|Nogales Hot Dogs||Dominic Armato|
So I live in Phoenix now. It's a little odd, though you'd think we'd be getting used to moving around at this point. Perhaps it's just that the landscape is so different out here. In Baltimore, the houses were skinny, but it was an old, dense city and I could relate to that. In Boston, it felt like I never left home. Our neighborhood was a spitting image of where I grew up. But out here every street is a six lane highway and the city sometimes feels like an endless strip mall surrounded by the stunningly serene desert. It's culture shock, to be sure. So I think some introductions are in order. Previous places I've lived, I'd like you to meet a little piece of Phoenix. And Phoenix, I'd like you to meet a little piece of my hometown.
|Hot Dog Condiments||Dominic Armato|
Sonoran hot dogs first hit my radar about a year ago, and they stuck in my mind because of the pure insanity of the whole concept. They're more closely associated with Tucson, but well-represented in Phoenix. Essentially, the good ol' American tube steak drifted south of the border, hung out in Sonora for an awfully long time, and came back a changed foodstuff. There are a lot of variables from place to place, but the basic elements are this: a hot dog wrapped in bacon, placed on a bun with a generous smear of mayonnaise, pinto beans, raw and/or grilled onions and chopped tomatoes. As a baseline, that's pretty much standard. But then you get into the common options, which often include avocado, mushrooms, cheddar or cotija cheese, any number of salsas or hot sauces, and even ketchup or mustard. The only thing more shocking than the list of ingredients was the fact that the first few things I heard about them were completely positive. A local lowbrow foodstuff with that much zaniness going on and the potential for actual deliciousness? Very high on the list upon our arrival in the desert.
|Sonoran Hot Dog||Dominic Armato|
As luck would have it, we don't live too far from one of Phoenix's most beloved Sonoran hot dog purveyors. By day, the southwest corner of Indian School and 20th Street is a mattress store which, from the looks of it, isn't anyplace I want to buy anything I plan to sleep on. But at night, the parking lot turns into an outdoor hot dog stand. The folks who operate Nogales Hot Dogs drive in, a van loaded with equipment and pulling a grill trailer. They erect two 10x10' canopies, pull out five folding tables and twentysomething folding chairs, set up a table filled with condiments on ice, deck out the rest with ketchup, mustard, hot sauces and napkin dispensers, plug in a small flatscreen TV, and wait for the booze crowd to roll in. It's a hoot. And while it may not look like much in the yellow light of the streetlamp, here's the thing: the hot dogs are great.
Maybe not culinary masterpiece great, but I have to say, after Chicago-style, this is now my second-favorite way to eat a hot dog. Their base is the obligatory dog and bacon, with mayonnaise, pinto beans, raw onions and chopped tomato. From their condiment table, I added some mushrooms, pureed avocado, cotija cheese and a pickled jalapeno. The first time I went, I found it odd but compelling. The second time, I kind of dug it. By the third time, I was hooked. It just works. And while I find some of the offerings like ketchup and mustard distracting, there's no denying that most of these ingredients apparently have a natural affinity for a hot dog. For less than five bucks, you can grab a dog and a cold Jarritos and soak in a little late-night desert warmth while the partygoers at the next table soak up some booze and the occasional car whizzes by. I have yet to determine whether Nogales Hot Dogs serves an average or exceptional product, but even if the dog wasn't oddly compelling, the surreal scene is.
|Al's on Taylor - The Original||Dominic Armato|
Equally surreal, if for very different reasons, is the Al's #1 Italian Beef franchise that opened in Scottsdale about a week ago. Phoenix, much to my surprise, is no stranger to the Italian beef. The first week I was here, I found three different places that served it, and I wasn't even looking. It's so widely represented, in fact, that I may have to resurrect an old, favorite series of posts and have a little Beef-Off West. But numerous though they may be, it doesn't appear that Phoenix has gotten anything on the level of Al's, one of Chicago's most venerated Italian Beef institutions. Well, the original is venerated, anyway. The 20 or so Chicagoland franchises are highly variable and generally frowned upon by local food nerds. But the Scottsdale location is the very first to open outside of the city and its immediate environs, and it's tough not to get excited about that. Back to the surreal: Al's in Scottsdale looks about as authentic as a Disney attraction. Sure, every decrepit old Chicago beef stand was fresh and clean at one point in time, but they weren't all trying so hard to identify with Chicago. They didn't have to. They were there. And since most of those places were well-established long before the advent of the modern franchise restaurant, they didn't feel the need to plaster their logo over every available surface. And I'm pretty sure they don't weigh their sandwiches out on digital scales before serving them, either. But as usual, taste trumps all.
For those Phoenecians (or others) who may not be familiar with the institution, the Italian Beef is, in this author's humble opinion, the most noble of Chicago's greasy foodstuffs. The Chicago-style hot dog, deep dish pizza, a Maxwell Street Polish... sure, they all have their charms, but none are as artful or as divine -- when they're on -- as the Italian Beef. Big chunks of beef are seasoned with garlic, oregano and often other spices you'd associate with a stereotypical Italian-American palette of flavors, and roasted. The beef is then cooled, sliced extremely thin on a deli slicer, and reheated in a tub of similarly seasoned hot beef jus before it's gently tossed in a big pile on a long roll with the optional sautéed or roasted sweet bell peppers, and/or a hot pepper relish called giardiniera (Chicagoans, you'd be surprised how foreign that word is in a lot of places). And if you know what you're doing, you let them dunk the entire thing in the juice, bread and all, before giving it to you. The giardiniera is often where a beef stand will put its individual stamp on a sandwich, and in some pockets of the city it's not unheard of to add a little provolone cheese (even if I consider it sacrilegious), but that's pretty much the beast.
|Al's Italian Beef||Dominic Armato|
"Big deal," the non-Chicagoan says, "Isn't that just a French Dip?" Poor, ignorant souls. As the great Cecil Adams recently wrote, "Sure, and that yellow-orange crap that comes in the spray cans is cheese, too." The French dip is a brutish concoction, usually composed of clumsy, thick slices hewn from plain boiled or roasted beef, shoved into bread and dipped into something overly salty and made with bouillon. Don't let its messy appearance fool you. The Italian Beef is a sophisticated and finicky creature at heart, extremely difficult to prepare well and always a tiny mistake away from turning into a tasteless mess. Even the best beef stands in Chicago sometimes have consistency issues. But flirting with disaster is the only way to achieve true greatness. Unlike the Philly cheesesteak, buried in dairy, the Italian Beef is one of the purest expressions of beefy goodness in existence, every part of the sandwich designed to enhance the meat's essence. Put simply, to have an exceptional Italian Beef sandwich is to know beef. So is the Scottsdale outpost of Al's up to the task?
I gotta say, it ain't bad. Maybe not up to the standards of the flagship, but this is a beef sandwich I'd be proud to share with a first-timer. On my first trip, I had a great sandwich -- moist and tender beef that had achieved slightly gummy fusion with the interior of the roll (this is a good thing), in-house bread that doesn't quite replicate the Chicago bakeries that supply most of the hometown beef stands but does a stand-up job, giardiniera that mostly mimics Al's signature, if atypical, mix of shredded celery and fennel in a red hot oil, succulent juice that thoroughly saturated the sandwich... all of the pieces were there. It won't stop you from missing the favorites back home, but it's a fine sandwich that stands in admirably. A subsequent trip well after the lunch rush (2:30 or so) exposed a common beef stand weakness. The dry beef on that trip, paradoxically, was most likely the result of it sitting in the hot juice for too long, since the crowd had dissipated and the beef wasn't being turned over as quickly (see "finicky creature", above). A little too long in the hot jus bath and the spell is broken. As such, I'd highly recommend sticking to the peak lunch hour, even if it means a bit of a wait. But if you do, you'll be happy with the results. Just please, please, please, order it dipped or wet. A dry Italian Beef sandwich is a very sad thing.
And so, with the introductions out of the way, I already have something of a Phoenix backlog to start plowing through. More to come.