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December 31, 2010

The Deliciousness of 2010

Tuna with Red Onion, Gaeta Olives, Lemon & Arugula Panino from Pane Bianco Dominic Armato

Hey, whaddya know! A little stability in 2010!

Feels weird to stay in one place for a year. What feels twice as weird is that all signs point to this continuing to be the case for years to come. We're card-carrying Phoenicians now (really... don't leave those cards at home), and while I didn't get as quick a start as I would have liked, I'm really enjoying settling and digging into a single city for the first time in a while.

What struck me most while compiling this year's list is how many of these dishes were made by folks who've subsequently become friends. There definitely exists a certain communal feel to the Phoenix food scene, both those who create it and those who enjoy it. People are coalescing, finding each other, talking about food, and I hope that community continues to develop because I think it has a lot of potential.

As usual, culling this list down to ten is an exercise in futility. I feel like I might as well throw darts. Plus, I experience a little pang of self-loathing every time I succumb to the whole "top ten" phenomenon. So this year I added a long list of honorable mentions at the end. I'm only picturing ten because to give all of them the full treatment would be ridiculous, but most of the dishes that stood out for me this year are mentioned below. As in previous years, these aren't "the best," or the most creative, or the most sophisticated, or the most refined, or the most anything other than the ones that I remember most vividly when recalling the year. These are the dishes that, for one reason or another, stuck with me. Clicking on the images brings up a larger image, while the name of the dish links to the post that mentioned it (or the restaurant). And so, without further ado, in completely random order supplied by random.org, the deliciousness of 2010:

Dominic Armato

Tuna with Egg and Smoked Olives
Crudo - Phoenix

Can somebody explain how a tuna tartare made the deliciousness list two years running? I thought I was done with tuna tartare seven years ago. Truth is, I tasted a horde of dishes at Crudo this year, and there are a dozen crudi I could have put in its place, but this one was just a little special to me somehow. Very coarsely diced and swimming in a pool of olive oil, the tuna is topped with chopped hard boiled egg and smoked olives. It's such a funny combination that seems so natural when you taste it. It isn't like Japanese sashimi that's completely fish-forward, but neither is the fish lost. And while smoking everything under the sun is one of the growing restaurant trends, it's really a beautiful choice here that isn't the last bit superfluous. Of all the delicious crudi I had at Crudo this year -- and there were many -- this one stands out.

Dominic Armato

Tadich Grill - San Francisco

It's tough not to be seduced by the atmosphere at Tadich Grill. It's old, old, old school, and if you removed the POS terminals and dressed the clientele in period clothing, you could film The Untouchables there. Or whatever the San Francisco equivalent would be. But even if the cioppino had been served to me in a coffee mug while standing on a street corner, it wouldn't have come close to missing the list. This was one of 2010's no doubters, an intense, saucy tomato stew overflowing with clams, mussels, crab, shrimp, scallops and multiple varieties of fish, all succulent and tender. It isn't completely clean and fresh. It's almost a little dirty-tasting (in a good way), laced with dried herbs and wine and the unabashed essence of the sea. And it's served with garlicky Texas toast, of all things. Some classic dishes seem dated when served today. But some are timeless, and this is among them.

Dominic Armato

Nobuo at Teeter House - Phoenix

Between the sashimi plate and his chawanmushi duo, Nobuo nearly forced me to break my tradition of not listing two dishes from the same restaurant. Picking one of the two was simply torturous, but I finally settled on the sashimi course from his omakase for its sheer visceral impact. It's like an entire career's worth of signature creative East-West sashimi all presented at once, a stunning array of all manner of fish presented in all kinds of ways, ranging from delicious to surprising to fabulous. The uni and kumamoto oyster with tomato water and wasabi oil was a favorite, as well as the octopus atop creamy fresh mozzarella and tomato with aioli and pink peppercorn. I recommend clicking through to the original post, because this image just doesn't do it justice. Getting any one of these items would have been a winning dish. Getting nine of them at once was almost overwhelming.

Dominic Armato

Calotte de Bœuf Grillée
The French Laundry - Napa Valley

As technically brilliant as Thomas Keller and his minions are, it's when the man's wit shows through in his food that he's at his best. Such was the case with his Calotte de Bœuf Grillée which, to be clear, was steak with carrots and peas. Based purely on flavor and technique, I could have taken almost any dish we had that evening and put it on this list. But this is the one that sticks with me because it takes somebody with the skill, courage and sense of humor of somebody like Thomas Keller to not only make steak with carrots and peas his final savory course, but to somehow make it arguably the most delicious dish of the evening. He knows there's power in those classic, comforting combinations, but he knows how to make them special, even if it takes less than you'd think. There's tarragon jus, yes, and a couple of nuggets of transmogrified béarnaise, but still... it's basically steak with carrots and peas. And it was one of the best dishes I had all year.

Dominic Armato

Zucchini with Mint and Chiles
FnB - Phoenix

Like Crudo, I knew a dish from FnB would be on this list, and the only question was which. What makes this such a tricky call is that I had so many of Charleen Badman's fabulous vegetables that choosing a standout is an exercise in futility. The obvious choice would be the now famous braised leeks with breadcrumbs, mozzarella and egg. But as spectacular as that dish is, it wasn't even my favorite on the night I had it. That honor went to the spicy grilled broccoli, which I almost put here for that very reason. But as much as I'm embarrassed to lay my snacky sensibilities so bare, the dish that I find I can't get out of my head is her fried zucchini with mint and chiles. She takes paper-thin rounds of sliced zucchini, fries them up hot and crisp, and hits them with fresh mint and a sweet chile sauce. It's another of her vegetable dishes that does just enough that she isn't serving the proverbial figs on a plate, but still doesn't lose the natural beauty of the produce around which it's based. This one isn't her most sophisticated dish. It appeals to your basest snacky instincts. But it's so, so good, and it want it right now.

Dominic Armato

Escolar en Adobo Oaxaqueño
Pujol - Mexico City

I had forgotten how much I love escolar. Seriously, it's been years since I've had a piece of this wonderful fish. And I can't imagine a better reintroduction than the escolar I had at Pujol in Mexico City, remarkable for the restrained accompaniments as well as the absolute perfection of the fish. Escolar is a fish that's almost meaty, dense and moist and very full-flavored for a white fish. And this piece of fish was so beautiful, so pristine, so perfectly prepared that the choice to apply the slightly sweet and spicy adobo, herb puree, earthy huitlacoche and flakes of squash blossom as sparingly as possible was the right one. "Juicy" is not often a word I'd use to describe fish, but this one wept like a ripe peach. One of the best fish dishes I've had in years. Literally.

Dominic Armato

English Pea
Alinea - Chicago

Returning to Alinea after four years was a fascinating experience, not just because Alinea is inherently fascinating, but also because it allowed me to see how Achatz took tricks and techniques that he'd just developed on our first pass, and applied them in more complex and sophisticated ways to create the dinner had on the second pass. Nowhere was this more obvious than with our first dish, simply titled English Pea. But there was nothing simple about it. There were aerated pea foams, crunchy freeze-dried peas, powdered Iberico ham, spherified melon, sherry vinegar pearls... natural flavor pairings that were converted into a surprising and delightful symphony of textures. This was, in fact, one of the greatest joys of this visit to Alinea: that just as much care was given to texture as to flavor. And no dish exemplified it better than the English Pea.

Dominic Armato

Gordita Papas con Chorizo
Street Cart - Mexico City

I came mere minutes away from making a second trip to Mexico City without sampling any street food, but after other plans were foiled, thankfully I decided to "settle" for whatever was within a few blocks of the hotel. Because the little run-of-the-mill temporary food carts and stands in the neighborhood turned out to be everything I'd hoped for. Of everything I sampled before dashing for the plane, this gordita was my favorite. It was made by a family operating a small cart that offered nothing but, and it completely blew me away. Fresh, hot griddled masa, crisp and a little greasy on the outside, soft and steamy within, filled with soft potatoes and piquant chorizo, hit with a touch of cheese and salsa... it was the kind of simple perfection that could only come from a family that's probably been making the same thing for decades. I'd heard that Mexico City is one of the places where you could spend a month eating on the street and not miss out on a thing. I'm now a true believer, and I look forward to really digging in the next time I'm there.

Dominic Armato

Gamberoni Reali alla Brace
Andreoli - Phoenix

Though I don't mean to suggest that this particular nugget of wisdom is in any way a unique insight on my part (far from it), I've often said that great Italian food is all about getting great ingredients and then getting the hell out of their way. Of course, this applies to many of the world's cuisines, but with Italian, I think, moreso than most. So it stands to reason that in the year I found the Italian restaurant I've been seeking for a decade, my favorite dish I had there was little more than some stunningly beautiful shrimp basted with olive oil, salt and a touch of lemon and slapped on the grill. They were massive, lightly charred, seasoned by their own brine, and 60% head, which made for some amazing slurping once the tails had been devoured. I'm told they'd been in the waters around Greece not two days before reaching my table. I can't fathom what they'd be like to have closer to their origin. But I'll take them any way I can get them.

Dominic Armato

Brûléed Foie with Figs and Mochi
Posh - Phoenix

Given the number of times I've been to Posh -- easily 30 at this point -- it's more than a little amusing that I've never actually been there for dinner service. Thankfully, a late night staple is Josh Hebert's brûléed foie, which, in keeping with the restaurant's improvisational theme, I've never seen served the same way twice. At its heart is a foie torchon, more a matter of pressed morsels of foie than the smooth pate-like consistency more often seen, which gives it an unusually satisfying texture. Then sugared and torched like crème brûlée, the result is textured, creamy, rich foie in what amounts to a crisp, caramelized candy shell. After the first time, whenever I ordered this, it was for dessert. Hebert is by no means alone in offering this preparation, but his is done uncommonly well. I first sampled it back in April, and immediately knew that it would be on this list, though subsequent tastings raised the question of which version it would be. While one of the iterations involving a crystalline web of spun sugar was tempting, I couldn't get past this particular prep, with a mix of fresh and brûléed figs, and chewy fig mochi ice cream. The combination of textures, the contrast of temperatures, the perfect pairing of foie and fig... yup, this one was my fave. Now if he'd just get over the whole improvisational thing and make it this way again.

Of course, the year's favorites weren't limited to these ten... some others that spring to mind but didn't quite make the cut, in similarly random fashion:

Chilled Sweet Onion SoupThe Girl and The GoatChicago
Tuna Panino with Lemon and ArugulaPane BiancoPhoenix
Sweet and Spicy BurgerThe GrindPhoenix
Aji de GallinaContigo PeruPhoenix
Bo KhoPho ThanhPhoenix
Chawanmushi DuoNobuo at Teeter HousePhoenix
Grilled Octopus with Fresh Citrus and ChilesCarnevinoLas Vegas
Water Boiled Fish FilletsSzechwan PalacePhoenix
Agedashi TofuRakuLas Vegas
"Cuban" SandwichBouchon BakeryNapa Valley
Birria TatemadaBirrieria ZaragozaChicago
Grilled Spicy BroccoliFnBPhoenix
Octopus GnocchiCrudoPhoenix
Turkey Meatballs with Avocado FriesFoodie Fight IIPhoenix

I have to say, a good year for food. Of course, I didn't get our half as much as I'd like. And I didn't pound the pavement looking for undiscovered gems a quarter as much as I'd like. But we're settling into this desert berg, and I hope to step it up in 2011.

Thanks for reading, everybody, good eating, and happy new year!

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December 30, 2010

Pho Thanh

Cha Gio Dominic Armato

Sussing out traditional Asian favorites has been a little frustrating this year. This has been the case for three moves running now and isn't intended as a slight against Phoenix. But it would be folly to suggest that great Asian joints materialize on every street corner here as they do in some other cities. The ethnic populations just aren't here in large numbers. And those that exist seem to be spread far and wide, rather than heavily concentrated in neighborhoods that could support a vibrant Chinatown or Little Saigon or what have you. Vietnamese seems to be the best-represented Asian cuisine here, so back in the spring I started hitting all of the best-known spots in an attempt to set a Phoenix baseline before getting a little more comprehensive in searching out lesser-known joints. Frankly, it was a little disappointing, and I shelved the search for a while. I had decent dishes here and there at places like Da Vang, Khai Hoan, Blue Moon and others, but none of the spots I hit struck me as the kind of place where I knew I could always fall in and have some deftly prepared standards that were good enough not to make me simply wish they were better. Then a couple of months back, I finally hit Pho Thanh. And while I still plan on getting around to try more, I've somehow lost my sense of urgency.

Banh XeoDominic Armato

Pho Thanh's been around for about a year, having taken over for the once-revered Pho Bang's old space. Since my tenure in Phoenix is only about a year old as well, I never had a crack at the old Pho Bang, but it seems to have been rather popular before taking a bit of a nosedive towards the end. All the folks I know who have tried both, however, don't miss Pho Bang for a moment. Pho Thanh is everything I look for in a standby. It's a small, bustling, casual joint that's short on decor and long on menu options. They don't prepare all of my favorites, but there's much to be tried, even if a great many of them are slight variations on a theme. One of my favorite standards are the plain and simple Cha Gio, fried spring rolls. I don't mean to get too excited about such a basic starter, but every time I've had them these really have been exceptional specimens, beautifully light and crisp, the wrappers layered rather than bunched, with great flavor. They're still Cha Gio, but I don't think I've had them any better.

Chao TomDominic Armato

My lone disappointment so far has been the Banh Xeo, a fried pancake filled with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts. It's almost exclusively bean sprouts, and though I appreciate the low price tag, I'd personally prefer they charge an extra dollar or two and get at least a little more pork or shrimp in there. And while I realize there's a balance to be struck between crisp and soft, this got rather doughy in spots. Though better than most of the others I've had in town, it still leaves me wanting. Chao Tom, blended shrimp and pork fat formed around sugarcane and cooked, is a little more successful, though the precise method is a mystery. They're a little singed in places, but they don't have any marks that would indicate they were grilled. Broiled, perhaps? Strange. And I found the seasoning a touch weak. But still, they're quite good, and I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of Banh Hoi, intricately woven sheets of rice noodles that are great for wrapping and dipping along with the requisite herbs and vegetables.

Bun Cha Gio Thit NuongDominic Armato

When the weather warms up, I look forward to hitting the bun hard. There are few dishes I find more refreshing on a hot day than a bowl of cool rice noodles doused with salty sweet nuoc cham and topped with pickled vegetables, a mountain of fresh herbs and whatever little meaty tidbits sound good that day. The one I sampled (or stole from my son, as the case may be) was the Bun Cha Gio This Nuong, with more of those crispy rolls and grilled barbecued pork (Thit Nuong). At Pho Thanh, rather than going the threaded-on-a-stick route, they go the patty route for their Thit Nuong, forming a patty out of the pork before grilling and slicing it. I like 'em both, and this is a great version of the latter, with a juicy texture and deep, developed flavor.

Com Tam Thanh Dac BietDominic Armato

Or sometimes I prefer my assortment of Vietnamese meats and vegetables over Com Tam, or broken rice. The house megaplatter is the Com Tam Thanh Dac Biet, which crams as many little components onto the plate as possible. The same barbecued pork patty mentioned above is present, as well as a ton of other items. On the left, my lone disappointment, slivers of stir-fried pork that were very, very dry and lacking flavor. But the rest of the plate was a joy. The top of the two items in the center is a tasty spongy crab and egg patty, to the right of which is Bo Nuong La Nho, seasoned ground beef wrapped in grape leaves and grilled. It's a shadow of the dish on which it's modeled, Bo La Lot, but since I haven't been able to find a place that does it with actual betel leaves, I'm going to assume this is a supply issue. But if anybody finds true Bo La Lot, please let me know. As Wandering Chopsticks once put it, substituting grape leaves for wild betel leaves is like substituting lettuce for basil. My favorite item on the plate is the Tau Hu Ky, a cooked shrimp paste not unlike Chao Tom, but wrapped in paper-thin bean curd and fried. This is a textural delight, delicate and crisp and delicious. Round out the platter with some pickled cabbage and a fried egg, and it's tough to find a better way to spend eight bucks.

Bun Bo HueDominic Armato

The soups and stews I've tried are killer. I love a good bowl of pho as much as the next guy, but I also try very hard to stay out of the pho rut. With places such as these, it seems like all anybody orders is the pho, which is a shame. So I actually haven't tried it yet. Instead, another favorite, Bun Bo Hue, has managed to suck me in. For those unfamiliar, it's another Vietnamese noodle soup that starts with a beef broth base, but it diverges sharply from pho after that. It features a thicker, round rice noodle, an abundance of lemongrass, chiles for spice, it's funked up with fermented shrimp paste (sometimes served on the side, though not here), and unless you're getting the Western treatment, usually has a big chunk of pork hock and cubes of congealed pork blood. Pho Thanh's is intense. Bun Bo Hue is sometimes very light and lemony, but this version is big and bold and not afraid to be quite spicy. It's one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, this is a great version thereof, and I can't recommend it highly enough for those who are in the pho rut.

Bo KhoDominic Armato

Just as wonderful to me is their Bo Kho, a beef stew that has colonial French influence written all over it. It's like the love child of pho and boeuf bourguignon, a beefy stew that's still very light with some killer aromatics, including a great noseful of star anise with every bite. What's more, the chunks of beef are those throwaway bits that are stewed into blissful succulence, all of that fat and sinew turned meltingly tender by heat and plenty of time. There's more beef flavor in one of these bites than an entire beef tenderloin, and it's a shame you see this stuff almost exclusively at Asian restaurants. The Bo Kho is offered in a few different varieties, most of which simply change up the starch involved (rice noodles, here). But there's also Banh Mi Bo Kho, about which I'm rather curious.

Speaking of which, there are other banh mi as well. Not to mention the namesake pho, a page of house specials, family dishes, hot pots... I've barely scratched the surface, though I look forward to continuing to dig. I try to avoid playing the "best" game, but I'm unashamed to call Pho Thanh my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Phoenix so far.

Pho Thanh
1702 W. Camelback Rd.
Phoenix, AZ 85015
Wed - Mon8:30 AM - 8:30 PM

December 29, 2010

The Quarterly Report - Q4 2010

Navajo Taco @ Sacred Hogan Dominic Armato

Q4 was not the most productive quarter here at Skillet Doux. Assorted craziness and a month and a half (and counting) of nonstop kid sickness have, unfortunately, kept writing to a minimum. But I did, in fact, eat out. Occasionally. So while I'm sitting on a small stack of places for which I intend to do larger writeups, here are a few bits and pieces. As always, in order determined by random.org:

The Elliott GlasserDominic Armato

Stan's Metro Deli
414 S. Mill Ave., Tempe, AZ 85281

UPDATE : Stan's Metro Deli has closed
I'm unsure if the hype surrounding the second coming of Stan's Metro Deli, which approached a religious tenor, was a matter of true nostalgia or a function of PR. If the latter, I salute you, Stan's. But while you can get a decent (if uninspired) sandwich, I'm not sure I understand the hoopla. Chicken soup was weak and the matzo ball was a sinker. Brisket combinations and permutations would be laughed out of NYC but were perfectly palatable when taken in local context (keep those hackles down, let's be honest that deli isn't a strength here, folks). Potato pancakes more closely resembled hash browns than Bubbie's latkes, but were crisp and enjoyable. But this was the site of one of the more bizarre restaurant experiences I've had. Upon discovering that I'd left my beet borscht almost completely untouched, a manager or owner asked what I thought. This is a question I almost always evade since it rarely if ever leads to anything constructive, but on this occasion I came out with it. It was a puree rather than a borscht, it was weirdly gritty, and it was sweeter than Halloween candy. To their credit, they couldn't have handled it any better (other than making better borscht, of course). I was comped the soup and told they knew they needed to rework the recipe, but I've been unable to determine whether they ever did since it's been 86ed the two times I returned to find out. Weird.

ParrilladaDominic Armato

Asadero Norte de Sonora
122 N. 16th St., Phoenix AZ 85034

Asadero Norte de Sonora falls into the category of places I really want to like. It's a little hole in the wall authentic Mexican joint that's doing all kinds of very basic takes on grilled meats. It's all over mesquite, it's all smoky, it's all charred, and it's all... okay. Let it be known that I'm an enthusiastic booster of fire meets meat. There's nothing that annoys me more than "carne asada" that's wet or lacking smoky char. But here, the pendulum seems to swing a bit too far in the other direction. Charred is good. Dry and carbonized is not. Still, the parrillada in particular is a feast, complete with charred cebollitas, jalapenos and some other vegetables, tortillas that could fill in for barber shop towels (i.e. hot and steamy), and some really, really good smooth and creamy frijoles refritos. I suspect some plan old carne asada tacos might come across better, where the meat isn't quite so exposed. Or maybe I didn't catch them at their best.

Mutton StewDominic Armato

Sacred Hogan Navajo Frybread
842 E. Indian School Rd., Phoenix AZ 85014

I'm a complete novice when it comes to Native American foods. In fact, Sacred Hogan is, I think, the only Native American restaurant -- Navajo, in this case -- I've ever been to. But while I'd be a complete fool to dismiss it based on a singular experience and I'm anxious to try some elsewhere, I can't say that Sacred Hogan has me all excited about the cuisine. Mutton stew, though composed of an admirably clean and pure broth with chunks of lamb and hominy and little silky bubbles of mutton fat, was criminally underseasoned and needed a shakerful of salt to take it from flat to plain. Blue corn mush was similarly devoid of any complementary flavor, and authentic or not, wasn't particularly enjoyable (though I'm told cutting it with cream and sugar and eating it like hot cereal is the way to go). And the frybread -- like the fairground fried dough's savory first cousin -- was topped with underpowered meats and a mix of vegetables that tops every Americanized taco. I'm anxious to learn more about the cuisine. Just not here.

Torta AhogadaDominic Armato

Tortas El Guero
2518 N. 16th St., Phoenix AZ 85006

What a bummer that the Arcadia branch closed up shop shortly before we moved into town. This is a great little torta joint, spartan but clean and overseen by friendly folks. There are tacos and burros and such, but the tortas are where it's at, served on pillowy soft bolillos with only a hint of a crust and finished with a very typical set of vegetables, but usually anchored by some delicious meats. The ahogada, a Jaliscan specialty no longer listed for some reason but still offered, is filled with succulent, fatty pork and smothered in a hot chile sauce and it may be my favorite. Milanesa is paper thin and wonderfully crisp, and the other basics are formidable. Less compelling, I thought, was the seemingly popular adobada which was all sweet sauce with the meat almost as an afterthought. Still, most are hits with very few exceptions. Don't trust the al pastor, though, no matter what they say. They insist under direct questioning that it's cooked on a trompo (vertical spit), but I saw no evidence thereof, either by glancing through the kitchen pass or in the flavor of the pork.

Green Chile StewDominic Armato

Dick's Hideaway
6008 N. 16th St., Phoenix AZ 85016

Hideaway is no joke. I think I circled it five times before locating the place. Any joint that's open late I'll get to sooner or later, and Dick's is no exception. It's kind of a cool vibe, dark and warm and welcoming. The food's not to my taste, but I suppose it is what it is, which is very saucy, very cheesy, not particularly refined Southwestern. A seared scallop special came with no fewer than four different sauces, one of which was great. Omitting the other three entirely would have made it a better plate. The Schreiner's sausage was the surprising weak link in another starter, almost devoid of fire and spice and buried under melted cheese that only further obscured its flavor. I fault myself for not noticing that the green chile stew uses beef tenderloin, but still, premium cut or no it's a lousy choice for a stew (it's a lousy choice for most things, actually), and the whole dish played more like plain beef stew with a little green chile thrown in as an afterthought and a bunch of cheddar cheese melted over the top. The whole chickens roasting over an open fire behind the bar looked great. I should've followed my instincts and gotten one of those.