Thursday, December 10, 2009

Review: Smashburger, Tempe AZ

Jeez, it's about time I updated this thing. JUNE? Really? Pioneer Woman churns out updates with LOTS of photos every single day, and I can't be bothered to write about a restaurant or cooking for six months. At least I got to meet PW on her book tour. She's an awfully nice lady. Anyway, the title of this post isn't What The Hell The Jester's Been Up To All This Time (hint about other things that happened: Aim your car's airbag at your chest, not your face), it's about a brand new burger place in the heart of Tempe.

Before Smashburger even opened, there were press releases in my inbox about this brand new burger place opening on campus just yards away from long-time (Over 278 Sold!) college favorite The Chuckbox. When I looked at their website and saw that they are hellbent on opening franchised locations across the country, I was a little nervous. When I saw that it was opening in the same strip of restaurants that included such dreary options as Port of Subs and Panda Express, I would have bet you pot brownies to pound cake that Smashburger would be anything but a smash hit.

My friend Blaze and I wandered in on an unseasonably warm autumn Arizona evening. I was in the mood for something classic, so I got their 1/3 lb. Classic Smashburger (American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, ketchup, and Smash sauce on an egg bun; $4.99) and an order of Smashfries ($1.79 when ordered with a burger, $2.79 a la carte), which are fries tossed with garlic and herbs. Blaze was feeling as fiery as ever, so she went for the Arizona Smashburger (habañero jack, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, onion, fresh jalapeños, and chipotle mayo on a chipotle bun $5.99) in the same size. For her side, she was feeling a little healthy, so she went for the veggie frites ($2.99/$3.99). After a quick trip to the soda fountain (Woohoo, they have Coke Zero!), we settled into one of the booths by the window overlooking all of the nubile coeds and virile gents strolling up and down College Avenue.

A short time later (maybe a bit less time than one has to wait at the In-N-Out up Rural Road), our chow hit the table and our eyes lit up. The minimalist plating, a wax paper lined steel basket free of garnishes such as the silly shredded carrots and beets at Delux, only focused our attention on the matter at hand that much more. I flipped the toppings onto the bottom half of the burger and dug in. I was blown away. This burger was as close to perfection as I've seen. The patty had a nice sear on it but was still juicy, the toppings were fresh and crisp, and they gave the bun a good buttering and toasting before they assembled the whole thing. The fries were delicious too. But then, anything deep-fried and covered with garlic is going to be tasty. I think Blaze liked her burger. When I got up from the table to refill my beverage, I came back to see her burger GONE and she's staring like a starving hyena at what's left of my burger. I can only take that as a good sign. I quizzed her about it to make sure she didn't just inhale the thing. She said that the fresh jalapeños were much better than the canned ones you see on top of bad nachos, and that next time she's ordering it with extra jalapeño. She also remarked that she wasn't a fan of the chipotle bun because it didn't hold up all that well under the juicy burger and all the toppings. I'm not sure how she could figure that out; I think I couldn't have hummed the Jeopardy theme in the time it took her to devour that burger. She then set her eyes on the veggie frites, and took a bit more time to enjoy those. I was expecting to see a tempura style batter on the vegetable pieces, but instead the asparagus, green beans, and carrot sticks were fried au naturel, and finished with a sprinkle of salt and some ranch dressing for our dipping pleasure. We were both quite fans of these. The frying helped caramelize the natural sugars in the veggies, and gave them quite a delicious flavor. They weren't crispy like the Smashfries were (of course they weren't, these veggies aren't high in starch like Russet potatoes), but they certainly weren't cooked to death either. I look forward to future visits to see if a normal side salad can be as interesting.

The total bill for both of us was just shy of $20. While that's fairly high for a quick-service burger joint, I still felt it was a great value. The burgers were better than they had any right to be for a burgeoning nationwide chain, and everything else about the place was just right. I'm quite curious about their salads and hot dogs to see if they're up to the same par as the burgers. Maybe I can convince myself to try one of their Häagen-Dazs milkshakes by getting myself a salad for my entree so the two can cancel each other out.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Red Mango Scottsdale: NOW OPEN!

Good news for all of you fans of Korean style tangy frozen yogurt: The original, Red Mango, has finally opened its first Phoenix area outpost. It's on the northwest corner of Scottsdale and Loop 101, adjacent to Panda Express and Subway. This is a soft opening; the grand opening is June 20th. If you enjoy froyo, go check 'em out. Be warned, it's adictive stuff. I went last night, had myself a medium original (best described as yogurt-flavored frozen yogurt) topped with raspberries and mochi. I didn't even make it to the freeway before I found myself making a beeline right back to Red Mango for a little more.

Friday, May 29, 2009

I got Name-Dropped!

"[The Jester]. . .concocts the best Mai Tai outside the Hawaiian Islands."
--Scottsdale Examiner

Yeah, it was pretty much a puff piece, but I'm still taking the quote and running with it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I Got A Grill!

Not just any grill, mind you. I went and got myself a Big Green Egg. It's sort of the home version of the Chinese wood-fired oven we use at work. The main difference is that the BGE goes back to Japan, while the Chinese wood-fired oven is, well... Chinese. I have some beer-butt chicken going right now (wherein one takes a can of beer and jams it up a chicken's back end, creating an impromptu vertical roaster) and some baked potatoes. After that, I'm going to turn up the heat and bake a loaf of bread. There was temptation to also make some peach cobbler, but I'll save that for another time. Wish me luck!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Recipe: Monsoon Chili

If you've been reading the blog for a while, you know that one of my most often used cookbooks in my kitchen is the Nantucket Open-House Cookbook by Sarah Leah Chase. There are some seriously good recipes in there. Several of her Thanksgiving ideas turned into traditions last year. A couple of days ago, I got in the mood for chili, so I took a look at the recipe for Rainwater Chili and gave it a shot. Turns out it's some darn good chili. Much like Chase said in the book, it was even better the next day and makes for incredible nachos. There were a couple of things that I felt like changing a bit with the recipe, so I've taken those liberties and christened it for Arizona's most beloved source of rainwater, the monsoon.

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 large Spanish onions, chopped

1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 red or yellow bell pepper, seeded and diced
3 jalapeños, seeded and minced
5 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup chili powder
2 Tbsp ground cumin
2 Tbsp dried oregano
1 Tbsp sweet paprika
1 Tbsp hot paprika
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
3 Tbsp cocoa powder

2 lbs chuck roast, cut into 3/4 inch cubes (or 2 lbs ground chuck roast if you don't feel like cutting up all that meat)
3/4 lb sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
3/4 lb hot Italian sausage, casings removed

1-28 ounce can whole tomatoes
1-14 ounce can diced tomatoes
1/2 cup reposado tequila
1 bottle beer
2 cups chicken broth (or you can do what I do and cheat this with 2 teaspoons of chicken base)

Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Heat oil over medium-high heat in a big pot (at least 5 quarts, preferably 6). Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until very soft, about 10 minutes.

Add peppers, jalapeños, and garlic, and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 7 minutes. Add all of the seasonings and cocoa and cook, stirring occasionally, until aromatic and dark, about 3 minutes. Remove pan from the heat.

While vegetables are cooking, brown beef and sausage, crumbling the meat up with a spoon, until no longer pink. Strain off excess fat, and add meat to pot. Return pot to medium heat. Stir in tomatoes (crush the whole tomatoes with the back of a spoon or your hands), tequila, beer, and chicken broth. Simmer uncovered for 60 minutes if you're using the chicken base, 90 minutes if you're using the broth. Check the seasonings near the end of the cooking time, and add salt and black pepper to taste.

Accompany the chili with your choice of sour cream, shredded cheese, diced onion, diced tomatoes, and diced avocados.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Why the chain disdain?

In the comments on my post about The Greek Wraps in Peoria, I got an excellent question from Sean of South Bend, Indiana. I think that answering a thoughtful question deserves a better fate than getting buried in a comment thread. Sean writes...

I wonder, though; do you have any favorable opinion of any of the chains? I've always thought that Chevy's did a servicable interpretation of TexMex and was a better experience overall than some of the local places and regional chains (ie Soranos in Mesa or Ajo Als). I still love Blue Nile Cafe any time I'm in town, and would tend to privilige an independtly owned, and especially chef driven, restaurant over a chain but chains (at least some of them) still have their virtues.

The main problem with most chain restaurants is that they are publicly held companies. Once a company does that, the big food decisions are no longer being made in the kitchen by the owners. They're being made by stockholders in boardrooms. The absolute best example is Cheesecake Factory. I still remember the first time I went to one. I got orange chicken, took a bite, and my very first thought of any food at Cheesecake Factory was "This used to taste better". You could just tell that anything someone might not like about the dish got tossed ("It's too spicy!" "It's too tart!"), and the end result was a pale ghost of what the dish could have been. Since the major decisions are now being made by marketing wonks who run focus groups, everything interesting about a dish gets tossed in favor of something safe. To me, it's a little bit like American Idol: The person who wins isn't necessarily the best singer, but the singer with the broadest mass appeal. Sure, the record may sound like every other pop record on the rack, but they know it's going to sell.

That right there is why massive chain restaurants are so popular: They're safe. You can walk into any Olive Garden in the country and know that the fettuccine Alfredo there is going to be exactly the same as the fettuccine Alfredo you have back home. The thing is, within ten minutes' driving time from each of these two Olive Garden locations on opposite sides of the country, the odds are good that there's going to be a mom-n-pop neighborhood red sauce joint that not only serves up Alfredo that's a million times better than the Alfredo at Olive Garden, but also happens to make a really mean veal scaloppine... or pizza quattro stagioni... or some other fabulous dish. And you know darn well that the mom and pop behind the restaurant can't believe that the line goes out the door at Olive Garden while there's always a table available at their place.

All this isn't to say that all chains suck... just the vast majority of them. There are some chains I do enjoy. In-N-Out Burger and Chik-Fil-A are both very good restaurants. Mimi's has been reliable for a great many years, especially at breakfast. This is one of the exceptions to publicly owned chains. This is because when Bob Evans bought them out, they didn't screw with the already successful formula very much. Moral of the story: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I've heard Mimi's is shooting for a more upscale angle lately, but I haven't been in to check it out yet. As long as they keep serving mimosas, I'll be a happy camper. I will readily admit that I enjoy the occasional late-night breakfast at Waffle House. Yes, Waffle House. I wouldn't be caught dead there during the day, but going at 2 AM, getting taken care of by the world-weary chain-smoking waitress with a hair color not known in the natural world, while you tuck into a double order of hash browns topped with chili, tomatoes, cheese, onions, and god knows what else... there ain't nothing like it.

Like Sean said, Chevy's is pretty good, certainly a step above most chains. The problem around here with Chevy's is that good Mexican restaurants in Phoenix are a dime a dozen. Why bother with imitations when the real deal is right around the corner? I will agree that Chevy's is better than Serrano's and Ajo Al's, but then, I've always thought that Serrano's was the redheaded stepchild to other local chains such as Mi Amigo's and Macayo. Ajo Al's is solamente para las turistas.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Review: The Greek Wraps, Peoria AZ

Settling into the new house is going pretty well. The kitchen is ready for prime time, as is most of the house. The big game room in the back is currently finding use as an enormous walk-in storage unit. All of this busy work left me ready for a vacation, but those take a little planning and I wanted one NOW. Well, it's now past tense, so I suppose it would be better to say I wanted one RIGHT THEN, but that doesn't have the same punch as wanting it NOW, n'est-çe pas? Anyway, for the first time in several years there's actually a movie in theatres that I want to go see: Coraline in 3-D. I looked up movie times for it and it turns out that it's playing in 3-D at places all around the edge of town, plus Arizona Mills. Since I have friends up towards Peoria that I haven't seen in a while, I fired off an invitation to come see the movie with me and headed on my merry way up to the area of Arrowhead Towne Center.

A few moments after I picked up tickets for the late showing, my friends called to let me know that they already had people over but I was more than welcome to join them. Since I already had my ticket for the show, this was not an option. I now found myself with close to two hours to kill, and a completely open dance card. I stopped by the mall and made a beeline for See's to pillage the post-Valentine's Day chocolate. A couple of oversized chocolate Bordeaux hearts later, I found myself getting quite hungry. The food court looked as unappealing as ever, so I trekked out to survey the surrounding area.

A few moments of reconnaissance showed that selections in the area are awfully bleak. Turns out the Arrowhead area is the third circle of chain restaurant hell. Cheesecake Factory, PF Chang's, Chevy's, Buca di Beppo, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, you name it. Since I was on my own, I didn't want to succumb to mediocrity. I knew of a couple of places on the other side of the 101 along Union Hills, but I decided to see what I could find that was interesting and new. It turned out I wouldn't have to look for as long as I thought I would. There, tucked away in a strip mall (It's Arrowhead, there's nothing but strip malls and tract housing for miles!) on the southeast corner of 75th Avenue and Bell, was a decidedly non-chain looking sign for a place called The Greek Wraps. I pondered for a moment, decided gyros sounded like a tasty idea, and brought the Jestermobile in for a landing.

I arrived just in the nick of time, 15 minutes before closing. The place looked vaguely chain-y, but not overly so. I'd almost be willing to bet that a failed franchise (maybe two) didn't take root in the space, and all the new owners had to do was put up framed prints of the Greek isles. You wouldn't have guessed they were winding down the business day from the business level in the restaurant. There was a slow but steady stream of people coming in either for take-out or a quick sit-down bite. A look at the menu hanging over the counter showed the usual suspects: Shawarma, hummus, falafel, gyros, et cetera. The different offerings were available either as a sandwich (with sundry toppings, wrapped in pita bread; fries and drink are an optional extra) or as a plate (served with rice, hummus, and a small salad). The menu also showed something I was absolutely thrilled to see: They make their own pita bread. Not only do they make their own pita bread, they bake it fresh to order.

I perused the menu, and thought that steak shawarma ($6.99 for the 10" wrap; a smaller 7" pita is $5.75) sounded absolutely delicious. It's hard to resist when the menu says they use "The original recipe from back home". Turned out everyone else that day thought it sounded delicious too, as they were all out of it for the night. The chicken shawarma ($6.25 and $4.99, respectively) was made by the same recipe, so I went with that instead. A little extra nibble sounded nice, so I added on a falafel appetizer ($1 for two pieces). I put together an Arnold Palmer from the self-serve beverage machine (my only quibble is the iced tea is the pre-made Gold Peak instead of fresh-brewed), checked my watch to make sure I had enough time to make it to the theatre (I still had an hour to go), and a few minutes later my shawarma was ready.

The falafel was piping hot out of the fryer, just the way it should be. I think the fryer could have been a wee bit hotter as they were just a little bit oily, but not unpleasantly so. The shawarma was utterly divine. Their use of chicken thighs kept the meat flavorful and juicy. The shawarma marinade was vibrant, and the pita... oh, the pita. I can't even begin to tell you what a difference freshly made pita bread makes. I may have to come in for some hummus and a huge stack of pita bread some time soon, never mind that the place is 15 miles from my house. The fries were the archetype Greek restaurant fries, same ones you'll find at every other casual Greek place in town. They were hot and crisp, really can't ask much more than that from a fry, can you? All told, I was absolutely thrilled with the meal I had at The Greek Wraps. The people who run the place care about the product they put out, and it shows. I'm looking for any excuse to get back up towards Arrowhead just so I can try more things on the menu. Maybe I'll go see Coraline again...

Oh, speaking of Coraline, go catch it in theatres while you can... especially in 3D. It's a trip and a half.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Stopping for a drink: Hanny's, Phoenix AZ

I recently got together with a friend for dinner in downtown Phoenix, and remembered that I'd been wanting to stop in at Hanny's to check out the place. The food menu does look tempting, but as I'd just finished a rather hearty dinner, more sustenance was not on the bill. The place used to be a men's clothing store back in its day, and the new owners wisely kept some of the decorative touches, giving a certain urban sophistication that was much appreciated. As with the owners' other local restaurant, AZ88, the restrooms are almost worth the trip on their own. I can't imagine how much of a nightmare it would be to navigate one's way to the loo if you're three sheets to the wind. After perusing my surroundings, I sidled up to the bar and perused the cocktail selections, only to be promptly dismayed that there were no after-dinner libations. There was some temptation to try ordering a Stinger or a Rusty Nail (either of which would certainly befit the atmosphere), but I have a feeling that our bartender who appeared barely of drinking age would have given me a blank stare.

Further observation of the boy behind the stick leads me to believe that anything more than what was on the menu would be met with the aforementioned blank stare, as he proved himself to be out of his league. I ordered a Cosmopolitan, and watched him go to work. Out from the chiller came a pleasantly small Art Deco era size cocktail glass. I'm glad to see a cocktail glass that size. Huge drinks are a bad bet all around. The last half of the drink is room temperature, and you can't have more than one without having to be poured out the door. A cobbler shaker was produced, and was filled with ice. His hands were all over the ice in the shaker. I was tempted to give him a hell of a tongue-lashing about it, but I was with genteel company. Le sigh. He then continued to show his ineptitude by using the glass for my friend's gin & tonic as the ice scoop. I don't really need to mention this faux pas to the bartender. He'll learn his own lesson on a busy Friday night when he tries to scoop the ice with the glass, and it breaks into the ice. I've had to clean up that mess, and to say it is not pleasant is mild. With the freshly handled ice in the shaker, he then started pouring for a modern sized cocktail, i.e. too big for the small glass. He gave it four shakes. Bartenders, heed me well: Shake the hell out of your drinks! They're supposed to be freezing cold! If you think your hands are stuck to the shaker because it's so cold, you're doing it right. The cocktail was then poured to the brim in my glass, and I watched about a third of the potion go down the sink because there was no more room left in the glass. This was absolutely a crying shame. You made that much booze for me, why is such a significant portion of what should by MY drink going as an offering to Bacchus? The drink itself was, as is almost always the case, too sweet. It tasted less like the heavenly potion it should be, more like limeade. On the bright side, he didn't stub his toe on the cranberry juice like so many bartenders do.

I am tempted to return some time for the food, but after watching the bartender I'm not sure if I can bring myself to do so. If the people making things in the front of the house are either green behind the ears to the point that they should still be doing backbar (or worse, just don't care), I'm not sure I can trust the back of the house to do a significantly better job.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Peoria: A Lee Lee That's New, and Churros, Too!

Over the last few weeks, I have embarked on the adventure of home ownership. There's so much to do! One of the things I have recently done is upgrade the audio in the living room to a 5.1 surround system. To do this, I ended up going out to Arrowhead Towne Center on the northwest end of town. I decided to go have a little adventure on the way back and take arterial streets instead of hopping on the freeway.

As I ambled down 75th Avenue, I was most pleased find on the southwest corner of 75th Ave and Cactus the second location of Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket. They are already a favorite destination of mine when I'm in Chandler; it's great to know there's a new one just as far from my house in the other direction. That night, the only thing I really needed to stock up on was soy sauce. My favorite brand right now is Lee Kum Kee Double Deluxe, and I was thrilled to see that they carry it in the 500 milliliter bottles for $2.99. If you haven't tried the Double Deluxe, it's a great product. Only five ingredients: Water, salt, soy, sugar, and wheat. The depth of flavor is noticeable compared to, say, Kikkoman. I also picked up some great looking lemons and limes (20 cents each! Take that, Fry's and Safeway!), and nearly bought some flank steak and beef tenderloin for a song ($3-something and $5-something a pound, respectively), but the kitchen here at the new place isn't quite up to having people over for dinner yet.

Once I was done at Lee Lee, I continued south on 75th Avenue. My eyes scanned the horizon in search of new culinary delights in what is considered foodie wasteland by quite a few chowhounds. If things didn't pan out in search of dinner, there was always a decend sandwich to be had Which Wich? at Westgate. I didn't make it that far. There, on the southwest corner of 75th Avenue and Peoria, was a new place called Churro Station. A new eatery that specializes in churros? Count me in!

A scan of the menu told me that this was a pretty simple operation. The two main items are churros, and sandwiches. They do also have ceviche tostadas and smoothies. While I wasn't in the mood for a sandwich, they should be pretty good... the meat is from Boar's Head, the bread is from Simply Bread, how can you go wrong with a combination like that? I had myself a ceviche tostada, a regular churro, and a churro filled with cajeta. Everything was nice. The tostada was quite messy to eat since the tortilla cracked, and the shredded cabbage base tried to keep everything together, but I'd almost certainly order one again. The churros were decent. The batter was lighter and crunchier than the garden-variety frozen churros, but I'd love to see them come fresh out of the fryer instead of from under a heat lamp. All told, it was well worth the six bucks, and if I was in the area again I'd almost certainly stop in for at least a churro.

Now that my appetite had been sated, it was time to head back to the house. I don't know when I'll be back in the Arrowhead area, but at least now I have a good excuse to go that way with the new Lee Lee location up there.