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April 30, 2010

Trending Late

Kumamoto Oysters with Yuzu, Chili Gelée, Micro Shiso and Fresh Wasabi Dominic Armato

Of all the food trends that have come and gone over the years, I have to admit that -- selfishly speaking -- this is one of my favorites.

It would seem that the "staff meal" -- when a restaurant that isn't typically a late-night institution has extended hours one or two days a week -- is rapidly gaining popularity here in Phoenix. They don't even remotely resemble any staff meals I've ever seen, and I'm mildly resenting the implication in some circles that this is increasing the availability of "good" food late at night (late-night diners aren't good?). But when you're somebody for whom the easiest time to sneak out for a bite is late at night, they could call it the Book Club or the Board Meeting and I'd still be happy to have another dining option.

So on a recent Thursday, I struck out with a couple of fellow food nerds with the intention of hitting the most recent addition to the late night scene. Posh is still a fairly young restaurant, and their hook is that they've taken the age-old practice of letting the chef cook whatever the heck he wants and turned it into standard operating procedure. Not so from 10:00 PM to midnight on Thursdays, however, when an actual menu with 4-6 small dishes and plenty of alcohol specials makes an appearance. For now, late nights at Posh are a three-week-old experiment, but based on my experience the first two weeks, here's hoping it remains a regular event.

Boar Bacon with Fried EggDominic Armato

Briny Kumamoto oysters received a treatment far more elaborate than their resultant flavor would suggest, and that's a good thing. When you see that they're dressed with yuzu, chili gelée, micro shiso and fresh wasabi, you wonder if there's going to be an oyster buried in there somewhere. But the additions complement both the oysters' flavor and their provenance, gentle Japanese touches accentuating rather than standing in the way of the salty little critters. Braised(?) boar bacon, accompanied by artichoke leaves and a lentil puree, was barely visible, peeking out from beneath a fried egg with a vibrant yellow and deliciously oozy egg yolk, but its shyness was a ruse. Big, porky flavor was its true character, the inherent saltiness of the bacon mitigated by that luscious egg yolk. A fusion of two food trends (bacon and fried eggs) that are getting a little ubiquitous? Ehhh, who cares. Great flavors, and the menu's better for it.

Pig Ear Ravioli with MorelsDominic Armato

Late night at Posh wasn't exclusively comprised of hits. A play on stuffed shells with tomato sauce that substituted brandade for the ricotta was a lot nicer in theory than it was in practice. But even if the misses weren't relegated to the minority (they were), Posh could have earned my loyalty on the strength of two dishes alone, the first of which is the pig's ear ravioli. Conventional wisdom is that pig ears are all about texture, and doing something meaningful with them is a matter of harnessing that odd chewy/tough character and using it for good rather than evil. But Posh's owner/chef Joshua Hebert sidesteps the texture issue entirely, pulverizing the pig ears into a smooth and savory paste and using it to stuff some rather delicate ravioli with a not-so-delicate veal demi. The sauce is intense, just a tiny bit sweet, and further accented with sautéed morels. I really need to quit using the term umami bomb, but it applies in spades. The pasta is light and delicate, but the flavor is huge.

Brûléed Foie Torchon with Spun SugarDominic Armato

One of my new favorite dishes, however, is one that could just as easily lead off the dessert menu, despite its decidedly meaty nature. Foie gras takes sweet very well, but a lot of people overdo it. Hebert over-overdoes it and circles back around to awesome. A succulent little puck of foie is sugared and brûléed, paired with diced fruit, dressed with a very sweet orange sauce, and topped with a rather dramatic cloud of spun sugar. The foie's brûléed crust is wonderfully crisp, and the spun sugar is thicker than cotton candy and comes across as downright crystalline (probably because it is), making for a pair of delightful textural contrasts to the foie's natural squishiness. But even the foie itself has a lot going on in the texture department, having been assembled, it seems, from a rough and uneven dice that keeps it from being texturally uniform and makes it a real pleasure to eat. Most importantly, however, the foie somehow stands up, its rich flavor blasting right through all of that fructose and sucrose. I've had some pretty mean foie dishes over the years, but this one's going to stick in my head for a good long while, I think.

I should probably get around to eating a normal meal there at some point. And with a couple of big winners like those, the sensible thing would have been to go home happy. But why have one dinner when you can have two? When discussion turned to Petite Maison's role as local pioneer of the "staff meal" and it was pointed out that they were just down the street and still open, we decided that one late-night meal couldn't hope to contain us. That I'd kicked off the evening establishing myself as culinary enabler by handing the menu to my companions and saying, "The answer to all of your questions is yes," may have also played a significant role in this harebrained decision.

"BLT"Dominic Armato

Thankfully, it paid off. Though Petite Maison's website features their staff meal quite prominently, in practice it was simply a matter of walking in, parking at the bar and asking what they had that night. On this particular night, it was but two dishes. A "BLT" and... chili cheese fries. At a French bistro? Huh. Ah, well. I lived two blocks from Bob's Big Boy in Burbank, California for five years. I'm no stranger to late-night grease bombs. Bring two of the former and one of the latter, we said, in perhaps not so eloquent a fashion. The "BLT" was a rather loose riff on convention, thin crispy bacon on a brioche bun with endive and sweet -- very sweet -- tomato confiture. My compatriots quickly identified the bacon as the work of The Meat Shop, and that fine product was well-accompanied. "BLT" might be stretching the limits of the term a little bit, but it was a tasty little sandwich.

Chili Cheese FriesDominic Armato

While the BLT was a significant departure from the tried and true, the chili cheese fries were exactly the opposite. This wasn't an upscale reimagining of chili cheese fries. It was simply chili cheese fries, done very well. A huge pile of crisp, seasoned fries were buried under a mound of meaty, flavorful chili that was studded with chunks of a soft, tangy cheese that I couldn't identify (read: was too busy eating to bother trying). I don't want to oversell it. It's chili cheese fries. But it's made with an unusual amount of care. It was still a gutbuster, but rather than being a total grease bomb (not that there's anything wrong with that), it was actually a carefully executed dish with components that maintained their own character rather than devolving into a uniformly squishy mess.

I'm somebody who's only too happy to roll out the door at two in the morning, grab a newspaper, park at a linoleum countertop somewhere and tuck into a questionable tuna melt. But you know, it IS kind of nice that the amount of late-night fare that isn't of the greasy spoon or booze sponge variety appears to be on the rise. In chatting with Hebert, he mentioned -- and I'm paraphrasing -- that it'd be nice if a few more restaurants jumped in, everybody took a different night, and it became possible for folks to go out for more refined late night food on every night of the week. I say why stop there? I'd love to see everybody pick a night or two to offer extended hours. Not that there's anything wrong with that tuna melt, but it sure is nice to be able to sneak out at night for a little brûléed foie and an endive and tomato confiture BLT. As trends go, this is one I can get behind.

7167 E. Rancho Vista Drive, Suite 111
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Tue - Thu5:00 PM - 11:00 PM
Fri - Sat5:00 PM - 12:00 AM
Thursday Late10:00 PM - 12:00 AM
Petite Maison
7216 East Shoeman Lane
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Mon - Fri11:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Sat - Sun10:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Thu - Sat Late10:00 PM - 12:00 AM

April 26, 2010

The Quarterly Report - Q1 2010

Carne Asada Tacos @ Sonora Mesquite Grill Dominic Armato

One of the things that always drives me nuts is the volume of places I never get around to posting about. Maybe I only tried one thing, maybe it wasn't particularly notable for good or bad reasons, maybe I wanted to go back before writing but never quite got around to it and probably never will, or maybe I just feel funny writing up a whole big thing about a place where I had a pretty decent lunch once. So less because I think this is all that useful and more because I'm obsessive about cataloguing this stuff, I figure I'll take inventory every few months of places that I don't think are going to find their way into a larger post at some point, and chunk them together into one frankenpost instead. So with that, in alphabetical order, the quarterly report for Q1 2010:

BBQ Pork SoupDominic Armato

Best Hong Kong Dining
1116 South Dobson Road, Mesa AZ 85202

I was headed to Hodori for Korean, and kind of got sidetracked. For some reason BBQ pork soup just seemed suddenly compelling (why I went Chinese over Korean when craving soup, who knows), so I popped in here instead. It's a huge menu that's a mix of traditional and Americanized Cantonese, and may be worth a little exploration in the future. On this particular day, though, I just got a simple noodle soup with cabbage and sliced char siu. The soup and noodles weren't anything special, but they did kind of have that no frills hole-in-the-wall corner joint in Hong Kong vibe, and they hit the spot on an afternoon when I was really craving them. The char siu was really nice, though, which makes me wonder if anything else on the menu is worthwhile.

Italian BeefDominic Armato

Chicago Hamburger Co.
3749 East Indian School Road, Phoenix AZ 85018

Chicago-style hot dog stand within a mile of home? Day one stop. Though they serve all of the Chicago standards, the specialty of the house is the "Chicago Slider," which I mostly find puzzling. Do people associate sliders with Chicago? White Castle was founded in Wichita and has its corporate HQ in Ohio. Anyway, the sliders are, indeed, the best thing I've had there, a little larger than the WC and appropriately steamy. The Vienna Beef dogs (Vienna/Royko standard) are solid, if they don't quite have the steamy magic of the better places, and the fries are standard-issue frozen fare, if done as well as can be expected. Steer clear of the Italian Beef, though. It was really awful for a lot of reasons that aren't worth enumerating. Just don't bother.

Tostada de CevicheDominic Armato

Mariscos Acapulco
3226 East Thomas Road, Phoenix AZ 85018

I got here a few times, and actually rather enjoyed it. It's straight-up, no-frills Mexican mariscos and everything is solid, if unremarkable in its consistency. I had some pretty good crab enchiladas in potent tomatillo sauce, inexpensive whole fried fish in a tasty garlic sauce, clean and fresh ceviche tostadas, and a worthy version of one of my favorites. I have a weakness for a good coctel de camarones, and Acapulco's makes me happy, fresh shrimp, plenty of avocado and a very light sauce that would be problematic if the table weren't covered with all of the ketchup, hot sauces, saltines and limes you need to doctor it to your preference. As long as you aren't looking for anything too fancy, Acapulco should hit the spot.

Fish and ChipsDominic Armato

Ricky's Big Philly
3538 East Indian School Road, Phoenix AZ 85018

Don't get too excited. They just closed down a couple of weeks ago after losing their lease. Which is too bad. Ricky's Big Philly was a burger and dog joint, and I don't want to oversell it, but what they did they did with an unusual amount of care. Good burgers, chicken sandwiches, and an especially good fish and chips special. Fresh cod, battered and fried to order with housemade slaw and good fries absolutely destroyed the better-known Pete's just a few blocks to the east. I'm not generally one for seasoned fries, but here they were lightly dusted with a house blend rather than being saturated with overspiced gunk. And their onion rings are absolutely killer, thick rings that are soaked overnight and freshly battered and fried. Ironically, the only thing that wasn't any good was the cheesesteak, dry and shredded into oblivion. But as long as you steer clear of the place's namesake, it's an unusually good burger joint. Hope they manage to reopen somewhere.

Curry Chicken Salad SandwichDominic Armato

Sacks Art of Sandwicherie
4730 East Indian School Road, Phoenix AZ 85018

Though I'm admittedly doing my best to set aside what may be the second-worst restaurant name I've ever seen (Winner: You-A-Carry-Out-A... no joke), Sacks is the kind of place I really want to like but just can't. A huge selection of creative sandwiches -- it's right up my alley. But everything I've had has ranged from okay to terrible. The curry chicken salad shown here is one of the better ones I tried, but it's muddy and poorly-balanced and plays more like a heavily curried chicken paste. I don't believe for a second that the "prime" beef sandwiches actually contain prime beef. It isn't a deli, so I blame myself for not liking the "Reuben," which had weak corned beef, cole slaw instead of sauerkraut and a sickly sweet Russian that tasted like it used Miracle Whip for a base. But the most telling item was a simple turkey sandwich, which featured typical cheap deli counter fused lunchmeat swimming in saline. When you're flogging your sandwich prowess, you really ought to be roasting your own turkey -- or at least sourcing something that doesn't look like whatever was on special at the Safeway next door. It's a $6 sandwich. Charge me two dollars more and make it good, please.

Matzo Ball SoupDominic Armato

Scott's Generations
5555 North 7th Street, Phoenix AZ 85014

A good Jewish deli is always on our short list of restaurants to locate when moving to a new town. Scott's Generations is scratching the itch for the moment, but the search goes on. Matzo ball soup was muddy and the matzo was leaden. Chilled beet borscht was passable, but the flavor was a little weak and in need of more sourness. Scott's will satisfy a Reuben craving, though. The corned beef is passable, and it's griddled up nice and crisp and plenty gooey on the inside. I've heard the pastrami is worthwhile, but I can't speak to for it personally. So, I guess the summation is that it's hit and miss so far and nothing's knocking me over. Anybody who's found a better deli, I'm all ears.

Carne Asada TacosDominic Armato

Sonora Mesquite Grill
4613 E Thomas Road, Phoenix AZ 85018

Tipped off by fellow foodnik Joel over at One For Dinner, I popped into Sonora Mesquite Grill for what he's billing as "the best carne asada tacos you've never heard of." And I have to say, they're very good for what they are. It's a tiny joint, they serve only carne asada, barbacoa and chicken, and everything is exceptionally fresh. Ordering a couple of carne asada tacos netted me the two beauties you see here, along with a selection of salsas. The meat's heavily marinated, with great flavor that includes the mesquite that it's picked up off the grill. Really, I think the only reason I'm not quite as enamored of the place as others is a matter of personal preference. Sonora Mesquite Grill's is very tender and moist, and I actually tend to dig slightly drier, more charred meat when I go looking for carne asada. But it's clear that a lot of care is going into the food, I suspect most will prefer this to what I typically seek, and the woman running the place is one of the sweetest you'll ever meet. They deserve to stick around and I hope they do.

April 23, 2010

The Best

I'm simply going to double-post something here that I just posted on a Chowhound thread. This is something that's been sticking in my craw for a long time now, so I figured I'd better get it out here as well.

At the risk of prompt moderation, can I take this thread on a small tangent?

How the heck does one name a "best" restaurant? How does one ascribe relative value to places with wildly different styles? I mean, it's one thing to say that this Sonoran hot dog is the best, or this steak frites is the best... though even that can get dicey when people stray from the strictest traditional preparations... but how can you possibly take fine dining, casual dining, Mom 'n Pop ethnic joints and greasy spoons and place them all on the same continuum?

This is like saying the Beatles were better than Mozart, or vice versa. Can't they just both be incredibly wonderful and influential musical artists in their own unique ways? Why does a discussion like this need to be a winner-take-all king of the hill match to see who can be named The Greatest Restaurant Of All Time?

I'm not saying the word "best" is one that should be banished from a food nerd's vocabulary, but it's grossly overused, and when you're trying to apply it to an entire metropolitan area with a population of 4.2 million, it's absurd. It's a diverse and wonderful world of food out there, and I don't understand the need to stratify it and declare a winner. Except when comparing things in the most narrow manner possible, I say leave the "best" restaurant discussions and the top ten lists for those who view dining as a matter of status. We should know better.


UPDATE : Unsurprisingly, the post has already been banished to Site Chat, where conversations go to die. *sigh* I miss LTH.

April 09, 2010

Szechwan Palace

Water Boiled Fish Fillets Dominic Armato

We've been moving around a lot lately (yes, this is an opening paragraph theme that needs to die), and I feel as though I'm starting to get into a new city routine. One of the first tasks is to try to locate decent spots for ethnic faves, and Chinese -- primarily Cantonese and Sichuan -- is always near the top of the list. So when you're making the short ten minute jaunt between home and the airport to drop off a visiting relative, and on the way you pass a massive Chinese-looking structure identified as COFCO, the Chinese Cultural Center, that houses a market and multiple restaurants representing various regions of China, you'd better believe that's looking like a good place to start.

Flank, Tongue & TripeDominic Armato

Cantonese is near and dear, given the amount of time I've spent in Hong Kong and Southern China, but the regional cuisine that really gets me excited these days is Sichuan. Erroneously known for simply being hot hot hot, it's a remarkably sophisticated cuisine. And though chiles are used in abundance, the idea that it's all spicy oil is a gross misperception based on lousy Sichuan food. One of the things about Sichuan that always amazes me is that when you're at a really good Sichuan restaurant, you could have five or six successive dishes where the sauce is essentially the same five or six ingredients with only very minor variations, and yet each one, through different preparations and careful balance, will have a completely unique character. The fancified homestyle of Da Ping Huo in Hong Kong is one example of this. Combined with the vibrant nature of the region's foods, this makes Sichuan especially craveable as ethnic cuisines go, and I need to have someplace I can get a fix. I had high hopes that Szechwan Palace would do the trick.

Dumplings in Spicy OilDominic Armato

Szechwan Palace is pretty swanky as my regular Chinese stops go, which is to say that it isn't a hole in the wall, as most of my favorites seem to end up being when it comes to authentic Chinese. But authenticity isn't in question here... provided you either look the part or know how to ask, that is. Szechwan Palace, like many Chinese joints, is a two-menu establishment, but a nice bonus is that the Chinese menu is far more accessible here than in many places. If you're not Asian, you'll have to ask for the red leather-bound Chinese menu rather than the laminated menu featuring the Americanized fare. But even the Chinese menu features very good translations, so provided you know to ask for it, the full range of the kitchen's ability is at your disposal. Only the specials, written on a marker board at the entrance, will require some assistance if you don't read Chinese. But on the two occasions I visited, our server was more than happy to run down the day's offerings. So with a menu that appeared to be the real deal, how did the execution stack up? Well... depends on what you get, apparently.

Crispy ShrimpDominic Armato

On my first visit, a couple readers and I (great to meet you, guys!) had a really nice meal. For cold starters, there are four or five different meats that are all tossed in the "Chef's Special Spicy Sauce." We opted for the combination of beef flank, tongue and tripe. This is always one of my favorite ways to start a Sichuan meal, chilled meat in an explosive oily ma la sauce, and Szechwan Palace's was a very nice version. I always love to see how this dish varies from chef to chef, subtle shifts in balance completely altering the character of the dish. Here it was especially heavy on the Sichuan pepper and, a little less common, very heavy on the salt, which I found that I liked quite a bit. The flavor popped, it was beautifully balanced, the meats were tender and flavorful... a great start.

Jalapeno ChickenDominic Armato

We followed that with one of the two dumplings offered on the menu. Sadly, I can't recall precisely what they were titled -- and the titles of the two were quite similar. The ubiquity of online menus has made me a little lazy when it comes to taking notes, but all Szechwan Palace shows online is a limited portion of the Americanized menu. So... you'll have to guess. The dumplings weren't remarkable, rather soft with a very simple pork filling, and the sauce was surprisingly mild... more of a light slick of fiery red oil atop a broth. Sichuan cuisine utilizes a number of different seasoned broths, and I'm not well-versed enough yet to be able to distinguish and identify them, but this one was very, very mellow, but nicely rounded -- a solid base, not an uninteresting one.

Cumin LambDominic Armato

Crispy shrimp were solid, if unexceptional, and certainly not up to the level of the plate I recently had at Peach Farm (which I realize is completely not helpful for Phoenix folks). The flavor was very nice, with seasoning that went beyond simple salt and pepper, but with shrimp that were a little tough and shells that perhaps weren't fried as hot as they needed to be, they didn't quite nail that tender shrimp / crispy shell interplay that makes this dish great when it's on. Jalapeno chicken wasn't bad, but mostly a throwaway, chunks of thigh meat stir-fried in a mostly nondescript sauce that, to its credit, featured the jalapeno nicely, both in terms of heat and flavor. But I didn't find anything terribly compelling about it, plus with the substitution of breast meat for the thigh, it could've passed for an Americanized standard at any decent Americanized Chinese restaurant... not what I'm looking for, here.

Tendon in Chef's Spicy SauceDominic Armato

Our first pass at Szechwan Palace was rounded up with two very nice dishes. The first was an old favorite that, much to my delight, they just happened to be serving that day. Cumin Beef is a menu standard, but when we inquired about the specials, we learned that they happened to be serving a cumin lamb that day, and it turned out to be a really lovely rendition thereof. I've had some versions of this dish that are positively abusive, where you can taste the cumin while the server is still 40 feet away. This one wasn't so potent, but it was very nicely balanced, the depth of the sauce providing a nice base for the still plenty strong cumin flavor. Most notably, the lamb was delicious, tender and moist and intensely flavored, not shying away from pure lamb flavor, but lacking the kind of unpleasant gaminess that can sometimes accompany lamb if it isn't handled well. A very nice dish.

Garlic Pork BellyDominic Armato

The consensus winner, however, was the Water Boiled Fish Fillets. It's a very traditional Sichuan preparation, where meat or fish is dropped into a wok filled with a spicy, bubbling concoction, simmering in the broth for moments before being brought to the table scalding hot, both from a heat and spice perspective. Our first taste of this version was a bit of a letdown, but we became more and more enamored of the dish with subsequent helpings. For starters, I think we made the mistake of serving ourselves from the oily slick on the top, rather than dipping down for the complex and flavorful broth beneath. Lesson one, dig deep. Secondly, like many foods, I think scalding hot wasn't the ideal temperature. More of the flavors came out after it had cooled off quite a bit, so I think it was actually more tasty after sitting for 15-20 minutes than it was when it first hit the table. In any case, it was a great rendition, looking like it could take your eyebrows off but surprisingly restrained given its appearance. Like the dumplings, this was another broth-based sauce, but it was much deeper and richer and more complex -- I got chile oil and toasted chiles, I got citrusy Sichuan pepper, I got garlic, I got ginger, I got fermented beans, I got leeks -- there was a lot going on, and it was all wonderfully and subtly balanced. What's more, the texture of the fish fillets was wonderful, tender and silky but firm enough to have some body. The dish was just delightful, and it got a little better every time I went back for more.

Yu Xiang ChickenDominic Armato

It was a great visit. I've eaten some outstanding Sichuan, and this wasn't it, but it was real deal and most of it was very good. Close to home, authentic, very good... what's not to like? So I rallied the troops for a return visit, wanting to sample some more of the menu. And man, there's nothing more disappointing than when a place about which you've said good things falls on their face when you bring others back. For our second trip, I made the mistake of trying all new dishes. Usually, this is a good strategy. You've got a kitchen that's shown they can make some great food, let's see what else they can do. Sadly, on this occasion, the strategy largely backfired.

Bacon and LeeksDominic Armato

We started with another of the cold appetizers in the chef's spicy sauce, this time opting for tendon rather than the mix of the previous trip. I love tendon, but this iteration wasn't doing it for me. It was very roughly sliced into thick, irregular discs, a great departure from the careful, thinly-sliced preparations I'm accustomed to. It didn't work as well for me, and the sauce didn't quite have the pop of our previous visit. Our other cold starter, the garlic pork belly, was one the lone highlight of my second trip. Another oily ma la preparation, this one was, as the name might suggest, especially heavy on the garlic. And the pork belly was delicious, tender and thinly sliced and perhaps not exactly cold -- more lukewarm -- but entirely delicious. I'd get this one again in a heartbeat, and not just because it's pork belly.

Fish Fillets in Vinegar SauceDominic Armato

But from there, the meal was a string of disappointments, starting with the other dumpling (not pictured), which looked similar but was laced with vinegar this time around. The broth was a little underpowered, but the problem was really in the dumpling, which was gummy and falling apart, and possessed of a pork filling that was tough and largely tasteless. Yu Xiang Chicken, one of what seemed like a dozen Yu Xiang preparations on the menu, was a total throwaway. Bland, flavorless white meat in a nondescript brown, oily sauce with bamboo shoots and woodear mushrooms. Like every Americanized Chinese dish you've ever had. We ordered off the Chinese menus... had I made the mistake of not specifically requesting that everything be prepared Chinese-style the second time around? Were dishes being dumbed down for us?

Water Boiled BeefDominic Armato

I underestimated the quality of the translation with our next dish. We figured a dish listed as "Bacon and Leeks" would be some sort of pork belly dish, perhaps braised, in a leek-based sauce. Not so. It was stir-fried bacon and leeks. As in, sliced, smoked bacon and sliced leeks. How was it? It was bacon and leeks. Can't really complain. But I also can't say I would have ordered it if I'd simply been wise enough to take them at their word. A near miss was the fish fillets in vinegar sauce, possessed of a lovely texture and a light sauce with a subtle vinegary tang. The problem was that it was too subtle. A little more volume on this one would've worked wonders. But it just came across as underpowered. A shame, really, because there was a good dish in there. The vinegar fish fillets paved the way for water boiled beef on the second trip. I figured we'd try another water boiled preparation, and avoid doubling up on fish fillets. It turned out to be a mistake. It was fine, but the beautiful depth and subtlety that was there on the previous trip was missing on this trip.

Ma Po DofuDominic Armato

But the one that put me over the edge was the Ma Po Dofu. I love Ma Po Dofu, and at the risk of repeating myself, I feel like Ma Po Dofu is to a Sichuan chef as tomato sauce is to an Italian-American grandmother. Everybody's take is just a little different, and it's a homey, comforting dish that's a perfect window into the soul of the chef. Let's just say that this Ma Po Dofu did not speak well for the soul of whoever prepared it. It was really astonishingly bad. Almost insulting. It was the flattest, most flavorless Ma Po Dofu I've ever tasted anywhere, bar none. All of the pieces were there, as far as I could tell, but they'd somehow become a muddled, flavorless mess. Long after everybody else had abandoned the dish, I kept going back to try more. It was flat-out bad, but I wanted to know why. What made this dish so uniquely tasteless, and how did this come out of the same kitchen as some of the really nice dishes we'd had on the first trip? Another taste provided no further insight.

So I have no idea what to think. Over two visits, I've tasted dishes that ran the gamut from delightful to The Worst Of Its Kind I've Ever Tasted. Is it a matter of coming at the right time of day? Ordering the right dishes? Being sure to explicitly state that you want everything prepared Chinese-style, even when you're ordering off the Chinese menu? I don't know. And it's frustrating, because I can't completely write the place off. I've had enough delicious dishes there that I feel compelled to return, but I've had enough awful dishes there that I'm almost afraid to do so. Consistency -- both from dish to dish and visit to visit -- is one of the greatest challenges any kitchen faces. Here's a perfect example of why.

Szechwan Palace
668 N. 44th Street
Phoenix, AZ 85008

April 02, 2010

Birria Blitz

Birrieria & Taqueria Del Yaqui Dominic Armato

One of the things I've been told about the Mexican restaurant scene in Phoenix is that it's very homogenous. Though Baja and Chihuahua aren't far, Arizona's southern border is completely flanked by the Mexican state of Sonora, so it's no big surprise that the bulk of what you see driving around is Sonoran restaurants. That said, my hunch is that said homogeneity is overstated. I don't really have any reason to believe so. Call it a hunch. But it's a hunch that I'd like to put to the test, and what better way than taking a week to focus on one of the signature foods of Jalisco?

Going back a couple of weeks ago, a post popped up on the Phoenix Chowhound board... a fellow who was looking for birria. Tacos, specifically. Though most closely identified with Jalisco, birria is widespread enough that I was surprised only a couple of places were mentioned, neither of which were dedicated birrierias. Figuring there had to be more, I did the simplest thing I could think of to find some. I ran "birrieria" through a Google Maps search, and came up with four places that were named such. So I posted them, and was even more surprised that nobody, apparently, had tried them. Huh. Well, Yelp's not my style, but they're more widely used these days and the whole race to be first thing means their coverage is usually a little wider. Across all four spots, only one review. Clearly, I'd have to take matters into my own hands.

To quickly bring the uninitiated up to speed, birria is a dish most often made with goat, lamb or beef, where the meat is seasoned with a blend of roasted dried chiles and other spices, braised, steamed and/or sometimes roasted until fall-apart tender, and then served most typically in a bowl of the resultant broth, or dry in tacos. To be clear, I'm no birria expert. Not by a long shot. But I'm not unfamiliar with dish, and hey... the only way to learn is to get out there and eat as much of it as possible.

La BarquitaDominic Armato

First stop wasn't one of the mysterious four, but rather La Barquita, one of only a couple of places in Phoenix that turned up any birria buzz on the 'net. Though not a dedicated birrieria, the dish is sold as a house specialty and since it's gotten some press, I figured it'd be a good benchmark from which to start. Cute place. A little divey, but cozy, and the folks are friendly. There's a large menu to which I didn't really pay attention as I went straight for the main event. So as not to cover too broad a niche, I decided to stick to the goat at all five places, so that's what I ordered. La Barquita's birria is focused a little more heavily on the meat than the broth, arriving in a shallow dish rather than a soup bowl. I'm hot and cold on Barquita's birria. The meat I enjoyed an awful lot, with good flavor and a little body. No spent stew meat here. But the broth really threw me for a loop. It came across as too aggressively reduced and waaaay off-balance, with an unusually strong sour component that threw the entire dish out of whack. I didn't notice if they serve birria tacos, which I bet would be rather tasty. But this dish -- the $15 house special -- just wasn't enjoyable.

Birrieria & Taqueria Del YaquiDominic Armato

Next up was Birrieria & Taqueria Del Yaqui, named after a local Native American tribe that will no doubt be familiar to residents of Phoenix. Whether this meant that the folks running Del Yaqui hailed from Sonora -- also home to the Yaqui -- or were simply honoring a local, ancient tribe, I don't know. But the birria was a drastic departure from La Barquita. The best way I can think to describe Del Yaqui's birria is no-frills. It gets the soupy treatment, chunks of meat swimming in a big bowl of soup with a plate of onion, cilantro, cabbage and lime to add as you see fit. The meat wasn't nearly up to La Barquita's standard. This was clearly the leftovers from making the broth, not without charm but kind of anemic, almost devoid of fat and mostly bled of its flavor. It was obvious where the flavor went, however. The broth was deep, clean and very comforting. Almost too comforting. Bordering on boring, really. It was served with two accompanying salsas, one tomatillo and one tomato-based, but I didn't find either of them particularly well-suited to the broth. But I appreciated that they'd achieved a nice, round if overly mellow flavor, and on that basis alone I found it considerably more enjoyable than La Barquita's, not even taking into account that it was half the price.

Birrieria ObregónDominic Armato

The second mystery establishment was Birrieria Obregón, most likely run by Sonoran folks, since it's presumably named after the city in the south of the state. Obregón was a lively spot at lunchtime on a weekday, most of the tables filled in a semi-enclosed space that was delightfully airy on a warm-but-not-too-warm spring afternoon. I again went for the goat with soup, and got something wildly different than the previous two -- or any other birria I've had, for that matter. Birrieria Obregón is, apparently, all about the spicy. The meat's nondescript and lean like Del Yaqui, but completely shredded without the slightest hint of a chunk or fat or connective tissue or anything. The broth is rather oily, which I might ordinarily consider a downside, but here I think it works -- and may even be intentional -- as a means of carrying the heat from an enjoyable and potent blend of dried chiles. Sadly, it was the opposite of Del Yaqui's broth, all interest without a good, solid base. The folks at Obregón could take a lesson from Del Yaqui in developing some depth. But it was still a tasty bowl of soup despite its weaknesses, and it'll get you sweating after just a few spoonfuls. It could've been more, but I enjoyed it.

Birrieria El GordoDominic Armato

Birrieria El Gordo, erroneously listed in a number of places as Birrieria El Gorvo, isn't the most pleasant of restaurants. It's cave-like and a little dingy, lit by exposed CFL bulbs of competing color temperature. So of course it ended up being one of my favorites. This was a really delicious, nicely-rounded broth with a great, full flavor, and the meat was a great improvement over Del Yaqui and Obregón. Rather than the stringy, lean meat of those two, these were moist and tender chunks of goat. And though many will not consider this a positive, the fact that there was a good deal of silky fat and connective tissue made it even better. The broth was easy on the chiles and, to my palate, in need of a little more heat, but the red salsa -- mostly pureed chiles with a little vinegar, I believe -- was a great complement to the broth, unlike the salsa served at Del Yaqui. The vegetables at El Gordo are served from a bar up front, and distinguish it slightly from the others. As well as offering chopped radishes and cucumbers, both the cabbage and the onion and cilantro mix are finely shredded, cearly with a food processor, rather than minced and sliced by hand. While I prefer the texture and body that the latter provides, El Gordo's approach wasn't entirely without merit. It had the effect of almost acting like a thickener, making the dish feel less like a soup and more like a stew. But again, not to my preference. Even considering, however, El Gordo ended up being my favorite of the five.

Taqueria Y Birrieria JaliscoDominic Armato

Though not by a huge margin. My last stop on the Birria Blitz was Taqueria Y Birrieria Jalisco, named for the dish's home state. Jalisco is exclusively an open air establishment (though under roof or canopy), which made it breezy and comfortable, and the superfriendly staff only helped. Though I didn't feel Jalisco's birria was up to the level of El Gordo's, I suspect it has broader appeal. Their broth was also delicious, and felt like it had been rounded out with a little (or a little more) tomato, though I couldn't say for sure. It was undeniably a meat broth, but the vegetable flavor was a little more forward here. It needed a little more zip, but came with a fiery, pure chile puree that achieved that end quite nicely. The meat, to me, was the weakness. Definitely more enjoyable than Del Yaqui and Obregón, but without the life of La Barquita's or the succulence of El Gordo's. Even so, I found it very enjoyable. If I just couldn't handle lunch in a cave that day, I'd certainly be happy with a bowl of birria from Taqueria Y Birrieria Jalisco.

Chile PureeDominic Armato

So I guess the short answer is that there's a lot more birria out there than the widely-acknowledged La Barquita. And of course there's way, way more than this. These were just the most obvious and easy to find. Heck, while leaving Taqueria Y Birrieria Jalisco, I noticed another birrieria directly across the street, El Lorito, that was little more than a roach coach with a vinyl banner, canopy and a few folding tables. It was actually busier than Jalisco, which might be an indication that I should get back there sooner rather than later. But even barring future discoveries, I hit some places this week that I'll be all too happy to revisit. While I wasn't much enamored of either La Barquita or Del Yaqui, I can see myself returning to all of the others. El Gordo was definitely my favorite, but Jalisco wasn't far behind. And even though it had significant faults, the birria at Obregón was unique and interesting enough that I expect I'll be hitting it for a change of pace. Or maybe when I have a cold. It's got some fire, all right. Overall, an enjoyable and educational week, and here's hoping (and expecting) that more good birria spots will turn up.

La Barquita
2334 E. McDowell Road
Phoenix, AZ 85006
Birrieria & Taqueria Del Yaqui
2920 N. 43rd Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85031
Birrieria Obregón
3146 W. Van Buren Street
Phoenix, AZ 85009
Birrieria El Gordo
2650 W. Glenrosa Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85017
Taqueria Y Birrieria Jalisco
615 W. Broadway Road
Phoenix, AZ 85041