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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

Casella's
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.

Comments

Enjoy the blog--found it on New Times.

FYI: Saguaro HS, not Mohave. I'm '03, and I'm on the wall :)

Thanks, Jay! Duly noted, and corrected (oops).

Haven't been to La Tolteca, no intention of hitting Jimmy Woo's and in agreement on Phoenix Palace & Casella's.

My interest here is with Republic Ramen. I can't stand it. It hurts my soul that this is the great ramen option everyone (or some at least) speaks of.

It's fine like you said. Nothing really wrong with it except that it's fine. The problem is that I don't want fine ramen. I was ruined at Santuoka in CA. Their toroniku special pork ramen is a life changing dish. If you're happy eating fine ramen, don't try it. You don't want to know what good ramen broth tastes like. The pork is ridiculous as well.

I'm sure it was unreasonable to have any real expectations when I went in to Republic Ramen but I couldn't help it. For a place that specializes in ramen and has gotten some acceptable pub, they've got to do better with the broth - no body, no depth & too lean.

I pretty much have no interest in ever eating ramen again unless it's great. And this definitely isn't. Cry, cry...

I had that toroniku at the Santouka in Chicago :-)

Yeah, I feel the exact same way. It's hard to be diplomatic because, like I say, it's fine. It's well-prepared. It's made with care. It's an okay bowl of soup. But it's so plainly nothing like good ramen that it hurts.

I need to get down to Sushi Ken. Heard good things.

If you go to Sushi Ken during the week, let me know. I don't think it's too far from Gangplank. I honestly crave that toroniku probably 3 times a week.

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