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September 27, 2012

A Good Day

Okay, that's pretty sweet... Dominic Armato

I've always said that I write this blog for myself; that I was happy doing it before anybody read it, and I'd keep on doing it if everybody stopped. And that's all true. But over the nearly three years I've been in Phoenix, I've found myself thinking more and more about what I can do to contribute to Phoenix's food scene, and to find some small part that I can play in helping to make it better. It's the reason I launched PHXfoodnerds, and it's also why I find myself leaning more and more towards trying to find and write about lesser-known places that are awesome and deserving of more attention than they get.

Thing is, writing a blog isn't like posting on a community board that thrives on interaction. It sometimes feels like shouting into the void. Is anybody reading? Does anybody go to the places I write about? Do they like them? Who knows!? There are days when I think I'm spending hundreds of hours every year doing nothing but gazing at my navel, and if that's the case, no problem... as a journal, this blog means something to me and that's plenty. But there are days when I think that maybe I can do a little something to contribute to the greater community. And when the Phoenix New Times staff sees fit to name Skillet Doux the Best Food Blog of 2012, it's definitely one of the latter.

This post is already beyond maudlin, so let me just say two things.

First, let me say thanks... thanks to the folks at New Times for the honor, thanks to everybody for the congratulations and kind words, and thanks to those who've been so supportive to this extremely long-winded and annoying obsessed fellow who's trying to make Phoenix's food scene home (third person... that's for you, New Times :-). Today, especially, it feels like home.

Second, and waaaaaay more importantly, let me say get out there! That New Times Best Of Food & Drink list is packed with so many fabulous places! Cafe Ga Hyang, Crudo, Beaver Choice, Zaidi's Grill, Andreoli, Baratin, Chou's Kitchen, 'Pomo, just to name a few personal favorites. Go! Eat! Support these guys! Find more great places and support them too! (Do it especially during the long, bleak summers.) Learn about the fabulous foods they make. Come on over to PHXfoodnerds, tell us what you thought and discuss it with the crowd. Get the word out however you can, make them all big successes and show that we appreciate and will support folks who put an exceptional amount of love and care and skill into their restaurants, sticking to their guns even when they're producing the kind of food that sometimes has to fight for an audience. The more we do that, the better and better an already exciting and burgeoning food scene is going to be. Don't sit back and hope it happens. Help to MAKE it happen. Sometimes all it takes is writing a little something online.

The honor makes me want to work at this even harder. And that's a gift I really, really appreciate.

Thanks, everybody. Lots more, very soon.

September 07, 2012


Otaku Chic Dominic Armato

With one night remaining in San Diego and the rest of the crew crashed out in preparation for what would be a busy departure morning, I found myself without a good plan and trawling the 'net in search of some late night grub for a solo diner looking to get one more fix of some kind of Asian cuisine before heading home. Korean was mighty tempting, but seemed better suited to a larger group. Meanwhile, out in front of Yakitori Yakyudori, there had been a markerboard suggesting that if the wait was too onerous (it wasn't), we could try their sister restaurant, Hinotez, about a mile down the road. Well, okay then.

Hinotez is a bit of a seating hodgepodge, a mix of standard tables, counter seating, and formal-looking tatami rooms with sliding panels in the back. The place is strewn with pop culture paraphernalia, and the almost 'round-the-clcck hours pretty much peg it as a hipster hangout, if one that comes with a pedigree. Much of the small crowd that night was, indeed, conversing in Japanese, and like Yakyudori, Hinotez is part of a restaurant group that extends back to Nayoga. There's a lot of crossover with the Yakyudori menu, including a limited amount of yakitori, but a little heavier on the noodles, including more ramen options and some udon and soba as well. But I knew what I was coming for.

Tonkotsu RamenDominic Armato

I figured I could get in at least two bowls of ramen. Same as Yakyudori, Hinotez offers half bowls of ramen. I'm still trying to decide whether I think they're a good thing. They certainly aren't from a value proposition. A reduction of at least 50% in size knocks $1.50 off a bowl of ramen that ranges from $6.50 - $8.00. More importantly, I've had so many bowls of ramen that seemed okay at first, but whose charms truly emerged only once I was halfway through the bowl and deep into it, tongue now coated with the oil and fat. Sometimes, when it comes to a great bowl of ramen, I feel like the first half of the bowl is just the warmup. With this, there's no second half. For that reason, I doubt I'd make the half bowls a regular practice if I lived in San Diego. But having only one crack at a good-lookin' ramen menu before heading home, I was exceptionally grateful for the option.

Goma RamenDominic Armato

It's no small wonder why milky, rich tonkotsu broth now dominates the Tokyo ramen scene. Again, as with Yakyudori, I had an impossible standard still fresh in my mind. But I thought this was a really nice, smooth, rich bowl of tonkotsu, a little salty from the miso but not overly so. Good chashu, some scallion, nori and ginger, fairly firm noodles... the only outright complaint would be a cold egg. But it was a solid bowl, and I'd be flipping ecstatic to have this back home. The spicy sesame ramen was tasty, but I was a little disappointed with its construction. No fresh ground sesame, here. It was a viscous (and delicious) chicken-based broth that had been spiked with rayu (a chili-sesame oil), whether purchased or made in-house, I'm not sure. It had a really nice flavor, very subtle on the sesame and a nice, subtle burn. I was hoping for a little more sesame, but I suppose I can't fault it for what it is. And so, with two half bowls of ramen in my belly, I got to thinking... hey, it's vacation... I'm going home tomorrow... who knows when I'll have a shot at a good spot like this next? I could do one more small dish.

Tonkatsu CurryDominic Armato

Oops. The tonkatsu curry was not so much with the small. Not evident from the angle of the photo is that the plate must've been 16" long. But it was quite good. The tonkatsu was hot, crisp and well-seasoned. The curry seemed underpowered at first, but after a couple of bites the subtlety came out. It had a really nice flavor, an almost chunky texture and was strewn with ground meat. They offer curry at breakfast, and I wonder if the lighter approach is so that the same curry can do double duty? In any case, I'd have this again in a heartbeat. I did, in fact, since at least three-quarters of it went into a box to take home for breakfast the next morning. Speaking of which, one of the most interesting-looking offerings at Hinotez is the breakfast menu, where three bucks gets you a tray with rice, miso soup, cold tofu, pickles, nori and tea, and then for either $1 or $2 more you add your main dish which includes options like grated yam, a three minute egg, natto, grilled salmon, mini udon, gyoza, etc. It makes me wonder if I got to Hinotez about five hours too early.

Which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it. This was by no means top notch ramen by Japanese or even SoCal standards, but it's a cool little joint that's practically always open and serves some tasty grub. There's a big menu here, and I'd love to sample more of it. And while that'll have to wait, I suspect it won't be too long before we return to San Diego.

7947 Balboa Avenue
San Diego, CA 92111
Mon - Fri7 AM - 2:30 PM5:30 PM - 2 AM
Sat - Sun 5:30 PM - 2 AM

September 06, 2012

Kaito Sushi

Sunomono Dominic Armato

When it's date night -- and traveling with another couple and their kids affords such a rare opportunity -- one of the easiest meals to sell in our household is sushi. Particularly when on the West Coast. Particularly when there are places with the reputation of Kaito Sushi to choose from. So, from our perch on Mission Beach, we trucked up north to Encinitas to a place that bills itself as a purveyor of old-school Edomae sushi.

HotateDominic Armato

I knew Kaito was a small neighborhood joint, and it's certainly not a complaint, but I was surprised by just how spartan it is. Tucked into a strip mall, hidden behind a freestanding building, no overhead signage -- we passed it three times before I finally spied it. It's no sushi speakeasy. This isn't a trendy "come and find us" approach. Rather, one just gets the sense that big, bold declarations isn't their thing. The restaurant inside is very plain and highly functional, with no effort made to conceal a good deal of kitchen equipment on a long counter behind the bar. In short: perfect for scaring off those who aren't primarily concerned with the food. We'd made a reservation at the bar, and were seated in front of the elder itamae, whose name I didn't catch (Update: His name is Ryoichi, aka Joe... thanks, Yao!). Subsequent research seems to indicate that the other fellow, Morita-san, is the star of the show which -- if true -- makes the place all the more impressive. We told our itamae we'd like to do his omakase, set him free with no restrictions, ordered a few beers, and settled in for an exceptionally good meal.

ScallopDominic Armato

If I'd started counting when we sat down, I don't think I would have made it to ten when the sunomono hit the table, a carefully shaved tangle of vinegared onion and daikon flecked with pink threads of surimi. It was light and refreshing -- sunomono and July get along just fine -- and did a fine job of setting the stage. And then he went right for my soft spot. I adore raw scallop, and this was a fine specimen, fresh and sweet with firm texture and just a touch of funky character. But we weren't done with this fellow. His less universally beloved parts were chopped, cooked with snow peas in a light and sweet soy glaze, and served hot. I cry a little every time I see a scallop dish that serves only the muscle. Which is to say I cry a little almost every time I see a scallop dish. I wish getting the coral and the other bits weren't such a rare treat.

Hamachi, Toro, BakagaiDominic Armato

What followed was an abundant but focused assortment of sashimi. Starting on the left, the hamachi was from Japan, and I didn't catch the precise subset thereof but it was a beautiful piece of fish. In the middle was something that I'm increasingly regarding as a very, very rare treat. Bluefin is something I've decided not to eliminate from my diet completely, but rather save for a special treat once or twice a year. I'd really like for these fellows to still be around a decade from now (and far beyond). In any case, this specimen came from the waters off Spain, and though it wasn't one of those impossibly creamy cuts of toro that's oozing fat all over the place, it certainly couldn't be described as lean and it had great texture and flavor. On the far right, the orange clam -- bakagai, I believe -- was from the East Coast (New York, probably), briny and umami-laden with just enough resistance to make chewing a pleasure.

NigiriDominic Armato

Then came the nigiri! Starting on the top left and working clockwise, we were first served hirame (halibut), clean and elegant with just a touch of fiery, citrusy yuzu kosho. Beyond fish selection, these guys are on the ball. It's a tender rice, just barely warm and packed just enough to hold together, laid back in character and complementary to the fish, even though they use red rice vinegar which is a little more assertive in terms of flavor. The hirame was followed by a slice of aji (Spanish mackerel), and I'm always impressed when I get a good piece of this in the States. If it isn't handled well, it goes very off very quickly. But this was excellent, with a little bit of scallion and grated ginger to play off the subtle, natural funk. I don't think the maguro (tuna) was marinated. If it was, it was very lightly so. But maguro is the boneless, skinless chicken breast of the sushi counter, and it's so nice to encounter some that's actually compelling, like this. He followed this with more tuna -- chutoro from the same fish, I believe -- medium fatty and downright succulent. Incidentally, it was around this time that the small group sitting at the bar to our left started chatting about the healing powers of various crystals -- you know, just in case we'd forgotten that we were in SoCal. Next up was the only locally sourced seafood of the night (meaning everything else was flown in, Phoenix), uni plucked from the Southern California coast. This, along with scallop, is probably the sushi standard I look forward to the most, and I don't think I've ever had San Diego uni before. These fellows, at least, didn't have the same natural sweetness that I associate with the widely-beloved Santa Barbara uni, but they were impossibly fresh and they had a soft texture and a lovely, almost mineral-tasting complexity that made them no less, in my eyes -- just different. There's Exhibit A for the joys of eating locally. We rounded out the nigiri with my ladylove's request, some sweet and silky-textured Scottish salmon. I get the impression that it isn't a cut with much cache back in Japan, and I wonder why that is. I'm always more than happy to piggyback on her order, particularly when it's this good.

Negitoro Hand RollDominic Armato

The official end of the meal was a narrow, almost cylindrical negitoro hand roll, fatty tuna minced with scallion, nestled in with a handful of the fabulous rice and wrapped in crisp nori. I find myself loving hand rolls more and more these days, and that crisp nori is so key, which they nailed. At this point I wasn't quite ready to throw in the towel, so I requested one more item -- his choice -- and was rewarded with a special hand roll, the complete contents of which still remain a mystery. The uni and ikura made themselves perfectly evident, but I think there were two, maybe even three more items lurking below. This was pushing my tolerance for sushi complexity. You pass the two ingredient mark when it comes to roll fillings and I start getting suspicious, but these items were carefully chosen and well-balanced. It was smartly done, and mighty tasty.

Special Hand RollDominic Armato

The problem, when going for sushi, is that I get to this point and realize that I could keep doing this all night, but we decided to leave well enough alone and tap out. This is a really, really good sushi bar. And that I enjoyed it when I still have Tsukiji fresh in my head from January probably says something. One thing that surprised me was that what we received actually wasn't entirely representative of their repertoire. The menu isn't short on bastardized maki (it hurts me to see cream cheese on the menu in a place like this), and a couple of folks around us were partaking, but whether by means of years of experience or Betazoid lineage our itamae nailed us... keep it simple, do it well. His omakase was very straightforward, very traditional, very minimal, and I loved that. Kaito isn't cheap. The total tab for the two of us plus beer (x2 of what's pictured for all of the nigiri and hand rolls) came out to about $200. But man, if it's a question of where to put your dining dollars, one omakase here over two (or three, or four) mediocre meals elsewhere is a total no-brainer. Although looking at the menu, if you were a little more selective and careful about ordering items individually, I've no doubt you could have a killer meal here for $50. This is a great place run by folks who know what they're doing. It isn't just slapping fresh fish on rice. It's artistry. It's in all of those little details -- this place feels Japanese. And it has the benefit of being significantly closer.

Kaito Sushi
130-A N. El Camino Real
Encinitas, CA 92024
Mon - Sat5 PM - ???

September 05, 2012

Yakitori Yakyudori

Tsukune Dominic Armato

It wasn't my intention to turn a trip to San Diego into a tour of Japanese joints, but somehow it worked out that way. I dunno... when it's late and I'm sneaking out once the kids have crashed, for some reason there's usually little that sounds better to me than some raw fish. Or a bowl of noodles. Or tasty little chunks of grilled meat.

Yakitori Yakyudori came highly recommended by a trusted friend, and it was immediately evident that he's not alone in his assessment. While word was mixed on the ramen, the namesake yakitori seemed to be almost universally appreciated. Combine that with late hours, and it was a total shoo-in for the schedule.

The Robata GrillDominic Armato

I loved it the moment we walked in. I'd just visited Japan for the first time in years this past January, and it was so refreshing to walk into a Japanese restaurant in the States that felt like it could have been plucked from Tokyo. Well... if they packed it into half the space, anyway. No over-the-top faux decorations, no lame mysteries of the Orient vibe... just a stripped down, casual joint for people to hang out, have a beer and get some good food. One place where it differs is in the size of the menu. There's a lot on there, including all kinds of little bites, bowls of ramen, an entire section devoted to fried items and more. It makes me a little sad that a place that does it this well still feels the need to do everything. But the yakitori is clearly the focus, and that's where we expended most of our energy. They're not taking the crazy artful sand pit route, but they do it right here, grilling skewers over imported binchotan, the almost smokeless, clean burning high carbon charcoal that's the stuff of choice for those who are serious about the stuff. It ensures that the smoke you taste is generated by the drippings, and makes for a very clean grill flavor that doesn't overpower the food.

TakoyakiDominic Armato

But before getting to the main event, we decided to take a token crack at the rest of the menu. I love takoyaki. It's snacky booze food all over. When it's good, the batter gets a nice crisp exterior, it stays soft and volcanic within, it's slathered in sweet and salty takoyaki sauce and sticky mayonnaise -- the scent of the bonito, a chunk of octopus in the middle to gently chew on... this stuff makes me happy. What threw me what that it was on the fried section of the menu. They're usually made on a griddle with semi-spherical pits the size of golf balls. But these were, indeed, deep fried, almost resembling hush puppies in appearance. The result was an unusually extreme textural contrast between the shell and the interior -- crisp bordering on cruncy for the former and just barely set for the latter. And while I can't say they'll be supplanting the griddled version in my heart, there was something to be said for the variant and they were very well-executed.

YakitoriDominic Armato

And then the yakitori started to roll. And while it wasn't flawless, for the most part, man, it was good. The tsukune, pictured at the top, was exceptionally light. In truth, I'm unsure whether I consider that a good or a bad thing. There was clearly a fair amount of filler in addition to the ground chicken, but I like to think that isn't necessarily a bad thing, and the flavor certainly wasn't lacking. As with most of the skewered items we tried, the small plate was almost a tease. Working clockwise from the top left, next up was the negima, tender and juicy chicken thigh skewered with green onion, bearing just a touch of char and smoke, killer flavor, prepared by a cook who's unafraid to use salt as an actual flavor rather than simply as a neutral seasoning. This is a good thing. The Buta Shiso Maki, pork rolled with peppery shiso leaves, wasn't one of the stronger offerings. Though tasty, it came out a little dry and I wasn't getting as much out of the shiso as I would have liked. But the ume puree was an awesome salty, tart foil for fatty pork, and on that basis I still dug it. The Gyu Oroshi Ponzu is so easy to like. It's great beef, a chewy and flavorful cut, topped with tons of grated radish, ponzu and shredded scallion. It's a crowd pleaser. Perhaps a little less universally appealing but dearer to my heart was the beef tongue... juicy, salty and intensely flavored with a satisfying chew. It would be, I think, a great intro to the cut for the tongue curious, unashamed about its true nature but made in a very approachable manner. The chicken liver was dynamite, a touch of char on the edges but mostly cooked so that it was just barely set, and still jiggling in the middle. I realize that for a lot of people I'm not making the sale here, but for me this is heaven. And we rounded out the evening's yakitori offerings with some simple, fresh shishito peppers, topped with shaved bonito flapping in the breeze.

Spicy Miso RamenDominic Armato

Though Yakudori is clearly about the yakitori, the paucity of good ramen back home led us to take a little detour into that portion of the menu. Though the scant $1.50 discount means they aren't exactly cost effective, I loved that half bowls were on offer for those who didn't want to make a complete meal out of it. I went spicy miso ramen, and though I'd recently gorged on some impossible standards, this wasn't a bad bowl of ramen. It wasn't operating at the level of a place like Santouka or, from what I'm told, the products of the recent Los Angeles ramen boom, but it had some nice flavor, solid noodles, and was clearly made with some care. If I could get a bowl of ramen late at night like this on a regular basis, it could be a problem. I also snagged a taste of my friend's shio ramen, which was deliciously clean and salty (shocker), and had a lovely piece of pork.

Shio RamenDominic Armato

I can't figure why yakitori hasn't caught on widely outside of the West Coast and a few major cities to the right. Who the heck doesn't like sweet and salty pieces of skewered, grilled meat? Yakitori is one of those international food subsets that can stay completely true to itself and still maintain near-universal appeal. I mean, we can get the American mainstream to adopt raw fish, but grilled chicken is a bridge too far? Is it the livers and hearts and gizzards? Stick to the chicken thigh and chunks of beef, then. We'll call it gateway yakitori. This is all my way of saying that I really enjoyed Yakitori Yakyudori, and I wish places like it were more common. It's such an enjoyable, satisfying place to get some great food and spend a little time, and when you get a feast like this plus a few beers for $60, it's a smoking deal, too. No pun intended. I anxiously await the day when places like Yakyudori are everywhere, fighting for dominance and forcing each other to get better and better. But in the meantime, I'll gladly take it as a great stop when visiting San Diego.

Yakitori Yakyudori
4898 Convoy St.
San Diego, CA 92111
Mon - Sun11:30 AM - Midnight

September 04, 2012


Hodad's Dominic Armato

It is an observable phenomenon that during the summertime, Phoenix restaurants get quiet. Conventional wisdom is that we don't like to eat out during the summer months, but I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. We like to eat out. We just like to do it in other cities.

Social media during a Phoenix summer is a litany of photos of cooler locales, and having escaped to San Diego for Fourth of July week this year, I can now say that I fully endorse the practice (even if I'd urge folks to make a point of eating out while at home -- your local restaurants need you!). The heat has a way of slowly roasting you, and I'd prefer my sesos in a tortilla rather than in my skull, thank you very much. San Diego seems, to a visitor at least, like a laid-back beach kind of town, and in an effort to have a laid-back beach kind of vacation, one of the stops on our agenda was one of SoCal's burger temples, Hodad's.

Chocolate MilkshakeDominic Armato

Once you've heard about a place for the 173rd time, you start to wonder if there's really something to the reputation or if everybody goes there because that's where everybody goes. Whatever the reason, it's abundandly clear that everybody goes to Hodad's. Despite a gargantuan marquee, its most prominent exterior feature is arguably the line, at the head of which is a sign suggesting that you visit one of their other locations if it's too long. Few places can make that suggestion with any reasonable chance that it'll be heeded. But of course, it's vacation, so we were in for the experience as much as the food, and ditching the original seemed wrong somehow. Half an hour later, we were introduced to Hodad's most prominent interior feature... it's loud. Very, very loud. Which is not a value judgement so much as a statement of fact. It's also busy and kitschy and irreverent and all kinds of pseudo-rad, with servers who are just genuine enough to keep it from feeling like the heavy metal version of Ed Debevic's. Their flair may be lewd, but it's still flair. And who cares? It's loud and fun and at one point in time probably wasn't a caricature of itself. And the food's pretty good.

FringsDominic Armato

The chocolate shake is really good, though it barely qualifies as a shake. It's been thinned out juuuuuuust enough to meet the suckability requirement, and it's topped off with about half a pint of chocolate ice cream (no exaggeration) for good measure. It is intense and massive and, dare I say, extreme. If the name "frings" conjures up images of some kind of creative stoner fried food mashup, the reality is a letdown. It's a pile of onion rings on top of a pile of fries. And the fries are weak, cut into thick wedges and dredged with that ubiquitous odd textured coating that may be a good fried potato's worst enemy. Really, guys, it's way past time to kill that stuff dead. But the onion rings aren't bad, cut into massive wedges and done with a coarse breaded coating that's fried to a deep golden brown. Though they're unexceptional, you could certainly do a lot worse.

Double Bacon CheeseburgerDominic Armato

The cheeseburger, however, is... well... wow. And I don't necessarily mean that from a taste standpoint, though it's a tasty burger. I mean, look at that thing. I'd skipped lunch that day and ordering the bacon double STILL turned out to be a tactical error. If you can squish it down enough to get your mouth around it -- a hydraulic press might help -- it's a pretty damn tasty burger. It's big and greasy and dripping with all kinds of goo, and the vegetables are roughly hewn rather than carefully sliced, which only adds to the caveman quotient. If anybody ever decides it's time to rid the world of Guy Fieri (dare to dream) and is in need of bait, a trail of these on the sidewalk should do the trick nicely, I think. (His Dudeness, in point of fact, has already secured immortality on the Hodad's menu as the inspiration for a cameo burger, natch.) But while I'm skeptical/frustrated/annoyed by huge for huge's sake, this thing isn't without its touches of genius, and the bacon is chief among them. The flavor's unremarkable as bacon goes, but what's incredible is the texture. It's insanely crunchy and present in every bite. Apparently they roughly chop the bacon, form it into a patty, and then fry that. So to be clear, we're not talking about a couple of slices. It's effectively an entire bacon patty in addition to the two beef patties. And while I want to groan and roll my eyes at this kind of explicit junk food hedonism, I have to give credit where credit is due. This is a true quantum leap in bacon burger technology. Well done, Hodad's.

And yet, here's the thing. Take away the music, take away the obscene license plates, shrink everything down to a normal size and what you're left with is a good burger joint. Better than most, to be sure, but the fame is as much a function of the scene as it is the cuisine. Which isn't to take a shot at the cuisine. If that burger were in a quiet unassuming storefront, I'd go back with three friends and share one in a heartbeat, then start hollering about how you've got to try this place. But as is often the case, though grounded in substance, sometimes the rep eclipses the reality. And I think that if Hodad's can be approached in that context, and the legend set aside, what you've got is some good food bathed in a lot of character. Perfect for vacation, right?

5010 Newport Avenue
Ocean Beach, CA 92107
Mon - Sun11 AM - 10 PM