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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

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

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

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

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

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.


That is some beautiful char on the pizza crust. On the top of that crust.

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