« September 2012 | Main | November 2012 »

October 30, 2012

Tumi Fine Peruvian Cuisine

Aji Rocoto, Canca, Aji Verde Dominic Armato

Call it a hunch, but something tells me the story behind Phoenix's Peruvian restaurant scene would make a good soap opera.

Upon arriving here nearly three years ago(!), I was both surprised and delighted to see just how many Peruvian restaurants there were around town. It's such a vibrant, exciting cuisine, and I'd never been in a city with so many places to explore -- Rincon Peruano, El Farol, Inca's Peruvian Cuisine, Villa Peru, Inka Fest, Contigo Peru, the mysterious weekend menu at Darwin's, and now Tumi Fine Peruvian Cuisine... did I miss any? On first glance, it seems like a stunning array of Peruvian restaurants to choose from. Of course, then it turns out that Walter Salazar, who's currently heading up the kitchen at Villa Peru, used to be the chef at the original Inca's down in Tempe. Meanwhile, Oscar Graham leaves the kitchen at Contigo Peru, helps get Inka Fest off the ground, then shortly thereafter departs Inka Fest and opens his own restaurant, Tumi. I fully expect we'll eventually learn that El Farol is run by Graham's brother-in-law and Rincon Peruano is owned by Salazar's college roommate, right before the surprise reveal that Graham and Salazar are actually fraternal twins whose long lost sister just leased a restaurant space in Glendale. Point being, there's an abundance of good Peruvian in town, even if the chart of who's working where and when looks almost incestuous at times.

So there was a big shakeup this weekend -- a extremely sad one, at that -- when Contigo Peru closed their doors. Contigo had been my runaway favorite of the crowd, and for me this is one of the most painful restaurant closings of recent memory. But after all of the requisite wailing and gnashing of teeth, the news of Contigo's imminent demise sent me scurrying back to resample some of the others, and to get a couple of good passes at Tumi to see if Graham's new kitchen stands up to his old one. And the answer is... sort of?

Causa de PolloDominic Armato

For the uninitiated, since I haven't sung its praises in, oh, seventeen minutes or so, Peruvian is all kinds of fabulous, a natural fusion cuisine borne of a diverse immigrant population that draws influences from Andean, Spanish, Chinese, African, Japanese, Italian and more. And what's remarkable, even beyond the food's sophistication and exciting flavors, is how quickly and seamlessly these influences have all been integrated and adapted to local ingredients like corn, potatoes and chiles to produce dishes that are completely unique, yet seem oddly familiar to fans of the world's great cuisines. We keep hearing year in and year out that Peruvian is going to be the Next Big Thing, and those of us who love it keep lamenting year in and year out that it doesn't quite catch fire in the American public's consciousness. Arguably, the closest we've come, even though most of us don't even know it, is the success of Nobu Matsuhisa, whose fresh, vibrant, citrus heavy sashimi dishes with accents like onion salsas, cilantro and rocoto chiles made him the standard bearer for neo-Japanese in America for the better part of a decade. His food may be chiefly Japanese, but so many of those signature creative touches are courtesy of the years he spent running a sushi restaurant in Lima before moving to the United States. When Peruvian hits the big time -- and it's bound to eventually -- it'll be tremendously overdue. So in this much, Phoenix can proudly brag that it's ahead of the curve, even if Contigo's closure is a not insubstantial step backwards. But thankfully, Tumi is there to pick up the slack, for the most part.

Papa RellenaDominic Armato

Tumi is tiny -- a small fraction of the size of either of Graham's previous dining rooms -- and would be bursting at the seams if 15 people all dropped in to eat at once. But the menu's diverse, the food is solid, and here's hoping that's a fate that befalls it with more and more frequency. Right when you're seated, cancha are placed on the table along with a little bit of aji rocoto and aji verde. Cancha are corn kernels toasted in oil until they take on a deep color and a satisfying crunch, reminiscent of corn nuts, but with a nutty, salty, natural beauty that no amount of artificial enhancement can replicate. The aji rocoto and aji verde are essentially table salsas, the former ruddy with a nice kick composed of, I suspect, little more than the chiles themselves. The aji verde is a more complex construction, anchored by the vaguely mint-like huacatay, a Peruvian herb for which I'd really like to know their source. I can't hit a Peruvian joint without ordering a glass (if not a pitcher) of Chicha Morada, a drink derived primarily from purple corn, often mixed with pineapple or apple juice and scented with cinnamon and cloves. Tumi's is perfect, cool and refreshing with just a bit of spice, and not so much sugar that it starts to get sticky.

Ceviche de PescadoDominic Armato

Causa de Pollo seems an unholy marriage at first, but is remarkably satisfying, a mayonnaise-based chicken salad -- one that would be equally at home between two slices of white bread -- layered with mashed potatoes seasoned with lime and possessing a good amount of zip, courtesy of aji amarillo, another chile native to Peru. It's just one of many odd cross-cultural dishes that doesn't seem like it should work, but does. Papa Rellena is less of a Frankendish, and is among my favorites at Tumi. Seasoned mashed potatoes (they really like potatoes in Peru) are formed around a brilliantly delicious savory/sweet filling made with ground beef, raisins, hard boiled eggs and onions before being fried to a crisp exterior. They're served with an aji amarillo salsa that adds a great spicy, vinegary punch to an already hearty and flavorful dish.

Ocopa con CamaronDominic Armato

I'm always taken aback by the complexity and body of a good Peruvian ceviche, and though I wouldn't call the Ceviche de Pescado one of Tumi's strengths, it's a solid entry. A healthy portion of tilapia (can we PLEASE use something other than tilapia, people?!) is bathed and partially cured in a spicy, acidic and slightly sweet dressing before being buried in slivered onions and paired with tender slices of sweet potato. It's missing a handful of cancha, a common accoutrement, but that bit of textural contrast is conveniently already sitting on the table. I've found Tumi's ceviches to be a little on the astringent side -- too heavy on the lime, I think -- but getting a little bit of sweet potato in every bite helps the balance greatly. The Ceviche de Camaron is less successful, mostly because the shrimp are cooked before hitting the marinade. I've no doubt that shrimp cured only with citrus would be a tougher sell, but I think par-cooking them makes for a far less compelling dish.

AnticuchosDominic Armato

Ocopa con Camaron brings together more potatoes and more shrimp, generously bathed in a complex, lightly creamy sauce with huacatay, garlic, nuts and who knows what else. Though I'd enjoy this version if the flavors were a little bolder, it's still a tasty dish, and the shrimp are perfectly seasoned and cooked. Another old Peruvian restaurant standby is anticuchos, grilled skewers of seasoned beef heart. This is a great intro to beef heart, like strips of intensely flavored ultrasteak with a slightly springy texture. Tumi's is heavy on the seasoning, which I personally appreciate, though it's perhaps not as tender as I'd prefer. (I'm of the opinion that Villa Peru isn't the restaurant Tumi is, but the texture of their anticuchos is one place where they excel.) If tenderness meant more to you than flavor, however, you wouldn't order beef heart in the first place. Hopefully my affinity for beef heart makes it clear where my priorities lie. Consider this mild criticism, however. I really enjoy Tumi's anticuchos, served with a fiery salsa and a little bit of soothing plain corn and potato if you go overboard with it.

Aji de GallinaDominic Armato

Aji de Gallina is one of my very favorite Peruvian dishes, and Tumi does it justice. Looking through recipes for Aji de Gallina is an exercise in double takes, raised eyebrow stacked upon raised eyebrow as you wonder how the hell they came up with this, and how the hell it actually works. Chicken is stewed, drained, and cooked in a creamy sauce made with onions, walnuts, white sandwich bread, parmesan cheese, evaporated milk, hard boiled eggs, garlic, aji amarillo and more. The result looks like something Lunch Lady Doris would have come up with if her father were Italian and her mother Latin, but these seemingly incongruous ingredients come together into this remarkably creamy, satisfying, comforting whole, with just enough chile zip to keep it lively. It's Chicken Mole meets Chicken a la King, and by god it works. Tumi's is a very good rendition, and for Peruvian novices, it's an absolute must.

Arroz con MariscosDominic Armato

Arroz con Mariscos is predictable, and pleasantly so. A heaping pile of rice is cooked with all manner of seafood -- shrimp, crab, mussels, clams, squid, maybe more -- and seasoned with tomato, chiles and a bunch of other aromatics that make for a seafood dish that's comforting but stops short of timid, and will seem reminiscent to many of seafood paella. I find myself wishing the flavors were a little more aggressively applied, but this is still a solid dish. One Peruvian dish I've not tried elsewhere is the Seco de Res. It's a large helping of tender beef stew meat (I'm unsure of the cut), slow-cooked in a thick but light gravy with cilantro and chile accents, playing almost like Peruvian pot roast. It's served with no shortage of starches, a small mound of steamed rice, large batons of fried yuca, and -- there's the Italian influence again -- some really delicious, tender, almost creamy white beans that nearly steal the show.

Seco de ResDominic Armato

Refugees from Contigo Peru will probably want to know how I feel Tumi stacks up, and while I'd be lying to myself if I didn't admit that I'll be acutely feeling that loss, this is a preference that isn't completely cut and dried. If my favorite Peruvian joint in town had to close, I have to say that Tumi is a fallback for which I'm supremely grateful. The standards are well-executed, the ingredient sourcing and execution is there, the menu leaves no gaping holes in my personal hit list. I feel like I have to get pretty darn picky to find fault with these dishes. And if Tumi's offerings fall just short of the standard Graham set under his previous employ, I have a hunch that a few more visits and a little more time may change that. While the ceviche or Aji de Gallina make me pine for my previous favorite, I'm delighted by dishes like the Papa Rellena or Anticuchos, which I think are stronger here. Plus, delicious hits like the Seco de Res give me hope that there are still some serious gems on Tumi's menu that I've yet to discover. Most certainly, I'll be back, as Tumi is now unquestionably the local Peruvian restaurant about which I get the most excited.

Tumi Fine Peruvian Cuisine
2160 N. Alma School Road
Chandler, AZ 85224
Tue - Sat11:30 AM - 9 PM
Sun11:30 AM - 8 PM

October 12, 2012

The Quarterly Report - Q3 2012

Potato Salad @ Pane Bianco Dominic Armato

Quarterly Report, XL-style. For reasons unknown, this quarter's collection of random little tidbits is especially large -- a couple hits with tiny menus, a couple of random dishes, a couple of places I don't really care to spend more time with to write something bigger... for a variety of reasons, time to do a little housecleaning. As always, in order determined by random.org, here are the places I've eaten over the past few months that didn't quite inspire a full post:

The L.P.Dominic Armato

LAMP Wood Oven Pizzeria

I'd like to spend more time at LAMP, even if the drive is a little prohibitive for me. We're certainly not lacking for good wood-fired pizza around these parts, but folks up north must be thrilled to have LAMP in their backyard, and if they aren't, they should be. I dropped in for lunch a little while back, and was really impressed. The arugula and white bean salad was a great start with crisp, bitter arugula, white beans with a little bite, slivers of onion and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano with a light vinaigrette. I loved the confident simplicity. The pizza I had was similarly excellent, seated on well-developed bread with great flavor, a cornicone with some crispness and just the right amount of blistering. And I appreciated that The L.P., as it was titled, was even on the menu to begin with, a brash, briny mouthful of capers, anchovies and cured black olives that might be a little punchy for some, but suited me just fine. It's hard to get noticed for pizza in this town, but this pizza deserved some notice. And there's nothing wrong with a slice of ricotta cheesecake with Sambuca-soaked figs to finish... nothing at all.

Steak ShawarmaDominic Armato

Pita Kitchen
9915 W. McDowell Rd., Avondale AZ 85392

I'm always a fan of little gems hidden in dingy strip malls, but if Pita Kitchen flies under the radar, it won't be due to an obscure location, but rather because it's practically camouflaged. It's nestled into a perfectly vanilla looking strip mall in Avondale along with Smashburger, Chipotle and Rumbi's Island Grill, and it has the sanitized look of a fledgling franchise in the making, but they serve up some pretty fabulous vertical meat. The gyros is a cone direct from Chicago, which wouldn't merit mention even if it does hold a special place in my heart. But the steak shawarma is made with a lot of care, marinated, stacked and roasted tri tip that's shaved off the spit when done and given a quick flash on the griddle before service. I wish it had been carved directly off the spit, but I was told it was an intentional choice to keep it from overcooking. While I'd personally like a little more char, I'm having a hard time arguing with the results, which are positioned kind of halfway between your standard gyros joint and more traditional/artful restaurants and are undeniably delicious. The meat is moist and tender and incredibly flavorful, gently spiced with a solid dose of vinegar, and amply piled on pita that's prefab but treated well, tender, steamy and lightly griddled. There's some nondescript veg and a touch of light tahini sauce and-- oh, hey, look, I inhaled the whole thing in about 30 seconds. I don't want to oversell it. I can't see driving across town (again) for it. If I tried, I probably wouldn't make it past Al-Hana. But if this were in my 'hood, or even within casual striking distance, it'd be a regular stop. I envy Avondale this place.

Kids' Cheese CrispDominic Armato

Kitchen 56

Is this a cheap shot? I'm not the one who served the "cheese crisp" you see pictured here. Which isn't to say that lunch at Kitchen 56 was all bad. The calamari was bad. It was coated with cornmeal, deftly fried and tossed with cabbage, and that's all fine and good if not for a cloying, one-dimensional sauce, liberally applied. I'm not opposed to peanut butter as a shortcut to peanut flavor in a sauce. It's peanuts and sugar, and I see no reason why the fact that they're pre-combined should make any difference. But there's a difference between adding peanut flavor and making a sauce that tastes like slightly thinned-out peanut butter. The Burger Deluxe wasn't bad! Flavorful and juicy (if a step past where I ordered it) with onion marmalade, fontina and sautéed mushrooms, I'd happily eat it again, even if it isn't enough to make Kitchen 56 a burger destination. And the fries could have used a little more crisp, but they were fresh-cut and had nice flavor. When you decide to humor your progeny with a cheese crisp off the kids' menu, however, and get a barely warmed tortilla with a slice of processed cheese on top, it seems like a good opportunity to point out that just because kids have inexperienced palates doesn't mean they want or should be fed lazily-prepared crap. Seriously, guys, this is just embarrassing.

Italian BeefDominic Armato

Jimmy's Hot Dogs
4022 E. Broadway, Phoenix AZ 85040

You could do a lot worse than Jimmy's if you're looking for a Chicago style dog, that's for sure, but I can't say it doesn't leave me wanting. The elements are all in place: a Vienna natural casing dog and the usual accoutrements on a steamed poppyseed bun. But the sausage doesn't quite have the right pop, and the whole package fails to capture that elusive steam table magic that the great spots nail. I'm at a loss to explain why some places catch that lightning in a bottle and others don't, but Jimmy's comes up just short. Still, a solid dog. I'm less enthused about the Italian Beef, which looks the part but is on the weaker end of the spectrum, with a bit of an odd, rubbery texture. I'm guessing it's the Vienna prepackaged stuff. And the juice wasn't particularly flavorful, with an off flavor I couldn't pin down. Most disappointing are the fries, cut fresh right in front of you and then terribly fried, resulting in a tough, greasy mess. It's rare that I feel a place would be better off sticking with frozen spuds, but this is one such exception.

Patty MeltDominic Armato

5555 N. 7th St., Phoenix AZ 85014

I suppose everybody's line for what constitutes a dive bar is drawn at a different point, but for me, Pomeroy's is more homey and well-worn than divey. And "well-worn" seems especially appropriate when it comes to their patty melts, which are... wow. This isn't half-assed bar food. This is a griddle with experience. The patty melts are exactly as they appear here, shatteringly crisp, actually cooked to the requested medium rare, oozey and gooey and absolutely saturated with grease. I'm not one who believes there's a platonic ideal for patty melts -- I'm pluralistic that way -- but this has to be best of breed in the hedonistic grease bomb category. I gave the "Allen" melt a try as well, which adds bacon and mushrooms. I enjoyed it, but for me, the purity of the regular patty melt works better here. I should really try some other items on the menu, but man, I don't know how I walk in the door and not get one of these.

Birria de ChivoDominic Armato

¡Hola Cabrito!
4835 S. 16th St., Phoenix AZ 85040

¡Hola Cabrito! is the poster child for do less, do it better. They serve birria and... birria. Sometimes goat and lamb, sometimes just goat. On this particular day, the woman behind the counter apologized profusely for having only Birria de Chivo and nothing else. I cannot think of a situation less worthy of an apology. The restaurant is humorously located in what looks like it was once the entry vestibule for a much larger restaurant space, currently going unused. And I love the minimalism here. You get a plate of roasted goat, with or without a bowl of consomé, a side of tortillas and some condiments. Done. This is no-frills chivo -- as a matter of personal preference, I like it when the mole is a little more aggressive. But that's not to suggest fault with this. It's a tasty plate of roasted meat. The consomé is similarly minimal, more of a starting point for the condiments than a complete soup, but it has a nice deep flavor and acts as a great canvas for when you start doctoring things up. A little cilantro and onion, a little bit of earthy dried chile salsa, a spritz of lime... good to go, and priced at $10 for about half a pound of meat with soup and a coke. Even the hours are minimal, as they're only open until 2:00. Oh, and they serve menudo on the weekends. I haven't partaken, but here's hoping they don't overextend themselves.

Pork Sirloin SandwichDominic Armato

The Café at MIM

One visit and the Musical Instrument Museum is already among my must-visit recommendations for visitors to Phoenix. What a cool museum. That the cafe is exceptional -- really exceptional for a museum concession -- is a fabulous bonus. Hyperlocal is the mantra here, and though I've encountered a couple of odd oversights, there's no denying the fantastic freshness of the ingredients and the care that goes into preparing them. It's a cafeteria. But everything's made fresh that day, thoughtful and creative and for the most part, quite delicious. Deconstructed salads seem to be a common offering, and the lemon chicken salad I tried had an official name that was an epic work of prose spanning two volumes, must've taken as long to compose as the food took to cook, and named half the farms and ranches within a 200 mile radius of the museum. But it was a really nice deconstructed roasted chicken salad, with things like pickled beets, a sort of cake made from potatoes and goat cheese, roasted eggplant and some crispy fried root vegetables. Good stuff. A roasted corn soup with Sonoran chiles and Meyer lemon oil was flat, long on freshness but short on salt, spice and brightness. And one of the sandwiches I tried featured tender, chilled roasted pork sirloin, potatoes and zucchini between two slices of bread that certainly made me feel like I was eating something healthy. That it was criminally undersalted was easy enough to remedy, though with so much care put into individual ingredients and local sourcing, it seemed odd that the only available option for a sandwich desperately in need of some lubrication was foil packets of mayonnaise and mustard. Still, a delicious sandwich. This'd be a fine establishment if it weren't a museum concession, and given the context it's cream of the crop. To say nothing of the warm fuzzies it'll inspire in locavore types.

Lamb and Escarole PaninoDominic Armato

Pane Bianco

I've already expressed my admiration for Pane Bianco, but I recently stopped by a couple of times, my first shot at them since they took over the space next door and added a large dining room. And man, am I glad they did, because it's made one of my favorite spots even more accessible and comfortable. Menu expansions are always fraught with danger, particularly when it seems like the kitchen facilities haven't gotten an upgrade, but I certainly don't see any issues here. If anything, they seem even sharper than usual. A vegetable and tepary bean soup was mighty fine, flavorful and hearty with great body, big chunks of vegetables and tender beans. Exceptionally satisfying. A side of potato salad was some pretty intense stuff, chunks of fingerling potatoes in a sweet and lightly tart dressing with olives and huge, rough hewn chunks of pickles and celery. The sandwiches are exceptional as always, but a special I had for the first time -- roasted lamb with escarole -- was of the skull-exploding variety. Roasted lamb and escarole. That's it. Sweet and simple and so fricking delicious, a minimally seasoned, tender, juicy ode to the beast. Pure lamb. You know how when you're trying a new protein, since you're not familiar with it, sometimes you aren't sure where the meat ends and the accompaniments begin? This is the opposite of that. Take a bite. Now you know what lamb tastes like. And now they do desserts, too. The flourless chocolate cake was practically ganache, dense and dark with a scoop of lemon marmellata. The rice pudding is massive -- the size of a breakfast porridge -- nice and creamy with some bite to the rice, a heavy dose of vanilla (flecks throughout), and a few toasted pecans to finish it off. Pane Bianco has expanded and improved at the same time. That's not easy to do, but man, they nailed it.

October 03, 2012

Zaidi's Grill

Beef Haleem Dominic Armato

UPDATE : Zaidi's Grill has closed

No matter how obsessed with food knowledge you may be, you can't know everything. Heck, if somebody like Jiro can spend an entire lifetime studying the tiniest little niche of one nation's cuisine and still feel like he hasn't learned it all, then what hope does anybody have of becoming even remotely well-informed? There are times when this drives me crazy -- when I look back over six and a half years of food blogging and feel like I still haven't learned a damn thing. And there are times when I remember that the ability to always experience foods for the first time is a gift.

Of course, Pakistani isn't even remotely obscure. And yet it's a cuisine with which I have precious little experience. So when I start hanging out with somebody who has an interest in food, a keen palate and some pretty deep knowledge about a cuisine that I lack, man, I just want to keep going to Pakistani restaurants, tasting as much as possible and absorbing whatever I can. So it was with my friend Omer and Zaidi's Grill, where I had the pleasure of chowing with him.

PakorasDominic Armato

Zaidi's Grill, in what is starting to seem like an odd trend, is another place run by an engineer -- biotech, in this case -- who changed careers five years ago for love of food. Since then, Syed Zaidi had been running a catering operation with his wife, Tabassum, until the right storefront became available, and they opened shop, a little spot in south Scottsdale with a handful of tables, a television playing Bollywood musical numbers, and a series of Puerto Rican landscapes, courtesy of the previous tenants. The food is inexpensive, it sometimes takes a little while to meander out of the kitchen, and it's so, so good. Pakoras, in my experience, are rarely so crisp, or so plentiful. They arrive, chaotic clumps of shredded vegetables the size of your fist, battered and fried to an almost shattering level of crispness, with a heady scent and heavily spiced flavor, turmeric and cumin and more. Fried vegetables that retain so little oil are hard to come by, and they remain tender and moist despite the fine texture. It's a little surprising, and then I remember they're made by an engineer, which seems appropriate somehow.

Afghani BotiDominic Armato

Grilled items, as the name suggests, make up a substantial chunk of the menu, and the ones I've tasted have ranged from solid to exceptional. Afghani Boti was a touch dry when I had it, and I wish the marinade had come through a bit more, but when this is the weak link you're in really good shape. Because then you have something like the Chicken Tikka, legs and thighs marinated in a deep, complex spice mix and grilled -- no, downright charred -- bringing this fabulous contrast between aggressive char and tender, juicy meat. This is why meat is put to fire. Another standout for me is the Beef Seekh Kabab, little more than seasoned ground meat seasoned and squished around long skewers for a turn on the grill, but sweet with onion and seasoned with with a beautifully balanced blend of spices that I find it far more compelling than what I'm accustomed to getting when ordering this dish.

Mixed GrillDominic Armato

Though the grilled items are delicious -- some of them extremely so -- I'm of the opinion that the curries are where Zaidi's really shines. It's only recently that I've been introduced to the joys of Haleem, "a big bowl of grain" as Omer put it. This is grain that's been pulverized and transmogrified and otherwise turned into a thick, heavily spiced sludge -- and, if possible, I use that word as a compliment -- that's intensely flavorful. Wheat, barley, lentils and some manner of meat are stewed for a very long time, such that they break down and turn into a thick, meaty porridge spiked with fresh chiles, ginger or cilantro to brighten it up. I've had Haleem that I've enjoyed more (I wish Z-Grill's were more consistent), but this was still mighty tasty even if isn't a strength.

Chicken QormaDominic Armato

I could save my favorite for last, but why be coy? The Chicken Qorma is a strength. Boy howdy, is it ever. My first inkling of what was in store came in the form of the scent, an intense, toasted fragrance laden with spices that hit like a shockwave while it was still four paces from the table. The second was the appearance, a thick, oily concoction that looked like a magical marriage of meat, spices, and lots and lots of time. The third was Omer's face, of Pakistani heritage, granite-jawed and usually stoic, suddenly twisted into a look that started as surprise and quickly melted into pleasure, as an experienced palate was taken aback by a Pakistani dish for the first time in a long time. Upon tasting, I've no doubt that I was at least as emotive as he was, because this stuff is completely mind-altering in its intensity. It's total spice overload, pushed right to the brink of being overpowering and left teetering on the edge, held back only by a kind of buttery richness that keeps it from being unbalanced. Strewn with whole spices and packed with tender meat, it's the kind of dish that makes me feel like I really need to be careful to save the word "explosive" for the dishes that most deserve it. A discussion of the dish with Syed revealed yet another indication that these folks have their hearts precisely in the right place. When Zaidi's first opened, the Chicken Qorma was made with bone-in pieces of chicken. After receiving some complaints, Syed switched to boneless chunks of meat. But not long thereafter, he switched back to bone-in. The reason? That's how it's meant to be. That's how it's best. That's how people need to experience it, even if they don't yet see the wisdom of that technique. I can only hope that their recent good press (thank you for that, New Times!) will make it easier for them to stand strong and continue to make these foods the way they know they're meant to be made.

Chicken KarahiDominic Armato

Though I hesitate to use the word "similar," the Chicken Karahi seems to come from the same place as the Qorma, but branches out in a different direction, replacing the Qorma's earthy, spicy intensity with a kind of easy, natural sweetness courtesy of tomatoes and some other vegetables. It's mellow only in comparison. This is still heady, complex stuff, but in a broader, less narrowly focused way. It's another fabulous dish. The Goat Paya, when I had it with a crowd of friends, was quickly dubbed "liquid goat," and that pretty much covers it right there. It's too bad I neglected to get a photo, because its appearance plays like a punchline, a small pile of almost naked bones sitting in a bowl, looking as though the meat had simply melted off of them and taken liquid form, ready to be spooned or sopped up by whatever method most convenient. When I'm in a debilitating accident and eating through a straw, this is what I'll be sending friends to retrieve for me.

Beef NihariDominic Armato

Beef Nihari is another dish that's relatively new to me, despite its iconic status within the pantheon of Pakistani cuisine, and it's one of those standards that makes me regret not discovering it sooner. Huge chunks of tender, stewed beef sit in what amounts to something of a beef gravy, though to use that word undersells it in all kinds of ways. What sets this apart from the other versions I've tried is the stunning, velvety texture of the sauce. I suggest this not to undersell its beautiful spicy, beefy flavor, but the feel of it is a silken richness that can only come from stewing bones and marrow for long periods of time. No thickening shortcuts here. For me, it's just the right amount of heat, possessing both an immediate sting and a lengthier, building burn without getting distracting. This is a seriously beautiful dish, a revelation to somebody who's relatively new to Pakistani, and one of the best treatments I've had of beef in a while.

KheerDominic Armato

And still there's more. I got but a fleeting taste of the Paneer Masala on one visit, too small to photograph or mentally dissect in detail, but enough to know that I wish I weren't sharing it. The naans are excellent, representing tender, crisp and charred all in one piece. And when it comes to sweets, though I'm highly inexperienced with Kheer -- this may have been my first -- I don't for a moment doubt those who have told me that sampling Zaidi's is starting at the top. It's a thick and creamy rice porridge, very sweet and scented with cinnamon and cloves, topped with toasted pistachios and shaved coconut. Between the almost custardy viscosity, playful aroma and textural impact of tender grains of rice and crunchy motes of toasted nut, it's yet another winner.

Zaidi's Grill is one of those places I just want to drag people to. Though the catering business is booming, it seems the restaurant is struggling a little to find its audience. Part of the issue might be a reportedly subpar lunchtime buffet (order off the menu), but more, I suspect, it's simply that being unwilling to compromise on the food can be risky. Scottsdale, much to its detriment, doesn't appear to be clamoring for liquid goat (yet). But that's all the more reason to make sure they succeed. These are great people, they're making fabulous food, and they're steadfastly making these dishes the best way they know how, without sacrificing quality for accessibility. I hope they're rewarded with the success they deserve, and based on what I've tried at Zaidi's, they deserve a lot of success.

Zaidi's Grill
1617 N. Granite Reef Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85257
Tue - Sun11:30 AM - 9 PM