« November 2011 | Main | January 2012 »

December 31, 2011

The Deliciousness of 2011

Shrimp and Sea Bass Mushimono @ ShinBay Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: Though I loved their food long before getting to know them, the folks at Posh, FnB and Andreoli are all friends. And Mrs. Skillet Doux makes a mean birthday cake.  

It's year end list time!

Every time I join in this tradition I loathe myself a little bit, but y'know, I tell myself it's only natural and there's nothing wrong with taking a look back at what the year has brought.

In terms of food, I can't complain too much about 2011. Despite an increasing tendency to get a little surly when it comes to my culinary frustrations, I had some fabulous food here in Phoenix, and even managed to squeeze in a jaunt to Vegas and a month back home in Chicago. Places that I love continue to impress. New favorites have emerged. And I worked to fill as many gaping holes in my dining experience as I could.

So let's call it a good year tempered with a little bit of frustration. This was year two in a new home, after the honeymoon is over but before I've made my peace with the flaws. I wish new openings didn't seem to walk such a narrow path. I wish we were seeing more in the way of killer traditional foods and fewer contorted and misguided attempts to shoehorn in ooh and aah. I wish I saw more focus on food and less on scene/style/marketing. But when I see interest in the opening of Peruvian restaurants, when friends come back from Tacos Atoyac talking about how it's packed, and when places like ShinBay open to acclaim (if, at times, a little confusion), I'm reminded of how much good stuff is going on here, and I become more and more excited for what's to come.

But this particular exercise is about looking back, and when I look back I see a list filled with so much great stuff I can barely trim it down. This is now the seventh time I've done this, and the list seems to grow every year. Perhaps it's laziness and an unwillingness to make the hard decisions. But the more and more I write, the less and less I find myself interested in making a hard cut, as though number ten was more meaningful than number eleven, as if the memories of these bites can all be quantified. I can't list them all. That's what I've been doing all year. But when I think back, these are the dishes that one way or another defined my year in food. So without further ado, in completely random order supplied by random.org, here's The Deliciousness of 2011:

Dominic Armato

Nigiri Sushi
ShinBay - Phoenix

Where have you been hiding this guy, Phoenix? I mean, I know Shinji Kurita had a legendary reputation as a fellow who could turn out some stellar food, but are you telling me that the guy who makes this was somehow forced into hibernation for five years? I don't care about the location, I don't care about the lack of marketing savvy, I don't care about the reservation and service quirks, and I don't care about the damn sign. What I care about is that our omakase there was capped with what may be the most stunning array of nigiri sushi I've ever sampled, and there were still at least two other dishes I could have put on this list. This nigiri -- a remarkable mix of fish both mainstream and obscure -- put the lie to the oft repeated notion that you can't get good seafood in the desert. Every piece was so impossibly fresh, so perfectly precise, so carefully crafted to draw out the character of the fish that I'm still a little baffled that this place isn't an instant smash hit. Yes, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah (or insanity) to open a place like this in hard times (even if fine dining appears to be the only segment of the market that's growing right now). But we spend this much at Kai, we spend almost this much at Binkley's, and some of the same folks who laud those places beat up on ShinBay. This nigiri alone, to say nothing of the rest of the menu, is worthy of that kind of attention and praise those restaurants command. When we talk about Phoenix' flagship fine dining restaurants, ShinBay belongs in the conversation. Here's hoping that happens in 2012.

Dominic Armato

Pork Belly Pastrami
Citizen Public House - Phoenix

Wit without flavor is a frustrating thing. But when a delicious dish also happens to be witty, the combination can be absolutely delightful, which is the case with Citizen Public House's Pork Belly Pastrami. I don't wish to overplay the concept. Tender pork belly is crusted in blackened pastrami spices and served with a mustardy brussels sprout "sauerkraut" and chewy rye spatezle. It's a pastrami sandwich... get it? This much is cute. But what matters is that it's a knockout dish, luscious and bold and balanced and more than a little decadent. Every time I worry that pork belly has become overplayed, a dish like this comes along to remind me that no matter how many menus it's crammed into, that can't be held against the times it's done right. That's this dish all over. I figure if I'm having a hard time finding a pastrami sandwich that makes me happy, a creative upscale repackaging thereof is the next best thing.

Dominic Armato

Jibarito de Bistec
Papa's Cache Sabroso - Chicago

Some great foods get that way with an impressive amount of finesse. Others display a certain wit and charm. And some are just freaking good. Such is the case with the jibarito, one of Chicago's more unique contributions to the culinary scene. This fall, I righted a wrong by finally getting to Papa's Cache Sabroso, a Puerto Rican joint not five minutes from where I lived for five years, to stop in for the Puerto Rican-Chicagoan creation I'd heard so much about but had never tasted. And it's probably a good thing that I hadn't, because this thing would be dangerously irresistible if it were too accessible. It's seasoned and grilled steak, melty cheese, tomatoes, lettuce and garlicky mayonnaise, all of which is typical enough, except that the fillings are then stuffed between two flattened and fried plantains in lieu of bread, adding a crisp and nutty decadence to a sandwich that would already be pushing the limits. This is one of those foods where you sit there, stuffing your face, licking your fingers and moaning, until it's all gone and you start to strongly consider ordering another. The jibarito is a fairly recent creation, and though widespread in Chicago it hasn't gotten much play elsewhere. That needs to change.

Dominic Armato

Foie with Sunflower & Huckleberry
Binkley's - Phoenix

Every once in a while, a pairing comes along that seems as though it's more likely the product of chemical alteration than chefly creativity. Foie and huckleberries seem straightforward enough, but I can't recall if I've ever seen sunflower seeds on a plate, much less like this. And yet it worked... brilliantly, even. Accompanied by whole huckleberries, a huckleberry sauce and a smear of nutty sunflower seed puree, the foie had a dark, heavily seared crust that bordered on charred. Add the nuttiness of the sunflower, and while it referenced traditional foie treatments, this presentation possessed an unusual and surprising complexity that I found really striking. The dish was a fantastic balance of pleasurable and cerebral, and it's among the best foie dishes I can remember.

Dominic Armato

A Walk In the Forest
Next - Chicago

The dish's official appellation is "Autumn," but its name among the staff seems somehow more appropriate. The high concept dinner theater of Next's Childhood menu was packed end to end with nostalgia and whimsy, but this dish temporarily set aside the memories of comfort foods and preprocessed treats, and tried to embody something a little less... straightforward. The best way I can think to describe this combination of manipulated vegetation and smoldering aromatics is the way I did when I wrote about it the first time:

"...it made me feel like a deer that had found a really fabulous bush to munch on. It was as though on this walk in the woods, I'd scooped up a handful of the forest floor -- leaves and berries and twigs and soil and mushrooms -- and popped it in my mouth, only to discover with delight that it was intensely pleasurable. The textures, aromas and flavors somehow managed to capture the forest, or at least how I imagine it, but in a way that was palatable to humans rather than wildlife, making it possible to experience the woods through the one sensory path that's not usually an option."

To call it unique would be a gross understatement. To call it exciting would be no less so.

Dominic Armato

Tom Yam Beef Ball & Tender Soup
Aroy Thai - Chicago

So much did I love this meal that if I weren't so determined to spread the love around I could have easily put three dishes from it here. I'm sure the fact that I was dying for a fabulous Thai meal had more than a little to do with it. But all the same, of all the dishes I enjoyed at Aroy Thai -- and they wre legion -- this was the one that stopped me dead in my tracks from bite one. As bowls were passed around and the table of more than a dozen slowly grew silent, all that was heard around the table was slurping and one voice from the other end that said, "I have never had tom yum soup before today." A little dramatic, yes. And at least as tongue-in-cheek. But still, this was an eye opener that made so many other tom yum soups seem like a waste of time. If this is a soup that normally goes to eleven, Aroy's version is at least a seventeen, taking all of the hot, sour, sweet and salty elements and sending them through the culinary equivalent of a bullhorn while still maintaining perfect balance. It was complete and total mouth-exploding flavor, and if I could have gotten away with hoarding the entire tureen for myself, I would have.

Dominic Armato

48 Hour Beef Belly
Sage - Las Vegas

If Vegas is all about taking things over the top and then going even further, short of gilding it with gold leaf and stuffing it with white truffles, I can't think of a better culinary metaphor than the 48 Hour Beef Belly, found at Shawn McClain's Sage at the Aria casino. I don't think it's even normal for them to plate a full serving. Though it was offered only on the signature tasting menu, they graciously honored my ladylove's request to make an entree out of it, the happy epilogue of which was that she left half of it to me. Think pork belly meets beef short ribs, smoked for 24 hours, braised for another 24, glazed with a thick, intense reduction and plated with pickled ramps and red peppers to lighten things up just a touch. And morels. Because of the smoke it played a little like BBQ, except with ten times the fat and a meat reduction in place of the sauce. It was a total no-holds-barred dish, and I can't think of a better city for it to call home.

Dominic Armato

Sonny Boy
Pizzeria Bianco - Phoenix

Well, it's about time. It took me a year and a half, but I finally got to Pizzeria Bianco. And then I got there again. And again. I think one more time. Maybe even once more. When it's off, I can see how some might be disappointed. Even the weakest pizza I've had there was excellent, but that's still a letdown when the buildup is "OMG it's the best pizza in the world!!!!1!!1111!1!!" But when it's on, I've had none better, and my favorite pizza in the lineup is the Sonny Boy, essentially a margherita minus the basil plus olives and salami. That the salami is Creminelli sopressata is already a good start. That it's set atop bread with beautiful chew and character is the key. That it quickly cooks under intense heat, rending and then kind of frying in its own fat, making it light and almost crisp is what takes it over the top. I really, really dig this pizza.

Dominic Armato

Shio Ramen
Santouka Ramen - Chicago

I realize ramen is the food nerd obsession du jour, and I don't care. This bowl belongs up here. It's not much to look at. When it comes to their signature shio ramen, Santouka serves the toppings on the side, which immediately sets the tone. The accompaniments may be fabulous, but this is about the broth and the noodles. And oh dear, are they wonderful, the noodles dense but lively, the broth a thick and almost creamy tonkotsu with seafood accents, rich with fat, warm and comforting. That the premium pork option is a tender and luscious cut of cheek doesn't hurt either. For all the time I've spent in Japan, I've had almost no ramen there. This was a reminder that when I'm there in two weeks, I really need to rectify that situation.

Dominic Armato

Rice, Chicken, Egg, Takana Pickle
Raku - Las Vegas

The omakase at Raku was so refined, so precise, so flavorful and so delightful that the only question was which dish I'd put here. I could've gone with the agedashi tofu, which for some reason I didn't fully appreciate on our first pass. I could have gone with the symphony of flavors and textures that was the uni shooter. I could have gone with a simple, delicate and mature treatment of ankimo, perfect dashi complementing the delicate monkfish liver. But when I stopped to think about the dish that stuck with me -- the one that I couldn't get out of my head -- I was surprised to find that it was our final savory course, a humble bowl of rice with minced chicken, slivered omelet, some pickled mustard leaf and shredded shiso. Even beyond the fabulous flavors, I loved the statement implicit in the fact that it was even a part of the menu. Yeah, you've had a virtuosic assortment of Japanese specialties, but your last course before dessert is going to be something completely simple and comforting. And, might I add, perfect.

But there are so many more! I agonized over which to picture. Any of these could have been above. Many of them were at one point or another as I debated with myself. Here they are, in similarly random fashion:

Original Chopped SaladCitizen Public HousePhoenix
Chicago Style Hot DogGene & Jude'sChicago
Shrimp and Sea Bass MushimonoShinBayPhoenix
Kowloon Style CrabNee HousePhoenix
Steamed Sole with Spring VegetablesL'AtelierLas Vegas
Lamb RibsFnBPhoenix
Fish TacosTacos AtoyacPhoenix
Italian BeefChicago's Taylor StreetPhoenix
Branzino alla GrigliaAndreoliPhoenix
Spanish Sea Bass StewKaiPhoenix
Shrimp with Spiced Demiglace and LeeksPoshPhoenix
Trippa alla FiorentinaPradoPhoenix
Birthday CakeMrs. Skillet DouxPhoenix
Larb KhunAroy ThaiChicago
The RehabFood SharkMarfa
Dry Chili Fish FiletLao HunanChicago
Uni ShooterRakuLas Vegas
Lamb Belly RouladeWelcome DinerPhoenix
Butter BurgerSolly'sMilwaukee

You know, you stack 'em up like this, and it looks like a pretty darn fabulous year of eats. And really, it was. I can only hope 2012 is another year like this.

Thanks for reading, everybody, good eating, and happy new year!

2005   |  2006   |   2007   |   2008   |   2009   |   2010   |   2011

December 29, 2011

The Quarterly Report - Q4 2011

Shumai @ Phoenix Restaurant Dominic Armato

Bit of a quiet report, this quarter. A month long trip to Chicago, the return of Top Chef and the holidays will suck up a good chunk of restauranting and writing time like that. In any case, in order determined by random.org as always, here are the places I've eaten over the past few months that didn't quite inspire a full post:

Causa de CamaronesDominic Armato

Inka Fest
2909 S. Dobson Road, Mesa AZ 85202

Just when I think I've gotten to all of the Peruvian joints in town, a couple more pop up. I've been meaning to get to Inka Fest for almost a year, and finally did, though I doubt I'll be returning. The Causa was a little messy and unbalanced, and the $2 option to add shrimp netted... well, you can see. Ceviche was a little more successful, a nice balance leaning towards lime with a good deal of spice, but it lacked depth. Aji de Gallina was solid if uninspiring, but Pescado a lo Macho was a total bust with limp fried fish, cold and rubbery squid, and a flat and lifeless sauce. While I love that we have multiple Peruvian options around town, with Contigo Peru just a mile down the road, I can't see a compelling reason to visit this one unless you're desperate for Aji de Gallina on a weekday (Contigo only does it on the weekends). UPDATE : Contigo now has Aji de Gallina most days which, as far as I can tell, eliminates the only reason to go to Inka Fest.

Pizza MargheritaDominic Armato

La Piazza al Forno
5803 W. Glendale Avenue, Glendale AZ 85301

La Piazza al Forno was the second joint in town to obtain VPN (Vera Pizza Napoletana) certification, meaning that they meet the criteria for what constitutes a traditional Neapolitan pizza. Unfortunately, while we had a couple of perfectly enjoyable lunches, traditional doesn't always equal excellent. It's a neighborhood joint in charmingly neighborhoody historic Glendale, though the dark interior makes it almost foreboding unless you're seated near the front of the restaurant. There are antipasti and a significant list of pastas, about which I'm in no position to speak, but the stars are the pizzas, emerging from the wood-fired oven and bearing Guy Fieri's endorsement, which I suppose is considered an asset even if all it does for me is conjure up images of BBQ sushi. And the pizza's really good, but as much as I want to love it, and as much as I want to be able to say that the modest family joint on the West side runs circles about the slick new joint in Scottsdale, the truth is that the pizzas I've had at La Piazza just don't hold a candle to those at 'Pomo. The balance of toppings felt off and the tomatoes needed salt, but most importantly the bread had a slightly yeasty, underdone quality and the cornicone was short on texture and character. If this sounds bad, it's not. I'm being kind of hypercritical. The pizzas are good and if I lived on that end of town, I'd probably stop in from time to time. But while I don't usually like to declare "winners," I don't think it's inappropriate to do so in this scenario and after having made 'Pomo a regular stop over the past year, both times I went, I came away from La Piazza al Forno vaguely disappointed.

German PancakeDominic Armato

Walker Brothers
153 Green Bay Road, Wilmette IL 60091

Yeah, I'm a little surprised to be writing about this place, too. Without digging through the archives, I think the closest I've come to writing about a national chain was Nobu. In any case, they're widespread enough that most are probably familiar with The Original Pancake House, though determining which is actually the original was, for me, an exercise in futility (okay, so I didn't try that hard). But I've been to a number of them, and while this is one of those places about which I can't be remotely objective, my feeling has always been that Walker Brothers in Wilmette, Illinois is a cut above. Of course, the reason I'm writing is because this is a place I grew up with, and after revisiting it last month, I felt compelled to wallow in nostalgia a bit. It's a warm joint, all dark wood and stained glass and smooth, medium roast coffee. Bacon is crisp, OJ is fresh, hash browns are actually brown (depressingly rare), and most of the breakfast standards are solid. But the stars are the apple pancake, a massive mothership of a breakfast that, while delicious, was never quite my speed, and the German pancake, about which I could wax poetic for a while. It's another monster, the size of a steering wheel, six inches deep, dense and thick with what tastes like an entire carton of eggs. The accompanying pile of lemon wedges and powdered sugar allow you to create a sort of slurry that ensures you blow out your sweet, sour and rich receptors all at the same time. That probably doesn't make it sound nearly as appetizing as I find it, but again, I don't think my love for this pancake is based solely on nostalgia. I still dig this place.

Har GowDominic Armato

Phoenix Restaurant
2131 S. Archer Avenue, Chicago IL 60616

Phoenix is the reigning king of Chicago Chinatown dim sum, and while a willingness to accept a little less spit and polish will often net you better noshes within five blocks, there's something to be said for making the safe and dependable choice every now and again, particularly when with a large group of folks and multiple kids. And so it was that I found myself at Phoenix for the first time in many years, happily scarfing down shumai and har gow, all fresh and hot and deftly prepared. There's nothing paradigm-shifting here, and all I saw on this visit was a disappointingly narrow selection of the most basic standards, but almost everything I've had has been solid and we've never had to deal with the crushing crowds I've heard about, due to the fact that we get in early to beat the crunch. The only downside is that I feel like I sometimes need a pair of red flags and an air horn to get the carts over to our neck of the woods. I realize that jockeying for position comes with the territory, but please don't make me wait 45 minutes for that luo buo gao fix, guys.

December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

Christmas Cactus Cookie Courtesy of Mrs. Skillet Doux Dominic Armato

From us folks here in the desert, may your Christmas be filled with peace, love, and many, many delicious things.

December 15, 2011

Wok Strategy

It's a beautiful jet black under the veg.. really! Dominic Armato

It's been said that trying to stir-fry on a consumer range is an exercise in futility. Yeah, you can cook in a wok on a stovetop. But even if you're blessed with a Five Star range, those 21,000 BTUs have nothing on wok burners, which routinely run in the neighborhood of 100,000 BTUs. Serious wok cookery requires serious heat.

I'm in the camp that believes stir-frying at home isn't a pointless endeavor. But ensuring that you're actually stir-frying and not steaming requires some coping strategies. Things like letting your vegetables air-dry, letting your meat come to room temperature, not cooking large batches of anything, giving your wok time to preheat, etc. all aid in eliminating steam and keeping your temperature as high as possible. It's still nothing like working a professional wok burner, but if you're smart about it, I think it conveys enough of a benefit to make stir-frying at home a meaningful pursuit.

All of which is why I was delighted the other night to figure out a little trick that I think was rather helpful. One of the biggest challenges is that you usually cook your meat first, and dumping a big pile of meat into a wok makes its temperature plummet, the burner can't catch up, and by the time you get to vegetables they're slowly steaming from the pool of liquid in the bottom of the wok. So I always pull my meat out of the fridge and let it warm up a bit before cooking, to minimize the impact it has on the temperature of the wok. Thing is, the other night, I forgot to do that. And with dinnertime just minutes away, I had an ice cold bowl of meat. So I panicked, turned the oven on low, and tossed the bowl of meat in to warm up for a few minutes before I stir-fried it.

The result was an unusually good home stir-fry.

Why not, right? If letting the meat lose some of its chill by pulling it out of the fridge 20 minutes before you stir-fry helps keep your wok temperature high, why wouldn't letting the meat get slightly warm in a very low oven help even more? Of course there's a limit here. You warm it too much and you're actually starting to cook it, and I don't imagine that would work out well. But I think I caught it at just the right time... when it was starting to get slightly warm but before it started cooking, which allowed my wok to stay even hotter than usual. A little experimentation is clearly in order, but you'd better believe I'm trying this one again.

December 12, 2011

Aroy Thai

Shrimp and Peanut Dumplings Dominic Armato

Though the timing might suggest otherwise, it hadn't been my intention to make this into a Thai throwdown. But early last week, I'm looking at my list of restaurants I'm ready to write about, and suddenly Soi 4 and Aroy Thai are all that's left... Phoenix' newfound media darling and an old but recently rediscovered warhorse of the Chicago food nerds. I ate at both within a month of each other. Heck, one of the friends I took to Soi 4 in Phoenix happened to be in Chicago the weekend I was going to Aroy (and perhaps he'll be so good as to share his thoughts as well). I guess what I'm trying to say is that I wasn't looking for an object lesson in downscale traditional vs. fancified creative fare, but one found me, and it brought some things into focus.

Tod MunDominic Armato

I was first introduced to Aroy a little over five years ago, under the wing of the inimitable Erik M., whose now legendary exploits include producing the menu translations that mainstreamed traditional Thai in Chicago, and turning Jonathan Gold onto Jitlada in Los Angeles (though his pictures are, sadly, long gone, his first post about the restaurant is both inspiring and heartbreaking). If you're looking for proof that one passionate (read: obsessive) individual with tastebuds and a keyboard can have a profound impact on the dining scene of a major city, Erik's it. Though his disappearance from the intertubes about three years ago has only served to heighten his mystique (yes, this is tongue-in-cheek, and yes, he's fine... just not writing), the point... well, I'm not really sure what the point is here except that -- if I may gush -- he's someone from whom I draw a great deal of inspiration, and our dinner at Aroy was one of a series of eye-openers for me where Thai is concerned. And yet, once Erik had left Chicago, Aroy sort of slipped into the shadows of places like Spoon, TAC and Sticky Rice, only to recently (and rightfully) regain favor among the chow geeks as one of the best spots in Chicago for Thai food. I -- along with nearly a dozen compatriots -- was long overdue for a return visit.

Isaan and Sai Ua SausageDominic Armato

I'd had the foresight to keep Erik's message that detailed the menu for our 2006 meal, and between that and LTH postings on recent favorites, both on and off menu, we cribbed together a meal that was just shy of mindblowing, particularly for somebody who's been desperately craving this food. The first taste was an off-menu item, arranged a couple days ahead of time. Small golf ball-sized dumplings, with thick wrappers of glutinous rice, were filled with a lightly sweet ground concoction that featured shrimp and peanuts most prominently, served on small leaves of lettuce with which to pick up and eat them. Lightly chewy and full-flavored, they were a delightful start. The Tod Mun were another off-menu item, offered to us though I didn't request them early, I suspect because we named a couple of other off-menu items. They were, as one might find them elsewhere, made of minced fish pounded into a paste, seasoned with red curry, fish sauce and kaffir lime leaves, fried and served with a sweet and sour cucumber relish. Where they differed were in the potency of the curry, the very forward fragrance of the kaffir lime leaf, and the light, spongy texture -- far from the leaden lumps tod mun often are.

Larb KhunDominic Armato

I'd long pined for Aroy's Isaan sausage, but this time it came with a partner, Sai Ua, another from the northern part of the country, bordering on Laos. The Isaan sausage was the subtler of the two, a pork sausage mixed with glutinous rice before being stuffed into the casing, so that when hung to age the rice ferments and takes on a gentle sourness. The Sai Ua was its fiery counterpart, a coarser grind with more pronounced bits of fat, laden with chiles and ginger, aromatic and quite hot. Both sausages were served with diced raw ginger, peanuts and minced chiles to eat along with sticky rice, both arrived with crisp, blistered skin, and both served as an excellent reminder of how careful grinding and stuffing can take a very good sausage and make it excellent. The texture on these was fabulous, fully-formed but gently yielding into an even grind when eaten. They weren't rocket science, but they were fabulously executed.

Roasted Eggplant with Shrimp and MintDominic Armato

Larb is common enough, but Aroy's larb khun is something special. It possesses those screaming highs of lime juice, cilantro and onions, but it plumbs some unusually murky depths by working in a fair amount of offal. To be clear, this dish isn't an aggressive expression of variety meat, nor is it entirely or even mostly composed of such. Rather there's a mellow but pronounced funky depth that brings an unusual roundness and complexity to a familiar archetype, and it seduced even some at the table who were highly suspicious of offal. The key's in the balance, and this was a remarkable balancing act of light and fresh against dark and dirty. A superb salad the likes of which I've not previously tasted. The roasted eggplant, a special recommended to us, was a little less challenging in terms of flavor, but far more challenging in terms of heat. The roasted eggplant had a silky smoothness, paired with shrimp, brightened with mint and further mellowed by the rich yolks of sliced hard-cooked eggs. But it set us on fire. I can't remember the last time a dish blew me out to that degree, and it took me a while to regain my bearings. Still, the flavor was excellent, and I'm not sure I'd order it any differently if given the chance.

Tom Yam Beef Ball & Tender SoupDominic Armato

And then, the tom yum. Oh my, what a dish. Aroy does the Tom Yum Goong that's present on every Americanized Thai menu everywhere. Though I don't know, I wager Aroy's version is a little more notable. But buried deep in the soup section is a beef-based tom yam that features both firm meatballs and chunks of tender, braised beef. As I ladled this out and we passed bowls around the table, it slowly grew silent but for one voice at the other end that exclaimed, "I've never had tom yum soup before today." He had, of course. Many times. Which was exactly the point. This was a true eye-opener of a dish, with an incredible depth and complexity that made nearly every tom yum I'd tried before it seem insipid in comparison. It was both full-flavored and explosive, fiery hot, bracingly sour, pleasantly sweet and with just enough briny essence to bring it together. It was a flavor blitzkrieg, both sour and beefy, composed of flavors that would have been completely overpowering if they were not in such wonderful harmony. When I put together the Deliciousness of 2011 in a few weeks, this is the one that doesn't require a moment's thought. I adored it.

Grilled Pork SaladDominic Armato

It's a little tough to come down from a dish like that, but the grilled pork salad was no slouch. It was very larb-like in flavor, fish sauce and lime juice and sugar along with onions and cilantro, some toasted rice powder for texture. But the meat's coming from a different realm here. A different realm on the pig itself, that is. The cut used in the grilled pork salad is pork neck. There appears to be some terminology confusion surrounding the term "pork neck," and I'm unsure precisely which part of the pig we're dealing with in Aroy's case. But I will say that it was a well-muscled cut that still contained quite a bit of fat where it was at, and the two combined to give it a really rich, intense flavor and a kind of pleasantly chewy texture. I've had it simply grilled at Thai restaurants on many an occasion with a dipping sauce, but I think this is the first time I've had it in a salad treatment, and predictably, it works well. A little smokiness complements the dressing well, the acidity therein plays against the richness of the meat. And the genius was that the slight chewiness of this cut of meat forces you to kind of linger over it for a little bit, as some of the fat oozes out and mixes with the dressing. I trust this is no accident.

Somtam PuDominic Armato

A few weeks after Soi 4's clinical somtam left me cold, I got what I'd been seeking. The distance between the two isn't that great, but a tweak here, a tweak there, and it's a much more vibrant dish. For starters, it's a little less sweet. The sugar's still pronounced, no doubt, but it isn't so much to the fore. While personal preference causes me to wish it went even a little further, Aroy's was lightly crushed, to as to aid the papaya in soaking up the sauce, unlike so many lame versions I've had that feature flawless (and tasteless) strands of green papaya sitting in a pool of dressing that they can't absorb. The spice was kicked up... not quite to Thai Thai levels (coming from me, that would have merited a special request, though we told them not to be afraid to bring the heat and they did at times), but enough to really punch you in the face rather than providing a meek chile buzz in the background. And my favorite part, the pieces of pickled blue crab, releasing their briny essence as they're pounded along with the salad. This isn't difficult... why, I always wonder, is it so hard to find it done this way?

Basil DuckChinese Broccoli with Crispy PorkDominic Armato

There were weak points, though only in relative fashion. The basil duck wasn't what I thought I was ordering. I had tried a dish with Erik years before that involved a huge pile of crispy fried holy basil leaves, and that's definitely not what this was. Which isn't to say that this duck, crisply fried in a dark, lightly sweet sauce with an abundance of basil wasn't bad, it just felt somehow more conventional alongside the rest. And the Chinese broccoli, studded with chunks of crispy pork, was a leg up on the throwaway veg of so many places, but felt a touch overdone and a little muddy to me.

Catfish with Thai EggplantDominic Armato

The catfish with Thai Eggplant was a great example of why it's so frustrating that coconut curries dominate the Americanized Thai scene. Here's a curry that isn't creamy or heavy, but wonderfully light and fragrant. This isn't to say that it doesn't pack a punch. It's still hot and devilishly complex. But instead of being about coconut and sugar, it's about the complexity of the herbs and lemongrass in an almost gravy-like concoction that lets their subtler flavors come through. And the plucky star of the show was a bunch of pickled green peppercorns, both spicy and piquant, putting the exclamation point on the dish. Another non-coconut curry we sampled was the Phat Phet Fish Balls, and setting the virtues of the fiery but beautifully balanced red curry aside, it got me frustrated that more places don't serve fish balls, essentially fish dumplings blended with starch and seasonings and then cooked to create a sort of spongy, gently flavored chunk of fish. I dug this dish as well.

Phat Phet Fish BallsDominic Armato

It sounds, from my contemporaries' reports, as though our Chou-Chi Ground Pork wasn't firing on all cylinders. After reading so much about the delicate lattice of fried egg whites and the gush of a barely-cooked yolk, I was a little disappointed that our egg was cooked through. Especially since so many have claimed that that's what makes the dish. But if I hadn't have known, I wouldn't have missed it. I've seen this dish jokingly referred to as Thai Bolognese, and it's not an entirely ridiculous analogy. It has a sort of warm, stewy feel to it, though obviously the flavors are coming from a completely different place. It's kind of like the comfort food of curries, for those who want something sweet and peanutty and not have to be bothered with chewing to get it. And yet, though this was the sweetest, creamiest dish of the night, it still never crossed into the cloying territory of conventional Americanized Thai curries. It pushed right to the edge of going to far, and then held there, sweet and creamy but still complex and well-developed.

Chou-Chi Ground PorkDominic Armato

I don't know what to think. When I write about this meal, I'm simultaneously thrilled and frustrated. I'm thrilled because food like this exists, because such bold flavors can be so well-balanced and developed, because such fabulous cuisine comes out of a cheap and spartan storefront under the El tracks in Chicago rather than a half a million dollar buildout in a Scottsdale megacomplex (I have no idea what the renovation actually cost). Couldn't that money have gone towards finding and hiring somebody who knows how to make this food instead? It sure would have made for a better restaurant. And thus, the frustration sets in. Some of Soi 4's dishes can be really quite good, but the gap between what these two places turn out in terms of flavor, complexity and maturity is enormous. And it's especially amazing given the resources that have been thrown at the former. It makes it hard not to be cynical about places that sink so much money, thought and energy into the vibe. I know, they're in different cities, why even bring this up? I'm not sure. Like I say, it wasn't my intention. But it's hard to go to two places like this almost back-to-back and NOT examine how what seems like a very different focus can produce such different results. And it isn't entirely fair to frame it like that. Both cities are chock full of spartan little Thai places that serve awful food. I don't mean to take the pretentious food nerd tack that the best food can only be found at obscure dives. That simply isn't true. But the question of focus is a valid one, I think. And even more important, another question remains... is this food out there in Phoenix? Maybe it isn't. But so many of Chicago's now venerated spots were, once upon a time, slingers of pad thai and crab rangoon to those who didn't look the part or know the secret handshake. Is it out there and we just haven't discovered it yet? Or is nobody putting it out there because they feel we aren't especially interested in discovering it? ARE we especially interested in discovering it? A lot of my hopes and fears for the Phoenix dining scene are tied up in the answers to these questions.

See, this is why I haven't written about Thai food for two years. Turns me into a raving lunatic.

Aroy Thai
4654 N. Damen Avenue
Chicago, IL 60625
Mon - Sun11 AM - 10 PM

December 11, 2011

Go East!

It was starting to feel neglected... Dominic Armato

It appears 2012 at Skillet Doux will be starting with a bang!

I'm working, and it's going to be a busy trip. But the last time I flew home from Asia, I never would have imagined it would take me five years to get back, so you'd better believe I'm going to make the most of every spare moment I can find.

Shanghai, Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Tokyo... anybody have intel to share?

December 07, 2011

Soi 4

Som Tam Dominic Armato

Thai in Phoenix is something I've almost intentionally avoided writing about over the past couple of years. When we first arrived, I hit a few of the city's more notable establishments in rapid-fire fashion, became quickly frustrated and put the search on the back burner for a while. It's not that they were bad (well, some of them were), but it was mostly that they simply weren't what I was craving. Though traditional Chinese cuisine has become common enough in the States that most can recognize Americanized Chinese as such, the same isn't really true of Thai. In the same way you can rest assured that any Americanized Chinese delivery place will offer Sweet & Sour Pork, Mongolian Beef and egg rolls thick as cucumbers, so too has a certain kind of standardized menu evolved for Americanized Thai places. And there's nothing wrong with that. I have a special place in my heart for them the same as I do for a well-prepared crisp, spicy and sickly sweet General Tso's chicken every now and again, even if the good general might not recognize it as food, much less Chinese food. But unlike traditional Chinese, which has gotten at least some kind of a foothold in just about every large city, Thai that doesn't conform to that Americanized roadmap is a lot harder to find outside of a few pockets in select cities. I'd started to fear that I just wouldn't find it here, which is why the raves in the wake of Soi 4's opening piqued my curiosity.

Miang KumDominic Armato

The fact that Soi 4 is a California import played no small part in my interest. The original location is in Oakland, and while the Bay Area doesn't boast the kind of Thai community that L.A. does, both burgs are among the better places to find the good stuff. Of course, this is Scottsdale, so when we import Thai, we bring it to a sleek, modern cavern of a space with wide swaths of lounge seating and a lengthy cocktail bar bathed in Tang orange light. But while the decor may be familiar to anybody who does their dining around the 8525X, a quick glance at the menu confirms that it's definitely not culled from the same playbook as most of the other joints around town. Out are mix and match sauces and meats, in are cuts like pork shoulder and belly, the dishes actually feature Thai names, and from top to bottom, the menu is filled with pairings you're unlikely to see elsewhere in Phoenix. This would prove to be both exciting and frustrating.

Kao Pode TodDominic Armato

I dropped by on multiple occasions over a month, and my feelings ran the gamut from thrilled to disappointed, but we'll get to that. Starters were generally strong, led by the excellent Miang Kum, which has gotten quite a bit of love around the intertubes, and with good reason. A mix of shrimp, peanuts, pomelo, toasted coconut, herbs and a sweet sauce made with palm sugar are served atop a trimmed mustard leaf, and the bright, explosive mix of flavors is why it's such a popular street food in Thailand. With the exception of the mustard leaf (Miang Kum is typically served atop a leaf called bai cha plu, a little tricky to come by around these parts), it's a straight-up traditional favorite. I'll let the fact that one of the restaurant's most traditional dishes is also one of its most lauded speak for itself.

Keow Wan RotiDominic Armato

Other starters I tried were quite tasty, though not as outstanding as the Miang Kum. Kao Pode Tod, fried corn cakes, could have had a little more zip and been paired with a more interesting cucumber salad, but they arrived hot and fresh and were certainly enjoyable. Keow Wan Roti, a thick green curry with slices of grilled skirt steak and hot roti, was both tasty and puzzling. I'm not versed enough in the ways of roti to pass judgment other than to say that I found it warm, light and delicious. The curry was pushing into Americanized territory with its thickness and sweetness, and it didn't quite have the lovely fresh, herbal balance of the better green curries I've sampled, but it's still quite tasty and head and shoulders above anything else I've tried in town. What I find puzzling here is the decision to serve naked strips of beef alongside the curry and the roti. Dipping roti into a green beef curry is entirely Thai, but separating the beef from the curry robs each of the opportunity to contribute to the other. The Western analogue would be like making Beef Bourguignon by dipping roasted chunks of beef in a wine reduction rather than braising them together. What's the point other than to make a hands-on presentation? And is that more important than the sacrifice in flavor?

Yum Makuer YaoDominic Armato

Salads were generally quite good, though the iconic Som Tum was my least favorite. I can't say it isn't good so much as it isn't soulful, so clean that it's bordering on clinical. There's no fire or funk, and I found my thoughts drifting back to the versions pounded with pickled crab, lending those bright flavors a briny counterpoint, unfair as it may be to simply wish the dish was something it isn't. The Yum Makuer Yao, on the other hand, was delightful, ground chicken and prawns tossed with a beautifully balanced lime and coconut dressing, heady with spice and fresh herbs, and set against a gentle, supple, almost sweet whole grilled eggplant. The salad on top was well-executed and would have been a winner on its own, but the two together made for a bright and full flavor that was really exceptional.

Yum PladookDominic Armato

Also delightful was the Yum Pladook, though it featured yet another departure from tradition that made it less, not more. It's a salad that combines hot, crisp fried catfish with a cool salad of green mango on top. The salad was wonderful, slivers of green papaya lending a fruity character both sweet and sour, combined with shallots, herbs and a light, well-balanced dressing, and finished with cashews. Beneath, the catfish was piping hot, beautifully fried, tender and sweet. But it wasn't Yum Pladook. Normally, the fish is first par-cooked and then lightly shredded before being fried, giving it a crisp lattice-like texture that's not only pleasing on its own, but also grabs the dressing of the salad above. Were they afraid that people would demand a whole, large piece of fish to feel they were getting value for their dollar? Did they decide that was too much effort? I can't say. But I know it wasn't a better dish for the alteration, and it was so frustrating because it was quite delicious, just not what it could have -- and should have -- been.

Pla Sahm RotDominic Armato

Unfortunately, the front half of the menu seems to be the stronger half, at least based on what I tried. Pla Sahm Rot, a whole fried fish in Thai "three flavor sauce" got half the equation wonderfully right, and half the equation terribly wrong. The fish was fabulous, fried whole to crisp/chewy texture around the edges, but maintaining soft, perfectly cooked flesh within. But the sauce tasted of one flavor, and that flavor was sugar. This is a dish that's normally sweet, but Thai food is all about balance. Hot, sour, salty, sweet. All need to be present, and all need to work with one another. But this was just painfully cloying, and while elements like tamarind, chiles and ginger were present, they were obliterated by a sticky sauce that lingered, and not in a good way.

Goong MakhamDominic Armato

The Goong Makham was similarly challenged, and featured a really puzzling twist. The stir-fried prawns were just fine, and a tangle of fried shallots on top was a tasty textural element. But the sauce was, much like the fish above, a cloying mess of sugar. Yes, this dish is usually sweet. But while its English billing is usually that of "Tamarind Shrimp," and though the Soi 4 menu describes it as a tamarind sauce, it was remarkable how little tamarind flavor was in the dish. It was crying out for some sour tamarind balance, but it simply tasted of sugar. Even stranger -- and here I tread lightly because I'm a long way from being an authority on Thai and, you know, there are always variants on these dishes -- the sauce was studded with chunks of onion and bell pepper. Onion, sure, but bell pepper? I've never seen that in this dish before, and it's almost as though they were intentionally referencing the stereotypical Americanized sweet sour pork... a reference that was only reinforced by the overpowering sweetness. Unless you're a hummingbird, this is not a good dish.

Kang BpetKang Kua MuDominic Armato

The curries looked so great on paper that the reality was a terrible letdown, especially considering that the green curry starter was quite good. The Kang Bpet, pan-seared duck with a pineapple red curry, took the now familiar tack of cooking the meat apart from the curry only to later combine them, and the result was tough, overcooked duck in a curry with little fire and less balance. I was even more excited to try the Kang Kua Mu, another red curry variant with pork shoulder and kabocha squash. Again, the balance was way off. Rather than accentuating each other, the flavors became muddy. And the squash, a nice pair with the curry, was just too much of the dish. If it were an accent, smaller pieces, or somehow worked into the curry, I think it could have been fabulous. But it was simply too much. The curries weren't a total loss. The Kua Kling Mu, slivered pork shoulder stir-fried with asparagus and a dry, oily red curry was delicious. It had heat, it had funk, it had balance... and surprise, it had a very simple, traditional feel and flavor.

Kua Kling MuDominic Armato

I know I've used the word traditional an awful lot here. I'm not in the camp that believes traditional is automatically better. Traditional dishes have survived the crucible longer (that's why they're traditional), which means they usually have something going for them. But new is great too! There's nothing like a creative, effective spin on an old dish. Based on my meals here, however, it seems as though the kitchen at Soi 4 gets itself into trouble when it steps off the path. Though it bills itself and is being lauded as such, this is by no means a traditional Thai restaurant. Recognizing that "traditional" is not a digital state, it's certainly more towards the traditional end of the spectrum than anything else I've yet had in town, but really, it's more Cal-Thai. Or at the very least, it's... creative. But it says something, I think, that the more traditional dishes are the stronger ones, and the non-traditional choices are the ones mucking things up. And it's maddening because when these dishes hit, they're on. Some of them are great, and at their best they're operating on a different plane than most of the other Thai restaurants in town. But even when the food is good (and often it's not), they're not serving Thai. What they're serving is Scottsdale Thai by way of Oakland. And that's not without merit, and if the menu were more consistently great, I wouldn't have a bad thing to say about the place. But there's a reason I'm still desperately pining for the real thing.

Soi 4 Bangkok Eatery
8787 N. Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85253
Mon - Thu11:30 AM - 2:30 PM5 PM - 9:30 PM
Fri11:30 AM - 2:30 PM5 PM - 10 PM
Sat 5 PM - 10 PM
Sun 5 PM - 9:30 PM