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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.

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Comments

Chongqing Chicken
San Xi Lou - Hong Kong

This was really special! With everything we have ever eaten in China/Hong Kong.... dare i say this is the best dish?

KA

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.

Pfeh. I cannot even conceive a universe where good things do NOT emerge from six foot flames leaping from a wok. I'm pretty sure that's written in the old testament somewhere.

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