Today’s column at ESPN ranks the top ten prospects in contenders’ organizations by their current trade value. I’ll be back on the podcast on Wednesday.
Chou’s Kitchen in northwest Chandler, at Warner and Alma School, serves regional Chinese cuisine from northeastern China, known as dongbei cai, from the area generally known in English as Manchuria. Because the climate in the area is less favorable for growing rice than that of central and southern China, northeastern Chinese cooking includes more wheat, which means lots of dumplings, including the thick, doughy filled dumplings known as baozi. Chou’s version is less doughy than the baozi I’ve had elsewhere and was more like an oversized “potsticker,” meaning a better ratio of filling (pork and vegetables) to dough. I preferred those to the “meat pies,” large discs with a thinner dough and the same filling (they also offer beef, shrimp, or vegetable fillings), fried on both sides, with more meat and less dough – still good, but not as balanced as the baozi. Their version of tiger salad (lao hu cai) incorporates sliced fresh green cabbage and peanuts with the traditional combination of cilantro, scallions, and chili pepper, with enough to serve two people and a great balance of acidity, heat, and sweetness. All of that food – more than I was able to finish – cost about $17 before tip, and the service was very attentive; the owner even came out to ask me how I’d found them. They’re in Phoenix magazine’s current issue, listing over great “cheap eats” from around the Valley.
And so is My Arepa, which shares a space with a Rosati’s Pizza, a strange arrangement that didn’t give me great confidence when I entered. The food was very good, and apparently they’ve got a small following among Venezuelan Cubs players, with signed photos from several on the walls (including Carlos Zambrano and Angel Guzman). The menu is enormous but we ordered one item from the three main categories – one arepa, one empanada, and one cachapa. Arepas are thin pancakes made from ground corn meal, sliced the long way and filled like a sandwich. My Arepa’s masa is made from white corn, so it’s pretty bland (I’ve had yellow-corn arepas a few times and prefer them, but I guess that’s not authentic), with the fillings – braised shredded beef, sweet plantains, and black beans – more than making up for the dough’s lack of flavor. The cachapa, a yellow-corn pancake with kernels in the batter, folded in half like an omelette and filled, was the best item we tried, sweet from both the corn kernels and from caramelization on the griddle, with the same options for the fillings as the arepas. The place itself is pretty bare-bones, from the furniture to the décor, and could probably use a little facelift. Both Chou’s and My Arepa are inside of 15 minutes from HoHoKam.
Also in that Phoenix magazine feature was Baratin Cafe, located in Old Town Scottsdale just off 5th street, in a walkway across Craftsman from Citizen Public House. Baratin’s menu is as small as they come, changing daily, with one starter, one salad, one sandwich, one vegetarian option, one “potted” entree, and one dessert. The day I went, the starter was roasted tomatoes and garlic with basil, olive oil, and grilled slices of rosemary-olive bread, and the sandwich was a pulled pork with spicy whole-grain mustard, sliced apples, and cole slaw on a crispy flatbread from Mediterra Bakehouse in Coolidge. Business is slow everywhere here in the summer, but it can’t be a good sign that I was the only customer at 6 pm on a Saturday evening – this place is far too good for that, and quite reasonably priced for some of the highest-quality ingredients I’ve come across out here, about $18 for those two items plus a drink.
Tortas Paquime in Avondale is one of the few independent restaurants I’ve found on the west side worth hitting, close to the Glendale stadium and on the way from my house to Goodyear, serving, of course, tortas, Mexican sandwiches on soft white bread (they also offer whole wheat) with the usual array of meat fillings. Torta ahogada (“drowned” in sauce) is the most traditional, but I went for the cochinita pibil with “everything” – avocado, tomato, lettuce, jalapeno (and a lot of it), and mayo, served with a handful of homemade potato chips for $5.49. This pork was still tender and had a good balance of acidity and smokiness from the achiote, nicely cut by the fats from the avocado and mayonnaise. They also offer tacos, various pastries, and six flavors of agua fresca.
Il Bosco is a new, tiny, wood-fired pizza shop in north Scottsdale, tucked into a strip mall on a side street on the northeast corner of Scottsdale and Shea. Their site says they cook their pizzas at 900 degrees, but I chatted with the pizzaiolo a little bit and he said he’s found the ideal temperature is between 700 and 800, which produces a pizza somewhere between Italian style (ultra thin crust, more charring on the outside) and New York style (moderately thin crust, toppings cooked a little further). The menu is small and simple, with a handful of standard pizzas plus a daily special; that option on the night we went was superb: homemade meatballs, sliced thinly like sausages, with three cheeses and rapini, a vegetable I don’t usually like unless it’s cooked at a hot enough temperature to bring out some of its sugars. The salads are extremely fresh and the restaurant grows its own herbs in pots out back. The service was off the charts, and the owner even let my daughter come behind the counter and see how some of the equipment worked while she poured her own drink.
I’ve mentioned Frost Gelato on Twitter as our new favorite gelateria in the Valley, just barely edging out Angel Sweet (which we do still love). Frost, located in the Santan Mall, has two locations in Tucson as well as one in Chicago now, and was started by two U of A alumni who hired – and somehow secured a “special skills” O-1 visa for – an Italian gelato chef to help them devise the recipe. The gelato’s texture is perfect and their flavors are strong, including dark chocolate, salted caramel, and coconut, with only the bitter, extract-y mint chocolate chip disappointing so far.
La Condesa Gourmet Tacos made Phoenix magazine’s list of the best new restaurants of 2011 and was recommended by several friends of mine who rave about its salsa bar, which is quite extensive. But the food itself was very disappointing. The cochinita pibil tasted of nothing but vinegar, while the carne asada was tough and surprisingly bland. Worse, however, was the corn tortillas themselves: If you aren’t making the tortillas fresh in-house, you’re not a “gourmet” taco shop. These were the same tortillas I could buy at Target in a package of 30 for $2. Stop spending so much time on strawberry salsa and start making tortillas from scratch (and grilling them, while we’re at it), and then we can talk.