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October 25, 2010

Chef For A Night

On The Line Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Scudiere

Well, that was pretty flippin' sweet.

Walking in the door, unpacking some knives, being introduced to the staff and then set loose in a full-fledged restaurant kitchen is... well, it's a little intimidating when you haven't really had a chance to work in one before. I spent at least the first twenty minutes just figuring out how the hell I was going to approach everything. But once we got rolling, it felt good. It felt really, really good. And I'm pretty damn pleased with how everything turned out.

65° EggsDominic Armato

For those who may have missed the earlier posts, Posh Restaurant in Scottsdale has started doing "Chef For A Night" events every other Monday, where chef/owner Josh Hebert has been accepting pitches from food-obsessed non-professionals to do a three course prix fixe menu on a Monday night. Now, I'm in the camp that seriously considered making professional kitchens my livelihood on a few occasions, but never pulled the trigger. For me, having never been a workplace, the restaurant kitchen is still all romance. So when Josh asked if I'd be interested in running the show one night, you'd better believe I jumped all over it. And I have to say, I'm a little taken aback by just how smoothly it went. To be fair, Josh and Zac, his sous, gave me a healthy head start. For those who have been following the menu's evolution, the pasta was made, the chicken was bagged and underwater, the fennel was glazed, the apple gastrique was reducing away, the gelato was frozen, and there was a big tank of squash stock ready to go.

The Unusual NegroniDominic Armato

Prep was halfway done, which was nice, particularly when you're trying to adjust to the equipment and don't know where anything is. So we finished prepping, got our mise where it needed to be, screwed around a little, and even had a chance to sample some libations before getting into service. Cocktails for the evening were courtesy of The Cosmic Jester, and on top of a beautifully bright and refreshing mandarin martini called The Golden Leaf -- a "souvenir" he'd brought back from the Mandarin Bar in Las Vegas, made with Hendrick's, muddled mandarin oranges and pineapple, lime and Aperol -- he also kept with the evening's theme in presenting two versions of the Negroni, the classic gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, and the "Unusual Negroni," a lighter and sweeter take made with gin, Aperol and Lillet. So having just barely wet our beaks, we returned to the kitchen, fired one of everything and put it in the pass for one final tasting. And maybe the alcohol had something to do with it, but that's when I got a little giddy.

65° Egg CarbonaraDominic Armato

The Egg Carbonara had been a thorn in my side for two weeks. I wanted to mix the whites with the other ingredients before cooking them, preferably in the shell, but after plowing through seven or eight dozen test eggs (with apologies to Joel LaTondress' Sous Vide Supreme), it just wasn't coming together. So that morning, I threw a Hail Mary. Instead of trying to make an egg mixture and cook it in the shell, I just dropped the eggs into a 65 degree water bath and had everything else prepped and ready to go. To fire the dish, I cracked one of the eggs into a cup, drizzled it with some of the garlicky pancetta fat and a little olive oil, sprinkled it with parmesan and pecorino, salt and pepper, and the crispy bits of fried pancetta. And for a Plan B, it turned out fabulously. Fabulously enough that I may not bother going back to rework it the way I'd originally intended.

Tortelli in Roasted Squash BrodoDominic Armato

The tortelli were similarly at least 90% of the way towards my ideal. The one thing that fell a little short was the pasta itself, which came out a little tough owing, I think, to the manner in which we rolled it. But everything else was right on target, and the brodo was even better than I'd hoped. It was a happy accident, really. Zac had made a squash stock for me ahead of time, and while it was really delicious, it wasn't as clear or as nutty and roasted as I wanted. So I chopped up a couple more squash, roasted them to a deep golden color, and simmered the stock a second time with the golden squash. The result had all of the intense, nutty flavor and clarity of my test batches, but it had a little more complexity as well due to a couple of additions Zac had made. Drizzled with brown butter, it was exactly what I'd been hoping we could achieve. Crispy fried sage and a little bit of grated amaretti cookies on top, and with the exception of watching the pasta texture, I wouldn't change a thing.

Crispy Chicken RouladeDominic Armato

Though Josh would, over the course of the evening, repeatedly insist that the chicken dish was all me, the truth is that it was at the very least a collaboration. I provided the high concept and flavors, and Josh brought the technique to bear, which made -- perhaps predictably, given Josh's training -- a dish that blurred the line between Italian and French a little bit. We cooked chicken thighs and legs sous vide with rosemary and juniper, stripped the meat from the bone and folded in an apple puree, rolled it in chicken skin before crisping on the griddle, and set it atop cider-glazed fennel drizzled with an apple, thyme and juniper gastrique that we thinned out with a little chicken stock. Incidentally, telling the guy who actually runs the restaurant, "No, don't mount the gastrique with butter. I don't want it to get too rich. Let's thin it a bit with stock," was, perhaps, the most intimidating moment of the evening. Theme of the evening or not, it feels weird bossing these people around when even the lowliest prep cook has spent more time prepping this stuff than I have.

Fall Spiced Gelato with Caffè CorrettoDominic Armato

On the dessert, I called another last-minute audible, and I'm really glad I did. I'd been toying with the idea of scrapping the orange liqueur in favor of a more traditional Sambuca in the caffé corretto, and after tasting the spice gelato I knew it was the right call. It needed a touch of orange, but a small hit of orange zest frozen on the antigriddle -- "orange snow," if you will -- provided just the right amount, and the Sambuca worked better in the coffee and picked up the star anise in the spice gelato. Like scrapping the sausage filling for the tortelli in favor of a more traditional tortellini filling, dialing the zaniness back just a touch made the remaining non-traditional elements work better. They were Italian dishes amended rather than reinvented. And I was thrilled with every one of them.

Apple Gastrique, ReducingDominic Armato

Perhaps even more shocking, service went incredibly smoothly. Josh let the other cooks go home for the evening, and the two of us banged it out, him handling the chicken while I did the other three. "Banged it out" might be overstating things a bit. 27 covers spread across five hours of service isn't a pace that should make even the greenest line cook break a sweat (experienced line cooks, you can stop laughing at me anytime, guys). But even such a leisurely evening still drives home a lot of those restaurant kitchen truisms that you've heard and read about. I wouldn't say there was much that came as a surprise, but it's one thing to know, intellectually, and another entirely to do it, even for one evening. Among the things I marveled over in the aftermath:

Making the dish great is easy. Making it great 27 times in a row is hard.
You hear about it all the time, about how cooking in a restaurant is all about repetition, and how any chef who wants to stay in business will take consistently good over occasionally great. I know those sample dishes we all tasted before service were great. But trying to make sure that every dish matched those when tickets are rolling in and you're trying to keep up is another matter entirely. And don't blow it, because one bad plate goes out and somebody rakes you over the coals on Yelp. Or... um... maybe a food blog. Designing the menu is creative. The actual cooking couldn't be less so. It's very precise, mechanical work, and it doesn't matter how brilliant your dish is if you can't reproduce it again and again and again and again and again.

The ability to delegate is a blessing and a curse.
Having minions is awesome. But those minions are going to do exactly what you tell them to do. And if you don't carefully articulate what you're looking for, you aren't going to get it. Being a chef is as much about communication as it is about cooking. Perhaps moreso.

It's really, really easy to forget to taste things.
A lot of you are Top Chef fans. You know the drill. When Tom asks if somebody tasted the dish, they're doomed. And it's so critical. And so easy to forget. How many times did I forget? A lot. I hope all of that brown butter was brown and not, shall we say, more than brown. But I have to wonder if a couple that went too long slipped through, because I forgot to taste them all. And that uncertainty kills me. And it's part of the reason restaurants genuinely, desperately want to know if you enjoyed your meal.

Smaller steps mean fewer slips.
A new one to me, and I don't mean it metaphorically. As Josh explained to me early on, since I tend to cover a lot of ground with few steps, big strides make for slips and falls. Little steps keep your weight over your feet and make it easier for you to maintain your balance. And now I know why he shuffles everywhere he goes.

Holy crap, restaurant kitchens are dangerous.
You've heard it. You know it. But things are hot and sharp and people are flying behind you at breakneck pace, and there was a moment early on where I had to pause to remind myself that if I wasn't careful, I could end up in the hospital very, very quickly. I got through service with all ten digits intact, and only two slightly tender spots from grabbing handles whose appearance didn't betray their elevated temperature. I consider this an unqualified victory. And the side towel is my new best friend.

All senses will be in play.
There was a chapter of Heat wherein Bill Buford talks about becoming attuned to the pulse of the kitchen, where you're fully engaged with all five senses. And while I may not have achieved that level of kitchen zen on my first full night on the line (or anything close to it, really), you start to understand how really making it happen is a matter of becoming fully immersed in your surroundings. Early in the evening, I was having trouble with the brown butter. Posh has a show kitchen, so the lighting is dim, and I was cooking my butter in tiny black pans that were sitting in shadow. I spent the first half of the evening constantly picking up my pan and squinting, straining to see the color. When I realized midway through the evening that all I had to do was take a deep breath through my nose and I'd smell exactly how brown the butter was, it not only meant that I was less likely to screw up the butter, but it also freed me to focus on something else while the butter cooked in the background. It may have been only a tiny little taste, but for a brief moment I was Neo, and I *saw* the Matrix.

But perhaps most importantly, my day as the chef of Posh served to reinforce that I'm *NOT* Neo. As well as it went (I think!), I'm a little kitchen peon. Gracious and welcoming as the Posh staff was, they were superheroes to put up with me. And they're superheroes in that they do this all the time. I'm always in awe of the fact that people do this, and do it with such consistency. There's so much energy behind every plate, and I can't fathom how they muster that energy every day. It's almost a little embarrassing, to come tromping in for an evening, taking charge of people who know far more than you and co-opting the title that those in the profession work for years and years to earn. I'm not a chef. I haven't earned that title. I'm just a guy who really likes food. But to everybody over at Posh and all the folks who came in to eat, thanks for letting me pretend, if only for an evening.

October 13, 2010


Egg Carbonara - The Final Test Dominic Armato

Hope this works.

October 11, 2010

A Little Tease...

Roasted Squash Dominic Armato

We have a date and time, we have a place, we have a menu. Skillet Doux's Chef for a Night over at Posh is just a week away!

As mentioned a few weeks ago, Josh Hebert of Posh Restaurant in Scottsdale has been kind enough to let me play executive chef for a night, and we'll be presenting my menu next Monday. I'd hoped to document the process of working on the recipes, but the journal didn't quite work out. Time is at a premium these days and I may have over-committed on that a bit. But I'm excited about the food. I'll be doing a little fine-tuning between now and next Monday, but everything's coming out fabulously.

The menu, "Italian, Poshified," is as follows (subject to last-minute adjustments, if necessary):

Amuse: 65° Egg Carbonara
Think of it as Spaghetti Carbonara minus the spaghetti. I'm separating the yolks from the whites, mixing the whites with rendered pancetta, cheese and pepper, returning it to the eggshell with the yolk, poaching it and topping it with more cheese and crispy pancetta. I've decided to go with a 65° egg (celsius, of course) to get a custardy white with a nice, runny yolk. It's decadent and awesome.

Primo: Tortelli in Roasted Squash Brodo with Brown Butter and Sage
It's intended as an elegant play on the pumpkin ravioli with butter and sage that you get everywhere this time of year. I decided to scrap the sausage and pecorino filling for the tortelli. The brodo is coming out so nicely and the tortelli were kind of busy, so I decided to tone down the filling a bit. I'm going with a (mostly) traditional tortellini filling (pork, chicken, mortadella, cheeses, etc.), floating the tortelli in a clear, intense roasted squash consommè, and drizzling the whole thing with brown butter and fried sage.

Secondo: Crispy Chicken Roulade with Apple Gastrique and Cider-Glazed Fennel
Josh was a huge help in bringing this one together. I knew what I wanted to do, but wasn't quite sure about the best way to do it. As it turns out, something he's done a number of times before is sous vide a meat, wrap it in chicken skin and roll the roulades on the flat top to crisp the skin, which is exactly what I was looking for... so we're rolling it rather than layering it. We'll sous vide chopped chicken thigh with rosemary and juniper and give it the crispy roulade treatment, dress it with a little apple gastrique, and serve it alongside a simple roasted, cider-glazed fennel. It should rock.

Dolce: Fall Spiced Gelato with Orange Snow and Caffè Corretto
It's my old favorite, the Spice Cream, which is made by infusing a typical ice cream base with cinnamon,cloves and star anise. Then we'll turn a little orange zest into snow, and serve it alongside a shot of espresso "corrected" with Cointreau and cognac. You can eat the gelato and sip the coffee, but I think the way to go is pouring some of the latter over the top of the former. Either way, it's an old favorite.

So there it is! I'm jazzed. The event is open to anybody who wants to come, Monday, October 18th from 5:30 - 8:30 PM. The menu runs $29, and it'd be a huge help if anybody who is interested called 480.663.7674 to reserve a spot. Here's hoping anybody who's in town can make it!

October 06, 2010


Roasted Cod with Mussels and Chorizo Dominic Armato

Hot damn! A recipe! When's the last time we had one of those? ... March of '09?!? Geezum crow, that's a long time. Well, what the heck. Dinner tonight was a little grocery store improvisation that turned out pretty well. I actually took photos and mostly remembered what I put in there and how I did it. Howz'bout we throw one up there?

Dominic Armato

a loaf of good bread
6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
3 cloves garlic, divided
pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika)
1 cod fillet, 12-16 oz.
2 1/2 oz. dried Spanish chorizo
1 large leek
2 medium tomatoes
1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
a pinch of saffron threads
1/2 tsp. coarse salt
1/2 C. dry white wine
15-20 black mussels, scrubbed and debearded
Roasted Cod with
Chorizo and Mussels
Serves 2-3 as an entree

Preheat your oven to 450°, and while that's warming up, time to do a little prep.

First, slice the chorizo pretty thinly, maybe 2-3mm thick, and set it aside. Then, work on the vegetables. Cut the roots and the dark green tops off the leek and throw them away, slice the white and light green portion lengthwise and clean them carefully (leeks love dirt), and then thinly slice them the short way. Mince up two of the garlic cloves, and toss them together with the leeks in a bowl. And while you're at it, peel the third clove, but leave it whole and set it aside. Then start a second prep bowl of vegetables, starting with the tomatoes. Cut out the stems, slice them in half and remove the seeds, and then chop the tomatoes. They don't need to be peeled, but you could if you like. Into that same bowl, add the chopped thyme and the saffron threads. Then, slice the bread however you think will best make it kind of bruschetta-like once toasted, and brush it with two tablespoons of the olive oil and put it on a sheet pan, ready for the oven. Lastly, pat the cod fillet dry, slice it into however many portions you'll be serving, brush it with two more tablespoons of the olive oil and season it on both sides with salt and pepper. You're ready to cook!

Add the last two tablespoons of the olive oil to a big sauté pan and heat it over medium-high until it starts to shimmer. You don't want to let it smoke. Once it's hot, toss in the sliced chorizo and fry up the chorizo for a couple of minutes so that it browns a bit and turns the oil a nice red color. Then, toss in the leeks and garlic and keep cooking, stirring frequently, until the leeks soften up. Then add the tomatoes, thyme and saffron along with half a teaspoon of salt and stir to combine. Add half of the wine, bring the mixture to a boil, and remove the pan from the heat. Gently lay the cod over the top of the tomatoes and stick the whole pan in the oven for five minutes.

After five minutes, pull the pan from the oven and return it to the stovetop over medium-high. Spoon some of the leeks and tomatoes over the top of the fish, surround the fish with the mussels, add the rest of the wine and return to a boil. Then, return the pan to the oven until the cod is cooked and the mussels have opened, about 5-7 minutes.

Pull the cod from the oven, throw in the bread and turn on the broiler, so the bread can toast while you're plating the cod. Place the cod fillets in shallow bowls and top with a little more of the leek and tomato mixture. Surround the cod with the mussels and chorizo, pour any remaining broth into the bottom of the bowl, and get that bread out of the oven because it's probably about to burn. Gently rub that last garlic clove you saved over the toasted bread, sprinkle on a touch of pimentón, add a piece or two of the bread to each bowl and get that fish on the table. You're done!

October 04, 2010

The Quarterly Report - Q3 2010

Corned Beef @ Chestnut Lane Dominic Armato

Man, this is great. No better way to help clean out the archives than the quarterly report. Wish I'd thought of this four years ago. 'Course, this is only about a third of the actual backlog... the ones that I don't think I could expand into full posts, or the ones for which I'm no longer clinging to the belief I someday might. Typically, they're based on an even smaller sample than a normal post. So, you know, weigh opinions appropriately. Here they are, in order determined by random.org:

Patty MeltDominic Armato

Jerry's Restaurant
2323 E Thomas Road, Phoenix, AZ 85016

"Nighthawks at the diner, Emma's 49er.
It's a rendezvous of strangers
around the coffee urn tonight..."

I may have some unreasonably romantic notions about diners. It comes from listening to too much Tom Waits. So when seeking something greasy at 2:00 AM, an independent joint on Thomas sounds a lot better than the closest outpost of 5 and Diner. Why do faux retro when you can do real retro? The menus make me sad, not for their contents but because they're playing to their competition by kitsching it up with illustrations and cute names. You're an old-school diner. Be an old-school diner. But on my last visit, two kids out way past curfew were drinking milkshakes and telling dirty jokes in the corner, the waitress finished every sentence with "Hon," and on my way out I crossed paths with the least convincing drag queen anywhere ever. So maybe things haven't changed all that much since the '70s. Foodwise, Jerry's certainly fits the bill. The griddled sandwiches are super crisp, the food's greasy without going over the top, and the salads are made with a wedge of industrial tomato, a slice of cucumber and an iceberg lettuce mix for which I'm sure many in the restaurant industry could name the exact Sysco catalog number. So after a couple of trips, it sure seems like everything I'm looking for in a late night diner. Don't get me wrong, I know a diner can transcend the greasy spoon stereotype. I've been there. But at 2:00 AM, I'm usually just looking for a newspaper and a decent cup of coffee and a sandwich that's greasy and salty and that I'm sure to regret about two hours later. That's Jerry's all over.

Sweet and Spicy BurgerDominic Armato

The Grind
3961 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix, AZ 85018

Yeah, I know, I wrote about The Grind in the last quarterly report. But there are two reasons I need to jump right back in. First, because my last few visits seem to indicate that their consistency issues are on the wane. The burger still might be cooked a half a step hotter than you ordered it, but all of the ones I've had since I last wrote have been ON. Second, I like to compile a list of my favorite dishes of the year at the end of the year, and I like to have already mentioned those dishes. So I'm mentioning it. This is the sweet and spicy burger, and it's currently ticketed for my favorites of the year. You know, the thousand degree oven sounds like a marketing ploy, but damn if that crust doesn't make these burgers fantastic. This one's topped with crisp tempura-fried ratatouille, fresh watercress and a sweet chile jam of sorts, and it's just killer. And as aggressive as that jam is, they use just enough to bring out the beef rather than killing it. That's the thing about The Grind, and why they've earned my devotion over some other local burger options. Even with the creative toppings, they're still about the beef.

Oaxaca SpecialDominic Armato

1202 E Mohave Street, Phoenix, AZ 85034

Props to Chow Bella for creating a little bit of "I want that" urgency a few weeks ago. Everybody else knows about Carolina's but me, it seems, and the place is awesome -- a total dive that's nonetheless jam-packed with just about every demographic represented in this city. It reminds me a little of Chicago's beef stands, where the best attract everybody, transcending the usual racial, ethnic and economic barriers that separate restaurant clientele. There's a lot on the menu, but the thing here is burros. Cheap burros. And why people call them burros here is still a mystery to me. But Carolina's is a total guilty pleasure, salty, spicy grease bombs wrapped in incredibly fresh flour tortillas. This would be some of the best booze food in the city if they didn't close up shop before happy hour is even over at some places. The Oaxaca Special, object of my culinary lust that brought me here in the first place, is filled with chorizo, beans, potato and cheese, and that pretty much tells you all you need to know about it. It appeals to your basest food instincts, and there are few things more enjoyable than embracing your basest food instincts from time to time.

Cau Cau de MariscosDominic Armato

Rincon Peruano
5925 W. Olive Avenue, Glendale, Arizona 85302

As part of the citywide Peruvian blitz that ended with me deciding I didn't really need to revisit anywhere other than Contigo Peru, I ate at three other places. Rincon Peruano is the only one that I feel bears mentioning, even if I can't recommend it all that highly. If I lived next door to it in Glendale, I'd probably still truck down to Mesa for Contigo. Of course, I realize not everybody shares my dedication to the entire Phoenix metro area when it comes to hitting my favorite spots. You could get a decent meal at Rincon Peruano, but I don't think it's going to go a long way towards winning over fans of the cuisine. The ceviche lacked punch, the anticuchos could have used a little more time in the marinade and the cau cau apparently got all of the lomo saltado's salt. Which I guess is all my way of saying that you should just drive down to Mesa.

Lobster CobbDominic Armato

Chestnut Lane
4225 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix, AZ 85018

UPDATE : Chestnut Lane has closed
I have an unhealthy affinity for "ladies who lunch" type places. Actually, healthy affinity is a more accurate way to put it. You know the breed of restaurant -- shabby chic interior, salads, soups, sandwiches, fresh ingredients, pretty presentations, small portions, big prices. It's a proven formula, and Chestnut Lane nails it right on the head in just the right 'hood. Really, everything I've had here had been light and delicious and light -- lobster cobb salad, not-so-creamy cream soup of the day, simple sandwiches made with Class A ingredients and meticulously wrapped in crisp paper. I write in passive-aggressive fashion because I hate admitting to myself that I love this stuff. Which isn't to say that I can't quibble. The pedantic food terminology police would like to point out that Guinness mustard, sweet pickles, vidalia onion and fontina cheese do not a "classic reuben" make, folks, no matter how tasty the sandwich. And while this particular oversized American tries to make it a point never to complain about portion size, I think some of the sandwiches would leave my three-year-old hungry. But I suppose that's what enables me to have both a salad and sandwich and spend $25 on my lunch. As an old high school roommate once said, the best kind of scam is the kind you recognize as a scam and participate in anyway. Of course, he was talking about "McDonald's has Monopoly" at the time. Our weaknesses have apparently become more refined and more expensive in the intervening years.

Aaron's ChoiceDominic Armato

9301 E. Shea Boulevard, Scottsdale, AZ 85260

Chompie's sandwiches, on the other hand, are triple the size but I wouldn't buy them at a third of the price (eek, that was coming out swinging). I lost count of the places where I read that Chompie's was a great place for a classic New York deli sandwich, but now I'm fighting the urge to track them all down and post angry rebuttals. It was one visit, but when you make corned beef sandwiches for a living, you don't wake up on the wrong side of the bed one day and suddenly get EVERYTHING wrong. Really, I think I've established myself not as a teardown blogger, but rather somebody who tries to look for the good. And in this case, I got nothin'. I'll take the blame for not noticing that the Aaron's special was on an onion roll rather than rye, but my blame ends there. And really, guys, I've bought a lot of onion rolls in my day and I don't think I've ever tasted one so insipid. I'd wager big that the cole slaw on the sandwich and the accompanying potato salad both came out of huge plastic tubs. All of which would be forgivable if the beef were good, but it's not. The corned beef was dry and tough with almost no fat and even less flavor. The "hot" pastrami was cold and had the consistency of boiled deli ham. I should've noticed up front that the menu mentioned that it was roasted(?) and steamed, but didn't say a thing about it being smoked. I hate to be so harsh based on a single lunch, but really, any long-established place touting itself as a New York deli that serves you a corned beef and/or pastrami sandwich that bad deserves it, no matter what the circumstances.

October 02, 2010

Care Package

Zongzi Dominic Armato

It's wonderful to see a Baltimore friend who's stopping by for a night en route to Vegas. It's even more wonderful when he arrives with a care package of zongzi from Grace Garden. Belly full of sticky rice and thinking of the Lis is a spectacular way to spend a Saturday.

October 01, 2010

Mexico City - Day III

Finally! Dominic Armato

Day three didn't start precisely how I planned. A little bit of oversleeping combined with a little bit of a transportation snafu scrapped my plan to hit the Mercado de la Merced, which is regularly touted as the largest food market in the Latin world. Given time constraints, this may have been a good thing. So with little more than an hour left until our departure, I got desperate. I started asking the hotel staff if there was anyplace nearby where I could find a bunch of street food stands. Once they confirmed that I was, in fact, trying to get my breakfast out on the street on purpose and that we weren't having communication issues (is it so rare that American travelers go looking for street food?), they were kind enough to point out a street corner that they thought would be particularly fruitful, just six or seven blocks away. Off I went.

After arriving at the suggested location, in the middle of a residential neighborhood a couple blocks off one of the main drags, I was dismayed to discover an entire two stands, neither of which looked like they had much potential, and both of which were still getting set up. Crestfallen, I started back for the hotel, resigning myself to a hotel breakfast and the knowledge that I'd be going two straight trips without any street food. As I meandered back, on the next corner, I saw a couple more stands. The next corner, another. The next corner, a couple more. And it quickly became evident that almost every single corner throughout this neighborhood had a stand or two. Passing by one, you wouldn't think much. But collectively, there was a lot to be found. So I doubled back and started hitting a different stand on every corner.

Mystery TacosDominic Armato

Back at the first corner, they were just getting up to speed -- much faster than I would have thought (I could have just sat around for a few minutes). By the time I returned, the surly-looking fellow running the stand was warming tortillas and eggs on a flattop. He'd set out six or seven metal trays teeming with fillings, and he was already pulling out a massive cut of pork that he was hacking apart and preparing, I think, for lunchtime. My menu Spanish isn't bad, but it certainly isn't conversational. Mercifully, the pointing method is pretty universal, so that's what I did. I pointed to a couple of the fillings and asked for tacos. Within 30 seconds, the fellow set a plate in front of me with my first honest to god shot at Mexican street food. And it was *fantastic*. One of them I identified, on first glance, as papas con chorizo -- potatoes with sausage. But the first bite revealed that it certainly wasn't chorizo. What was it? No idea. But it was meaty and greasy and fabulous. The other, unexpectedly, involved an egg, which was slapped on the griddle before the fillings, so that when the entire mess was topped with tortillas and inverted, voila, a taco with an egg griddled to a crisped brown on the top. This filling was diced and sautéed onions and jalapenos, along with thin slices of a salty meat that I'm pretty sure was porcine, but the exact provenance of which I couldn't say. All I know is that they were both amazing and the only thing that kept me from trying all six or seven fillings was that I knew there were a dozen more stands between me and the hotel.

Quesadilla Flor de CalabazaDominic Armato

A block or two further along was a two-woman team offering a number of items including quesadillas with squash blossoms, which was high on my wish list. Grandma had a dark wooden tortilla press the size of a large briefcase, and as she leaned on the two foot long handle to press out little hunks of masa and slapped them on the griddle, a middle-aged woman who I'm betting was her daughter would work the fillings. Just observing from driving around town, quesadillas are everywhere in Mexico City. Though it was by no means a scientific survey, I might've guessed they were the most prevalent form of street food. Here, though, we're talking corn tortillas, seemingly always formed into an oval shape and folded over the long way. This was no exception, generously stuffed with an enormous amount of chopped and sautéed squash blossoms and a healthy dose of molten, chewy cheese. This wasn't the most refined squash blossom concoction I've encountered, and the mixture was awfully wet, but the flavors were still big and delicious, and I can't remember ever getting that many squash blossoms all on one plate. There's something to be said for having a massive pile of them.

Chicharrón GorditasDominic Armato

I was already starting to stagger, regretting that the previous night's waste of a meal was still hanging around, threatening to limit my capacity out on the street where these little stands were putting that upscale kitchen to shame. I figured I had one, maybe two more stops left in me, and for the last one, I happened to make a great call. I was drawn in by a massive pile of potatoes and chorizo, kept warm on a griddle while the folks manning it were mixing chicharrón -- fried pork rinds -- into fresh masa and griddling up thick gorditas that were pretty big, perhaps eight inches in diameter. Once the gorditas had turned a beautiful, blistered golden color, glistening with what I've no doubt was lard, they'd split them down the middle and stuff in a measure of the potatoes and chorizo and a light sprinkle of crumbled queso fresco, offering a little fresh green or red salsa as dressing. I selected green, spooned a little into the pocket, and dug in.

Gordita Papas con ChorizoDominic Armato

This thing was flat-out amazing. The gordita had a crisp exterior -- it almost crunched -- but the inside was still moist and steaming. The chicharron added a salty and meaty element, as did the fat used to griddle it, and I'd get little hints of char every time I munched through one of those small blistered spots. Robust potatoes to fill your belly mixed with aggressively spiced chorizo, and a little bit of fresh salsa for a touch of brightness -- with all due respect to Pujol, which was fabulous, THIS is what I'd been seeking during both trips to Mexico. The family running this stand made nothing but chicharron gorditas stuffed with papas con chorizo, and they've probably been making nothing but chicharron gorditas with papas con chorizo on that very cart for twenty years, and by god, they know how to do it. So much flavor, so many textures, all crammed into a piece of folded paper on a random street corner in nondescript residential neighborhood in Mexico City. And my street food breakfast -- the take from all three stands combined -- was less than $5 US.

Immediately behind me was a stand that looked to be ladling out five or six different kinds of soup. Mexico knows soup, and I would have loved to cram just a little more in my gullet, but the line was at least eight people deep and I had just minutes to make my scheduled departure time for the airport. I powerwalked back, grabbed the bags, and headed off to the airport, belly full of some of the most fantastic Mexican food I've ever tasted, right there on the street outside my hotel door.

After sleeping off much of the flight (that was a big breakfast!!), we landed in Dallas and I faced off with one of the most suspicious immigration agents I've ever encountered:

"Where are you going?"
"Why Phoenix?"
"That's home."
(in a suspicious tone...) "That's home???..."
"Um... yeah?"
-- awkward pause --
"You can go."

Maybe he could sense that I didn't really believe it myself when I called Phoenix home. I'm still getting used to it. But we cleared customs, hopped on the train and after reaching a terminal that I'm pretty sure was in Houston, we went walking the concourse towards our respective gates. On the way we passed a nondescript airport food court... a grim reminder that my trips out of the country are all too short and all too infrequent these days.

*sigh* Dominic Armato

Mexico City - Day I   |   Mexico City - Day II   |   Mexico City - Day III