DC eats.

Rose’s Luxury is consistently ranked among the best restaurants in the country, so well-regarded that it has spawned a cottage industry of people who will wait in line for you (RL does not take reservations) for a fee. We were very fortunate to have Kent Bonham (of collegesplits.com) local and willing to wait for us to get a table, and his efforts were not in vain as I think we all agreed it was a meal for the ages. Even with all we ordered – probably a little more food than was reasonable, but we wanted to try everything – and some booze, I think we only paid about $80-90 a person, which is very reasonable for the quality and quantity of food we got.

Rose’s menu varies often and comprises mostly small plates, with one or two larger ‘mains’ on it at any one time; with a table of six, we ordered one of everything (except the caviar offering) and got to work. I posted the menu on my Instagram feed (which reposts automatically to my public Facebook page), so I’ll hit the highlights. Their signature dish is the pork sausage salad with lychee, habanero, and peanuts, and it’s one of the most memorable things I’ve ever eaten because there is just so much going on in the dish yet it still manages to work . You’re supposed to just mix it all together, so each bite ends up this little explosion of sweet, spicy, savory, and tart all thrown together; I get the sense that this is supposed to feel like Thai street food, because it’s so bright and messy and satisfying but nothing special to look at. Several people, including Jack (@unsilent) Kogod, specifically said beforehand to get this dish, and they were spot on.

We ordered a second helping of the fried Brussels sprouts with tahini, eel sauce, and bonito; I’m a sucker for fried Brussels sprouts anyway, but this was also bursting with umami from the bonito and benefited from the dairy-like texture of the tahini (made from sesame or benne seeds). I also could have eaten the stuffed dates with walnuts and cultured butter pretty much all night, but again, dates stuffed with walnuts or almonds are one of my favorite things to eat. Raw oysters aren’t for everyone – I’ve long had to fight my Long Island-infused aversion to the things, since growing up there we only heard about pollution and contamination – but Rose’s are marinated in sake and wasabi and served with a little apple granita on top, so the oyster is more the vessel than the star, and that’s absolutely how I like it. I’d compare these favorably to Richard Blais’ “oysters and pearls,” where he serves the oysters with little frozen pearls of horseradish and a yuzu or other citrus vinaigrette on top.

Of the four pasta dishes we ended up with, the simplest one was the best – the hand-cut trenette con cacio e pepe, just a simple, freshly-made ribbon pasta with pecorino Romano, black pepper, and the starchy pasta water to thicken the sauce. It’s peasant food done up Roman style, with an expensive cheese instead of whatever’s on hand, but showcases the pasta beautifully. I thought the pasta in the rigatoni with tomato, eggplant, anchovy, and mint was a shade undercooked – too al dente for me, at least – although the sauce was really bright. We had one member of our party who has celiac disease, and the chefs were incredibly accommodating, making her a faux-risotto with Carolina gold rice and no end of butter to substitute for the pasta courses. There was also a straciatella special that came with long slices of focaccia that had been grilled and smeared with a rich garlic puree, and if you call those “breadsticks” I will come to your house and punch you in the face.

The main course the night we were there was a smoked brisket, served in thick slices, with Texas toast, a fresh horseradish-cream sauce, and a slaw of pickled vegetables, so everyone at the table could just make his/her own mini sandwich from it. I was just about out of gas by this point, so I went sparingly just to say I tasted it, and while the meat itself had a good texture, it was the horseradish sauce that stood out the most, making up for the fact that the beef didn’t have a lot of bark or a ton of smoke flavor to it.

Rose’s alcohol options are also very impressive for a restaurant that’s primarily a restaurant and not a bar that serves food – I know my friends were pleased with whatever wine they got, and I was impressed to see several aged rums, including Ron Zacapa’s Centenario 23, available. I also went back for coffee the next day to Rose’s sibling restaurant, Pineapple & Pearls, located next door. The back of P&P is a $250 a head tasting menu place, but during the morning and early afternoon, they serve third-wave coffee (Lofted for espresso, Parlor for drip) and a few small breakfast and lunch items, including the great breakfast wrap and these great little lemon-thyme shortbread cookies. If we’d been closer I would have gone there every morning. Both halves of P&P are closed on Mondays.

On Tuesday night I headed out with longtime partner in crime Alex Speier to All-Purpose, a pizza, pasta, and small plates place from the folks behind DC’s Red Hen and a recommendation from a reader, Jim H., who gave me tons of recs for my trip. All-Purpose’s menu has a lot of pork on it, but several small plates that focus on vegetables, as well as a couple of mainstay pasta options, six standard pizza configurations, and a chance to make your own pizza as well. We started with … wait for it … the fried Brussels sprouts (hey, they’re really good for you, at least until you fry them), which here come with horseradish cream, togarashi spice, and Parmiggiano-Reggiano, and I could have licked the plate clean if my parents hadn’t raised me correctly. The strange mixture of a Japanese spice mix with some real heat and the umami-rich Italian cheese worked well together, and I couldn’t get over how thoroughly cooked the sprouts were – I’ve had a lot of fried Brussels sprouts that were still a little underdone in the center and retained some bitterness, but these did not.

Kogod tipped me off beforehand that the eggplant parm dish was “the veteran move,” and Alex was game, so we got that as well as the Cosimo pizza, which has roasted mushrooms, taleggio cheese, truffle sauce, but no tomatoes, which I think was a sharp choice because the eggplant parm dish is like a smack in the face of huge tomato flavor. Eggplant is one of those items I would generally just pass over on a menu – I don’t hate it, but it’s always going to be near the bottom of my list of choices. A-P’s version makes the eggplant the structure but not the center of the dish – this is about the tomatoes and cheese, and if you’d given me some crusty bread to make it like an open-faced sandwich I could have just laid down on the floor afterwards and slept like a baby.

The pizza was solid, but a sort of in-between style that had the crispiness of Italian-style pizzas but was probably cooked at a lower temp, so the outside browned evenly rather than getting the puffy crust around the outside with bits of char around it. I prefer thinner crusts, but A-P’s held up well under the heavier toppings of this pizza, and I’m glad we went with a white pizza and went meatless for the whole meal given how much meat I consumed the night before at Rose’s and the next day at lunch (see below).

I probably should have skipped dessert, but A-P does a ‘rainbow cake,’ a larger version of the Italian flag cookies I grew up eating from New York bakeries and have made a number of times around the holidays. The cake was six layers of a sponge cake made with almond paste, dyed to form a pastel version of the Italian flag, with raspberry and apricot jams between the layers and a thin coating of dark chocolate on top. The hardest thing about making the cookies is getting the layers to cook evenly – the outer edge wants to try out before the center is truly cooked – but this was perfect despite the fact that the layers were thicker than you’d find in a cookie.

Across the street from All-Purpose, Smoked & Stacked is the new breakfast and lunch place from Marjorie Meek-Bradley, who appeared on Top Chef Season 13 and made it to the final four, with the menu focused on their house-made pastrami. I don’t particularly care for pastrami; I loathe corned beef, but pastrami is smoked after the same kind of curing process, giving it a different taste and much better texture. S&S’s most basic sandwich is the Messy, which has pastrami, Comte cheese, sauerkraut, and slaw on very good rye bread, and it is indeed messy, as the bread can barely handle all the liquid coming from the fillings. It’s also more than I typically eat for lunch, but I ate the whole thing anyway because the bread was so damn good.

I ate one significant meal at National Harbor, at Edward Lee’s southern restaurant Succotash, which was certainly fine for a meal served to a captive audience but nothing I’d go out of my way to eat. The skillet cornbread was the best thing we ate, a traditional southern (that is, it had no sugar) cornbread served in the cast-iron skillet with sorghum butter. The fried catfish I had was good if a little pedestrian – I’ve had this same dish lots of times before and there was nothing special about this one. They make a good Old-Fashioned, though. These fake shopping villages kind of give me the creeps – it’s like they’re trying to create what’s great about a city and build it from the top down in a remote area, in this case a good 20 minutes outside of DC, rather than stay in the actual city and build it up organically. And the traffic situation down there has apparently just gotten worse now that the MGM Casino opened the day after we all left; the roads in/out of National Harbor are not built to handle volume, and driving within the complex just to get to the hotel where I stayed (the AC) was a complete pain in the ass.

Arizona spring training dining guide, 2016 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 fourth edition of the dining guide, and my second since moving back to the east coast last summer; I’ve done my best to keep up with restaurant news from out there, but I’m aware I’m likely falling behind. 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: I’ve had lunch and dinner here and never been disappointed at all; it rivals Virtu and crudo for the best restaurant in Phoenix, with a menu of smaller plates that often showcase produce of a quality I didn’t think you could get in the state of Arizona. Chef Charleen Badman was just nominated for the James Beard Award for Best Chef, Southwest, for the second year in a row.

* 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, as well as a great selection of cocktails.

* 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.

* Cartel Coffee Lab: Best coffee in Arizona. Full writeup below in the Tempe section. This shop is on 5th street right across from Citizen Public House and FnB.

* 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.

* Defalco’s Italian Market is a great spot to grab an authentic Italian (specifically New York-Italian) sandwich while you’re on your way to a game anywhere in Scottsdale. I prefer it to Andreoli’s, which offers a similar menu and is much closer to Salt River Fields.

* 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. I also tried The Upton, a new small-plates-and-cocktails kind of place just off Scottsdale road south of Camelback, but their execution was very uneven (e.g., the fried oysters’ batter was inedibly salty) and the service was just kind of weird. I ate at EVO in Scottsdale in October and had a uniformly awful experience.

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.

* ‘Pomo Pizzeria: This location is in the same shopping center as Soi4, with others in downtown Phoenix and out in Gilbert. Authentic, Neapolitan-style pizza, not as good as Bianco, but in the running for the second-best pizza in Arizona along with cibo. 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.

* 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.

* Andreoli’s Italian Market is a decent spot for New York-Italian sandwiches, although I prefer Defalco’s in south Scottsdale.

* 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.

* 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.

* nocawich. Nestled right off University within the heart of ASU is this fantastic sandwich shop serving breakfast and lunch, with the Dolly, a fried chicken sandwich that is so good I’ve scheduled layovers at this airport just to eat it at their Terminal 4 location. (I’ve done the same to get coffee at Cartel, too.) They also offer an amazing patty melt sandwich, triple-cooked fries, and H&H bagels for their enormous breakfast sandwiches.

* 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. Convenient to the A’s ballpark. Second location in Mesa isn’t too far from the Cubs’ park and is bigger with more parking, and there’s one within a mile of the Giants’ place in Scottsdale.

* Four Peaks Brewery: One of the 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, in downtown Phoenix, and right in Old Town Scottsdale near Citizen Public House.

* I haven’t tried Moroccan Paradise yet, where they serve Moroccan (duh) and French food, but it’s garnered some nice reviews, as has BP Street Cafe for its Malaysian food.

Mesa (Cubs):

Most of the places I suggested for Tempe are also quite close to here, including Crepe Bar, Cartel, and the Revival.

* The best smoked brisket I’ve ever had outside of Franklin BBQ in Austin is at Little Miss BBQ on University Avenue in Tempe, right near the airport. If you’ve been to Franklin or read about it, you know what to expect: Get in line by 10:30 or so if you want to eat before 1 pm; they start serving at 11 and they stop when they sell out of meat; and don’t expect a lot of variety. The menu is short but amazing, with all meats smoked over oak and pecan. The brisket is amazing, the sausage is excellent, but everything’s good, and it’s a great place to go with a group because you can only order some items – like the occasionally available smoked lamb neck – by the pound.

* Republica Empanada offers outstanding empanadas, small plates, a few entrees, and beer. I loved everything I tried here but particularly recommend a side of maduros.

* 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.

* Tia Rosa’s: A bit east of the ballpark, Tia Rosa’s is a taqueria that offers a few other Mexican dishes in a casual setting; the large, high-end restaurant that used to be here burned down, although they offer that menu at a location way out in east Gilbert.

Maryvale (Milwaukee):

* Life is nasty, brutish, and short. Don’t make it any worse by going here.

(Okay, fine, here’s an actual recommendation for this neighborhood: the Phoenix New Times just reviewed a place called Machete Azteca, which sells the machetes (like giant quesadillas) of the Distrito Federal region of Mexico.)

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.

* For finer dining and good cocktails, try Cuff right in downtown Glendale, which does very unpretentious but fresh, high-quality food, including burgers, sandwiches, and salads that use much better inputs than most places that try that sort of menu. I’m underselling it a bit – it’s basic food, but done exceedingly 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.

* La Piazza Al Forno: thin-crust, wood-fired pizzas that are not as good as Bianco’s or Cibo’s, but are certainly authentic Neapolitan pizzas with the wet center you’d expect. It’s a couple of doors down from Cuff.

Peoria:

* It’s a wasteland of chains out here; the best option I know is the local chain Grimaldi’s, mentioned above.

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

These places are no longer near any ballpark other than Phoenix Muni, which now houses Arizona State but no spring training teams.

* 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. By the end of March, a trattoria serving house-made pastas with locally grown wheat will open in the space next to that Town and Country pizzeria.

* Welcome Chicken and Donuts: Located in a former KFC location, this spinoff of the Welcome Diner serves “Asian” fried chicken, lots of donuts, and not a whole lot else. You can get one of three sauces on the chicken; I don’t recommend the Vietnamese option unless you really love fish sauce. I thought the chicken was plus and the donuts were Hall of Fame-worthy.

* Noble Eatery: Artisan European-style breads from the Noble Bread Company, with 3-4 sandwich options each day in a tiny (“intimate”) cafe. It is truly some of the best bread you’ll ever have this side of Italy.

* 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. Chef Silvana has also opened a cocktail bar with lots of small plates, serving three meals a day, at The Yard in Phoenix.

* 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 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.

* Otro Cafe: The chef behind Gallo Blanco (which is now closed) 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 the veteran move is breakfast at Matt’s original location with coffee or 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 from Four Barrel and usually has three or four single-origin options for pour-overs. Matt’s recently opened a second location that should take some pressure off the lines at the first spot.

* 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.

* 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).

* Frost Gelato. Located at the Biltmore, right by Zinburger, Frost has the best gelato or ice cream anywhere in Phoenix. The sea salt caramel is their top seller; I suggest you pair it with the dark chocolate. They also have locations in Gilbert and Tucson.

* The larder + the delta, the new place from former Blue Hound exec chef Stephen Jones, specializing in southern cuisine, located inside the Desoto Market downtown.

Some of the places I’m hoping to try on my spring training trip this year: Okra, the new place from the folks behind crudo; Forno 301, serving thin-crust pizzas and salads plus daily pasta specials; Couscous Express, another Moroccan place, this one on East McDowell in Phoenix; Craft 64, serving pizza and beer, which is like the meaning of life; TEN, serving simple, well-done pub food in the Biltmore area; and Ocotillo, a combination coffee bar, beer garden, and restaurant serving lunch, dinner, and weekend brunches.

Feel free to offer your own suggestions for places I haven’t listed or tried 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.

Nashville eats, December 2015.

In what may be the last MLB winter meetings at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel outside of Nashville – praise be – I got to four new places, although I did add successful revisits to a couple of old favorites.

I’ll start with Two Ten Jack, an izakaya/ramen house in east Nashville that I’d visited solo back in April and thought would be perfect for one of our writer group dinners during the meetings. It was a huge hit across the board, and this time around I got to sample much more of the menu, including many of the yakitori (grilled skewer) options as well as many of the small plates, although I wasn’t going to skip their amazing pork-broth (tonkotsu) ramen either. Highlights included the tuna poke, JFC (Japanese fried chicken, which was thigh or oyster meat, with a negi dipping sauce), crispy Brussels sprouts, seaweed salad (not your ordinary one), the yellowtail sashimi with jalapeñ, and the pork belly yakitori. I also tried their sweet potato sh?ch?, a distilled liquor with a rather distinctive aroma but very mild flavor. The executive chef, Jess Benefield, is a big sports fan, and popped out to the table to say hello; she and her staff deserve extra praise for making many items gluten-free for the member of our party with celiac disease.

I finally made it to Barista Parlor, the ultra-hipster coffee joint in east Nashville that offers pour-over options from six different micro-roasters from around the country (including Four Barrel and Intelligentsia) and roasts their own blend, called Slayer, for espresso. The space is huge for a coffee shop, and the coffee options are fantastic, although the one pour-over I tried, an Ethiopian from Supersonic roasters, ended up kind of blah – if someone had handed me that cup blind, I would have guessed it was a blend of several beans because I didn’t pick up any notes or character in it. But the Slayer rocks, pun intended, and they offer pastries from Five Daughters Bakery, including the “100-layer donut” that most folks would recognize as a cronut before they inhaled it. I did make it over to Crema, my favorite local roaster in Nashville, before leaving on Thursday, but since they’re in the Gulch it wasn’t a reasonable commute from the Opryland.

Cochon Butcher, an offshoot of the two Cochon places in New Orleans, is all about the pig – if you don’t eat pig, I suggest you give it a miss – with various cuts of pig available in small and medium plate preparations. I was there for a quick lunch between appointments and had the pork belly sandwich with cucumber and mint along with a side of marinated Brussels sprouts. The pork belly was spectacular, not too fatty, and a reasonable portion of meat for one person (although I’m a small person so perhaps others would say it wasn’t enough), although I wish it had been on better bread – it came on white bread, better than store-bought but still a bit lacking in character to stand up to the strong flavors of the pork and the mint. The Brussels sprouts were salty and a tiny bit spicy, a bit more than I’d usually eat by myself but fine for sharing with another person.

Biscuit Love was the big letdown of the trip, especially given the name and my affinity for that very southern breakfast staple. Also located in the Gulch, Biscuit Love operated a food truck and has now expanded into a sizable space for breakfast and lunch, but what just killed it for me was that the biscuit was very plain and was very flaky, more akin to puff pastry than to the crumbly kind of biscuit I expect when I’m in the south. They also offer a number of options that douse the biscuit in things like sausage gravy, which is probably delicious but something I eat about once a year because it’s just so heavy. (I do love it, though – if you’re a carnivore, how could you not?)

And then there’s Avo, a brand-new spot near Vanderbilt’s campus, housed in an old shipping container, with an all-vegan menu with almost nothing cooked beyond 118 degrees. Our server gave us the tired shpiel about how serving the food in this raw or not-really-cooked state would “preserve the nutrients,” even though this is total bullshit, but the food was actually quite good. I had the falafel wrap, sprouted “raw” (but warm and clearly somewhat cooked) falafel wrapped in collard greens, served with raw tabbouleh and mint crème fraîche. The collard greens were the one mistake in the dish – they are way too tough to enjoy when raw and could use even a quick blanching to soften them up – but if I hadn’t known that falafel was sort-of-raw I would never have guessed it. The tabbouleh was solid, if a bit heavy on the parsley, and I don’t know what they used in the crème fraîche since they don’t use any dairy. My vegetarian friend said the vegan lasagna, made with a cashew-based ricotta, was also excellent, and her dish looked like it contained was about two days’ recommended allowances of vegetables. If you’re looking for a vegetarian or vegan option and/or just need more vegetables in your diet, I recommend Avo … but I can’t say I’d be racing to go there over Two Ten Jack.

I also ate at the Pharmacy (ate too much, to be exact) and brought a small and very appreciative group to Mas Tacos, where everything was a hit but nothing more so than their elote, grilled corn with cotija cheese and paprika. I could eat that three meals a day and be quite happy about it. And the Pharmacy’s tater tots and German potato salad are both superb, although I might have gone too far getting both of those as well as their farm burger, which comes with bacon and an egg on top. I don’t know how I was even able to move the rest of that night.

Arizona eats, October 2015 edition.

My second and final Arizona Fall League post for this year is up for Insiders, covering Dom Smith, Clint Frazier, Jake Reed, Jason Garcia, and more.

The biggest news in Phoenix food has been the arrival of the Noble Bread Company, crafted artisan loaves of classic European breads, so good that every restaurant I tried all week that served bread bought it from Noble. (One such restaurant: the estimable FnB, still outstanding and one of the best bets in town if you want to eat a lot of vegetables and still feel like you had a real meal.) Noble now has a second spot, the Noble Eatery on McDowell, where the menu changes daily and includes two or three sandwiches, a flatbread option, and a salad. I went with their open-faced tuna salad sandwich, made with olive oil rather than mayo and including chickpeas and potatoes, served on a dark, crusty peasant loaf; with three slices and a huge portion of the tuna it was more than a meal for me, closer to two. The bread is just to die for – this ranks among the best breads I’ve ever tasted, with the texture expert bread bakers describe as “creamy” inside a crackling crust.

nocawich reopened in a new location in Tempe on College Avenue, right in the heart of ASU’s campus, this summer, with their justifiably renowned fried chicken sandwich still on the menu, as well as a giant patty melt served on good rye sandwich bread and triple-fried French fries that are out of another world entirely. On this trip I tried their breakfast, getting an oversized egg and chorizo sandwich with arugula, avocado, tomato, mayo (not much), and cheese on a sesame bagel from H&H in New York City. Everything Elliott creates there is amazing, and if I wasn’t behaving myself a little bit this week I would have grabbed one of the incredible pastries available – he has a pastry chef fly in from Portland to make them weekly. Other than nocawich I stuck to morning favorites on this trip: crêpe bar, the Hillside Spot, Matt’s Big Breakfast, Cartel Coffee Lab, and Giant Coffee.

My frequent dining partner-in-crime Nick Piecoro introduced me to a new taco/burger place in Arcadia called the Stand, where the menu is very simple: a burger, three types of tacos, hand-cut fries, and shakes. I tried all three tacos, for research purposes of course, and would recommend the short rib and chicken tacos but not the vegetable taco, which couldn’t hold the fillings in and was decidedly flat in flavor, with a lot in it (mostly quinoa and some sort of winter squash) but nothing that really popped in flavor. It needed something with umami to bring it together.

Speaking of that fifth taste, Umami in Tempe (very close to nocawich, at 7th and Mill) does ramen, and a few other things, but mostly ramen, customizable to order with five choices of broths and about a dozen or so toppings or add-ons, including chicken, roast pork, and pork belly. I went with the pork and chicken bone broth, roast pork, and a soft-cooked egg, all of which came out perfectly – the broth itself was a little salty but full of body and depth of flavor. They could probably stand to use better noodles, though; these tasted like they came right out of the package, even though more hip ramen joints in other towns have gone with fresh ramen noodles instead. The ramen, a small seaweed salad, and an iced tea ran about $13 before tip, and it was plenty of food for one.

La Piazza al Forno isn’t new – it’s been open since around the time I first moved to Arizona in 2010 – but its location in downtown Glendale, next to Cuff (one of my favorite spots on the west side), isn’t that convenient to any of the ballparks, so I hadn’t tried it till this week. Their specialty is Neapolitan-style pizzas, and they have the VPN certification that is supposed to go only to places that correctly follow the standards of Neapolitan pizza … although in my experience the VPN designation means virtually practically nothing. La Piazza’s pizzas are thin and they use top-quality ingredients, including San Marzano tomatoes and the option of using mozzarella di bufala, but the pies’ centers aren’t wet as they should be in Neapolitan pizza, and they put the basil on before baking the pizzas so it comes out very dark and loses its bright, faintly sweet flavor. Still, if you’re looking for pizza on the west side of Phoenix it’s this and Grimaldi’s and nothing else I’d recommend.

My one real disaster meal of the week was at a new modern Italian restaurant in Old Town called Evo, where the focus is on handmade pastas but not on service or even execution. The concepts for the dishes are sound, but neither item I ordered was well-constructed, and one of them came out wrong (spinach, which I can’t eat, instead of the promised escarole, an essential ingredient in the dish). The white-bean hummus with the roasted cauliflower was too thin and coarse, and didn’t add anything to the cauliflower itself, which was beautifully caramelized. The house-made orecchiette in the main course were shaped incorrectly – more like thimbles, so that the individual pieces couldn’t pick up any portions of the sauce or the other items in the dish. Even the fennel sausage in the dish was off, cut into inch-long rectangular blocks rather than broken up into smaller pieces when cooked. My meal also took forever; I don’t think my main course was fired until I reminded my server about it, a half hour after I ordered, despite the fact that the restaurant was almost empty. I would guess that EVO will be gone before I get back in March given the food and the rent at that location.

Still good: FnB, especially their socca with pickled butternut squash and cultured butter, and their salad of persimmons, pecans, pomegranates, and shaved Parmesan with mixed greens; and Welcome Chicken and Donuts, although I think the next time I go there I’ll try the chicken without any sauce at all. I tried a chocolate-glazed donut with pistachios and what I think were rose petal-flavored marshmallows; it was good but the donut tasted a little past its peak. Crêpe Bar in Tempe (Elliott and Rural) appears to be expanding, and they still bring out all kinds of little bites that the kitchen has thrown together. I can also verify that Citizen Public House still makes a mean negroni. The Revival in Tempe has closed; however, former executive chef Kelly Fletcher is now at Phoenix landmark El Chorro as chef de cuisine.

Arizona spring training dining guide, 2015 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 fourth edition of the dining guide, and my second since moving back to the east coast last summer; I’ve done my best to keep up with restaurant news from out there, but I’m aware I’m likely falling behind. 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 had lunch and dinner here and never been disappointed at all.

* 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, as well as a great selection of cocktails.

* 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.

* Defalco’s Italian Market is a great spot to grab an authentic Italian (specifically New York-Italian) sandwich while you’re on your way to a game anywhere in Scottsdale. I prefer it to Andreoli’s, which offers a similar menu and is much closer to Salt River Fields.

* 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. I also tried The Upton, a new small-plates-and-cocktails kind of place just off Scottsdale road south of Camelback, but their execution was very uneven (e.g., the fried oysters’ batter was inedibly salty) and the service was just kind of weird.

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.

* ‘Pomo Pizzeria: This location is in the same shopping center as Soi4, with others in downtown Phoenix and out in Gilbert. Authentic, Neapolitan-style pizza, not as good as Bianco, but in the running for the second-best pizza in Arizona along with cibo. 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.

* 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, although I just don’t think it’s good value for the cost.

* 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.

* Andreoli’s Italian Market is a decent spot for New York-Italian sandwiches, although I prefer Defalco’s in south Scottsdale.

* 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.

* 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’ and A’s parks and is bigger with more parking.

* 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.

* 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.

* I didn’t get to try Umami, the new ramen place near ASU, but I’ve read nothing but great things.

* A tentative recommendation: I went to The Revival in October, before the menu changed to modern Mexican and Chef Kelly Fletcher departed, so while everything I had was excellent I have no idea if it measures up. UPDATE: Several of you weighed in to say that it’s still top-notch despite the switch.

Mesa (Cubs):

Most of the places I suggested for Tempe are also quite close to here, including Crepe Bar, Cartel, and the Revival.

* The best smoked brisket I’ve ever had outside of Franklin BBQ in Austin is at Little Miss BBQ on University Avenue in Tempe, right near the airport. If you’ve been to Franklin or read about it, you know what to expect: Get in line by 10:30 or so if you want to eat before 1 pm; they start serving at 11 and they stop when they sell out of meat; and don’t expect a lot of variety. The menu is short but amazing, with all meats smoked over oak and pecan. The brisket is amazing, the sausage is excellent, but everything’s good, and it’s a great place to go with a group because you can only order some items – like the occasionally available smoked lamb neck – by the pound.

* 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.

* Republica Empanada offers outstanding empanadas, small plates, a few entrees, and beer. I loved everything I tried here but particularly recommend a side of maduros.

* 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.

* 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.

* 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.

Maryvale (Milwaukee):

* Be careful when you go to a game here, as you might accidentally have to pick up the remainder of the Brewers’ lease.

* I did get a text from a scout last night suggesting Ta’Carbon, which isn’t too far from Maryvale and specializes in carne asada. So lock your doors and try it.

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.

* For finer dining and good cocktails, try Cuff right in downtown Glendale, which does very unpretentious but fresh, high-quality food, including burgers, sandwiches, and salads that use much better inputs than most places that try that sort of menu. I’m underselling it a bit – it’s basic food, but done exceedingly 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.

* I’ve never been to La Piazza Al Forno, which offers thin-crust, wood-fired pizzas that are reportedly good but not as good as Bianco’s or Cibo’s, just because the timing’s never worked out and there’s often a wait out front.

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

These places are no longer near any ballpark other than Phoenix Muni, which now houses Arizona State but no spring training teams.

* 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.

* Welcome Chicken and Donuts: Located in a former KFC location, this spinoff of the Welcome Diner serves “Asian” fried chicken, lots of donuts, and not a whole lot else. You can get one of three sauces on the chicken; I don’t recommend the Vietnamese option unless you really love fish sauce. I thought the chicken was plus and the donuts were Hall of Fame-worthy.

* 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.

* 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 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.

* Otro Cafe: The chef behind Gallo Blanco (which is now closed) 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.

* 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).

* Frost Gelato. Located at the Biltmore, right by Zinburger, Frost has the best gelato or ice cream anywhere in Phoenix. The sea salt caramel is their top seller; I suggest you pair it with the dark chocolate. They also have locations in Gilbert and Tucson.

* nocawich. Their downtown restaurant is closed, but there’s still a nocawich at the Phoenix Airport in Terminal 4, where you can get the Dolly, a fried chicken sandwich that is so good I’ve scheduled layovers at this airport just to eat it. (I’ve done the same to get coffee at Cartel, too.) A new location is coming in Tempe near ASU as well.

Other places that I’ve read or heard great things about, but haven’t tried yet, all in Phoenix or Scottsdale unless otherwise noted: Bink’s Midtown (high-end/experimental cuisine), O.H.S.O. Eatery and nanoBrewery, El Chullo (Peruvian food in downtown Phoenix), Carolina’s, Nobuo at Teeter House, Atlas Bistro (tried to eat at the latter two on my latest trip but both were closed those nights).

Feel free to offer your own suggestions for places I haven’t listed or tried 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.

Tampa/Clearwater eats.

Klawchat today at 1 pm ET. Also, check out my review of the boardgame Evolution over at Paste if you haven’t already.

Jose’s Real Cuban Food in Bradenton looks like a dump – I wasn’t even sure I’d pulled into the right parking lot – but the food makes it worth getting over your initial jitters about walking into the place, with huge portions of authentic Cuban dishes at very reasonable prices. I’m a huge fan of lechón asado, slow-roasted pork shoulder that’s been marinated in a garlicky sour orange mixture (like a wet rub) and is served shredded, usually with rice and beans. Jose’s offers the basic black beans and rice combo, but you can upgrade to yellow rice (with saffron and garlic) or moros (rice cooked with the black beans) for a buck or so, plus your choice of maduros (fried sweet plantains) or yucca frita. The pork was tender and the flavors were well-balanced between the citrus, the salt, and the garlic – not overpowered by the garlic as too often happens, since garlic is cheap and can hide the taste of subpar ingredients – and the plate had to have at least a half a pound of meat. I went with the basic beans and rice but next time would go for the yellow rice instead, while the maduros were superb, not too greasy and cooked just to the point of caramelization without burning. That plate was more than enough for me, but if you’re a bigger eater than I am, for $14 you can get a sampler “taste of Cuba” platter with the pork, ropa vieja (brisket slow-cooked in tomato sauce), and picadillo (seasoned ground beef) with the same sides, after which you won’t need to eat for a few days.

The Refinery in Tampa is a Kiley McDaniel favorite, one he’s been recommending to me for about two years now, and I finally made it late on Friday night after seeing Kyle Tucker and Jake Woodford play. The Refinery’s a farm-to-table restaurant with a menu that changes a few times a week, mostly small plates with four or five entrees, and an extensive beer/wine list. I went with three small plates, one of which was dessert – a roasted beet plate with a beet soubise, catfish fritters, and their sweet twist on biscuits and gravy, all of which were grade 55s but none plus. The fritters were a little disappointing because they were so big and bready that I didn’t taste the fish at all, so while they were perfectly fried (smoking hot when they reached the table) and came with a delicious remoulade-like sauce and some pickled tomatoes on the side, they could have been corn fritters or zucchini fritters or anything else and I wouldn’t have known it. The dessert was clever, a cocoa wafer serving as the biscuit, a dollop of chocolate mousse serving as the sausage, and a floral crème anglaise as the sauce, not too sweet but not quite as chocolatey as I’d hoped for. I think the Refinery’s best attribute is the quality of their ingredients, but I wish, for example, they’d showcased the catfish in that dish the way they showcased the beets on the other savory plate.

Buddy Brew is a local coffee roaster in Tampa with a decent selection of single-origin pour-overs as well as one espresso option, all third-wave stuff and fairly high-quality. I tried the Peru Cajamarca as a pour-over, definitely getting the toffee and cocoa flavors listed on the description (although the power of suggestion is quite potent when you’re talking about anything as subjective and borderline pretentious as “notes” in coffee, wine, chocolate, or tea) but looking for a little more acidity to balance it out. I preferred the espresso, which uses their Double Dog blend and had that dark cocoa + berry combination that, for whatever reason, I think makes the best espresso. I’m assuming there’s some Ethiopian beans in there, but they don’t identify the components on their site.

Lenny’s in Clearwater gets such high marks, with Alton Brown even paying them a visit recently when he did a show in the area, but it’s entirely about quantity over quality. Their “redneck Benedict” is just sausage gravy on biscuits with poached eggs added, but the eggs were badly overcooked (and shaped oddly, like they’d been cooked in thimbles) while the biscuits were clearly not fresh, and why bother when they’re going to be obliterated underneath a half-gallon of heavy sauce? Don’t waste your time. Clearwater’s a bit of a wasteland for food – one of you recommended Cafe Pont on Ulmerton, which I didn’t have time to try between games on Friday – but you can do better than this for breakfast.

San Diego eats, 2014 edition.

I have been writing the things for Insiders, on the Justin Upton trade and the Derek Norris/Jesse Hahn trade just in the last 24 hours.

The best meal in San Diego, our annual big writers’ night out, was at Juniper & Ivy, Richard Blais’ restaurant in Little Italy and one of my favorite restaurants in the country. I arranged the dinner well ahead of time, so we had a prix-fixe menu that included some items (like the amazing mac and cheese with house-made pasta and fontina) that aren’t on the typical menu. The takeoff on the Yodel is a regular item, though, and it’s bonkers … I split one with USA Today football writer Lindsay Jones and it didn’t stand a chance. There was a second dessert, not listed on the menu, that had to be tasted to be believed: blood-orange gelée, frozen yogurt, clementine supremes, lemongrass ice cream, and shards of roasted-citrus ice. I wanted to take that gelée home, but was afraid I couldn’t get a pound of it through airport security. The staff went all-out for us, clearly, and the service was exemplary. I reviewed J&I in full in March, and have now eaten there three more times, never once walking away less than fully satisfied.

If you aren't jealous, you should be. @juniperandivy @richardblais

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, based in La Jolla, opened a second location a month ago, right across the street from Juniper & Ivy, and it’s now the best coffee option in the city, a small-batch roaster that is also the only direct-trade outlet in San Diego. I had an espresso macchiatto there each morning, but they also offer pour-overs and Chemex brews as well.

My other dinners in San Diego came at Cucina Urbana and Prep Kitchen, both strong, with Cucina Urbana my preference among the two. A new, upscale but reasonably-priced Italian trattoria, Cucina Urbana features a deep menu of pizzas, house-made pastas, and a slew of small plates, including the daily “polenta board,” assembled tableside with a ragù spread on top of a thick smear of creamy polenta on a wooden board. My pasta dish, bucatini with tomato, guanciale, cabbage, chili pepper, and a poached egg, was a great southern-Italian comfort-food dish, satisfying in texture (al dente, with the added bite from the jowl meat and the cabbage; smooth from the egg mixing with the tomato) and flavor (obvious), with just the right portion size between the starter polenta and the fact that I wasn’t leaving without trying the chocolate donuts with hazelnut filling, which didn’t even need the passion fruit dipping sauce except maybe to cool them off enough to eat them.

Prep Kitchen was a little more hit-or-miss. The yellowtail crudo was actually a slight disappointment, with a not-subtle fishy note marking the tuna as less than perfectly fresh, and the chocolate “budino” wasn’t a budino (an Italian custard, often thickened with cornstarch as well as eggs) but a warm chocolate cake served in a mason jar, but the pumpkin bread pudding had great balance of sweet and savory flavors without turning to mush, and the porchetta (which appears to be off the menu already) was superb if slightly fattier than I’ve had elsewhere.

I grabbed lunch twice at Bottega Americano, located just east of Petco Park in a cute space that combines a little Italian market and deli counter with a sit-down restaurant. Despite the grammatical error in its name, the restaurant serves excellent sandwiches and salads and makes a legit French macaron as well. The speck (smoked prosciutto), fuyu persimmon, shallot marmellata, arugula, and goat cheese sandwich on olive bread was my favorite for flavor, although I found it tough to tear through the speck, which they need to slice more thinly before serving; the olive-oil poached tuna sandwich with yellow pepper aioli and farmer’s egg (I didn’t know farmers laid eggs, but perhaps that’s a new mutation) was much easier to eat but needed more acidity somewhere in the mix. That was a better option than Kebab House, which is outstanding if you’re looking for cheap eats near the ballpark but was much heavier and I think a little overloaded with garlic.

I am in love with the Mission for breakfast in San Diego, and ended up eating there three mornings out of four; the one variation was at the Fig Tree Cafe in Hillcrest, where I had a disappointing salmon benedict with a potato/arugula side dish that couldn’t live up to the Mission’s amazing rosemary potatoes. I know the Tractor Room gets raves for its brunches, but I wasn’t there any morning when it was open for breakfast and have to save that for a future trip.

Ruhlman’s Egg.

Chris Crawford and I posted a (too-early) ranking of the top 30 prospects for the 2015 MLB draft, plus some honorable mentions. This isn’t a mock draft or projection, which I won’t do until May of next year. It’s just a ranking. And it’s too early to get all twitchy about it. But please read it anyway.

When Michael Ruhlman publishes a cookbook of any sort, I pay attention. My favorite food writer not only writes beautifully but approaches cooking methodically, thinking in ratios and master formulas, approaching food from standpoint of science. If, like me, you were reared in the kitchen on the shows of Alton Brown, you need to read the works of Michael Ruhlman as the next step in your culinary education.

Ruhlman’s Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient came out earlier this year, and it is devoted to that one indispensable ingredient, the one item in your fridge that really ties the whole room together. He approaches the egg from every angle, all the different ways you can prepare it on its own or use it as a building block in other recipes. That means you get instructions for all of the basic egg dishes – fried, poached, scrambled, hard- and soft-boiled, shirred, baked, and more. Ruhlman’s poaching technique is one I haven’t seen before, and it is easier to anything I’ve tried before, with better results.

The real value in the book, though, is the long list of techniques and recipes that use the egg as a building block. You’ve got the ones you’d expect – the hollaindaise (traditional and blender), the mayonnaise, the meringue, the custards – but also a huge series of dishes, especially cakes and desserts, that all rely on the egg for structure, emulsification, leavening, or cohesion. So while the book is about the egg, both how it works and how to use it, you’re getting a slew of useful recipes to put them to immediate use.

I’ve tried a handful of recipes already, with the typical high rate of success I’ve had from every Ruhlman cookbook I own. I posted a photo the other day of the corn-red pepper fritters I made from this book, a recipe that depends on the proteins in the egg to hold the batter together. Ruhlman’s a big fan of frying – responsibly, of course, working fast at a high temperature and getting the goods out before all the moisture is gone and they become sponges for oil. These fritters use a small amount of flour…

The dipping sauce is a chipotle-lime mayonnaise that you can make with store-bought mayo or with Ruhlman’s very simple homemade mayo recipe, which takes two minutes of whisking and will change everything you ever thought about mayonnaise. (I hate the stuff in the jar, but homemade is a sauce.) It’s also a great base for a long list of spreads or dips, many of which Ruhlman suggests.

The biggest hit in the house was the rum-soaked cherry and almond bread, even though I had a few small issues with the execution. You soak dried sour cherries in rum (!), then mix the dry ingredients except the baking powder with the wet and let it sit overnight. Then you add the baking powder and the cherries, drained and dusted with flour, and top the loaf with a streusel of sugar, butter, and a mix of flour and almond meal. The flavors are great, with cherry and almond a natural combination, but despite the flouring the cherries sank to the bottom of the loaf, and the streusel didn’t brown properly – in fact, some of the batter puffed up through it and pushed it out of the pan. We still loved the taste and the quick-bread texture with the crisp crust; next time I’ll try it without the overnight rest.

A close second: the potato-onion frittata, easily the best frittata I’ve ever made and probably the best I’ve ever eaten. The technique is simple, but Ruhlman’s instructions are precise, and the contrasting textures between the potato and egg made it something between a frittata and a Spanish tortilla. It’s a highly extensible recipe – swap out the vegetables, the cheese (his recipe called for cheddar, but I used gruyère), the herbs, whatever. If you have six eggs and a good skillet, you can figure the rest out.

Ruhlman also includes a duck hash recipe that calls for a poached duck egg, a delicacy I have not yet spotted at any farmer’s market here or at Whole Foods. The hash itself is glorious – chopped duck confit (or braised duck legs if you prefer) with potatoes and onions and some herbs to finish it. It’s also extensible; hashes are, by nature, a way to use what’s left over in the fridge.

What I have not yet gotten to try from Egg is the lengthy list of desserts, some rather decadent. You’ve got your profiteroles and your brownies, of course, but you’ve also got chocolate/mocha cake, coconut cream cake, mango-lime semifreddo, bourbon brioche bread pudding, île flottante, and chocolate espresso Kahlua souffle. There’s also yet another recipe for homemade marshmallows, this one using honey rather than liquid glucose, which I assume is to keep the sugar syrup from crystallizing while you cook it to the soft-crack stage. So, needless to say, I still have some work to do.

If you don’t have Ruhlman’s Twenty, I’d suggest you get that before you pick up Egg, but really you should own both and Ruhlman’s Ratio too.

As a side note, amazon (to whom I always link, as their affiliate program provides nearly all the income I earn from this site, because I don’t and won’t belong to any ad services) is in a lengthy dispute with Ruhlman’s publisher, Little Brown/Hachette, over ebook pricing. You can buy the Kindle edition for $15, but if you want an indie bookstore option, you can buy Egg through that link, which uses a pretty new independent bookstore affiliate program I’m trying out. I’m still pretty pro-amazon in general, but if you who want to go a different route for ethical reasons, here’s an option.

Arizona eats, October 2014.

I spent six nights in Arizona last week to scout this year’s crop of prospects in the Arizona Fall League, and wrote two long posts on what I saw, one focusing primarily on pitchers and a longer one mostly on position players.

The best new restaurant of the trip was Little Miss BBQ, a tiny spot on University Ave in Tempe, just south of the airport, that specializes in central Texas Q – meaning primarily brisket and sausage, although they do pulled pork as well. The brisket was among the best I’ve ever had, certainly the best I’ve had anywhere west of Texas, rivaling Florida’s 4 Rivers for the best I’ve had outside of Texas itself. I asked for fatty (or moist) brisket rather than lean, my strong preference because you get that fat that just melts in your mouth and provides its own sauce for the meat – and the brisket didn’t need any other sauce than that. Little Miss smokes over pecan and oak, so you get a clear presence of smoke in the meat without the dominance of a wood like hickory (better for pork, IMO), and you get to taste the beef itself and the rub, salty and peppery but not so assertive that it took over each bite. The sausage was above-average but not as spicy as I expected or would have liked. For sides, they offer jalapeno cheese grits and baked beans, but I went with the lighter sides, potato salad and cole slaw, rather than add two heavy items to the copious quantity of cow on the plate. Both were excellent because they were clearly homemade and weren’t doused in mayo, so you could particularly taste the cabbage in the slaw. On a rainy morning at 11:30 am, the line was about 30 people deep and took me 20-25 minutes to get to the counter, although the guy doing the slicing (I think it was the pitmaster) handed out a few free bites of the brisket and sausage to keep everyone happy. It’s just a stone’s throw from the Angels’ stadium and not even ten minutes from the Cubs’ new place.

Chef Kelly Fletcher was among the most highly-regarded local chefs in the Valley while at Tempe’s House of Cards, but the high price point kept me from going there while I lived in the area and Fletcher ended up leaving earlier this year to start his own place. The Revival, also located in Tempe, has a more casual feel and I think a better mix of menu options at the high- and low-ends. The roasted pork belly with Asian caramel, mirin poached potatoes, and scallions starter ($7) was ridiculously good from all angles – literally, as the dish was a gorgeous panoply of colors and textures, and the pork belly itself had tremendous balance of textures (but not too tough, which I’ve had in some pork belly dishes when the meaty layers are overcooked) and sweet/sour/salty levels. The duck confit on roasted corn polenta main ($21) with house-made date-maple syrup, bitter greens, and candied fresnos was plus but not quite a home run; the duck meat didn’t pull right off the bone as it usually does when prepared this way, and the candied fresnos were way so fiery I had to avoid them. The polenta used a coarse grind of yellow corn, so even with the long cooking times required for the dish it had some tooth to it, while the roasted corn kernels amped up the sweetness (thanks to caramelization) while adding a smoky component. The date-maple syrup was a natural pairing with the duck as well, although I may be biased (!) as I could drink real maple syrup right out of the bottle.

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Glazed pork belly starter from the Revival in Tempe AZ.

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Cuff is a rarity – a smart, high-end restaurant located in the west Valley, where chain restaurants abound. It’s in downtown Glendale, where it looks like there’s a quiet revitalization happening, great news if you head to Arizona to see any of the teams playing in the four stadiums on that side of town. (It’s about 15-20 minutes from Camelback Ranch because of all of the traffic lights you’ll have to pass.) Cuff just opened a few weeks ago and I was there on the fifth night since they began dinner service, so the strong execution across the board was very promising – you’d think they’d still be working some kinks out of their system. The menu is straightforward – a few salads and starters, a good cross-section of sandwich options to appeal to almost every eater, and a few mains that were quite generously priced.

The mixed greens salad ($7) was the ideal starter, especially since a few days of gorging on meat left me craving something plant-based. The mesclun mix (very fresh, nothing wilting or starting to spoil, a common problem in salads now) comes with crumbled fresh goat cheese, candied pecans, dried cranberries, and a delicate peach-shallot vinaigrette; that mix of leaves is slightly bitter, so three sweet elements, three tart ones, and two salty ones bring the balance the salad needs so that you don’t get that feeling that you’re chewing on lawn cuttings. The Amalfi-style lemon chicken, one of their main course options (at just $11!) was above-average but a little tricky to eat, served in a deep soup bowl with broth that made cutting the two pieces of chicken (an airline cut and a thigh) difficult. The lemon parmesan broth was fantastic, with a perfect balance of acidity, salt, and the umami of the cheese, providing flavor to the chicken itself (especially chicken breast, which has no flavor of its own no matter how it’s cooked) and to the baby broccoli in the bowl. The grilled ciabatta bread triangles are clearly there to spare you the indignity of tipping the bowl to your mouth to drink the broth, but I wouldn’t judge you if you did. Cuff also has a full bar including a variety of specialty cocktails.

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Amalfi-style lemon chicken at the brand-new Cuff in downtown Glendale.

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Sumo Maya is a new Scottsdale hot spot that has taken the trendy “Asian tacos” theme and applied it to the standard upscale drinking spot popular in that town. I liked the food, but hated the vibe. Their happy hour specials are a steal – four tacos for $7, practically enough for a whole meal and a good way to sample a bunch of the menu options. Of the four different ones I tried, including pork, chicken, fried fish, and vegetarian, the last one was the best, filled with small wild mushrooms and tossed with a sweet soy sauce and micro greens. The flavors on the chicken taco were outstanding, including avocado and a chile-guajillo salsa, but I think the chicken had been cooked earlier and was simply reheated for service. I also tried the kimchi fried rice, which was solid but not much different from fried rice you’d get at a very good Chinese restaurant. I just couldn’t see going back there to eat when so much of the crowd was there to drink and/or be seen.

One recommendation I didn’t get to was the new Arcadia restaurant Nook, only because it wasn’t that close to any of my destinations, but that’s on the to-do list for spring.

I never went to the Jamaican rum bar Breadfruit while living in Phoenix, but that was a pretty big mistake on my part given my affinity for the demon spirit. I adored their rum old fashioned, with Appleton Extra 12 year as its base, and liked their Hemingway’s Daiquiri, with Matusalem Platino (a triple-distilled, highly refined Dominican white rum) as its base, mixed with grapefruit and lime juices and demarara sugar, although the latter disguised the flavor of the rum too much. Nick Piecoro dragged me there – not that it required much convincing when I heard “rum bar” – after I’d dragged him to Citizen Public House for a postgame drink, only to discover they’re doing a late-night menu (after 11 pm) for “Porktoberfest,” including their bacon-fat popcorn and a twist on Chinese steamed pork buns (baozi) that paired well with their signature negroni and basically everything else we drank.

I went back to several favorites for breakfast – the Hillside Spot, Crepe Bar, Matt’s Big Breakfast, Giant Coffee, and Cartel Coffee Lab, all of which were just as I left them: good and busy. Crepe Bar has expanded its menu slightly, which might have been my only complaint about it before, and they’re still offering lots of little freebies along the way, like a tiny cup of their housemade granola, a dark chocolate and hazelnut amuse with your coffee (from heart roasters in Portland, Oregon), or a rose-water marshmallow and dark chocolate twist on s’mores after your meal. (Great idea, but the marshmallow left a perfume flavor in my mouth that I couldn’t get out for hours.) Saigon Kitchen in Surprise didn’t live up to my recollections, unfortunately, but Pig & Pickle in Scottsdale exceeded them, with a bigger menu that has more small plates and starters, including more vegetable-based options so your meal can have a better balance of pork and not-pork.

Minneapolis eats, 2014 edition.

Today’s Klawchat came a day earlier than normal to accommodate my travel schedule. I’ve already filed my Soria trade reaction post.

I didn’t get to try nearly as many places as I wanted to hit in Minneapolis, since I had the family in tow and was a little limited by actual work. We also all overate so much at Tilia, in Linden Hills, for lunch on Monday that no one wanted an actual dinner that night.

Tilia’s menu changes often and features more small plates than entrees, so, with a group of four adults and four kids, we went mostly for the former. The first start was the braised pork belly, finished with a sweet glaze and I assume roasted at high temperature to brown the exterior; that’s just so not good for you but one of the greatest pleasures of the meet world thanks to the texture of pork belly fat. The roasted Brussels sprouts were the other star, featuring “ham” (not just ordinary country ham though – some sort of dry-cured variety instead) and walnuts as well as a very lightly applied sweet/tangy balsamic glaze. The grilled chicken thighs came with diced chorizo, pickled pineapple, & black bean-Oaxaca cheese fondue; I actually would have been happy with a plate just of the accompaniements, like a bowl of that chorizo served over a little rice, as the chicken was well-prepared but a bit light on the seasoning. The grilled shrimp plate came with fresh English peas, grilled scallions, and a “spicy” (highly flavored, but not hot) sauce, but the general sense around the table was that it was just okay.

The flat bread starter with olive oil and dukkah (an Egyptian spice blend that often includes seeds and nuts, here with slivered almonds) is a must, and the French fries with a mayo/ketchup style fry sauce were a big hit with the kids. I didn’t try the fish taco torta, but the friend who tried it raved, and it looked ridiculous with an enormous piece of fried fish (I think the server said mahi-mahi, although that’s not frequently deep-fried) on a telera-style roll. The only miss was the “chicken liver BLT,” mostly because the bread had an off taste to it, like it was made with too-sour buttermilk or sour cream, but also because there was no bacon involved, despite the name. The server, whom I might have mentioned looked quite a bit like Anna Friel (this is a good thing), ended up taking the charge off the bill even though I didn’t ask her to do so.

A reader of mine invited me last year to visit Saffron, where he worked in the kitchen at the time, so that was my first stop on this trip. Saffron offers eastern Mediterranean food, mostly straight-up, including some of the chef’s family recipes – like the slow-cooked green beans with tomatoes, good enough that we ordered a second dish of them to pair with the hummus and warm pitas (that was our server’s suggestion). I think the fried cauliflower was the best of the mezze (small plates) we ordered, with a thin crispy coating along with a moderately spicy harissa mixture and a thick sheep’s milk fondue for dipping. The grilled octopus a la plancha was my least favorite starter, but then again I’m not sure I’ve ever had an octopus dish I really loved because the meat is always tough, the result of cooking something with a very high protein content but little fat. The grilled kofta meatballs with a spicy tomato sauce were the hottest thing we ordered, so the kids didn’t enjoy them but the adults inhaled them; they’re denser than Italian meatballs (at least good ones), but the salt and spice were perfect with alcohol, such as the house negroni I ordered.

Two of the three larger plates we ordered were huge hits. The gnocchi were spectacular, pan-seared, soft and light inside, served with a panoply of herbs and spring/summer vegetables. The roast chicken was among the best I’ve ever had, perfectly crisped but incredibly moist and juicy on the inside, pulled from the oven at just the right moment. The chicken comes with a giant lavash wrapped around steaming-hot roasted vegetables, which were well-cooked but underseasoned. However, the chicken “bisteeya” was a little too odd for me – an aromatic saffron-stewed chicken & almond pie, wrapped in a phyllo pastry and dusted with cinnamon sugar. I don’t mind savory applications of cinnamon at all, but the overt presence of the sugar turned my palate to dessert mode, after which it’s not so receptive to meat. We didn’t have room for dessert, as with Tilia.

At Target Field, I only had time for a quick stop at the Butcher & Boar stand for the BBQ rib tips, which were delicious, with a sweet/smoky sauce and good tooth to the meat, as well as very, very messy. It wasn’t really a full meal – I love meat, but generally in concert with something not-meat at the same time, perhaps a plant of some sort – but I wouldn’t be able to walk past that stand again without stopping for another serving.

While we did one breakfast at Hell’s Kitchen, because I love their cornmeal waffles and our friends in town (and their kids) like the lemon ricotta pancakes, we had breakfast two other mornings at Blackbird, a very cute corner coffee shop with a lot of local ingredients across the menu. I ended up getting the same thing twice because it was so good – their norske scrambler, with house-smoked salmon and crème fraiche, alongside these almost-perfect hash browns (really crispy exterior, soft interior, just a little bit greasy) and toast made from Patisserie 46 breads. I tried the sweet potato biscuit, which, shockingly, tasted like a sweet potato in biscuit form – a good idea but too dense for me. They brew coffee from local small-batch roasters B&W, with bagged high-end teas from Tea Forte, both good options for your caffeine intake.

Finally, I managed to try an espresso from Dogwood Coffee Company, which appears to be the best artisan roaster in the Twin Cities, with a late-night run to Urban Bean Coffee at Lyndale and west 24th street. It’s small and simple, just expertly prepared coffees, and Dogwood’s Neon espresso beans (a blend of Colombian and Brazilian coffees) produce a shot with great body and sweet-tart berry notes.

Readers offered many, many suggestions of other places to try that I just didn’t have the time or opportunity to reach. Chris Crawford checked out the Bachelor Farmer and raved about it. Travail was closed that week. I didn’t make the Butcher & Boar, Brasa, 112 Eatery, Bar La Grassa, Sparks, or Coup d’Etat. We stopped by George & the Dragon again (hi, Fred!) for beer and a few small plates in lieu of dinner a few hours after the Tilia extravaganza, and one of these trips I’ll have a proper meal there. I do appreciate all the recommendations you offered. Now I just need the Gophers to bust out a junior lefty throwing 95 next year.