Today’s installment of the offseason buyer’s guides, covering the catching market, is the end of the series. I’ll do award posts starting on Monday with Rookies of the Year.
Barrio Queen, in Old Town Scottsdale, is a spinoff of Phoenix’s Barrio Cafe, sharing some menu items but focusing more on street tacos, roughly four-inch tortillas generously filled with about 20 different options diners can choose from a sushi-style paper menu that covers beef, chicken, pork, seafood, and vegetarian fillings, all ranging from $2.50 to $5 or so. The restaurant’s signature cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork shoulder) appears in taco form, as do carnitas, grilled flank steak, mushrooms and huitlacoche (corn fungus), and smoked salmon. The carnitas taco was the best of the four I tried, with the meat shredded and slightly crispy on the edges, although the smoked salmon with roasted cactus paddle (nopal) was a close second. The mixed grilled peppers taco blew my mouth off, although that doesn’t make it a bad thing. We also tried the chili verde fries, which are just what they sound like, with pork and cheese, a little too over the top for me although the chili verde itself was delicious. The food itself destroys any other tacos I’ve had in the Valley save downtown’s Gallo Blanco, and the prices are comparable to and even below some well-reviewed places like the overrated La Condesa.
Distrito, in the Saguaro hotel just up Drinkwater from Scottsdale Stadium (where the Giants train), also goes for a Mexican street food vibe, but the dishes are more complex and upscale, with price points to match. The mahi-mahi tacos ($14) come three to an order, with large pieces of fried fish on top of chipotle remoulade and a red cabbage slaw on top. Their cochinita pibil ($12) comes already sliced, which is a little odd, but the meat was tender and was served with a slow-cooked pineapple achiote sauce that was actually even better the next day. Their huarache de hongos ($10) flatbread includes mixed wild mushrooms as well as huitlacoche and a topping of melted mild white cheeses. The guacamole ($10) with cotija cheese was silently spicy but also had some of the creamiest avocadoes I have ever tried, giving them a faintly sweet taste as well. We tried one of the vegetable sides, the esquites ($6), sweet corn served off the cob, tossed with lime and queso fresco, served on a bed of chiptole aioli (probably the same that’s under the mahi mahi), a fork-friendly equivalent to the charred corn with cotija and paprika dish that’s become very trendy across the U.S. over the last few years. The one dish that fell a little short for me was the queso fundido ($12), duck barbacoa with roasted chilies served under a sheet of melted cheeses; the flavor of the duck itself completely disappeared under the cumin, red peppers, and poblanos.
While I’m still covering Scottsdale, I’ll throw in yet another endorsement of Baratin Cafe, which might be the single best value in the Valley because you’re getting very high-end ingredients and preparations for roughly $10 per salad or sandwich. The catch is that the menu changes daily and it is small – one salad, one sandwich, one “potted” (forcemeat or pate) or pickled dish, a snack, a starter, a vegetarian plate, and a dessert. I’ve been four times, always showing up with no idea what would be on the menu, ordered the sandwich each time, and have been thrilled with everything, even the day the sandwich was vegetarian and built around eggplant, probably my least favorite vegetable (technically a berry) of all. Baratin piggybacks on the purchasing power and prowess of FnB, which is just around the corner on Craftsman, but you can get in and out of Baratin at about half the cost of its more sophisticated sibling. If you’re staying in Old Town and are an open-minded eater, this is the one place I’d encourage you to hit above all others.
Moving over to Phoenix, Chris Bianco’s newest place, bearing the Google-unfriendly moniker Italian Restaurant, opened earlier this year in the Town and Country shopping center just off route 51 between Highland and Camelback. The focus here is on house-made fresh pastas produced from Arizona-grown wheat and served with simple, mostly traditional sauces that rely on fresh ingredients, with the menu changing frequently to reflect seasonal items. We started with the farinata, a traditional Italian crepe made from chickpea flour and cooked in a very hot cast-iron skillet until crispy. Italian Restaurant’s version includes red onions, black olives, and sage leaves, balancing the sweetness and tang of the onions with the brininess of the olives and the earthiness of the chickpea flour and sage, bringing a very satisfying crunch from the high heat to which it’s exposed during cooking. (You can try this very similar recipe if you want to make it at home as I’ve done.)
For the entree, I went with the papardelle bolognese, which is among my favorite sauces but one I rarely eat because it’s so often done poorly – overcooked, made with too much cream, made only with beef, made with cheap tomatoes, whatever. Bianco’s place does it right, starting with giant sheets of pasta closer in dimensions to lasagna, cooked just barely to al dente, served with a vibrant red sauce without the heaviness of most bolognese attempts (including a few of my own at home). My parents were visiting that week, and my mother chose the cavatelli with Schreiner’s sausage, roasted cauliflower, and spring onions; the sausage and pasta combination was a perfect marriage, with the al dente cavatelli bringing a bready texture to the meat, although the cauliflower was overrun by other flavors in the dish. Portions are generous but not unfinishable and prices are reasonable for the quality you’re getting, with each pasta dish running $15.
I also tried Chris Bianco’s legendary sandwich shop, Pane Bianco, and was a little disappointed, at least compared to the high expectations I’d gotten from friends who’ve tried it. The bread was what let me down, which is shocking since Bianco is known for his pizza doughs and uses a similar formula for the focaccia at Pane Bianco. Mine was dry and lacked the soft sponginess of good focaccia, so while it absorbed some of the olive oil from the mayo-less tuna salad, it was too chewy and made the whole sandwich feel heavy. All five of these places appeared in Phoenix magazine’s list of the 20-odd best new restaurants of 2012.
To the east valley … if you’re going to a Cubs or Mesa Solar Sox day game, my new recommendation for a pregame meal is Urban Picnic on Main Street, less than ten minutes’ drive from the ballpark, offering a modest menu of hot (pressed, but not smashed) and cold sandwiches, made on these amazing baguettes, soft on the inside with a crust that shatters upon impact. I’ve tried two sandwiches, the mozzarella caprese and the roast beef with horseradish, both of which are outstanding, although I wish the mozzarella was fresher – it’s not quite the hard moisture-reduced stuff you get at your generic megamart, but it’s not as soft as even a good-quality cow’s-milk mozzarella is. The fruit cup you can get on the side is tiny but the fruit within has always been sweet and was obviously cut that morning. The only item I didn’t like was the fresh lavender lemonade, which was like sucking on a flower.
Pitta Souvli, located at Germann and Alma School just south of the 202′s Santan portion in Chandler, wins the prize for best Greek/Mediterranean place we’ve found so far, with everything solid but the small plates really shining. Their baba ghanoush is a powerful mixture of smoky, tart, and garlicky flavors that will have you radiating allyl methyl sulfide from your pores for days. The avgolemono – a soup made from chicken stock, lemon juice, rice, and eggs that are beaten into the hot stock to make a thick, cloudy end product – has bright lemon flavors and the thick, slightly uneven texture that the soup should have if the rice is fully cooked and the eggs are added slowly enough. Their souvlaki is a slightly mixed bag, with the meats a little overcooked for my tastes, more of a problem with the chicken (white meat, so it dries out) than with the pork. They also get points for using thick, better-quality pitas that can stand up to heat and to thick dips like the baba ghanoush and the hummus, which is topped with a bright peppery olive oil.
And finally, to Surprise, where there’s finally a good, fairly quick, non-chain option near the ballpark: Saigon Kitchen, the best Vietnamese restaurant I’ve found out here and another restaurant in Phoenix magazine’s list. I’m a little boring when it comes to Vietnamese food because I nearly always order the bun, steamed vermicelli topped with some sort of grilled, highly marinated meat, served with a sweet/savory sauce based on nam pla (a salty Asian fish sauce that’s very high in umami) along with bean sprouts, shredded vegetables, mint leaves, and sometimes peanuts. What Saigon Kitchen does differently from most places is create blocks of a highly spiced (but not spicy) pork meatloaf, as opposed to fatty slices of pork, baking the meat at a low temperature before finishing it on the flat-top to give it some color. It’s tricky to eat with chopsticks because the blocks are so large, but the added flavor and improved texture make it completely worth it. It’s busy at lunch but I haven’t seen it packed, probably because of all the competition from crappy chains next door to it on Bell Road, and the food comes pretty quickly.