I tried a handful of new (to me) restaurants on my two-week trip to Arizona, but was a little limited in choices because I had the family with me and we chose to stay further out of town to be closer to friends near where we used to live (and to save the company a little money too). I did get to a few spots I’d been dying to try, and have a few new recommendations for those of you still out there.
Isabel’s Amor is a brand-new authentic Mexican restaurant in western Gilbert, on the northeast corner of Williams Field and Val Vista, and it’s spectacular, offering what I interpreted as Mexican comfort food with very fresh ingredients. We went with two starters, starting with their salsa trio, featuring a fresh vegetable salsa, a tomatillo-avocado pureed salsa, and a chunkier mango-jalapeño salsa; all three were good, none as spicy as the thin red salsa that came gratis, with the mango salsa my personal favorite for the perfect sweet-sour-spice balance and brightness of the mango flavor. Their Mexican street corn (elotes) was outstanding, roasted corn kernels served with cotija cheese, chili powder, cilantro, and a dollop of mayonnaise on top; you’re supposed to stir it all together to form the sauce, which I found produced a better result than the standard version where it’s mixed in the kitchen and can end up very watery by the time it reaches the table. For the entrees, my wife ordered the chili verde, made with beef braised in a dark green chile sauce, mildly spicy, a dish my wife compared favorably (and accurately) to pot roast, Mexican-style. I ordered the pescado de la parrilla, a fillet of corvina drum (fish) heavily marinated in lime juice and tequila and then grilled, served with that same mango-jalapeño salsa, along with sides of rice and your choice of beans. The fish tasted of lime and tequila more than anything, and had the slightly translucent look of fish that has been marinated for a long time before cooking, so the flavors were amazing but the texture wasn’t quite up to the same level. I was very impressed by the black beans, which were al dente rather than the mush I’m used to getting even at decent Mexican restaurants, and the fresh flour tortillas are incredible – someone’s grandmother is clearly making these by hand every morning, probably with lard given how good they taste. I was shocked to find out that the family behind Isabel’s is also reponsible for Someburros, one of the many chains of mediocre Mexican food that pollute the valley, but it appears that someone grew a culinary conscience and decided to offer the public a higher-quality product.
The Welcome Diner is a hipster spot – there’s no other way to describe it, that’s not even an insult, it just is. There are a couple of seats inside at a counter but most of the seating is outside at picnic tables, and the menu is short, mostly burgers and fried-chicken-and-biscuit options. The fried chicken on a biscuit is a bit over the top, really, even the fairly simple option I got – local honey, mustard, and bread and butter pickles, piled on a huge chunk of fried chicken breast, served on a very rich biscuit that couldn’t hold together when I tried to cut the whole thing like a sandwich. The components were all good, but eaten together were too rich and very heavy. My wife ordered a burger well-done – I’ve told her that this is a cardinal sin, but she won’t listen – and received something short of medium. The fries were excellent, though, clearly just cut and fried to order. Remember to wear your vintage clothes, though.
Republica Empanada in downtown Mesa was the other great new find of the trip, serving a number of perfectly-fried
hot pockets pastries filled with a variety of meats, traditional and otherwise. I stuck with the traditional options, one with pernil (slow-roasted pork shoulder) and one with chicken and vegetables. Both came with a green dipping sauce that I believe contained tomatillos, cilantro, and a little chili pepper. They also make wonderful maduros, the fried sweet plantains that are among my favorite foods on the planet, serving eight large pieces for just $5. The mere fact that the empanadas are fried and not greasy makes them above-average, and the fact that they had a chicken offering that wasn’t dry or bland pushes them even higher. Two of them and the maduros was a small lunch; three might have been a little too much for me.
I didn’t get to try noca, one of the best-reviewed restaurants in Phoenix proper, but did swing by to grab lunch at nocawich, where they offer a handful of artisan sandwiches every day, including the Dolly, a giant fried-chicken sandwich (thicker than a cutlet but still on the thin side) with house-made pickles and a very flavorful, tangy/creamy cabbage slaw. I shouldn’t have eaten the whole thing – it was at least a portion and a half for me – but I did anyway because it was way too good to let one bite go to waste. I’d really like to get to noca for dinner to try the house-made pastas, but it’s the location that gets me – we didn’t live close, we never stay close when we’re visiting, and it’s not really near any ballparks.
Defalco’s was one of two Italian markets I wanted to try in Scottsdale – the other, Andreoli’s, was a little more out of my way but I understand is very good – and it’s very convenient to Old Town, further south on Scottsdale Road, near Los Sombreros. Defalco’s offers a pretty long list of sandwiches, mostly traditional New York-Italian options. I’ll pretty much always choose a sandwich with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, and roasted red peppers on it; Defalco’s has something like a half a dozen bread choices, and while the focaccia was really good (not too greasy on top), it couldn’t exactly contain what was in the sandwich. Service is a little strange, like they’re doing you a favor, although I wouldn’t anyone was rude, just not the norm for Arizona where, if anything, you get people who seem a little too happy to help.
Taco Haus, the new spinoff of Scottsdale’s Brat Haus, is a little more remote from Salt River Fields than I’d realized, all the way up at Scottsdale Road and Shea Blvd, worth a visit if you want to eat and drink, but not a destination if you just want good tacos – I’d send you to Otro or Gallo Blanco for that. Taco Haus’ tacos are small, street-style, and the various fillings are all high-quality but overdone, too many elements on the plate so that the meat, which should in theory be the star ingredient, gets overwhelmed by acidity or mayonnaise.
Among return visits, the most notable meal was one at crudo, one of the two best restaurants I’ve tried in Arizona (Virtu in Scottsdale is the other). I branched out a bit this time, and would specifically cite the squid-ink risotto with tuna as an absolute standout dish, one that transcends the gimmicky nature of squid-ink dishes (“oooh! black food!”) with the perfect combination of texture, flavor, and presentation. I also love their cocktail menu’s inclusion of many local products, including spirits from the AZ Distilling Company in Tempe.
We split our breakfasts between the Hillside Spot and Crepe Bar. The Hillside Spot has switched from using Cartel Coffee to another vendor, espressions, whose beans I don’t like as much, and we actually had one kind of disappointing meal of about seven breakfasts we had there – a busy Sunday morning when nothing was quite up to par – but every other time it was consistently excellent. Crepe Bar’s menu is more limited but they use heart coffee from Portland, Oregon, which is among my favorite roasters in the country. The regular staff at both places were great, especially once they saw us a few times and got to know my daughter.
I didn’t make it to several spots I wanted to hit, including Atlas Bistro (tried to go without a reservation but they were booked up past our daughter’s bedtime), Bink’s, El Chullo, Beaver Choice, and Draft House in Peoria. There’s always Fall League…