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December 30, 2012

The Quarterly Report - Q4 2012

Taco al Pastor @ Taqueria y Birrieria Jalisco Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: Eliot Wexler, who runs Noca, is a friend. He sometimes throws food at me. I make up for it in the tip jar.  

It's the Quarterly Report: Cram Everything Into The End Of The Year Edition!

See, this is what I get for trying to launch a food chat site and continue to run a blog at the same time. A lot of full posts suddenly become end of the quarter blurbs. Which is better than not getting around to them at all, I suppose, but... well, let's just say I'm hoping PHXfoodnerds goes gangbusters in 2013 so I can give this poor, neglected blog the love it deserves.

Anyway, as always, here's a bunch of stuff I tried over the past three months that I didn't quite get around to including in a full-length post. Random.org is going to get a workout tomorrow, so let's go alphabetical this time. Why not, right?

Char Siu and Wonton SaiminDominic Armato

Aloha Kitchen

What I don't know about Hawaiian is a lot, so when the opportunity arises to pop into a local Hawaiian joint with a couple of ex-residents of the Aloha State, I'm not about the pass that up. I'm not sure that Aloha Kitchen is the best representation of what Hawaii has to offer to the culinary pantheon, but that isn't to say that it doesn't have its charms. I had my first bowl of saimin here! Saimin's bandied about as a Japanese/Chinese fusion dish that most closely resembles ramen, but since the type of ramen that this most resembles is basically a Chinese dish anyway, it plays a whole lot more Chinese to me. This one's a salty chicken broth, probably employing a healthy amount of bouillon, with egg noodles that have good bite, some cabbage and scallions, meaty wontons and char siu that has the somewhat disturbing ability to turn the entire bowl a not-so-subtle shade of pink if you don't eat it quickly. It's more something you're going to seek out to satisfy a craving than to experience something special, but it satisfies. The bulkogi's sweet soy glaze is similarly craveworthy, even if the beef's texture is something of a workout for the jaw. I could go to town on the thick, creamy macaroni salad, though, so it's probably a good thing they only give you a good scoop. Manapua were, sadly, disappointing -- undoubtedly reheated freezer fare, complete with the paper still stuck to the bottom. But there's a fun vibe here, and I'm willing to wager there are a couple of things on the menu that are worth going back to try.

San Dong Garlic ChickenDominic Armato

Chef Chiang
4929 W. Chandler Blvd. - Chandler, AZ 85226

The thing that gets me so frustrated about Phoenix is that I KNOW there's so much more out there than we've found. Case in point, Chef Chiang. Most of the menu is completely unremarkable, mediocre Americanized Chinese fare. But if you know to ask for it, there's a shorter menu featuring a number of Shandong dishes, as well as some of the natural Chinese/Korean crossover cuisine that's the result of Shandong province's proximity to Korea. After a few visits, I can't say that the menu at Chef Chiang is chock full of winners, but there are a few real gems, and they're certainly well out of the Americanized Cantonese/Szechwan/Hunan mold. Chief among them is what's listed on the menu as San Dong Garlic Chicken, which is first fried and then steamed before being chilled and served over lightly crushed cucumbers doused with a light, vinegary sauce heavy on soy and sesame oil. It's incredibly flavorful, and delightfully refreshing. Another interesting dish is the Liang Zhang Pi, one that has no English translation on the menu (fourth item down under the "Cold Dishes" section on the Chinese menu), but it's a beautiful plate to behold, a grand presentation of rice noodles, stir-fried vegetables, shredded omelet, cucumber, shrimp, carrots and more, all tossed with a light mustardy sauce. The more expensive variants on this dish add, I believe, some specialty seafood items like sea cucumber. They also do a solid Gan Jia Jiang Mein, which Korean food nerds will recognize as Jia Jiang Mein -- thick, tender wheat noodles topped with vegetables and pork sautéed in a black fermented soybean paste with a flavor far mellower than its color suggests. But you see what I mean? How many other places like this are out there?

Chicago Style Hot DogDominic Armato

Dazzo's Dog House

I have said before that there is something magical about a truly great Chicago style hot dog. Anybody can buy the dog, the bun, the condiments, and it would seem that assembling them is something a trained monkey could do. And yet, there is some kind of inexplicable magical synergy that good hot dog stands hit that elude the masses. Dazzo's Dog House is one of those dog stands. They find that magical steamy fusion that brings these ingredients together into more than the sum of their parts. The bun's tender and warm and squooshes down to nothing when you bite, the dog's a natural casing Vienna that's all garlic and snap, and the fact that the place serving them looks and feels like a real Chicago hot dog stand, and serve the more minimal style to boot (sans tomato, pickle and celery salt) only further endears them to me. Throw in some excellent fresh-cut fries and man, this is tough to beat, especially for a homesick Chicagoan. They do Italian Beef, too.......... stick to the hot dogs.

Ravioli di ZuccaDominic Armato

Dolce Vita Italian Grocer

Good Italian delis have a special place in my heart, and it's always so discouraging to see so much love thrown at so many lousy ones. Which is why it's so nice to see a pretty darn good one getting its due. Close on the heels of the PHXfoodnerds crew discovering the place, they got a lot of favorable press and now seem to be doing quite well. This is one of those joints that doesn't do too much. It's just a carefully stocked grocery run by an exceptionally friendly and hilariously odd fellow named Walter -- incidentally, the first fellow I've met named Walter who's from Bergamo and sports a thick accent. In any case, Walter runs a tight shop with a well-curated selection of pastas, oils, tomatoes, etc., as well as some fabulous cheeses and cured meats (including guanciale... finally!!!). There's a small menu, mostly cheese and charcuterie plates, sandwiches and a few simple pastas that he can prepare behind the counter without too much trouble. The selection of Italian cheeses he put down in front of us was dynamite, the cheese ravioli tender and rich and drowning in sage butter, and the butternut squash ravioli almost candy sweet (surprisingly, not an issue for me), similarly swimming in butter and topped with crushed amaretti cookies. When a friend told him his sandwiches were excellent, he replied, "NO! Not excellent. Just normal, I assure you. Everyone is just used to bad food, and this is what normal is supposed to be." Point being, he gets it, and though he's right in that this is simple, humble food that doesn't require a lot in the way of facilities, it's obviously made by a guy who has taste and cares.

Torta AhogadaDominic Armato

El Original Tacos Jalisco
3060 N. 68th St. - Scottsdale, AZ 85251

The landscape here is choked with little divey taquerias, and given that for the most part one's just like the next, a food nerd could be driven to madness trying to explore and catalog them in even a semi-comprehensive manner. So it's nice when a standout dish pops up, and that's the case with the torta ahogada at El Original Tacos Jalisco, which has thankfully outlived its similarly named compatriot around the corner so I don't have to do the, "No, no, not that one, the other one" routine anymore every time it comes up. I've had a few things here -- some tacos, a couple of other items -- and nothing has stood out. But the torta ahogada is a keeper. For the uninitiated, torta ahogada means drowned sandwich, and generally speaking it's pork on a semi-hard roll that's completely doused in a hot tomato and chile sauce. This one's undeniably a corner taqueria version -- no artisanal specimen here -- but man, it still sings, full of fairly tasty pork and oozing a searing hot tomato sauce from every space available. Man, it's hot. And it's good. And now I want one. It's almost midnight... are they open?

Spaghetti dei MartelliDominic Armato


Now that we've all made our jokes about the rotating chefs at Noca, can we agree that the most recent, Claudio Urcioli, is killing it? I wrote about Noca three years (read: two chefs... oops) ago, but the feel of the food is markedly different under Urcioli and desperately in need of some additional attention. Besides which, I need to figure out some way to work in the Spaghetti dei Martelli on the left, because that's so completely going to be on the Deliciousness of 2012 tomorrow. Anyway, I've hit Noca a couple of times since the chef change, and man, am I thrilled about this regime. There are a lot of chefs in Phoenix who do "Italian," which isn't a slight -- people do their own things with those flavors and techniques and sometimes the results are fabulous. But what's going on at Noca now is contemporary Italian food that's so clearly being made by an Italian, and so it tugs at my heartstrings in addition to being stupid good. Take that pasta. At its heart, it's aglio e olio. But it gets an extra push from a splash of colatura -- the Roman equivalent of fish sauce -- and a bit of briny, rich brightness from a little bit of sea urchin gently placed on top. I'm not sure that Urcioli is still making it quite the same way, but this is one of the best pastas I've had in years. It's a matter of sourcing killer ingredients -- Eliot's specialty -- and putting them in the hands of somebody -- Urcioli -- who knows how to do incredible things with just a few simple ingredients. When these guys do a burrata and tomato salad, it explodes because it's amazing burrata and amazing tomatoes. When you have beautiful spot prawns, you treat them gently, like Urcioli does, perfectly seasoning it with little more than olive oil and salt, searing it and setting it atop perfect controne beans that resist for just a moment before melting away. This is going to be a beautiful relationship.

Birria de ChivoDominic Armato

Taqueria y Birrieria Jalisco
615 W. Broadway Rd. - Phoenix, AZ 85041

A torta ahogada quest recently brought me to every restaurant I could locate in town that had either "Jalisco" or "Guadalajara" in its name, and while I was at first saddened that Taqueria y Birrieria Jalisco had no torta ahogada to offer, I got over it right quick. I'd actually hit this place a few years back on the birria blitz, and then somehow promptly forgot about it. So on a chilly afternoon, I partook of a bowl of goat birria that was actually a good deal better than I remembered, big pieces of meat swimming in a ruddy, slightly oily broth that had a nice, smooth, meaty flavor on its own but really shone once I tossed in a few of the accompaniments. The real find this time, however, was the tacos al pastor, pictured at the top of the post, which were really, really damn tasty. The meat had huge flavor, and I would have sworn it had been cooked on a trompo if they didn't tell me about how their trompo was being repaired. Whatever their backup system is, man, it works. The pork was really beautiful, full of flavor, hitting the right balance between tenderness and crispy char, and the big bonus was a thick, handmade tortilla that had been griddled moments before it came out to me (something they only do with the larger size -- the smaller are prefab, I believe). Killer lunch in an open air South Phoenix dive that appears to be completely off the radar for anybody outside of the neighborhood. Here's hoping that changes.

Carne en su JugoDominic Armato

Tortas Ahogadas Guadalajara
518 N. Arizona Ave. - Chandler, AZ 85225

Did I mention I've been on a bit of a torta ahogada kick? You'd think the place with torta ahogada in the name would serve a pretty kickass torta ahogada, but I can't say I was terribly enthused by Tortas Ahogadas Guadalajara's offering. Middling pork, flat sauce, desperately lacking heat... a disappointment. Ditto the carne en su jugo, which I'm so thrilled to have found in Phoenix at all, but which leaves me wanting. Perhaps I couldn't get past my craving for a bold, beefy consommé, but their is the far less common stewy version that was short, of all things, on beef flavor. Still, taken as a beef stew with potatoes, beans and a bit of crispy bacon, I suppose it's a decent enough dish... certainly hearty and comforting, if not what I was hoping for. It's a popular spot to be sure, something of a cultural experience to visit, particularly around 11:45 when the nearby high school lets out for lunch and there are suddenly two dozen teenagers in line. In any case, I've heard tell there are other bites here that are more worthwhile, but I'm having difficulty summoning the will to move it back to the top of the list.

Chao Tom CuonDominic Armato


I am so frustrated and torn by this place. UnPhogettable is the Vietnamese standard bearer over at Mekong Plaza, and it's hugely popular with big crossover appeal -- the non-viet crowd seems to greatly outnumber the viet crowd at lunchtime. And it isn't hard to see why. It's a supremely clean and friendly place, easy to approach, and all of the food is carefully executed and crisply presented and pretty and tasty and... well... just kind of lacking, in my estimation. The pho's solid enough... a little lean, a little clean, a little light on the aromatics for my tastes, but it satisfies and as a technical exercise, it's beautifully prepared. But y'know, the more I try, the more things just kind of fall flat for me. The first time I had the Chao Tom Cuon, I dug it... shrimp sausage wrapped with fresh vegetables and rice noodles, some crisply fried wrapper in the center for crunch. But on a subsequent visit when the novelty of the texture had worn off and I felt the flavor wasn't there, I pulled out the chao tom to taste it and found it really, really lacking, underseasoned and flat. And the bun bo hue, again, crystal clear and meticulously prepared, just had this clinical sterility to it, and didn't hold a candle to the bun bo hue from Hue Gourmet, the food court Vietnamese joint in the back of the mall. I keep trying because so many people like this place, but the more I try, the more I feel like UnPhogettable, fresh and friendly though it may be, is too much like Vietnamese Lite at times.

LiempoDominic Armato

Wholly Grill
Mekong Plaza - 66 S. Dobson Rd. - Mesa, AZ 85202

Speaking of the Mekong Plaza food court, now that I've finally gotten that monster Hue Gourmet post off my chest and have been able to shake free to try some of its neighbors, I've really enjoyed the little Filipino joint next door called Wholly Grill. It's run by an exceptionally sweet woman (Choena?), who in the restaurant's infancy wisely decided to focus on foods that she could quickly prepare to order. Rather than loading up the steam table with the kind of Filipino specialties that need turnover to stay fresh and tasty, she opted to focus on grilled items that could quickly be cooked to order. As the restaurant solidifies its footing, she's introducing more and more of those stews, noodles and other colorful items that will have a tougher time finding a wide audience here, but the heart of the menu is still the grilled meats, and man, they're pretty damn tasty. I'm especially fond of the Liempo, a sweet soy marinated pork belly charred on the grill and sliced, especially when served with sweet and sour atchara, pickled papaya. The pork BBQ is similarly delicious (and leaner, for those enigmatic souls that get freaked out by pork fat), or one can swing the other way and do the lechon kawali, deep fried chunks of pork belly that are downright crunchy on the outside, but tender in the center with meltaway ribbons of fat, big bites of rich pork cut through with a little vinegar to dip. The steam table rotates dishes on a daily basis, and I've tasted quite a few items, ranging from the very approachable Ginataang Kalabasa, a light pork and squash stew with coconut milk, to the somewhat less approachable bitter melon with shrimp paste. A) When they say bitter melon, it isn't false advertising. B) This particular breed of shrimp paste was seriously funky. C) Exactly. File that one under "C" for "Challenging." But for somebody who isn't terribly well-versed in Filipino, it's really a joy to stop by every once in a while and try something new from the steam table. You really couldn't ask for a more enthusiastic and friendly guide. And if the stew of the day just doesn't do it for you, there's always grilled pork belly.


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