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August 29, 2011

The McDowell Project

The Starting Line Dominic Armato

Here's the starting line. How far this goes, we'll have to wait and see.

There's a project I've been wanting to get started on for about a year, and with both kids now attending school, providing a few precious hours a week to myself, I think the time's come. One of the things that's been a bit of an adjustment in moving to Phoenix is that the old Chowhound spirit of exploration and discovery doesn't seem to be terribly well-represented here. Particularly Even on Chowhound. Or perhaps its practitioners are alive and well and simply don't have a good online home to congregate, get to know each other and trade notes, but that's another rant discussion for another time.

Bottom line is, Phoenix needs foot soldiers. That's always been one of the greatest strengths of participants on food discussion boards. Lots of posters means lots of boots on the ground. And while I've tried to do some digging since arriving here in the valley, I'm determined to be the best foot soldier that I can be. So to that end, it's time to get all methodical on this burg.

Pictured here is the corner of McDowell Road and 52nd Street, facing west. That's the direction I'm headed. I picked it because it's off the beaten path for most diners, and there's an interesting mix of hole in the wall joints that could be promising. And I'm going to stop and eat at every single place that serves food (chains excepted) until... well... I don't really know how far I'm going to take it. But I feel compelled to redouble my efforts when it comes to digging, and this seems like a fun way to go about it. I fully anticipate that many if not most of these joints will be mediocre to awful. But that's how it goes. If I do this for a year and manage to get all the way to Central (I throw that street out arbitrarily), finding only one previously undiscovered or underappreciated shining gem and maybe a couple other solid places, it'll be worth it. Of course, what would make it even more worth it would be if some other folks decided to pick their own streets and jump in. I have these crazy dreams of conjuring up a food nerd army. Just a score of dedicated people could do some serious damage when it comes to exploring. But for the moment, the plan is to do the best I can with what I've got, which is me and a blog. So to recap, here are the rules:

  • I'm starting at the corner of McDowell and 52nd street, heading west.
  • Other than chains and perhaps places without kitchens that only serve snacks or nuke hot dogs or something, I'm stopping in every place that serves food.
  • If I go once and decide it's not worth returning, that's fine. But I have to try something at every stop because you just never know.
  • I won't necessarily post about them precisely in order, so as to give myself some leeway in hitting various places when it's convenient, but nothing will be more than a block out of sequence.
  • If there's something that looks really compelling just around the corner on one of the cross streets, I might hit that too, but that's at my discretion.
  • I'll probably only do full posts on the ones I find particularly interesting, but everything will be covered, even if only as part of a monthly roundup or something.
  • There's no official finish line, but I'm giving this at least a year or to Central, whichever comes first. If I'm having a good time with it, I'll keep going, but that's the minimum commitment.

I don't mean to give the impression that this is now McDowell Doux. I fully intend to continue doing the same kind of posting I've been doing as well. But I think Phoenix needs to do some serious digging, and by god, I'm going to do my part.

Wish me luck!

August 22, 2011


Crab Chawanmushi Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: Josh Hebert, chef and part owner of Posh, is a really good friend. Excessive elaboration imminent.  

I hadn't intended to write about Posh.

Thing is, I've been a late night regular for a year and a half, visiting somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40 times, and have come to regard the folks there as really good friends... people who have helped to make Phoenix feel like home. So when I finally managed to get there early enough to hit the regular menu for the first time this week, I did so with the intention of simply enjoying myself and not posting about it, even if I still couldn't resist the urge to picture everything (it's practically reflex at this point and these plates are exceptionally photogenic). But then, three and a half hours and fourteen courses later, the first thought to pop into my head was that I couldn't wait to edit some photos and write about my meal. I had feared it might be a little weird to write about a place that's run by people I call good friends. But before this blog was even online it was a personal journal where I recorded thoughts about places I ate, and ignoring the reason I started doing this in the first place and NOT writing about Posh suddenly seems far weirder to me. Skipping that personal ritual of revisiting the meal in my head as I think of ways to articulate what was interesting and exciting to me just feels wrong. So all blathering and disclosure aside, here's a great dinner I had at my friend's restaurant.

Dill Yogurt wuth Hibiscus FoamDominic Armato

Situated on the edge of Old Town Scottsdale, Posh blends in with its surroundings while avoiding the overtly and overly trendy vibe of some of its neighbors, all of which is to say that it's modern and stylish while maintaining a sophisticated air. Though the room is sharp, the food is the focus, reinforced by the massive open kitchen that takes up half the space. And perched at one of the 25 or so counter seats, overlooking the action is the place to be. It's a talented team at work back there, and late at night or when it's a little quieter, you're as likely to be engaged with Josh and the staff as you are with your dinner. It's a funny atmospheric blend that works. The room is stylish. The vibe is friendly. And the food is very upscale and refined. The hook at Posh is "Improvisational Cuisine," which means that rather than a traditional menu, you're offered a pencil and a paper ballot with options for number of courses, a lengthy list of ingredients for you to highlight or scratch out as your tastes dictate, and a section for any notes you might have. Most folks circle a few favorites and cross out a few they're not comfortable with (exotic meats are commonplace). Some will request beef, beef and more beef. And people like me take a quick glance, hand back the ballot and tell the folks in the kitchen to send out whatever they like. So they did.

Chilled Carrot SoupDominic Armato

Dinner got off to a colorful and refreshing note. First was a spoonful of dill yogurt topped with a splash of vibrant hibiscus foam. Cool and creamy with a light tang and the combination of herbal and floral flavors were a full-flavored but light and appropriate start when temperatures are in the triple digits. The second dish continued that theme in the form of an equally vibrant chilled carrot and leek soup. Smooth, pure and uncomplicated, it was an almost completely unadorned expression of carrot flavor, save for the leek, a bit of chive and a surprise at the bottom, a sliver of pickled ginger -- a refresher at the end of the refresher. With both starters, the flavors were few, pure and strong, and this would prove to be a theme for the evening.

Melon SaladDominic Armato

The melon salad brought a little bit of modernist manipulation to the table, taking a very simple and traditional flavor palette and elevating it through technique and presentation. Three melons were present -- honeydew, watermelon and cantaloupe -- and plated with arugula, chevre and balsamic. The watermelon was converted into a gelée and cubed, the cantaloupe manipulated into caviar form, and for the honeydew, a simple melon baller would suffice. Combine with creamy chevre, grassy arugula, sweet and lightly tart balsamic and it's as classic as flavor combinations get, with added textural interest... not to mention a beautiful presentation.

Oyster and Tuna SashimiDominic Armato

Next up, some unconventional and exceptionally refreshing raw seafood. In the foreground, a stunningly succulent, lightly briny and deep-pocketed hama hama oyster, splashed with a touch of mignonette that strayed from tradition through the addition of yuzu, pink peppercorns and a pair of tiny mint leaves -- just enough to keep it fresh and interesting. And it didn't hurt that the oyster was plump, flawless and swimming in liquor. Even less conventional but a wonderful call was the tuna sashimi in the background, sitting atop an aioli exploding with the flavor of cumin. Olive oil, cucumber, avocado, red pepper and a dash of garlic salt rounded it out, but at the bite's heart was that interplay of tuna and cumin, unconventional and highly effective. It's so rare to see cumin on its own rather than as a player in a curry or spice blend, and I loved to see it highlighted so, particularly since it suited the tuna so well.

Shrimp with Spiced Demiglace and LeeksDominic Armato

One regional influence that surprised me was a little bit of creole, expressed most overtly in the shrimp dish that followed. Seared to a light crisp on the exterior, the shrimp were set atop firm, nutty red Himalayan rice and shredded, buttered leeks. But the true explosion of flavor came from the accompanying "shrimp demi glace," a dark, complex roux-based concoction that included reduced shrimp stock and a blend of spices that screamed Louisiana. It wasn't precisely of that region, but the influence and the spirit was there. It wouldn't surprise me to find a dish like this on one of New Orleans' more upscale menus, because that deep, intense blend of shrimp and spice, though subtly balanced, embodied that kind of vaguely funky, deep, earthy and developed approach to seafood that's one of the bayou's hallmarks. A fabulous dish, and one of my favorites of the night.

Crab ChawanmushiDominic Armato

Given that the kitchen is led by a fellow who's such a fan and student of the cuisine, I was a little surprised that this chawanmushi was the most heavily Japanese-influenced dish of the evening. But that's how it is at Posh. Menu themes shift wildly from week to week, if not day to day. It was a Dungeness crab chawanmushi with a tiny sawagani crab adorning the top and, like the previous dish, almost felt like it had a little Louisiana going on due to the heavy presence of bell pepper. With sweet crabmeat brimming beneath the surface, the notion that this was a seafood dish didn't really need to be reinforced. But the sawagani crab perched on the lip of the cup, flash fried so that its crunchy shell gave way to a liquid burst of crab essence, brought the message home nonetheless.

Mahi Mahi with Corn Relish and PestoDominic Armato

The mahi mahi was simultaneously one of the simplest and one of the strongest combinations of flavors, beautifully executed. Basil, corn and potato are as natural and as wonderful as pairings get, and here the mahi mahi was seared and put atop a fresh and vibrant relish of diced potatoes, roasted corn kernels and slivered fresno chiles. To accompany, a very traditional pesto Genovese, bringing the basil and a bit of cheese and nuttiness to the mix. The relish and pesto complemented each other so naturally and seamlessly that it would have been easy to completely miss the bit of cross-culturalism at play. And what I liked about this, as so many of the other dishes, was that the primary flavors were clearly defined and speaking with their own voices. Very simple, and absolutely delicious.

Frog Leg with Radish and FennelDominic Armato

The frog leg left me frustrated, not because I didn't like it, but rather because I liked it a lot and wanted it to be pushed even further. Breaded and fried, it was served with slivered daikon, breakfast radish and fennel, and otherwise almost completely unadorned. The crunch and texture of the cool vegetables against the hot fried frog leg was lovely, but the anchor of the dish was the intentional saltiness of the crust, both seasoning the meat and bringing out the subtler flavors of the vegetables. It was delicious. And to me, it would have been even better if it had been pushed even farther. I had images in my head of salt-crusted Chinese dishes, where the salt itself is a primary flavor rather than simply acting as seasoning. I could even see it with a seasoned salt on the side for dipping. And I'm sure such a move would result in it frequently being sent back as too salty, which is maddening. But I loved the willingness to push it as far as it went.

Sweetbreads and White AsparagusDominic Armato

Then, a couple of pet ingredients that I don't think I've ever seen combined before. A meaty but delicate chunk of fried sweetbreads was plated alongside white asparagus, and then finished with a squid ink and truffle sauce, and beet foam. This was unexpected, despite my adoration of both beets and squid ink. And yet it was a brilliant combination. In a way, they're almost like mirror image ingredients. Beets are sweet, but have earthy undertones. Squid ink has a pleasantly dirty and earthy flavor, with just a hint of sweetness. They were a surprising and yet seemingly natural pair that played off the sweetbreads and asparagus beautifully. This is a combination I'd love to see explored in more depth, because it's a surprisingly good fit and though I always assume everything has been done, I can't find any reference to the two of them together anywhere.

Alligator Sausage, Polenta, Sour CherryDominic Armato

Did I mention that Louisiana was in the house? Though the aristocratic refinement of the shrimp felt more like French-influenced creole, the rough-hewn alligator sausage felt more Cajun, even if this obviously wasn't something you were going to just pick up cruising through the bayou. As explained by Jeremy -- one of Josh's kitchen minions, Cajun by birth and a fellow who knows his way around an alligator -- they used a center section of the tail for a balance of tenderness and flavor. And though the flavor was excellent, the texture was just as compelling, a coarse grind with a pleasantly grainy feel, just a little rustic in a way that suited the onions, peppers and spices that seasoned it. Though polenta and haricot verts aren't too much of a stretch in a Cajun-inspired dish (corn and green beans always have a place), I suspect sour cherry is somewhat less common, but the sauce composed of the same provided a very nice contrast to the earthy spice of the sausage. Yet another winner.

Boar Bacon with Coconut CurryDominic Armato

The boar bacon is a familiar fixture at Posh. I've had it during late night on a number of occasions in various different formats, and it's always good stuff. A little leaner, gamier and more robust than its piggy cousin, this particular piece was a touch on the salty side, but accompanied by elements that worked with that. In another unconventional pairing, the dish put a coconut curry sauce with roasted zucchini and braised cabbage. Not that I've any issue with sweet coconut curry, but about the only exposure we have to coconut-based curries around here is in Americanized Thai restaurants, where sweet rules the day, and it's nice to have a change of pace like this that features very little sugar, and allows more focus on the blend of aromatics. The very plain zucchini and cabbage also played their part, providing a nice vegetal base without getting in the way.

Kangaroo with Yam and Ancho PureeDominic Armato

That I got all the way to the last savory dish before hitting one that didn't work for me says something, I think. And it's not because I've anything against kangaroo, though it's a difficult meat to work with. My issue was more in the balance of ingredients, which included whipped yams, an ancho chile puree and broccolini. The flavors were well-suited to each other, and as with the previous dish, I appreciated that it wasn't turned into a sugar bomb when it would have been so easy to do so. But the pure volume of yam involved was simply too much, and the meat felt buried rather than featured. Kangaroo's awfully lean. Perhaps it needed a healthy dose of some kind of fat? I'm not sure. But this disn didn't come together.

Cheese PlateDominic Armato

My cheese plate disability is well-documented, but I actually kind of appreciated the ultra-minimal approach here. There were no piles of walnuts and apples and fig compotes and honey and every other item found on every cheese plate ever. Just a sweet and creamy Robiola and a funky but smooth Epiosses served alongside a few thick slices of herbed and buttered toast. I believe the only accompaniment was a bit of fennel pollen sprinkled across the Robiola (a wonderful complement, actually). For the first time in a long time, I found myself really able to focus in on and enjoy the cheeses. Perhaps I've been looking at this all wrong. Perhaps it's not the typical cheese plate I'm tired of, but rather the typical cheese plate accoutrements. Time to test this theory. The next time my cheeses arrive with a pile of fruit and nuts, I'm shoving them off to the side and eating nothing but the cheese. Perhaps I'm not completely irredeemable in this department after all.

Puff Pastry with FruitDominic Armato

And then dinner ended just as it began, cool and light and refreshing. First, a very conventional but very tasty dessert, puff pastry with a sort of whipped cream cheese filling, strawberries, lemon curd and fig compote. And finally, a little treat from the anti-griddle (a very, very cold surface for snap-freezing things). Lime and lovage were liquefied and frozen into a thin, frozen lollipop. The sort of clean, celery-flavored lovage combined with a little clarifying citrus acted as a final palate cleanser, leaving nothing of the meal but the memory... well, that and a whole horde of photographs. But mostly the memory. And it's a meal that I continue to enjoy in my head.

Lovage and Lime LollipopDominic Armato

It's a little odd, finally having a normal dinner at a restaurant I've visited so many times. And while there were a couple of surprises, it mostly served to reinforce all that I've learned about Posh over the last year and a half. Posh is a great example of a breed of fine dining that's always been among my favorites. This is food that casts a wide net when it comes to inspiration, but maintains exceptional focus when it comes to any given dish. It's a wide palette from which Josh draws, which is really the true meaning of "Improvisational Cuisine." It doesn't mean conjuring a dozen dishes out of thin air every time a diner walks in the door. It means not being tied down and bound by a label. It's the freedom to do a Cajun-heavy menu one night and a Japanese-influenced menu the next. It's the freedom to draw in the perfect pairing regardless of what region or nation or era it might come from. This is a style of cuisine that, in the wrong hands, can easily come across as haphazard and forced, but here it seems graceful and effortless. This is due in no small part to the fact that it's executed so well, but just as important is that these dishes, though often exceptionally creative, are very simple and focused. They combine a small number of central flavors, each of which is made to speak its own voice clearly and firmly. Ingredients taste like themselves. There's no extraneous fluff. And there are no sneaky, hidden elements. This is very confident, self-assured food that doesn't need to overreach for effect. And that simple but effective framework is what makes it possible to draw in flavors from so many places so elegantly. This was an elegant dinner, made upscale and refined not through tricks and gimmicks and flair, but rather through a nuanced understanding of what makes flavors work together, and the skill to marry them with grace.

And I look forward to an equally graceful patty melt, slice of fried scrapple or other such "downscale" plate when perched on my seat at late night on Wednesday.

7167 E. Rancho Vista Drive
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Tue - Sat5:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Wed Late10:00 PM - 12:00 AM

August 16, 2011

Mother In Law

Mother In Law Dominic Armato

Formidable looking fellow, innit?

En route to Chicago's Taylor Street for lunch last week, it occurred to me that while not on the menu, all of the elements might be present for another Chicago sandwich that's perhaps a little less well known than their standard fare. Of course, some might argue it should stay that way, but at some older Chicago hot dog stands, particularly on the South Side, can be found an almost terrifying yet oddly compelling little frankensandwich that packs a gut-busting wallop into a compact frame. It's been indelicately named the Mother In Law, and while one is forced to wonder what foolhardy soul thought this was a good idea, one might also be inclined to dub him a genius when the right mood strikes.

TamaleDominic Armato

Unless you've grown up with their ilk, tamales are already a somewhat dubious option when it comes to Chicago hot dog stand staples. Bearing little resemblance to those created south of the border, this bastardized little tamale subgenre nonetheless has a certain craveable industrial charm. Most often produced by Supreme Tamale, though there are other local favorites, Chicago-style tamales are an extruded product, perfectly cylindrical, soft and steamy, an almost pastelike mixture of beef, garlic and spices enrobed in a layer of soft cornmeal. Though a fork is advisable, teeth are entirely optional when it comes to consuming one of these mushy little delights. And though their exact provenance remains a mystery, they're a Chicago staple. No matter where you are within the city limits, it's unlikely that you'd have to venture more than half a mile to find one.

Enter the Mother In Law, because apparently somebody had to take the Chicago-style tamale to eleven. You take a hot dog bun, which is already warm and steamy because this is Chicago and you're running a hot dog stand. You take a tamale that's been steaming alongside your hot dogs, remove it from the paper or plastic wrapper, put it in the bun, and top it with chili, and maybe some onions, cheese and/or sport peppers. Voila. The Mother In Law. There are some variants, to be sure, including a common one housed in a styrofoam cup rather than on a hot dog bun, but at its heart is the industrial tamale topped with chili, which is simultaneously so very wrong and so very, very right. So I'm heading over to lunch at Chicago's Taylor Street the other day, and it occurs to me that, hey, they have tamales, they usually have chili, they have hot dog buns... this shouldn't be too difficult of a request to fulfill, right?

It wasn't. And I'm trying to decide whether that's a good or a bad thing.

August 12, 2011

Sushi Ken

Nigiri Sushi Dominic Armato

Apparently it's Japanese week here at Skillet Doux! Since we covered the high end with ShinBay on Monday, why not round out the week with a little casual neighborhood Japanese?

I've been spending a good deal of time down in Ahwatukee at Sushi Ken recently, and not just because there's something magical about the place that makes my two year old decide she actually wants to eat green things. Sushi Ken, as one might surmise from the name, is a sushi bar. But that's only part of it and, frankly, I think it's the less interesting part.

GyozaDominic Armato

My instinct is to call Sushi Ken a little Mom and Pop joint, but it's not really that little. Between the dining room and the sushi bar, it looks to me like it can seat about 75, and I've been for a few lunches where every seat was filled. I was rather taken aback that they have no website, but it sure doesn't seem to be hurting them. The reason, probably, is that it's the consummate neighborhood joint. It's casual, no-frills, inexpensive and family friendly with a menu chock full of homey foods. The sushi menu is vast, if awfully roll-heavy for this traditionalist's tastes, but not nearly as vast as the regular menu, which easily boasts a hundred examples of casual and homestyle Japanese cookery that we often overlook in our obsession with raw fish and rice. I love these kinds of foods, and having them close at hand makes me happy, even if their execution is sometimes a little uneven.

TempuraDominic Armato

Appetizers include all of the usual suspects like sunomono, agedashi tofu, korokke and the like. At places like these, I'm a sucker for a little iceberg lettuce salad with a sweet, gingery dressing and this one doesn't disappoint, even if it makes me feel guilty about not getting something else. The little fella's a sucker for dumplings, so we've had their gyoza on a few occasions. While not transcending the genre, they've been ably prepared, fried to a nice crisp on one side with a steamy, moist interior. And while I shouldn't be so easily pleased, it's nice that they aren't unceremoniously dumped into the deep fryer like they are at so many places. The tempura, sadly, I found to be less consistent. It's been acceptable at best, but more often a little heavy, lacking any crispness and retaining a little more oil than it really should. It'll do the job, but it doesn't seem to be a strength.

Yellowtail TatakiDominic Armato

Everything coming from the sushi bar has been capably prepared, though the quality of the fish can be a little uneven and I'm not sure price performance is there. The nigiri trio you see above included a solid salmon, passable yellowtail and weak tuna. On another day, the yellowtail tataki on the right was actually rather nice, a generous helping of good fish with a little ponzu, scallion, chili daikon and grated ginger. I find the pricing a little hard to wrap my head around. Their smaller combinations are only a few dollars cheaper than it would be to order the same pieces a la carte at a place like Hana Japanese Eatery, where I've always found the fish to be of excellent quality and very consistent, so I'm not sure I see the draw there. But on the other hand, a $5 spicy tuna roll markerboard special was fresh and tasty and overloaded with enough fish for two and a half normal rolls, so I'm a little puzzled by some weird inconsistency in the pricing. I'm left to conclude that unless it's your neighborhood joint, I don't see a compelling reason to come here just for sushi, but it's nice to be able to grab a little raw fish to go with something off the regular menu.

Beef CurryDominic Armato

The regular menu, you see, is what brings me back to Sushi Ken. It's full of simple, homey stuff like Japanese curry, of which I can never get enough. It's undoubtedly a brick base, doctored up in house style, but I'm okay with that. It's thick, beefy, just a little sweet, and comes on a large plate with plenty of rice and a little bit of sweet pickled daikon. The curry can be paired with a number of proteins. Pictured here is the beef curry (a smaller portion as part of a combination -- I believe a regular order features more meat), which has historically been my go-to variant, but lately I've been hung up on the pork katsu curry, half slathered in sauce and half crisp and dry.

TonkatsuDominic Armato

Speaking of tonkatsu, this is one of Sushi Ken's stronger offerings. For the uninitiated, tonkatsu is little more than a pork cutlet, panko-breaded and fried up crisp. It's served here in minimal, traditional fashion, with a big pile of finely shredded cabbage and tonkatsu sauce, which is essentially a slightly sweeter, thicker Worcestershire. I've certainly had better, but the folks at Sushi Ken do well by it. The coating is always hot and crisp, and the meat is juicy and reasonably tender, and there's little more you can ask of a dish that's nothing more than a breaded and fried slab of pork. A small cup of marinated chives(?) adds a little greenery as well.

OyakodonDominic Armato

Sadly, a big miss was one of my favorites, the oyakodon. Sushi Ken offers a number of donburi (various items served over a bowl of rice), and oyakodon has always been a benchmark for me. Chicken and egg are cooked together along with green onions and, in this case, sliced shiitake mushrooms and fish cake, then served over rice that's been doused with a light sauce -- almost more of a broth -- that's dashi and soy based. But while the components were there, this oyakodon was full of problems. The rice was oddly undercooked and most of the sauce just trickled right on through without marrying with it. More problematic, the mixture on top was very overcooked, resulting in rubbery chicken and rubbery eggs, not to mention an unpleasant flavor from the fish cake that I think was the result of having gone a little too long. When on, this is a wonderful dish, warm and filling rice beneath, tender chicken with lightly cooked eggs on top. But while I feel like I should give it another shot, I haven't yet mustered the strength to go back to the oyakodon after this offering.

Cold UdonDominic Armato

Noodles, however, have been lovely, both hot and cold. Cold Japanese noodles are one of my favorite hot weather foods, and an upside to the weather here is that it's always a good time for them. The cold udon is a generous bowl of thick, chewy noodles, swimming in a dashi broth and topped with tempura flakes, slivered cucumber, shredded nori, marinated chives and a few chunks of surimi. The sauce isn't the most flavorful and developed I've tried, but though a little light, it's tasty and refreshing and served exceptionally cold, which is a necessity for me. The vegetables are cool, the tempura flakes are crisp, and there's nothing wrong with surimi so long as it isn't billed as crabmeat, especially when it picks up the gentle, smoky fishiness of the dashi in the sauce. I could eat this for lunch twice a week and not grow tired of it.

Spicy Miso RamenDominic Armato

On the hot end of the spectrum is the ramen for which Sushi Ken has earned something of a reputation, and while my feelings about the ramen are well shy of glowing, it does the job. The tonkotsu won't be winning over devotees of the form, but it's a solid bowl of soup, milky white and pleasantly salty with noodles, scallions, sliced pork, shinachiku, fish cake and wakame. The toppings get lost in the broth -- the balance could be tinkered with, I think -- but it's a tasty broth, if not a notable example of the form. It needs a more intense pork flavor, and is much thinner than I'd like a good tonkotsu to be. Plus, the sliced pork was significantly overcooked. But still, an enjoyable bowl of soup, and light years beyond pseudo-ramen joints like Republic Ramen. Ditto the spicy miso ramen which, with just a little spice and fermented funk, has far more soul than anything to be found at the Tempe joint, even if it's a little clumsy. Short verdict: it kind of pains me to say it, but while I'm still looking, this is the best bowl of ramen I've tasted in town. At least until Josh Hebert stops daydreaming about opening a ramen shop and actually does it (hurry up, please). It leaves me wanting, but it'll do.

And while I suppose that's not much of a ringing endorsement, that's kind of how I feel about most of the food at Sushi Ken, and yet I'm happy it's here and I expect to be at least a semi-regular. It's the kind of place where I wish they'd cut 80% of the menu and focus on doing just a few things really, really well, but that doesn't mean it isn't a comfy place to get some reasonably well-executed homestyle Japanese food. I don't go expecting excellence. I go expecting to be satisfied by a big plateful of the downscale Japanese foods I love, and Sushi Ken hits that mark. It's not greatness, but when I'm contentedly scarfing down a plateful of belly and heartwarming katsu curry, it makes me very happy.

Sushi Ken
4206 E. Chandler Boulevard
Phoenix, AZ 85048
Mon - Sun11:00 AM - 2:30 PM5:00 PM - 10:00 PM

August 08, 2011


Washugyu Tobanyaki Dominic Armato

ShinBay was built with the latest in stealth technology.

That's the best explanation I've got. Midway through dinner this weekend, I started asking myself how it could be that Shinji Kurita's modern Japanese gem has garnered so little press. As the meal progressed, I became more and more agitated that the restaurant was never more than a third full. Why aren't food bloggers and the mainstream press shouting from the rooftops about this place? Why aren't folks clamoring to get in? Turns out, that's been the plan all along. And it's an approach that speaks volumes.

Through the first half of the year, there's been a smattering of press, both brief and vague, that's a little puzzling for a still recent Phoenix import. ShinBay had returned. The Ahwatukee eatery was the stuff of legend, closed five years ago and still spoken of in hushed, reverent tones, run by a respected and immensely talented chef who was once again opening his own place after five years in the trenches. But what's been written has been long on anticipation and almost completely devoid of culinary detail. That it would be an upscale and modern Japanese eatery was well-established, but a full three months after opening, had not a single feature been published? An opportunity for a night out arose, my ladylove requested raw fish, and there was little question where we'd be going.

Mirugai with Spiced VinegarDominic Armato

Though items can be ordered a la carte, we opted for the omakase (here called the "Chef's Course Menu") which, though unavailable at opening, can now be obtained by calling in advance. You'll be asked how much you'd like to spend, from $100-$200, and I figured $150 would ensure that there were no significant constraints without quite going no-holds-barred opulence (as though $150 weren't opulent enough). The next night, we found ourselves walking into a serene and stylish space that's sleek and fashionable without trying too hard. Minimal and modern Japanese design and a classical soundtrack not only provide a welcome respite from the standard-issue Scottsdale nightclub atmosphere, but also betray a certain seriousness about the food that's equally refreshing. And as we'd soon discover, the food is nothing short of serious.

The first course, a bit of sunomono, was a small taste of mirugai (surf clam) that made for a lovely prologue. A few slices of the briny and chewy clam were paired with onion and cucumber, pickled in a house-spiced rice vinegar that lent a smooth tartness and just a touch of heat.

Hirame with PonzuDominic Armato

While the mirugai was a simple and pleasing start, it was closely followed by a dish that blew right past pleasing into fabulously delicious. Billed as hirame (halibut, in this case... why are fish translations always so imprecise?), we received plates of very thinly sliced fish, dressed with ponzu, drizzled with hot grapeseed oil and topped with an "onion medley." The dish was immediately reminiscent of Nobu Matsuhisa's signature New Style Sashimi, and yet it brought enough of its own character to avoid feeling like a copycat dish. The grapeseed -- a neutral flavored oil -- served to lightly sear the fish and add a certain amount of gravity to a ponzu that was already surprisingly muscular. It had a pleasant sweetness and a certain full-bodied flavor that I couldn't quite place, and the result was a light fish dish that had an almost meaty sensibility, and above all boasted incredible flavor and texture. I started to wonder if we might be in for something truly special, and then, a few scant minutes later, truly special crashed the party.

Sashimi Dominic Armato

What hit next was a remarkable sampling of sashimi, both in terms of flavor and presentation, that confirmed -- only halfway through dinner -- that ShinBay is deserving of and will assuredly be receiving gobs of attention. We were instructed to start at the upper left corner and work our way around in a clockwise fashion, and so we did. First, what played almost like ahi poke, tuna that had been cut into small cubes and mixed with grapeseed oil, soy, diced avocado, pine nuts, freshly grated wasabi root and slivered ginger, then paired with a crispy fried slice of lotus root and airy rice cracker. The fish was sensational, and nearly matched the texture of the avocado, making for a cool, almost creamy tartare offset perfectly by its crunchy counterparts. The orange clam was intense, bringing a briny essence and firm, chewy texture that was further enhanced by sweet miso and generous dash of shichimi togarashi, pleasantly sticky and full-flavored and more than a little spicy. The aji was done in familiar fashion, with ponzu, lime, scallion, onion and ginger, and needed no unusual, creative twist as the fish was absolutely stunning, possessed of that bold and distinctive mackerel flavor that can taste unpleasantly off when the fish is anything other than perfect... and this was nothing less than perfect. Up next, thinly sliced tako, brought live to the premises I believe, touched with white soy, a tiny piece of tart and salty pickled plum, and micro shiso. With octopus, texture is paramount, and this was a lovely specimen with a gentle chew and just the slightest bit of an assist from its accompaniments to highlight the delicate flavor. Next, a succulent, smooth and juicy Fanny Bay oyster, dressed with ponzu gelée, uni and radish. This is always a gimme of a combination, and Kurita's is perfectly executed and anchored by perfect ingredients. The only disappointment for me was the lightly seared scallop with truffle oil, truffle salt, shaved truffle and tomato. I try not to speak in absolutes, but truffle oil so often strikes me as an overpowering distraction, and this was no exception. Your mileage may vary. But it was still a lovely scallop, and nothing was going to take the shine off this impressive plate.

Madagascar Shrimp Yakimono with UniDominic Armato

Next up, yakimono. We received a rather exotic crustacean, an enormous Madagascar Shrimp that played almost like a giant lobster tail, grilled, trimmed, and topped with uni that had also been lightly seared -- a blowtorch, perhaps? Presented simply and paired with a condiment dish featuring salt, a lime wedge, and a tiny dollop of citrusy and spicy yuzu kosho, this was all about enjoying the critter as simply as possible, though the little bit of briny richness added by the uni was more than welcome (for what it's worth, I can think of few contexts in which I wouldn't find uni more than welcome). Once we'd devoured the meat, with pleasant chew and smoky flavor, I got to work on the head. In an upscale context, I feel a little silly about attacking something like this with my fingers and slurping up every little bit of goo I can extract, but it would be a tragedy to let such a specimen go to waste. Honor before propriety.

Shrimp and Sea Bass MushimonoDominic Armato

Our mushimono course was wonderfully and almost painfully delicate, sea bass and blue shrimp gently steamed in a sake broth with mushrooms, chives, lime and a soft and gentle block of house-made tofu. Though it was served with ponzu for dipping and sliced scallions and chili daikon for mixing in, I used only a whisper of the ponzu. This dish was so elegant, so gentle and so sophisticated that I hated to come blazing in with something so brash. And though every element was so precisely executed and so gently expressive -- the stunningly tender shrimp, the flaky sea bass, the melting tofu -- it was anchored by a broth that almost seemed underpowered until I took a moment to really drink it in, get my nose in the bowl and inhale, and its beautiful balance and delicate charms came wafting out. A sweet and gently enchanting dish, it was almost like a small meditation in the middle of the meal.

Washugyu, Asparagus, EnokiDominic Armato

From gentle steam we moved on to roaring fire, and the tobanyaki course brought a little sizzle to the table. The toban, a glazed ceramic plate, arrived atop a small earthenware grill, piping hot and ready to cook. To add to the toban, some stunningly marbled washugyu, enoki mushrooms and asparagus, along with salt and a house barbecue sauce, light and sweet, tasting mostly of ginger and soy. But first, a small cube of beef fat hit the toban's surface with a loud sizzle and primed it for the ingredients to come. Where one goes from here is a matter of personal preference. I chose to cook the washugyu on one side only, giving it time to develop a good sear, while still leaving a bit of warm, raw beef on the other side. And alternating beef and vegetables allowed the latter to cook in the fat of the former. The sauce, while unassuming, was right on target, a perfect match for Japanese-style beef (oh, when will this embargo end?) without being so strong as to overpower it.

Amaebi, Otoro, Duck NigiriDominic Armato

And then. Came. The nigiri. Oh, my, the nigiri. A parade of nigiri so stunning I alternated between gleeful giggling and awestruck silence. It was served two or three at a time, small pieces less than half the size of what one would typically expect, almost comical in appearance until the first bite, when the flavor of the fish comes charging through and you realize that anything more would be unnecessary. The nigiri is served in a very upscale style seldom seen in our now sushi-happy nation, where there is no dipping or condimentizing or firing up your fish with a massive wad of fake wasabi. Whatever the fish needs is applied by the chef, and when done well -- as it was here -- whatever the chef applies is exactly what it needs. We had kisu, a Japanese whiting, with a hit of wasabi lurking beneath its milky surface and lime and salt atop. We had sweet and mellow hirame, pressed between kombu for an umami boost and served with a hint of pickled plum. We had more of the stunning aji with spicy shoga (grated ginger) to play off its funkier qualities. We had succulent bigeye tuna with thick, sweet nikiri soy, enhanced with mirin, sake and dashi. We had briny orange clam touched with and requiring nothing more than a hint of lemon. We had bigeye otoro so creamy and wonderful that it made the need to leave bluefin alone for a while seem not so daunting a task. We had more. And more. And I feared the moment when it would stop.

Halibut NigiriDominic Armato

One of my favorites from the flight of nigiri was the amaebi, topped with a touch of osetra caviar and what was described as "shrimp reduction," a creamy mousse that reminded me of the shrimp pastes used in Southeast Asia, except very clean, sweet and refined. The whole thing combined to provide an intense bite of all-encompassing shrimp flavor, the focused essence of the beast in a tiny taste, potent yet refined. It was a show-stopper for me. Another favorite was halibut presented two ways, a slice on the left with chili daikon, ponzu and scallion, familiar to me in flavor if rarely of this quality. On the right, a slice of what was described as the halibut fin -- a first for me -- with an unusual texture in some ways reminiscent of raw scallop, a rich and full-flavored cut enhanced with a bit of nikiri soy and yuzu kosho, a sweet, spicy and citrusy treatment for a luscious cut of fish, served warmer than its counterpart. Both bites were exquisite, both were extracted from the same fish, and both were completely different in their character. By the end we'd sampled a dozen pieces, and when considering them as a whole I was blown away by how distinct they were, that we'd been served a dozen bites, each completely evocative of the fish being presented, each seasoned in a manner that ensured the fish was the focus. It was as educational as it was delicious, and when our server asked if we'd like to call it quits or try a little more, it was everything I could do to declare an end to the parade. I could have continued on like that all night long, but I figured I'd better save it for another visit.

Sweet Chawanmushi with FruitDominic Armato

Hot green tea and a lovely little dessert rounded out the evening, sweet chawanmushi with black sugar syrup, diced mango and kiwi, raspberry and a cherry on top... a metaphor for the meal if ever there was one. It's 24 hours now since we walked out of ShinBay, and I'm still replaying the meal in my head, over and over, particularly the nigiri course which I just can't get out of my mind. Without reservation, this was a stunning meal, and it only further compounds my consternation that more hasn't been made of ShinBay three months after its opening and that it wasn't packed to the rafters, even in August. I realize now that this is by design. They've been keeping things quiet, taking their time, slowly adjusting, slowly refining, slowly getting everything just so. With such a patient rollout, I can only presume that whoever is backing the endeavor is fully committed and taking the long view, which bodes well for such an ambitious undertaking during a time when most are playing it safe. ShinBay's launch has been so quiet that it almost feels as though I'm breaking confidence by writing about it, but there's no way I could possibly hold this in. I could barely contain myself long enough to edit the photos and write the post. I arrived in Phoenix long after the original ShinBay had closed, and I never got to Roka Akor under Kurita's direction, so I'm afraid I can't offer any comparison to his previous work. But I can say with confidence that this is a truly special restaurant, and I trust it's just a matter of time before it's ablaze in the spotlight. If this meal is representative of the future of ShinBay -- and I've no reason to believe it isn't -- we've just been given a stunning gift of a restaurant and most of us don't even know it yet. And if Kurita is still adjusting, still refining, still getting everything just so, then I can't wait to see where he's going to take us. The mythical ShinBay is no longer legend. It's reality, and it's sitting in our backyard.

7001 N. Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85253
Wed - Sun5:30 PM - 10:00 PM

August 03, 2011

Gyros Crawl

Gyros @ Z's Greek Dominic Armato

Let it never be said that I'm slave to a previously held notion.

Like any faithful son of Chicago, I dig a good gyros sandwich. While I reserve my true love for things like Italian beef and Chicago-style dogs, you don't grow up in a town where gyros is such a such a fixture without developing an appreciation. Gyros, at least as it's most often practiced here in the States, is another Chicago contribution to the greasy food scene. Like so many other vertical spit-roasted meats, its less-processed origins are rooted in the Turkish döner kebab by way of Greece, but leave it to the nation's meatpacker to turn something historically less... uniform... into the mass produced pressed loaf that has come to define the dish for us here in the States. But hey, such dubious shifts in culinary standards sometimes have their charms (spam, anyone?) and this less than rustic interpretation of the original is entirely worthy of attention. Though there's some disagreement about who first created and popularized the loaf, that it emerged in Chicago in the '60s is settled culinary history. And so, as with so many other greasy Chicago comfort foods, I was positively delighted to discover that it's widely available here in Phoenix. But I've been puzzled, as of late, by the love shown for Z's Greek, where I had an absolutely abysmal gyros sandwich about a year ago. I'd since tried a couple of others that I thought were better, but it never hurts to be pseudo-scientific about these things, which led me to the obvious answer: gyros crawl.

Now, this is by no means meant to be comprehensive. There are scads of joints offering gyros around town, and given that it's a product a little more uniform than, say, an Italian beef, it isn't something I've felt compelled to try every chance I get. So here are just a few spots that I hit in rapid succession yesterday, in an attempt to discern whether the attention given to Z's Greek is well-deserved. Just to lay a baseline, what am I looking for in a Chicago-style gyros sandwich? First, the pita. Fresh, supple, hot, and browned a little on the griddle. Second, the tzatziki. Full flavor, nice and creamy, good seasonings, and hopefully some fresh cucumber, though there's a whole lot of room for stylistic variation on this one. Third, the vegetables. Well, the truth is that the vegetables are usually kind of an afterthought on a gyros sandwich. Anything other than a few pieces of onion and some cardboard tomato is really a bonus. And lastly, the meat. The pre-processed nature of the gyros cone makes for a uniform product, so it's really all in the prep. A spit is critical, and preferably more than one. You want the fat basting the meat so that it's hot, browned, and ideally even crisped just a touch, sliced right off a sizzling cone into your sandwich. And of course, none of these are hard and fast rules. There's always room for variations, provided they're positive. But as a baseline, that's where I'm starting.

George's Famous GyrosDominic Armato

George's Famous Gyros

First up, George's Famous Gyros on McKellips, not to be confused with George's Gyros on Country Club Drive in Mesa. I understand the folks who originally owned George's Gyros sold and subsequently opened George's Famous Gyros, which means there's no official connection between the two, though the names suggest otherwise. What got me excited about George's on a couple of earlier visits was that they had two spits going. Leaving one to brown and sizzle while you carve from the other and alternating back and forth is really the only way to ensure you're turning out sandwiches with nice, crisp meat during the lunch rush. Heck, my old favorite Chicago-style Greek joint, Central Gyros, has four spits up front (though one's usually occupied by chicken and the fourth isn't always in operation). Or at least I thought this was something I loved about George's. Turns out they either got rid of a spit, or my memory is shot, and I fear the latter is more likely. In any case, they still managed to get a little bit of color on the meat -- Kronos, for gyros nerds -- even during a busy lunch rush, though not enough for my tastes, and there wasn't much of a sense of sizzle from the spit. The meat was certainly plentiful. The tzatziki was pretty decent, thick and creamy with a healthy amount of garlic and dill, though no obvious cucumber. And the vegetables were pretty typical... a little onion and unripe tomato. All told, a passable sandwich, but nothing to get excited about.

Chicago GyrosDominic Armato

Chicago Gyros

Next up, Chicago Gyros, at 46th Street and Indian School. Chicago Gyros was... less than good. The pita needed a little more griddle love, for starters, though a larger problem was the meat. I watched them cut it right off the cone, but it had no color or sizzle at all. The place already had a dozen diners when I walked in, and this may be Exhibit A for why you run a second spit. Though they could've at least gone the cheater's route of tossing the sliced meat on the griddle for a couple of minutes. It's no substitute for basting on the spit, but it gives you a little sizzle. The tzatziki wasn't terribly impressive, either. It was thinner than George's, didn't have that nice yogurty creaminess, and tasted of dried dill and lots and lots of black pepper. The worst part? An unpleasant aftertaste as I drove between gyros joints. Chicago Gyros was the only one that didn't display posters proclaiming their gyros allegiance, so I don't know whose product they're using, but while the sandwich was abundant, I found myself wishing there'd been less of it. I just wasn't digging the flavor. A weak sandwich. Though they say they marinate and produce their own schwarma and souvlaki, which might merit further research.

Z's GreekDominic Armato

Z's Greek

And so we arrive at Z's Greek, where I had an awful, awful sandwich a year ago. What caused me to write it off was meat so unpleasant that I assumed they didn't even have a spit. It was wet, spongy and grey. I considered the possibility that it had been steamed or baked. Not so on this day, when I could see the spit in action -- but more on that in a moment. The pita was the best of the three, similar product but shown a good amount of griddle love, a little browned and crispy in spots but still warm and supple. Ditto on the tzatziki, which was rich and creamy, with a potent but not overpowering hit of garlic, refreshing amount of dill and an abundance of fresh, shredded cucumber. Even the vegetables were a step up. The tomatoes were still of the cardboard variety, but they were a little more abundant, and there was a pleasant addition of fresh lettuce, making the sandwich a little less one-dimensional. Which brings us to the meat. Again, it was the best of the three, though I say so with reservations. Courtesy of Grecian Delight, it was browned, but didn't have much in the way of sizzle or crispness. I spied a single spit in the back with a slowly rotating cone of meat, but noticed that it went untouched as numerous orders went through the kitchen. My suspicion? They're carving and holding, which explains everything, even providing possible insight into the problems with my previous visit. I might've missed the lunch rush last time, which ideally means you're getting beautiful, sizzling meat since a dozen sandwiches' worth wasn't sliced off right before yours. But if some of the already sliced product was left in a holding pan after the rush, steaming away in its own heat? This is all speculation, of course, but I'm betting that's what happened. In any case, there's room for improvement in Z's gyros sandwich. I finished up the gyros crawl still craving that hot, lightly crisped meat. And I could see some complaining that the meat isn't as abundant as it is on some of its contemporaries, though I advocate balance over pure volume and Z's passes that test. But it's a very good sandwich, made with care, that beats the others by a country mile. If they'd just put in a second spit and slice fresh, boy howdy, then you'd really have something. Dare to dream.

George's Famous Gyros
7620 E. McKellips Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85257
Mon - Sun11:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Chicago Gyros
4730 E. Indian School Rd.
Phoenix, TX 85018

Z's Greek
4026 E. Indian School Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Mon - Sat11:00 AM - 9:00 PM
Sun12:00 PM - 9:00 PM

August 01, 2011

Chicago Invades Texas

Texas and Chicago Get Hitched Dominic Armato

Until a week and a half ago, my personal experience with Texas was limited to a gas station in the middle of nowhere, and the Hooters in Amarillo (I loathe breastaurants, but not as much as I love the Chicago Bears). And so, last weekend, it was with a great deal of excitement that my ladylove and I left the chilluns with Grandma, piled into the car and set off for the wedding of a dear, dear friend in Marfa, Texas, perhaps the most remote destination I've ever visited in the contiguous 48. Texas and Chicago were gettin' hitched, as one of my high school friends found herself a feller in the Lone Star State and proceeded to plan a wedding invoking the spirit of both of their homes, blessed by patron saints Elvis and Johnny Cash, and fully branded with custom-made accoutrements like the stunning piece of pants-securing hardware you see pictured above. In short, it was a helluva time.

Chile Con Queso DipDominic Armato

Unfortunately, the whirlwind nature of the trip didn't leave much time for exploration. With Grandma outnumbered 2-1, we felt the only compassionate thing was to make the trip a surgical strike, driving through the night en route to less than 48 hours of jam-packed wedding festivities, followed by a sprint through the desert back home. But we did our level best to hit a few eats on the way, starting with a quick lunch at L&J Cafe, an El Paso landmark and hardcore Tex-Mex eatery. L&J dates back to 1927, and the family running the joint, spanning three generations, is completely open about L&J's prohibition-era roots as well as its prohibition-era... *ahem*... activities. It was a bar before it was a restaurant, and indeed, the dining room tacked onto the back almost seems like an afterthought, narrow, cave like and packed to the gills with patrons eating off of enormous, steaming plates. This is border food, a magical marriage of cultures that's been almost forgotten in the (completely justified) explosion of interest in regional Mexican cuisine. That trend will come full circle again, I'm sure. But in the meantime, it was both quaint and comforting to peruse a menu filled with enchiladas, fajitas, burritos and more.

I can't say whether it was a regional characteristic or simply L&J's approach, but when chips and green salsa hit the table, it was a thrill to discover that the salsa actually had some kick, enough to get a nice burn going right into our starter, the Chile con Queso Dip. Refined isn't the word I'd use here. Decadent is more like it. But sloppy and gooey and messy as it was, this was still a carefully constructed mess of roasted chiles -- mostly hatch, I believe -- onions, a blend of cheeses, cream and some other seasonings I'm sure, that was the kind of thing you don't want to station yourself next to at the party or you will eat the whole thing. Though heavy, it went down easy, balanced with a little sweetness and tartness and plenty of spice. Sophisticated? No. But really, really good.

Mexican CombinationDominic Armato

I followed that with the Mexican Combination, driven mostly by the urge to try as many items as possible. It was an enormous plate that was something of a hit and miss affair. Misses for me included the beef taco, its almost undetectable filling buried in shredded lettuce, sour cream, cardboard tomatoes and cheddar and jack cheeses. This is the kind of item that gave Tex-Mex a bad name, amounting to little more than a pile of flavorless vegetables. Better, though still kind of weak, was the chile verde con carne, chunks of dry pork stewed in an underpowered tomatillo and green chile sauce. I've sampled much better elsewhere. Rice and beans were tasty and well-made, and a beef flauta was crisp and delicious, possibly made with the same meat as the taco, but without all of the extraneous veg to get in the way. A chile relleno was also pretty good, stuffed with melty cheese and topped with some stewed vegetables that, unlike the taco filling, tasted like vegetables rather than water. The undisputed king of the plate, however, was a fabulous red cheese enchilada, warm and steamy and completely smothered in a deep, earthy sauce that was a blast of pure red chile flavor with a satisfying but non-abusive amount of heat. The menu had a large section dedicated to enchiladas, and that's where I'd focus if I were to return... and I'd return in a heartbeat, because despite a couple of misses, I really, really enjoyed the hits.

Baked Eggs with SpinachDominic Armato

And with that, we were back on the road, hugging the Mexican border before turning inland towards Marfa, population 1,981, a West Texas ranch and railroad town turned artist colony and tourist destination, simultaneously dusty and stylish and the perfect matrimonial locale for a couple prone to larger-than-life endeavors. After a rollicking rehearsal dinner and open mic catered with aplomb by Salt Lick BBQ of Austin, we crashed and crashed hard, and awoke desperately in need of breakfast. Cochineal anchors Marfa's refined dining scene. Or perhaps more accurately, Cochineal IS Marfa's refined dining scene. And though I heard great things from friends who'd arrived earlier in the week and was tortured by a great-looking menu, breakfast was sadly the only crack I'd get at them. But for a quick stop en route to wedding preparations, It was a mighty fine breakfast. Baked eggs, laced with cream and spinach, were beautifully done, firm around the outside, loose and slurpy in the middle and nicely crusted on top. I also had the good fortune of ending up with a few bites of a friend's pancake, which was nearly half an inch thick, light and fluffy in the center browned to the point of being almost crispy, and something I wish I'd had a plateful of myself.

And with that, I was sucked into the wedding whirlwind, fulfilling official duties as a (gender-neutral) bridesmaid, bouncing from one last-minute task to the next, before settling into a fabulous and undeniably unique ceremony overseen by a minister done up like the cover of "50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong." And once she'd pronounced them man and wife "by the power vested in [her] by God, The King and the State of Texas," it was time to chow down on the creations of Reata Restaurant of nearby Alpine (killer chiles rellenos), and two-step to the sounds of the incomparable Dale Watson, until the party finally broke up and we were in desperate need of a grilled cheese.

The RehabDominic Armato

I realize grilled cheese is the food trend du jour, but man, did this hit the spot. By day, Food Shark serves lunch from a truck parked "between the railroad tracks and Marfa Book Co.," but by night they take over the Museum of Electronic Wonders, turning it into the Late Night Grilled Cheese Emporium, "usually open Friday & Saturday 9:30pm-12:30 or 1am." You're on Marfa time here, folks. In any case, the MoEW is a small and amusingly mod space, featuring such wonders as the 8-track turntable (you read that right) and serving four or five varieties of grilled cheese through a small pass. The classic, with or without tomato, is traditional and perfect, gooey cheese bracketed by perfectly toasted, buttery bread. But it was The Rehab that stole my heart. Whether the name was its usual moniker or a temporary tribute to Amy Winehouse, I don't know, but it was essentially a reuben all out of whack. Rather than rye, it arrived on griddled white, but that aside, the only distinction between this and a reuben was the balance of ingredients, 80% swiss cheese with a single, thin layer of corned beef and a whisper of sauerkraut, and I was shocked by just how good it was. It was a grilled swiss cheese, with just a hint of salty meat and a touch of vinegary, vegetal tang, and it totally rocked me. How much of this was a function of the sandwich and how much of it was the timing of its arrival, it's hard to say. But I thought it was brilliant... a tiny little shift in balance that took something so familiar and created something completely new.

The next morning, after breakfast tacos and sad goodbyes, it was time for the sprint back home to relieve Grandma... but not without one more stop. Though a chain, I'd heard good things about Rudy's BBQ, and not only was it right on our rushed route, but they were kind enough to put gas pumps right out front so that we could fuel ourselves and our car all in one stop. In terms of presentation, Rudy's is kind of a corporate chain nightmare, a cavernous space decorated with copious kitsch (predominantly NASCAR), and outfitted with a Disney-style weaving line and lengthy condiment bar, coming across more like the Fuddrucker's of the Lone Star State than a dusty, smoky 'cue pit. But the food's what matters, and I figured that in Texas, even a chain was likely to have better brisket than I'd find back home.

BBQ BrisketDominic Armato

As it turns out, Rudy's 'cue isn't half bad. The sausage wasn't seasoned or smoked to my tastes, but the brisket, which I ordered moist (read: fatty), was pretty darn fine. Tender and succulent with a bright red ring, I would have preferred that it had sucked up a little more smoke, but what was present was entirely pleasurable. The best part, unsurprisingly, was the a tiny slice of the end I was fortunate to receive, charred with a sweet but not cloying rub that made me wish the whole thing could have been one big end. Sadly, unlike some other places, not a menu option at Rudy's. Slaw was creamy and passable, if a little uninspiring, and I apparently made the mistake of skipping the cream corn, which I've subsequently heard is awesome. A reason to return, I suppose. Y'know, for the next time I'm driving through El Paso. But on the strength of the brisket, I considered the stop a success, if something shy of earth-moving.

As is always the case with these trips, I wish we'd had more time. Texas was mighty hospitable to us for all 61 hours we were there, and it's a shame we didn't have the chance to enjoy that hospitality for a little bit longer. But the good news is that it's only two states away. May The King and Johnny Cash guide us back there before too long.

L&J Cafe
3622 E. Missouri Avenue
El Paso, TX 79903
Mon - Wed10:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Thu10:00 AM - 9:00 PM
Fri10:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Sat9:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Sun9:00 AM - 8:00 PM
107 W. San Antonio St. (Rt. 90)
Marfa, TX 79843
Thu - Sun8:00 AM - 1:00 PM6:00 PM - ???
Mon - Tue 6:00 PM - ???

Food Shark
300 W. San Antonio St. (Rt. 90)
Marfa, TX 79843
Fri - Sat9:30 PM - 1:00 AM ("Usually")
Rudy's "Country Store" & Bar-B-Q
7970 Gateway East Boulevard
El Paso, TX 79907
Sun - Thu7:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat7:00 AM - 10:30 PM