August 29, 2012

Lon's at the Hermosa

Prosciutto e Melone Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: I drafted this post back in early June, and though I didn't know him then, I've since spent some time hanging out with Mr. Travis Nass, mentioned therein.  

Date night! Something classy. Something relaxing. Something refined. Well, heck, Lon's has been languishing on the to-do list for the better part of two and a half years. Perhaps it's time to see what Mr. Megargee's old ranch has to offer.

The Hermosa is a charming little place, to be sure. Though I doubt much of the current structure predates the renovation, it's nice to be somewhere that feels old, and when approaching the host stand means making your way through a tree-strewn courtyard complete with fountain and lanterns on a warm-but-not-too-warm evening, it's hard to conclude that sitting inside makes any damn sense.

Duck Confit CrepeDominic Armato

The patio is one of those locations that makes you briefly feel as though you're on vacation when you're not, where I expect even the chronically uptight would be quickly pacified by a cocktail from The Last Drop. Presiding over the bar at The Hermosa is Mr. Travis Nass, liquor legend and self-proclaimed "spirit guide" who takes a decidedly culinary approach to mixed drinks, creating complex and shockingly distinctive cocktails by casting a wide net in search of unconventional juices, atypical aromatics and obscure spirits, to which he applies the instincts of a liquor savant, a boozy Rain Man in waistcoat and handlebar mustache. The day's punch, cognac and pineapple made smooth and aromatic with earl grey tea and freshly grated nutmeg, was good enough to drink all night. And one of his many respectfully reprised classics, the Mesquite Sour, tamed smoky whiskey with mesquite syrup, lemon, egg whites and an intoxicating touch of AZ Bitters Lab's mas mole bitters. I'm always astounded by the alchemy at work in a perfect cocktail, where all elements are present and spoken for, but it's hard to tell where one ends and the next begins. I'll be returning to The Last Drop, and soon. (Note: Since drafting this nearly three months ago, I've had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Travis and his concoctions, and my estimation of his talents has only grown.)

Foie GrasDominic Armato

Thus properly loosened, we turned our attention to the menu, where surrendering myself to Jeremy Pacheco's kitchen seemed the best course of action. Notably, I wasn't asked at what temperature I'd prefer my lamb. This would later prove to be the best thing that didn't happen all evening. Our server's revelation that Lon's prosciutto is cured in-house inspired both intrigue and suspicion. Bacon, soppressata, mortadella, okay... but prosciutto? With such a delicate product, any mistakes will be right out in the open. But the tasting menu started with the prosciutto e melone, I opted to trust in the chef, and my trust was well-rewarded. Fresh honeydew and cantaloupe bracketed a beautiful tangle of prosciutto, sliced to an unusual thickness that, again, inspired doubt but was shockingly appropriate. It was clean and sweet, possessing a fantastic texture with just enough give so that the thickness provided a delightful chew and forced you to linger even longer on the cured fat. This was some really, really good prosciutto. So much so, in fact, that I wish they'd just ditched the balsamic. It was completely unnecessary and, thankfully, easy to work around.

Corn and Shrimp RisottoDominic Armato

For me, this was followed by a griddled crepe with a sweet and tender duck confit filling. A little bit of brightness from fresh citrus and a small puddle of complex, smoky mole livened it right up, and the almost crisp texture on the crepe gave the dish some body and kept it from devolving into what would have been admittedly tasty mush. Nice balance, well-executed, a great start. My ladylove, who passed on the chef's tasting menu and opted instead to design her own, selected a winner in the foie, a rather generous slab beautifully browned with apricot jam, pistachio butter and some manner of gastrique for acidic punch. Fruit, acid, a nutty counterpoint... the structure of the dish is on the first page of the foie gras playbook, but prepared here with a compelling selection of ingredients and tack-sharp execution, it stood out as an unusually good foie/fruit/acid preparation.

Hermosa Arizona GreensDominic Armato

My third course was the swing and a miss of the evening, a corn and shrimp risotto that came close but didn't quite sit right with me. To say that opinions vary on proper risotto texture would be a putting it diplomatically. But these grains felt a touch underdone as opposed to al dente, with an odd texture reminiscent of Vietnamese broken rice, and a shortage of the natural creaminess that I associate with good risotto. But the flavor was excellent, a burst of fresh corn with sweet, delicate rock shrimp and crab, and I enjoyed that much despite my textural misgivings. My ladylove hsa a hard time resisting a good salad, and if they were all this well done, I'd have a harder time. I believe it involved apple, pecans and a very mild, creamy goat cheese, but beyond that all I recall is that the bite I swiped was mighty tasty.

Pan Seared HalibutPecan-Roasted LambDominic Armato

I snagged just a fleeting taste of her halibut as well, just enough to determine that it was a beautifully cooked piece of fish, tender and moist with a crisp crust, with a light, desperately trying to hold onto spring mix of pea puree, mushrooms and ramp fumet. My lamb, however, was absolutely fabulous. A pair of chops arrived, carved from a full rack and set atop salty tepary beans and a touch of cured pork. What struck me most, however, was that deep, deep red color. They'd served it to me in a state of rareness that defied any wiggle room when it came to classification. It was rare. Which, though I'll generally target the medium side of medium rare when it comes to lamb, suited me just fine. I dig rare lamb too, but I was surprised to see it come out as such, since I suspect most folks wouldn't be quite so open. I asked our server if this was how it was typically served, and she explained that they solicit a temperature request when it's ordered a la carte, but for the chef's menu, it's served quite rare. When she then hastily offered to take it back and bring one that had spent more time on the grill, I said, "Don't you dare," explaining that I was perfectly happy with it exactly as-is, just impressed that the kitchen had the courage to send it out like that. And it was dynamite. Grilled over pecan wood, it had a wonderfully smoky character balanced by earthy, salty beans, and its almost natural state tripped every lusty, carnivorous receptor I have in my head. Beautifully done.

Goat CheesecakeDominic Armato

Desserts did the job. I got a little taste of the "Candy Bar," salted caramel coated with chocolate and spiced up with some ancho and cayenne, the former of which added a touch of warm fruitiness and the latter of which added a little tickle to the back of the throat. My cheesecake -- made with goat cheese -- was smooth and creamy and accompanied by Grand Marnier macerated berries. Neither were anything I'll remember for long, but both were delicious finishes to the evening. Though certainly not flawless, my first experience with Lon's was an excellent one, providing a couple of dishes that will stick with me for some time, and a brief respite in calming surroundings. What's more, I have a great deal of respect for some of the choices made by the kitchen, and the cocktails are not merely a bonus but an attraction all their own. Not only wouldn't I hesitate to return, but I intend to make a point of it.

Lon's at the Hermosa
5532 N. Palo Cristi Road
Paradise Valley, AZ 85253
602 955-8614

August 27, 2012

War of the Rosés

The Field Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: While my love for their restaurant predates our friendship, I'm lucky to have spent a good amount of time hanging out and chowing with Pavle, Charleen and much of the FnB crew.  

This past Friday night, I drank a lot of wine. This is notable for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I don't typically drink a lot of wine. It's also notable because for the fellows seated on either side of me, tasting wines numbering into triple digits in the span of just a few hours is another day at the office. But mostly it's because I was the only food nerd on a panel of wine professionals at a highly publicized tasting intended to defend the honor of Arizona's wine scene.

Pavle Milic, you see, is one of Arizona wine's most enthusiastic and visible advocates. So the fact that Wine Spectator's ranking of rosés has netted Arizona's producers nothing higher than an 84 is something he takes a little personally. Here's where I need to insert myself: not to imply that he feels differently, but scores and stars are stupid. I hate that we feel the need to take the totality of wine or of food and cram it all into a continuum so that we can declare a winner. I like to think that every bottle, every place has its charms. And while that certainly doesn't mean I embrace some kind of "everything is equally good" philosophy, it does mean that I'm a whole lot more interested in qualitative than quantitative. Still, it's galling when the numbers say that something you love isn't getting a fair shake. And while Wine Spectator's tasters don't know which specific wine they're tasting, they do know its provenance. So Pavle set out to prove that their prejudices about Arizona as a wine producing region have influenced their impressions of the product. And he needed help to do that.

"Pavle... you know I'm not a wine geek, right?"

It didn't matter, he assured me. Aroma is aroma. Flavor is flavor. Balance is balance. I write about this stuff all the time (um... guilty). He put on the sell. And I was flattered, and terrified, and excited by the prospect, in ascending order of intensity. So I signed on, and next thing I knew I was an official judge, sitting on a six-person panel populated by wine sommeliers, buyers and distributors, surrounded by a cadre of food and wine enthusiasts, gathered at the "little gin joint in the desert" that is FnB, along with more stemware than I think I've ever seen crammed into a location so small. If I was nervous before, the introductions threatened to put me over the edge.

RosyDominic Armato

"Good to meet you! I'm Dominic."
"Who are you with, Dominic?"
"Oh, I'm not in the industry. I'm an enthusiastic hanger-on. I write a food blog called Skillet Doux."
"Well, you're judging, so you must have some knowledge, right?"

Self-deprecation and embracing my role as the wildcard would become my strategy for the evening. And as the panel got to talking shop, the only thing I could think was that this is what every poor soul who has gone out to eat with me and the food nerds has felt like. It's extreme geekery expressed in word -- I know this genre of music! -- but the song was completely unfamiliar to me. Still, incredibly friendly folks all, they tried to put me at ease. When it came time to judge, I was ready.

Eight rosés... four from Arizona, four benchmark wines from regions around the world... and a byzantine scorecard that I would've loved to ditch in favor of simply ranking them. But it was game time, I would perform the duties of my office to the best of my abilities, and diving in I was relieved to discover that it felt like second nature. It's true. Aroma is aroma. Flavor is flavor. Balance is balance. The hardest thing to overcome was figuring out how to position the scoring. Without a broad base of rosé experience, I had little frame of reference other than that which was right in front of me. And since half of the field was ostensibly some of the world's best rosés, it was even harder to find daylight between them. But as I swirled and sniffed and sipped, the unique beauty of the wines started to emerge... a nice, crisp balance of fruit and acidity on number six... a really complex depth on number eight... a lovely, smooth fruitiness from number two... wow, the intoxicating aroma on number five... I scored every aspect, I totaled my results, I went back to taste everything again, ensuring that my composite scores accurately represented my general impressions (they did), and I signed off on the final tally, took a deep breath, and turned them in.

The results? My favorite by the slimmest of margins -- of my two tied top scores, the one to which I'd give the nod if forced to choose -- number five, Arizona's Caduceus Lei Li Rosé, was the winner. Second place? The other one I'd given the same score... number eight, the famed Domaine Tempier, Bandol from France. When it came to sussing out quality wines, I was relieved to have managed to hang with the big boys. And far more importantly, the Arizona wines had managed to do the same. And if the panel's 1-2 and my 1-2 matching up hadn't gone far enough towards ensuring my relief, hearing the other panelists discuss their surprises in the aftermath -- the ones they loved that caught them off-guard, the ones they would have previously called favorites that brought up the rear in their rankings -- and talking about how blind tastings are a humbling experience no matter how much you know about wine... well, it was educational to say the least.

And then Charleen cooked us dinner.

Fried Green Tomatoes, Goddess, FetaDominic Armato

Now we're on MY turf, wine geeks. Could there be a more perfect foil, a better philosophical contrast to the mathematical precision and fussy tasting notes of the wine scoring world than the honest, soulful cuisine of Charleen Badman? If blindly tasting and carefully scoring these fabulous wines was a fascinating intellectual exercise, joyfully swigging them while devouring food like this was the emotional counterpoint. I love tasting a good wine. I love tasting it more when it's alongside a piping hot, crisply fried green tomato crusted with cornmeal and bathed in a vibrant, herbal goddess dressing with an abundance of tart feta to finish. The crisp, cool rosés needed something to cut, and Charleen provided them just the rich, lusty menu they needed. In wine terms, Charleen's food isn't for sipping, it's for swigging.

Roasted Squash SaladDominic Armato

Case in point, a salad so anti-fussy in flavor and composition that it's almost comical. As I said to one of the fellows next to me, "You know, sometimes Charleen's food is done with a sneaky amount of precision, looking a little chaotic but actually very, very carefully crafted. And then other times, she just throws big chunks of fabulously delicious things at you." I mean, what qualifies this as a salad, precisely? The arugula? There were huge chunks of roasted squash, cut into all manner of shapes. There were massive wedges of crisp, sweet Asian pear. Full slices of crisp, salty bacon gave the dish some serious gravity, and those intoxicating, sensual fresh figs lurked beneath, sneaking in their complex, almost earthy sweetness from time to time. And the lynchpin? A coy dressing just assertive enough to pull everything together without actually setting foot on the stage.

Spider PigDominic Armato

The evening's official title was "The War of the Rosés and a Hog," in reference to Spider Pig, who was raised and named by Parker Bostock, the son of one of the evening's winemakers, and roasted by Charleen just for the event. With 45 minutes to go before the doors opened, a surprise cancellation spurred Pavle to offer the empty seat on Facebook for free to whomever could name the person who raised Spider Pig. Though no submission was made owing to the last-minute offer, a spirited discussion of whether or not "Homer Simpson" constituted an acceptable answer ensued. My position? If somebody says Homer, you've gotta give it to 'em. Spider Pig arrived, a tangle of rich, succulent meat -- a mix of light and dark -- gently bathed in a salty pork jus that, beyond taking the juiciness over the top, doubled down on the stunning, intense pork flavor. Truly, no beast could hope for more noble an end.

Dominic Armato

And yet, vegetables are Charleen's trademark, and Spider Pig was flanked by a cadre of less meaty accompaniments, including spaghetti squash with a smoky chile puree, sweet and slightly sour peperonata spiked with salty capers, fresh okra with cooling yogurt and toasted hazelnuts, and stunning mesquite-grilled corn slathered in butter and sprinkled with crisply fried "corn nuts" for a fabulous textural finish. I'd promised my dessert to my ladylove, holding down the fort back home, and it was just as well. This was a helluva meal, and just a bite of the yuzu panna cotta with macerated fresh peaches was all I required.

It was a fun and fabulous evening, both delicious and educational. And I look back at my trepidation with regret, first because it was ill-founded. Pavle had more faith in me than I had in myself, and for that, I thank him. Second, because I was that guy. I was the person who drives me nuts... the one who's afraid to talk about food with me for fear of embarrassing himself, who serves up every opinion with an apology, who is lacking the confidence to simply say what he likes and why. That was me. And if I'd realized it sooner, I'm sure it would have made the evening a whole lot more pleasant, not just for myself but for my fellow judges as well (sorry, guys!). Which leads into the most important thing of all: Aroma is aroma. Taste is taste. Balance is balance. And on a gut level, we all know when these things work and when they don't. When you're eating a fabulous dinner and chasing it with amazing wines, none of the bullshit that we geeks geek out about on a daily basis matters. Experiences like this are not for the food and wine elite. They're for everybody. Pavle knew this. My fellow judges knew this. I needed a reminder. We need to never lose sight of that, and I hope that I never cause anybody to feel the trepidation I felt, because there's absolutely no reason for it. This is good food, and this is good wine, and this is for everybody... even when it's coming from Arizona. Believe it.

May 23, 2012

Hue Gourmet

Mì Quảng Dominic Armato

This one's at least a year overdue.

I first fell into Hue Gourmet back in October of 2010, I believe shortly after they'd opened. I tried a couple of things, rather enjoyed them, and resolved to go back to work my way through the menu. Then I became distracted by something or other (a sudden move necessitated by a landlord foreclosure, probably) and it wasn't until months later, while perusing PHX Rail Food, that I fell upon David Bickford's writeup of the place, and returned with renewed vigor. I've... um... been there a lot since.

It's endlessly frustrating to me that Vietnamese cuisine is always reduced to pho. I love pho. Who doesn't love pho? But come on. There's a whole nation's worth of cuisine out there, so much of which is barely represented at most of the city's Vietnamese restaurants. What's especially compelling about Hue Gourmet -- aside from the fact that an unusual amount of care goes into the food -- is that it specializes in the cuisine of Hue, a city in central Vietnam, the foods of which are particularly difficult to come by around these parts. The reason it receives so little attention, I think, is that it's a food court stand, tucked away in the back of Mekong Plaza. Lan, an engineer in a previous life who changed careers to follow her passion, runs the show along with a small army of cooks who are as busy with large catering orders as they are with bowls of rice and noodles for the food court crowd. You place your order at a busy counter and sit at a table in a cavernous mall under fluorescent light. Serving pieces are mismatched and you're as likely to get plastic utensils as metal ones. Food kind of comes out when it's ready, sometimes quickly, sometimes not as quickly, and don't expect anything to be timed or coursed out. But humble surroundings can be deceptive. Hue Gourmet has become my favorite Vietnamese joint in town.

Bánh BèoDominic Armato

Bánh Bèo are closely identified with Hue, little disc-shaped rice cake a couple of inches across, topped with ground dried shrimp, fried pork skin and scallion. They can be served laid out on a platter, but I prefer them like this, steamed in little individual cups, dimpled in the center and ready to receive a splash of nước chấm -- seasoned fish sauce -- before you scoop them into your mouth. The rice cake has a pleasantly gelatinous texture and mellow flavor, offset by the salty shrimp, tart sauce and crunch from the fried pork skin that's a perfect example of Lan's attention to detail. It's easy to buy bagged chicharrones and crumble them over the top, and the majority of restaurants do. Most folks won't even know the difference. But for Lan, the texture isn't quite right. So she dices pork skin and fries up tiny 4mm cubes, devoting a significant amount of time to such a small detail. And if the value of this attention isn't immediately evident, step around the corner to Com Tam Thuan Kieu, also in Mekong Plaza, and order the same dish. The difference is stark even to the most inexperienced when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine.

Bánh KhọtDominic Armato

More a dish of South-Central Vietnam than Hue, Bánh Khọt are nonetheless a delicious dish and a nice change of pace from the ubiquitous pancakes that are found at every pho joint. Their composition is similar to Bánh Xèo, a rice flour batter seasoned with turmeric and sometimes enriched with coconut milk, shrimp within, shredded mint atop. But instead of being cooked flat and folded over, these little discs are fried in dimpled cast iron pans, so that the underside and edges gets brown and crispy while the center maintains a spongy, moist texture. I love that the crispness is a given, I love the textural contrast, and I love the additional richness afforded by the coconut milk. Wrapped in lettuce with some fresh herbs and dipped in fish sauce, these little fellows are delightful, and I have a hard time ordering Bánh Xèo when they're available.

Nem Chua Huế, Wrapped......and UnwrappedDominic Armato

Nem Chua is fairly easy to find, usually cut into small lumps the size of a large sugar cube, or short cylinders tied up in plastic wrap. And though they're not always available at Hue Gourmet, I prefer them as they're made here, squat little pyramids wrapped in banana leaves. Nem Chua is about as close as most will want to get to consuming raw pork (probably closer), but I've always adored these little cured meats. Ground pork is mixed with slivered pork skin, sugar, garlic, chiles and pepper and treated with curing salts before being allowed to rest for 2-3 days. The result is both sour and fiery, like a tender salami that maintains much of the character of the raw meat of which it's composed. The slivered skin plays almost like vermicelli noodles, adding a compelling texture as well as more porcine flavor, and this version, cured in banana leaves, picks up a hint of an almost floral scent. I realize that these aren't everybody's cup of tea. But as a tiny taste of explosive flavor, I always find them hard to pass up when they're available.

Bún Bò HuếDominic Armato

Two dishes that are all but synonymous with Hue are Bún Bò Huế and Cơm Hến, and while the former is easy to find in Vietnamese restaurants around the city, I've yet to have one as spicy, deep and intoxicating as Hue Gourmet's. Want to get my hackles up? Be the 7,382,411th person to refer to this as "spicy pho." It's not even beef. At least not primarily (though a pork/beef mix isn't uncommon). It's a fiery pork broth, heavy with lemongrass, onions and garlic, made ruddy with annatto and featuring all kinds of funky meats that send squeamish Westerners packing. The noodles are thicker -- perhaps 2.5mm -- and round, and they're hidden underneath slices of pork pate, beef tendon, chunks of pig's trotters and cubes of congealed pork blood. The final step -- mandatory in my book -- is mixing in a small dab of fermented shrimp paste, served on the side, which rounds it out and gives it even more complexity and a hit of salinity. The flavor is immense and deep and punctuated with fragrant aromatics all at once, and I always encourage those who fear the funk to simply work around the scary chunks and focus on the noodles and broth. This is a beautiful soup, and you may find yourself experimenting with the totality of the bowl's contents sooner than you think.

Cơm HếnDominic Armato

Another Hue specialty, and a wonderfully unique dish, is Cơm Hến, listed on the menu as "clam rice," an apt descriptor. It's served as a kind of dry chaotic mess, a small pile of broken steamed rice buried under a mix of thin vermicelli noodles, roasted peanuts, baby clams, some kind of sesame brittle, shredded herbs, bean sprouts, slivered green apple (a substitute for starfruit, which Lan has trouble getting a hold of) and large sesame crackers, all served next to a small bowl of hot, salty clam broth. You break up the crackers, mix everything up, and give it a splash of the broth -- not to make a soup, but just to kind of moisten the rice, tie all of the elements together and add some necessary salt. The clam flavor is strong, and it's accentuated by fresh aromatics, nutty undertones and a whole mess of textures that I find fabulously compelling. This is a dish I've never had anywhere else, but now I'm anxious to try.

Another specialty of Central Vietnam, if not Hue specifically, is Mì Quảng (pictured above), which I have yet to find as exciting as the others, but it nonetheless a tasty and interesting change of pace from pho joint Vietnamese. The noodles are egg noodles flavored with turmeric, and served with things like roasted pork, shrimp, chopped peanuts, bean sprouts, shredded lettuce, hard cooked quail eggs, shredded banana blossom and more, with a small amount of pork broth in the bottom, just enough to moisten everything when you mix it up. It's another chaotic mess that comes together harmoniously, even if it doesn't quite feel as cohesive to me as the Cơm Hến. But this is an exceedingly popular dish in central Vietnam, which tells me I probably need to try it more.

Bún Vịt Xáo Măng Dominic Armato

Leading up the Absurd Value category is the Bún Vịt Xáo Măng, a duck soup that feels like two dishes for the price of one. On the left, a clean, clear and rich duck broth, beautifully balanced and touched with just enough aromatics to bring out the bird's natural flavor, served with thin rice noodles, dried bamboo and fresh herbs. On the right, what seems like an entire quarter of a duck, steamed (I think), chilled, chopped into chunks, and served atop shredded cabbage with more fresh herbs and a vibrant sweet and sour dressing made with an abundance of pureed ginger You have a sip of hot soup. You dunk some chilled duck in the sauce. You put a little duck in the soup. Maybe you add a touch of the ginger dressing to the soup. You go back and forth, duck hitting you from both sides, not overly complicated by a horde of accompaniments, and this whole setup runs six dollars. Absurd.

Bún Riêu CuaDominic Armato

More Southern than Central, but still exceptionally done here, is the first of two crab soups, Bún Riêu Cua. This one's a little more delicate than some of the other offerings (though not so gentle as the duck), a pork and crab broth sweetened with tomato and a touch of rcck sugar. The bowl also features rice noodles, chunks of puffy fried tofu, cubes of pork blood, pieces of roasted pork, and little quenelles of what Lan calls "crab cakes," more like poached crab dumplings made with a little bit of ground pork, intensely flavored and delicately textured, evoking every bit of the crab, not just the meat. It's an assertive but cleanly flavored soup, one that you appreciate more and more the deeper you get, as more of the oils coat your mouth, and more of the crab's natural funk comes out of hiding. With better tomatoes, I think this would be dynamite. But though I'm speculating, that may be a supply issue.

Bánh Canh CuaDominic Armato

One that needs no adjustment to achieve "dynamite" status is the Bánh Canh Cua, a more assertive crab soup that's another specialty of Hue. It doesn't look like much, but like the restaurant itself, that's highly deceptive. Where the Bún Riêu Cua is clean and refined, the Bánh Canh Cua is big and intense, with a viscous consistency, thickened by the flour used to keep the noodles from sticking. The noodles in this dish are hand-cut to order, thick like udon but only a few inches long, made with a mix of rice and tapioca (I think) lending them a translucent appearance, slippery texture and subtly pleasant chew. The broth is big and intense, a little spicy, screaming of crab and garlic, and it's laden with chunks of lump crabmeat, hard cooked quail eggs that almost pop to expose a still-soft center, shrimp that are just barely cooked -- still a touch sticky -- and a sprinkling of fresh mint and scallions and white pepper. A little splash of fish sauce adds a bit of brightness, and it's a joy to dig into. The last time I had this, it was one of the most delicious noodle soups I've had all year. And I've had some pretty freaking outstanding noodle soups this year.

Cuốn Tôm ChuaDominic Armato

In addition to big bowls of noodles and rice and soup, Hue Gourmet does a big catering business, making large volumes of little bites by special order. I recently went with a bunch of friends and piggybacked on a couple of large orders, sampling a number of items that aren't ordinarily available in small quantities (though they do pop up from time to time -- it's work asking). One of them is called Cuốn Tôm Chua, and it's a really unusual shrimp dish. The shrimp are mixed with galangal, chiles, garlic, some sort of flour paste, curing salts and other aromatics -- secret recipe type stuff -- and over time it creates a bold but well-rounded flavor, and softens the shrimp shells to make them completely edible. The shrimp is then mixed with tender meltaway slices of steamed (I think) pork belly, and this is where you step in.

The FixingsWrappedDominic Armato

Anybody who's spent a lot of time in Vietnamese restaurants is familiar with the roll-your-own format, where you dip stiff rice paper into hot water, turning it into the supple wrapper that you fill with your featured item (the shrimp), and things like lettuce leaves, rice noodles and fresh herbs. Mine are always this expertly wrapped. No, sorry, I don't have any other photos to prove it. I don't have to answer your questions.

Bánh Tôm ChiênDominic Armato

What's not to like here? Bánh Tôm Chiên are similar to Bánh Cóng, but featuring an abundance of sweet potato. The bottom, though it's hard to see, is made from a fairly thick batter that develops a light, almost fluffy consistency as it fries, with a predictably crisp exterior. On top is a bird's nest of slivered sweet potato, and whole head and shell-on shrimp, fried hot enough that they become crisp and edible whole. Again, attention to detail, the nước chấm served with these is adjusted to the dish, a little less tart, a little sweeter, They're piping hot, exquisitely textured, and the added complexity from the sweet potatoes make these something I continue to think about. I wish they were a little easier to come by. (Anybody want to place an order with me?)

Bánh Lọc TrầnDominic Armato

When I first asked about the Bánh Lọc Trần, Lan asked, "Are you sure? They're really chewy." And so they are. Made with cassava, these dumplings are dense and glutinous and the result is something of a workout for your jaw. It's not at all unpleasant, but very mildly flavored and not something I'd go back for if not for the burst of flavor waiting inside. When you work your way through that sticky cocoon and hit the center, it all makes sense. You're chewing, chewing, chewing, chewing, chewing and BAM, there it is -- a sweet, sticky and boldly seasoned pork paste enrobing and a small whole shrimp, shell-on to provide a little bit of crunch. It's some seriously big flavor lurking within, and the whole thing as a unit works wonderfully well.

I enjoy Hue Gourmet more and more every time I go. And I think they're getting better too, as Lan's minions -- who she says are sometimes too timid to take on the more complicated dishes -- gain more experience and are better-equipped to execute her recipes. Hue Gourmet is a rare treat, particularly in a city like Phoenix. It's an uncommon subset of a fabulous ethnic cuisine, executed with exceptional care by somebody who has a real passion for what she's doing. And it's cheap. Most of these dishes are about $7, give or take. I always get frustrated when places like this that make exceptional food in a humble setting are continually overlooked. There's a lot of great food coming out of that stall. Not to mention a fascinating bit of culinary education. Go. Please. Show that there's an interest in this kind of thing, and with a little luck we'll get more of it.

Hue Gourmet
Mekong Plaza
66 S. Dobson Rd.
Mesa, AZ 85202
Thu - Tue9 AM - 3 PM5 PM - 8:30 PM
Closed Wednesday

April 25, 2012

Can We Talk? 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

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. -

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?

March 30, 2012

The Quarterly Report - Q1 2012

Lobster Roll @ Nocawich Dominic Armato

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

It's The Quarterly Report, Non-Cranky Edition! In all seriousness, I'd started to worry that TQR was becoming the repository for places that annoyed me so much I hated the idea of going back. And yet here they are... a whole bunch that I totally dig, but that wouldn't quite fill a full post! Well... mostly. Still, a good quarter.

As usual, in order determined by

Pollo al CarbonDominic Armato

Mercado Y Carniceria Cuernavaca
2931 N. 68th Street, Scottsdale AZ 85251

This has become my go-to lazy I don't feel like cooking weekend evening stop. The only thing that annoys me is that I took so long to stop by. I've been eyeballing the place for the better part of a year, I only finally got around to it recently, and it's been an almost weekly stop since. Cuernavaca's a tiny little bodega, its most notable feature from the street being the drive-through liquor window. But there's a tiny taqueria squeezed into the back (that I haven't yet sampled... I probably should have learned not to wait by now), and on Saturdays and Sundays, a huge lump charcoal grill covered with dozens of spatchcocked chickens. This place has cheap family dinner written all over it. $10 nets you a chicken, tubs of rice, beans (with chopped hot dog, natch) and salsa, and a packet of tortillas. The chickens can sometimes be a little inconsistent -- a little scrawny, a little heavy on the salt -- but even off-peak, they're smoky and deliciously seasoned and tastier than any grocery store bird. And when they're on, they're killer. I don't want to oversell it. This isn't a cross-town destination. But if it's anywhere near your 'hood, it's a great weekend stop.

Beef RibsDominic Armato

Bill Johnson's Big Apple
3757 E. Van Buren Street, Phoenix AZ 85008

It's a dangerous thing to come in from another city and, after only a couple of years, wade into the controversy over culinary landmarks. But with the future of Bill Johnson's Big Apple uncertain at best, I was only too happy to accept an invitation (from a friend, not the restaurant) to check out the original location for lunch one day. It's immediately easy to see why this place endures. This is where you loved to come as a kid, a family restaurant that's a cheesy monument to cowboy kitsch, but of the charmingly homegrown rather than the imported corporate variety. With sawdust on the floors and fiberglass steers on the roof, it's the kind of place where you're happy to roll your eyes a little and take the kids 'cause they love it, so long as the food's decent. Problem is... well... it's barely that. Starters are mostly of the out of the bag and into the fryolator variety, and are neither notable nor terrible. The signature BBQ, all three items I tried, were unevenly cooked, slathered with half a quart of sickly sweet sauce, tasted like they'd been held a lot longer than they should have, and had a smoky tang the origins of which were... dubious. And when the kids' mac and cheese is Kraft or a Sysco clone thereof, you start to ask yourself if the quirky yet oddly charming milieu is worth it. Unless you have history with the place... and I don't... I really don't think it is.

Lechon KawaliDominic Armato

Hey Joe!
Food Truck - click above for website with schedule

Call me food truck suspicious. It isn't that I don't love it when a deserving place that can't quite swing a brick and mortar space gets their food out through other outlets. But sometimes I wonder if Phoenix's zeal for a food truck scene makes for some overly rosy assessments of the quality thereof. And then Hey Joe! makes Lechon Kawali, and the food truck scene is AWESOME. This is one of the veterans, slinging a rotation of Filipino street food which ranges from pretty good to downright awesome. Pancit is solid, if lacking a little zip, meaty lumpia are fabulously light and crisp, but I find myself lusting after the lechon kawali, as pure and fabulous an expression of pig lipid as there is. Simmered for an obscenely long time in some aromatics before being deep fried, making for a crisp exterior that yields to pure, melty pork fat -- this, I'll chase around town.

Duck Confit SandwichDominic Armato

3118 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix AZ 85016

Noca's been rocking out fabulous food for a few years now, and though its lunchtime alter ego was temporarily put on hold by the executive chef shuffle, Nocawich is up and running at full strength, and turning out some killer sandwiches. It's a casual affair, with a small counter set up in back selling sandwiches, sides and a couple of soups and salads out of paper lunch sacks while the kitchen crew does its dinner prep. Given Wexler's penchant for hunting down killer ingredients, it's no surprise that everything's on. Wagyu pastrami may seem like overkill, but there's little room for complaints when it's this silky smooth, pressed on marble rye with slaw and aioli. Ingrid's lobsters make an appearance from time to time, anchoring tender, sweet lobster rolls with creative touches that might offend pureblood Mainers, but honor these premium beasts if you can welcome the departure from tradition. The one I can't get out of my head, however, is a special that's popped up with slight variations, a duck confit with strawberry mostarda, arugula and duck cracklings on a soft pretzel roll. Without the cracklings, it's luscious and sweet. With the cracklings, it's... well... like crack, dangerously addictive. They're a touch on the pricy side, but personally speaking, I'll take a killer $10 sandwich over a mediocre $6 sandwich any day.

Paleta CerezaDominic Armato

Paletas Betty
96 W. Boston Street, Chandler AZ 85225

In a city that's more than 40% Latino, we should all probably feel a little guilty that it wasn't until paletas were sold in downtown Chandler and Mill Avenue from gleaming white upscale storefronts with HDTV menus that we decided they were press-worthy. But that doesn't change the fact that Paletas Betty is pretty freaking delicious and deserves the accolades. These are truly exceptional paletas, made with ripened fresh fruit, nuts toasted in house, and other fabulously fresh ingredients. The quality and care comes through, whether it's a spicy Mexican chocolate, deliciously sweet piña, or the fabulous cereza -- brandied cherries suspended in frozen almond milk. Even if paletas' place in the non-Latino public's consciousness is long overdue, you really couldn't ask for a more worthy ambassador.

March 22, 2012

Beaver Choice

Gravlax Dominic Armato

When it comes to restaurants I feel a great urgency to visit, I have a "short" list, scare quotes highly intentional, since "short" loosely translates to "containing more new restaurants that I can really expect to get to before the end of the year." It's more of a crowded customs clearinghouse, where certain spots are fast tracked through immediately upon arrival, and others somehow get lost in a bureaucratic morass, until a year and a half later I find myself saying, "Man, I still haven't gotten to that place?" Such was the case with Beaver Choice, which has turned out to be yet another reminder that no matter how much ground I cover, it's never enough.

Norwegian PastafarianismDominic Armato

Beaver Choice has been open since the end of 2010, and though it's a small, relatively new, family-run joint, it hardly qualifies as a charity case when it comes to getting the word out. With glowing Yelp reviews in the triple digits and copious love from the New Times and Seftel, I'm definitely behind the curve on this one. But I'm thrilled that a humble little shop has gotten so much attention. There's nothing fancy here, six or seven Ikea tables (natch) and a counter to place your order, plus a mantle covered with coloring books, dominos, card games and other diversions, a tacit admission that the food might come out of the kitchen at a leisurely pace. But I will personally come out and egg the house of anybody who complains about this. Priorities, people. This is a laid back joint, where Polish-born Hanna Gabrielsson and her family cook up and serve the specialties she's picked up in Sweden and Canada en route to the United States, and the food's hearty and simple and all kinds of wonderful.

PoutineDominic Armato

Though it would seem incongruous on the menu if not for the family's stop in Canada, the poutine is nonetheless the kind of warm, hearty food that fits right in. A bachelor weekend in Montreal (not mine) put me off poutine for a great many years (there are only so many times you can eat the stuff in a three day span while maintaining a positive experience), but in recent years I've returned to the place where I can enjoy it again, and Beaver Choice's version is appropriately authentic and gluttonous. Poutine's the "dress up a junk food" du jour, and it's nice to get a version that's as straightforward as it comes, thick fries topped with chunks of soft cheese (not curds here, I think, but no complaints) and a smothering coating of thick, rich, beefy gravy. Somewhat classier, if equally delicious in very different ways, is the house gravlax, dill-cured salmon that's only just barely so, right on the edge of straight-up raw. It's got a delicate, silky texture and freshly herbed aroma that's really exceptional.

Jansson's TemptationDominic Armato

Swedish specialties aren't my strong suit, but a couple of dishes make the case that they ought to be. My Italian genes find a special cross-cultural kinship with the Jansson's Temptation, a casserole of sorts made with shredded potatoes, Scandinavian anchovies, onions and heavy cream. Though Scandinavian anchovies are a different beast than those abundant in the Mediterranean, they have a similar impact, and this is a combination of flavors that's unimpeachable, and it's delivered in a warm, creamy format with a crusty hash brown-like top. Like a few of the other items marked as such on the menu, Jansson's Temptation takes about 45 minutes to come out of the kitchen, so calling ahead might be wise if a leisurely lunch isn't in the cards.

Flying JacobDominic Armato

Another dish on the 45 minute list is the Flying Jacob, and if you'd served me this dish and asked me to guess its ethnicity, I never in a million years would have come up with Swedish. A recent addition to the culinary lexicon (most sources peg its creation to the '70s), my first thought upon tasting it was that I have no frame of reference for something like that. Another casserole, this one's composed of chicken, bananas and peanuts, smothered in a sour cream sauce that's spiked with curry and commercial tomato-based chili sauce. I mean, really, where and when does something like this come from? A Swedish air freight worker in the '70s, apparently. And though there's something completely haphazardly over the top about it, as if its invention were either chemically induced or the love child of a voracious appetite and an almost bare pantry, it's oddly compelling, a freakish cross-cultural combination of sweet, tart and spicy that I have a very, very hard time putting into context. But I know I really like it.

GolabkiDominic Armato

Far more conventional is the golabki, a straightforward expression of Gabrielsson's Polish roots, and a gentle, comforting version of a dish with which I don't have a ton of experience. Stewed cabbage leaves wrapped around fist-sized lumps of ground meat (Beef and pork? I only got a couple tastes of this one.), doused with a lightly sweet tomato sauce or, at your option, mushroom sauce, this is Eastern European comfort food at its simplest and most heartwarming. The meat's tender and delicately seasoned, the cabbage cooked to a perfectly tender consistency before reaching the point where it starts to fall apart, and the tomato sauce -- lightly acidic and just a touch sweet with a little hit of cream -- finishes the dish with aplomb. That I lived so long in Chicago while only tasting this once or twice is bordering on criminal, but this provides an excellent opportunity to make up for lost time.

FrikadellerDominic Armato

Meatballs of a less gargantuan size come in multiple varieties, the familiar Swedish version beefy and spongy and smothered in a creamy gravy. But the one that really caught me off guard -- and I mean that in the best way possible -- was the Danish version called Frikadeller. I'm not certain the Danes would identify these as such, since I understand they're generally flattened and pan-fried, but I'll leave the semantic debate to those who are well-versed in the finer points of Danish cuisine and simply express the important part, which is that these are freaking delicious. These pork meatballs would be a winner if served completely naked, impossibly light, tender, moist and... dare I say... even juicy. They're the antithesis of every bready, leaden lump of meat that's ever caused you despair. But if that weren't enough, they're doused with a delightful sauce, a light sweet and sour gravy heavy with dill. I got two meatballs. I wish I'd had two plates. I love these.

Schnitzel Cordon BleuDominic Armato

Seftel has waxed rhapsodic about Beaver Choice's Chicken Schnitzel Cordon Bleu, going so far as to list it among his favorites of 2010, so I felt a certain obligation to try it, or at least its kin. I opted for the porcine version thereof, two thinly pounded pork paillards sandwiched around brie cheese and sliced ham, breaded and pan-fried in butter. Served with a light, creamy and very peppery mushroom sauce, this falls into the category of "nothing here not to like," and even if I'm not quite as enamored of it as I am some of the other offerings, I say that only in relative fashion. It's perfectly done, molten cheese oozing from between lightly crisped schnitzel, and it's nice to have a sauce that's unafraid to feature pepper so heavily.

RöstiDominic Armato

Clearly, this fare isn't hearty enough, so almost all of the entrees are served with a standard complement of sides. These start with a single side dish, which may as well be called the potato dish since five of the six offerings feature them. French fries are unremarkable, but rösti is a respectable preparation of the Europeans' version of hash browns, though, to my personal dismay, more tender than crisp. Creamy dill potatoes are tender and warm and simple and a perfect accompaniment to just about anything on the menu. You also select three from a lengthy list of "side salads" that includes, in part, a lightly creamy beet salad, simple sauerkraut, and a really exceptional herbed cole slaw that's notable for how successfully it keeps the focus on the vegetables rather than the binder. It's a seriously killer slaw.

Beaver CookieDominic Armato

Desserts like Beaver Cookies, Beaver Balls, and Beaver Supreme inspire snickers and smiles in equal quantity. I didn't have the opportunity to sample the Beaver Supreme, a layered chocolate and meringue concoction, but I was reasonably enamored of the Beaver Balls, a chocolate and coconut concoction with a delightful texture. My undying love, however, is reserved for the Beaver Cookies, which ensured that somebody who ordinarily glosses over desserts would be forced to stop and sing its praises. It's two cookies, actually, thin, crisp and crumbly, made with oats and caramelized sugar, between which is spread a not insubstantial layer of lime butter. It was, to me, a novel combination, and it was all I could do to limit myself to two.

This is the kind of restaurant that makes me glow a little bit. Great food, great people, a family bringing their recipes to Phoenix from far-flung locales, a casual place to stop in and get some killer food wihout a lot of fuss. There's a ton of love here, and the only thing I like better than the restaurant's food and vibe is the fact that I'm one of the last people to write about it. When I get frustrated (read: despondent) that some fabulous places are overlooked, seeing the love for a quirky little restaurant like Beaver Choice gives me hope again. It's a wonderful little spot, and I wish I'd gotten here sooner.

Beaver Choice
1743 E. Broadway
Tempe, AZ 85282
Tue - Sat11 AM - 9 PM

March 05, 2012

The McDowell Project - 52nd to 44th

McDowell Dominic Armato

I didn't give up on this!

Quite the contrary, I've been trying to tackle it whenever possible. The holidays, trip to Asia and subsequent 30,000 word epic got me a little sidetracked. But while I've gotten past 44th, I figured it's time to start posting some findings. Still, it's slower going than I'd hoped, so I'm going to officially extend my initial pledge to two years or Central, whichever comes first. But for now, here's the first chunk:

Mixed GrillDominic Armato

Indian Delhi Palace
5104 East -

A friend's mother, upon hearing that I was headed to Indian Delhi Palace, is reported to have said, "Why would he want to go there? Does he not know it tastes like feet?" And while I can't say my assessment is quite so dire (though it is undoubtedly less informed - Indian is not my strong point), I confess that I'm unsure why this seems to be a popular darling. Too many dishes, like palak paneer and lamb vindaloo, had a certain indistinct, muddy quality that I'm not quite ready to dub footlike, but lacked a certain necessary brightness. And a mixed grill plate was dangerously low on sizzle. On the other hand, tandoori chicken had beautiful color, tender texture, vibrant flavor and a nice, smoky bite, so I can't say the dozen or so dishes I tried across three visits were all lacking. Still, on balance, Indian Delhi Palace strikes me as serviceable rather than exceptional, and I'll have to try a lot of other flops before I feel compelled to return again.

QutulaashDominic Armato

5050 East -

If what I know about Indian is somewhat limited, then what I know about Somali is less than nothing, which is why I find Juba compelling, if somewhat less than excellent. Juba's menu is an odd mix of catchall Mediterranean and Somali dishes, which seems less of a mystery when poking around the intertubes suggests the Somali angle may have been added with a change of ownership a number of years back (don't bank on that -- couldn't nail it down). Since Hummus/Shawarma/Falafel places are a dime a dozen, I opted to focus on the Somali dishes, and had a few that were more than a little interesting. Hillib, oven roasted goat, was long on gristle, even for goat and even for my tastes, and somewhat short on flavor, though it warms my heart to see goat on a menu period. Soor, a dense and slightly creamy polenta analogue, comes in a massive brick accompanied by stewed greens and beans, and has a certain humble charm even if it isn't something I'm going to hurry back for. Whether or not the sambusas are being made in house, they're flaky with a well-seasoned ground meat filling, and are entirely enjoyable. But the dish I find myself thinking about is one called Qutulaash, ribbons of chapati (a thin, dense pita-like bread) sautéed with onions, tomatoes and beef, formed into a sort of caked and drizzled with a light, creamy sauce. Served like this, it's really good. Served at 3:00 AM after a night of heavy drinking, it would be amazing. I also dug the Somali iced tea, which was so sweet, so intense and so heavily spiced that I almost felt like it should have been served in a shot glass. In general, the food, though interesting, is rather rough around the edges, and I'll be curious to see if a second location opening in Tempe steps it up a bit.

Suqaar and FuulDominic Armato

Bisharo Coffee House
5040 East

Bisharo Coffee House has recently undergone an ownership and name change, so while the menu remains the same as of press, so to speak, my impressions of the food may already be outdated. Hopefully they're outdated, because they're not that positive. It was previously run by a lovely and friendly woman who lamented that her customers were only interested in greater quantities of meat. Still, as far as I can tell, the kitchen is little more than a hotplate in the corner, and while there are those who can work magic with the same, this is not what I'd call a food destination. Sambusas, undoubtedly made elsewhere, were tasty enough, toasted up hot, filled with ground chicken, a touch of curry and more sugar than I expected. Suqaar, sautéed beef, and Fuul, a sort of vegetable mash, were not at all good, the beef reheated and dry and the vegetables exclusively of the canned variety. As I say, this is (was) not a place to eat. The proprietor even suggested at one point that I go next door to Juba instead. Still, the change to Bisharo may bring something new. Perhaps a follow-up will be in order.

General Tso's ChickenDominic Armato

Asia Lee
5030 East -

Asia Lee is the epitome of divey, Americanized Chinese takeout and delivery, and if they have anything more back there, they're not sharing. The menu is packed with the usual suspects, and I tried a few of them with inconsistent results. General Tso's Chicken was refreshingly less than awful, fairly crisp and not too bready and doused with a sauce that wasn't 97% sugar, even if the accompanying fried rice and egg roll didn't reach such lofty heights. Lo Mein, however, was an overcooked mess, shrimp had been vulcanized, and the couple other dishes I tried didn't leave a much better impression. If everything were as okay as the General Tso's, I could consider it for a guilty, greasy Americanized Chinese fix every once in a blue moon. But enough of them were total washouts that I'm not anxious to roll those dice again.

Buffalo WingsDominic Armato

Johnny's Eastside Tap & Grill
4729 East - 602-267-1010

Johnny's was one of the spots I got hung up on because I kept trying to return when they kept revamping the kitchen. It's a dive bar run by amiable folks, and a fine place to park and have a cheap beer. The first time I went to check it out, there was a standard if extensive bar menu that hit all of the usual suspects. Upon checking back a month later, the menu had been replaced by a BBQ truck parked out front. These ribs, I suspect, might have actually been pretty good had they not been smoked four days prior and reheated (not enough traffic, the pitmaster told me). So it was probably a good call to hand the kitchen over to Wise Guys Pizza, which apparently operates four locations around Phoenix metro even if their web presence is oddly absent (witness relocation?). Wings came hot out of the oven, and even if it makes me sad to see them any way other than fried, you could do a whole lot worse, particularly at a dive bar. The pizza was kind of a doughy, goopy booze sponge, which I suppose makes it appropriate even if I really don't need to have it again. But hey, it came hot out of the oven and I even watched through the pass as the dough was tossed and topped, which somehow seems like it's going the extra mile in this context. It's not someplace you're going to want to go to eat. But if dive bars are your thing, it's a friendly place and there's no reason to be scared of the kitchen once you've had a few.

February 17, 2012

Tokyo - Day IV

A Shrine Dominic Armato

Day four got off to a start that would have been comical if it weren't so sad. For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to save the two places I most wanted to visit for the morning we left. It wasn't entirely irrational. Neither kept especially late hours, and priority one was work... hitting them during the day would have taken us well out of our way. Still, in retrospect, I probably should have made the effort.

My first planned stop for the day was a cutlery shop on Kappabashi Dori, Tokyo's restaurant supply district, where I intended to seek out a fine Japanese knife while resisting the urge to tell the proprietor I was in search of Hattori Hanzo's steel (this clearly would have been funny only to me). And for some reason I can't possibly explain -- perhaps the sleep deprivation -- I thought it entirely reasonable to assume they'd be open at 9:00 AM. The prior evening, it was pointed out to me, in more polite language, that this assumption was stupid. So much for Hattori Hanzo's steel.

Rokurinsha's CounterDominic Armato

My second boneheaded assumption of the morning involved number one on my ramen hit list. Rokurinsha, now with a satellite location in Tokyo Station, houses the rock stars of Tokyo's tsukemen scene. Tsukemen isn't a ramen style so much as it is a format, one that puts a sharper focus on the noodles. It works like this. Dedicated ramen chefs work hard to produce fabulous noodles with texture and bite. Then, after putting in all of this work and carefully cooking them to the proper consistency, they dump them in a bowl of hot soup. What this means is that your first few bites are perfect. But as the noodles sit in the hot broth, they continue to cook, so that by the time you're midway through the bowl, they're no longer at their peak. Tsukemen involves cooking and then shocking the noodles so that the cooking process stops. The noodles are then served side by side with the soup, presented instead as a dipping sauce, thicker and stickier than your typical ramen broth. You dip the noodles as you eat them, thereby ensuring that they're at their peak from first bite to last.

The problem is that Rokurinsha is popular. Wildly popular. And it isn't unusual for the wait to top an hour. So when I discovered that they were open for breakfast, it seemed obvious that the thing to do was go early in the morning, right when they opened. Surely, there won't be so much of a line at eight in the morning, I thought to myself. And on this count, I was right. When I arrived, there were only four or five people ahead of me in line and I waited no more than ten minutes. The problem presented itself when I arrived at the vending machine to purchase my ramen ticket. The button with the ramen... the ramen... Rokurinsha's famous ramen... was darkened and inoperable. No, in its place was a different type of ramen, a breakfast-specific ramen, and by the time their normal ramen was available, I'd be on a bus riding to the airport. What the precise differences were, I can't say. I have no point of reference. But at the very least, I could see that the magical powder of incredible seafood intensity about which I'd read so much was absent. For somebody with a dedication to maximizing every experience, this was (and continues to be) more than a little torturous.

TsukemenDominic Armato

Still, I did my best not to let this snafu ruin my enjoyment of what turned out to be, even in this less potent state, one kick ass grade A bowl of ramen. I mean, wow. Starting with the noodles, because that's where it starts for these fellows, they're thick, bordering on udon thickness. And the chew, though not as aggressive as those I had at Gogyo, was incredibly satisfying, with a little give but only just so. They were almost cool, having been shocked to halt the cooking, and when I married them to the broth, the result was... formidable? Robust? Abusive? I mean these all in the most positive interpretation possible. That's one helluva soup, there. It wasn't as thick as I expected (Breakfast variation? Who knows?!), but the flavor was a tonkotsu base with some serious seafood swagger, like they captured the essence of a few large fish and crammed them in there. Those who haven't made their peace with Japanese fishy intensity probably aren't going to get along with this too well. Shaved bonito dreams of being this intense. But for me, it was gobsmackingly delicious. And though there's a vat of broth for you to water down your sauce to a soupy consistency once you're done dipping, I say screw the broth. I'm drinking this stuff in its full dippy consistency. You say dipping sauce, I say rich soup. I was simultaneously elated to have tasted such an incredible concoction, and tortured by the lunchtime broth I didn't get to sample. Still, to complain would seem ungrateful in the face of such a fabulous foodstuff. Should I return, I'll gladly wait that hour plus. This is some killer, killer stuff. I don't know that I'm sold on tsukemen. I'm considering the possibility that I would have preferred this ramen assembled in traditional fashion. The temperature contrast between cool noodles and hot soup means that when they come together, they meet somewhere in the neighborhood of lukewarm, and I do love a steaming bowl of ramen. But I'm not making any grand proclamations after just one bowl, and truth be told, they can serve this stuff to me however they like. I'll take it.

Kit Kats. Lots. Dominic Armato

With time running short, I had to make a beeline for the hotel, but not without first stopping at a candy store across from Rokurinsha. What you see here are Kit Kats. Lots and lots of Kit Kats. In all kinds of flavors. Kit Kats are incredibly popular in Japan, and in their typical "Yeah, we're taking this to eleven" fashion, they've developed scads of different flavors for the Japanese market (Wikipedia's incomplete list names over 100), many of them available only as regionally distributed special editions. You thought green tea Kit Kat was a kick? *pfft* Pedestrian. Sakura Macha, Pickled Plum, Miso, Yubari Melon, Ginger Ale, Blueberry Cheesecake, Beet... the list goes on. I grabbed a few boxes and ran, and it was only later that I discovered I should have simply bought ten boxes of one of them.

Hotcakes Kit KatEden Politte

What you see on the right is a box of hotcake flavored Kit Kat, brought to you by Rilakkuma, which basically translates to "relaxing bear." I like this guy already. What I like more is what's within. Opening the wrapper releases the overpowering smell of butter, followed shortly thereafter by maple syrup. It's a slightly yellow-tinged white chocolate coating, but taking a bite reveals... well... hotcakes. Toasty griddled cakes, butter and syrup and all. I can't imagine that this much flavor was packed in by natural means. Surely, there's some hardcore confectionery chemistry at work here. And yet, it doesn't play like a fakey, cloying artificial flavor. It plays like hotcakes, sweetened and distilled down into three little wafers enrobed in a white chocolate coating. I don't have much of a sweet tooth, and when I do exercise it I almost never do so with a packaged candy bar. And yet I can state with great confidence that this is one of the greatest confections I've ever tasted, commercial or otherwise. Had I tasted them before leaving the shop, I might very well have walked out with ten boxes. Dear reader, should you ever encounter this sweet breakfast-themed ambrosia, do yourself the kindness of purchasing as many as you can carry, and then do the further kindness of sending two boxes to me.

And then, just like that, it was time to leave. But by god, I'd go kicking and screaming. Airports have restaurants, don't they? I can cram in a little more Japanese food while waiting to board the plane, right? There's nothing desperate about that, is there? Is there?!??

TempuraDominic Armato

My mind was reeling with things I'd wanted to sample but hadn't had the chance. Tempura! That's one! The tempura place I'd tried to visit in Tsukiji was closed, but surely there's a tempura place in the airport, right? As it would turn out, there is. Located on the Japan side of immigration in Terminal 2 is Tentei, with more tempura combinations than you can shake a stick at. I hurriedly picked one -- not too big, since I hoped to make another stop -- and shortly thereafter received a plate with tempura shrimp, squash, shishito pepper and a long slab of eel. And it was a crushing disappointment, because it was pretty damn mediocre, neither particularly crisp nor particularly flavorful, with an eel fillet that sure didn't taste all that fresh. This wouldn't do. This wouldn't do at all. I couldn't go out like that, could I?

TonkatsuDominic Armato

Absolutely not, because right next door there's Tonkatsu! Tonkatsu Inaba Wako is a sizable chain with locations throughout Japan. But Japanese chains have a tendency to focus and do something really well, and thankfully that would prove to be the case here. I can't say I haven't had better tonkatsu, but Inaba Wako's is a mighty fine breed of fried pork cutlet. The meat's tender, hot and juicy. The breading is fried to a deep golden brown, and exceptionally crisp and flaky, perhaps moreso than any breaded and fried item I can recall. Even something as simple as the accompanying cabbage, plain as can be but shredded into an ultrafine palate pleasing texture, is done with a level of precision that makes it more enjoyable than it seems like it should be. I poured out some tonkatsu sauce, added a little spicy mustard, and crunched my way through a pretty fabulous cutlet. Chain or no, this is some good stuff.

Last GlimpseDominic Armato

And then... and then... and... ah, crap, is it time to board? Trip's over, that's it. Homeward bound. No planning or finagling or sacrificing of sleep would allow me to squeeze in another bite, even though there was so, so much more I wanted to try. I look back at these five posts and feel like I shouldn't be disappointed. I should feel like I made good use of the time I had. But I can't help but think I could have tried more, gotten deeper into the list, shaved a couple of half hours here or there and squeezed in a couple more bowls of ramen, a do-it-yourself okonomiyaki joint, some sand pit robata, a trayful of takoyaki, a Wagyu steakhouse... yosenabe, chankonabe, ankounabe, ANY kind of nabe. The truth is simply that I wasn't even close to being ready to leave. I was certainly ready to be with my family, but I wished it was them coming to me rather than the other way around. It isn't evident from this blog because I stopped shortly after launching Skillet Doux, but for five or six years straight I was blessed with the opportunity to travel overseas every other month on average, and stops in Japan were an almost yearly occurrence. My first international trip since 2006 that wasn’t a surgical strike to Mexico brought into focus just how badly I miss it. The last time I looked out of an airplane window at the Narita tarmac like this, I never would have guessed that it would be six years before I'd return. Leaving is a very different thing when there isn't the assumption that you'll be back before long. I know, I know... cry me a river. Most folks dream of having just one chance at a trip like this. I'm so far beyond fortunate in this regard that I'm in zero position to complain. I don’t mean to suggest that I ever took it for granted, I guess I'm just trying to say that I feel the preciousness of these opportunities far more acutely than I used to. And I hope... I hope I did this one justice.

Tokyo - Day I   |   Tokyo - Day II   |   Tokyo - Day IIS   |   Tokyo - Day III   |   Tokyo - Day IV

Tokyo-to, Chiyoda-ku
Marunochi 1-9-1
Mon - Sun7:30 AM - 10 AM
 11 AM - 10:30 PM
Narita Airport
Terminal 2, Main Building
Mon - Sun7:30 AM - 9 PM
Tonkatsu Inaba Wako
Narita Airport
Terminal 2, Main Building
Mon - Sun8 AM - 9 PM