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March 30, 2012

The Quarterly Report - Q1 2012

Lobster Roll @ Nocawich Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: Eliot Wexler, who runs Nocawich, is a friend. He throws food at me. I make up for it in the tip jar, as usual.  

It's The Quarterly Report, Non-Cranky Edition! In all seriousness, I'd started to worry that TQR was becoming the repository for places that annoyed me so much I hated the idea of going back. And yet here they are... a whole bunch that I totally dig, but that wouldn't quite fill a full post! Well... mostly. Still, a good quarter.

As usual, in order determined by random.org:

Pollo al CarbonDominic Armato

Mercado Y Carniceria Cuernavaca
2931 N. 68th Street, Scottsdale AZ 85251

This has become my go-to lazy I don't feel like cooking weekend evening stop. The only thing that annoys me is that I took so long to stop by. I've been eyeballing the place for the better part of a year, I only finally got around to it recently, and it's been an almost weekly stop since. Cuernavaca's a tiny little bodega, its most notable feature from the street being the drive-through liquor window. But there's a tiny taqueria squeezed into the back (that I haven't yet sampled... I probably should have learned not to wait by now), and on Saturdays and Sundays, a huge lump charcoal grill covered with dozens of spatchcocked chickens. This place has cheap family dinner written all over it. $10 nets you a chicken, tubs of rice, beans (with chopped hot dog, natch) and salsa, and a packet of tortillas. The chickens can sometimes be a little inconsistent -- a little scrawny, a little heavy on the salt -- but even off-peak, they're smoky and deliciously seasoned and tastier than any grocery store bird. And when they're on, they're killer. I don't want to oversell it. This isn't a cross-town destination. But if it's anywhere near your 'hood, it's a great weekend stop.

Beef RibsDominic Armato

Bill Johnson's Big Apple
3757 E. Van Buren Street, Phoenix AZ 85008

It's a dangerous thing to come in from another city and, after only a couple of years, wade into the controversy over culinary landmarks. But with the future of Bill Johnson's Big Apple uncertain at best, I was only too happy to accept an invitation (from a friend, not the restaurant) to check out the original location for lunch one day. It's immediately easy to see why this place endures. This is where you loved to come as a kid, a family restaurant that's a cheesy monument to cowboy kitsch, but of the charmingly homegrown rather than the imported corporate variety. With sawdust on the floors and fiberglass steers on the roof, it's the kind of place where you're happy to roll your eyes a little and take the kids 'cause they love it, so long as the food's decent. Problem is... well... it's barely that. Starters are mostly of the out of the bag and into the fryolator variety, and are neither notable nor terrible. The signature BBQ, all three items I tried, were unevenly cooked, slathered with half a quart of sickly sweet sauce, tasted like they'd been held a lot longer than they should have, and had a smoky tang the origins of which were... dubious. And when the kids' mac and cheese is Kraft or a Sysco clone thereof, you start to ask yourself if the quirky yet oddly charming milieu is worth it. Unless you have history with the place... and I don't... I really don't think it is.

Lechon KawaliDominic Armato

Hey Joe!
Food Truck - click above for website with schedule

Call me food truck suspicious. It isn't that I don't love it when a deserving place that can't quite swing a brick and mortar space gets their food out through other outlets. But sometimes I wonder if Phoenix's zeal for a food truck scene makes for some overly rosy assessments of the quality thereof. And then Hey Joe! makes Lechon Kawali, and the food truck scene is AWESOME. This is one of the veterans, slinging a rotation of Filipino street food which ranges from pretty good to downright awesome. Pancit is solid, if lacking a little zip, meaty lumpia are fabulously light and crisp, but I find myself lusting after the lechon kawali, as pure and fabulous an expression of pig lipid as there is. Simmered for an obscenely long time in some aromatics before being deep fried, making for a crisp exterior that yields to pure, melty pork fat -- this, I'll chase around town.

Duck Confit SandwichDominic Armato

3118 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix AZ 85016

Noca's been rocking out fabulous food for a few years now, and though its lunchtime alter ego was temporarily put on hold by the executive chef shuffle, Nocawich is up and running at full strength, and turning out some killer sandwiches. It's a casual affair, with a small counter set up in back selling sandwiches, sides and a couple of soups and salads out of paper lunch sacks while the kitchen crew does its dinner prep. Given Wexler's penchant for hunting down killer ingredients, it's no surprise that everything's on. Wagyu pastrami may seem like overkill, but there's little room for complaints when it's this silky smooth, pressed on marble rye with slaw and aioli. Ingrid's lobsters make an appearance from time to time, anchoring tender, sweet lobster rolls with creative touches that might offend pureblood Mainers, but honor these premium beasts if you can welcome the departure from tradition. The one I can't get out of my head, however, is a special that's popped up with slight variations, a duck confit with strawberry mostarda, arugula and duck cracklings on a soft pretzel roll. Without the cracklings, it's luscious and sweet. With the cracklings, it's... well... like crack, dangerously addictive. They're a touch on the pricy side, but personally speaking, I'll take a killer $10 sandwich over a mediocre $6 sandwich any day.

Paleta CerezaDominic Armato

Paletas Betty
96 W. Boston Street, Chandler AZ 85225

In a city that's more than 40% Latino, we should all probably feel a little guilty that it wasn't until paletas were sold in downtown Chandler and Mill Avenue from gleaming white upscale storefronts with HDTV menus that we decided they were press-worthy. But that doesn't change the fact that Paletas Betty is pretty freaking delicious and deserves the accolades. These are truly exceptional paletas, made with ripened fresh fruit, nuts toasted in house, and other fabulously fresh ingredients. The quality and care comes through, whether it's a spicy Mexican chocolate, deliciously sweet piña, or the fabulous cereza -- brandied cherries suspended in frozen almond milk. Even if paletas' place in the non-Latino public's consciousness is long overdue, you really couldn't ask for a more worthy ambassador.

March 22, 2012

Beaver Choice

Gravlax Dominic Armato

When it comes to restaurants I feel a great urgency to visit, I have a "short" list, scare quotes highly intentional, since "short" loosely translates to "containing more new restaurants that I can really expect to get to before the end of the year." It's more of a crowded customs clearinghouse, where certain spots are fast tracked through immediately upon arrival, and others somehow get lost in a bureaucratic morass, until a year and a half later I find myself saying, "Man, I still haven't gotten to that place?" Such was the case with Beaver Choice, which has turned out to be yet another reminder that no matter how much ground I cover, it's never enough.

Norwegian PastafarianismDominic Armato

Beaver Choice has been open since the end of 2010, and though it's a small, relatively new, family-run joint, it hardly qualifies as a charity case when it comes to getting the word out. With glowing Yelp reviews in the triple digits and copious love from the New Times and Seftel, I'm definitely behind the curve on this one. But I'm thrilled that a humble little shop has gotten so much attention. There's nothing fancy here, six or seven Ikea tables (natch) and a counter to place your order, plus a mantle covered with coloring books, dominos, card games and other diversions, a tacit admission that the food might come out of the kitchen at a leisurely pace. But I will personally come out and egg the house of anybody who complains about this. Priorities, people. This is a laid back joint, where Polish-born Hanna Gabrielsson and her family cook up and serve the specialties she's picked up in Sweden and Canada en route to the United States, and the food's hearty and simple and all kinds of wonderful.

PoutineDominic Armato

Though it would seem incongruous on the menu if not for the family's stop in Canada, the poutine is nonetheless the kind of warm, hearty food that fits right in. A bachelor weekend in Montreal (not mine) put me off poutine for a great many years (there are only so many times you can eat the stuff in a three day span while maintaining a positive experience), but in recent years I've returned to the place where I can enjoy it again, and Beaver Choice's version is appropriately authentic and gluttonous. Poutine's the "dress up a junk food" du jour, and it's nice to get a version that's as straightforward as it comes, thick fries topped with chunks of soft cheese (not curds here, I think, but no complaints) and a smothering coating of thick, rich, beefy gravy. Somewhat classier, if equally delicious in very different ways, is the house gravlax, dill-cured salmon that's only just barely so, right on the edge of straight-up raw. It's got a delicate, silky texture and freshly herbed aroma that's really exceptional.

Jansson's TemptationDominic Armato

Swedish specialties aren't my strong suit, but a couple of dishes make the case that they ought to be. My Italian genes find a special cross-cultural kinship with the Jansson's Temptation, a casserole of sorts made with shredded potatoes, Scandinavian anchovies, onions and heavy cream. Though Scandinavian anchovies are a different beast than those abundant in the Mediterranean, they have a similar impact, and this is a combination of flavors that's unimpeachable, and it's delivered in a warm, creamy format with a crusty hash brown-like top. Like a few of the other items marked as such on the menu, Jansson's Temptation takes about 45 minutes to come out of the kitchen, so calling ahead might be wise if a leisurely lunch isn't in the cards.

Flying JacobDominic Armato

Another dish on the 45 minute list is the Flying Jacob, and if you'd served me this dish and asked me to guess its ethnicity, I never in a million years would have come up with Swedish. A recent addition to the culinary lexicon (most sources peg its creation to the '70s), my first thought upon tasting it was that I have no frame of reference for something like that. Another casserole, this one's composed of chicken, bananas and peanuts, smothered in a sour cream sauce that's spiked with curry and commercial tomato-based chili sauce. I mean, really, where and when does something like this come from? A Swedish air freight worker in the '70s, apparently. And though there's something completely haphazardly over the top about it, as if its invention were either chemically induced or the love child of a voracious appetite and an almost bare pantry, it's oddly compelling, a freakish cross-cultural combination of sweet, tart and spicy that I have a very, very hard time putting into context. But I know I really like it.

GolabkiDominic Armato

Far more conventional is the golabki, a straightforward expression of Gabrielsson's Polish roots, and a gentle, comforting version of a dish with which I don't have a ton of experience. Stewed cabbage leaves wrapped around fist-sized lumps of ground meat (Beef and pork? I only got a couple tastes of this one.), doused with a lightly sweet tomato sauce or, at your option, mushroom sauce, this is Eastern European comfort food at its simplest and most heartwarming. The meat's tender and delicately seasoned, the cabbage cooked to a perfectly tender consistency before reaching the point where it starts to fall apart, and the tomato sauce -- lightly acidic and just a touch sweet with a little hit of cream -- finishes the dish with aplomb. That I lived so long in Chicago while only tasting this once or twice is bordering on criminal, but this provides an excellent opportunity to make up for lost time.

FrikadellerDominic Armato

Meatballs of a less gargantuan size come in multiple varieties, the familiar Swedish version beefy and spongy and smothered in a creamy gravy. But the one that really caught me off guard -- and I mean that in the best way possible -- was the Danish version called Frikadeller. I'm not certain the Danes would identify these as such, since I understand they're generally flattened and pan-fried, but I'll leave the semantic debate to those who are well-versed in the finer points of Danish cuisine and simply express the important part, which is that these are freaking delicious. These pork meatballs would be a winner if served completely naked, impossibly light, tender, moist and... dare I say... even juicy. They're the antithesis of every bready, leaden lump of meat that's ever caused you despair. But if that weren't enough, they're doused with a delightful sauce, a light sweet and sour gravy heavy with dill. I got two meatballs. I wish I'd had two plates. I love these.

Schnitzel Cordon BleuDominic Armato

Seftel has waxed rhapsodic about Beaver Choice's Chicken Schnitzel Cordon Bleu, going so far as to list it among his favorites of 2010, so I felt a certain obligation to try it, or at least its kin. I opted for the porcine version thereof, two thinly pounded pork paillards sandwiched around brie cheese and sliced ham, breaded and pan-fried in butter. Served with a light, creamy and very peppery mushroom sauce, this falls into the category of "nothing here not to like," and even if I'm not quite as enamored of it as I am some of the other offerings, I say that only in relative fashion. It's perfectly done, molten cheese oozing from between lightly crisped schnitzel, and it's nice to have a sauce that's unafraid to feature pepper so heavily.

RöstiDominic Armato

Clearly, this fare isn't hearty enough, so almost all of the entrees are served with a standard complement of sides. These start with a single side dish, which may as well be called the potato dish since five of the six offerings feature them. French fries are unremarkable, but rösti is a respectable preparation of the Europeans' version of hash browns, though, to my personal dismay, more tender than crisp. Creamy dill potatoes are tender and warm and simple and a perfect accompaniment to just about anything on the menu. You also select three from a lengthy list of "side salads" that includes, in part, a lightly creamy beet salad, simple sauerkraut, and a really exceptional herbed cole slaw that's notable for how successfully it keeps the focus on the vegetables rather than the binder. It's a seriously killer slaw.

Beaver CookieDominic Armato

Desserts like Beaver Cookies, Beaver Balls, and Beaver Supreme inspire snickers and smiles in equal quantity. I didn't have the opportunity to sample the Beaver Supreme, a layered chocolate and meringue concoction, but I was reasonably enamored of the Beaver Balls, a chocolate and coconut concoction with a delightful texture. My undying love, however, is reserved for the Beaver Cookies, which ensured that somebody who ordinarily glosses over desserts would be forced to stop and sing its praises. It's two cookies, actually, thin, crisp and crumbly, made with oats and caramelized sugar, between which is spread a not insubstantial layer of lime butter. It was, to me, a novel combination, and it was all I could do to limit myself to two.

This is the kind of restaurant that makes me glow a little bit. Great food, great people, a family bringing their recipes to Phoenix from far-flung locales, a casual place to stop in and get some killer food wihout a lot of fuss. There's a ton of love here, and the only thing I like better than the restaurant's food and vibe is the fact that I'm one of the last people to write about it. When I get frustrated (read: despondent) that some fabulous places are overlooked, seeing the love for a quirky little restaurant like Beaver Choice gives me hope again. It's a wonderful little spot, and I wish I'd gotten here sooner.

Beaver Choice
1743 E. Broadway
Tempe, AZ 85282
Tue - Sat11 AM - 9 PM

March 05, 2012

The McDowell Project - 52nd to 44th

McDowell Dominic Armato

I didn't give up on this!

Quite the contrary, I've been trying to tackle it whenever possible. The holidays, trip to Asia and subsequent 30,000 word epic got me a little sidetracked. But while I've gotten past 44th, I figured it's time to start posting some findings. Still, it's slower going than I'd hoped, so I'm going to officially extend my initial pledge to two years or Central, whichever comes first. But for now, here's the first chunk:

Mixed GrillDominic Armato

Indian Delhi Palace
5104 East - www.indiandelhipalace.com

A friend's mother, upon hearing that I was headed to Indian Delhi Palace, is reported to have said, "Why would he want to go there? Does he not know it tastes like feet?" And while I can't say my assessment is quite so dire (though it is undoubtedly less informed - Indian is not my strong point), I confess that I'm unsure why this seems to be a popular darling. Too many dishes, like palak paneer and lamb vindaloo, had a certain indistinct, muddy quality that I'm not quite ready to dub footlike, but lacked a certain necessary brightness. And a mixed grill plate was dangerously low on sizzle. On the other hand, tandoori chicken had beautiful color, tender texture, vibrant flavor and a nice, smoky bite, so I can't say the dozen or so dishes I tried across three visits were all lacking. Still, on balance, Indian Delhi Palace strikes me as serviceable rather than exceptional, and I'll have to try a lot of other flops before I feel compelled to return again.

QutulaashDominic Armato

5050 East - www.jubarestaurant.com

If what I know about Indian is somewhat limited, then what I know about Somali is less than nothing, which is why I find Juba compelling, if somewhat less than excellent. Juba's menu is an odd mix of catchall Mediterranean and Somali dishes, which seems less of a mystery when poking around the intertubes suggests the Somali angle may have been added with a change of ownership a number of years back (don't bank on that -- couldn't nail it down). Since Hummus/Shawarma/Falafel places are a dime a dozen, I opted to focus on the Somali dishes, and had a few that were more than a little interesting. Hillib, oven roasted goat, was long on gristle, even for goat and even for my tastes, and somewhat short on flavor, though it warms my heart to see goat on a menu period. Soor, a dense and slightly creamy polenta analogue, comes in a massive brick accompanied by stewed greens and beans, and has a certain humble charm even if it isn't something I'm going to hurry back for. Whether or not the sambusas are being made in house, they're flaky with a well-seasoned ground meat filling, and are entirely enjoyable. But the dish I find myself thinking about is one called Qutulaash, ribbons of chapati (a thin, dense pita-like bread) sautéed with onions, tomatoes and beef, formed into a sort of caked and drizzled with a light, creamy sauce. Served like this, it's really good. Served at 3:00 AM after a night of heavy drinking, it would be amazing. I also dug the Somali iced tea, which was so sweet, so intense and so heavily spiced that I almost felt like it should have been served in a shot glass. In general, the food, though interesting, is rather rough around the edges, and I'll be curious to see if a second location opening in Tempe steps it up a bit.

Suqaar and FuulDominic Armato

Bisharo Coffee House
5040 East

Bisharo Coffee House has recently undergone an ownership and name change, so while the menu remains the same as of press, so to speak, my impressions of the food may already be outdated. Hopefully they're outdated, because they're not that positive. It was previously run by a lovely and friendly woman who lamented that her customers were only interested in greater quantities of meat. Still, as far as I can tell, the kitchen is little more than a hotplate in the corner, and while there are those who can work magic with the same, this is not what I'd call a food destination. Sambusas, undoubtedly made elsewhere, were tasty enough, toasted up hot, filled with ground chicken, a touch of curry and more sugar than I expected. Suqaar, sautéed beef, and Fuul, a sort of vegetable mash, were not at all good, the beef reheated and dry and the vegetables exclusively of the canned variety. As I say, this is (was) not a place to eat. The proprietor even suggested at one point that I go next door to Juba instead. Still, the change to Bisharo may bring something new. Perhaps a follow-up will be in order.

General Tso's ChickenDominic Armato

Asia Lee
5030 East - www.asialeeaz.com

Asia Lee is the epitome of divey, Americanized Chinese takeout and delivery, and if they have anything more back there, they're not sharing. The menu is packed with the usual suspects, and I tried a few of them with inconsistent results. General Tso's Chicken was refreshingly less than awful, fairly crisp and not too bready and doused with a sauce that wasn't 97% sugar, even if the accompanying fried rice and egg roll didn't reach such lofty heights. Lo Mein, however, was an overcooked mess, shrimp had been vulcanized, and the couple other dishes I tried didn't leave a much better impression. If everything were as okay as the General Tso's, I could consider it for a guilty, greasy Americanized Chinese fix every once in a blue moon. But enough of them were total washouts that I'm not anxious to roll those dice again.

Buffalo WingsDominic Armato

Johnny's Eastside Tap & Grill
4729 East - 602-267-1010

Johnny's was one of the spots I got hung up on because I kept trying to return when they kept revamping the kitchen. It's a dive bar run by amiable folks, and a fine place to park and have a cheap beer. The first time I went to check it out, there was a standard if extensive bar menu that hit all of the usual suspects. Upon checking back a month later, the menu had been replaced by a BBQ truck parked out front. These ribs, I suspect, might have actually been pretty good had they not been smoked four days prior and reheated (not enough traffic, the pitmaster told me). So it was probably a good call to hand the kitchen over to Wise Guys Pizza, which apparently operates four locations around Phoenix metro even if their web presence is oddly absent (witness relocation?). Wings came hot out of the oven, and even if it makes me sad to see them any way other than fried, you could do a whole lot worse, particularly at a dive bar. The pizza was kind of a doughy, goopy booze sponge, which I suppose makes it appropriate even if I really don't need to have it again. But hey, it came hot out of the oven and I even watched through the pass as the dough was tossed and topped, which somehow seems like it's going the extra mile in this context. It's not someplace you're going to want to go to eat. But if dive bars are your thing, it's a friendly place and there's no reason to be scared of the kitchen once you've had a few.