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March 26, 2010


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 CondimentsDominic 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 DogDominic 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 OriginalDominic 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 BeefDominic 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.

Nogales Hot Dogs
1945 E. Indian School Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Sun - Thu6:00 PMish - 12:00 AMish
Fri - Sat6:00 PMish - 2:00 AMish
Al's #1 Italian Beef
14740 N. Northsight Blvd.
Scottsdale, AZ 85260


Hey Dom -

Long time lurker (I've been reading your stuff since the Chicago days and on LTHForum), but I don't comment much.

I'm coming out to Scottsdale for the annual trip to the in-laws next week. Pizzeria Bianco is a must-stop for me, but have you come across anything since you've been out in AZ that's just a must-have (aside from the Sonoran Hot Dog)?

One place I would recommend out there is the little Italian strip mall on 40th Street (4410 N.). The centerpiece is La Grande Orange Pizzeria - I've never eaten there myself, but the little gelateria attached to it (Arlecchino) is superb, and the Italian salumeria/deli on the other side is quite nice too (similar to the Foodstuffs chain in Chicago).

I hear you about the "vibe" of Phoenix/Scottsdale - big roads, strip malls lining everything and then just gorgeous desert for miles. I've grown to like the place for visiting, but I don't think I could live there for a long time.

Another must-do when you've got a nice weekend is the Apache Trail - driving it in the spring time when the Mexican Poppies are in bloom is unbelievable. And the prickly pear ice cream in Tortilla Flats isn't too shabby either...

Oddly enough, when I get back from vacation, I'll be moving into a new office right across the street from an Al's #1 Beef. We'll see how well they do lunch.

Hey, Brian!

I know exactly the strip mall of which you speak. We live very close to there. I wasn't impressed by the market (more showy than useful), but I've heard the sandwiches are good, and the menu at the pizza place looks good. You're dead on about Arlecchino Gelateria, though. Except that it isn't Arlecchino anymore. The Spangaros moved back to Italy and sold it to the owner of La Grande Orange, whose son now runs the place and has renamed it Grateful Spoon (tragic, really). Supposedly they've carefully passed on all of the recipes and are in regular contact with the new owners, and while I'm not sure I even tried it during the previous era, I've been very impressed with the current quality.

As far as local must-haves, I can't say I've come across any yet... not that are unique to Phoenix. I would've said Sea Saw before it closed (Fukuda now has a space and should be opening sometime this year). I wouldn't say NOCA is the kind of food you couldn't get elsewhere, but I've had two fantastic meals there and I'd highly recommend it. Two other early favorites that I haven't written about yet are Andreoli (great, if painfully expensive, neighborhood Italian joint in northern Scottsdale) and Szechwan Palace, but again, they're not exactly unique to Phoenix. Though I'm of the opinion that in the right town with the right press, Giovanni Scorzo, who runs Andreoli, could be a rock star. Other than that, I'm still just getting my feet wet.

I'll have to see if I can stop by Andreoli for lunch one day. The menu looks good, and the kind of place you'd normally pass by (housed in the typical adobe strip mall) unless you were in the know.

While not exactly haute cuisine (which the menu prices would suggest), I have a certain fondness for Cartright's in Cave Creek, if only for the tenderloin trio. They prepare beef, bison and elk tournedos over mesquite (I think). The beef and bison are good, but the elk was a revelation - I dream about that elk. All too often, "game" meats are glopped over with some sort of fruit-based sauce, but here it was simply seasoned, grilled and fantastic. Next time, I'm just getting the elk.

Good luck in Phoenix! I've really enjoyed your taste-offs, especially considering two of my all-time favorite sandwiches are the italian beef and the (woefully impossible to get in Chicago) lobster roll.

Interesting to see you completely poo-poo the comparison with a French dip. Sure, the flavor profile is different and the giardiniera is certainly not comparable, but at a basic level: roasted beef with jus on a roll, is not dissimilar. Yes, flavor-wise different. But, conceptually similar. Many regional food stuffs have elements that are similar elsewhere in the country. For example, in Detroit, they love these things called "Coneys", a hot dog with a loose meats concoction that would remind one of a chili dog. But, the flavoring is completely different. Or, more personally as a native San Diegan, I love a good fish taco. Its a fried piece of fish in a taco. At essence, its fried fish in a taco format, hardly ground-breaking, but together a great combination. So, while saying an Italian Beef is "just" a French dip isn't correct, you can't deny the essential sameness of the concept.

Anon Man... do you also tell native Parisians that they can't deny the "essential sameness" of French baguettes and Wonder Bread? :-)

For the record, I don't mean that as an exaggeration... I think it's an entirely fair analogy. If a Parisian tried to describe a fabulous French baguette, and somebody responded by saying they've had Wonder Bread, which is essentially the same thing, whose corner would you have?

Anon Man -

I'd be far more sympathetic to your argument if you said something along the lines of "there are a number of really good regional variations of thinly sliced beef on a bun".

The italian beef, the weck, the pit beef all are regional versions of the roasted beef on bun, and all of them have their partisans, but none of them would really claim that the others are "essentially the same". I don't think someone from Baltimore who is really jonesing for some pit beef is going to be satisfied with even a really excellent italian beef, anymore than someone who wants a kielbasa would be satisfied with a hot dog or bratwurst or linguica, even though they are all ground meat stuffed in a casing with spices.

The French Dip almost always is crap - it's the Wonder Bread version of all those great regional sandwiches. Technique, spices and history really do differentiate meals - otherwise there's really only a handful of meals - animal flesh or vegetation, cooked or not, alone or mixed, variously seasoned.

Ok, I don't disagree that the French Dip is often crap, or that it is an incomplete substitute for the Italian Beef. But, as Dom's "Beef Off" demonstrated, there's crap that gets pushed as Italian Beef too. (Wasn't there a really crappy Italian Beef you had in B-more?)

But I do see your more basic point, that saying "I've had McDonalds, so I don't need Boloud's truffle burger" is kind of idiotic. But, my point is that comparing the highest form of Italian Beef to the French dip they push out at Denny's isn't a fair fight. I bet any of us could create a "French Dip" that is every bit as delicious as an Italian Beef with some care and some attention to quality. They still woudln't be the same dish, of course, but not necessarily "brutish", either.

So - I'm currently sitting in line at Pizzeria Bianco. I come once a year during my annual Spring Break trip with the kids. For the third year in a row, the same guy from Phoenix is standing in line in front of me...

I stopped at Andreoli for lunch with my two oldest boys. Good recommendation. The boys each got the prosciutto, provella and pesto sandwich. I got the Forza Italia (speck, arugula, mascarpone and gorgonzola). Great sandwiches with good bread and a nice light touch (gorgonzola can be overwhelming but here it was used judiciously). I had a bite of the prosciutto and pesto sandwich and think it was slightly better - the saltiness of the provella and the acid in the pesto cut the fatiness of the prosciutto nicely. I could have left the salad, but that's due to my distaste for mesclun.

The specials looked great but quite pricey and a little heavy for lunch.

Thanks for the tip!

So, I finally made it to the Al's #1 Beef on Adams across from my office. Meh. The beef itself was OK, but I ordered it wet and it came out dry. The jus itself was kind of oily and fairly significantly red - I didn't order giardinera this time, so it wasn't from that.

The fries, on the other hand, were fantastic - fresh-cut and fried pretty much to order. That seems to be a trend for me - the quality of the beef is inversely proportionate to the quality of the fries. Luke's - good beef, enormous shopping bag full of frozen fries. Al's - great fries, poor beef.

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