovely piece of pork.

Shio RamenDominic Armato

I can't figure why yakitori hasn't caught on widely outside of the West Coast and a few major cities to the right. Who the heck doesn't like sweet and salty pieces of skewered, grilled meat? Yakitori is one of those international food subsets that can stay completely true to itself and still maintain near-universal appeal. I mean, we can get the American mainstream to adopt raw fish, but grilled chicken is a bridge too far? Is it the livers and hearts and gizzards? Stick to the chicken thigh and chunks of beef, then. We'll call it gateway yakitori. This is all my way of saying that I really enjoyed Yakitori Yakyudori, and I wish places like it were more common. It's such an enjoyable, satisfying place to get some great food and spend a little time, and when you get a feast like this plus a few beers for $60, it's a smoking deal, too. No pun intended. I anxiously await the day when places like Yakyudori are everywhere, fighting for dominance and forcing each other to get better and better. But in the meantime, I'll gladly take it as a great stop when visiting San Diego.

Yakitori Yakyudori
yakyudori.hinotez.com
4898 Convoy St.
San Diego, CA 92111
858-268-2888
Mon - Sun11:30 AM - Midnight

September 04, 2012

Hodad's

Hodad's Dominic Armato

It is an observable phenomenon that during the summertime, Phoenix restaurants get quiet. Conventional wisdom is that we don't like to eat out during the summer months, but I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. We like to eat out. We just like to do it in other cities.

Social media during a Phoenix summer is a litany of photos of cooler locales, and having escaped to San Diego for Fourth of July week this year, I can now say that I fully endorse the practice (even if I'd urge folks to make a point of eating out while at home -- your local restaurants need you!). The heat has a way of slowly roasting you, and I'd prefer my sesos in a tortilla rather than in my skull, thank you very much. San Diego seems, to a visitor at least, like a laid-back beach kind of town, and in an effort to have a laid-back beach kind of vacation, one of the stops on our agenda was one of SoCal's burger temples, Hodad's.

Chocolate MilkshakeDominic Armato

Once you've heard about a place for the 173rd time, you start to wonder if there's really something to the reputation or if everybody goes there because that's where everybody goes. Whatever the reason, it's abundandly clear that everybody goes to Hodad's. Despite a gargantuan marquee, its most prominent exterior feature is arguably the line, at the head of which is a sign suggesting that you visit one of their other locations if it's too long. Few places can make that suggestion with any reasonable chance that it'll be heeded. But of course, it's vacation, so we were in for the experience as much as the food, and ditching the original seemed wrong somehow. Half an hour later, we were introduced to Hodad's most prominent interior feature... it's loud. Very, very loud. Which is not a value judgement so much as a statement of fact. It's also busy and kitschy and irreverent and all kinds of pseudo-rad, with servers who are just genuine enough to keep it from feeling like the heavy metal version of Ed Debevic's. Their flair may be lewd, but it's still flair. And who cares? It's loud and fun and at one point in time probably wasn't a caricature of itself. And the food's pretty good.

FringsDominic Armato

The chocolate shake is really good, though it barely qualifies as a shake. It's been thinned out juuuuuuust enough to meet the suckability requirement, and it's topped off with about half a pint of chocolate ice cream (no exaggeration) for good measure. It is intense and massive and, dare I say, extreme. If the name "frings" conjures up images of some kind of creative stoner fried food mashup, the reality is a letdown. It's a pile of onion rings on top of a pile of fries. And the fries are weak, cut into thick wedges and dredged with that ubiquitous odd textured coating that may be a good fried potato's worst enemy. Really, guys, it's way past time to kill that stuff dead. But the onion rings aren't bad, cut into massive wedges and done with a coarse breaded coating that's fried to a deep golden brown. Though they're unexceptional, you could certainly do a lot worse.

Double Bacon CheeseburgerDominic Armato

The cheeseburger, however, is... well... wow. And I don't necessarily mean that from a taste standpoint, though it's a tasty burger. I mean, look at that thing. I'd skipped lunch that day and ordering the bacon double STILL turned out to be a tactical error. If you can squish it down enough to get your mouth around it -- a hydraulic press might help -- it's a pretty damn tasty burger. It's big and greasy and dripping with all kinds of goo, and the vegetables are roughly hewn rather than carefully sliced, which only adds to the caveman quotient. If anybody ever decides it's time to rid the world of Guy Fieri (dare to dream) and is in need of bait, a trail of these on the sidewalk should do the trick nicely, I think. (His Dudeness, in point of fact, has already secured immortality on the Hodad's menu as the inspiration for a cameo burger, natch.) But while I'm skeptical/frustrated/annoyed by huge for huge's sake, this thing isn't without its touches of genius, and the bacon is chief among them. The flavor's unremarkable as bacon goes, but what's incredible is the texture. It's insanely crunchy and present in every bite. Apparently they roughly chop the bacon, form it into a patty, and then fry that. So to be clear, we're not talking about a couple of slices. It's effectively an entire bacon patty in addition to the two beef patties. And while I want to groan and roll my eyes at this kind of explicit junk food hedonism, I have to give credit where credit is due. This is a true quantum leap in bacon burger technology. Well done, Hodad's.

And yet, here's the thing. Take away the music, take away the obscene license plates, shrink everything down to a normal size and what you're left with is a good burger joint. Better than most, to be sure, but the fame is as much a function of the scene as it is the cuisine. Which isn't to take a shot at the cuisine. If that burger were in a quiet unassuming storefront, I'd go back with three friends and share one in a heartbeat, then start hollering about how you've got to try this place. But as is often the case, though grounded in substance, sometimes the rep eclipses the reality. And I think that if Hodad's can be approached in that context, and the legend set aside, what you've got is some good food bathed in a lot of character. Perfect for vacation, right?

Hodad's
www.hodadies.com
5010 Newport Avenue
Ocean Beach, CA 92107
619-224-4623
Mon - Sun11 AM - 10 PM

August 31, 2012

The Quarterly Report - Q2 2012

Seafood Chowder @ The Maine Lobster Lady Dominic Armato

It's the Quarterly Report, almost a quarter late edition! I happened to drop into my PHXfoodnerds.com hiatus right at the start of the summer and... well... enough explanation. On with some second quarter eats, in order determined by random.org as always:

Lobster Roll, Traditional StyleDominic Armato

The Maine Lobster Lady
www.mainelobsterlady.com

At first, I thought it might be awkward that the delay in writing about The Maine Lobster Lady meant that she'd have gone home to Maine for the summer by the time I posted this. But hey, good news! It took me SO long to get this up that she'll be back in just a couple of months! The Maine Lobster Lady drives her food truck back and forth between the Southwest and Maine, where her husband is a bona fide lobsterman, and while she's in town, she slings a mighty fine, if small, lobster roll. I went on a lobster roll binge shortly before we left Boston a few years back, and it resulted in a great respect for the minimal school of lobster roll preparation (not to mention an awkward conversation with my doctor when I consumed more than a dozen of them in the two weeks leading up to my physical). Though she bills her cold mayo and hot butter version as "Maine Lobster Roll, Traditional Style" and "Maine Lobster Roll, Hot Butter," they're what everybody I know would refer to as Maine Style and Connecticut Style, respectively. And both are mighty tasty, with fresh claw and knuckle meat, dressed with a touch of lemon mayonnaise or garlicky hot butter, on a crisply toasted split roll. As a matter of personal preference, I actually like a little bit of tougher tail meat mixed in, but I suspect the majority opinion that claw and knuckle only is a feature, not a bug. The one thing that's a little tough to swallow is that these lobster rolls are awfully scrawny by East Coast standards, and not exactly budget priced at $17. But as I've said before, you can get great seafood in the desert, you just have to pay for it. I also nabbed the seafood chowder, a true East Coast style, thin and light, not overly rich or goopy, but flavor-packed with lobster, shrimp and fish, plus tender potatoes and fresh corn kernels with great pop. I'll be seeking both when she returns to town.

Bún Thịt Nướng Tàu Hũ Ky Chả GiòDominic Armato

Com Tam Thuan Kieu
comtamthuankieu.menutoeat.com

The problem with getting way too into a place like Hue Gourmet is that I've been to Mekong Plaza dozens of times, but have only eaten at perhaps half of the restaurants therein. One I only just managed to get to was Com Tam Thuan Kieu, but I think I can now scratch it off the list. Com Tam Thuan Kieu specializes, as its name would suggest, in broken rice dishes, but it also serves bun (rice noodles) and banh hoi (sheets of woven rice noodles), which means that it's one of those massive hund, red item menus that's mostly composed of every combination and permutation of topping that can do on three basic dishes. I went with a friend and introduced him to banh beo, the round, steamed rice cakes topped with dried shrimp, peanuts and fried shallots, and immediately had to assure him that they get a whole lot better. CTTK's were prefab and pasty with a kind of chalky aftertaste, and were even more disappointing in comparison to Hue Gourmet's, just 50 paces away. The com tam was okay if a little lackluster, and my bun came up short -- dry noodles, tough spring roll, leathery pork and nuoc cham so watered down it barely imparted any flavor. It was cheap, but the appeal pretty much ended there.

ReubenDominic Armato

Miracle Mile Deli
www.miraclemiledeli.com

I'm frustrated that I like Miracle Mile Deli, not because I think I shouldn't -- they make some good sandwiches -- but because pegging this as the best place in town for corned beef and pastrami feels like surrender. It's a cafeteria-style deli with two locations, and most of the menu is completely forgettable. I've tried underseasoned soups, potato pancakes that were greasy, tough and pasty, and burgers that underachieved. But what's solid are the corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, moist and reasonably flavorful meat sliced and kept warm in a steam table, then worked into any number of sandwiches adjusted to order with sauerkraut, cheese, cole slaw, etc. It's not bad. I'm not sure why a steam box filled with whole briskets sliced to order is a practice foreign to the valley -- Miracle Mile Deli certainly has the traffic necessary to make it worthwhile -- but these sandwiches satisfy, even if I greatly look forward to a time when somebody decides to raise the bar.

Sai Krok IsaanDominic Armato

Pete's Thai Cuisine
www.petesthaicuisine.com

This one is endlessly puzzling to me. Thai, despite its ubiquity, is not one of Phoenix's strengths. But the gulf between Pete's reputation, even in comparison to its local peers, and my experience with the place is massive. Satay skewers bear what must be half a pound of chicken breast EACH in one massive hunk, such that 90% of it is plain, unseasoned meat. Papaya salad brings fiery heat but little else in terms of balance. Green curry is a salty mess and all of the herbs therein taste brown and muddled. Isaan sausage appears deep-fried, almost as tough as beef jerky, and tastes more of salt than the gentle, fermented sweetness it should. I've been twice, tried quite a few dishes, and have yet to taste anything redeemable. And the fact that Pete's offers some Northern Thai specialties that you don't see elsewhere in the valley makes it a painful tease. But even if taken simply as a casual stop for lunchtime Americanized Thai, it's just not good. The search continues.

The WestsideDominic Armato

Phoenix Cheesesteak Co.
www.phoenixcheesesteaks.com

While I sampled a few cheesesteaks in their native home while living on the East Coast, I'm by no means a cheesesteak authority. This, for better or worse, means I'm unlikely to accuse someplace of blasphemy if they take some minor liberties with tradition so long as it results in a good sandwich. And that's the case with Phoenix Cheesesteak Co. Though they offer a few unusual variations, I made a beeline for The Westside, and though it's the closest they make to the genuine article, they're careful to identify it as "not from Philly," instead calling it a "reinvention." And this is probably a good call, heading off pedantic criticisms at the pass. Thing is, it's a great sandwich. They're not slinging junk, here. Tasty choice ribeye is cut into small chunks rather than sliced, the onions are nicely seasoned and cut large enough to have some body, and while the cheese isn't whiz, it's some other kind of processed spread that maintains that goopy, junk food feel but, frankly, has better flavor. They're cooked together with care to merge the flavors and create a kind of beefy, cheesy sauce, then added to a lightly griddled roll and sent out with serviceable fries. The result is a sandwich that, while non-canonical, has a Philly cheesesteak's soul. Aside from the fact that a request for hots netted me raw sliced jalapenos rather than pickled cherry peppers, I couldn't have been much happer with these guys. They turn out a great sandwich.

Chicken Fried SteakDominic Armato

Ranch House Grille
www.ranchhousegrille.com

Upon landing in Arcadia two and a half years ago, I'd intended to get to Ranch House Grille for a chicken fried steak. But it burned before I got a chance, it was only just recently that I was finally able to visit this reopened local landmark to satisfy that craving. Ranch House Grill is just a humble little corner breakfast and sandwich joint, slinging eggs and pancakes for breakfast, and burgers, sandwiches and other homey, comforting plates in the afternoon (though both breakfast and lunch, I believe, are available at all hours). Breakfast standards are simple, tasty and deftly prepared. When it comes to lunch, I had a pretty mean patty melt, though the Green Pork Chili Verde for which they're famed was, to my taste, a little on the thin and underdeveloped side. But there's no knocking their famous chicken fried steak, hot and juicy with a crisp, salty crust and slathered with thick, peppery country gravy. Though the "side" of chicken fried steak is pictured, I've since concluded that it just isn't at its peak if it isn't the full plate, served alongside some hash browns and a couple of eggs. (Over easy -- runny yolk and country gravy? Yes.) And for those who are watching their diet, fear not! The chicken fried steak also comes in a "light" version... served with one egg instead of two.

August 29, 2012

Lon's at the Hermosa

Prosciutto e Melone Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: I drafted this post back in early June, and though I didn't know him then, I've since spent some time hanging out with Mr. Travis Nass, mentioned therein.  

Date night! Something classy. Something relaxing. Something refined. Well, heck, Lon's has been languishing on the to-do list for the better part of two and a half years. Perhaps it's time to see what Mr. Megargee's old ranch has to offer.

The Hermosa is a charming little place, to be sure. Though I doubt much of the current structure predates the renovation, it's nice to be somewhere that feels old, and when approaching the host stand means making your way through a tree-strewn courtyard complete with fountain and lanterns on a warm-but-not-too-warm evening, it's hard to conclude that sitting inside makes any damn sense.

Duck Confit CrepeDominic Armato

The patio is one of those locations that makes you briefly feel as though you're on vacation when you're not, where I expect even the chronically uptight would be quickly pacified by a cocktail from The Last Drop. Presiding over the bar at The Hermosa is Mr. Travis Nass, liquor legend and self-proclaimed "spirit guide" who takes a decidedly culinary approach to mixed drinks, creating complex and shockingly distinctive cocktails by casting a wide net in search of unconventional juices, atypical aromatics and obscure spirits, to which he applies the instincts of a liquor savant, a boozy Rain Man in waistcoat and handlebar mustache. The day's punch, cognac and pineapple made smooth and aromatic with earl grey tea and freshly grated nutmeg, was good enough to drink all night. And one of his many respectfully reprised classics, the Mesquite Sour, tamed smoky whiskey with mesquite syrup, lemon, egg whites and an intoxicating touch of AZ Bitters Lab's mas mole bitters. I'm always astounded by the alchemy at work in a perfect cocktail, where all elements are present and spoken for, but it's hard to tell where one ends and the next begins. I'll be returning to The Last Drop, and soon. (Note: Since drafting this nearly three months ago, I've had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Travis and his concoctions, and my estimation of his talents has only grown.)

Foie GrasDominic Armato

Thus properly loosened, we turned our attention to the menu, where surrendering myself to Jeremy Pacheco's kitchen seemed the best course of action. Notably, I wasn't asked at what temperature I'd prefer my lamb. This would later prove to be the best thing that didn't happen all evening. Our server's revelation that Lon's prosciutto is cured in-house inspired both intrigue and suspicion. Bacon, soppressata, mortadella, okay... but prosciutto? With such a delicate product, any mistakes will be right out in the open. But the tasting menu started with the prosciutto e melone, I opted to trust in the chef, and my trust was well-rewarded. Fresh honeydew and cantaloupe bracketed a beautiful tangle of prosciutto, sliced to an unusual thickness that, again, inspired doubt but was shockingly appropriate. It was clean and sweet, possessing a fantastic texture with just enough give so that the thickness provided a delightful chew and forced you to linger even longer on the cured fat. This was some really, really good prosciutto. So much so, in fact, that I wish they'd just ditched the balsamic. It was completely unnecessary and, thankfully, easy to work around.

Corn and Shrimp RisottoDominic Armato

For me, this was followed by a griddled crepe with a sweet and tender duck confit filling. A little bit of brightness from fresh citrus and a small puddle of complex, smoky mole livened it right up, and the almost crisp texture on the crepe gave the dish some body and kept it from devolving into what would have been admittedly tasty mush. Nice balance, well-executed, a great start. My ladylove, who passed on the chef's tasting menu and opted instead to design her own, selected a winner in the foie, a rather generous slab beautifully browned with apricot jam, pistachio butter and some manner of gastrique for acidic punch. Fruit, acid, a nutty counterpoint... the structure of the dish is on the first page of the foie gras playbook, but prepared here with a compelling selection of ingredients and tack-sharp execution, it stood out as an unusually good foie/fruit/acid preparation.

Hermosa Arizona GreensDominic Armato

My third course was the swing and a miss of the evening, a corn and shrimp risotto that came close but didn't quite sit right with me. To say that opinions vary on proper risotto texture would be a putting it diplomatically. But these grains felt a touch underdone as opposed to al dente, with an odd texture reminiscent of Vietnamese broken rice, and a shortage of the natural creaminess that I associate with good risotto. But the flavor was excellent, a burst of fresh corn with sweet, delicate rock shrimp and crab, and I enjoyed that much despite my textural misgivings. My ladylove hsa a hard time resisting a good salad, and if they were all this well done, I'd have a harder time. I believe it involved apple, pecans and a very mild, creamy goat cheese, but beyond that all I recall is that the bite I swiped was mighty tasty.

Pan Seared HalibutPecan-Roasted LambDominic Armato

I snagged just a fleeting taste of her halibut as well, just enough to determine that it was a beautifully cooked piece of fish, tender and moist with a crisp crust, with a light, desperately trying to hold onto spring mix of pea puree, mushrooms and ramp fumet. My lamb, however, was absolutely fabulous. A pair of chops arrived, carved from a full rack and set atop salty tepary beans and a touch of cured pork. What struck me most, however, was that deep, deep red color. They'd served it to me in a state of rareness that defied any wiggle room when it came to classification. It was rare. Which, though I'll generally target the medium side of medium rare when it comes to lamb, suited me just fine. I dig rare lamb too, but I was surprised to see it come out as such, since I suspect most folks wouldn't be quite so open. I asked our server if this was how it was typically served, and she explained that they solicit a temperature request when it's ordered a la carte, but for the chef's menu, it's served quite rare. When she then hastily offered to take it back and bring one that had spent more time on the grill, I said, "Don't you dare," explaining that I was perfectly happy with it exactly as-is, just impressed that the kitchen had the courage to send it out like that. And it was dynamite. Grilled over pecan wood, it had a wonderfully smoky character balanced by earthy, salty beans, and its almost natural state tripped every lusty, carnivorous receptor I have in my head. Beautifully done.

Goat CheesecakeDominic Armato

Desserts did the job. I got a little taste of the "Candy Bar," salted caramel coated with chocolate and spiced up with some ancho and cayenne, the former of which added a touch of warm fruitiness and the latter of which added a little tickle to the back of the throat. My cheesecake -- made with goat cheese -- was smooth and creamy and accompanied by Grand Marnier macerated berries. Neither were anything I'll remember for long, but both were delicious finishes to the evening. Though certainly not flawless, my first experience with Lon's was an excellent one, providing a couple of dishes that will stick with me for some time, and a brief respite in calming surroundings. What's more, I have a great deal of respect for some of the choices made by the kitchen, and the cocktails are not merely a bonus but an attraction all their own. Not only wouldn't I hesitate to return, but I intend to make a point of it.

Lon's at the Hermosa
www.hermosainn.com/lons/
5532 N. Palo Cristi Road
Paradise Valley, AZ 85253
602 955-8614

August 27, 2012

War of the Rosés

The Field Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: While my love for their restaurant predates our friendship, I'm lucky to have spent a good amount of time hanging out and chowing with Pavle, Charleen and much of the FnB crew.  

This past Friday night, I drank a lot of wine. This is notable for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I don't typically drink a lot of wine. It's also notable because for the fellows seated on either side of me, tasting wines numbering into triple digits in the span of just a few hours is another day at the office. But mostly it's because I was the only food nerd on a panel of wine professionals at a highly publicized tasting intended to defend the honor of Arizona's wine scene.

Pavle Milic, you see, is one of Arizona wine's most enthusiastic and visible advocates. So the fact that Wine Spectator's ranking of rosés has netted Arizona's producers nothing higher than an 84 is something he takes a little personally. Here's where I need to insert myself: not to imply that he feels differently, but scores and stars are stupid. I hate that we feel the need to take the totality of wine or of food and cram it all into a continuum so that we can declare a winner. I like to think that every bottle, every place has its charms. And while that certainly doesn't mean I embrace some kind of "everything is equally good" philosophy, it does mean that I'm a whole lot more interested in qualitative than quantitative. Still, it's galling when the numbers say that something you love isn't getting a fair shake. And while Wine Spectator's tasters don't know which specific wine they're tasting, they do know its provenance. So Pavle set out to prove that their prejudices about Arizona as a wine producing region have influenced their impressions of the product. And he needed help to do that.

"Pavle... you know I'm not a wine geek, right?"

It didn't matter, he assured me. Aroma is aroma. Flavor is flavor. Balance is balance. I write about this stuff all the time (um... guilty). He put on the sell. And I was flattered, and terrified, and excited by the prospect, in ascending order of intensity. So I signed on, and next thing I knew I was an official judge, sitting on a six-person panel populated by wine sommeliers, buyers and distributors, surrounded by a cadre of food and wine enthusiasts, gathered at the "little gin joint in the desert" that is FnB, along with more stemware than I think I've ever seen crammed into a location so small. If I was nervous before, the introductions threatened to put me over the edge.

RosyDominic Armato

"Good to meet you! I'm Dominic."
"Who are you with, Dominic?"
"Oh, I'm not in the industry. I'm an enthusiastic hanger-on. I write a food blog called Skillet Doux."
"Well, you're judging, so you must have some knowledge, right?"
"Aaaaaaaaaaahahaha..."

Self-deprecation and embracing my role as the wildcard would become my strategy for the evening. And as the panel got to talking shop, the only thing I could think was that this is what every poor soul who has gone out to eat with me and the food nerds has felt like. It's extreme geekery expressed in word -- I know this genre of music! -- but the song was completely unfamiliar to me. Still, incredibly friendly folks all, they tried to put me at ease. When it came time to judge, I was ready.

Eight rosés... four from Arizona, four benchmark wines from regions around the world... and a byzantine scorecard that I would've loved to ditch in favor of simply ranking them. But it was game time, I would perform the duties of my office to the best of my abilities, and diving in I was relieved to discover that it felt like second nature. It's true. Aroma is aroma. Flavor is flavor. Balance is balance. The hardest thing to overcome was figuring out how to position the scoring. Without a broad base of rosé experience, I had little frame of reference other than that which was right in front of me. And since half of the field was ostensibly some of the world's best rosés, it was even harder to find daylight between them. But as I swirled and sniffed and sipped, the unique beauty of the wines started to emerge... a nice, crisp balance of fruit and acidity on number six... a really complex depth on number eight... a lovely, smooth fruitiness from number two... wow, the intoxicating aroma on number five... I scored every aspect, I totaled my results, I went back to taste everything again, ensuring that my composite scores accurately represented my general impressions (they did), and I signed off on the final tally, took a deep breath, and turned them in.

The results? My favorite by the slimmest of margins -- of my two tied top scores, the one to which I'd give the nod if forced to choose -- number five, Arizona's Caduceus Lei Li Rosé, was the winner. Second place? The other one I'd given the same score... number eight, the famed Domaine Tempier, Bandol from France. When it came to sussing out quality wines, I was relieved to have managed to hang with the big boys. And far more importantly, the Arizona wines had managed to do the same. And if the panel's 1-2 and my 1-2 matching up hadn't gone far enough towards ensuring my relief, hearing the other panelists discuss their surprises in the aftermath -- the ones they loved that caught them off-guard, the ones they would have previously called favorites that brought up the rear in their rankings -- and talking about how blind tastings are a humbling experience no matter how much you know about wine... well, it was educational to say the least.

And then Charleen cooked us dinner.

Fried Green Tomatoes, Goddess, FetaDominic Armato

Now we're on MY turf, wine geeks. Could there be a more perfect foil, a better philosophical contrast to the mathematical precision and fussy tasting notes of the wine scoring world than the honest, soulful cuisine of Charleen Badman? If blindly tasting and carefully scoring these fabulous wines was a fascinating intellectual exercise, joyfully swigging them while devouring food like this was the emotional counterpoint. I love tasting a good wine. I love tasting it more when it's alongside a piping hot, crisply fried green tomato crusted with cornmeal and bathed in a vibrant, herbal goddess dressing with an abundance of tart feta to finish. The crisp, cool rosés needed something to cut, and Charleen provided them just the rich, lusty menu they needed. In wine terms, Charleen's food isn't for sipping, it's for swigging.

Roasted Squash SaladDominic Armato

Case in point, a salad so anti-fussy in flavor and composition that it's almost comical. As I said to one of the fellows next to me, "You know, sometimes Charleen's food is done with a sneaky amount of precision, looking a little chaotic but actually very, very carefully crafted. And then other times, she just throws big chunks of fabulously delicious things at you." I mean, what qualifies this as a salad, precisely? The arugula? There were huge chunks of roasted squash, cut into all manner of shapes. There were massive wedges of crisp, sweet Asian pear. Full slices of crisp, salty bacon gave the dish some serious gravity, and those intoxicating, sensual fresh figs lurked beneath, sneaking in their complex, almost earthy sweetness from time to time. And the lynchpin? A coy dressing just assertive enough to pull everything together without actually setting foot on the stage.

Spider PigDominic Armato

The evening's official title was "The War of the Rosés and a Hog," in reference to Spider Pig, who was raised and named by Parker Bostock, the son of one of the evening's winemakers, and roasted by Charleen just for the event. With 45 minutes to go before the doors opened, a surprise cancellation spurred Pavle to offer the empty seat on Facebook for free to whomever could name the person who raised Spider Pig. Though no submission was made owing to the last-minute offer, a spirited discussion of whether or not "Homer Simpson" constituted an acceptable answer ensued. My position? If somebody says Homer, you've gotta give it to 'em. Spider Pig arrived, a tangle of rich, succulent meat -- a mix of light and dark -- gently bathed in a salty pork jus that, beyond taking the juiciness over the top, doubled down on the stunning, intense pork flavor. Truly, no beast could hope for more noble an end.

Dominic Armato

And yet, vegetables are Charleen's trademark, and Spider Pig was flanked by a cadre of less meaty accompaniments, including spaghetti squash with a smoky chile puree, sweet and slightly sour peperonata spiked with salty capers, fresh okra with cooling yogurt and toasted hazelnuts, and stunning mesquite-grilled corn slathered in butter and sprinkled with crisply fried "corn nuts" for a fabulous textural finish. I'd promised my dessert to my ladylove, holding down the fort back home, and it was just as well. This was a helluva meal, and just a bite of the yuzu panna cotta with macerated fresh peaches was all I required.

It was a fun and fabulous evening, both delicious and educational. And I look back at my trepidation with regret, first because it was ill-founded. Pavle had more faith in me than I had in myself, and for that, I thank him. Second, because I was that guy. I was the person who drives me nuts... the one who's afraid to talk about food with me for fear of embarrassing himself, who serves up every opinion with an apology, who is lacking the confidence to simply say what he likes and why. That was me. And if I'd realized it sooner, I'm sure it would have made the evening a whole lot more pleasant, not just for myself but for my fellow judges as well (sorry, guys!). Which leads into the most important thing of all: Aroma is aroma. Taste is taste. Balance is balance. And on a gut level, we all know when these things work and when they don't. When you're eating a fabulous dinner and chasing it with amazing wines, none of the bullshit that we geeks geek out about on a daily basis matters. Experiences like this are not for the food and wine elite. They're for everybody. Pavle knew this. My fellow judges knew this. I needed a reminder. We need to never lose sight of that, and I hope that I never cause anybody to feel the trepidation I felt, because there's absolutely no reason for it. This is good food, and this is good wine, and this is for everybody... even when it's coming from Arizona. Believe it.