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October 03, 2011

The Quarterly Report - Q3 2011

Tuna Melt @ Perk Eatery Dominic Armato

Precious little food writing going on here these days. What can I say? A busy month. But between the quarterly report and the forthcoming (very soon!) first installment in the McDowell Project, we'll see if we can't fire off a dozen or so in rapid fashion. For reasons I can't explain, this summer was filled with burgers, pizza, cheesesteaks, corned beef sandwiches and all sorts of things that are about as squarely in the mainstream as you can get. Something about the heat, I guess. But whatever the reason, without further ado, in order determined by random.org as always, here are some places I've eaten over the past few months that didn't quite inspire a full post:

Pancakes with Fresh BerriesDominic Armato

Perk Eatery
6501 E. Greenway Parkway, Scottsdale AZ 85254

Now here's a swell little place that rightfully seems to have captured the love of the food nerds. Perk Eatery is a casual little corner joint that serves no-frills breakfast and lunch and does a really nice job of it. Omelets, pancakes, burgers and sandwiches are all simple and straightforward, but made with great ingredients and an awful lot of care. Pancakes are thick, satisfying and served with actual maple syrup (alas, more noteworthy than it should be), and the pumpkin spice special I sampled last week was fabulous. Eggs come with classic sides, and always arrive exactly as ordered. When it comes to lunch, burgers are big, juicy and cooked to temperature. The "Best Ever Tuna Melt" may not quite meet its lofty aspirations, but isn't too far off that impossible standard with fresh salad, two melty cheeses and beautifully griddled bread. And the patty melt, dripping with juice, cheese and sweet griddled onions is absolutely dynamite. The food's great, the folks are friendly, the prices are inexpensive... there's nothing not to like, and despite my compulsion to keep trying new places, somehow the family keeps ending up back here. Nothing about Perk Eatery is fancy. It's just really good.

CheesesteakDominic Armato

1640 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix AZ 85016

I was tempted to simply write "No." and leave it at that. But I... can't. Given that the restaurant's featured item is Philadelphia's most recognized food, I'm going to momentarily set aside the fact that they've named the place after a fictional New York crime family and built a website that prominently features Al Capone. I can look past that. Then there's the wall labeled "You know you're from Philly when..." that's stuffed with every cringeworthy cliche in the book. I'm not from Philly, so I can look past that too. But a sandwich that bad is unforgiveable under any circumstances. Roll? Stale. Whiz? I've made my peace with it, and I never thought I'd hear myself saying this, but it needed way more whiz. It was almost undetectable. Worst, however, was the beef, a tasteless shredded hash that I never would have believed had ever touched a griddle if I didn't see it myself. My best guess is that it was frozen, and upon hitting the griddle ended up steaming rather than searing. But whatever the process, it was an epic disaster of taste and texture. Best part? Written on the wall of the embarrassingly commercialized joint with a godawful cheesesteak: "Only tourists go to Pat's." Are you taking notes, Alanis?

Thin Crust PizzaDominic Armato

7215 E. Shea Boulevard, Scottsdale AZ 85258

I had hitherto known Oregano's only as the punchline to 12% of the food nerd jokes out there. "Where's a good place for sushi?" "Have you tried Oregano's?" (Though perception has oustripped reality, the place seems... a touch overrepresented in various reader polls.) I guess the joke's on me, though, because the thin crust is pretty decent. Though I can't speak for their stuffed or pan pizza, I understand why the thin is lambasted by foodnerdia. This isn't Bianco, and it isn't 'Pomo, or any of the other beautifully crafted pizzas that are one of Phoenix' culinary strengths. "Elegant" isn't a word that springs to mind here. But if you're looking for a recreation of a Chicago tavern-style thin crust, that's this pizza all over. Dense cracker crust that's really only crisp around the edge, slightly sweet sauce with dried herbs, way too much cheese, cut into squares... this is the kind of stuff I grew up on. And it certainly isn't best of breed. But whether or not it's your thing, I can vouch for it as an accurate and fairly well-executed version of one of Chicago's signature styles of pizza. For what it is, that's worthy of praise.

New Yorker SandwichDominic Armato

New York Bagels 'N Bialys
10320 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale AZ 85253

I keep trying delis, and trying delis, and trying delis, and depending on the day of the week, I vacillate violently between wanting to focus on the positives and openly declaring that their bubbies would all be ashamed. Part of the problem is that so many aren't terrible, they're just weak, and NYB&B falls into that category. The bagels are the best part. They aren't anything that'll cure a New Yorker of his homesickness, but they're dense with a nice skin and chew. Chicken soup, on the other hand, is kind of overdrawn and muddy, latkes are doughy, deep-fried pucks, and I suspect the tuna salad in the tuna melt had taken up residence in the fridge for a while. After getting ice cold pastrami on one visit, I asked if the corned beef was also served cold, or if it was steamed. I was told it was steamed. Next visit, a straight up corned beef on rye was, indeed, warm... but my money's on a microwave rather than a steam box. The unfortunate truth is that this is one of the better delis I've visited in Phoenix. Maybe it's just time to drastically adjust expectations.

Texas BurgerDominic Armato

David's Hamburgers & Mexican Food
7212 E. Main Street, Scottsdale AZ 85251

Gads, is David's a funny little joint. The first bit of oddness is the incongruity of burgers, breakfast, and Mexican. The breakfast, I didn't try. The Mexican, I'm not sure I care to try again unless it's 2:00 AM and I'm hammered (the fact that it's open uncharacteristically late is one of David's best features). But the burgers, fries and malts are great. They're just... familiar. Hand-formed patties griddled to a nice crisp on the edges, crispy bacon, thick slices of cheese, warm bun wrapped in paper, and a variety of toppings and sauces that almost perfectly mirror a certain popular '50s style burger chain. Even the chili tastes like a clone. But while the chain they mimic is one for which I have an occasional weakness, I can say without hesitation that the last burger I had there wasn't nearly as good as David's. The components were the same, but where one was slapped together, the other was carefully prepared, and that makes David's a worthy, if puzzling, stop in my book.

Egg Croissant SandwichDominic Armato

Carmel's Coffee
4233 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix AZ 85018

Carmel's arrival on the scene followed a bit of a strange trajectory, replacing the widely-respected Chestnut Lane and making a splash with a killer breakfast croissant sandwich before going through a chef change not one month after opening. But they're finally getting settled over there, and it's a cute place and a great stop for coffee, even if I'm having a hard time getting excited about the food. Scones are solid, if sweet for my tastes, but the croissants aren't at all what they were before the change, still chock full of butter but now limp and spongy rather than layered and flaky. Sadly, this also means the "signature egg croissant sandwich" is no longer the one that everybody loved when they first opened, though it's still tasty. The tuna sandwich was a total dud, crisp and fresh and totally tasteless. Water-packed albacore has less flavor than a boneless skinless chicken breast, and it needs more than a token amount of diced onion and celery and a squeeze of lemon juice to keep it from coming across as nondescript, dry protein. Great tuna can fly solo, but this isn't it. On the other hand, the citrus salad was nice, butter lettuce, sliced apples, toasted almonds and bits of goat cheese with a sweet vinaigrette alongside orange slices. But it only makes me miss the creative, crisply executed salads of Chestnut Lane. In their defense, that was a tough act to follow. But I'm sure I'm not the only one drawing the comparison.


Given that the restaurant's featured item is Philadelphia's most recognized food, I'm going to momentarily set aside the fact that they've named the place after a fictional New York crime family and built a website that prominently features Al Capone. I can look past that.

You are clearly a better man than I am. I'm not from Philly, but I am Italian.

I am as well, Anon Man, but if they served a killer cheeseteak, they could call it Big Tony's Bada Bing Goomba Steak and I'd eat there.

I know you are. And yes, I would overlook the sterotype for good food. But, I can't think of a place that plays the sterotype (and in such an incorrect and random fashion) and produces good food. If it was just "Al Capone's" or just "Tony Soprano's", then maybe. But, that mish-mash of people and places is a big alarm bell. "Rocky's" would be a better name for a philly shop, no?

I'm going to go with "none of the above," but yeah, I take your meaning :-) Alarm bells aplenty. It was one of those spots where I walked in and had to fight through the urge to just turn around and walk right back out. When you've been talking up a cheesesteak to the four-year-old for the last hour, though, such a move would be... complicated.

LOL. I have a three year old. Believe me, I get it.

I've never understood the local food nerds' general disdain for Oregano's, except that it appears to be knee-jerk chain disdain. "There's eight locations, and they ALWAYS have at least a half hour wait! I wouldn't be caught dead there with the unwashed masses!"

Jester... I can understand it from a couple of angles. As mentioned, if you're not familiar with the style, I can completely understand a "what the hell is this?" response. Like I say, this isn't one of the more elegant styles of pizza. In truth, the fact that I enjoyed it can probably be 80% chalked up to the fact that this is the stuff I grew up with.

The other annoyance could simply be that the acclaim is over the top. It's harder to happily say, "Yeah, it's good for what it is," when so much of the reaction out there is, "OMG, THIS IS TEH BEST PIZZA EVAHHH!!!!!!!11!!!1!1!!1!" It's a natural reaction so want to say, dude, it's not THAT good.

I really miss Chestnut Lane - Carmel's isn't a good replacement. Not only is the food not well executed, the coffee is weak. I would kill for that lobster or kale salad right now, and I'm not even a big salad guy. Need to find out what's going on with their Scottsdale location.

RE: David's - patty melt and malt, the only things you need. Awesome hangover spot.

RE: deli's...I can't remember - have you been to Scott's Generations? I'll have to dig into the archives. I haven't visited in a while, but they make some killer sandwiches.

I don't know what kind of cheese is on Oregano's pizza, but we probably have something even more shameful in St. Louis. Similar in that there are squares and lots of cheese, but the cheese is provolone. Mostly non-natives think it's disgusting.

Joel... I have a bunch of times, and it's been really hit and miss. Every time I start thinking they're pretty good, I get something terrible. But even at their best, they've been... okay.

Ally... Though I haven't yet had it, I know St. Louis pizza by reputation :-). I was under the impression, however, that Provel is kind of a Velveeta-ish processed cheese that's only part provolone. Is this not the case?

I can go better on disgusting pizza. There's a chain in the West that includes cheddar in its cheese blend. Sadly, sometimes I miss it, because that's what I had as a kid. But, Dom, you would be happy to know that the other place we liked was a Chicago style thin crust place, that we liked, but being a native Californian, I didn't figure that out until much later.

Joel, there's a "St. Louis style" pizza food truck here in DC. Everyone from St. Louis loves it. Everyone else... meh.

Yes, I think it is processed. I was going to put quotes around provolone or use -ish but I wasn't certain and didn't want to overstate its bad qualities. To be honest, I am not a native but once in a while I do really have a hankering for a deluxe Imo's pizza with bacon. :)

I actually would really like to try it!

Honestly, my favorite pizza ever is some NY style pizza from Logansport IN called "Bruno's". They used canned mushrooms. Just the thought of it makes my mouth water.

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