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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.


As a pureblood Mainer and Nocawich addict, I can attest that the lobstah rolls don't offend us. I love it. While some of the ingredients are fancier than a basic grilled lobster roll/sandwich, it's true to the spirit. I haven't tried the duck confit creations yet, but our favorite so far is The Cisco Kid, the best turkey sandwich I've ever had. If not for my aversion to the texture of pork belly (I thought E was going to smack me when I confessed it), their version of a banh mi would be in the running. E said they might try a version with regular Berkshire pork and I'm waiting on the edge of my seat for that.

Nice round-up!!! I totally agree with you about Bill Johnson's, landmark or not. And now I DESPERATELY want a Nocawich!

Dom, I've been a loyal follower for a few years. You lost me at 'Food Nerd Army". Good on you if you start a new movement amongst the few, the proud, the food nerd army, but you've really quite lost me here.

Maybe twitter is your new forum.

If you've seen a decline in hits, I'd say it's due to this new venture. If not, Godspeed.

Seriously, Ally?

I did a presentation for Ignite Phoenix (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0CEVb-EIP4&feature=plcp&context=C411180fVDvjVQa1PpcFMl1nRQ9Cdb6XThc-m9kphtBbGP13ey-JE=). I thought it would be a cute and fun theme for a five minute presentation. I was hoping to get a good community board going (launched, in private beta at phxfoodnerds.com) so we can get some serious food discussion going in this town rather than all of the fragmented blogs and twitter feeds, etc. where nobody's actually sharing information or learning from each other. The whole point of this thing was to try to get the food discussion OFF of Twitter.

Really? A temporary 56 pixel tall banner at the top with an admittedly silly name trying to get something going for serious community food discussion is the difference between whether or not you feel any of this is worth reading?

I don't know if my traffic is down or up. I don't watch it. I've never given a damn about traffic. You know the kind of talk and discussion I care about. I don't think that's changed here... do you?

Dom, as you know, we have talked about this offline and seem to be on the page, so I just wanted to follow up by saying to the general readership (who probably don't really care what I say by now, lets face it...) that the TWITTER comment was regarding mobilizing the troops, not about the quality of your blog, which remains supreme. As far as I can tell, you have in fact been mobilizing the troops to try different places with you via Twitter.

As you know I still hate the Food Nerd Army thing. I far preferred the link you sent me regarding the board you started: http://phxfoodnerds.com/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=16

Anyways, I want to also acknowledge publicly that I should shut the hell up and get over myself before writing undiplomatic and ill-thought out missives like a keyboard warrior. Because you and the care you put into your blog deserve better than what I gave you in that comment.

For what its worth. :)

Carry on.

Aaaaaaaand I may have overreacted as well.

Let there be peace!

Thanks, Ally :-)

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