Arizona eats, March 2014 edition.

My last spring training dispatch went up Monday morning, and I’m reposting the link to my review of the awful Downton Abbey boardgame in case folks missed it.

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…

Arizona spring training dining guide, 2014 edition.

I have lots of dish posts on food in the Valley, searchable via the search box above or by location tags like Phoenix, Scottsdale, or Mesa. This is now my third edition of the dining guide, and my first since moving back to the east coast last summer; I’ve done my best to keep up with restaurant news from out there, but the list of places I’d like to try is growing faster than I can check them off it. Nothing’s new in the structure and I’ve left the list of places in downtown Phoenix that aren’t close to any ballpark at the end. A lot of the text is unchanged from last year, so don’t be shocked if it seems familiar.

Scottsdale/Old Town (San Francisco):

* Virtu Honest Craft: Award-winning, including a James Beard nomination for best new restaurant in the country, with reason, as this might be the best restaurant in all of Arizona. Virtu is only a 12-minute walk from Scottsdale Stadium and offers inventive, attractive, and most importantly delicious food that plays with textures and flavors in unexpected ways. I went there in October and wrote up the meal in depth.

* Citizen Public House: This was my birthday dinner spot each of the last two years we were out there, if that gives you some sense of how much I liked it. I love the pork belly pastrami starter with rye spaetzle, shredded brussels sprouts, and mustard vinaigrette. I love the short ribs with a dark cherry glaze. I loved the seared scallops on grits. I loved the bacon-fat popcorn and the chicken-and-waffles starter. The only thing I didn’t love was, surprisingly, the duck breast, which was so rare that I couldn’t cut it. Great beer selection as well as well as the best negroni I’ve ever had.

* FnB/Cafe Baratin: One restaurant with two concepts, a minimalist lunch, where the menu comprises just six items (one salad, one sandwich, one starter, one veg, one potted/pickled item, and one dessert), with more open-ended haute cuisine at dinner. They appear to have retired the Baratin name and merged the two concepts into one space and under one name, FnB. I’ve only tried the lunch here, but I’ve been four times and have been blown away each time, including one vegetarian, Middle Eastern-inspired sandwich that was the best eggplant dish I have ever eaten. Also, I don’t really like eggplant. It’s absolutely amazing and I am ashamed that I don’t think to recommend it more often.

* Pig and Pickle: Just outside of Old Town, and only open since November, they do things with pig and with pickles, like the braised pork belly, yam puree, and brussels sprouts slaw starter that was pretty special. I loved the braised duck leg, although the mung bean cake served underneath it was overcooked around the edges.

* Barrio Queen: A spinoff of Barrio Cafe (reviewed below), Barrio Queen is all about the mini tacos, which you order on a piece of paper like you’d get at a sushi place. They range from about $2.50 to $6 apiece and everything I tried was excellent, especially the same cochinita pibil that is a signature dish at the original Cafe.

* Culinary Dropout: A gastropub of sorts, located right near Old Town across from the Fashion Square mall. Definitely a good place to go with pickier eaters, since the menu is broad and most of it is easily recognizable. The chicken truffle hash and the turkey pastrami are both very good.

* Arcadia Farms: Farm-to-table breakfast dishes and sandwiches. Not cheap, but you are paying for quality and for a philosophy of food. I have been there twice and service, while friendly, was leisurely both times.

* Grimaldi’s: Local chain, related to the Brooklyn establishment of the same name. Very good (grade 55) thin-crust, coal-fired pizzas, including nut-free pesto, and similarly solid salads in generous portions. Not terribly cost-effective for one person for dinner, although they’ve finally introduced a more affordable lunch menu.

* Distrito: Inside the Saguaro hotel is this cool, upscale Mexican place, an offshoot of the restaurant of the same name in Philadelphia, serving mostly small plates at a slightly high price point but with very high-quality ingredients, including the best huitlacoche dish I’ve had, and an excellent questo fundido with duck barbacoa. I also liked their Sunday brunch … except for the coffee, which was like molten lead. I haven’t been here since the makeover, however.

* Los Sombreros: A bit of a drive south of Old Town into the only part of Scottsdale that you might call “sketchy,” Los Sombreros does high-end authentic Mexican at Scottsdale-ish prices but with large portions and very high quality.

* I should mention Franco’s Italian Caffe, right on Scottsdale Road, as it’s very highly regarded by locals, but I was very disappointed. Authentic Italian cuisine is light, focused on simple recipes with big flavors but rarely heavy, while Franco’s menu skews toward what I think of as New York-Italian cuisine, with heavier dishes including lots of heavy cream and salt. It’s not my thing, but I won’t judge you if it’s yours.

* A recommendation from Brandon McCarthy – Atlas Bistro, a farm-to-table restaurant on Scottsdale Road south of Thomas (so south of the Giants’ stadium). Their menu changes frequently, but there’s a heavy focus on local produce, and they also seem to take their cheese courses very seriously.

Scottsdale central/north (Arizona/Colorado):

* Soi4: upscale Thai and Thai-fusion, very close to the park. Owned by the same family that runs Soi4 in Oakland. Full review of my first visit. I’ve gotten pad see ew as a takeout item from here a few times and it was always excellent, full of that crunchy bitter brassica (similar to rapini), and smoking hot.

* Il Bosco: Wood-fired pizzas, cooked around 750 degrees, at a nice midpoint between the ultra-thin almost cracker-like Italian style and the slightly doughier New York style I grew up eating. Their salads are also outstanding and they source a lot of ingredients locally, including olives and EVOO from the Queen Creek Olive Mill. I’ve met the owner and talked to him several times, and he was kind enough to give my daughter a little tour behind the counter and let her pour her own water from their filtration machine, which she loved.

* True Food Kitchen: I’ve been to a TFK in Newport Beach and enjoyed the menu’s emphasis on fresh produce, not always healthful per se but more like healthful twists on familiar dishes. There are two in the Valley now, one downtown, and one located at the heart of a shopping center on the east side of Scottsdale Road, just north of Greenway and across from the Kierland mall. The same complex includes Tanzy, a Mediterranean (mostly regional Italian) restaurant and cocktail bar that gets strong reviews for its lengthy menu of salads, sandwiches, and pricier dinner entrees.

* Press: In that same shopping center is a small coffee shop where they roast their own beans and will make you a cup of coffee using your method of choice (vacuum, French press, pour-over), as well as the usual run of espresso-based options. There’s apparently also a location at Sky Harbor in Terminal 4 by the B gates (USAirways), although I haven’t visited that one.

* Butterfields: The lines are crazy on the weekends, but if you like a basic diner and want good pancakes or waffles this is one of the better options in the Valley.

* Sweet Republic: I actually find this place to be a little overrated, but if you prefer traditional New York ice cream to gelato or custard, then it’s a good bet, and not far north of the park, just east of the 101 on Shea.

* Perk Eatery: West of Scottsdale road and the Kierland mall, on Greenway, probably stretching the definition of what’s near Salt River Fields, but Phoenix doesn’t have a ton of good breakfast spots and this is one of the few. It’s a diner by another name, open for breakfast and lunch, with a slow-roasted pork option along with the regular array of breakfast meats, and rosemary potatoes that are a must with any egg dish.

* Taco Haus: I haven’t tried this spot yet, the newest outpost from the folks behind Old Town’s Brat Haus, but it’s getting better reviews than the original, which had great beer but so-so food.

* Amy’s Baking Company: I’m just kidding.

Tempe (Angels):

* Hillside Spot, Ahwatukee (Phoenix). My favorite place to eat in the Valley, right off I-10 at the corner of Warner and 48th. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I recommend the pulled pork sandwich, the chilaquiles, the grilled corn appetizer, the house-cut French fries, the pancakes (best in Arizona), and the coffee from Cartel Coffee Lab. The Spot sources as much as they possibly can from local growers or providers, even providing four local beers on tap, and you can get out for under $15 including tax and tip. I’ve written about it more than once; here’s one of my posts, which talks about that pork sandwich. They’ve also added an evening menu called “Cocina 10,” including (on some nights) a really great take on fried fish tacos. For breakfast and lunch they’re outstanding, but I have found dinner service to be a little less consistent – but still usually great.

* Crepe Bar: Amazing savory and sweet crepes, and expertly pulled espresso shots using beans from heart coffee roasters, one of the best micro-roasters I’ve come across. They use a lot of local ingredients, including produce from Agritopia Farms (which also hosts Joe’s Farm Grill in Gilbert, seen on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Douche), and bake their own brioche if you’re not in the mood for a regular or buckwheat crepe.

* Cornish Pasty Company: Just what the name says – large, hearty Cornish pasties with dozens of traditional and non-traditional filling options. I’ve eaten one for lunch and then skipped dinner. Second location in Mesa isn’t too far from the Cubs’ park and is bigger with more parking. Convenient to the A’s ballpark. UPDATE: Readers report that there’s now a third location close to the Giants’ stadium.

* Four Peaks Brewery: One of our best local microbreweries with surprisingly solid food as well. You’ll see their beers all over the place, but the restaurant is absolutely worth hitting. Parking is very difficult on Friday through Sunday nights, though. Also very convenient to the A’s ballpark.

* Cartel Coffee Lab: Among the best coffee roasters in the Valley, and now in an expanded place that doesn’t feel so much like a fly-by-night operation. They’re also in the C wing of Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor.

Mesa (Cubs):

* Urban Picnic: In downtown Mesa, south and slightly west of the ballpark, and my favorite spot near the Cubs’ facility. They do a small selection of sandwiches on some of the best crunchy French bread you’ll find out this way, with the Caprese sandwich (fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil) and the roast beef with horseradish my two favorites. I will say that while the lavender lemonade might sound intriguing, it tastes like perfume.

* Chou’s Kitchen: Just over the line in Chandler, at the intersection of Alma School (north-south) and Ray (east-west), this hole-in-the-wall place does dongbei cai, the cuisine of northeastern China – what we used to call Manchuria – which is heavy on dumplings, mostly fried and generally delicious, with large portions designed for sharing and vinegar on the table for dipping. I also love their lao hu cai or “tiger salad,” a vinegary mix of shredded vegetables, scallions, cilantro, jalapenos, and peanuts.

* Pros Ranch Market: A Mexican/Latin American grocery store south of the ballpark (at Stapley and Southern) with a large quick-service department offering some of the best burritos (including, hands-down, the best carnitas) I’ve had in Arizona. The enchiladas are solid, my daughter loves their quesadillas, they make great aguas frescas in eight to twelve flavors, and there’s an extensive selection of Mexican pastries. You can stuff yourself here for under $10. There’s another location near the A’s ballpark in Phoenix as well.

* Thai Spices: In a strip mall of Asian restaurants, Thai Spices is among the best Thai places I’ve found around here, just doing a great job with the basics of Thai (or perhaps Americanized Thai) cuisine. I really loved their soups, both tom yum (clear, sour/spicy soup with lemongrass) and tom ka (sweeter, with coconut milk, and also lemongrass), as well as the green curry.

m* Rancho de Tia Rosa: A bit east of the ballpark, Tia Rosa has a large, upscale yet family-friendly Mexican restaurant with a smaller take-out taqueria located on-site as well. I wouldn’t call it high-end, but it’s expensive relative to the typical crappy chain faux-Mex restaurants that seem to be everywhere out here (Macayo’s, Arriba, Garcia’s … avoid all of those).

* On my to-do list: Beaver Choice, a Swedish-Polish comfort food joint that, despite the comical name (“The turkey? Thanks, I just had it stuffed”) gets great reviews and even offers a gluten-free menu. Schnitzels, pierogis, gravlax … you’re speaking my language.

* Also on my to-do list: Republica Empanada. Huge variety of empanadas, and unless you’re gluten-free, you have no reason to dislike empanadas. They also offer maduros, arroz con pollo, dessert empanadas, and a decent beer selection.

* Last one: Miu’s Cuisine, not far from the Cubs’ park, just east of 101. I tried it once and it absolutely blew out my palate with capsaicin. I like moderately spicy food, but this stuff, while quite authentic to Szechuan cuisine, was inedible to me. If you like fire, this is your place. But I warned you.

Phoenix (Oakland):

Everything in Tempe is pretty close to here as well, and you’re not that far from Old Town Scottsdale either.

* Pros Ranch Market: Mentioned above in the Mesa section – from the Oakland park, just hop on the 202 west, get off at 24th, head south (left), right on Roosevelt. Also very close to the west exit from the airport – my old Fall League tradition was to get off the plane and head right here for lunch before going to my first game.

* Honey Bear’s BBQ: Just under the highway when you head west from the ballpark, they offer solid smoked meats but below-average baked beans. There’s not a lot of good Q out here – the best I know of is Bryan’s in Cave Creek, which is a hike from the closest stadium – so Honey Bear’s gets a little overrated.

* Barrio Cafe: About 15 minutes west of Phoenix Muni via the 202/51. Best high-end Mexican food I’ve had out here, edging out Los Sombreros in Scottsdale. Table-side guacamole is very gimmicky (and, per Rick Bayless, suboptimal for flavor development), but the ingredients, including pomegranate arils, are very fresh. Great cochinita pibil too. There’s now a location at Sky Harbor’s Terminal 4, past security near the D gates.

* Pizzeria Bianco: Most convenient to Chase Field. Best pizza I have ever had in the United States. No reservations, closed Sunday-Monday, waits for dinner can run to four hours, but they’re now open for lunch and if you get there before twelve the wait usually isn’t too bad. Parking is validated at the Science Museum garage. There’s now a second, larger location just off route 51 in the Town and Country shopping center, serving a few pasta items as well as the signature pizzas.

I’ve got more downtown suggestions below, after all of the other ballparks, most of which are better for after a game at Phoenix Muni than before.

Maryvale (Milwaukee):

* Hank the Stray Dog was actually trying to escape from Maryvale. You should too.

Goodyear (Cincinnati/Cleveland):

* Ground Control. In the Avondale/Litchfield Park area, but kind of between Goodyear and Glendale, this coffee-shop has upgraded its menu so it’s now a craft-beer paradise and upscale sandwich shop and coffee bar and even gelateria. I’ve been twice; the service can be a little spacey but the food is very good and I even liked the coffee. They do breakfast as well. This place should be so much more popular than it is, given the paucity of quality non-chain options in the area.

* Raul and Theresa’s: Very good, authentic, reasonably priced Mexican food, really fresh, always made to order. The guacamole is outstanding. It’s south of the stadium and doesn’t look like much on the outside, but I would call it a can’t-miss spot if you’re going to a Cincinnati or Cleveland game, since there isn’t much else out here that isn’t a bad chain.

Glendale (Dodgers/White Sox):

* If you’re headed here or even to Goodyear, swing by Tortas Paquime in Avondale. They do traditional Mexican sandwiches, with the torta ahogada – literally a “drowned” sandwich – covered in a slightly spicy red sauce, although that was a little over-the-top heavy for me. Solid aguas frescas here as well.

* You might also try Siam Thai, which is in Glendale on Northern but is at least 15 minutes away from the park, heading east. It is, however, superlative Thai food, perhaps the highest-rated Thai place in the Valley.

* Two places I haven’t tried in Glendale but that come recommended: La Piazza Al Forno, thin-crust, wood-fired pizzas that are reportedly good but not as good as Bianco’s or Cibo’s; and Arrowhead Grill, new American food at a moderate price point.

Peoria:

* It’s a wasteland of chains out here; the best options I know are both very good local chains, Grimaldi’s and Blu Burger. The latter is a family favorite of ours, since there’s something for the picky eaters of the family (hint: not me), and there’s a Blu Burger very close to our house; they offer several kinds of burgers with an impressive list of build-your-own options. My daughter loves their grilled cheese and zucchini fries.

* On the to-do list: Draft House, offering beer and Cornish pasties. I’m dying for new ideas out in the west Valley, so please, send more over if you have them.

Surprise:

* I’ve got one good rec out this way, the new-ish Vietnamese place Saigon Kitchen up on Bell Road just north of the ballpark. There’s good Vietnamese food to be had out here if you work to find it, and this is the best, especially in presentation – the menu is familiar, the food is a little brighter and fresher, and the place is far more welcoming. I’ve yet to try Amuse Bouche, probably the best-reviewed restaurant in Surprise, which does a more casual sandwich/panini menu at lunch before shifting to fine dining for dinner.

Away from the parks: Downtown Phoenix and Camelback East

* The Grind: The best burger I’ve had out here, far superior to the nearby Delux, which is overrated for reasons I don’t quite fathom. (Maybe people just love getting their fries in miniature shopping carts.) The Grind cooks its burgers in a 1000-degree coal oven, so you get an impressive crust on the exterior of the burger even if it’s just rare inside. Their macaroni and cheese got very high marks from my daughter, a fairly tough critic. They have photos of local dignitaries on the wall, including Jan Brewer and Mark Grace, which might cause you to lose your appetite.

* ‘Pomo Pizzeria: Relocated from Scottsdale into a new, larger space. Authentic, Neapolitan-style pizza, not as good as Bianco, but as good as any other pizza I’ve tried in Arizona. Toppings include a lot of salty cured meats designed (I assume) to keep you drinking … not that there’s anything wrong with that. Full review.

* Chelsea’s Kitchen: I’ve only been to the airport location, in the center of Terminal 4 before security, where the food was excellent but the service a little confused. The short rib taco plate would feed two adults – that has to be at least ¾ of a pound of meat. Their kale-quinoa salad sounds disgustingly healthy, but is delicious despite that. Both this and The Grind (and North Fattoria, an Italian restaurant from the Culinary Dropout people) are near Camelback and 40th, about 6 miles/13 minutes west of Scottsdale Stadium.

* crudo: There isn’t much high-end cuisine in Phoenix – I think that’s our one real deficiency – but Chef Cullen Campbell does a great job of filling that void here with a simple menu that has four parts: crudo dishes, raw fish Italian-style, emphasis on tuna; fresh mozzarella dishes, including the ever-popular burrata; small pasta dishes, like last fall’s wonderful squash dumplings with pork belly ragout; and larger entrees, with four to five items in each sections. The desserts, like so many in the Valley, are from Tracy Dempsey, the premier pastry chef in the area. Like the previous two spots, it’s about 12-13 minutes west of the Giants’ ballpark. This is now my go-to rec when someone wants a splurge meal in Phoenix or wants more adventurous cuisine.

* Zinburger: Not the top burger around here but a damn good one, especially the namesake option (red zinfandel-braised onions, Manchego, mayo), along with strong hand-cut fries and above-average milkshakes. Located in a shopping center across the street from the Ritz. Try the salted caramel shake if you go. There are also two locations in Tucson, and two in New Jersey that are licensed but independently owned and operated.

* cibo: Maybe the second-best pizzas in town, with more options than Bianco offers, along with a broad menu of phenomenal salads and antipasti, including cured meats, roasted vegetables, and (when available) a superb burrata.

* Pane Bianco: Sandwiches from the Bianco mini-empire, just a few options, served on focaccia made with the same dough used to make the pizzas at Pizzeria Bianco. My one experience here was disappointing, mostly due to the bread being a little dry, but the cult following here is tremendous and I may have just caught them on a bad day.

* Gallo Blanco: Tucked into the Clarendon hotel, this spot, owned by the same group behind the Hillside Spot and the various Bianco restaurants, is my favorite gourmet taco place in the area, even though it’s more upscale and a touch pricier than you’d expect a taco place to be – the target market here is the business crowd, whether at lunch or at happy hour. They make their own tortillas, they offer a solid selection of fillings, and the flavors are all big and bright. And it’s way better than the highly overrated La Condesa, where they spend too much time on their absurd salsa bar while they’re using prefab corn tacos that feel like those rubber pads you use to open the lids on glass jars.

* Otro Cafe: The chef behind Gallo Blanco has a new place, with a very simple menu – a few taco items, a few tortas with the same meats you’ll find on the taco menu, a few Mexican street-food starters, and a full bar. There’s a bit more focus on local fare here, and the guacamole is my favorite in the Valley.

* Matt’s Big Breakfast and Giant Coffee. Owned by the same guy, located a few blocks apart, but not otherwise connected as Matt’s doesn’t use Giant’s coffee. Matt’s is the best pure-breakfast place in the Valley, and one major reason is that they use the black-pepper bacon from Queen Creek’s The Pork Shop. Everything here is good, but my veteran move was breakfast at Matt’s with espresso afterwards at Giant. (Matt’s uses ROC, from Cave Creek, a popular roaster with Valley restaurants but nowhere near Giant’s quality.) Giant uses direct-trade beans for its espresso and usually has three or four single-origin options for pour-overs.

* Federal Pizza. Federal’s was the best Brussels sprout pizza I’d ever tried until I found Motorino in NYC, and even then it was close. I’ve tried a few of their pizzas and their roasted vegetable board, loving everything, and their crust is a great compromise for folks who want more chew and less of the cracker-thin crust of a place like Bianco. Federal vs. ‘Pomo is a tough call for me, although the buzz on ‘Pomo since their move is that they’ve pulled a Goldschmidt and improved beyond my expectations.

* The Gladly. The second location from the folks behind Citizen Public House, the Gladly’s location and menu are built more around the alcohol – I think the atmosphere they’re going for is cocktail party, or upscale happy-hour, with smart food to go with the booze. I had a mixed experience in my one meal there, loving the chicken-liver pate starter but finding less success with the duck ramen (which I’m told is a dish they frequently tweak). Given their track record at CPH, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

* Blue Hound. Another great cocktail bar that happens to offer good food, mostly sandwiches and other items you’d expect at a quality bar, although I’ve only been here for drinks and bar snacks (like the tater tots, which I highly recommend).

Other places that I’ve read or heard great things about, but haven’t tried yet, all in Phoenix or Scottsdale unless otherwise noted: Welcome Diner (that’s the next place I need to try), Bink’s Cafe (high-end/experimental cuisine), O.H.S.O. Eatery and nanoBrewery, El Chullo (Peruvian food in downtown Phoenix), Mejico.

I’ll update this post with any new places I try over the next two months, and of course, feel free to offer your own suggestions in the comments below. I believe everything I’ve listed here is still open, but if you know that one of these restaurants has shut its doors, again, please let me know.

Arizona eats, October 2013 edition.

My first Arizona Fall League update went up on Thursday afternoon. The next one will go up on Monday morning … that is, a few hours from now.

I had a bittersweet experience in Arizona last week, my first extended trip there since we moved out of the state in June. The pleasure in seeing Fall League games, catching up with some friends, and visiting old haunts couldn’t surpass the feeling that all of that – plus the spectacular weather – was no longer mine, that the drive south on the 101 was no longer to my house, that winter was waiting for me on the other side of the trip. (I define winter as “not summer.”) I did manage to distract myself by hitting four new restaurants while I was on the ground there, at least.

Crêpe Bar in Tempe is the new brick-and-mortar place from the chef behind Truckin’ Good Food, and you know they’re serious about food when you see they use coffee from heart roasters in Portland, Oregon. Turns out they have a real barista who pulls a damn good shot of espresso, and the drip coffee earned raves from my friend Sam. Crêpe Bar also offers cold-brewed coffee, which they prep daily and allow to steep for about 24 hours, as well as V60 and Aeropress pour-overs, so it’s worth going if only for the coffee. As for the crepes, I’ll just point out that I had a crêpe with vanilla custard, strawberries, toasted slivered almonds, and some 55% Valrhona chocolate, and you’ll just be jealous.

Located in the Bespoke Inn in Old Town Scottsdale, a mere 12-minute walk from Scottsdale Stadium, Virtu Honest Craft just made Esquire‘s list of the 18 best new restaurants in the country, and it might be the best restaurant in the state of Arizona now – something I wouldn’t say lightly, having tried and loved crudo, Citizen Public House, Pizzeria Bianco, cibo, and others. Virtu’s food was just a slight cut above its competitors, offering inventive plates that played with flavors and textures in clever ways with visually appealing presentations. Kiley McDaniel met me for dinner, but was a little late, so I ordered one of the happy hour crostini options, with piquillo pepper jam and manchego cheese, a great twist on the ordinary fig jam or quince paste crostini concept that brought a hint of spice and less straight sugar to the bite. Then the gluttony began in earnest: the chef sent out a large antipasto plate with three cheeses, truffled salami, Sicilian olives, and marcona almonds, as well as honey to pair with the blue cheese. That was free (I think all the early tables got one), but came out after we’d ordered two starters and two entrees, so things got out of hand quickly. The chef’s snack starter is almost a meal in itself: A pile of hand-cut French fries tossed with sausage, mozzarella curd, and what I think was a sweetened balsamic reduction, topped with an over easy egg. We also went with the item that the Phoenix New Times’ Chow Bella blog highlighted, the grilled asparagus with duck egg, bacon candy, peppered feta, and foie gras hollandaise. The chef’s snack was comfort food, hearty, salty, fatty, and of course a little heavy, while the asparagus plate was like brunch for dinner, bright colors leading to brighter flavors if you could manipulate everything into one bite, which wasn’t always easy.

For the mains, I went with the smoked duck, which came on a smashed plantain with small grilled chunks of foie gras and pomegranate arils. Kiley ordered the seared scallops, served on a pumpkin/onion mash with a white chocolate beurre blanc. I think we both preferred the scallop dish, which was better executed across the board, with perfectly-cooked sea scallops paired beautifully with the fall flavors of the squash and onion; my only comment here is that the dish needed a finish of acid, even something as simple as lemon juice (although I imagine a place like Virtu would instead go with a yuzu foam or a champagne vinegar gelée). The duck itself was cooked nicely but smoking duck does rob you of the glory of crispy duck skin, and the plantain mash had been cooked a second time on a griddle to provide that crispness, a process that made it too crunchy and even charred the edges a little bit. The proteins seem to be standard here but the sides change at least every few weeks depending on what’s in season; I’d recommend whatever they’re doing with scallops and would trust in the chef beyond that.

Otro Cafe is the newest spot from Doug Robson, the Mexican-born (really) chef behind the menus at Gallo Blanco and the Hillside Spot. Otro’s menu is simple – a few taco items, a few tortas with the same meats you’ll find on the taco menu, a few Mexican street-food starters, and a full bar. Kiley joined me for this meal as well, so we split the elote callejero – roasted corn on the cob with paprika, cotija cheese, and a little mayonnaise, which the server will shave off the cob for you tableside. I also ordered the small guacamole because Kiley is a misanthropic devil-worshipper who hates avocadoes. Both were superb, just simple and fresh items with big flavors thanks to the tomatillos in the guacamole or the salty-tangy burst from the cotija in the corn. For tacos, we each ordered the same trio (tacos range from $2.50 to $3.50 apiece) – the pork “al pastor,” the carne asada, and the grilled marinated shrimp, all of which were excellent. The carne asada was my favorite, even though I’m generally not a big steak eater; Otro uses seasoned grilled ribeye, chopped and topped with lettuce, an aji (chili pepper) aioli, cilantro, and guacamole. The shrimp was second, marinated in achiote and topped with red and white cabbage, chili pepper, and more guacamole, all outstanding although the shrimp ended up in the background beneath the spice and acid of the cabbage/chili slaw. The pork al pastor was still good, served with salsa verde, a little pineapple, and more cilantro, although I missed the better bite of the steak and, well, that was the only taco without guacamole and it was going to suffer by comparison. Otro also offers a number of small side dishes, including two rotating options from local farms/CSAs, for just $4-5. Some items are $1 off at happy hour so the two of us got out of there for under $30 combined and had probably consumed too much food.

The Gladly is the new venture from the group behind Citizen Public House, focused a little more on cocktails and small plates and less on the mains that made CPH our favorite spot for an elegant dinner out. The Gladly’s chicken liver pate starter, where the liver is blended with pistachio nuts, was by far the best item I had, and while I’m not sure eating a half-cup of the stuff at one sitting was the wisest nutritional move for me, that is what I did because it was too good to pass up (especially with whole-grain mustard and pickled onions to add to the crostini). The Brussels sprouts starter might be a meal for a vegetarian, as it’s served on a plate of creamy white-corn polenta; I prefer Brussels sprouts a little more cooked than this, as they were still too bitter at the center and hard to cut, but the combination of the sprouts and the grits was excellent. The one dish I didn’t love was the duck ramen – five-spice duck “ham” served in a giant bowl of miso broth with ramen and pea greens. The broth itself was a little bland, light on salt but also lacking any clearly defined flavor, and while I love duck prosciutto, its flavor was muted after sitting in the hot miso broth for a while. I’d love to give the Gladly a second shot, preferably when I can indulge in the drink menu, but also to try some of the other small plates like the paprika-cured pork belly, or the pigstrami sandwich, which turns my favorite starter at CPH into a smoked pork butt sandwich with a Brussels sprout sauerkraut as the slaw.

As for repeat visits, I had breakfast at the Hillside Spot three times and everything was just as I left it, from the chilaquiles to the pancakes to the chocolate chip cookies, so good job there. I also went back to Matt’s Big Breakfast which remained top-notch and swung by Giant Coffee (owned by Matt) and had a great espresso there. Saigon Kitchen in Surprise was a little disappointing, but only in that the bun with chicken I ordered came with these giant pieces of lettuce that got in the way of the noodles and other vegetables that were sort of buried at the bottom. I did have the hilarious experience of watching the seventy-odd woman next to me send back a bowl of pho (soup) that was hot enough for me to see the steam from a meter away because she claimed it wasn’t hot enough.

Some places I wanted to try but didn’t have time to visit: the Welcome Diner, La Piazza Locale, and Bink’s Cafe, all in Phoenix proper, and Altitude Coffee Lab in Scottsdale. There’s always spring training, I guess…

Leaving Arizona.

I had columns up this week on picking players to try to win one All-Star Game and on the Futures Game rosters. I talked to San Jose mayor Chuck Reed on this week’s Behind the Dish, and was a guest on Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast this week. And I chatted today as well.

I mentioned on Twitter last week that after two years and nine months, we’d sold our house in Arizona and decamped for the east coast, choosing Delaware as our new landing spot. It wasn’t exactly a secret, but the sale of the house happened on such an odd schedule – the appraisal took forever, arrived three days before the draft and we closed just 16 days after it came in – that I never quite made the Big Announcement that, hey, we were leaving paradise.

Many of you asked why – why leave Arizona, and why choose the drive-through state of Delaware. If you don’t care about personal stuff like this, feel free to skip this post.

Why leave Arizona? That’s simple, and it’s complicated. My wife did not enjoy living in Arizona, and especially did not like being so far from family and friends in the northeast. My daughter wants everything – she loved the weather and the pool in Arizona, and she hated leaving her friends, but she missed her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and year-old cousin (my niece), all located between New York City and northern Virginia. It would be easy to just say that I go where they go, and it would be true, but the decision for me was a bit more involved than that.

I loved living in Arizona. I suffer from seasonal depression when the winter grey and the winter darkness become too much. If you thought the top 100 prospect packages were better the last three years – I did, at least – my improved mood in those three Januaries probably had something to do with it. It’s a lot easier to get up and get rolling in the morning when the sun is practically screaming at you to start your day. I loved the near year-round baseball, with spring training and Fall League suddenly home games, and access to rookie ball and two Pac-12 schools, as well as the ability to commute trips to SoCal and Vegas. The food scene in Phoenix exceeded all of my expectations for it going in, and it’s improving rapidly, with more emphasis on seasonal and local ingredients where possible. And while I’m not a particularly materialistic guy – the move reminded me of how little stuff I have beyond kitchen tools and something like 36 cubic feet of boardgames – I did love our house, which we built new through Shea Homes. (Other than dealing with their partners Foresight Security, the process overall was very positive, as was our experience as homeowners.)

I relented on the move primarily because of work – with a commitment from Baseball Tonight for a minimum number of dates, and the difficulty of getting from Phoenix to Bristol, it made more sense to return to somewhere within driving distance. It has been bothering me that I’ve only seen my niece twice in the fourteen months since she was born, and that my grandmother just turned 99 while I haven’t seen her since Christmas. (Phone calls with either of them are about equally productive at this point.) Minor league scouting beyond rookie ball was difficult over the summer as well, because the only team within driving distance is the Tucson Padres, who are about to head down the highway to Hell Paso next year anyway.

The political environment itself didn’t drive me out of Arizona, although the support for Joe Arpaio, who violates civil rights with impunity and ignores the pile of unsolved sex crimes while chasing cameras and headlines with his anti-immigration sweeps and blatant racial profiling, boggles my mind. We lived in a moderate area, highly educated and higher income, and I can’t say that the gap between the state’s overall political leanings and my own ever affected my life in any material way.

That said, I do believe Arizonans are living in a deep state of denial about what climate change is going to mean for them – for the heat, for energy usage, and for water. We had highs of 117-118 over the last two summers, and those days will become more frequent, with highs in the 120s, which are dangerous and will put ever-greater strain on the local electrical grid – one that makes far too little use of the abundant solar and wind resources available in the Phoenix area. (ASU did do something very smart recently – they covered the football/baseball fields’ parking lots with solar panels.) The state’s water policy revolves around hoarding – they have about five years’ worth of supply stored up in underground tanks, which is part of why the Colorado River no longer reaches its delta on the Gulf of California, and also is a lousy plan for long-term sustainability. Water is cheap, and there are no real conservation efforts. We had neighbors with grass lawns. Las Vegas at least pays people to replace grass with low- or zero-water alternatives. In Arizona, no one cares if you leave the sprinklers on all night.

There’s also very little attention paid to the shape and scope of development in the area. There’s no concept of zoning anywhere, and the response to sprawl has mostly been to build more highways further away from the city center, like route 303, going from out by Goodyear north through Surprise up to I-17 north of town. (My daughter often asked if there was a route 404, but I told her all I got was a “highway not found” error.) Mass transit barely exists; they just hooked up the light rail to the airport this spring, and from where we lived, it was never practical to use it whether we were flying out or going to Chase Field. When the population spreads without any planning or control, it will settle in a shape that is not conducive to mass transit solutions – which is exactly what you have in Phoenix.

All of that did add up to one very real concern for me: property values won’t just keep going up out there as they have since the market bottomed out and we bought into it in 2010. The area can only hold so many people, and water shortages could mean rapid declines in property values. I’m not keen on holding on to assets with that kind of downside risk, and the strength of the Republican Party in the state did not make me feel better, because they do not seem to have any intention of focusing on these environmental/growth issues, and because they are far more focused on things like restricting abortion or asking Obama to produce his birth certificate.

If it were just me out there, though, I would have stayed at least a few more years. I hated leaving the friends I made out there, the long list of places I loved to eat, and the spectacular weather nine months out of the year. Even the summer heat is tolerable when you have functioning air conditioning and a pool in your backyard. It also made smoking things on the grill easier, because I never had to worry too much about the temperature dropping below 180 or so unless I let the fire go out completely. The only factor that truly motivated me to move was the air – my daughter and I both suffer from seasonal allergies, and my original hope, that the dry desert air would help us, turned out to be ill-founded. The air quality in Arizona is quite poor, especially in the summer, and neither of us found much relief, while my wife had allergy issues for the first time after we moved there.

As for Delaware, it’s two hours from my in-laws, three hours from my parents and my sister, four hours from Bristol, two-plus from New York City, and has low taxes. The Wilmington area offers good schools, and I’ll have three different minor leagues within 90 minutes of me, possibly four. We’re taking a little bit of a leap of faith, but given that I had no interest in returning to the tundra of New England, wouldn’t touch the tax rates of New Jersey or New York, and won’t abide Pennsylvania’s Puritanical liquor store system, Delaware kind of won by default.

It does seem like I have quite a few readers living here in New Castle County, so if there’s interest, perhaps we could try a meetup before a Blue Rocks game at the Iron Hill Brewery that’s right by the stadium. It’d be great to get to meet more of you in person, and perhaps to learn some insider tips on living around here. So far we’ve had good meals at Two Stones and at the slightly pecular Matilda’s/Mad Mac’s in Newark, but I’m sure there’s far more for us to discover.

One final note, unrelated to why we moved, but about the fact of the move itself. I’ve mentioned a few times here and through other venues that I suffer from anxiety, and have been receiving treatment, including medication, since last summer. The move hasn’t been good for me in that department, in part because of the stress of moving itself (especially with a daughter and two cats in tow), and in part because I liked living in Arizona so much. I’ll write more on that at some other time, but the last three weeks have been less than fun.

Arizona spring training dining guide, 2013 edition.

I have lots of dish posts on food in the Valley, searchable via the search box above or by location tags like Phoenix, Scottsdale, or Mesa. But with spring training games about to begin, I’ve revised last year’s post with new recommendations, a few deletions, and some more thoughts on the better places to eat in the Valley, which I hope will allow you to limit your patronage of chain restaurants to the occasional visit to In-n-Out. I’ve also appended a section at the end of this post listing the best places in downtown Phoenix, which really aren’t close to any of the parks except maybe the Giants’ but are all worth checking out.

Scottsdale/Old Town (San Francisco):

* Citizen Public House: I like this place enough that we went there for my birthday last year … and again on Christmas Eve. I love the pork belly pastrami starter with rye spaetzle, shredded brussels sprouts, and mustard vinaigrette. I love the short ribs with a dark cherry glaze. I loved the seared scallops on grits. I loved the bacon-fat popcorn and the chicken-and-waffles starter. The only thing I didn’t love was, surprisingly, the duck breast, which was so rare that I couldn’t cut it. Great beer selection as well.

* Barrio Queen: A spinoff of Barrio Cafe (reviewed below), Barrio Queen is all about the mini tacos, which you order on a piece of paper like you’d get at a sushi place. They range from about $2.50 to $6 apiece and everything I tried was excellent, especially the same cochinita pibil that is a signature dish at the original Cafe.

* FnB/Cafe Baratin: One restaurant with two concepts, a minimalist lunch, where the menu comprises just six items (one salad, one sandwich, one starter, one veg, one potted/pickled item, and one dessert), with more open-ended haute cuisine at dinner. They appear to have retired the Baratin name and merged the two concepts into one space and under one name, FnB. I’ve only tried the lunch here, but I’ve been four times and have been blown away each time, including one vegetarian, Middle Eastern-inspired sandwich that was the best eggplant dish I have ever eaten. Also, I don’t really like eggplant.

* Pig and Pickle: Just outside of Old Town, and only open since November, they do things with pig and with pickles, like the braised pork belly, yam puree, and brussels sprouts slaw starter that was pretty special. I loved the braised duck leg, although the mung bean cake served underneath it was overcooked around the edges.

* Culinary Dropout: A gastropub of sorts, located right near Old Town across from the Fashion Square mall. Definitely a good place to go with pickier eaters, since the menu is broad and most of it is easily recognizable. The chicken truffle hash and the turkey pastrami are both very good.

* Arcadia Farms: Farm-to-table breakfast dishes and sandwiches. Not cheap, but you are paying for quality and for a philosophy of food. I have been there twice and service, while friendly, was leisurely both times.

* ‘Pomo Pizzeria: Authentic, Neapolitan-style pizza. Not as good as Bianco, but better than anything else I’ve had around here. Toppings include a lot of salty cured meats designed (I assume) to keep you drinking … not that there’s anything wrong with that. Full review.

* Grimaldi’s: Local chain, related to the Brooklyn establishment of the same name. Very good (grade 55) thin-crust, coal-fired pizzas, including nut-free pesto, and similarly solid salads in generous portions. Not terribly cost-effective for one person for dinner, although they’ve finally introduced a more affordable lunch menu.

* Distrito: Inside the Saguaro hotel is this cool, upscale Mexican place, an offshoot of the restaurant of the same name in Philadelphia, serving mostly small plates at a slightly high price point but with very high-quality ingredients, including the best huitlacoche dish I’ve had, and an excellent questo fundido with duck barbacoa. I also liked their Sunday brunch … except for the coffee, which was strong and dark enough to dissolve the cup, the table, and the floor en route to causing a singularity and collapsing the entire known universe.

* Searsucker: I’ve had dinner at the San Diego restaurant and have now had lunch at this new location, with nothing but praise for either meal. The lobster roll here is probably the best I’ve had outside of New England, with large chunks of lobster meat and sweet pickled red onions on top, served in a buttery brioche-like roll. The “chocolate bar” dessert is decadent. It’s attached to the Fashion Square Mall, on the north side of Camelback next to Nieman Marcus.

* Los Sombreros: A bit of a drive south of Old Town into the only part of Scottsdale that you might call “sketchy,” Los Sombreros does high-end authentic Mexican at Scottsdale-ish prices but with large portions and very high quality.

* I have yet to try the Brat Haus, an artisan sausage-fries-beer place that is on Scottsdale road but is walkable from the Giants’ park and has 30+ beers on tap. They were at the local food truck festival last month at Salt River, but their selection was minimal and their pretzels, apparently a standby at the restaurant, were really tough.

Scottsdale central/north (Arizona/Colorado):

* Soi4: upscale Thai and Thai-fusion, very close to the park. Owned by the same family that runs Soi4 in Oakland. Full review of my first visit. I’ve gotten pad see ew as a takeout item from here a few times and it was always excellent, full of that crunchy bitter brassica (similar to rapini), and smoking hot.

* Il Bosco: Wood-fired pizzas, cooked around 750 degrees, at a nice midpoint between the ultra-thin almost cracker-like Italian style and the slightly doughier New York style I grew up eating. Their salads are also outstanding and they source a lot of ingredients locally, including olives and EVOO from the Queen Creek Olive Mill. I’ve met the owner and talked to him several times, and he was kind enough to give my daughter a little tour behind the counter and let her pour her own water from their filtration machine, which she loved.

* Wildflower Bread Company: I’d say “think Panera,” but this place is so much better than Panera in every aspect that I hate to even bring that awful chain (which now owns the Paradise Bakery chain) into the discussion. Wildflower is a small chain, but their salads are very fresh and filling, and the sandwiches are solid. There’s also a location in Tempe that’s attached to my favorite local bookstore, Changing Hands.

* True Food Kitchen: I’ve been to a TFK in Newport Beach and enjoyed the menu’s emphasis on fresh produce, not always healthful per se but more like healthful twists on familiar dishes. There are two in the Valley now, one downtown, and one located at the heart of a shopping center on the east side of Scottsdale Road, just north of Greenway and across from the Kierland mall. The same complex includes Tanzy, a Mediterranean (mostly regional Italian) restaurant and cocktail bar that gets strong reviews for its lengthy menu of salads, sandwiches, and pricier dinner entrees.

* Press: In that same shopping center is a small coffee shop where they roast their own beans and will make you a cup of coffee using your method of choice (vacuum, French press, pour-over), as well as the usual run of espresso-based options. There’s apparently also a location at Sky Harbor in Terminal 4 by the B gates (USAirways), although I haven’t visited that one.

* Butterfields: The lines are crazy on the weekends, but if you like a basic diner and want good pancakes or waffles this is one of the better options in the Valley.

* Sweet Republic: I actually find this place to be a little overrated, but if you prefer traditional New York ice cream to gelato or custard, then it’s a good bet, and not far north of the park, just east of the 101 on Shea.

* Perk Eatery: West of Scottsdale road and the Kierland mall, on Greenway, probably stretching the definition of what’s near Salt River Fields, but Phoenix doesn’t have a ton of good breakfast spots and this is one of the few. It’s a diner by another name, open for breakfast and lunch, with a slow-roasted pork option along with the regular array of breakfast meats, and rosemary potatoes that are a must with any egg dish.

Tempe (Angels):

* Hillside Spot, Ahwatukee (Phoenix). My favorite place to eat in the Valley, right off I-10 at the corner of Warner and 48th. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I recommend the pulled pork sandwich, the chilaquiles, the grilled corn appetizer, the house-cut French fries, the pancakes (best in Arizona), and the coffee from Cartel Coffee Lab. The Spot sources as much as they possibly can from local growers or providers, even providing four local beers on tap, and you can get out for under $15 including tax and tip. I’ve written about it more than once; here’s one of my posts, which talks about that pork sandwich. They’ve also added an evening menu called “Cocina 10,” including (on some nights) a really great take on fried fish tacos. For breakfast and lunch they’re outstanding, but I have found dinner service to be a little less consistent – but still usually great.

* Cornish Pasty Company: Just what the name says – large, hearty Cornish pasties with dozens of traditional and non-traditional filling options. I’ve eaten one for lunch and then skipped dinner. Second location in Mesa isn’t too far from the Cubs’ park and is bigger with more parking. Convenient to the A’s ballpark.

* Four Peaks Brewery: One of our best local microbreweries with surprisingly solid food as well. You’ll see their beers all over the place, but the restaurant is absolutely worth hitting. Parking is very difficult on Friday through Sunday nights, though. Also very convenient to the A’s ballpark. Disclaimer: One of their employees is a reader and you’ll see me tweeting back and forth at him (@fourpeaksmike) from time to time, but I’ve received no compensation for this mention.

* angel sweet: Well, not the best gelato I’ve had out here – that honor belongs to Frost in Gilbert – but the second-best, and the one that’s closer to a ballpark. I recommend the super dark chocolate and the coconut, assuming you don’t feel like a nut.

* Cartel Coffee Lab: Among the best coffee roasters in the Valley, and now in an expanded place that doesn’t feel so much like a fly-by-night operation. They’re also in the C wing of Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor.

Mesa (Cubs):

* Urban Picnic: In downtown Mesa, south and slightly west of the ballpark, and my favorite spot near the Cubs’ facility. They do a small selection of sandwiches on some of the best crunchy French bread you’ll find out this way, with the Caprese sandwich (fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil) and the roast beef with horseradish my two favorites. I will say that while the lavender lemonade might sound intriguing, it tastes like perfume.

* Chou’s Kitchen: Just over the line in Chandler, at the intersection of Alma School (north-south) and Ray (east-west), this hole-in-the-wall place does dongbei cai, the cuisine of northeastern China – what we used to call Manchuria – which is heavy on dumplings, mostly fried and generally delicious, with large portions designed for sharing and vinegar on the table for dipping. I also love their lao hu cai or “tiger salad,” a vinegary mix of shredded vegetables, scallions, cilantro, jalapenos, and peanuts.

* Pros Ranch Market: A Mexican/Latin American grocery store south of the ballpark (at Stapley and Southern) with a large quick-service department offering some of the best burritos (including, hands-down, the best carnitas) I’ve had in Arizona. The enchiladas are solid, my daughter loves their quesadillas, they make great aguas frescas in eight to twelve flavors, and there’s an extensive selection of Mexican pastries. You can stuff yourself here for under $10. There’s another location near the A’s ballpark in Phoenix as well.

* Thai Spices: In a strip mall of Asian restaurants, Thai Spices is among the best Thai places I’ve found around here, just doing a great job with the basics of Thai (or perhaps Americanized Thai) cuisine. I really loved their soups, both tom yum (clear, sour/spicy soup with lemongrass) and tom ka (sweeter, with coconut milk, and also lemongrass), as well as the green curry.

* my arepa: The weirdest place I’ve eaten out here – it’s actually a Rosati’s Pizza place that also serves authentic Venezuelan food, very cheaply. You’ll feel like you’re eating in the kitchen of a double-wide but the arepas are good and the cachapas are even better.

* Rancho de Tia Rosa: A bit east of the ballpark, Tia Rosa has a large, upscale yet family-friendly Mexican restaurant with a smaller take-out taqueria located on-site as well. I wouldn’t call it high-end, but it’s expensive relative to the typical crappy chain faux-Mex restaurants that seem to be everywhere out here (Macayo’s, Arriba, Garcia’s … avoid all of those).

Phoenix (Oakland):

Everything in Tempe is pretty close to here as well, and you’re not that far from Old Town Scottsdale either.

* Pros Ranch Market: Mentioned above in the Mesa section – from the Oakland park, just hop on the 202 west, get off at 24th, head south (left), right on Roosevelt. Also very close to the west exit from the airport – my old Fall League tradition was to get off the plane and head right here for lunch before going to my first game.

* Honey Bear’s BBQ: Just under the highway when you head west from the ballpark, they offer solid smoked meats but below-average baked beans. There’s not a lot of good Q out here – the best I know of is Bryan’s in Cave Creek, which is a hike from the closest stadium – so Honey Bear’s gets a little overrated.

* Barrio Cafe: About 15 minutes west of Phoenix Muni via the 202/51. Best high-end Mexican food I’ve had out here, edging out Los Sombreros in Scottsdale. Table-side guacamole is very gimmicky (and, per Rick Bayless, suboptimal for flavor development), but the ingredients, including pomegranate arils, are very fresh. Great cochinita pibil too. There’s now a location at Sky Harbor’s Terminal 4, past security near the D gates.

* Pizzeria Bianco: Most convenient to Chase Field. Best pizza I have ever had in the United States. No reservations, closed Sunday-Monday, waits for dinner can run to four hours, but they’re now open for lunch and if you get there before twelve the wait usually isn’t too bad. Parking is validated at the Science Museum garage.

I’ve got more downtown suggestions below, after all of the other ballparks, most of which are better for after a game at Phoenix Muni than before.

Maryvale (Milwaukee):

* Just remember this: Even the Brewers don’t want to be in Maryvale. You don’t either.

(Update: I’ve never been to Tacos Atoyac, just east of I-17 at Glendale and N 19th Ave, but it is rated one of the best taquerias in the Valley and is maybe 15 minutes from the Brewers’ stadium – and it’s not in Maryvale.)

Goodyear (Cincinnati/Cleveland):

* Raul and Theresa’s: Very good, authentic, reasonably priced Mexican food, really fresh, always made to order. The guacamole is outstanding. It’s south of the stadium and doesn’t look like much on the outside, but I would call it a can’t-miss spot if you’re going to a Cincinnati or Cleveland game, since there isn’t much else out here that isn’t a bad chain.

Glendale (Dodgers/White Sox):

* If you’re headed here or even to Goodyear, swing by Tortas Paquime in Avondale. They do traditional Mexican sandwiches, with the torta ahogada – literally a “drowned” sandwich – covered in a slightly spicy red sauce, although that was a little over-the-top heavy for me. Solid aguas frescas here as well.

* Also in Avondale, just across the border from Goodyear, there’s Ground Control, a coffee shop that offers a solid selection of fresh salads and sandwiches as well as house-made gelato.

* You might also try Siam Thai, which is in Glendale on Northern but is at least 15 minutes away from the park, heading east. It is, however, superlative Thai food, perhaps the highest-rated Thai place in the Valley.

* Two places I haven’t tried in Glendale but that come recommended: La Piazza Al Forno, thin-crust, wood-fired pizzas that are reportedly good but not as good as Bianco’s or Cibo’s; and Arrowhead Grill, new American food at a moderate price point.

Peoria:

* It’s a wasteland of chains out here; the best options I know are both very good local chains, Grimaldi’s and Blu Burger. The latter is a family favorite of ours, since there’s something for the picky eaters of the family (hint: not me), and there’s a Blu Burger very close to our house; they offer several kinds of burgers with an impressive list of build-your-own options. My daughter loves their grilled cheese and zucchini fries.

Surprise:

* I’ve got one good rec out this way, the new-ish Vietnamese place Saigon Kitchen up on Bell Road just north of the ballpark. There’s good Vietnamese food to be had out here if you work to find it, and this is the best, especially in presentation – the menu is familiar, the food is a little brighter and fresher, and the place is far more welcoming. I’ve yet to try Amuse Bouche, probably the best-reviewed restaurant in Surprise, which does a more casual sandwich/panini menu at lunch before shifting to fine dining for dinner.

Away from the parks: Downtown Phoenix and Camelback East

* Bianco’s Italian Restaurant: Off route 51, tucked back in a strip mall near a Trader Joes, this is Chris Bianco’s third restaurant in Phoenix, with an emphasis on fresh pastas made in-house from Arizona-grown wheat, including the best bolognese sauce I’ve had in Arizona (and really one of the best I’ve had anywhere). Their farinata, a crispy savory crepe made with chickpea flour, seems to have moved from a regular menu item to an occasional special. One of the owners told me they’re expanding into the neighboring space and installing a pizza oven so they can offer the same produce as Pizzeria Bianco without the insane waits, a project that may already be finished by now – I haven’t been since December.

* The Grind: The best burger I’ve had out here, far superior to the nearby Delux, which is overrated for reasons I don’t quite fathom. (Maybe people just love getting their fries in miniature shopping carts.) The Grind cooks its burgers in a 1000-degree coal oven, so you get an impressive crust on the exterior of the burger even if it’s just rare inside. Their macaroni and cheese got very high marks from my daughter, a fairly tough critic. They have photos of local dignitaries on the wall, including Jan Brewer and Mark Grace, which might cause you to lose your appetite.

* Chelsea’s Kitchen: I’ve only been to the airport location, in the center of Terminal 4 before security, where the food was excellent but the service a little confused. The short rib taco plate would feed two adults – that has to be at least ¾ of a pound of meat. Their kale-quinoa salad sounds disgustingly healthy, but is delicious despite that. Both this and The Grind (and North Fattoria, an Italian restaurant from the Culinary Dropout people) are near Camelback and 40th, about 6 miles/13 minutes west of Scottsdale Stadium.

* crudo: There isn’t much high-end cuisine in Phoenix – I think that’s our one real deficiency – but Chef Cullen Campbell does a pretty good job of filling that void here with a simple menu that has four parts: crudo dishes, raw fish Italian-style, emphasis on tuna; fresh mozzarella dishes, including the ever-popular burrata; small pasta dishes, like last fall’s wonderful squash dumplings with pork belly ragout; and larger entrees, with four to five items in each sections. The desserts, like so many in the Valley, are from Tracy Dempsey, the premier pastry chef in the area. Like the previous two spots, it’s about 12-13 minutes west of the Giants’ ballpark.

* Zinburger: Not the top burger around here but a damn good one, especially the namesake option (red zinfandel-braised onions, Manchego, mayo), along with strong hand-cut fries and above-average milkshakes. Located in a shopping center across the street from the Ritz. Try the salted caramel shake if you go. There are also two locations in Tucson, and two in New Jersey that are licensed but independently owned and operated.

* cibo: Maybe the second-best pizzas in town, with more options than Bianco offers, along with a broad menu of phenomenal salads and antipasti, including cured meats, roasted vegetables, and (when available) a superb burrata.

* Federal Pizza: Rivals cibo for that title of second-best pizzas, including a Brussels sprout pizza that I adored (with lardons of bacon, aged Manchego, and a spritz of lemon), as well as an impressive board of roasted vegetables if you want to add something healthy to the table.

* Pane Bianco: Sandwiches from the Bianco mini-empire, just a few options, served on focaccia made with the same dough used to make the pizzas at Pizzeria Bianco. My one experience here was disappointing, mostly due to the bread being a little dry, but the cult following here is tremendous and I may have just caught them on a bad day.

* Gallo Blanco: Tucked into the Clarendon hotel, this spot, owned by the same group behind the Hillside Spot and the various Bianco restaurants, is my favorite gourmet taco place in the area, even though it’s more upscale and a touch pricier than you’d expect a taco place to be – the target market here is the business crowd, whether at lunch or at happy hour. They make their own tortillas, they offer a solid selection of fillings, and the flavors are all big and bright. And it’s way better than the highly overrated La Condesa, where they spend too much time on their absurd salsa bar while they’re using prefab corn tacos that feel like those rubber pads you use to open the lids on glass jars.

* Matt’s Big Breakfast: Oversight on my part in the original post – one of the top 2-3 breakfast places in the Valley, now with a second location to handle the overflow from the first one (they’re a block or so apart). They do the basics, but they do them extremely well, with high-quality inputs.

* Beckett’s Table: Seasonal American dishes, largely built around comfort foods, with a heavy emphasis on fresh ingredients and one of the best kids’ menus in town.

Other places that I’ve read or heard great things about, but haven’t tried yet, all in Phoenix or Scottsdale unless otherwise noted: Lux, O.H.S.O. Eatery and nanoBrewery, Roaring Fork, Posh, The Herb Box, Litchfield’s (Litchfield Park, just west of Camelback Ranch – fine dining with menu by Chris Bianco).

I’ll update this post with any new places I try over the next two months, and of course, feel free to offer your own suggestions in the comments below.

Arizona spring training food guide.

I have lots of dish posts on food in the Valley, searchable via the search box above or by location tags like Phoenix, Scottsdale, or Mesa. But with spring training games about to begin, I thought it might help to put together one cheatsheet with some recommendations sorted by spring training stadium. I’ll add to this post over the next few weeks if I try anything new or realize that I’ve forgotten a good spot.

I should mention that Chandler and Gilbert both have a number of good options, but they’re not that convenient to any of the ballparks. If you find yourself staying in either place, search the dish archives or throw a question in the comments below here and I’ll offer some recommendations.

I do not have a comparable list of recommendations for Florida, because spring training in Florida is awful and I don’t want to accidentally encourage any teams to stay there.

Tempe (Angels):

* Hillside Spot, Ahwatukee (Phoenix). My favorite place to eat in the Valley, right off I-10 at the corner of Warner and 48th. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I recommend the pulled pork sandwich, the chilaquiles, the grilled corn appetizer, the house-cut French fries, the pancakes (best in Arizona), and the coffee from Cartel Coffee Lab. The Spot sources as much as they possibly can from local growers or providers, even providing four local beers on tap, and you can get out for under $15 including tax and tip. I’ve written about it more than once; here’s one of my posts, which talks about that pork sandwich.

* Cornish Pasty Company, Tempe. Just what the name says – large, hearty Cornish pasties with dozens of traditional and non-traditional filling options. I’ve eaten one for lunch and then skipped dinner. Second location in Mesa isn’t too far from the Cubs’ park and is bigger with more parking. Convenient to the A’s ballpark.

* Four Peaks Brewery: One of our best local microbreweries with surprisingly solid food as well. You’ll see their beers all over the place, but the restaurant is absolutely worth hitting. Parking is very difficult on Friday through Sunday nights, though. Also very convenient to the A’s ballpark.

* Cantina Modern Tequila, Tempe. In the Mill District shopping/dining area. Only ate here once, for lunch, and found the ‘street tacos’ to be solid, although pricier than actual street tacos. Vibe was weird – trying to cater to a business lunch crowd (which wasn’t buying, at least on that day), but the place looks more like a nightclub that serves food during daylight hours.

* angel sweet, Mesa: The best gelato I’ve had out here, and some of the best I’ve had in the U.S. Three words for you: Super dark chocolate. It’s in the Mesa Riverview outdoor mall, just across 101 from Tempe Marketplace.

Mesa (Cubs):

* Rancho de Tia Rosa: A bit east of the ballpark, Tia Rosa has a large, upscale yet family-friendly Mexican restaurant with a smaller take-out taqueria located on-site as well. I wouldn’t call it high-end, but it’s expensive relative to the typical crappy chain faux-Mex restaurants that seem to be everywhere out here (Macayo’s, Arriba, Garcia’s … avoid all of those).

* Mango’s Mexican Cafe: Right on Main Street in Mesa, they’re open for lunch but close at irregular times. I’ve been once, loved their fish tacos, liked the shrimp tacos, really liked the aguas frescas. Cash only, and their website seems to be defunct.

* Pros Ranch Market: A Mexican/Latin American grocery store south of the ballpark (at Stapley and Southern) with a large quick-service department offering some of the best burritos (including, hands-down, the best carnitas) I’ve had in Arizona. The enchiladas are solid, my daughter loves their quesadillas, they make great aguas frescas in eight to twelve flavors, and there’s an extensive selection of Mexican pastries. You can stuff yourself here for under $10. There’s another location near the A’s ballpark in Phoenix as well.

Phoenix (Oakland):

Everything in Tempe is pretty close to here as well, and you’re not that far from Old Town Scottsdale either.

* Pros Ranch Market: Mentioned above in the Mesa section – from the Oakland park, just hop on the 202 west, get off at 24th, head south (left), right on Roosevelt. Also very close to the west exit from the airport – my old Fall League tradition was to get off the plane and head right here for lunch before going to my first game.

* Honey Bear’s BBQ: Just under the highway when you head west from the ballpark, they offer solid smoked meats but below-average baked beans. There’s not a lot of good Q out here – the best I know of is Bryan’s in Cave Creek, which is a hike from the closest stadium – so Honey Bear’s gets a little overrated.

* Barrio Cafe, downtown: About 15 minutes west of Phoenix Muni via the 202/51. Best high-end Mexican food I’ve had out here, edging out Los Sombreros in Scottsdale. Table-side guacamole is very gimmicky (and, per Rick Bayless, suboptimal for flavor development), but the ingredients, including pomegranate arils, are very fresh. Great cochinita pibil too.

* Pizzeria Bianco, downtown: Most convenient to Chase Field. Best pizza I have ever had in the United States. No reservations, closed Sunday-Monday, waits for dinner can run to four hours, but they’re now open for lunch and if you get there before twelve the wait usually isn’t too bad. Parking is validated at the Science Museum garage. I’ve never been to Nobuo at Teeter House, which is in the same complex as Pizzeria Bianco, but it is apparently one of the best sushi places in the state.

* Zinburger: I’m pushing it a little, as this isn’t all that close to the A’s park, but it’s a damn good burger, especially the namesake option (red zinfandel-braised onions, Manchego, mayo), along with strong hand-cut fries. Located in a shopping center across the street from the Ritz.

* Matt’s Big Breakfast: Not really close to any ballpark except Chase Field, but if you’re staying downtown or are crossing the city it’s one of the best breakfast places in the Valley. Tiny, however, so expect a wait.

Scottsdale/Old Town (San Francisco):

* Citizen Public House: The pork belly starter is phenomenal, among the best things I’ve eaten in the state. I’ve only been once so far, but everything I tried there was superb from ingredients to execution. Full review.

* Culinary Dropout: My go-to recommendation for this area, because the menu is broad, everything I’ve had here was good (although I’m told they cut the short rib pasta from the menu – damn them!), and it’s very convenient if you’re staying right in Old Town. They don’t call it a gastropub, but I think that’s the best description. The chicken truffle hash and the turkey pastrami are both very good.

* Arcadia Farms: Farm-to-table breakfast dishes and sandwiches. Not cheap, but you are paying for quality and for a philosophy of food. I have been there twice and service, while friendly, was leisurely both times.

* ‘Pomo Pizzeria: Authentic, Neapolitan-style pizza. Not as good as Bianco, but better than anything else I’ve had around here. Toppings include a lot of salty cured meats designed (I assume) to keep you drinking … not that there’s anything wrong with that. Full review.

* Grimaldi’s: Local chain, related to the Brooklyn establishment of the same name. Very good (grade 55) thin-crust, coal-fired pizzas, including nut-free pesto, and similarly solid salads in generous portions. Not terribly cost-effective for one person, though.

* Scratch Pastries: Amazing high-end sandwiches on bread so good it nearly overshadows what’s between the slices. Full review.

* Echo Coffee: Rivals Cartel Coffee Lab for the best coffee I’ve had out here. At Echo, they grind the beans and brew the cup in a cone filter after you order it. Worth the extra few minutes. Full review.

* Iruna: Tapas place also very close to the ballpark; food was very good but the Spanish-heavy menu was pretty limited for a tapas bar. (The menu on their website is out of date.)

* Gelato Spot: The third-best gelato in the Valley, still pretty good considering how far we are from Italy. There’s one right in Old Town and another way up in north Scottsdale near where the Greenway hits 51.

* Los Sombreros: A bit of a drive south of Old Town into the only part of Scottsdale that you might call “sketchy,” Los Sombreros does high-end authentic Mexican at Scottsdale-ish prices but with large portions and very high quality.

Scottsdale central/north (Arizona/Colorado):

* Soi4: upscale Thai and Thai-fusion, very close to the park. Owned by the same family that runs Soi4 in Oakland. Full review of my first visit; I went back and had the pad see ew, which was outstanding.

* Wildflower Bread Company: I’d say “think Panera,” but this place is so much better than Panera in every aspect that I hate to even bring that awful chain (which now owns the Paradise Bakery chain) into the discussion. Wildflower is a small chain, but their salads are very fresh and filling, and the sandwiches are solid.

* Butterfields: The lines are crazy on the weekends, but if you want pancakes or waffles this is one of the better options in the Valley.

* ShinBay: I’ve never been, but it has a real cult following that lasted during a multi-year hiatus which ended with the sushi-ya opening this new place under the same name in a different part of town.

Maryvale (Milwaukee):

* Are you out of your mind? Don’t go to Maryvale.

Goodyear (Cincinnati/Cleveland):

* Raul and Theresa’s offers very good, authentic, reasonably priced Mexican food, really fresh, always made to order. The guacamole is outstanding. It’s south of the stadium and doesn’t look like much on the outside, but I would call it a can’t-miss spot if you’re going to a Cincinnati or Cleveland game.

Glendale (Dodgers/White Sox):

I have nothing out here, as the stadium went up before there was much around it but a few crappy chains. Two places I’ve heard decent things about that are nearby are Arrowhead Grill and La Piazza al Forno. Because I have to cross Phoenix to get here, I usually stop somewhere like the Ranch Market or In-n-Out (fries well done!) on the way.

Peoria:

* It’s a wasteland of chains out here; the best options I know are both very good local chains, Grimaldi’s and Blu Burger. The latter is one of our favorite places out here, since there’s another location almost down the street from us; they offer several kinds of burgers, including Wagyu (American Kobe beef) and Black Angus, with an impressive list of build-your-own options. My daughter loves their grilled cheese; I think she’d have a hard time choosing between theirs and the Hillside Spot’s for the best in the Valley.

Surprise:

* I know of nothing other than chains out there, although there is a new French bistro called Amuse Bouche that has gotten some positive reviews, offering high-end sandwiches and salads at lunch (priced accordingly), then switching to a small dinner menu of higher-end entrees that sound French-inspired rather than straight French. They also do Sunday brunch. It’s west of the ballpark on Bell Road, just past the 303. If your main destination out in Arizona is Surprise, consider staying somewhere closer to the highway, either Peoria or Glendale, for food options but also ease of getting out to other ballparks. Surprise Stadium is wonderful, but the area around it is an antiseptic nightmare.

Phoenix eats, part 10.

First Arizona Fall League update of 2011 is up for Insiders, leading off with Anthony Gose.

When we first moved to Arizona last year, I grabbed a copy of Phoenix Magazine‘s September issue, which included their annual list of the best new restaurants in the Valley – an impulse purchase that led us to three of our favorite restaurants in the area, The Hillside Spot, Culinary Dropout, and ‘Pomo Pizzeria. This year’s list is now online (although I picked up the paper copy a month ago) and I’ve hit three of the 23 restaurants on their list, including one knockout, the upscale Thai restaurant Soi4.

Located in the Gainey shopping plaza in central Scottsdale, at the intersection of Scottsdale Road and Doubletree Ranch (which becomes Via de Ventura, so it’s close to the Salt River stadium), Soi4 is Thai cuisine, updating classic Thai dishes with modern twists in a trendy Scottsdale atmosphere (if you live around here, you know the positives and negatives in that phrase). Soi4’s take on panang neur uses perfectly-braised short ribs in place of more typical, inexpensive cuts like rump steak. The ribs come with a mixture of chopped red and green bell peppers and cucumbers with a slightly spicy red curry/coconut milk sauce with thai basil. The only better-cooked short ribs I have ever had were at Tom Colicchio’s craftsteak in Las Vegas (twice), and that’s a restaurant that specializes in beef – and costs about three times as much. For an appetizer, I tried their kao pode tod, spiced corn fritters served with a cucumber relish and a spicy clear sauce for drizzling, another traditional Thai dish taken up several notches with stunning presentation, almost a work of art on the plate, with crisp exteriors, bright centers of mostly corn with some minced lemongrass, and no sign of grease or oil on the plate. It’s a little more expensive than your typical Thai place – those two items and a pot of hot tea (bonus points for loose leaf) came to $24 before tip – but absolutely justifies the cost through freshness of ingredients and the masterful preparations.

The Arrogant Butcher, a short walk west of Chase Field, was more middle of the road on my visit, solid food marred by a single kitchen error. It’s yet another outpost from Fox Restaurant Concepts, the people behind Culinary Dropout and Zinburger, this time focused primarily on meats, including charcuterie and slow-cooked meat dishes like the short rib stew I tried on my one visit. The stew was hearty and filling, with small (maybe one-inch) chunks of short rib and red beans, served with a fried egg on top and a rich corn muffin on the side. But the stew contained a large piece of connective tissue – I can’t think of the last time I was in a decent restaurant and had to spit out a piece of food, but this was unchewable and certainly not something I wanted in my stomach. It was just one piece, an oversight by a prep cook, but that undermined the whole meal for me. They offer a strong selection of small sides, including grilled mushrooms, marcona almonds, or the one I tried, roasted red peppers, sliced thinly and tossed in balsamic vinegar.

The third place I’ve tried from that list was Spasso Pizzeria and Mozzarella Bar in Phoenix just off 51, a huge disappointment across the board. The mozzarella is apparently made fresh in house, but for $12, the plate of two cheeses (we also chose scamorza, another cow’s milk cheese that’s dried to produce a harder texture) included just two slices of each plus some very unappetizing-looking, drab/grey roasted vegetables, all unseasoned and undressed. Even the mozzarella itself was unsalted, which is a small crime, and was totally unremarkable in flavor or texture – you can buy equivalent or better fresh mozzarella in any Trader Joes (and there’s one next door!) or Whole Foods. The pizza was entirely ordinary aside from the use of the same fresh mozzarella on top, and everything was inordinately pricey given how inexpensive the ingredients are. Even the crème brulee, which I bought only because my daughter wanted something for dessert, was all wrong, served in a deep ramekin so the ratio of sugar crust to custard was way off. With so many better pizza options in the Valley, I can’t see why anyone would go here and pay more for an inferior product. UPDATE: It appears that Spasso has closed. Can’t say I’m surprised.

That same issue of Phoenix Magazine included a great article on the second act for Chris Bianco, the owner/chef/genius behind Pizzeria Bianco and Pane Bianco. He’s become one of the Southwest’s greatest advocates for local agriculture and biodiversity, an amazing adaptation for a man whose first career, making every pizza by hand, ended abruptly as airborne flour particles worsened his asthma, causing his doctor to give him a “quit or die” warning he had to heed.

Vegas, Phoenix, and Oklahoma eats.

New draft blog entry is up on Texas RHP Taylor Jungmann. Yesterday’s chat transcript is up. And I was on the Baseball Today podcast (link goes directly to the downloadable mp3) on Friday.

Anyway, time for another omnibus food post, since I haven’t had enough in any one spot for a blog entry.

I made two trips to Vegas this month, but focused on old favorite spots like Firefly and Lotus of Siam (try the tamarind beef – it’s plus). The one new place I tried was Mon Ami Gabi, a French restaurant in Paris Las Vegas (and in Chicago, which I believe is the original) that manages to slide in under the price point of the typical fine-dining experience on the Strip. I can only speak to one dish, the trout grenobloise ($18), which was excellent – a great piece of fish perfectly cooked if a little lightly sauced, with a big pile of sauteed haricots verts on the side. I was quite impressed by their version of the premeal bread basket, a crusty warm baguette brought to the table in a white paper bag. They’re apparently known for their steak frites ($23-ish), but I can’t pass up a good piece of fish, which is my favorite dish.

Back to Phoenix, I finally made it to Barrio Cafe on 16th, a frequent recommendation from readers that’s just located in an area I never hit. It’s upscale Mexican, somewhere between Los Sombreros and real fine dining but with clear ambitions toward the latter. The chips and bread come with a spicy, vinegared tapenade that’s more Mediterranean than Mexican and that I could have eaten all night. The guacamole is made tableside – a pointless, showy exercise that cuts off any flavor development, but salvaged somewhat by extremely high-quality ingredients, including the unusual addition of fresh pomegranate seeds. (Between those and the avocado the bowl could have made a nutritionist smile.)

For my main course, I couldn’t pass up the seared duck breast in a sweet and sour tamarind sauce, featuring two of my favorite ingredients (although I’m more of a leg man than a breast man … still talking about duck, people). The duck breast had to be at least briefly roasted after the sear as it was cooked medium rather than the standard medium-rare, but stopped short of drying out, something no sauce on the planet can save. That sauce, by the way, wouldn’t have been out of place in an Asian restaurant, neither too sweet nor too sour and with a dark, savory note underneath to keep it from becoming cloying. My colleague Matt Meyers went with the cochinita pibil, a slow-roasted pork shoulder that, judging by the empty plate in front of him, was probably something north of adequate.

I’ve been reluctant to try much sushi in Arizona given some mediocre raw-fish experiences around the Valley over the last few years; our distance from actual water and lack of real high-end restaurants downtown to support the kind of fresh-fish business you’d find in most comparably-sized cities leads to a lot of mediocre product sold as sushi to unsuspecting consumers. Otaku in Chandler (on Gilbert Road south of the 202/Santan) is promising, at least by my tempered expectations, with some highs and lows in a recent lunch visit. I placed two orders for nigiri in addition to a bento box, just to expand my sample size. The maguro was nothing special, definitely fresh but on the bland side, but the sea bass with a light ponzu sauce was well-balanced, the fresh flavor of the fish coming through* with the texture of fish that’s not just fresh but handled properly.

* I know I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: If the sushi has a sauce on it, don’t dip it in the soy sauce. The chef has already taken care of seasoning for you.

The bento box option was a mixed bag, although I have to say it’s a lot of food for about $11-12. The server recommended the chicken with curry, more of a southeast Asian dish than Japanese, like a brown Thai curry, featuring a lot of fresh red bell pepper and white meat chicken but a little mild overall. The box comes with eight pieces of California roll featuring shredded crab and a small amount of mayonnaise, two gyoza, and a spring roll; the gyoza were the only positive of that group, as the others were just ordinary, nothing you couldn’t find at a hundred other sushi joints in the area. My main concern was the mesclun salad, with a couple of leaves that had started to go bad, just a sign that someone in the kitchen isn’t paying attention when he grabs them out of a drawer.

Re-reading that I’m probably giving you the sense that Otaku was worse than it actually is; nothing was unpleasant or badly cooked or poorly seasoned, and the fact that the raw fish was fresh is a positive. It’s at least worth another visit, which is more than I can say for most of the other sushi places I’ve tried in Arizona, but it’s not going to live up to most of the California sushi I’ve had. I’d give Otaku a preliminary grade of 50, but more like a 45 on the bento box.

I’m writing this on the plane back from Tulsa, which was as disappointing for the food as it was rewarding for the prospects. The two best spots were in Bartlesville, about 45 minutes north of Tulsa, where Dylan Bundy pitched in a high school tournament. Dink’s Barbecue on Frank Phillips Rd had good brisket and fried okra but the hot links were just weird, with a hard red casing like you’d find on a wheel of gouda and a rubbery texture inside, while the green beans were stewed into grey mushiness. Jared’s Frozen Custard on Nowata was outstanding, though, comparable to good Wisconsin frozen custard in texture and flavor – I had one of the special flavors of the day, mocha, which tasted like a light and sweet Dunkin Donuts coffee (bad flavor for hot coffee, good for ice cream), in a concrete with Oreos. Duds in Tulsa itself included breakfast at the Wild Fork, where the food was mediocre but better than the service; and Albert G’s, a well-reviewed and popular Q joint on Harvard, where I got a big serving of bone-dry brisket with absolutely zero smoke flavor. I’ll pass along a reader rec for breakfast that I never managed to hit, The Old School Bagel Factory on Peoria, which would be on my list if I ever happen to be back in Tulsa – not that unlikely, since I didn’t get Broken Arrow’s Archie Bradley this time around.

Hillside Spot & Barrio Cantina.

Busy day today. I’ll be chatting at 1 pm EST, on the Scott Van Pelt Show on ESPN Radio at 2:05 pm EST, and on Outside the Lines on ESPN shortly after 3 pm.

My latest post at mental_floss covers the histories of eight classic board games, with another post on the history of Settlers of Catan coming later today. And my last two posts over on ESPN.com broke down the Joaquin Benoit signing and the Uggla trade and John Buck signing.

I’ve mentioned Hillside Spot before, but let me recommend it again: If you live anywhere near the Ahwatukee region of Phoenix, or pass through it on I-10, you need to try this place, because the food is outstanding.

I’ve been for breakfast and lunch and can vouch for both meals. The “El Gallo” torta with eggs, chorizo, and avocado was tremendous, with the eggs cooked to order (they’re not that quick – that would be my only warning, but I will wait for food like this); bright, fresh avocado; just the right amount of mayo; and a fresh, soft, square roll from La Sonorense Tortilla Factory in downtown Phoenix. It’s a steal at $6. Their pancakes have earned some acclaim around here, for good reason – they’re eggy and buttery, like a thick, soft crepe, with one order more than my wife could finish even with some serious help from me. It looks like they rotate their coffees but try to offer something from a local roaster, such as one from Tempe’s Cartel Coffee Labs the day I was there.

I went back for lunch because I’d seen a pulled pork sandwich on their menu, with the pork first braised then finished over mesquite on their rotisserie grill. The pork was perfect, falling apart but with good browning on the outside, with a good background smoke flavor. It comes with a spicy cole slaw and, oddly enough, sliced fresh pear, which was a new combination for me but worked well, giving the sandwich a little bite and providing a small amount of natural sweetness to balance the acidity in the slaw. It comes on the same bread as the torta (telera bread), and the French fries, one of four side options, were hand-cut and just-fried.

Hillside Spot uses a lot of local vendors (including all of their eggs) and has that great funky cafe vibe I love to find in a local restaurant – like the Mission in San Diego or Blue Moon Cafe in Baltimore. Other than the Angel Sweet gelateria, I haven’t found anything as exciting as this place since we moved. It’s located on Warner and 48th, behind the McDonald’s, in the same strip mall where the Sunday farmer’s market is held.

We found Hillside Spot because it was mentioned in Phoenix magazine as one of the best new restaurants of 2010. We also tried another one, Barrio Cantina, in Scottsdale on Cactus right by the Tatum mall. The food was good, but on the heavy side, not just in fat content (that doesn’t usually bother me) but in the chef’s hand, adding sauces and flavors that end up detracting from the dish. But the core ingredients were all very strong, particularly their meats.

They offer a strong selection of taco plates, all available with corn or flour tortillas or as a torta. I went with the torta – that’s a new dish for me since we moved out here, so I’m indulging – made with machaca short ribs, braised to the point of collapse, with a full, satisfying, beefy flavor. It comes with shredded, slightly wilted cabbage and a crema that was probably unnecessary with the fattiness of the short rib. The dish came with a scoop of a strange, earthy rice and corn mixture that was slightly overcooked but tasted good, a solid neutral note to give me a break from the strong flavors of the machaca.

My wife went with a carnitas enchilada that came in a small cast-iron skillet and was served with the tortillas open, so the sauce and cheese (browned slightly under a salamander) were directly on the meat. She enjoyed it, although the presentation within the skillet was a mess.

We tried one appetizer, the “mini chimis” – small chimichangas where the ratio from dough to meat is way too high. I peeled a few of them open and ate the carnitas and machaca inside, to reduce the doughiness and get away from the tangy crema sticking to the outside like wallpaper paste. Someone there really knows how to slow-cook meat; they just need to work on how they serve it.

Friday links and bullets.

• Yesterday’s chat transcript.
• I won’t say the name of the Project Runway winner, for those of you who DVR’d it but haven’t watched it, but it looked to me like the judges chose probability over upside – and I’m a firm believer in going for upside. You have a chance to get an all-world talent, whether it’s a #1 starter or a fashion genius or a revolutionary chef, that’s who you go for. This wasn’t an example of the upside designer flopping in the finals; my wife, the real PR fan in the house, was mad because she thought the upside designer did exactly what the judges praised the designer for all season.
• Had breakfast this morning at the Hillside Spot in Ahwautukee, at Warner and 48th just west of I-10. To borrow a term from a certain AFL super-fan, it was “out-STAN-ding.” I’ve been hoping to find a funky, progressive kind of breakfast/lunch spot like that since we moved here, and I’m glad Phoenix magazine highlighted them last month. The food took a little while to get to us, even though the place wasn’t busy, but everything was made to order and that is the best reason in the world to wait for food.
• This NPR story on how the private prison industry pushed through Arizona’s immigration law is a model for modern journalism, a type of investigative reporting I don’t see as often as I did ten or fifteen years ago. I wish NPR did more of it, and given how many candidates campaigning here are using their position on the law as a major part of their platforms, it should be mailed to every voter in Arizona before Tuesday. (I’m not advocating a vote either way on any candidate or ballot question – merely that voters should be informed before making any voting decisions.)

• One of my favorite restaurants in Vegas, Lotus of Siam, is opening a second location Greenwich Village.
• I’m still under the weather, so I didn’t head to any AFL games and won’t today, but the forced rest meant that I finished Richard Russo’s tremendous novel Bridge of Sighs and am already halfway through Dave Jamieson’s Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession, a quirky history of the baseball card industry – or a history of the quirky baseball card industry, and the quirky people at the heart of it. (I received a review copy of Mint Condition from the publisher.) I hope to post a review of Bridge of Sighs over the weekend.