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July 07, 2011

The Quarterly Report - Q2 2011

Lobster Roll @ Noca Dominic Armato

An unusually robust report this quarter! In terms of volume, anyway. I actually cut a few because I intend to get back to them, so it's perhaps a little heavier on the negative than the positive... something I want to avoid developing into a habit. And yet, two themes have emerged over the past few months. One, some restaurants need to do less, and do it better. Two, ethnic eats are making me crabby. In any case, here they are, in order determined by random.org as always:

Spicy PorkDominic Armato

4214 W. Dunlap Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85051

Takamatsu was actually pretty darn tasty despite the staff's best efforts to the contrary. We landed at Takamatsu because it's one of the few K-BBQ joints in town that's open past 9:00... barely (another rant for another time), hitting the west side location because it was more centrally located for the evening's crew than Chandler, and we ended up with a pretty good meal and a better story. Takamatsu does, oddly, Korean BBQ and sushi, which seem rather incongruous partly due to the cultural disconnect and partially because one's very fresh and delicate and the other is extremely smoky. And I suspect the staff's fears of the latter interfering with the former were the source of our troubles. In any case, I can't speak to the sushi bar, and the panchan's a little anemic (4-5 items and passable, I suppose), but the meats were plentiful and delicious, particularly their spicy pork, even if we nearly had to get into a confrontation with the staff to make it happen. Apparently, we were under the mistaken impression that K-BBQ is supposed to be grilled. The staff, in contrast, felt the meat should be slowly simmered in its juices on the grill plate (this is not an exaggeration). After an epic, passive-aggressive back and forth struggle with the gas control, I finally asked them to please leave it alone so that the meat would, you know, actually cook. Next time, I'm turning it up and removing the knob. Korean BBQ... if you're trying to prevent smoke from forming, you're doing it wrong.

Italian SubDominic Armato

Niccoli's Italian Delicatessen
6102 N. 16th Street, Phoenix, AZ 85016

I want to like Niccoli's more than I do, which isn't to say that I don't. Though I champion authentic Italian, my love for Italian-American is also formidable, and a good neighborhood Italian-American deli is a beautiful, beautiful thing. Niccoli's has been around forever, it's run by an older couple, and it's... okay. Perusing the shelves, at times it looks like they just checked every box in the Cento catalog, but there's enough variety to keep it from looking like a product showroom and there are definitely a few gems to be found amidst the noise. There were a few different types of pecorino in the cheese case, and I was disappointed/annoyed when the fellow running the place (and pictured on the walls) was unable or unwilling to tell me who the producers were, before finally saying, "After you grate them, you can't tell the difference anyway." Ooooookay. Despite these less-than-encouraging signs, they make a decent if unexceptional Italian sub. It's on the cheap end of old school, and the cuts aren't exactly of the highest quality. But the bread is fresh, it still has a certain downscale charm, and I'd pop in for another if I were in the 'hood. That said, it isn't going to pull me across town, and the deli case leaves an awful lot to be desired.

La Condesa Shrimp TacoDominic Armato

La Condesa
1919 N. 16th Street, Phoenix, AZ 85006

La Condesa is another place I wish I liked more than I do, and it's particularly consternating since so many folks whose opinions I respect love it. By manner of mission statement, they're trying to get folks out of the Tex-Mex rut, which is fabulous, and I appreciate the care and cojones necessary to fire up a menu that collects regional specialties from far-flung corners of Mexico, but perhaps that's the problem right there. Though my tastes undeniably tend towards very focused, regional ethnic joints, it's not a matter of eschewing a place that's gringo-friendly. Heck, I think Gallo Blanco is great. It's just that I sampled too many tacos that were barely good enough. First off, for somebody who loves a good salsa but is historically puzzled by salsa bar obsession, I have to concede, this one's pretty impressive in variety, scale and flavor (even if there are a few throwaways). But I'm not feeling the tacos, which are of the 6" variety and $3 apiece. The fried dogfish taco, with crema and cilantro salsa, was very nice, and I would've been more excited about it had I not recently come upon Tacos Atoyac. But that was the only one I find myself anxious to eat again. Carne asada hit a nice balance of charred and tender, but was served with nothing but shredded cabbage and was criminally underseasoned, almost as though it was intentionally positioned as a blank slate for the salsas. The La Condesa shrimp taco, with onions, mushrooms, poblanos and the same cilantro salsa, was well-conceived but just came off a little flat and was similarly underseasoned. More problematic for me were the cochinita pibil and black mole chicken tacos, which had the opposite problem. Tender and abundant, yes, but both had serious balance issues. Achiote can be some pretty heady stuff, which is why citrus and vinegar are such great foils, but here the annatto was so overpowering that the meat took on an unpleasant, almost musty character. And I adore the chocolate notes in a good black mole, but a taco shouldn't taste like a candy bar. When the chiles are overpowered by chocolate and sugar, that's a problem. In both cases, if the meats weren't quite so saucy perhaps they might've worked better. Given the saucy nature of some of these tacos, the chicken tinga, predictably, fared better, but gosh, something non-liquid on top sure would be nice... a little fresh onion, some cilantro, a crumble of queso fresco... some kind of contrast. I love the ambition here. I just feel like it exceeds their grasp. Or it could just be that they're trying to do too much... a hypothesis that isn't exactly refuted by the fact that they offer more than a dozen salsas.

Veal ChopDominic Armato

Rancho Pinot
6208 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, Arizona 85253

It was the constant swooning of Eric Eats Out (sorry this photo doesn't do your true love justice, Eric) and a three and a half hour wait at Pizzeria Bianco that led us to Rancho Pinot, and it's a nice spot! Nobody's reinventing the wheel here (except maybe Travis at the bar, who can mix a mean cocktail), it's just straightforward, hearty Cal-American fare that's (mostly) deftly prepared and very satisfying. Grilled squid and shrimp salad with slivered celery, white beans and preserved lemon was crisp and refreshing, though I would have preferred that the seafood played a larger role. A rustic pate with all the trimmings hit the spot, and the object of Eric's affection, the veal chop, is a fine specimen, with caramelized shallots, asparagus, polenta and a hearty jus. The only issue was my ladylove's badly overcooked halibut which, had it been mine, would have been the first dish I've ever sent back to the kitchen. But given the flawless execution on everything else and the experience of many of those whom I trust, it seems we happened to catch a rare mistake that somehow snuck out of the kitchen. There's nothing challenging here, which I think is exactly the point. It seems that it's meant to be very straightforward, casual and comforting, and it hits that nail on the head.

Fried Chicken & WafflesDominic Armato

Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles
2765 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, AZ 85257

There are those better versed on the finer points of the genre than I, but I know enough to know that Lo-Lo's turns out some pretty darn good fried chicken. It's of the deep-fryer school (I'm not sure how you'd do pan-fried for this kind of volume), but it's hot and crisp, well-seasoned under the skin (too rare a phenomenon), and usually moist and tender, though I've had a rogue piece on a couple of occasions. At first I was a little taken aback by the waffles' lack of texture, but I've come to appreciate their warm, steamy character and almost aggressive hit of cinnamon and nutmeg. I feel a little guilty for not getting past the menu's centerpiece, and for not heading down to try the original location as well, but I get a craving, I stop by, and that craving is satisfied by delicious, juicy fried chicken with a shake of hot sauce every time. Good stuff to be found here.

Chicken Keema with Tikka Masala SauceDominic Armato

Bombay Spice
10810 N. Tatum Boulevard, Phoenix, AZ 85028

Bombay Spice has been getting a lot of love lately, and I'm going to be the big jerk here. I think the place is terrible. Yes, there are fresh ingredients, and yes, some of these dishes are executed at a reasonable if uninspiring level, but it's a frustrating dumbing-down of ethnic cuisine that drives me up a wall. The first time I went, seeing the word "curry" used rather loosely around the menu, I asked my server what type of "curry" the "lamb curry" was. After a blank stare, I elaborated, "Korma, vindaloo, pasanda... what?" His response? "They're all the same." Thanks, buddy. That was before a menu reboot that now takes a build-your-own approach where you, the customer, choose first your meat and then your "sauce," guaranteeing that rather than carefully matching meat seasonings with sauce components and cooking them together slowly to develop flavor, the kitchen is tossing generically prepared meat chunks into a sauce to warm for a few minutes before being served to you. Unless, if my math is correct, they have more than 30 simmering pots back there covering all of the combinations available (and that's lumping all of the vegetables in together). But that strains credulity, and it sure doesn't taste like it. Look, curries aren't "sauces." And if you want to get pedantic about it, the dishes these purport to be aren't even really curries. When it comes to Indian, curry is a catchall term lazily imposed on the vast and impossibly varied cuisine of an entire subcontinent. Leave it to British colonialists to reduce the hundreds of distinct dishes of an entire culture to "curry." But this goes beyond pedantry. These are complex, developed dishes that completely lose their depth when broken down into individual components so you can play mix and match. Approaching these as meats + sauces rather than the unified dishes they should be results in flavors that are oversimplified and underdeveloped. Plus, some of their non-traditional variations are downright horrifying (fruit cocktail in korma?!?), and accompanying breads are tasteless and weak to boot. I get that it's "healthy" food prepared from fresh ingredients, and despite sampling some pretty poor dishes, yeah, I suppose you could do worse. And I get that there's an audience out there that would rather have 30 mediocre choices than five good ones. But the result is only sort of Indian, and it's completely insulting, and I'm unwilling to set the bar that low.

St. Louis RibsDominic Armato

Hap's Pit BBQ
4801 E. Washington Street, Phoenix, AZ 85034

Phoenix has an odd relationship with barbecue that I'm still trying to sort out. The stuff is everywhere. I mean everywhere. But despite its ubiquity, so little of it is worthwhile, and I'm not sure Hap's is one of the exceptions. They're actually smoking meat low and slow, which is a lot more than I can say for some places that use the word barbecue. But something here doesn't quite sit right with me. The menu's full of the usual suspects, and I've gotten around it a bit. The chicken is nice and smoky, if a bit dry, but there's an awful lot of hardcore char going on for something that's ostensibly "slow hardwood smoked." I find the grind and seasoning on the hot links underwhelming, but more importantly there's none of that juicy snap that I love from a good smoked hot link. As for the ribs... well, I have yet to find a BBQ place with a Southern Pride where the ribs don't taste more baked than smoked to me. But I realize that honest to god pitmasters are an increasingly rare breed these days, and maybe I should just adjust expectations accordingly. They were okay, if a little lean and dry. But I was more thrown by the quality of the smoke, which struck me as more acrid and dirty than sweet and flavorful. Hap's scratches the itch, I suppose... barely.


I totally am with you on Bombay Spice. "Dumbed-down" is exactly what I felt as well. I had a curry (I forget which) and it was completely lacking that beautiful depth of flavor good curry should have. It is really sad when "bland" and "Indian food" can be used in the same sentence. Give me the buffet at India Oven on Gilbert Rd any day over Bombay Spice's blandness.

I went to Niccoli's for their Italian sub on AZHotdish's recommendation. It was OK, but the bottom of the roll had a strange hard texture. He experienced the same thing. Very off-putting. I love a good Italian. Growing up in Maine, all the local stores make great ones, but I can't find any like them down here. Joe's Diner and DeFalco's (whose Italian Joe admitted his is a copy of) are better choices than Niccoli's.

I must say that even though I have little chance of ever eating at these places, I still enjoy your reviews, if for no other reason than the total head shaking experiences you have. The "its all the same" "curry" response is cringe-worthy. How anyone who claims "foodie" status could like such a place is beyond me.

Your comment on the sushi plus KBBQ pairing reminded me that for some reason many of the korean places in DC have sushi too. The sushi tends to be pretty pedestrian, but I think its a way to lure in more non-Korean customers. There was actually a place around the corner from my office that had some of the Bibimbap options in the whole metro area, and they had sushi too. Sadly, it is now gone. The places in the heavily Korean areas of the suburbs don't have this same cultural identity crisis, as you would expect.

Bombay Spice is basically an Indian restaurant wholly conceived to appeal to non-Indians (with the aforementioned create-your-own-entree and fun wine pairings!), but still. Come on, people. A for the rest of the menu, best I probably not even begin...

And agreed with the La Condesa review. They're in my hood so I head there on occasion. I actually like the adventuresome take they have with some of their salsas, but a number of the tacos can use some tweaks, like you mentioned. There's going to be another taco place eventually opening up a little further north called El Mariachi. I'll be curious to see how that pans out.

Meant to say "AS for the rest of the menu". Definitely not an "A".

Ooooh, pardon my counter-pedantry for a moment here, but while Bombay Spice *is* likely an unauthentic dumbed-down ethnic eatery (most Indian restaurants sadly have to be, to survive outside of areas heavily populated by desis), I don't agree with the reasoning that having a dish called "curry" makes it Westernized. Indeed, "curry" can be a legitimate (and delicious) authentic dish, found by that name on just as many non-vegetarian menus in India as here.

What North Indians & some Pakistanis simply call "curry" typically refers to a tomato-based brown-red sauce, a basic tomato tadka turned into a gravy. The flavors vary depending on the region and recipe, but there is no other name for this type of brown gravy dish. Some folks say it's the same as karahi/kadhai, and they can be similar, but most menus consider them distinct. (Note, also distinct is when the region is specified, such as Goan Curry, or Hyderabadi Curry, etc.)

By your reasoning that a catchall term isn't okay, btw, "masala" is also not allowed, even though (in terms of names for gravies) it's about as standardized as vindaloo or korma.

Agree w/ the assessment of the menu 100%, though - there's a place with a similar menu setup here in Dallas. It makes for all sorts of wrong combinations and preparations. Sad times.

Sarah, what's the name of the place in Dallas? When I lived there (95-04), there were tons of great Indian places. I don't remember anything like Bombay Spice, though. Usually Indian Palace (Preston/635, IIRC, been a while) and the Pasand locations. Some of my old favorites are long gone, sadly.

I'm guessing the Dallas location is Roti Grill- I think the build-your-own approach is referred to as the "Texas two step". Oy.

Yep, it's Roti Grill. There are (thank Ganesh & Allah) plenty of fantastic authentic choices outside the loop or on the other side of the Trinity which specialize in regional Indian/Pakistani cuisines. Roti Grill's the closest thing called "Indian" to downtown, though, unfortunately.

I don't want to malign them completely - their seekh kebab is actually pretty decent, and I vaguely remember being okay with a dal makhani once. If you go, just steer clear of the goofy combo thing.

FWIW, Roti Grill was started by the same folks that own India Palace on Preston, though not sure if they're still the same proprietor at this point. While the food at India Palace is better (they've got my favorite baingan barta in town), it's still definitely on the dumbed-down side. I can only go there with my American friends. ;)

Sarah... I welcome counter-pedantry :-)

Flushed with annoyance as I was, I probably wasn't as clear about that as I should have been. I didn't mean to suggest that the word "curry" is always inappropriate. I was referring to the fact that it's used as a catchall for anything with a blend of spices. To be fair, it looks like the most recent version of their menu has now limited it to one dish for which it seems appropriate, though I didn't try that one.

Yeah. There are some pretty hairy semantical issues with the words "curry" and "masala", honestly, especially when you factor wet-or-dry into the consideration. Indians and their languages, sheesh. :)

Anyway, can't believe I missed the KBBQ at the top of the page - my other pet ethnic cuisine! Poor Koreans and their feeling the need to give restaurants Japanese names. tsk. I scrolled right past it. I can only imagine how difficult it is for someone who once lived in LA to only have Korean food available until 9pm, and I salute your plan to steal the knob as so many Korean waitresses might do before you get the chance. I hope you commandeer those tongs & scissors the second you sit down, too.

(5 banchan at dinner is ... just paltry, though.)

Sarah... I'm not certain, but Takamatsu might be operated by a Japanese family. Which would, I suppose, lend further credence to the theory that they were trying to eliminate smoke so as not to get in the way of the sushi bar experience. But all of this is speculation. Either way, putting the two under the same roof, no matter how competently they may or may not be executed, strikes me as a poor choice for this very reason.

Oh man, now I really want an excellent pizza!

That's so funny you say that about subs in Maine, I feel the exact same way. To this day one of the better subs I could always count on getting was at Mullin's Country Store in Belfast, on the way up to visit family in Washington County.

I know it's off topic, but it's interesting that Top Chef 9 is filming in Dallas here right now. They just wrapped up in San Antonio. I may have to post up in Whole Foods myself.

I'm intrigued by the lobster roll, but I don't see it on their regular menu

Mike... It isn't. It's a Wednesday night (I believe) special, made with Ingrid Bengis' lobsters. It's pretty fabulous.

I have to completely disagree with you on La Condessa. In my opinion, it's one of the best taco spots in town, and they serve up three of my absolute favorite tacos in town--you guessed it...the Tinga, mole, and conchinita. Again, my opinion, but I urge you to give them another try. I have never found there to be an issue with balance, and their mole is utterly addictive. Phenomenal salsas to boot. To each their own...

hit up la condesa again, and forget the tacos. the central mexican style quesadillas are where it's at. amazingly decadent and tasty..

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