This spring’s Arizona eats roundup is mostly about one restaurant, Okra, the fantastic new place from the folks behind crudo, both because it was so good and because I didn’t try much else new worth discussing. (I have a whole Phoenix-area dining guide with past recs.)
Okra has a completely different concept than crudo, offering an upscale twist on southern comfort foods, generally via better ingredients rather than new tricks or techniques. The Calabrian pork bites, served over collard greens, are small pieces of pork belly lightly seasoned, kind of a twist on the southern greens cooked with ham hocks, but one where the pork is more the star of the plate rather than the collards. You could have this with a biscuit and probably call it a meal. The potato fritti are long fingerling potatoes sliced in half and seemed twice-cooked, mostly roasted and then quickly fried, served in gravy with a very slight drizzle of pimento cheese sauce that I didn’t even taste because the gravy and potato were so dominant. We also got a plate of the rendezvous spiced pork rinds, which were good but frankly I’ve never had bad fried pork rinds so I’m not sure what to say.
For entrees, I went with the pig cheek pot pie over olive oil mashed potatoes, while my daughter tried the fried chicken with grilled cornbread. I think she won, although I have no complaints about my dinner either. The fried chicken (“umbrian style,” rather than Nashville hot) was very crispy but still moist and juicy on the inside, and that corn bread – while a bit sweeter than I think true southern corn bread is – was amazing and could also be paired quite happily with those pork bites. The pork pie crust was the real gem in the dish; I could have used a little more pork as the plate as a whole had so much starch, but that crust was absolutely perfect, so much so that I have to figure there was lard involved.
For dessert, my daughter wanted the warm salted caramel “canned biscuit” donut, which is the one fixed dessert on the menu and was absolutely ridiculous – I assume it was just fried and it came with the donut hole as well, sitting on top like the king of the world. They have a daily selection of pies and I went with the Derby pie, a chocolate-walnut pie reminiscent in structure of a pecan pie, which was excellent (again, the crust was stellar, just perfectly flaky and tender) but couldn’t match the donut.
Like crudo, Okra has a craft cocktail menu, and I recommend their update on the old-fashioned, the New Gothic: Bullett rye, meletti amaro (a potable bitters), yellow chartreuse, and orange bitters.
I love crudo, but Okra is in many ways the better recommendation because their menu will have a much broader appeal, and you’re certainly getting more food (or at least more calories) for your money because crudo specializes in raw fish preparations, which are (and damn well ought to be) expensive by comparison. Plus, who doesn’t love southern-style comfort food and potent potables to wash them down?
* I’ve had O.H.S.O. Brewery on my dining guide for a few years now based on others’ recommendations, but this month’s visit was my first actual meal there. It was solid-average, nothing spectacular, with a menu centered on burgers and similar sandwiches like the salmon BLT I ordered. The beer was also good, but not as good as local craft stars like Four Peaks or Oak Creek, with the Extra Special Bitter my preference of the pours I tried. They also distill their own vodka and rum and make their own gin.
* I did try Worth Takeaway, the sandwich shop that has taken over the space previously occupied by the wonderful Urban Picnic in downtown Mesa, but it just wasn’t up to par. The options are few and the bread, which was the best part of Urban Picnic’s excellent sandwiches, isn’t as good.
* I went to downtown Gilbert for the first time in two years, and I can’t get over how much it’s changed for the better since we moved out of Chandler in June of 2013. Where previously there was just Liberty Market and Joe’s BBQ, now there are outposts of several great Phoenix/Scottsdale restaurants – Barrio Queen, Pomo Pizzeria, and Zinburger among them.
* One of you mentioned on Twitter a new coffee place in Phoenix called Futuro, founded by a former Cartel employee, that does espresso and drip (but not pour-over). I didn’t get to try it, in part because I also wanted to hit Giant at least once before leaving town, but would appreciate any reports from those of you who like that kind of third-wave coffee and get to try it.