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August 31, 2012

The Quarterly Report - Q2 2012

Seafood Chowder @ The Maine Lobster Lady Dominic Armato

It's the Quarterly Report, almost a quarter late edition! I happened to drop into my PHXfoodnerds.com hiatus right at the start of the summer and... well... enough explanation. On with some second quarter eats, in order determined by random.org as always:

Lobster Roll, Traditional StyleDominic Armato

The Maine Lobster Lady

At first, I thought it might be awkward that the delay in writing about The Maine Lobster Lady meant that she'd have gone home to Maine for the summer by the time I posted this. But hey, good news! It took me SO long to get this up that she'll be back in just a couple of months! The Maine Lobster Lady drives her food truck back and forth between the Southwest and Maine, where her husband is a bona fide lobsterman, and while she's in town, she slings a mighty fine, if small, lobster roll. I went on a lobster roll binge shortly before we left Boston a few years back, and it resulted in a great respect for the minimal school of lobster roll preparation (not to mention an awkward conversation with my doctor when I consumed more than a dozen of them in the two weeks leading up to my physical). Though she bills her cold mayo and hot butter version as "Maine Lobster Roll, Traditional Style" and "Maine Lobster Roll, Hot Butter," they're what everybody I know would refer to as Maine Style and Connecticut Style, respectively. And both are mighty tasty, with fresh claw and knuckle meat, dressed with a touch of lemon mayonnaise or garlicky hot butter, on a crisply toasted split roll. As a matter of personal preference, I actually like a little bit of tougher tail meat mixed in, but I suspect the majority opinion that claw and knuckle only is a feature, not a bug. The one thing that's a little tough to swallow is that these lobster rolls are awfully scrawny by East Coast standards, and not exactly budget priced at $17. But as I've said before, you can get great seafood in the desert, you just have to pay for it. I also nabbed the seafood chowder, a true East Coast style, thin and light, not overly rich or goopy, but flavor-packed with lobster, shrimp and fish, plus tender potatoes and fresh corn kernels with great pop. I'll be seeking both when she returns to town.

Bún Thịt Nướng Tàu Hũ Ky Chả GiòDominic Armato

Com Tam Thuan Kieu

The problem with getting way too into a place like Hue Gourmet is that I've been to Mekong Plaza dozens of times, but have only eaten at perhaps half of the restaurants therein. One I only just managed to get to was Com Tam Thuan Kieu, but I think I can now scratch it off the list. Com Tam Thuan Kieu specializes, as its name would suggest, in broken rice dishes, but it also serves bun (rice noodles) and banh hoi (sheets of woven rice noodles), which means that it's one of those massive hund, red item menus that's mostly composed of every combination and permutation of topping that can do on three basic dishes. I went with a friend and introduced him to banh beo, the round, steamed rice cakes topped with dried shrimp, peanuts and fried shallots, and immediately had to assure him that they get a whole lot better. CTTK's were prefab and pasty with a kind of chalky aftertaste, and were even more disappointing in comparison to Hue Gourmet's, just 50 paces away. The com tam was okay if a little lackluster, and my bun came up short -- dry noodles, tough spring roll, leathery pork and nuoc cham so watered down it barely imparted any flavor. It was cheap, but the appeal pretty much ended there.

ReubenDominic Armato

Miracle Mile Deli

I'm frustrated that I like Miracle Mile Deli, not because I think I shouldn't -- they make some good sandwiches -- but because pegging this as the best place in town for corned beef and pastrami feels like surrender. It's a cafeteria-style deli with two locations, and most of the menu is completely forgettable. I've tried underseasoned soups, potato pancakes that were greasy, tough and pasty, and burgers that underachieved. But what's solid are the corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, moist and reasonably flavorful meat sliced and kept warm in a steam table, then worked into any number of sandwiches adjusted to order with sauerkraut, cheese, cole slaw, etc. It's not bad. I'm not sure why a steam box filled with whole briskets sliced to order is a practice foreign to the valley -- Miracle Mile Deli certainly has the traffic necessary to make it worthwhile -- but these sandwiches satisfy, even if I greatly look forward to a time when somebody decides to raise the bar.

Sai Krok IsaanDominic Armato

Pete's Thai Cuisine

This one is endlessly puzzling to me. Thai, despite its ubiquity, is not one of Phoenix's strengths. But the gulf between Pete's reputation, even in comparison to its local peers, and my experience with the place is massive. Satay skewers bear what must be half a pound of chicken breast EACH in one massive hunk, such that 90% of it is plain, unseasoned meat. Papaya salad brings fiery heat but little else in terms of balance. Green curry is a salty mess and all of the herbs therein taste brown and muddled. Isaan sausage appears deep-fried, almost as tough as beef jerky, and tastes more of salt than the gentle, fermented sweetness it should. I've been twice, tried quite a few dishes, and have yet to taste anything redeemable. And the fact that Pete's offers some Northern Thai specialties that you don't see elsewhere in the valley makes it a painful tease. But even if taken simply as a casual stop for lunchtime Americanized Thai, it's just not good. The search continues.

The WestsideDominic Armato

Phoenix Cheesesteak Co.

While I sampled a few cheesesteaks in their native home while living on the East Coast, I'm by no means a cheesesteak authority. This, for better or worse, means I'm unlikely to accuse someplace of blasphemy if they take some minor liberties with tradition so long as it results in a good sandwich. And that's the case with Phoenix Cheesesteak Co. Though they offer a few unusual variations, I made a beeline for The Westside, and though it's the closest they make to the genuine article, they're careful to identify it as "not from Philly," instead calling it a "reinvention." And this is probably a good call, heading off pedantic criticisms at the pass. Thing is, it's a great sandwich. They're not slinging junk, here. Tasty choice ribeye is cut into small chunks rather than sliced, the onions are nicely seasoned and cut large enough to have some body, and while the cheese isn't whiz, it's some other kind of processed spread that maintains that goopy, junk food feel but, frankly, has better flavor. They're cooked together with care to merge the flavors and create a kind of beefy, cheesy sauce, then added to a lightly griddled roll and sent out with serviceable fries. The result is a sandwich that, while non-canonical, has a Philly cheesesteak's soul. Aside from the fact that a request for hots netted me raw sliced jalapenos rather than pickled cherry peppers, I couldn't have been much happer with these guys. They turn out a great sandwich.

Chicken Fried SteakDominic Armato

Ranch House Grille

Upon landing in Arcadia two and a half years ago, I'd intended to get to Ranch House Grille for a chicken fried steak. But it burned before I got a chance, it was only just recently that I was finally able to visit this reopened local landmark to satisfy that craving. Ranch House Grill is just a humble little corner breakfast and sandwich joint, slinging eggs and pancakes for breakfast, and burgers, sandwiches and other homey, comforting plates in the afternoon (though both breakfast and lunch, I believe, are available at all hours). Breakfast standards are simple, tasty and deftly prepared. When it comes to lunch, I had a pretty mean patty melt, though the Green Pork Chili Verde for which they're famed was, to my taste, a little on the thin and underdeveloped side. But there's no knocking their famous chicken fried steak, hot and juicy with a crisp, salty crust and slathered with thick, peppery country gravy. Though the "side" of chicken fried steak is pictured, I've since concluded that it just isn't at its peak if it isn't the full plate, served alongside some hash browns and a couple of eggs. (Over easy -- runny yolk and country gravy? Yes.) And for those who are watching their diet, fear not! The chicken fried steak also comes in a "light" version... served with one egg instead of two.


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