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April 25, 2012

Can We Talk?

PHXfoodnerds.com Dominic Armato

Here's hoping this is the start of something special.

I've been in Phoenix for nearly two and a half years, now. And while there's so much exciting food stuff going on, I can't pretend that I haven't had my frustrations as well. Some of them I can't do anything about, short of, you know, moving to northern Thailand, getting into a fabulous kitchen, learning all of their secrets and returning to open up a restaurant. This is not going to happen. But there's one thing I think the food scene here desperately needs that I might actually be in a position to provide. So for at least one of my frustrations, I've decided to see if I can actually do something about it.

Phoenix is not lacking for folks who know good food. I meet them all the time. But you wouldn't know it from the state of online food discussion here. It's been a weird transition for me, coming from places where the food nerd communities are tight, and where they have a place to call home where they can really dig deep and meet up and discuss and organize and make their community even stronger. The community here, it has always seemed to me, is weirdly fragmented, strewn across multiple different sites and multiple different formats, none of which are especially well-suited to community building. Twitter's great at moving news far and fast, but you can't have a real discussion in 140 character snippets. Yelp's no good. It's all about reviews and output. With the elite and rankings and firsts and user ratings it's focused on the individual, not the community. The only area that can handle discussion is practically an afterthought. And as a corporate entity, it's designed to generate more traffic at the expense of better traffic. Chowhound is okay at times, but there's a reason its staunchly anti-community design and policies have spawned so many groups of disgruntled posters who have gone off to build their own successful community boards. Trying to strip the personality out of a community may work on a national level, but at the local level it's killing our greatest strength. It's impossible to carry on a real conversation when any post that veers even slightly off the path gets nuked or whisked away to a different board that's viewed by a completely different group of people. And when there's no sense of continuity or community, nobody's invested, discussion dies and it becomes the restaurant and ingredient want ads. Blogs are great when written by thoughtful folks, but even though a little discussion might occasionally break out in a comment section here and there, it's an inherently uneven playing field, and discussion that could be all in one place ends up scattered across a dozen locations. Plus, to say there's more food knowledge in this town than that which a handful of bloggers possess is a comically colossal understatement, so why should a few individuals drive the conversation? Though Phoenix's food nerds are scattered all across the city, we have knowledge. We have energy. We have enthusiasm. What we don't have is a home.

So as of today, I'm officially launching PHXfoodnerds.com.

My hope is that PHXfoodnerds can gather all of these folks who are throwing their thoughts into space into one virtual room so they can start throwing those thoughts at each other, having some real discussions, feeding and responding to each other's ideas, challenging and learning from each other. I hope that PHXfoodnerds will serve as a hub for people to meet each other, make plans to get out and eat with each other, and develop a stronger and stronger community. I hope that we can turn PHXfoodnerds into a megaphone, so that we can shout from the rooftops when we find people who are doing awesome things to make our food scene better. I hope that PHXfoodnerds can become *home* for people -- I've met a bunch of you and I know far more are out there -- who feel the same way about this stuff as I do.

It's a little old school. Perhaps dangerously so. I've been told that nobody actually wants to discuss things anymore. I've been told that a website won't hold people's interest without bells and whistles and badges and achievements. I've been told that social media is the very lifeblood of the universe and it's crazy to even attempt any format that was conceived in the pre-Twitter and pre-Facebook era, as though all previously good ideas simply ceased to exist when Zuckerberg and Dorsey came on the scene. But if you really want is to dig in, share information, have serious discussions, exchange news and opinions and knowledge and ideas and actually learn from each other, there's still no better format than an old school bulletin board.

I know there are food nerds out there who are more interested in substance than flash. I know there are enough people out there in Phoenix who know food well enough and who care enough to make for one heck of an online community. I know that if everybody who has told me that Phoenix desperately needs something like this threw themselves in and tried to make it work, it would blossom into something beautiful.

See? This is why I should never write passionate pleas at 2:00 in the morning.

I'll let the board say the rest. If any of this speaks to you, please, come check it out. I've watched food communities coalesce before, and if we can come together on this, it could be a really, really, REALLY good thing.

Fingers crossed.

April 23, 2012

Cafe Ga Hyang

Banchan Dominic Armato

Just a couple of months after I arrived in Phoenix, I got an email from a fellow food nerd (and now good friend) who'd noted that I'd moved here and generously wanted to welcome me to town. The question of when we should get together to get some grub and hang out led to my usual suggestion that late night is easiest, since I can slip out once everybody else is asleep. He informed me that Phoenix wasn't much of a late night town, and though I was marginally aware of this at the time, I figured we could always just fall back to the late night failsafe.

"So let's go get some Korean BBQ, then."
"There isn't any late night Korean BBQ."
"C'mon, there's always late night Korean BBQ. That's why Korean BBQ exists. Baltimore was a way earlier town than Phoenix, and there were two joints open until 4AM right next door to each other. I'll find some and drop you a line."

This little bit of hubris culminated in two hours of internet searching, capped by stunned surrender after finding just one Korean restaurant in the entire city that was open after 9:00. It closed at ten. This was a bit of a rude awakening when it comes to just how lacking Phoenix is in the late night department, but as of two weeks ago, consider at least one late night wish granted.

BanchanDominic Armato

Well, two weeks for me, anyway. Cafe Ga Hyang has been around for a number of years, but it was about ten months ago that Sun -- the current primary server, culinary architect and hosting matriarch -- left Takamatsu around the corner to run her own space. She took over the restaurant, completely revamped the menu, extended the hours, and fulfilled one of my top personal wishes for the Phoenix restaurant scene: a really, really good late night Korean joint. It's a dim but cozy space when she kicks on the mood lighting around ten, done in faux Korean village style with photos of dishes adorning the walls. Though the disco ball and laser lights, even if they lie dormant, make me wonder if "closing time" is just when they close down the kitchen and crank up the K-pop. Sun's a pip, possessed of grandmotherly years and sprightly energy, a chatty and enthusiastic chef/owner who's not only happy to recommend dishes, but is just as eager to tell you how they're made and the best way to eat them. In fact, sometimes she'll be quite insistent about the best way to eat them. And the next thing you know, a pair of chopsticks has materialized in her hand and she's preparing a plate for you the way it should be done. With the discovery of Ga Hyang (thank you, Helen!), I have obtained both a new favorite late night haunt and, apparently, a new Korean grandma. But the latest hours and friendliest staff would just be a letdown if the food weren't up to snuff. What has me doing backflps is that Ga Hyang would be my favorite Korean joint in town even if it weren't for all of the fringe benefits.

ManduDominic Armato

It starts with the banchan, those dishes full of little nibbles that come, by default, with anything you order. It's immediately evident that there's a lot of love and attention lavished upon this food. Sun prepares all of her banchan fresh, and it shows in crisp textures, bold flavors and a slowly rotating selection that means something new usually pops up every time you stop by. The quality is head and shoulders above anything else I've had in Phoenix, and the impressive variety -- even ordering a bowl of soondubu as a single diner netted me nine items -- is delightful and doesn't seem to mitigate their quality one bit. When mandu (listed on the menu as gyoza) like this are a weak point, that's a really, really good sign. The wrapper, to me, leaves a little bit to be desired, crisp and not too oily but a little thin and lacking character. But the pork and cabbage filling is warm and flavorful and fabulously moist. The first one I bit into squirted halfway across the table. And the dipping sauce, spiked with a number of aromatics, has a little more life and complexity than usual.

Duk BokiDominic Armato

Though Korean isn't all about the chiles, there's no denying their prominence, and nowhere on the menu is it more evident than in the duk boki. This appetizer consists of cylindrical rice cakes, about two inches long, thick as a robusto, with a chewy, glutinous texture, which are stir-fried with onions and chiles and a thick sauce with the consistency of Italian-American Sunday gravy. The rice cakes are simple and unassuming with a pleasantly gummy chew, but their mild-mannered flavor is offset in the most aggressive way possible by a sauce that's pure fire. Though the sweetness meant that my instantaneous first instinct was to think tomato, I believe it's pure pepper. But lest you think this is only about heat, it actually strikes a surprisingly pronounced balance that evokes the sweetness you expect from a roasted red bell pepper and the blistering fire you expect from the hottest Asian chiles. Capsaicin junkies will find it delightfully piquant, but mere mortals need be wary.

Sam Gyup SahlDominic Armato

There are no table grills at Ga Hyang, so I can't call the BBQ a strength, but that isn't to say the BBQ dishes -- prepared in the kitchen -- aren't worthwhile. Kalbi and bulgogi are beautifully marinated and come out on hot cast iron plates atop a bed of sizzling onions. It's no substitute for a live coal grill in front of you, and somewhat disappointing when you're accustomed to meat that goes straight from the fire into your mouth, but even if the sizzle is somewhat lacking, the flavor is excellent. One dish that doesn't seem to lose too much, however, is the Sam Gyup Sahl. Slices of pork belly a quarter inch thick are grilled and served with shredded lettuce tossed with oil and rice vinegar, salted sesame oil for dipping, the sweet and salty fermented bean paste called ssamjang, and raw chiles and garlic. Here, little details make the dish. Unlike many K-BBQ joints that slice the pork on a machine, Sun hand slices thick slabs which stay moist and juicy rather than drying out like their thinner bretheren. Also, the edges are carefully clipped, so that the pork lays flat and doesn't curl while cooking. It seems like such a little thing, but it makes a big difference. I wouldn't do the kalbi or bulgogi unless I just had to have piles of meat, but the Sam Gyup Sahl I'll enjoy without feeling like I'm missing out on the grill.

Pork Belly with Kimchi and TofuDominic Armato

Another pork belly dish that will definitely be in my personal rotation is listed on the menu as Kimchee Je Yook Bokeum, and it's one of those dishes where the whole thing put together is more than the sum of its parts. My first bite was of the pork belly, sliced similarly to the Sam Gyup Sahl, but glazed here with a thick, sweet and salty marinade made sticky by the cooking. This was tasty enough, except that I'd missed the kimchi beneath, and when Sun insisted they be eaten together (I would have if I'd seen it!), the result was a perfect pair, spicy and tart pickled vegetable lending balance and punch to the meaty, fatty sweetness of the pork. The third element, thick slabs of firm tofu, could be seen either as a third player in this mix or as a mellow respite between bites of explosive flavor. I dug this one.

Beef SoondubuDominic Armato

Soondubu is always hot, in both senses of the word. Chiles are no problem for me, but I've yet to make my peace with the Korean practice of serving soups that resemble bubbling magma. When something is served at a full-on boil, in a vessel that retains heat and ensures the boil lingers, my desire to eat always ends up at odds with my desire not to turn my tongue into a permanently scarred and disfigured nub. The struggle is particulalry difficult when the soup is this tasty, when the broth isn't just about the chile paste but has a really nice roundness and depth as well, derived from fresh beef or a variety of abundant seafood, depending on which version you get. The tofu within is silky smooth, and the freshly-cracked egg hidden at the bottom -- if you get to it quickly enough to mix it in before it cooks through -- adds another level of richness. This is some delicious soup.

Haemul PajeonDominic Armato

The Haemul Pajeon inspires, for me, a reaction that's all-too-common when tasting a simple dish that crosses every T. Why can't everybody do this right? Why is this so hard? Pajeon isn't something I've made in my spare time, so perhaps it's a far more finicky food than I imagine, but for whatever the reason, pajeon like this is the exception rather than the rule. That it's jam-packed with tender vegetables and an assortment of fresh seafood is good, that it's delightfully eggy and perfectly seasoned is better, and what puts it over the top is that they absolutely nail what I consider to be the perfect texture, browned and unashamedly crispy on the exterior, tender and warm and moist in the center. Served steaming hot with a little splash of a light soy and vinegar-based sauce, I presume that pajeon can be better than this, but I haven't had it.

Kot Gae ChigaeDominic Armato

The menu's chock full of stews, many of them spicy, and I've had a couple of varieties that I enjoyed quite a bit. The Kot Gae Chigae is crab-based, a spicy and briny broth with a large crab cleft into quarters simmering within. What matters most here is that the flavor of the seafood comes through in the broth, which captures both the sweetness of the meat and the funk of the innards, making for a soup with crab flavor that isn't overpowering, but is still all-encompassing of the beast. The Saeng Sun Maeun Tang looks the same on the surface, but man, is a lot of stuff crammed in there. Sliced chiles, onions, carrots, zucchini, green onions, fresh herbs, shrimp, mussels, squid, pollock, three kinds of mushroom, tofu... more I'm forgetting, probably. And all of these bits and pieces come together to generate a delicious, full-flavored stew. While I was devouring this one, Sun's cook wandered out of the kitchen and mentioned that they do a similar version with monkfish. I'm a little ashamed that I haven't tried it yet.

Naeng MyunDominic Armato

There are a handful of noodle dishes on the menu, including the obligatory Jap Chae, which is appropriately slippery and bold and extra good paired with kalbi and some kimchi. But one noodle dish that I'd somehow managed to avoid tasting until now is the Naeng Myun, and come August this will be my favorite dish in the entire city. Extremely thin, gelatinous buckwheat noodles are swimming in a light, thin, and lightly sweetened broth, along with sliced cucumbers and Asian pear, sliced beef brisket, pine nuts and hard boiled eggs. You cut the noodles with a pair of scissors, squirt in a little hot mustard, mix it all up and dive in. Thing is, it's cold. No, I take that back. Cold is an entirely inadequate adjective. The dish is downright frigid, due in no small part to the fact that it's topped with handfuls of shaved ice, dumped right into the bowl. This is genius on multiple levels, because not only does it ensure that this sweet and spicy concoction hovers at about 32.2 degrees while you eat it, but the ice shavings also add a really cool and pleasurable textural angle. It's the very definition of refreshing, and I can't imagine a savory dish that would be a better break from the desert heat. I have no frame of reference here. I've passed over Naeng Myun on Korean menus countless times before. What what I was missing always this good?

Cham PongDominic Armato

Another great noodle composition that also demonstrates Sun's attention to detail is the Cham Pong. For reference, you could fit a basketball in this bowl. It's a huge stew, a full-flavored and spicy broth brimming with delicious seafood and whole shrimp so fresh and tender that there's some prime headsucking here for those who care to partake. It's spicy, but not so much that the seafood gets lost. And on the basis of all that, this dish is good enough, but the bonus is that the broth hides a pile of thick noodles which Sun hand-prepares in house, and they're fabulous. They have a light flavor and a nice dense, resistant chew. At $12, this dish is a total steal. It's kind of ridiculous.

I've managed to try a few more over the past two weeks, but hopefully that's enough to make the case. I love this place. No, it's not going to impress somebody who's been hanging around K-Town in Los Angeles, but it's really, really good -- undoubtedly my favorite in Phoenix. And it's a happy blessing that it's run by a welcoming and entertaining character who seems committed to maintaining late hours. Still, if for no other reason than the continued sanity of this humble food blogger, let's not leave this to chance, huh? Screw Delux and Carlsbad Tavern and every other hip joint with middling food that defines Phoenix's late eats scene. Let's stop pretending that dinner until 11 means late by any objective measure. Twenty lashes for anybody who complains that Ga Hyang is on the wrong side of the 17 (twenty lashes for the suggestion that there IS such a thing as a wrong side of the 17). Throw some friends in the back seat, roll down the windows, crank up the music and go for a little ride... what's more invigorating than cruising through the city at night, particularly when there's some killer Korean waiting for you on the other side? Hell, I'll even drive you. Drop me a line at midnight and there's at least a 50/50 chance I'm in. This is not a joke.

Cafe Ga Hyang
4362 W. Olive Avenue
Glendale, AZ 85302
Mon - Sat11 AM - 2 AM
Sun11 AM - 11 PM

April 18, 2012

The McDowell Project - 44th to 36th

McDowell Dominic Armato

It took a while, but we're finally cruising, here. Perhaps more accurately, I'm trying to cram in as much as possible before the kids are out of school for the summer. I'd love to get to Central before the end of the year and I figure I'd better make it to the 20s by June or it'll never happen.

Eight more blocks in the books...

Tamale, Enchilada, TacoDominic Armato

Adrian's Cocina Mexicana
4310 East - 602-275-1707

Just a couple of months ago, this was Rock 'N Taco. Before that, apparently it was Adrian's. But this Adrian's is unrelated to that Adrian's. Or the Adrian's in Mesa, for that matter. Which is completely not confusing. In any case, Adrian's has an enormous, if predictable, menu that's mostly Sonoran-influenced, with lots of combination platters, the kind of items you might find on combination platters, and a surprising amount of seafood for a place that isn't dedicated to the same. Coctel de Camarones, thin and served with ketchup, hot sauce and crackers, might've been nice if not for the fact that the shrimp were more than a little rubbery. Items like enchiladas, tacos and flautas were... fine.... gooey and often smothered in cheese. Tasty enough, but not enough to elicit excitement, particularly in a niche that's beyond crowded in Phoenix. You could do worse. But you could do a whole lot better, too.

Hot WingsDominic Armato

Buffalo Brown's Wings and Things
4220 East - 602-231-9659

The exterior of Buffalo Brown's doesn't exactly inspire confidence, but while it's undeniably kind of divey, it's considerably more welcoming on the inside. The "things" refers mostly to run of the mill fried accompaniments and variations on burger toppings, with a few other sandwiches thrown in for good measure. But it's clearly about the wings, and the wings are totally worthwhile, if ridiculously oversauced (and kind of hilariously served on Chinese-themed melamine). But they're served at that perfect point with crispy edges, chewy exterior and juicy center, and a request for light sauce does the trick. Sadly (for me), it's a ranch-only establishment, and a cheap ranch at that. And those who dig celery will be disappointed. But if you're in the mood for crisp wings and a cheap beer, it's a worthy stop.

HillibDominic Armato

Blue Ocean
4111 East - 602-275-5800

Here's an odd and inconsistent little joint. I'm pretty comfortable with dives, but this one's pushing it for me. Spartan, sure. Cheap, no problem. Dirty... eeehhhh. Still, every time I've walked in the door some fabulous smells were coming out of the kitchen, and that's what kept me coming back... for a while. On my first pass, I thought there might have really been something here. It's a mostly Somali menu, small enough to be manageable, and the goat I ordered with the intention of making a head-to-head comparison with Juba was quite delicious, tender and delicately seasoned, nicely seared but still moist, served with fluffy cumin-scented rice and a nondescript salad oddly tossed with Thousand Island. But that goat got me excited. Until subsequent visits revealed a lot less life -- dull, tough chunks of meat, all seemingly seared off on the flat top with tomatoes, peppers and onions no matter what the dish. It would seem that that Blue Ocean is a one trick pony, which I'd consider a good thing if the trick were tasty more than once. If I were jonesing for some simple roasted goat, I might head back for the Hillib. Maybe.

Pepperoni PizzaDominic Armato

Pizza Casa
4105 East - 602-267-1555

The challenge with a place like Pizza Casa is figuring out how to write enough that this paragraph gets to the bottom of the photo and doesn't leave a gaping chunk of blank background in the middle of the page. Yes, these are the things I think about sometimes. This is cheap pizza, emphasis on cheap, the kind of place that plays like a national chain (even though it isn't) where you expect to see deals like two large pizzas for $15. Did I mention it's cheap? It tastes cheap. It could be worse. But its cheapness really is its strongest asset. Which is why I don't have much to say. Did we make it to the bottom of the photo? Okay, good. Moving on.

Chicken Boti KabobDominic Armato

1638 N. 40th St. - www.zamzamworldfoods.com

This is a total tragedy. Not the restaurant. I've had a couple of really delicious meals at Z-Grill. But they were so good that I'd planned on making this the first stop on the McDowell Project that would get a post all its own. And then I somehow managed to delete all of my photos except for this one. So even though it gets equal billing visually speaking, know that this one stands head and shoulders above everything else I've posted about on this venture so far. Z-Grill is tucked into the back of Zam Zam World Market, a medium-sized grocery and Halal butcher, and though its street address is on 40th, I've chosen to invoke my "if I can see it from the corner, I can add it at my discretion" rule given that you could chuck a baseball into its parking lot from McDowell. And a good thing too. It's an Indo-Pak joint, and though I've heard it's had consistency issues in the past with different kitchen crews drifting through, recently it's always been the same folks, and always on. Bihari Kabab is tender and tangy, with a smoky scent and some spicy kick. Beef Nihari provides huge cubes of tender beef in a bright red and vibrantly flavored stew that plays almost like a full-flavored, chile spiked gravy. Small vegetable dishes are hearty and bold, but my favorite, though it lacks the aromatic garnishes that typify the dish, is the Goat Haleem, a sludgy-looking bowl of goat meat, wheat, lentils, onions and all kinds of spices, simmered down into a rich paste with incredible depth of flavor. There's much more for which I'm missing the details -- sadly, my photos are my notes -- but suffice it to say that I've had a couple of really delicious meals at Z-Grill over the past few weeks. We'll just ignore the fact that the best stop so far on the McDowell Project isn't technically on McDowell, K?