Thursday, December 06, 2007

First Visit: Fresh & Easy, Mesa AZ

I just went to Fresh and Easy and I would say I like it quite a bit. It is indeed bigger than a Trader Joe's by a good margin; the one I visited was formerly a Walgreens-type drugstore. The one I went to was over on Alma School and University. They showed a definite slant toward the predominantly Hispanic population in that neighborhood, with things like bolillo rolls, tres leches cake, and pig trotters (that last one with a primarily Spanish bilingual label). The British influence of Tesco is subtle, mainly through the tea being MUCH more prominent at the sample station than the coffee, a glut of Indian items in the heat-and-eat fridge and freezer cases, and a small handful of quintessentially British items scattered about, including Stilton cheese, back bacon, and shortbread. So you get an idea of prices, here's what I got:

10 oz Mint creme sandwich cookies, 1.99
12 oz Fig bars, 1.99
5 oz Jalapeño Cheddar potato chips, 1.19
10 oz Cheddar cheese crackers, 1.69
1 pound frozen edamame, 1.39
24 oz Frozen mac & cheese, 2.99
24 oz frozen Beef Bourguignonne dinner with veggies and mashed potatoes, 4.99
8 inch frozen pepperoni pizza, 3.89
20 oz Tomato basil soup, 2.99
Pint mango sorbet, 1.98
25 oz Puttanesca sauce, 2.39
16 oz organic ginger limeade, 1.98
16 oz peppermint infused water, .79
1 bottle Big Kahuna (store brand) Australian Cab/Shiraz blend, 2.99

for a grand total of 33 dollars and change. Not bad, about what I'd expect to pay, maybe a little less. Thank goodness they don't have those damn frequency cards, I despise those with a passion.

So far I have tasted the ginger limeade and the fig bars, and I think both of them are very high quality. The limeade is a good balance of sweet and tart, citrus and ginger. The filling of the fig bars is VERY figgy; now that I've tasted these ones, I know that the ones I've had up until now always had plenty of sugar. I wish the fig bars were whole wheat ones, but that's just personal preference coming into play. Next time, I'm tempted to pick up one of their chickens for roasting; butterflied and marinated, ready to pop in the oven, $2.99.

There are a number of things I noticed around the store that I was very happy to see. One big one is that the produce is very fresh; I don't remember the last time I was in a grocery store that the lemons actually SMELLED like fresh lemons off the tree! They have plenty of organic items, often at the same price as a similar non-organic item. And the ingredient lists on the house brand items (which is about 60 percent of the store, and 100 percent of what I bought today) are almost entirely things that I would use if I was making the same thing from scratch; no polysorbate 80 to be found anywhere, as far as I can tell.

There were some bugs that needed to be worked out. One puzzling thing was that the carts had little cupholders built into them, but they were practically useless since the beverages available in the store were all in straight-sided bottles that fit all the way through the cupholder. The self check-out is a bit different than I've seen, with a conveyor belt that scoots your goods down to the end of a regular length checkout counter to make it easier to bag them. Sometimes the conveyor belt would get a bit confused and not take the item all the way down to the end of the conveyor belt, or not even notice that a particularly light item was merrily sitting there, ready for its journey down the counter. I have a feeling that at least the technological issues will be taken care of in fairly short order.

The whole experience of shopping at Fresh & Easy is much like the food they serve... just a little bit different. Shopping carts are smaller, much of what they offer is ready to eat with minimal prep at home, and the check-out lanes are entirely self-check out. I got the sense that it really lives up to the name of "Neighborhood Market" a lot more than the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets that dot the east Valley; the staff was courteous enough to make me feel right at home, and the large amount of prepared perishables would mean that you'd make two or three small trips to the grocery store every week instead of one really big one. I would have been comfortable bicycling my purchases home, something I certainly couldn't say when I go to Super Target or even Trader Joe's. I'm looking forward to the ones closer to my place opening soon... Mesa is a lonnnnng way to go to pick up lunch supplies!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Thanksgiving Menu

Whew.  The groceries have all been bought, and soon it shall be time to transform them into an amazing feast.  Here's what's on the table this year:

Crudités with Caesar dip

Morton Thompson's Turkey Stuffing
Creamy Mashed Potatoes with Turkey Gravy
Cranberry Sauce
Cream Biscuits
Dinner Rolls
Creamed Spinach
Green Beans with Toasted Hazelnuts and Brown Butter
Bellana's Loaded Mashed Potatoes
Maple-Bacon Glazed Carrots
African Spiced Mashed Sweet Potatoes
Frisée Salad with Cranberry-Bacon Vinaigrette and Blue Cheese Pastries

and then for dessert in case my guests haven't popped yet...
Classic Pumpkin Pie
Pumpkin-Whisky Cheesecake with Brown Sugar-Whisky Cream
Classic Pecan Pie

It should be a fun few days of cooking.  Everything is from scratch; I wouldn't have things any other way.

Friday, November 02, 2007


There are better times to find out that one's oven sits off-kilter than after baking the first half of a wedding cake.

Incidentally, the cake itself is red velvet, with (what else?) cream cheese frosting.  It will be decorated with blue and silver ribbon, and dotted with silver dragees.  I'm sure that sticking the eighty kabillion dragees on the cake will drive me to utter madness.  But then, it's hard to be driven somewhere when you're already there, isn't it?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Late Night Notes from a Waffle House

First off, the Waffle House in east Mesa on Mckellips and Higley now offers green chiles as an addition to your doubled covered and smothered hash browns. Second, the much anticipated Fresh And Easy stores by British company Tesco are on the way, I saw one in construction on Kyrene and Ray in front of the old Madstone theatre. Now, back to my bacon patty melt and covered smothered green chiled hash browns. Mmmm.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Central Phoenicians, rejoice!

See the red sign on the left? It says "now open". That's right, the new Super Target on 19th Ave and Bethany Home is open for business. You have no idea how excited this makes me.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Review: Urban Campfire, Tempe AZ

There are certain times that it's really hard to write a review of a restaurant I've been meaning to try once I have been there. Sometimes, things just don't go the least bit like you would expect. My recent (massively disappointing) trip to Grilled Expedition was one of them. This review is hard to write for a different reason entirely. You see, Urban Campfire is a brand new restaurant in the space on the southeast corner of Rural and University that was home to Greasy Tony's since before I was born. The owner of Urban Campfire, Robert Stempkowski, has worked in a number of restaurants around town. You may have heard of one or two... Richardson's, Christopher's, Michael's at the Citadel, Binkley's, Mary Elaine's... and the list still goes on. Robert decided to open up his own little place, and offer up grub that the kids at ASU could not only afford, but also truly enjoy. So, he rolled up his sleeves, cleaned up the old Greasy Tony's (turns out the name was accurate; according to reports from our waitress, it looked like Tony stopped caring about the kitchen some time in the late 80's. Judging by what I remember of the dining room, that sounded about right), and opened up Urban Campfire a couple of months ago. The reason I'm so reluctant to write about this place is because once word gets out as to how utterly amazing Urban Campfire is, those eight tables in the restaurant are going to be a hell of a lot harder to come by.

The whole shebang started out when I met my friend Jeff at the restaurant. The moment he walked in the door, my friend Geena (a true urban gypsy if ever I knew one) called to let me know she got out of work early and was all set to go dancing. So, off I went to pick up Geena, leaving poor Jeff all by his lonesome. Well, not completely by his lonesome... I think he plotted with the waitress to have some kind of errand pop up just as I returned. Once I came back with Geena in tow, he had memorized most (OK, all) of the menu. I had already perused the menu online, so I pretty much knew exactly what I wanted. I got a half-rack of spare ribs ($11.95) with their Yam Planks (yes ladies and gentlemen, it's another place with sweet potato fries!) and baked beans. Jeff got their Cobb Sandwich ($7.95) on marble rye, a creation that put the classic salad between bread, with turkey, ham, bacon (all three of which are smoked in-house, as were my ribs), blue cheese, and other accoutrements. Geena... just ate before she got off work, and got to watch me and Jeff eat. We also decided to split a one-liter carafe of kiwi-basil white sangría ($15.99). The sangría came along pretty quickly, accompanied by Mason jar mugs full of ice, certainly a nice homey touch. It was a fairly simple sangría... maybe a little too simple. I would have liked the kiwi and basil to be a bit more evident; you could pick them up, but they weren't immediately obvious, at least with the first glass. The second glass was a lot sweeter and more obvious with the kiwi and basil (which work very well together, I should say), meaning that next time I get the sangría, I should likely give it a more vigorous stir before pouring.

We waited for a few moments, and our waitress picked up some tiny plates from the expo window. I see the plates coming and my first thought was "No way... they didn't..." When the plates were set on the table, my suspicions were confirmed. They brought out an amuse bouche. Needless to say, I completely did not expect it; usually amuse bouches are something served at places that cost four or five times what Urban Campfire costs. On the plate was a deviled egg, and a few bites of romaine lettuce with a creamy red tomato vinaigrette. The deviled egg was exemplary, with a little bit of horseradish and something else mixed in... I'm not sure what it was, but I'll do my best to catch it next time. Atop the egg was a little bit of minced red onion. The tastes melded together very nicely, and the egg itself was done perfectly, with a just-firm-enough white holding a silky, creamy yolk mixture. The tomato vinagrette was also outstanding, with a bit of tartness to keep the sweetness of the tomatoes in check. With a vinaigrette this good, who needs ketchup for fry dunking? I mentioned to our waitress how much I loved it and she mentioned that in a few months, they'll start bottling it. I have one thing to say about this... Good call.

Shortly after we polished off the amuse bouche, the entrees came along. I was very glad that I didn't attempt to polish off a full rack. The half rack brought a pile of about six or seven spare ribs, very nicely charred on the outside, napped with a slightly thin barbecue sauce that smelled oh so nice and tangy. The beans were in a small ramekin, and the Yam Planks were in a small basket on the side since there was no more room left on the plate. Since I know everyone here is crazy for sweet potato fries, I started out on those. These are wonderful. They aren't your typical fry; they're long sticks about an inch wide and maybe 1/8 inch thick. They're too thick to be potato chips, but too skinny to really be fries. You end up with the best of both; a whisper of a tender interior, with lots of crisp, caramelized exterior. To further enhance the Yam Planks, they are tossed with thyme and black pepper. The seasonings brought out the best of the yams, making them taste more sweet potato-y than just about any other sweet potato fry that I've had. After nibbling a couple of those, I dove into the ribs. This is some serious, serious barbecue. The ribs themselves were nearly falling off the bone and perfectly smoky, and the sauce on top was just the right balance of sweet, tangy, and spicy, with the tangy just barely ahead of the other tastes. The beans were no slouch either, with good smokiness from the bacon added to them and a little sweetness from brown sugar. Jeff greatly enjoyed his Cobb Sandwich; the smokiness of the meats worked well with the blue cheese on the sandwich, and the smoked turkey was so tender it melted in your mouth like it was paté. The fries were classic American hand-cut fries, tossed in grated Parmesan for extra dimension. These were quite nice, but were a bit on the limp side; they would do well to do as the Europeans have done for ages and fry them twice to amp up the crispness. Still, I'd take these over the ones that come out of freezer bags everywhere else; it's rare to find a place that does real fries anymore.

We almost licked our plates clean, and by some miracle still had room for dessert. They have one item for dessert on the menu: Haystack cookies ($1.25 each). You may have made something like these when you were a kid, using chow mein noodles and chocolate. Urban Campfire's are made from pretzel sticks and mini marshmallows, held together by a thick peanut butter and butterscotch sauce. The use of pretzel sticks gave them a little bit of a salty kick, much like with sea salt caramels. It's a good thing they did that; if they used something else, it might have been too sweet. Other than that, these seemed fairly pedestrian (like I said, sort of like something you'd make at home for or with kids), but I'll probably end up getting one every time I go there just because they're still darn tasty. I was talking to some friends about Urban Campfire before I wrote this, and a couple of them thought that some kind of s'mores would be a more appropriate dessert; I'm not quite sure how successfully s'mores could be made in a restaurant kitchen, but it would certainly be something interesting to see on the menu. Before the check arrived, here came our waitress with three more small plates, this time with ramekins of watermelon chunks as a palate cleanser. While I was happily munching away on the fresh fruit, Geena noticed something that didn't even cross my mind- the watermelon got a squeeze of lime before it went out of the kitchen. Considering how much I enjoyed it, I would have to say that the combination worked very well indeed.

Our server then brought the check, which came to just a hair over $42. For the outstanding quality of everything and all of the additional thoughtful touches by both the kitchen and our server (I am going to guess that she's been in the business for a while and is glad to work somewhere casual again), I would have to say that this was an absolutely outstanding deal. This is the kind of place that makes me wish I didn't work during the dinner shift so that I could take friends out to eat here more often. Jeff had other plans for the evening, so we had said our goodbyes and went out the door to our respective cars. Just as we were about to part company, the owner came out the front door with a big grin and a handful of long, brightly colored sticks of something in plastic... Otter Pops! We each got our choice of flavors, got to chat with Robert some as he nibbled the end bits from cutting the Otter Pops open (one of the benefits of being the boss), and found that an Otter Pop on a balmy late summer evening here in Phoenix is a darn near perfect ending to a meal. In all... I think it was five courses in all (every single one a home run, no less) plus a carafe of sangría for just over twenty bucks a head? I'm sold. I can barely wait to return again.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Review: Grilled Expedition, Phoenix AZ

There are some places that I have walked past more times than I would care to remember, and Grilled Expedition is one of them. They have been on my radar since they opened at Desert Ridge Marketplace. I was in the mood for something a little different tonight, so off I went to the Expedition.

With a name like that, there are many different directions that the designers of the restaurant could have taken. They went with "austere". There were green walls with a triptych of slices of logs that evoked, oh, a woodpile. The tables, chairs, and non-wall architecture were wood or wood tones. I appreciate that they split the dining room into two separate sections (dramatic reduction in noise and it makes the place feel more intimate), but the usual high ceilings and open kitchen mean that if it were busy, the place would likely be quite loud. After waiting an inordinately long time for ice water to arrive when the place is slow (seriously, if it was another 15 seconds we would have left), my friend and I both decided to start out with the X-Ale, apparently created at the turn of the millennium when EVERYTHING was Extreme-this and X-that. Still, it's a decent beer. The server described it as "really dark... like Fat Tire". I shudder to think what would happen if he ever tasted Guinness. Along with the X-Ale, we had some of the Expedition Dip, described on the menu as "a hot blend of cheeses and roasted vegetables with grilled flatbread for dipping". I'm not entirely sure how one manages to screw up hot cheese dip, but they sure as hell did. The portion of dip looked meager and dull, a scant cup of dip that was mostly white with a few flecks of red pepper and an unidentifiable green, likely chopped spinach. The roasted vegetables only provided texture and color, and the primary dairy ingredients we noticed seemed to be sour cream and mild white cheddar. The grilled flatbread was good and tasted like it was made in-house, but would have been better if it was served warm. Also with the dip were a handful of stale-tasting corn chip crumbs from the bottom of the bag. Whoever put the chips on the plate really should have noticed that what they were putting out there was not something people would want to dip with, much less actually eat. The spinach dip over at TGI Friday's was vastly preferable to this... stuff. And at $8.50, this already lackluster appetizer was a very poor value.

For our main courses, I went with the Firewheel pizza (hot sauce, mozzarella, Andouille sausage, beef, red onion) while my friend got the Shrimp Pesto (shrimp, pesto sauce, mozzarella, feta, sun-dried tomato). While waiting for our dinner, I excused myself to the restroom, and was very displeased. The main scent in the restroom once past the bank of sinks was stale pee. I am more accustomed to noticing this in a busy truck stop, not so much in a halfway decent restaurant. It would also be nice if they took the time to brush out the insides of the urinals a little more often.* I likely should have cancelled the order at this point, but hunger makes people do strange things, so we pressed on, despite my wondering if we'd fare as well as Katharine Hepburn when she acted in The African Queen.**

The pizzas came pretty quickly. Mine was the definite winner of the two. The hot sauce had a bit of tanginess and a little sweetness, almost like wing sauce cut with a little bit of BBQ sauce. The andouille reminded me more of plain old smoked sausage, but the beef chunks were very nice, little steak-y bits all over the pizza. The crust was fantastic, picking up just enough of the wood fire smoke to give it some great depth. The guys at Patsy Grimaldi's would do well to take some notes from Grilled Expedition. My friend's Shrimp Pesto pizza was OK, but completely unoriginal. I think I had something similar from Wolfgang Puck's line of frozen pizzas when they first came out in the mid-90's.

After two beers, appetizer, and two pizzas, the bill was about $45. It had the potential to be worth this, but the combination of dull service (it was hard to tell if he was just green, or bored; there were times it sounded like he was reading from cue cards) and abysmal housekeeping left a less than pleasant taste in my mouth. The pizzas were quite good, but beyond that I have no reason to recommend the Desert Ridge location of Grilled Expedition to anyone. I may still try out the one in Tempe to see if it fares better. Or, if you've tried out the Tempe location, let me know.

*In case you're wondering, it turns out yes, the old adage how you can tell the cleanliness of the kitchen by the cleanliness of the restroom is completely true. I just checked their most recent inspection report from the beginning of July, and there were reports of "black slimy mold" in the ice machine, more "black mold" in a container of running water for holding scoops, and "food debris on floors" in the dry storage and kitchen itself. All of the problems were corrected upon the follow-up visit three days later.

**I sure love my footnotes, huh? When Hepburn did The African Queen, they actually filmed it in Africa. You know how when you go traveling overseas you shouldn't drink the water? She did.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Review: Cafe Zuzu, Hotel Valley Ho, Scottsdale AZ

(In interests of full disclosure, I work at Hotel Valley Ho, but in a different department. I stayed objective as possible, and yes, they did know I work at the hotel.)

I have been working at the Hotel Valley Ho for over a year now. It's a great place. However, due to my weird schedule from working the dinner shift, I haven't been able to partake in the offerings at the hotel's other restaurant, Cafe Zuzu. I'm always either in bed or at work when Zuzu is open. I do have a friend who joins me regularly for breakfast, and we love going all over the place. We've been to Matt's Big Breakfast, Butterfield's, Au Petit Four, and a host of other breakfast places. There are some great places for breakfast in town, but I would have to say that Zuzu blows everything else clean out of the water. The atmosphere is delightfully retro, with oranges and browns all over the place, and plenty of curvaceous furniture. The waitress, Sharon, did a wonderful job of keeping our coffee and juice full and the table clean (she's one of the few I've seen who regularly picked up empty sugar packets) and was just the right level of cheerful warmth to make you feel right at home. The food is serious stuff, too. I had the daily special, a Seafood Newburg omelette loaded with crab and shrimp; my friend Mike got their breakfast sandwich, consisting of a fried egg, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and veggie cream cheese smear on toasted white bread. My roomie came along too, and he tried the strawberry waffle. I truly love how everything was perfectly done familiar comfort-style food with just enough of a twist to make it interesting. That's a tricky balance; too familiar and it tastes just like everything else out there, too unique and almost every breakfast diner out there will turn up their nose at it. I'm very hard pressed to pick a stand-out dish; all three were winners. I think that Mike's breakfast sandwich was the winner by a nose. It was something about the veggie smear that just brought everything together. Roomie's waffle had lemon-orange curd on top, which somehow went brilliantly well with maple syrup. My seafood omelette was very rich, but not *too* much so. It knew right where that line was and came as close to it as possible. House-made apricot preserves were a very delicious touch to top my toast.

Before tax and tip, the full breakfast for three was around 42 dollars. I would say it's a very solid value; a little pricier than most breakfast places, but you will certainly be well-fed with very high-quality grub. I've spent a long time searching, but I may just have myself a regular weekend breakfast spot. And to think, it's been right under my nose all this time.

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Ratings Explained

This post has been a long time coming, and finally here it is. I do my reviews mostly on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best. Well, actually, it's more of a 0 to 6 scale, but zeros and sixes are quite rare. I start off each overview with the basic information, like this:

The Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge
2985 Las Vegas Blvd
Las Vegas NV 89109
(702) 735-4177

Open for: 24 Hours a Day- Breakfast, Brunch, Lunch, Dinner, Late Night

Then comes the numerical bits of Atmosphere, Service, and Food:

Atmosphere: 5 (A testament to how tacky everything was in the 80s. I wouldn't want it any other way.)
Service: 4 (this time you could tell the waitresses got slammed at 3 AM, but everyone was friendly. And thank goodness, they still said good night when I left at 4!)
Food: 4 (Competent, generous, and for heavens' sakes get the coffee!)

Each of these goes off of the same scale:
6: Wow, this is the best I've ever had!
5: I loved it
4: I liked it
3: It's OK
2: I didn't like it
1: I hated it
0: Not Acceptable

The 0 rating happens when something happens that just plain should not exist in the course of dining. Two notable occurences were an atmosphere 0 for a bathroom that looked like it hadn't been cleaned in a week, and a service 0 when the counter person took something I had returned and put it back under the heat lamps. In both cases, there was just one thing to say: Eew. I always include a brief description to explain just why I gave that particular number.

Next up is:

Value 3 (Looks kind of pricey, but quality is good and portions can be gigantic)

This measures the kind of bang you get for your buck.
5: An absolute steal
4: Prices are a little low
3: Prices are reasonable
2: Prices are a little high
1: Rip-off!

I also mention a couple of special dining cases:
Kid Friendly: 4 (Kids will be very happy here)
Veg Friendly: 3 (With a menu this expansive, there are quite a few veg choices, but more on the breakfast menu than dinner. Vegan options are limited but do exist)

Both of these work pretty much the same way:
5: The restaurant specifically caters to this clientele (Chuck E Cheese and Green, respectively)
4: The restaurant put forth good effort to accomodate this clientele (Oregano's and Pita Jungle)
3: The restaurant has basic amenities for this clientele (Most restaurants)
2: The restaurant has limited options for this clientele (Delux and Texas Roadhouse)
1: The restaurant does not cater to this clientele (Mary Elaine's and Durant's)

Last is the Overall score, which works the same way as the Food/Service/Atmosphere rankings. Note that this is not an average! A place could have 4s across the board but still get a 3 or 5 just as easily due to those little unseen touches that bring everything together or pull everything apart.

Friday, June 15, 2007

From the mailbag

I just got a question from one of my readers through the nifty little Meebo box on the right hand side of the page. Since they left the page before I could respond, here's my reply.

I am looking for rock candy syrup for a mai tai recipe. Can I use grenadine?

The Jester Sez: Nope. Grenadine and rock candy syrup are completely separate ingredients; grenadine is (or at least is supposed to be) pomegranate flavor, rock candy syrup is a neutral flavor. Rock Candy syrup is more commonly known as simple syrup, which is available for sale at most liquor stores. Don't bother buying it, as it's incredibly easy to make at home. To make rock candy syrup, mix 1 pound of sugar (a little more than 2 cups) and a cup of water and heat either in the microwave or on the stove until the solution is completely clear. Store it in a bottle in the fridge. It keeps indefinitely. I don't know when grenadine found its way into the Mai Tai; I have a theory that a bartender somewhere used creme de noyaux (a pink almond liqueur) as a substitution for orgeat, and someone who watched him thought the red liquid was grenadine. However it happened, grenadine should not go in a Mai Tai.

If you ever have any questions, whether about cooking something you see here, local restaurants, or food in general, meebo me! If I'm not around, you can always leave a message. Hint: If you want to catch me live, I'm usually on late at night.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Dinner for that movie coming out

As you may well know by now, Pixar is releasing the movie Ratatouille at the end of this month. After watching a clip on the movie's site, I have a feeling this is going to be every bit as much of a joy to watch as other classic food films such as Like Water for Chocolate and Big Night. This could very well be a good occasion to go to see this at a drive-in, since that way we can bring our own food. And with a movie featuring French cooking enough that the name of the movie is a Provençale dish, I'm putting together a menu of deliciousness from southeastern France.

Pissaladière (onion tart with anchovy and olives)

Main course
Poulet Provençal (chicken braised in tomato, garlic, and herbs)
served with baguettes, roasted red potatoes, and ratatouille (of course!)

Raspberry gratin

There's strong temptation to do some kind of salad after the main, but I think three courses for a drive-in movie dinner should be more than enough.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Burger Bar- Mandalay Bay

forgot to take pic. damn. Burger Bar serves up without a doubt THE best burger I have had. Wow. My favorite was Delux until I tried this burger. Delux is no slouch and this is head and shoulders above Delux. The menu is much more expansive than that of Delux, with three different kinds of beef to select (including American Kobe, but what's the point of American Kobe when it's ground anyway?), turkey and veggie options, five bread choices, and a list of toppings that ranges from classic (Cheddar cheese, sauteed mushrooms) to eccentric (grilled asparagus, beetroot pickle), to extravagant (black truffles, lobster, foie gras). I had a burger of Ridgefield Farms beef ($8) on ciabatta with blue cheese ($0.50), grilled onion ($0.95), peppered bacon ($0.95) (Did I mention they offer four different kinds of bacon?), and truffle sauce ($5), cooked medium-rare. For sides, my friend and I got some of their sweet potato fries ($2.50) and onion rings ($3.25).

Yeah, I was pushing close to 20 bucks for a burger and fries. I blame the truffle sauce. It was easily worth every last dime. Everything came together brilliantly well, and you could still taste the beef under the rich ingredients. The ciabatta did its job marvelously, offering support without collapsing halfway through, adding its own note the the taste without dominating the bite like those ciabatta burgers at Jack In The Box. The sides were both exemplary; the sweet potato fries were the crispest that I've had, and the onion rings were a rare example of the thick-breaded rings that didn't get pulled from a freezer bag. Everything was just marvelous; the food was perfect, the servers amazingly attentive without being obtrusive, and the design of the place allowed for a raucous crowd and fairly loud music but still let you converse at normal volumes. I just got word down the pipe that there's a new burger place at Fashion Show Mall called Stripburger, but they're going to have an awfully hard time pulling me away from repeated visits to Burger Bar every time I'm in Vegas.

Burger Bar
3930 Las Vegas Blvd S
Las Vegas, NV 89119

Atmosphere: 5 (Very nice looking, and perfect acoustic design)
Service: 5 (The whole package, outgoing, friendly, attentive without being obtrusive)
Food: 6! (Seriously the best burger I have had)
Value: 3 (Prices can sneak up on you with added toppings, but worth it)
Kid Friendly: 2 (It's a sports bar atmosphere, I didn't see many kids at all)
Veg friendly: 3 (They do have a vegan veggie burger on the menu)
Overall: 5 (If you enjoy a great burger, you simply have to go to Burger Bar)

chocolat at the wynn

the feuillante (hazelnut) is very good, the earl grey tea one is almost too good for words. such swirling flavors in one little bite! you have to stop and try one when you are at the wynn.

real breakfast: lenotre, paris lv

no picture, you know what a croissant looks like. I had a latte and pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant). The latte was decent, nothing outstanding but when it's before 9 am for me, warm and caffeinated is plenty. The pain au chocolat was definitely one of the better I've had, with its taste pushing that of brioche, with a hint of a sweet note and just a little bit of tanginess from something, maybe the yeast. I prefer my criossant based pastries to be ultra-flaky to the point that you are showered in crumbs, but this one resolutely held together thanks to an egg wash. I would imagine that the scores of conventioneers who stop by here because of its proximity to Paris's meeting halls are less appreciative of crumbs than I am.

Lenôtre at Paris Las Vegas
3655 S Las Vegas Blvd
Las Vegas NV 89109
(702) 946-7000

Open for: Breakfast, 6:30 AM-11PM
Atmosphere: 3 (Most of the atmospheric touches were provided by the gift shop in the back)
Service: 3 (I was handled by several people, ranging from very friendly to quite brusque)
Food: 4 (Good, solid pastries)
Value 2 (a bit on the steep side, but then, this is the Strip)
Kid Friendly: 3 (Nothing obviously made for kids, but they won't feel left out)
Veg Friendly: 4 (It's pastries! Due to what must be vast amounts of butter, vegans may feel left out)
Overall: 3 (Good for a quick stop if you're in the area, but I wouldn't go out of my way)

3 am breakfast- peppermill las vegas

When you're in Vegas and it's getting to be so late it's early, there's only one real option for where to go for food: the Peppermill. It's a 24 hour restaurant up on the north end of the Strip, near Circus Circus. The place is a bastion of old-school Las Vegas; it was built in the mid-1970s, and remodeled once in the 1980s. The result is a glorious mix of both times. U-shaped booths abound (and once I have bought a house I'm going to eschew the dining room table in favor of a booth styled after the ones at Peppermill), there are huge fake cherry trees illuminated by color changing floodlights, the waitresses' uniforms are this incredibly gaudy floral print, the cocktail waitresses sashay about the dining room in what has to be *the* perfect black dress, and the whole place is lit in shades of magenta and turquoise. It really has to be seen to be believed. The food there is pretty decent; it's a step above normal coffee shop fare, and the portions are ridiculously big. It's the perfect thing to cap off a night of craziness in Vegas. If I'm there with a group, I love to split the Fruit Salad. When it comes to the table, it looks like the waitress just dropped off Carmen Miranda's hat. But this time, I was alone, so instead I had:

the Peppermill omelet- turkey, two cheeses, hollandaise, and sliced tomato. The omelet itself was kind of boring (what did I expect from a turkey and cheese omelet, really?), but was certainly jazzed up by the tangy tomato and surprisingly good Hollandaise. The hashbrowns are perfect, a delicious mix of tender white bits and little crunchy nubs that were *this* close to overcooking. I love it when places are willing to actually cook the hash browns; so often you get this pale blond mat of shredded spuds, and those just don't do anything for me. The coffee is absolutely the best anywhere. It's the thick, rich kind you can practically stand up the spoon in. It's marvelous black (and indeed about the only coffee shop coffee I've found that I'll take black) and only gets better with just a touch of cream and sugar.

The Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge
2985 Las Vegas Blvd
Las Vegas NV 89109
(702) 735-4177

Open for: 24 Hours a Day- Breakfast, Brunch, Lunch, Dinner, Late Night
Atmosphere: 5 (A testament to how tacky everything was in the 80s. I wouldn't want it any other way.)
Service: 4 (this time you could tell the waitresses got slammed at 3 AM, but everyone was friendly. And thank goodness, they still said good night when I left at 4!)
Food: 4 (Competent, generous, and for heavens' sakes get the coffee!)
Value 3 (Looks kind of pricey, but quality is good and portions can be gigantic)
Kid Friendly: 4 (Kids will be very happy here)
Veg Friendly: 3 (With a menu this expansive, there are quite a few veg choices, but more on the breakfast menu than dinner. Vegan options are limited but do exist)
Overall: 5 (One of those times when the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts)

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Short Treatise on a Favorite Beverage

It has now been a full year since Trader Vic's has opened its doors in Scottsdale once more. I feel extremely blessed to be a part of it from the beginning. The anniversary kind of snuck up on all of us; we've been having so much fun at the restaurant that it hasn't felt even close to a year. We've seen faces come and go, and still people come in at a pretty darn good rate. And I've come to appreciate even more the craft of the cocktail. Vic really knew what he was doing ages ago, and his spirit definitely lives on in all of the spirits we serve today. My favorite is our signature drink, the classic Mai Tai.

The Mai Tai at Trader Vic's is completely unlike anything else I've been served with the same name. So many places load theirs up with tropical juices and heavy syrups, and the result is a saccharine concoction that might as well just be fruit punch. At Vic's, the recipe is very simple; just our Royal Amber Rum, fresh lime, sweet orange, and a little hint of almond to round things out.

The Mai Tai got its start way back in 1944 at the original Trader Vic's on 65th and San Pablo in Oakland (the area is now Emeryville), California. One day, Vic decided to create a new drink, something he had done quite a few times in the past. He started out with great rum, a 17-year Jamaican from J. Wray & Nephew. He added a little Holland DeKuyper Orange Curaçao, some Garnier orgeat syrup from France, the juice of a lime, and a dollop of Rock Candy Syrup. He gave it a mighty shake with some crushed ice, poured it into a glass, and was about to taste his new creation when he found out that a couple of friends of his from Tahiti, Ham and Carrie Guild, had just come in to the restaurant. Vic had the bartenders make a couple more of this new drink, and he took them out to the Guilds. He offered it to them, mentioning that they were the first to taste it, and tell him what they thought. Carrie took a sip. Her eyes lit up and she exclaimed, "This is maitai! It's maitai roa a'e!" To which Vic naturally could only say one thing... "What the hell does that mean?" Carrie replied that it's Tahitian for "Out of this world, the best"*. So, Vic decided at that point to call it the Mai Tai. It's one of the rare exceptions to my Chowhound Rule Of Thumb #2- the Mai Tai's name means "good", and it is very good indeed.

Nowadays, it's impossible to truly make the original Mai Tai, as Trader Vic's exhausted the world supply of J. Wray & Nephew 17-year just one year after the drink's creation, and Garnier doesn't make orgeat anymore. Thankfully, J. Wray & Nephew is still making rum, now under the name of Appleton Estate, and Dekuyper is certainly still making orange curaçao. There are several brands of orgeat available; I favor Torani because it uses real sugar. So, I now present my house version of the Original Mai Tai:

2 ounces Appleton Estate Extra (the black label one)
1/2 ounce DeKuyper Orange Curaçao
1/2 ounce Torani Orgeat Syrup
1/2 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
1/4 ounce Rock Candy Syrup

Shake very well with 2 cups of crushed ice. Pour into a glass without straining, and garnish with a sprig of mint (and a speared maraschino cherry and pineapple tidbit if you have them handy).

There's a couple of things that I should take the time to explain about two of the ingredients. Buying crushed ice at the grocery store won't work, it's not crushed enough. You can crush ice at home with an ice crusher, a halfway decent blender, or by putting ice in a plastic bag, wrapping it with a towel, and beating the hell out of it with a heavy blunt object (I favor a marble rolling pin, you may get better mileage out of a mallet or cast iron skillet). There is also a good chance that you can get your hands on some finely crushed ice (the same kind we use at the restaurant, as far as I can tell) just by visiting your local Sonic Drive-In. Just ask the friendly carhop, and you should be able to get your hands on a bunch. The other thing to explain is the Rock Candy syrup, also known as simple syrup. There are a number of brands out there that you can buy, and I don't recommend any of them. It's incredibly easy to make at home. I use a double strength one in the Mai Tai; just combine 1 pound of sugar with 1 cup of water, and heat either in the microwave or on the stove until the liquid is completely clear and there are no signs of sugar granules anywhere. Pour it into a bottle, and store in the fridge. It keeps indefinitely. You can make a normal strength solution with equal amounts sugar and water (use twice as much if you do), but don't try making one stronger than listed here; if you do, it will spontaneously crystallize and you'll be left with a very difficult to clean bottle (but a massive chunk of rock candy to show for it).

*She's right, "maitai" means good, roa and a'e both act as affirmative enhancements. The closer literal translation would be "It's good! It's really, REALLY good!"

Monday, June 04, 2007

News from the Eastern Bandido Front

I recently stopped in at the Chandler location of the incredibly delicious Chino Bandido Takee-Outee for lunch, and had a chance to chat with the counter girl a bit. You see, the Chandler Chino's got robbed a couple of weeks ago, and they were thinking of closing up shop in a month or two. This, of course, would not be a good thing for my friends in the East Valley who are all now addicted to Chino Bandido. Apparently, they are now getting back on their feet (and are now able to accept plastic again), and much like the opening of the Chandler one, talks about closing it are being delayed. As many times as the opening of it got delayed by one thing or another, if the place ever closes, they'll probably start talking about it in earnest some time in late 2015 or so.

The biggest thing that will help keep the place alive is to EAT AT CHINO'S! Especially for dinner; the place is always hopping at lunch but then it's nobody but the staff and the crickets after that. Remember the Takee-Outee part... you can bring home Jade Red Chicken quesadillas for the whole family. Frank, Eve, and Pancho will all thank you.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Plotting International Nibblies

Some friends of mine are throwing a party in June. These parties are absolute juggernauts. It runs for an entire weekend, and this time we're going to have *two* bands. One of them knows the music for one of my favorite karaoke songs, "It's The End Of The World (As We Know It)" by REM. That should turn out interesting. Now if only the party wasn't out at 319th Avenue!

But anyway, this is a food blog, back to the food. At these parties, I throw a smaller party for the people who are helping make the party happen so that they have a chance to relax. This time, I'm going to offer a variety of snacks from around the globe. I'm trying out different possibilities, and I greatly enjoy both of the ones I've done so far. The first are fried peanuts in a Southeast Asian spice blend (Madras curry with a little sweetness added), and North African cheese mantecaos, little cheese pastry balls spiced with cumin and cayenne. The flavor of the mantecaos is wonderful, changing as you savor one. I'll likely do the mantecaos with either a really good sharp Cheddar or some Emmentaler. Also on the menu so far are hummus with pita triangles, cha siu pork, Brazilian brigadeiro (an intensely chocolaty dessert), and a tropical dried fruit medley. I'm tempted to do the Tuscan Hummus recipe I have from California Pizza Kitchen; I've tried it before and it's very tasty, but at the same time I think traditional hummus would be pretty nice too. I think I have a pretty decent selection of exotic locales, with North Africa, China, Southeast Asia, Brazil, the Middle East (or maybe Northern Italy), and Polynesia... should I include anything else?

Monday, May 07, 2007

On Location: Welcome Diner, Phoenix AZ

I'm sitting at the counter at the Welcome Diner on 10th Street and Roosevelt near downtown Phoenix. I am most impressed so far, everything is just perfect. everything is unpretentious and greatly enjoyable. I have a feeling I'll be a regular in no time.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

I'm up in flagstaff, and just saw something coming soon here that I don't think we have in phoenix... Himalayan food! The restaurant will serve Nepali and Tibetan fare. It's on Milton, next to the home brew supply place.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Jester On The Go: Olive & Ivy, Scottsdale AZ.

Today, I did a common thing when I'm scheduled to go in to work later than usual... I went in at the normal time. I suddenly found I had 45 minutes to kill, and felt like grabbing a small nibble of some sort. I almost went to the Nordstrom Cafe, but the mall was absolutely jammed. It was a nice day, what were all of you people doing going to an air conditioned building? I went out and looked for another option, then remembered about the new Fox restaurant, Olive & Ivy, on the other side of the Nordstrom parking garage.

Olive and Ivy is a very pretty place, with soaring ceilings, dark woods, sleek surfaces, and nice partitioning so it doesn't feel like a warehouse. It is split into several sections; the standard bar and restaurant areas, plus a to-go counter that features coffeehouse offerings (espresso drinks and baked goods) plus several flavors of (Oh God, Not Again!) gelato. The split layout means they can be open all day long without feeling like half of the place is closed: The counter is open for breakfast and lunch; the restaurant is open for brunch, lunch, and dinner; and the bar is open at lunch, dinner, and for late-night nibbles. I spent a few minutes perusing the cold case in the counter area, stocked with overpriced beer, mini bottles of wine, and soft drinks. They had an excellent selection of exotic and familiar offerings. But two bucks for Vitamin Water that costs two thirds that at a run of the mill convenience store? Aie.

I stood eyeing the gelato case for a minute or so; the two people behind the expansive counter preferred chatting with each other and straightening the adjacent espresso machine area to other activities such as... oh, I don't know, how about greeting the puzzled looking guest in front of you?! They may have made eye contact once or twice. I don't remember. It was certainly not the first impression I wanted. I doubt I'm going to try them again.

Olive & Ivy
7135 E Camelback Rd Ste 195 (Scottsdale Waterfront complex)
Scottsdale AZ 85251

Open for: Breakfast, Weekend Brunch, Lunch, Dinner, Late Night
Atmosphere: 5 (Absolutely gorgeous)
Service: 0 (there was none, not even a hello. Inexcusable.)
Food: Not Reviewed
Value 2 (items in cold case were overpriced)
Kid Friendly: 2 (upscale, no hint of kids menu; upscale kids will be pleased with the small plates)
Overall: No Rating due to no food tasting. Overall impression is that it's the archetype downtown Scottsdale restaurant- very pretty, costs more than it should, and the customers serve as an interruption to the employees' social hour. I see no reason to return.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

What IS Mack Daddy's, anyway?

My commute takes me along Indian School Road from central Phoenix to Scottsdale on an almost daily basis. As such, I'm always on the lookout for new things to eat in between here and there. One that I've noticed (and noticed that they're taking their sweet time to get up and running) is Mack Daddy's 3-2 Gourmet To Go, over on 32nd Street and Indian School. I looked around for it online, and found their website to be almost impossible to find. Eventually, I found out that the eatery is run by the same guy who owns Newton Fitness next door, Mack Newton. Further poking on the website revealed that the 3-2 in the name is the name of Mack's diet plan. The 3 is for the three things you can eat (lean meats, vegetables, and fresh fruit), the 2 for the two things you can drink (water and fruit juice). That's right, it's a low-carb diet restaurant! If they opened this seven years ago they would have lines out the door. These days, I'm not so sure. And yes, Mack, it IS a diet, despite what your website claims.

The mentions of the food on the website leave me utterly cold. There's no mention of using truly high-quality ingredients, except that they call higher qu
ality food "that which is served closer to the natural state in which it occurs." When one is working with a simpler ingredient set such as this, everything has to be absolutely the best it can, preferably something locally produced, or at least in season. Add to this a complete lack of salt in the kitchen. Yes, that's right, no salt at all. While this is good news to people with high blood pressure, for everyone else it means the food is going to be utterly bland. According to the website, salt is a "powerful flavorizer" with a "sharp, acidic taste". Flavorizer? Why must they make up words? And salt is not acidic, it is neutral. A little bit of salt can heighten the flavor of just about any food; if you have ever tasted baked goods that someone forgot to add the salt to, surely you noticed it just didn't taste right, that the flavor of the food just fell flat. More worrisome is their testimonial section, which has several mentions of weight lost, but not a word about what the food is like. I have a feeling that about the only people who will frequent Mack Daddy's are the ones already on Newton's program; the rest of us don't have much to hope for there.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Cooking: Red Curry

I have a friend who is, when left to her own devices, entirely un-Chowhoundish. I invited her and her beau over to my place for dinner one night, and they turned down the invitation in favor of a trip to Olive Garden. They could have at least been a little diplomatic and said they weren't sure where they were going yet! She lived in a house with three college age guys at one point. The default meal was Hamburger Helper. She figured it was one of the few things that everyone could devour without putting her in the poor house. Something about the idea of dinner from a box scares me. Maybe it's the list of ingredients that look like they belong in a science lab, or the tendency for different flavors to taste less like the real items they're trying to emulate, and more just like each other. I'm utterly tired of mass-produced, processed junk masquerading as a wholesome meal. I want my food to resemble FOOD, darn it!

Fear not, good citizens. Your friendly local Asian grocery store is to the rescue! There's all kinds of wonderful things inside, but this time I'm focusing on curry, specifically Thai style red curry. Three styles of Thai curry are known by colorful names- Green curry, with green chilis and shallots; yellow curry, with plenty of turmeric and usually potatoes and onions as ingredients for the curry; and red curry, with red chilis. This time, I'm making red curry. There's a lot of ingredients in the curry that are pretty hard to find outside of specialty grocery stores, including galangal, lemongrass, and kaffir lime. Thankfully, red (and green and yellow) curry pastes are available with all of the herbs and spices already mixed together for you. All you need to add is some coconut milk, meat, and vegetables, and tah-dah! It's dinner!

If you can make any of those dinners in a box, you can certainly make Thai red curry. Take 3.5 ounces of curry paste (for a less spicy curry, use less curry paste, down to half as much), and moosh it around in a 12 inch skillet over medium-high heat. Then, add two cans of coconut milk one at a time, mixing thoroughly before adding the next ingredient. Add 8 ounces of any meat you like (we've been doing chicken a lot here just because I always have some frozen chicken breasts from Trader Joe's at hand), and let the mixture simmer until the meat is as done as you like. Add 4 to 8 ounces of your choice of chopped vegetables (we like carrots, onion, and snow peas quite a bit, but let your imagination go wild), let that simmer until the vegetables are done (just a couple of minutes), and serve. Yes, it's that easy, and there's only one pot to clean up afterward. Well, two pots... steamed rice on the side is essential.

Speaking of rice, here's how I do rice for any Asian meals. Mix 3 cups of water with 2 cups of rice (I use jasmine rice) and about half a teaspoon of salt. Let that boil over medium high heat until the water level drops below the surface of the rice, about 10 minutes. Cover the pot, turn the heat down to low, and let it cook for another 15 minutes. Take it off the heat, give it a quick stir/fluff to stop the cooking, and serve.

Friday, March 09, 2007

What The Jester Had For Dessert: Melt Gelato, Phoenix AZ

I have been to a godawful lot of gelaterias in the Phoenix area. They certainly are prolific. I can think of seven different companies, and close to a dozen total locations of said companies. There is now yet another player in this hot market, namely a Southern California based franchise operation called Melt (no relation to the bath and body product company of the same name). Their first location is open in Paradise Valley Mall, with a second location set to open soon in Superstition Springs Mall in Mesa.

I went over there to try it today, and was vastly underwhelmed. I was impressed by their selection, with what looked like about 32 different flavors. They offer three sizes of gelato; a one-flavor small, a two-flavor large, and the Bambino, a selection of eight mini-scoops. They do also offer espresso drinks and a variety of sweet and savory crepes; these were not tasted on this trip. Since I wanted to get as big of a taste of their product line as possible, my friend Bellana and I naturally split the Bambino. We got the double dark chocolate, strawberry cheesecake, burgundy cherry, açai mixed berry sorbet, raspberry sorbet, butter pecan, cookies & cream, and Tropical (piña colada). I also tried samples of the tequila lime gelato and pomegranate sorbet. The best of them was the açai mixed berry, but it was plagued with an iciness that often comes from the product being taken in and out of a hard freeze. Many of the gelati had a very gummy, almost gluey texture that just didn't give the right mouthfeel. On top of this, the flavors just weren't deep enough. I could barely notice a difference between the cookies & cream and the burgundy cherry if it wasn't for the telltale bits of cherry in the latter. It is one of the slicker looking gelaterias in town, coming close to rivaling the cheerful colors of Arlecchino, and the service is personable and friendly, but those will only get you so far when the product itself is lacking so much. In retrospect, I shouldn't be all that surprised. I looked at their website, and most of it is about franchis opportunities. This is definitely a Chowhound's red flag; the company shows this way that they care more about opening new locations than about creating a great product.

Melt Gelato
4568 E Cactus Road
Phoenix, AZ
Paradise Valley Mall Food Court

Open For: Lunch, Dinner
Food: 2 (textures were off, flavors need to be stronger)
Service: 3 (Nice people, and they didn't mind us sampling several flavors while we made up our minds)
Atmosphere: 4 (Clean, modern, and metallic)
Value: 3 (Right around what everyone else is charging)
Kid Friendly? 4 (Come on, it's ice cream!)
Price: 1 (inexpensive)
Overall: 3 (It was OK, certainly nothing to go out of one's way for)

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Two Great Pieces of Sushi News

I went to college down in Tucson. While there, friends introduced me to a terrific Japanese restaurant called Sushi Ten. The food was top-notch, and the prices were an outstanding value. Indeed, Sushi Ten was one of the things I really missed about Tucson; there's plenty of Japanese restaurants around town, but none that came quite close to the charm of Sushi Ten. Then, a few months ago I found out the owners of Sushi Ten were planning to sell the restaurant and move up here. A month or two ago, they landed here and opened their new restaurant, Sushi Ken, over on Chandler Boulevard a little east of 40th Street, in the same shopping centre as CK's Tavern. I am very pleased to report that the menu is every bit as expansive as the one at Sushi Ten, and the food is every bit as terrific as it was down in Tucson. My friend and I got a 12-piece sashimi sampler plate, pork katsu donburi (a rice bowl topped with fried pork cutlet, sauteed onion, and egg), and sukiyaki chicken. All of it was top-notch, and the bill came to less than 30 dollars.

Now, on to even better news. A few years ago, there was an unbelievable sushi restaurant in Chandler not far from where Sushi Ken is now, called Shinbay. Shinbay was by far the best sushi restaurant I had been to, and indeed one of the best restaurants I have dined at in my life. I can still vividly remember the flavors of the meal including oysters in black bean sauce, and mussels in a very complex broth. Then, just over a year ago, Shinbay closed up shop. There was a note on the webpage saying to email them to find out where chef Shinji Kurita was now. I tried that route, to no avail, and eventually forgot all but the Shin of his name. Then, some discussion on Chowhound revealed the rest of his name to me. I then realized that the marquee for one of my favorite Chinese restaurants, Autumn Court over on 38th Street and Indian School, has been advertising for weeks that none other than Shinji Kurita is doing sushi there! Fellow sushi lovers, you owe it to yourself to get over to Autumn Court and try Kurita-san's sushi. If it's even half as good as what he made at Shinbay it will still be some of the very best sushi in town. Go. Now. Trust me on this.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Review: Flaming Kabob Cuisine, Mesa AZ

One thing that a great many Phoenicians bemoan is the endless strip malls filled with nothing but dismal chain restaurant fare as far as the eye can see. It certainly does seem like shopping centers pop up in the blink of an eye, tempting Chowhounds valleywide with new spaces that might hold something exciting and new. Alas, such is rarely the case. Take the Mesa Grand shopping center over on Stapley in between Baseline and the Superstition freeway. Within two minutes' walking distance of each other are Panda Express, Cold Stone Creamery, Rubio's, Souper Salad, a cheesesteak chain, Chili's, Texas Roadhouse, Romano's Macaroni Grill, L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, Old Country Buffet, Pizzeria Uno, Charleston's, Fatburger, El Paso BBQ Company, and I'm sure there are more that I missed, all on a single corner. While I will admit that I get the occasional craving for some of these, for the most part they serve up boring, industrial fare that you can get at similar shopping centers just a few miles down the road. Maybe it's not exactly the same restaurants, but it's the same old song nonetheless.

Enter the ravages of time. Inevitably, a few of these national operations fall by the wayside. Maybe the franchisor had trouble. Or it could be that the people in the area just couldn't be convinced that this kind of restaurant is a good idea. For whatever the reason, the 5 & Diner location a mile down Baseline just a little east of Gilbert Road closed up shop. For a good long time, the building sat empty, waiting for a new tenant. Then one day, a Middle Eastern restaurant called Flaming Kabob Cuisine opened in the space of the old diner.

My friend Bellana and I walked into the old diner, wondering what changes they made to give it a better thematic flavor. They did... nothing. Well, almost nothing. Where condiments once stood above the expo line, there now was a wide variety of hookahs and flavored tobacco. The miniature jukeboxes disappeared from the tables, replaced by upbeat Middle Eastern dance music playing on the sound system. Any art on the walls had vanished, save two small framed automobile advertisements in the men's restroom (it looks like they were glued down very firmly indeed). It looked like you'd expect a 5 & Diner to look before the decorators came in, with red walls, glittery red and silver naugahyde booths, and glossy black ceiling fans.

We looked over the menu, trying to figure out what to try, when I spied the Combo for Two on the menu. It looked like a good way to sample most of the menu without taking home food for three days; on it were chicken and lamb kebab, chicken shawarma, shish kefta, kibbeh, falafel, dolmades, rice, green salad, and hummus, all for $22.99. We ordered that, along with a couple of cups of Chicken Lemon Rice soup ($1.99 each). The soup arrived from the kitchen quickly. We took a moment to enjoy the aroma wafting from the soup, and dove in. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't terrific either. Both Bellana and I felt that the seasonings could have used some adjustment, maybe a little paprika would give it the little nudge that it seemed to miss. However, that was the last of my worries about the food. The hummus at Flaming Kabob is serious stuff, silky smooth, loaded with a perfect balance of garlic and lemon. It's almost worth the drive out there just for the hummus. Almost. The staff was quick to bring more pita when we ran out; I felt like it would have been nice to get a bit more at the start, but at the same time bringing more as necessary keeps the warm pita from getting cold. As we almost finished the hummus, our salad arrived. It was plenty of romaine lettuce chopped into nice small pieces (Note to other restaurateurs out there: Salad is not meant to be eaten with a knife! For Pete's sake, would you mind cutting the lettuce into manageable bites?), accented with bits of tomato and cucumber. The house dressing tossed on the salad was incredible, a refreshing, lemony vinaigrette with plenty of herbs.

Before too long, the main course plate came. What a feast! One thing that I've noticed with a great number of ethnic restaurants is that they will tone down the vibrant flavors of home for a cautious American audience. Thankfully, that is not the case here. Everything spoke of plenty of seasoning. The kebab, sadly, was not flaming as one would surmise by the name of the restaurant, but it did show evidence of being cooked by some very deft flame work. Both the chicken and the lamb had a very nice crust develop on the outside, with the center of each bit of meat on the sticks succulent and flavorful. The stuffed grape leaves were the surprise smash hit for us. They were assertively seasoned, filled with rice and meat, and were definitely way more than the sum of their parts.

While I wouldn't take people there for the atmophere (c'mon guys, even a couple of travel posters would make a world of difference!), I'll certainly be back time and again to Flaming Kabob for the food. I certainly feel like I got my money's worth thanks to some of the best Middle Eastern food in the farther reaches of the East Valley. OK, so it's likely some of the only Middle Eastern food to be found out that way, but still, it's great stuff.

Flaming Kabob Cuisine
2252 E Baseline Rd
Mesa, AZ
NW Corner of Baseline and Gilbert, facing Baseline

Open For: Lunch, Dinner
Food: 5 (absolutely delicious; ardent fans of Middle Eastern cuisine may find the menu a bit pedestrian for their taste though)
Service: 3 (Friendly, eager to please; I think our waitress was a little green, but it added to the mom-n-pop charm)
Atmosphere: 1 (It would be nice if the interior didn't still scream 5 & Diner)
Value: 4 (Very satisfied with the food)
Kid Friendly? 3 (limited American kids' menu; more adventuresome wee ones should be able to order small bites off the regular menu or share one of the platters with ease, though)
Price: 1-2 (mostly inexpensive)
Overall: 4 (I liked it quite a bit)

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

New & Noteworthy Blog

Michele Laudig, the new reviewer at the Phoenix New Times, has a new blog, titled Chow Bella. Both her blog and her weekly reviews in the New Times are very nice chow writing, check 'em out.

I (heart) PBLoco

The peanut butter from PBLoco is outrageously good stuff. I have a jar of the European Cafe Mocha flavor here, and it's nearly half gone from sneaky snacking. I imagine it would make a great ice cream sauce if it was thinned out with a little bit of cream. The only thing I'm not a big fan of is the consistency; the peanut butter is a little runnier than I'd like at room temperature, and very very hard when refrigerated. Still, it's utterly delicious stuff. There's a PBLoco store at Scottsdale Fashion Square, and people close to a Super Target can find the Jungle Banana, Dark Chocolate Raspberry, and European Cafe Mocha for a buck less than the PBLoco store sells it.