« Merry Christmas | Main | The Deliciousness of 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.


I have come to the conclusion that VPN certification is kind of a joke. We have a couple here in DC, and while one is really good, the others are blah. And, the one that is really good is out of my way and there are other really good places without certification. If I want Neapolitan Pizza, I'm going to the airport. FWIW, you kind of confused me on the Original Pancake House reference. There's an entire national chain with the same name and not the Walker Brothers moniker on it. The chain is better than IHOP and that's about the most I can say about it.

Happy New Year to you and yours, Dom.

Regarding VPN, I think the thing is that it's less a measure of quality and more a measure of authenticity. There are plenty of places in Naples that do it the "correct" way, and though I've only been to a couple, I'm sure they vary wildly in quality too. I get the impression that VPN is more about preserving the tradition than anything, and that's not without merit. But yeah, some VPN places are going to be better than others. So far, two of the three I've been to have been great, and one's... okay. I can deal with that kind of average, though YMMV.

Apologies if it wasn't clear, but Walker Brothers is one of the Original Pancake Houses, though why they've maintained their own appellation, I don't know. The fact that they're pretty good while all of the others I've been to have been, as you suggest, um, better than IHOP might be related, I'm not sure. I've always thought the others I stopped at looking for that fix were pretty mediocre. Or maybe this is all nostalgia talking, I'm really not sure on this one.

And likewise to you!

The comments to this entry are closed.