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April 29, 2011

Taiwan Food Express

Fried Chicken with Salt & Pepper Dominic Armato

Hokay... all of this navel-gazing and gushing like Sally Field (thanks, Howard!) has been fun, but it's time to get back to it!

One of the places I've been meaning to write about for quite a while is Taiwan Food Express down in Mekong Plaza. After a flurry of visits late last year, I kind of put it on the shelf until a call from an old friend a few days ago brought it to mind. But more on that in a bit. Taiwan Food Express holds the distinction of being the only Taiwanese restaurant to be found in the Phoenix area, which naturally makes it of immediate interest to the local foodnerdia, and particular interest to me. I'm chasing a childhood memory, you see... but again, I'm getting ahead of myself. Taiwanese is still a cuisine with which I have limited experience. It'll be mostly familiar, for obvious reasons, to anybody who's spent time with the foods of mainland China, but with Taiwanese there are enough variations and other influences to keep you on your toes. Taiwan Food Express is an extremely casual joint that seems to do as much business with boba as with the food, yet they offer a big menu with only a few items that strike me as uniquely Taiwanese. Of course, squishy translations often have a way of obscuring unique dishes, but the walls are mercifully plastered with photos, making it a little easier to order familiar Taiwanese dishes with nondescript names like House Special Chicken.

Chinese Chive BoxDominic Armato

Dim sum and "appetizers" take up a huge chunk of the menu, and somehow that's where I ended up spending the most time. Fried Chicken with Salt & Pepper almost hits, a big plate of chaotically-shaped nuggets of chicken, breaded and fried with salt and pepper and crispy herb -- mint, I think? I say it almost hits because while it's extremely crisp and hot, you have to work your way through an awful lot of breading to get to a little bit of chicken. Perhaps a bigger problem is that it could use three times as much salt, though given a couple of other experiences I wonder if the Gwailo effect might be at play here, since Americans seem to mostly enjoy salt simply as seasoning rather than a distinct flavor. But still, it's a hot, crisp and tasty dish and the fried mint is a very nice addition. Less compelling, though certainly inoffensive, is what's listed on the menu as Chinese Chive Box, a folded and fried pancake stuffed with sautéed chives that's a little on the greasy and uninteresting side.

Oyster OmeletDominic Armato

Much better is the oyster pancake, which is a dish I can never pass on in a Taiwanese restaurant. Though this version lacks the magic of the truly excellent oyster pancake I had back in Boston not too long ago, the pieces are in place and they scratch the itch. Eggs mixed with greens and potato starch make for a highly variable and often gelatinous mix of textures that work better, I think, when there are lightly crisped edges, which this iteration lacks. But it's kind of comforting in its own gooey way, with briny oysters (if not enough of them), sufficient greens to add a little vegetal texture and that nearly ketchupy sauce, tomato and soy and just a hint of spice. I wouldn't by any stretch hold this up as a model version of the dish, but it's enough to make me happy and give those who've never enjoyed one the general idea.

Spicy WontonsDominic Armato

Though they're not distinctly Taiwanese, a couple of dumplings managed to reach my table. Can't help myself, apparently. But Taiwanese involves enough regional Chinese influences that something like their spicy wontons aren't really out of place. It's a Sichuan dish at heart, pork dumplings swimming in an oily ma la sauce that's a dead giveaway for the region. The dumplings leave something to be desired. The balance on the filling is passable, but the wrapper is weak -- wet and threatening to fall apart. Still, while I wouldn't want to put the sauce toe-to-toe with a good Sichuan restaurant, it has the requisite spicy, numbing zip in spades and makes for an enjoyable plate of dumplings.

Xiao Long Bao (Steamed Pork Dumplings)Dominic Armato

I'll try xiao long bao at any place that's brave enough to serve them, even though I know disappointment is almost certain. Xiao long bao are an old favorite, and one of those culinary holy grails that food nerds in the States are always seeking and rarely finding. AKA soup dumplings, they're a technical challenge, a Shanghaiese specialty that ideally should marry a delicate but strong wrapper with a primarily liquid pork filling that, if you eat it in a decidedly non-traditional manner like me, comes gushing forth and threatens to scald your tongue when you take a bite. Here, they leave much to be desired. The dough's too thick, with no sag at all, the filling is overly sweet, and while they're not completely dry, there isn't much in the way of soup. Moreover, if you don't look the part, you'll be served a potsticker dipping sauce rather than the traditional black vinegar with slivered ginger. This is quickly amended upon request, but know that you might need to ask. This is definitely a restaurant that attempts to protect Western diners from themselves. In any case, these steamy fellows may be acceptable as an unusually juicy dumpling, but as a soup-filled bun they're a big miss. Unfortunate, but not unexpected.

Beef Noodle SoupDominic Armato

Beef noodle soup is Taiwanese comfort food. Though it shouldn't come as a surprise -- what's more comforting than soup? -- I'm always amazed by the number of Taiwanese expats who name this as the dish they crave when they've been away for too long. It's the anti-Pho, very clean and clear like its Vietnamese analogue, but extremely deep, dark and intense. A little too intense, actually. Though I always hesitate to make such suggestions without knowing for a fact, its extreme beefiness comes alongside what strikes me as a very distinct artificial flavor, as though it's fortified with bouillon or somebody's getting a little frisky with the MSG. But though it's not bad, brimming with thick noodles, delightfully gelatinous chunks of beef, some stewed bok choy and a touch of mustardy, preserved vegetable, I don't think it's going to be curing any Taiwanese natives of their homesickness.

Three Cups Chicken (House Style)Dominic Armato

I feel like I'm painting a somewhat bleaker picture here than I intend, so let me say that there have definitely been a few very good dishes that give me hope and have kept me coming back. The three cups chicken, for instance, is an offering that's not only quite tasty but, to me at least, pleasantly unconventional. The classic mix of soy, sesame oil and shaoxing, Taiwan Food Express' version hits those savory, mellow notes. What they add are thick slabs of ginger and chicken that is fried to a crisp before being introduced to the sauce, making for an atypical texture that I found very enjoyable. I'm uncertain whether this is what's inspired them to call it their house special rather than plan old three cups chicken, or if this is a perfectly traditional variant with which I'm simply unfamiliar, but I know that I like it.

Xiangchang (Taiwanese Sausage)Dominic Armato

The xiangchang, however, pretty much ensures that I'll be stopping in at least on occasion. I could write an entire 4000 word post about this Taiwanese sausage, and I probably will at some point. One of my roommates from my boarding school days -- the one who called just a few days back -- came from a Taiwanese family, and the highlight of our month at school would be when he'd return from home on a Sunday night bearing a huge bag of these beautiful sausages, which were intended for the freezer but were ticketed straight for our stomachs instead. We'd fire up the rice cooker, sear these links on a hot plate, and completely gorge ourselves late into the night, taking periodic breaks only so that we could stuff more in. Unlike the lap cheong that you'll find all over China, xiangchang is quite sweet with an assertive cinnamon flavor. Influenced by such strong memories from my formative years, my brain almost can't handle seeing something green alongside all that meat. My roommate was, after all, the one who proudly insisted that he never ate anything that didn't have a central nervous system. But the flavor is there, fatty and sweet full of nostalgia, and for that alone, I'll return.

But in general, though it pains me to say it, I find Taiwan Food Express more frustrating than anything. I love that they exist and I love that they make these dishes accessible in Phoenix, but for the most part, they're executed at a level that leaves me wanting. There are good dishes. And something that's off one visit may be on the next. I guess the best I can say is that visiting Taiwan Food Express is an uneven experience, though it's certain to be educational for many. I intend to keep digging through the menu, to see if anything else compelling pops up. But if not... well... hanging my hat on the xiangchang wouldn't be so bad, I suppose.

Taiwan Food Express
66 S. Dobson Road
Mesa, AZ 85202

April 28, 2011

Eggy Aftermath

Deviled Eggs Dominic Armato

I love the week after Easter.

April 27, 2011

Surprised? Yes.

Me. (Surprised.)  

I've always said that I write Skillet Doux primarily for myself. It's a journal. And while I hope the blog does something to contribute to good eating, even if on a micro level, I'd be doing the same thing if nobody read it at all. I'm not in it for traffic or recognition.

Of course, after this morning's developments, I've gotta say... being recognized is pretty freaking awesome.

Now that I've had a couple of hours to process, I'm still not quite sure what to say (there's a "first time in five years" joke in there somewhere). The source of my surprise is that the Saveur editors have seen fit to name Skillet Doux as a finalist in the restaurant/dining coverage category of their 2011 Best Food Blog Awards. I'm completely shocked by this. I can't imagine a bigger compliment than the editors of my favorite food magazine (Really! Look at my bookshelves!) naming me among those they feel worthy of recognition. Especially considering the heavyweight company. Seriously, I'm floored by this. By which I mean both surprised and honored to an extreme degree. As they say, the nomination is the award. The winner is now determined by a vote, and we all know how internet popularity contests are.

The problem, of course, is that popularity contests are a lot more fun to win than most of us want to admit. So what the hey!

That's where you go to vote, if you're so inclined. I don't have a snowball's chance in hell. These are some big names. I think The Delicious Life was the first food blog I ever saw. I've no doubt that the traffic for these guys absolutely dwarfs mine. That's right... in the classic American tradition, I'm casting Skillet Doux as the underdog! The little blog in the desert pitted against titans from Los Angeles, Los Angeles, New York, New York, and... um... Kansas City (but he totally travels like I haven't been able to in years). How sweet and unexpected would it be to win the vote?

I should probably also point out, for those who might be clicking through for the first time, that there's a section in the right column of my favorite posts of the moment. They cover a broader spectrum than I typically write -- probably 90% these days is restaurants and Top Chef (when it's that time of year) -- but those are some of the ones of which I'm proud. And there's a link to the restaurant index since, you know, that's the category and all.

Okay, okay, this is the last I'll mention it until the voting ends on May 12th. I think. Shameless self-promotion makes me feel dirty. But this is pretty damn special, and I figure I'd better enjoy it a bit.

Thanks, you guys. Thanks for reading, thanks for the congratulations, thanks to Saveur for the completely unexpected recognition, and thanks to whoever nominated me!

This is fun. More on May 12th!

Well, *That* Was Unexpected...

Saveur's 2011 Best Food Blog Awards  

And yet there it is.

Processing... processing... processing. More in a bit.

April 25, 2011

Tacos Atoyac

Taco Dorado de Res Dominic Armato

We're waaaaaay overdue for a hole-in-the-wall joint, but the good news is that I've had the pleasure of frequenting a pretty darn good one over the past couple of weeks. With thanks to Erica O'Neil for her post on molotes over at Chow Bella, I've had the pleasure of hitting a relatively new little taqueria a few times over the past couple of weeks, one that's unusually good and, offering a number of Oaxacan items, is a welcome change of pace.

Tacos Campechano, Al Pastor & LenguaDominic Armato

Frankly, as holes-in-the-wall go, Tacos Atoyac is so approachable that I almost wish they'd grunge the place up a little (...joke). Though small and situated next to a shady-looking head shop, it's bright, clean, and above all, spartan, with little more than white paint, corrugated steel and bare tables within. It's run by a couple of fellows, one of whom hails from Oaxaca, who got tired of the grind working in mainstream kitchens and figured they'd open their own place and go make some tacos. Of course, there's quite a bit more than tacos, and Dan (who holds down the front while his business partner runs the kitchen during service) is an exceptionally friendly chap who's all too happy to tell you all about them. So you order a couple of items, grab a bottle of something frosty from the giant tub of ice next to the register, pay with little more than pocket change, have a seat, and in a few minutes Dan walks out of the kitchen with something fresh and hot and usually really, really tasty.

Fish TacoDominic Armato

Tacos are what ostensibly got these fellows to bolt their previous environs, so tacos seem like a pretty good place to start. The regular menu offers carne asada, al pastor, lengua, chorizo and cabeza, with others rotating in and out on a specials board to the side. One downside, though I imagine it helps keep them absurdly cheap ($1 apiece), is that all of the meats are of the stewed or griddled variety. There's no grill for the asada and no trompo for the al pastor... bummer. But even with this handicap, the flavors all pop, the tortillas are pliant and sizzled up right and the salsas, though very simple, are fresh and well-balanced. I'm especially fond of the lengua, which is a succulent, moist and stewy concoction that has a big, full flavor and ought to make converts of the variety meat averse. Likewise the off-menu (recommended by Dan) Campechano, which is simply a combination of Atoyac's pungent (not to mention iridescent) chorizo and carne asada. Much as I adore chorizo, I've often found a taco that holds nothing but to be overkill. No such issue here, and though it may seem like a sort of gratuitous heaping of meat upon meat, it's a widely-known combination and with good reason. They complement each other well.

Torta MilanesaDominic Armato

Other taco variants include, firstly, tacos dorados, filled with beef or chicken, rolled, deep fried and smothered in earthy black beans, a handful of crisp lettuce, shot of crema and a sprinkling of queso fresco. No matter how well-prepared, tacos dorados have always kind of felt like bar food to me, and while Atoyac's don't quite liberate me from that prejudice, they're done with a great deal of care, crunchy and well-seasoned and fun to eat. Give me a few beers and I'd probably order a dozen of these. Another taco is one of my favorite things to emerge from this kitchen, a Lenten special that really, really needs to be a regular menu item. The Baja style fish taco is fabulous, a griddled flour tortilla wrapped around a searingly hot and dangerously crispy piece of fish along with shredded cabbage, a few slivers of onion and spicy crema. The fish is swai, an Asian catfish that isn't sold under that name here since domestic catfish farmers aren't too keen on the competition. It's a step above tilapia, avoiding its muddy flavor, and while swai won't be mistaken for a premium fish, it's hard to argue with price performance. These tacos are executed so well I wish they were made with a premium fish, but the fellas are wringing an awful lot of flavor out of that $1.50, so I'm finding it hard to complain. If you go and they're still on the specials board, order one and then tell Dan they need to be on the regular menu. I don't want them to disappear and I need some backup here.

MolotesDominic Armato

I'm a sucker for a good torta milanesa, and while I've still yet to find anything that's half the sandwich as my beloved cemita milanesa from Cemitas Puebla, this one's as good as any I've had in Phoenix so far, and better than most. At a whopping five bucks, it's one of the more expensive items on the menu, and it's bordering on gutbuster portions, a thick slab of beef that's breaded and fried to a deep golden color, hot and crisp and pleasantly chewy. Put that on some fluffy, freshly toasted pan telera, add a few vegetables, some beans, a little cheese, and perhaps most importantly, a fried egg with a giant, runny yolk, and you've got a pretty darn good sandwich. For me, it needs just a little heat and acid to make it complete, and while my preference would be for something a little more aggressively spicy and pungent, a little bit of the house salsa does the trick. I'll be getting this one again.

Memelita Carne AsadaDominic Armato

Of course, this is a Oaxacan joint, so there are some offerings that may strike some as less familiar, too. The aforementioned molotes are a nice choice, a Oaxacan holiday food that's available year-round here. A thin disc of masa is stuffed with a potato and chorizo mixture, fashioned into a kind of torpedo shape, deep fried, and then given the same beans/lettuce/crema/queso treatment as the tacos dorados. Despite the inclusion of chorizo, these fellows are actually quite mellow, a kind of pleasantly warm and starchy package with a nice, crisp crust. The memelitas are another pick-your-masa variant, here a thick disk with crimped edges, spread with beans and queso fresco and topped with the meat of your choice along with a touch of onion and cilantro. This thing's got some body, and it has the added benefit of combining the almost crunchy griddled masa of the underside with the lighter and moister top, cooked only by radiant heat from underneath.

Tamale RajasDominic Armato

The only disappointment so far has been the tamales, which came with high expectations when I learned that the tamale masa arrives weekly via their Oaxacan masa connection (apparently the local stuff doesn't meet their standards... yikes). I tried the two that were available that day, a gentle but fully-flavored shredded beef, and the tamale rajas, a spicy chicken concoction with chunks of vegetables. The flavors on both were lovely, but the tamales were dense and cool, as though they needed more time in the steamer. That warm, filling fluffiness (poor word choice... more an issue of temperature and steam than anything) was sadly absent. Given the attention to detail with every other dish I've tried, I wonder if this wasn't an aberration that happened to escape the kitchen by accident. I'll certainly be trying them again, if for no other reason than I love saying "Oaxacan Masa Connection" (which, incidentally, I claim as my band name... Latin-influenced prog, I'm thinking).

It's a taqueria. But it's a Oaxacan taqueria run by a couple of guys who are unusually committed to making great food. It's unusually tasty, it's friendly, it's dirt cheap, it brings a little bit of regional sass that's tough to come by... I'm not sure what isn't to like, here. If it were in my 'hood, I'd be there all the time. But even having to truck across town to get there, I expect it'll be a semi-regular stop for me. They've only been open for a couple of months, and they deserve the support. Get over there and throw some business in their direction so they can stick around, because Tacos Atoyac is a nice little addition to the scene.

Tacos Atoyac
1830 W. Glendale Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85021
Mon - Thu10:00 AM - 9:00 PM
Fri - Sat10:00 AM - 10:00 PM

April 16, 2011

Courtesy of Maya

CSA Bounty Dominic Armato

This is exciting stuff.

I've been meaning to do a CSA for years and years, and only finally just got around to it. And what better choice than Maya's Farm right in south Phoenix? I love this. I love the idea of getting a bushel of stuff every week to play with. It's beautiful, it's fresh, it'll force me to be creative, and to get to know some vegetables and herbs that I otherwise might never have picked up on my own.

We'll see if I can turn this into a fun regular thing. I post the week's haul, and while I reserve the right to cook whatever the heck I want, I'm open to suggestions. At the very least, I'll report back. If I can get my act together, maybe I'll even post a recipe. So here's what we've got:

  • Eggs
  • Baby Carrots
  • Beets
  • Radishes (a few varieties)
  • Spring Onions (two types -- one i'itoi, I think?)
  • Dill
  • Spigarello
  • Kale

What do you think? Beets and dill have me thinking borscht, but it's a small bunch of beets, so I'm not sure there's enough for anything other than a tiny batch. Which doesn't necessarily preclude the possibility. The rest is pretty darn flexible. I don't cook with radishes a lot, so I'm definitely looking for some good suggestions there.


April 14, 2011


Beef Heart with Pickled Vegetables, Arugula and Balsamic Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: Somebody at our table earned us special attention. I was with a couple of other fellas who are industry-connected (though not to Prado, specifically), and not only did the chef visit us 3-4 times, but the extras that turned up on the table definitely exceeded your typical amuse. They kind of buried us in food. Per personal protocol, I compensated on the tip line, but we obviously got their best foot forward.  

Well, here was a pleasant little surprise that kind of snuck up on me. Not that Prado at the Montelucia resort is any big secret. It's just one of those places that had been languishing on my "places to try" list for the better part of a year, when a buddy dropped me a line out of the blue and asked if I wanted to go check it out with him. Resort restaurants catch a lot of flak, often deservedly so. There's something very... safe... about so many of them. "Hotel Food" is a derogatory term for a reason. But I have to say, these guys are defying convention. With a new chef, they're making some noise over at Prado.

Oysters with Cucumber and WasabiDominic Armato

Prado is a dark place (making for lousy photos... sorry), and has the look of a Spanish restaurant that's been around for a few decades. But it's well-kept and comfortable and perhaps even a little romantic if you're tucked away in a corner. Chef de Cuisine Peter DeRuvo took over the kitchen earlier this year, and though I never visited Prado under his predecessor's watch, my dining companions seemed impressed by the kitchen's evolution since then. Prado is kind of a Mediterranean two-for-one, netting you the Italian-inspired Prado menu as well as any of the Spanish tapas you might like to order off the menu of the adjoining Mbar, if you're so inclined to request that menu too. Both menus are marked by enough tradition as to feel very familiar, but not so much that the kitchen is constrained by convention. Some other Mediterranean and global influences work their way in as well, but the core spirit is plainly evident.

Prawns with Rosemary and CitrusDominic Armato

A small amuse of oysters kicked off the evening, and immediately set the tone. I missed the precise manner of mollusk, but it was liquor-rich, splashed with Cava mignonette, cucumber brunoise and the faintest hint of fresh wasabi root (which was as far afield as we'd reach, globally speaking). What marked it was total restraint, the varied accompaniments -- which could easily have been completely overwhelming -- used very sparingly, as just the faintest accent to a good oyster. Another amuse that floated our direction was a chaotic pile of thinly-sliced truffle mortadella, beautifully moist and spongy. I didn't get the truffle, but I didn't care. Made in house, this mortadella was a succulent and superlative specimen.

Beets with Chevre, Citrus and AlmondsDominic Armato

At this point, plates started hitting the table at breakneck pace. We had seafood, hot and cold, off both menus. The cold was a yellowtail crudo over thick slabs of avocado, with a splash of oil and a touch of chile and wasabi. As with the oysters, this was a dish with remarkable restraint. The fish was some beautiful product, only barely accented with a little spice and its creamy avocado base. The hot arrived in the form of prawns, skewered with rosemary and grilled, served with citrus segments. They were beautifully cooked, still tender, and a little oil, salt, citrus and smoky rosemary was all they needed. This was, however, the only moment when I felt I wasn't getting killer product. The heads tend to go before the tails, and while the tails were absolutely lovely, sucking the heads didn't produce that beautiful, briny sweetness I adore.

Yellowtail Crudo with AvocadoDominic Armato

Any chef who's willing to put heart on the menu knows the way to mine. I'll resist rehashing the lecture, but suffice it to say that I'm always beyond pleased to see this cut represented, particularly when represented so well. It was plated with pickled radishes and ramps, slivers of bread and butter pickle, arugula, balsamic and a bit of grating cheese... almost a play on the widely beloved (if not strictly traditional) beef carpaccio. The knock on heart is that, as a muscle that's in constant use, it's tough. Not so, here. Given its medium rare color, I was shocked by how tender it was, possessing the soft, melting qualities of a filet with the full flavor of a tougher cut. I've no idea of the process, but it was a winner. My lone complaint would be that the vinegar in the pickles got a little too aggressive, and started to distract from the meat. But this is picking nits. There's absolutely nothing wrong with heart done this well.

Burrata with TomatoesDominic Armato

Cold vegetables were also exceptionally well-represented. Milky and sweet burrata came with punchy, sweet little tomatoes, basil oil and some toasted bread. No gilding the lily here, and no need to. My lone guilty complaint (guilty because it's such a small thing) would be that the use of olive bread was subtraction by addition. With a dish like this, a little salty punch is good. A huge chunk of briny, salty punch is too much. But let's not lose sight of the fact that this was excellent product, perfectly and simply presented. Roasted beets were no more gussied up, and were all the better for it. Beet salads are so tired, which is why it's refreshing to get one that treats them with such respect. For starters, it was an unusually compelling selection of varieties, each with a very distinct character. And though the photo looks a little busy, don't be fooled. A couple of citrus segments, an exceptionally mild chevre, some crisp marcona almonds and a smattering of flat leaf parsley, this was, again, an exercise in restraint where so many others would have been saturated in vinegar.

Tripe with Polenta and Duck EggDominic Armato

Furthering the kitchen's commitment to the quinto quarto, we received a generous helping of Trippa alla Fiorentina, with a pile of polenta and a stunningly perfect fried duck egg. This is tripe for those who think they don't like tripe. Thinly sliced and converted into a warm and sweet tomatoey stew, I wager that no fewer than nine out of ten diners selected at random would have absolutely no idea they were eating organ meat. The polenta was coarse and creamy and heavily herbed, an appropriately rustic partner to a homey (if unusually well-executed) dish. Add the egg yolk's drippy richness, and I could've polished off a big honking bowlful.

Ribs with Rosemary and BalsamicDominic Armato

The ribs were a surprising addition to our selections, not only because they seemed a touch incongruous, but also because of the memories they evoked for me. The supporting flavors, rosemary and a fine 20 year balsamic, were decidedly Italian. But the ribs were prepared in a fashion that actually brought to mind the ribs I've had in China. This wasn't the tender yet toothsome smokiness of American BBQ, nor was it the boiled fall-off-the-bone faux BBQ meat Jell-o that's widely popular in the States. Rather, if I had to guess, my money's on roasted, fried, and then finished on the grill, resulting in the kind of juicy on the inside yet golden and crisp on the outside character that I'm accustomed to getting on the other side of the Pacific, with the added bonus of a little wood smoke. My natural instinct was to start looking around for the little bowl of salt with Sichuan pepper. But the vinegar and rosemary was a delicious European angle on a method of rib preparation that I'm used to encountering in an Asian context. Very good stuff.

Rigatoncini with Lamb SausageDominic Armato

We could have stopped there, completely sated, but there were pastas to devour. The first was a delicious, chunky concoction that dressed rigatoncini with tomatoes, wilted greens, beans, Schreiner's lamb sausage and some grated pecorino. To my tastes, the pasta was hanging on the precipice of being overdone, and the ingredients didn't quite fuse in that perfect, intangible way, but again, this is based on exceptionally high standards set by the starters. This was a very good pasta, anchored by the fabulously sweet and spicy sausage, and the acidic pop of charred tomatoes. Even the beans, scant though they were, provided this kind of earthy baseline that made it a very round dish, flavors hitting from every direction.

Spaghetti Nero with SeafoodDominic Armato

It should go without saying that .923 (12/13) is a sensational batting average, but the spaghetti nero was the one dish that didn't work. And it's a dish that drove me insane because I'm still having a hard time figuring out why. Call it personal pride, but I feel like it isn't good enough to say something didn't work. I want to be able to point to a reason. It's why I ate half a plate of the worst Ma Po Dofu I've ever tasted ("Why are you still eating that?" "I'm trying to figure out why it's so bad!"). The pasta was great, made in house and possessed of a nice bite. And when it comes to seafood, I'm not afraid of the funk. But this was somehow muddy and unsatisfying. Heavily reduced and herbed, was the tomato sauce just too busy to support the seafood? The clams and mussels were obviously last-moment additions, tender as they were. But it almost tasted like one of the seafoody elements was introduced early on and then reduced along with the tomatoes, resulting in a fishy intensity that took it a little too far. I love dishes like this because they really taste of seafood -- of the SEA -- not nondescript protein that happens to have come from the sea. And when a pasta like this hits, the funk is there but it's very fresh and distinct. It tastes like the sea. This didn't taste like the sea, and while I'm not sure why, I think that's what killed it for me.

Scallops with Bulgur WheatDominic Armato

The entrees came roaring back, however, with a beautiful scallop dish. These fellows were monsters, lightly seared, tender and sweet, atop bulgur wheat and garnished with caviar and black truffle. The black truffle was pointless, a symbolic gesture that wasn't voluminous enough to register on the palate. Either do it or don't, I say. But complaints end there. I loved the caviar, providing a potent briny punch that worked especially well against the sweet scallops. The bulgur wheat and light dusting of raz el hanout swept in a bit of Northern Africa, while a naturally sweet and tart sofrito and whole tomatoes held down Southern Europe. Even the citrus nage, which would emerge as the dominant element in so many other restaurants, played a very subtle supporting role here. The dish was a great use of some great product.

Cheese BoardDominic Armato

Long after we'd thrown in the towel, a cheese board magically appeared with no fewer than seven mostly fresh, sweet and subtle specimens, plus quince paste, tomato jam, marcona almonds, honey and toasted bread. I have no idea what they were. My brain was already in full food coma mode. But while we savored, they gave us a chance to reflect on a meal that was really exceptional, and not only for its scale. Nobody is reinventing the wheel at Prado. For the most part, these are classic flavors, married with grace and restraint, if perhaps a touch of panache. The flavors are clear, they're well-balanced, and they spring from great ingredients that are treated with reverence. DeRuvo isn't providing a cerebral experience that's a challenge to the mind and palate. Surprise isn't his goal. He's just putting out dishes that are easy to sit back and enjoy for their most compelling natural qualities, which I suppose makes perfect sense for a resort's flagship restaurant. DeRuvo has made Prado's food very easy to like, and I find that I like it quite a lot.

4949 E. Lincoln Drive
Paradise Valley, AZ 85253
Mon - Sun7:00 AM - 10:00 PM

April 13, 2011


Any Shenanigans Here? Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: If, say, I visited because an invitation was extended by the restaurant, or they attempted to comp a portion of my meal, or I'm a regular visitor and have gotten pretty chummy with the head chef, this is where you'll hear about it.  

Like that little green box there? It's new. Let me explain.

Last week, Eric of Eric Eats Out, in his monthly column over at Desert Living Today, vented a little of his frustration over the ethics (or lack thereof) of food blogging. Whenever this topic comes up, I'm of two minds. My first instinct is to feel that no matter how legitimate and honorable, it's a pointless discussion. Some bloggers are honest, some aren't, and they'll either earn people's trust or they won't, no matter how many rules we outline or how much we discuss the subject (many and a lot, respectively). But on the other hand, it IS an important topic. Vitally important, in fact, even if I wonder whether the discussion actually has any concrete effect other than to allow us a little time to navel-gaze (we're good at that). For the purposes of this post, I don't want to go too far down that rabbit hole, but for me it's always come down to two things. Be open, and be honest. That's it. If you wear disguises, carry credit cards with aliases and visit a restaurant no fewer than seven times before writing about it, great. If you cozy up with the owners, accept freebies and always call to let them know you're coming, that's great too. Just let the readers know. They're not idiots. Given a little context, they can decide whether or to what degree it will color their reading of a post. Just tell the truth and have a hair trigger when it comes to disclosure.

Which brings me back to the little green box at the top of the post.

To be abundantly clear, though this is a change in format, there's zero change in policy. I haven't been holding out on you up until now. Quite the contrary, I've always made a very conscious effort to disclose, on the rare occasion when it happens, any context that I think is material to somebody's reading of the post. I've noted when I visited a restaurant with staff who knew in advance I'd probably be writing about it. I've noted when I have some personal connection to the place I'm writing about. Though I'm not going all Ruth Reichl and taking pains to keep myself anonymous (Google me... not happening), I've always tried to point out any instance where I had reason to believe a little extra attention might have been focused on my plate, or anytime I might be subject to a certain degree of subconscious personal bias. But just because I think this is so important, and because I don't like ambiguity when it comes to this sort of thing, I've decided to make my disclosures sort of official-ish. They won't just be worked into the text of the piece, and they won't be buried in italics at the bottom of the post (though they never were). Rather, if there's something about my visit I think you should know for ethical reasons, from here on out it's going to be right there at the top in a bright green box. It probably won't be too often. Historically speaking, there's been little that merited such a note, and after 5+ years of this I have no intention of suddenly hopping on the sweet, sweet food blogging gravy train and going all pay for play on you. But on the occasions when I think there's something you ought to know, it'll be clean, clear, concise, and right up front. And it doesn't even look too bad.

April 05, 2011

The Secret

Branzino alla Griglia @ Andreoli Dominic Armato

It's said so often, but when eating something like this, it bears repeating. The secret to great Italian?

1) Get killer ingredients.
2) Don't f**k them up.

See? Easy!

April 01, 2011

The Quarterly Report - Q1 2011

Roasted Pork Belly @ Phoenix Palace Dominic Armato

Between moving and hospitalization (not mine), it's kind of remarkable I got out to try anything new this quarter, but there are a few to write about that didn't quite get a full post to themselves. These quarterly reports always seem crabby compared to everything else I write, which I suspect is because it's tough to be comprehensive about a place you don't much enjoy, so a lot of those joints end up here. But there's some good this quarter... read to the bottom. Here they are, in order determined by random.org:

Caldo de CamaronesDominic Armato

La Tolteca
1205 E. Van Buren Street, Phoenix, AZ 85006

La Tolteca is one of those names that keeps cropping up among "best of" and "favorite" lists, but I'm not getting the appeal. I love the idea of La Tolteca. It's a big place that rolls a Mexican bakery, small market with meat and seafood counter, masa/tortilleria and counter service restaurant into one. It's rough around the edges (and most places in between) and grill smoke billows out when you open the door. The menu's huge and it covers a lot of ground, mostly encompassing taqueria standbys with a few less common finds. But primarily, it's inexpensive griddle, grill and steam table fare. It's the kind of place I love, but I've had six or seven dishes now, only one was any good, and not just because whoever's running the griddle needs to review Salt 101. The lone success was a torta milanesa on soft bolillo, lightly griddled, with a generous smear of volcanic beans, thick but crisp slab of meat, slices of panela cheese and the requisite veg. It certainly did the job. But that aside, a gordita was crisp and nicely composed, but I should know better than to order al pastor when there's no trompo to be seen. I can get behind the greasy, salty school of carne asada, but not when it's also flavorless. Chilaquiles looked nice but were way out of balance and brutally oversalted (go with the saltless chips and then season, please) and a green chile pork tamale was inoffensive, but both the corn and the pork were too dense and too dry. Nothing summed it up better than the shrimp soup pictured, though. Full of stewed vegetables and a nice helping of head-on shrimp, it was completely devoid of salt, acid and spice, as though there wasn't even an attempt to make it taste good. Miraculously, even the whole pickled jalapeno on top was bland. How does one achieve that, exactly?

Egg RollsDominic Armato

Jimmy Woo's
4233 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, AZ 85251

I have a soft spot for Americanized Chinese. Ask me what I want next door and I'd never in a million years choose it over a great authentic Chinese place, but like Italian-American, it's a beast all its own that deserves to be judged on its own merits. So if an Americanized Chinese joint open until midnight every night sets up shop less than a mile from home, you bet I'm in. It's on Scottsdale Rd. in the heart of Old Town, so the fact that it's trendy and overpriced and focused as much on drink as food should be a given. But grub first, I always say, and that has to go both ways. It's no less a sin to dismiss a place simply for looking trendy than it is to do so simply for looking shady. In any case, my first visit featured acceptable potstickers and a sweet sour concoction that, to quote one of my favorite food descriptions ever, tasted like a melted Jolly Rancher. Which, given that the meat was crisply fried and judiciously sauced, was pretty much exactly what I was hoping for. But subsequent visits were much less successful. The sour in the hot sour soup didn't taste like black vinegar, but more importantly, tasted... strangely off. Egg rolls were adequate at a place where they need to be awesome, "spicy" dishes didn't bring the slightest amount of heat, and orange peel beef tasted mostly of cornstarch. Others were just flat and flavorless. Passable for cheap delivery when there aren't any better options, sure. But at $10-15 per plate, the scene is the only compelling reason to go. And I'm really not into the scene.

Miso RamenDominic Armato

Republic Ramen
1301 E. University Dr. #114, Tempe, AZ 85281

Apparently this is the Quarterly Report, sacred cows I don't get edition. Well, I get the love here. I just don't share it. It's mod ramen! Big bowls of food for $7 in a high design environment that's executed with precision (both the food and the environment). Ramen comes in five varieties, and can be supplemented with a handful of add-ons, accompanied by a small list of available sides, or eschewed in favor of udon or soba. Tempura is pretty nice for a cheap lunch joint. Gyoza are most likely pulled out of a freezer and dropped into a fryer, but they're passable and cheap. And the ramen is... okay. It's clean, it's carefully composed, and it's not a bad lunch. But my issue is that it's a clinical bowl of noodles. I see why it appeals to many, and it's not lacking for execution, but for me there's no body, no depth, and broth and meat are both way too lean. It's just very sterile and way short on umami. Though I'm a condiment fiend, ramen is something I leave the hell alone. So when I reach for the shichimi togarashi, something's definitely lacking.

Chive DumplingsDominic Armato

Phoenix Palace
2075 N. Dobson Road, Chandler, Arizona 85224

Now here's something to get a little excited about! I haven't done dim sum since arriving in Phoenix, and my first foray into the genre was a very positive experience. Phoenix Palace has two locations, and the one in Chandler does dim sum every day from 10-3. I'm unsure whether it's always full cart service, or if that's reserved for Sundays, but even in the far corner of a separate area off the main dining room, a substantial array of classics worked their way past us. Dumplings tended to be a little indelicate and the wrappers a little heavy, but the flavors were all there. Buns were blissful, including a beautiful baked char siu bao and yeasty, custardy snow buns. luo bo gao (turnip cakes... actually made with radish) were lighter on the meat and crust than I prefer, but were still delicious with juicy chunks of radish therein. Sliced pork of many varieties was formidably fatty (a good thing), and an almost sweet seaweed salad with sesame oil was a refreshing surprise. There's little here that will compete with dim sum joints in cities with more established Chinese communities, but for a town where it's tough to find good, authentic Asian foods, Phoenix Palace does a very nice job with dim sum, and is definitely a standout.

Meatball SandwichDominic Armato

5905 N. Granite Reef Road, Scottsdale, AZ 85250

In a town where slick and trendy seem to rule the roost, I can't express how refreshing a place like Casella's is. Family run, in operation for over thirty years, it's a little Italian-American sandwich shop that's completely lovable in every way. Panoramic photos of every graduating class from Saguaro High since the early '80s cover wood paneled walls that also sport ancient beer signage and pictures of all sorts of local organizations hanging out and eating with the family. This is a place that's strong with a sense of community, where the folks behind the counter are impossibly warm and friendly, and the food is homey and delicious. I was a little disappointed with my first visit, since their Italian Beef, admirably roasted in-house, strikes me less as what I know and more as a French Dip. But that's probably because these folks hail from Philly rather than Chicago, so I'm not sure it would be fair to judge it on my terms. The cheesesteaks, in a style novel to this two-time visitor to the city of brotherly love, are dressed with tomato sauce and melted provolone rather than wiz and peppers. On a fresh roll toasted to a light crisp, with tender beef therein, it's a simple and delicious sandwich. Ditto the meatballs, which are minimal and tasty. The Italian deli sub was pretty good too, sporting a mix of salami, capicola, cheese, vegetables and probably a couple of other things I'm missing. It's simple food, done well, and probably the same way they've been doing it for over thirty years. Casella's is a neighborhood joint in a town with no neighborhoods, and it should be treasured.