One music note (pun intended) before I get to the food: Arcade Fire’s new album The Suburbs (best album I’ve heard in 2010) and their debut album Funeral are both just $5 as mp3 downloads on amazon.com, probably just through the end of the month (Sunday night). Their second album, Neon Bible, is just $5.99 as a download, but I don’t think that disc measures up – you could buy “Keep the Car Running” and call it a day.
Jason Grey has been trying to get me to try Rancho de Tia Rosa in Mesa for at least three years now, but it was never convenient until we moved to this part of the Valley. (When we were here for spring training, we’d stay in north Scottsdale, near Kierland, so heading out to eastern Mesa for dinner was a haul and would have screwed with my daughter’s bed time.) The restaurant absolutely lived up to expectations, especially since, like Ortega’s in San Diego, Tia Rosa makes their own old-school flour tortillas, the biggest delimiter for me between an ordinary Mexican restaurant and an above-average one. We’ve been there once so far, although we’re going again soon, and the portions are generous with very fresh ingredients. I ordered the carne asada, figuring I’d start with a classic dish (the menu has a mix of classics and modern Mexican cuisine); the flavor was outstanding, deep, smoky, not too salty, but unfortunately the meat had dried out a little, probably because it was slow-cooked all day and then held a little too warm for service. I don’t pay extra for ambiance, but my wife was impressed by the building and décor inside; I’m more about the tortillas and salsas and bright flavors, enough that I’m willing to give them a pass on the dryness of the main course.
In downtown Mesa on Main Street, there’s a small lunch place called Mangos that apparently keeps inconsistent hours for dinner, but for lunch it’s more of a nicer twist on a taco shop. Their fish taco is the best I’ve ever had, hot, crispy, non-greasy, with just enough seasoning, and their aguas frescas were outstanding – I went with the cashier’s recommendation, a mix of watermelon and pineapple. The shrimp taco wasn’t as good as the fish taco, mostly because it seemed undersalted, but all ingredients on both tacos were fresh, and the tacos plus beans and rice ran about $11 for more food than I could think about eating. Mangos has a sister restaurant in downtown Chandler called El Zocalo that is just a poor imitation of Tia Rosa, as expensive but with inferior product; you’re paying mostly for setting and atmosphere, and I’d rather pay for the food.
The Urban Grocery and Wine Bar at the Phoenix Public Market doesn’t have an extensive menu, but the market itself is worth checking out. At the grocery counter you can order a few sandwich items, including a roast beef sandwich that feels artisanal through all of its ingredients, from the baguette to the spicy mustard to the unusual pickles, and the sandwich is generously filled. My only complaint was that the roast beef was sliced thickly and incorrectly, resulting in a very tough product that detracted from the experience, but if that’s not the norm, it’s a steal at $7.
For pizza, I’d still call Grimaldi’s the tops among casual places in the area, but Florencia’s on Ray in Ahwautukee (near 40th) does a very solid rendition of New York-style pizza, with just a little too much sauce separating them from NYC slice-dom. The Italian sausage had a nice pronounced fennel note, and the sauce isn’t sweet as it too often is outside of New York. The pesto was a little oily for me but had a good balance of basil, garlic, and cheese. The garden salad, while basic, has always included very fresh ingredients, and the homemade balsamic dressing is solid if a touch thin.
We’ve tried three local dessert options, two of which are gelaterias. The winner there is Angel Sweet, on Chandler Blvd just east of Dobson, tucked in a strip mall with a Starbucks and a Basha’s. The owner of Angel Sweet – whom we’ve never seen – is reportedly Japanese, but I think he has an Italian soul given how incredibly smooth and precise his gelatos are. The super dark chocolate does not boast without cause, as it is about as black as the last banana with strong cocoa flavor, while the mint is actually a straciatella with an unusually round, full mint flavor. The panna cotta and crème caramel are similar, but I prefer the darker caramel notes in the panna cotta. The coconut, one of my two bellwether flavors along with dark chocolate, is bright and fresh and not too sweet. My wife and daughter are both big fans of the seasonal pumpkin pie flavor.
The other gelateria we’ve found is Enzo’s, on Ray Road, run by an emigrant from Italy who also pulls what looks like a legit shot of espresso. He’s extremely friendly, but unfortunately the gelato we had was slightly grainy and didn’t have the same powerful flavors as Angel Sweet’s. Che peccato.
Cake Cafe on Ray Rd in Ahwautukee is primarily a cupcake shop that also sells custom cakes, typically selling a dozen or so cupcake flavors on any given day. I’d call it fringe-average, not quite as good as Sprinkles (which to me is the definition of solid-average, useful since it’s likely some of you have tried it) because the cupcakes tend to be slightly dry, and the frosting portions are a little meager. The buttercreams are smooth and rich with solid flavors, as good as my own but made with (I assume) less swearing. At $2 apiece they’re actually a good value relative to what most cupcake shops charge.
Finally, to the burger debate. It started on Twitter when someone asked if I’d tried Smash Burger, which I did shortly afterwards, but devolved into a partisan Five Guys/In-n-Out argument, which I assume was geographically motivated. Smash Burger itself was a big disappointment; other than the fact that the burger was extremely hot when it reached the table, there was nothing good about the meal. The burger was greasy, but not with the rich, fulfilling flavor of beef fat – it tasted of the grill, of a thousand burgers and chicken breasts and other who-knows-what made before, a stale, slightly burned flavor that made me feel like I was in a rundown diner at 1 in the morning. The fries, covered in a rosemary-garlic mixture, weren’t fresh-cut and probably went from a freezer bag to the deep fryer. With In-n-Out here and Five Guys invading, I see no reason to think Smash Burger can succeed. Then again, I have no idea how Burger King still exists, so who knows.
As for Five Guys and In-n-Out, I stand by my assessment that Five Guys offers a better burger. Most of the counterarguments I’ve heard revolve around the In-n-Out burger package, not the meat itself. When you cook an extremely thin, tightly packed hamburger to well done, as In-n-Out does, you’re going to end up with a dry product. In-n-Out compensates for that by putting Thousand Island dressing, which at its heart is just jarred mayonnaise, on the bun, which adds fat back to the sandwich and keeps the bottom bun from getting soggy, but the burger itself is as dry as it gets. If you don’t believe me, try this experiment: Order a plain burger at both In-n-Out and Five Guys – no cheese, no condiments, no vegetation. Just the burger. Five Guys also cooks their burgers to well done – I wish they would stop at medium well – but the burger is thicker and loosely packed, so it retains some moisture and fat. I just don’t see any comparison.