I spent six nights in Arizona last week to scout this year’s crop of prospects in the Arizona Fall League, and wrote two long posts on what I saw, one focusing primarily on pitchers and a longer one mostly on position players.
The best new restaurant of the trip was Little Miss BBQ, a tiny spot on University Ave in Tempe, just south of the airport, that specializes in central Texas Q – meaning primarily brisket and sausage, although they do pulled pork as well. The brisket was among the best I’ve ever had, certainly the best I’ve had anywhere west of Texas, rivaling Florida’s 4 Rivers for the best I’ve had outside of Texas itself. I asked for fatty (or moist) brisket rather than lean, my strong preference because you get that fat that just melts in your mouth and provides its own sauce for the meat – and the brisket didn’t need any other sauce than that. Little Miss smokes over pecan and oak, so you get a clear presence of smoke in the meat without the dominance of a wood like hickory (better for pork, IMO), and you get to taste the beef itself and the rub, salty and peppery but not so assertive that it took over each bite. The sausage was above-average but not as spicy as I expected or would have liked. For sides, they offer jalapeno cheese grits and baked beans, but I went with the lighter sides, potato salad and cole slaw, rather than add two heavy items to the copious quantity of cow on the plate. Both were excellent because they were clearly homemade and weren’t doused in mayo, so you could particularly taste the cabbage in the slaw. On a rainy morning at 11:30 am, the line was about 30 people deep and took me 20-25 minutes to get to the counter, although the guy doing the slicing (I think it was the pitmaster) handed out a few free bites of the brisket and sausage to keep everyone happy. It’s just a stone’s throw from the Angels’ stadium and not even ten minutes from the Cubs’ new place.
— keithlaw (@keithlaw) October 8, 2014
Chef Kelly Fletcher was among the most highly-regarded local chefs in the Valley while at Tempe’s House of Cards, but the high price point kept me from going there while I lived in the area and Fletcher ended up leaving earlier this year to start his own place. The Revival, also located in Tempe, has a more casual feel and I think a better mix of menu options at the high- and low-ends. The roasted pork belly with Asian caramel, mirin poached potatoes, and scallions starter ($7) was ridiculously good from all angles – literally, as the dish was a gorgeous panoply of colors and textures, and the pork belly itself had tremendous balance of textures (but not too tough, which I’ve had in some pork belly dishes when the meaty layers are overcooked) and sweet/sour/salty levels. The duck confit on roasted corn polenta main ($21) with house-made date-maple syrup, bitter greens, and candied fresnos was plus but not quite a home run; the duck meat didn’t pull right off the bone as it usually does when prepared this way, and the candied fresnos were way so fiery I had to avoid them. The polenta used a coarse grind of yellow corn, so even with the long cooking times required for the dish it had some tooth to it, while the roasted corn kernels amped up the sweetness (thanks to caramelization) while adding a smoky component. The date-maple syrup was a natural pairing with the duck as well, although I may be biased (!) as I could drink real maple syrup right out of the bottle.
Glazed pork belly starter from the Revival in Tempe AZ.
Cuff is a rarity – a smart, high-end restaurant located in the west Valley, where chain restaurants abound. It’s in downtown Glendale, where it looks like there’s a quiet revitalization happening, great news if you head to Arizona to see any of the teams playing in the four stadiums on that side of town. (It’s about 15-20 minutes from Camelback Ranch because of all of the traffic lights you’ll have to pass.) Cuff just opened a few weeks ago and I was there on the fifth night since they began dinner service, so the strong execution across the board was very promising – you’d think they’d still be working some kinks out of their system. The menu is straightforward – a few salads and starters, a good cross-section of sandwich options to appeal to almost every eater, and a few mains that were quite generously priced.
The mixed greens salad ($7) was the ideal starter, especially since a few days of gorging on meat left me craving something plant-based. The mesclun mix (very fresh, nothing wilting or starting to spoil, a common problem in salads now) comes with crumbled fresh goat cheese, candied pecans, dried cranberries, and a delicate peach-shallot vinaigrette; that mix of leaves is slightly bitter, so three sweet elements, three tart ones, and two salty ones bring the balance the salad needs so that you don’t get that feeling that you’re chewing on lawn cuttings. The Amalfi-style lemon chicken, one of their main course options (at just $11!) was above-average but a little tricky to eat, served in a deep soup bowl with broth that made cutting the two pieces of chicken (an airline cut and a thigh) difficult. The lemon parmesan broth was fantastic, with a perfect balance of acidity, salt, and the umami of the cheese, providing flavor to the chicken itself (especially chicken breast, which has no flavor of its own no matter how it’s cooked) and to the baby broccoli in the bowl. The grilled ciabatta bread triangles are clearly there to spare you the indignity of tipping the bowl to your mouth to drink the broth, but I wouldn’t judge you if you did. Cuff also has a full bar including a variety of specialty cocktails.
Amalfi-style lemon chicken at the brand-new Cuff in downtown Glendale.
Sumo Maya is a new Scottsdale hot spot that has taken the trendy “Asian tacos” theme and applied it to the standard upscale drinking spot popular in that town. I liked the food, but hated the vibe. Their happy hour specials are a steal – four tacos for $7, practically enough for a whole meal and a good way to sample a bunch of the menu options. Of the four different ones I tried, including pork, chicken, fried fish, and vegetarian, the last one was the best, filled with small wild mushrooms and tossed with a sweet soy sauce and micro greens. The flavors on the chicken taco were outstanding, including avocado and a chile-guajillo salsa, but I think the chicken had been cooked earlier and was simply reheated for service. I also tried the kimchi fried rice, which was solid but not much different from fried rice you’d get at a very good Chinese restaurant. I just couldn’t see going back there to eat when so much of the crowd was there to drink and/or be seen.
One recommendation I didn’t get to was the new Arcadia restaurant Nook, only because it wasn’t that close to any of my destinations, but that’s on the to-do list for spring.
I never went to the Jamaican rum bar Breadfruit while living in Phoenix, but that was a pretty big mistake on my part given my affinity for the demon spirit. I adored their rum old fashioned, with Appleton Extra 12 year as its base, and liked their Hemingway’s Daiquiri, with Matusalem Platino (a triple-distilled, highly refined Dominican white rum) as its base, mixed with grapefruit and lime juices and demarara sugar, although the latter disguised the flavor of the rum too much. Nick Piecoro dragged me there – not that it required much convincing when I heard “rum bar” – after I’d dragged him to Citizen Public House for a postgame drink, only to discover they’re doing a late-night menu (after 11 pm) for “Porktoberfest,” including their bacon-fat popcorn and a twist on Chinese steamed pork buns (baozi) that paired well with their signature negroni and basically everything else we drank.
I went back to several favorites for breakfast – the Hillside Spot, Crepe Bar, Matt’s Big Breakfast, Giant Coffee, and Cartel Coffee Lab, all of which were just as I left them: good and busy. Crepe Bar has expanded its menu slightly, which might have been my only complaint about it before, and they’re still offering lots of little freebies along the way, like a tiny cup of their housemade granola, a dark chocolate and hazelnut amuse with your coffee (from heart roasters in Portland, Oregon), or a rose-water marshmallow and dark chocolate twist on s’mores after your meal. (Great idea, but the marshmallow left a perfume flavor in my mouth that I couldn’t get out for hours.) Saigon Kitchen in Surprise didn’t live up to my recollections, unfortunately, but Pig & Pickle in Scottsdale exceeded them, with a bigger menu that has more small plates and starters, including more vegetable-based options so your meal can have a better balance of pork and not-pork.