Phoenix-area eats, March 2013 update.

I hope by now you’ve seen my spring training dining guide for this year, but of course, this is a month when I try a lot of new places because I’m out of the house for games. Here are a few places I haven’t reviewed on the blog previously, and I’ve updated the guide where appropriate.

I’ve been to Davanti Enoteca in Scottsdale twice now, once for lunch and once for dinner, with the latter the far more memorable experience. The restaurant’s publicist had urged me to try their linguine con riccio di mare e granchio, pasta with sea urchin and crab. (Riccio di mare literally means “hedgehog of the sea.”) The sea urchin, which sushi fans among you know as uni, is in the sauce, an umami-filled buttery coating that’s just barely enough for the pasta and small pieces of delicate crab meat, a phenomenal and, for me, entirely new dish that was only marred by a few bits of crab shell. Davanti is the only place in Arizona that I’ve found that serves white anchovies, known as boquerones in Spanish; here they’re served as fillets, lightly marinated and presented with pecorino sardo, marinated olives, and a small salad of arugula and celery. The bruschetta varies daily; on Saturday it was goat cheese, arugula, small crispy bits of prosciutto, and a light balsamic glaze, nicely balanced with the creaminess of the cheese and peppery arugula balancing the salty-sweet prosciutto. I’d skip the honeycomb focaccia, which the server recommended highly – it’s flat, Ligurian-style, almost cracker-like, with a soft cow’s-milk cheese inside, but overall I found it pretty bland. Dessert was also disappointing – they were out of my first choice, the mille foglie (misspelled as “millie foglie” on the menu, which sounds like a supporting character in a Nero Wolfe novel), and my second, the peanut butter mousse, had a great texture but no flavor. For lunch, they offer a small selection of fresh sandwiches, including an authentic porchetta, served with rapini, aged provolone, and hot peppers (a lot of them), for a very reasonable $9. EDIT: Davanti closed in May of 2013.

On Friday night, I tried Federal Pizza in CenPho – that’s what the cool kids call central Phoenix, apparently, although to me that’s just “downtown” – with Nick Piecoro and a colleague of his at the Republic. After a 90-minute wait for a table, the pizza had to meet a pretty high standard to satisfy me, but it did, better than ‘Pomo in Scottsdale and on par with Cibo, which surprised me given how strong both of those pizzerias are. Federal’s crust is soft and spongy, thin but not Neapolitan-thin where the center often can’t support the toppings, but also not as strong and cracker-like as Bianco’s is. The two pizzas we ordered arrived with plenty of char on the exterior but not underneath, which is good. I went with the Brussels sprout pizza, with manchego, large bits of bacon, and a hint of lemon; Nick ordered the meatball pizza, with house-pulled mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil. Both were excellent, although I preferred the Brussels sprout pizza for its novelty and for the great combination of the roasted sprouts, which have a little sweetness when they’re caramelized, with the saltiness of the bacon (a great friend to basically all things green) and the Manchego and the acid from the lemon. Nick’s friend, Amy, ordered the roasted vegetable board, which was both very fresh and very generous, with more cauliflower, roasted to a nice shade of brown on the cut sides, than I could ever eat at one sitting.

I never wrote up crudo, although it’s on the dining guide and I’ve recommended it to many of you individually. Crudo’s menu has four major sections: four or five crudo (raw) seafood dishes that give the restaurant its name, four plates built around fresh mozzarella, four pasta/risotto options, and four grilled proteins, as well as a few sides. Nearly everything my daughter and I ate here was outstanding; she loved the fresh mozzarella with bacon relish, I couldn’t get over the quality of the albacore (with apple, truffles, and black garlic) in the crudo preparation, and we both adored the crispy pig ears appetizer and the squash dumplings with pork ragout (this was in November when that was seasonal). They also feature desserts by the great Tracy Dempsey, and, again sticking with the fall theme, we had an apple tart with crème fraîche that was superb, especially the crust which was firm when you cut the tart but shattered in your mouth so all of that imprisoned butter could burst forth as you bit into the apple. If I were trying to impress a woman on a date, this is where I’d take her.

Further out here in the east valley boonies, I tried the new Whiskey Rose Saloon BBQ location in south Chandler, which they promise will be the first outpost of many … although I doubt it, as the food was pretty mediocre across the board. They are smoking the meats, but there was very little smoke flavor anywhere to be found, and what we got – I went with Phoenix New Times/Chow Bella food critic Laura Hahnefeld and her husband, Jay – was not very hot when it reached the table. About the best I can say for the food is that nothing was overcooked to the point of dryness, but none of it had much taste, and the amount of fat left on the brisket was kind of shocking. The conversation clearly outpaced the food here. By the way, Laura also has the skinny on the awful makeover of Distrito in Scottsdale’s Saguaro hotel.

I’ve also been remiss in failing to mention Queen Creek’s San Tan Flats, which is more of an experience than a restaurant, offering basic grilled fare like burgers, steaks, and chicken breasts with Jack Daniels sauce, but in an outdoor venue with fire pits (bring your own marshmallows … no, really, we do) and live country music. Located on Hunt Highway just east of the end of Ellsworth Road, San Tan Flats gets pretty jammed on the weekends but it’s very kid-friendly and the food is adequate for an evening of hanging out with friends, with the three of us eating there for under $40 unless there’s alcohol involved.

Phoenix eats, fall 2012.

Today’s installment of the offseason buyer’s guides, covering the catching market, is the end of the series. I’ll do award posts starting on Monday with Rookies of the Year.

Barrio Queen, in Old Town Scottsdale, is a spinoff of Phoenix’s Barrio Cafe, sharing some menu items but focusing more on street tacos, roughly four-inch tortillas generously filled with about 20 different options diners can choose from a sushi-style paper menu that covers beef, chicken, pork, seafood, and vegetarian fillings, all ranging from $2.50 to $5 or so. The restaurant’s signature cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork shoulder) appears in taco form, as do carnitas, grilled flank steak, mushrooms and huitlacoche (corn fungus), and smoked salmon. The carnitas taco was the best of the four I tried, with the meat shredded and slightly crispy on the edges, although the smoked salmon with roasted cactus paddle (nopal) was a close second. The mixed grilled peppers taco blew my mouth off, although that doesn’t make it a bad thing. We also tried the chili verde fries, which are just what they sound like, with pork and cheese, a little too over the top for me although the chili verde itself was delicious. The food itself destroys any other tacos I’ve had in the Valley save downtown’s Gallo Blanco, and the prices are comparable to and even below some well-reviewed places like the overrated La Condesa.

Distrito, in the Saguaro hotel just up Drinkwater from Scottsdale Stadium (where the Giants train), also goes for a Mexican street food vibe, but the dishes are more complex and upscale, with price points to match. The mahi-mahi tacos ($14) come three to an order, with large pieces of fried fish on top of chipotle remoulade and a red cabbage slaw on top. Their cochinita pibil ($12) comes already sliced, which is a little odd, but the meat was tender and was served with a slow-cooked pineapple achiote sauce that was actually even better the next day. Their huarache de hongos ($10) flatbread includes mixed wild mushrooms as well as huitlacoche and a topping of melted mild white cheeses. The guacamole ($10) with cotija cheese was silently spicy but also had some of the creamiest avocadoes I have ever tried, giving them a faintly sweet taste as well. We tried one of the vegetable sides, the esquites ($6), sweet corn served off the cob, tossed with lime and queso fresco, served on a bed of chiptole aioli (probably the same that’s under the mahi mahi), a fork-friendly equivalent to the charred corn with cotija and paprika dish that’s become very trendy across the U.S. over the last few years. The one dish that fell a little short for me was the queso fundido ($12), duck barbacoa with roasted chilies served under a sheet of melted cheeses; the flavor of the duck itself completely disappeared under the cumin, red peppers, and poblanos.

While I’m still covering Scottsdale, I’ll throw in yet another endorsement of Baratin Cafe, which might be the single best value in the Valley because you’re getting very high-end ingredients and preparations for roughly $10 per salad or sandwich. The catch is that the menu changes daily and it is small – one salad, one sandwich, one “potted” (forcemeat or pate) or pickled dish, a snack, a starter, a vegetarian plate, and a dessert. I’ve been four times, always showing up with no idea what would be on the menu, ordered the sandwich each time, and have been thrilled with everything, even the day the sandwich was vegetarian and built around eggplant, probably my least favorite vegetable (technically a berry) of all. Baratin piggybacks on the purchasing power and prowess of FnB, which is just around the corner on Craftsman, but you can get in and out of Baratin at about half the cost of its more sophisticated sibling. If you’re staying in Old Town and are an open-minded eater, this is the one place I’d encourage you to hit above all others.

Moving over to Phoenix, Chris Bianco’s newest place, bearing the Google-unfriendly moniker Italian Restaurant, opened earlier this year in the Town and Country shopping center just off route 51 between Highland and Camelback. The focus here is on house-made fresh pastas produced from Arizona-grown wheat and served with simple, mostly traditional sauces that rely on fresh ingredients, with the menu changing frequently to reflect seasonal items. We started with the farinata, a traditional Italian crepe made from chickpea flour and cooked in a very hot cast-iron skillet until crispy. Italian Restaurant’s version includes red onions, black olives, and sage leaves, balancing the sweetness and tang of the onions with the brininess of the olives and the earthiness of the chickpea flour and sage, bringing a very satisfying crunch from the high heat to which it’s exposed during cooking. (You can try this very similar recipe if you want to make it at home as I’ve done.)

For the entree, I went with the papardelle bolognese, which is among my favorite sauces but one I rarely eat because it’s so often done poorly – overcooked, made with too much cream, made only with beef, made with cheap tomatoes, whatever. Bianco’s place does it right, starting with giant sheets of pasta closer in dimensions to lasagna, cooked just barely to al dente, served with a vibrant red sauce without the heaviness of most bolognese attempts (including a few of my own at home). My parents were visiting that week, and my mother chose the cavatelli with Schreiner’s sausage, roasted cauliflower, and spring onions; the sausage and pasta combination was a perfect marriage, with the al dente cavatelli bringing a bready texture to the meat, although the cauliflower was overrun by other flavors in the dish. Portions are generous but not unfinishable and prices are reasonable for the quality you’re getting, with each pasta dish running $15.

I also tried Chris Bianco’s legendary sandwich shop, Pane Bianco, and was a little disappointed, at least compared to the high expectations I’d gotten from friends who’ve tried it. The bread was what let me down, which is shocking since Bianco is known for his pizza doughs and uses a similar formula for the focaccia at Pane Bianco. Mine was dry and lacked the soft sponginess of good focaccia, so while it absorbed some of the olive oil from the mayo-less tuna salad, it was too chewy and made the whole sandwich feel heavy. All five of these places appeared in Phoenix magazine’s list of the 20-odd best new restaurants of 2012.

To the east valley … if you’re going to a Cubs or Mesa Solar Sox day game, my new recommendation for a pregame meal is Urban Picnic on Main Street, less than ten minutes’ drive from the ballpark, offering a modest menu of hot (pressed, but not smashed) and cold sandwiches, made on these amazing baguettes, soft on the inside with a crust that shatters upon impact. I’ve tried two sandwiches, the mozzarella caprese and the roast beef with horseradish, both of which are outstanding, although I wish the mozzarella was fresher – it’s not quite the hard moisture-reduced stuff you get at your generic megamart, but it’s not as soft as even a good-quality cow’s-milk mozzarella is. The fruit cup you can get on the side is tiny but the fruit within has always been sweet and was obviously cut that morning. The only item I didn’t like was the fresh lavender lemonade, which was like sucking on a flower.

Pitta Souvli, located at Germann and Alma School just south of the 202’s Santan portion in Chandler, wins the prize for best Greek/Mediterranean place we’ve found so far, with everything solid but the small plates really shining. Their baba ghanoush is a powerful mixture of smoky, tart, and garlicky flavors that will have you radiating allyl methyl sulfide from your pores for days. The avgolemono – a soup made from chicken stock, lemon juice, rice, and eggs that are beaten into the hot stock to make a thick, cloudy end product – has bright lemon flavors and the thick, slightly uneven texture that the soup should have if the rice is fully cooked and the eggs are added slowly enough. Their souvlaki is a slightly mixed bag, with the meats a little overcooked for my tastes, more of a problem with the chicken (white meat, so it dries out) than with the pork. They also get points for using thick, better-quality pitas that can stand up to heat and to thick dips like the baba ghanoush and the hummus, which is topped with a bright peppery olive oil.

And finally, to Surprise, where there’s finally a good, fairly quick, non-chain option near the ballpark: Saigon Kitchen, the best Vietnamese restaurant I’ve found out here and another restaurant in Phoenix magazine’s list. I’m a little boring when it comes to Vietnamese food because I nearly always order the bun, steamed vermicelli topped with some sort of grilled, highly marinated meat, served with a sweet/savory sauce based on nam pla (a salty Asian fish sauce that’s very high in umami) along with bean sprouts, shredded vegetables, mint leaves, and sometimes peanuts. What Saigon Kitchen does differently from most places is create blocks of a highly spiced (but not spicy) pork meatloaf, as opposed to fatty slices of pork, baking the meat at a low temperature before finishing it on the flat-top to give it some color. It’s tricky to eat with chopsticks because the blocks are so large, but the added flavor and improved texture make it completely worth it. It’s busy at lunch but I haven’t seen it packed, probably because of all the competition from crappy chains next door to it on Bell Road, and the food comes pretty quickly.

Phoenix eats roundup, July 2012.

Today’s column at ESPN ranks the top ten prospects in contenders’ organizations by their current trade value. I’ll be back on the podcast on Wednesday.

Chou’s Kitchen in northwest Chandler, at Warner and Alma School, serves regional Chinese cuisine from northeastern China, known as dongbei cai, from the area generally known in English as Manchuria. Because the climate in the area is less favorable for growing rice than that of central and southern China, northeastern Chinese cooking includes more wheat, which means lots of dumplings, including the thick, doughy filled dumplings known as baozi. Chou’s version is less doughy than the baozi I’ve had elsewhere and was more like an oversized “potsticker,” meaning a better ratio of filling (pork and vegetables) to dough. I preferred those to the “meat pies,” large discs with a thinner dough and the same filling (they also offer beef, shrimp, or vegetable fillings), fried on both sides, with more meat and less dough – still good, but not as balanced as the baozi. Their version of tiger salad (lao hu cai) incorporates sliced fresh green cabbage and peanuts with the traditional combination of cilantro, scallions, and chili pepper, with enough to serve two people and a great balance of acidity, heat, and sweetness. All of that food – more than I was able to finish – cost about $17 before tip, and the service was very attentive; the owner even came out to ask me how I’d found them. They’re in Phoenix magazine’s current issue, listing over great “cheap eats” from around the Valley.

And so is My Arepa, which shares a space with a Rosati’s Pizza, a strange arrangement that didn’t give me great confidence when I entered. The food was very good, and apparently they’ve got a small following among Venezuelan Cubs players, with signed photos from several on the walls (including Carlos Zambrano and Angel Guzman). The menu is enormous but we ordered one item from the three main categories – one arepa, one empanada, and one cachapa. Arepas are thin pancakes made from ground corn meal, sliced the long way and filled like a sandwich. My Arepa’s masa is made from white corn, so it’s pretty bland (I’ve had yellow-corn arepas a few times and prefer them, but I guess that’s not authentic), with the fillings – braised shredded beef, sweet plantains, and black beans – more than making up for the dough’s lack of flavor. The cachapa, a yellow-corn pancake with kernels in the batter, folded in half like an omelette and filled, was the best item we tried, sweet from both the corn kernels and from caramelization on the griddle, with the same options for the fillings as the arepas. The place itself is pretty bare-bones, from the furniture to the décor, and could probably use a little facelift. Both Chou’s and My Arepa are inside of 15 minutes from HoHoKam.

Also in that Phoenix magazine feature was Baratin Cafe, located in Old Town Scottsdale just off 5th street, in a walkway across Craftsman from Citizen Public House. Baratin’s menu is as small as they come, changing daily, with one starter, one salad, one sandwich, one vegetarian option, one “potted” entree, and one dessert. The day I went, the starter was roasted tomatoes and garlic with basil, olive oil, and grilled slices of rosemary-olive bread, and the sandwich was a pulled pork with spicy whole-grain mustard, sliced apples, and cole slaw on a crispy flatbread from Mediterra Bakehouse in Coolidge. Business is slow everywhere here in the summer, but it can’t be a good sign that I was the only customer at 6 pm on a Saturday evening – this place is far too good for that, and quite reasonably priced for some of the highest-quality ingredients I’ve come across out here, about $18 for those two items plus a drink.

Tortas Paquime in Avondale is one of the few independent restaurants I’ve found on the west side worth hitting, close to the Glendale stadium and on the way from my house to Goodyear, serving, of course, tortas, Mexican sandwiches on soft white bread (they also offer whole wheat) with the usual array of meat fillings. Torta ahogada (“drowned” in sauce) is the most traditional, but I went for the cochinita pibil with “everything” – avocado, tomato, lettuce, jalapeno (and a lot of it), and mayo, served with a handful of homemade potato chips for $5.49. This pork was still tender and had a good balance of acidity and smokiness from the achiote, nicely cut by the fats from the avocado and mayonnaise. They also offer tacos, various pastries, and six flavors of agua fresca.

Il Bosco is a new, tiny, wood-fired pizza shop in north Scottsdale, tucked into a strip mall on a side street on the northeast corner of Scottsdale and Shea. Their site says they cook their pizzas at 900 degrees, but I chatted with the pizzaiolo a little bit and he said he’s found the ideal temperature is between 700 and 800, which produces a pizza somewhere between Italian style (ultra thin crust, more charring on the outside) and New York style (moderately thin crust, toppings cooked a little further). The menu is small and simple, with a handful of standard pizzas plus a daily special; that option on the night we went was superb: homemade meatballs, sliced thinly like sausages, with three cheeses and rapini, a vegetable I don’t usually like unless it’s cooked at a hot enough temperature to bring out some of its sugars. The salads are extremely fresh and the restaurant grows its own herbs in pots out back. The service was off the charts, and the owner even let my daughter come behind the counter and see how some of the equipment worked while she poured her own drink.

I’ve mentioned Frost Gelato on Twitter as our new favorite gelateria in the Valley, just barely edging out Angel Sweet (which we do still love). Frost, located in the Santan Mall, has two locations in Tucson as well as one in Chicago now, and was started by two U of A alumni who hired – and somehow secured a “special skills” O-1 visa for – an Italian gelato chef to help them devise the recipe. The gelato’s texture is perfect and their flavors are strong, including dark chocolate, salted caramel, and coconut, with only the bitter, extract-y mint chocolate chip disappointing so far.

La Condesa Gourmet Tacos made Phoenix magazine’s list of the best new restaurants of 2011 and was recommended by several friends of mine who rave about its salsa bar, which is quite extensive. But the food itself was very disappointing. The cochinita pibil tasted of nothing but vinegar, while the carne asada was tough and surprisingly bland. Worse, however, was the corn tortillas themselves: If you aren’t making the tortillas fresh in-house, you’re not a “gourmet” taco shop. These were the same tortillas I could buy at Target in a package of 30 for $2. Stop spending so much time on strawberry salsa and start making tortillas from scratch (and grilling them, while we’re at it), and then we can talk.

Arizona eats, August 2011.

I made a side trip to Cave Creek en route back from Anthem on Friday specifically to try Bryan’s Black Mountain BBQ, allegedly the best Q in the Valley … and I have to say I haven’t found anything close to this good in the state. Both the pulled pork and the brisket bore modest smoke rings but were very moist with good smoke flavor, and the crispy edges of the brisket had a strong kick from the dry rub. The pork needed no sauce beyond the thin, slightly spicy, slightly acid sauce it’s served in, which didn’t mask the taste of the meat at all. The brisket did need sauce if only for some salt on the interior portions of the meat; their house sauce is sweet and smoky without any heat, although there’s a hot version available as well. A generous quarter pound of each meat – really, there had to be close to a pound of meat on the plate – plus two sides is $13.25 before tax; the sides were the lone disappointment, as the potato salad was absolutely covered in mayo and the cole slaw had green olives in it that overwhelmed everything else. But I would drive an hour just to get that smoked meat, especially with nothing close to it down our way.

bld in Chandler (Germann & Dobson, just south of the Santan Freeway) stands for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as they’re open for all three meals. (It’s unrelated to the bld in Los Angeles which I tried in 2008.) My wife and I went at lunchtime but both ordered breakfast, as that menu was much more appealing. Both portions were enormous, more than either of us could finish. I went with the short rib benedict, two halves of an English muffin each topped with a large chunk of braised short rib, a poached egg, and a red wine Hollandaise the color of black raspberry ice cream. The short rib was tender and still bore hints of the braising liquid (red wine-based) but was a little light on seasoning; the poached eggs were perfect, while the hollandaise brought some acidity and brightness to the whole dish, although I couldn’t quite convince myself that something lavender should be savory rather than sweet. The breakfast potatoes on the side were peppery but barely above room temperature. My wife ordered the “green chili pork tostada,” which is really chilaquiles with an enormous portion of braised, shredded pork shoulder, with refried beans, cotija cheese, and fried eggs on top. The pork was tangy, maybe a little too much, and I thought the ratio of meat to everything else was too high, but my wife (who ordered it without the beans) thought it was excellent. bld reminded me of the Hillside Spot, still my favorite place to eat around here, with the advantage of being much closer to the house than the Spot is even if the food isn’t quite as good.

I’ve tried two Vietnamese places in Chandler, Pho Chandler at Arizona Ave and Ocotillo (south of the Santan) and Cyclo on Chandler Blvd east of Dobson (right across from the Valley’s best gelato, Angel Sweet). I ordered roughly the same entree at both places, bún (rice vermicelli) with grilled pork and a fried egg roll, and Pho Chandler was the winner, with more flavorful meats and less fatty pieces as well as more greens underneath the noodles. Pho Chandler also has a pork short ribs appetizer that is a must-order – small pieces of pork still on the bone served in a sweet-spicy sauce with tamarind and Thai basil. The bún at Cyclo included pork and beef, and the beef could not have had less flavor if they’d boiled it without seasoning. One thing I found peculiar at both restaurants was the use of thicker noodles than I’ve had at Vietnamese restaurants elsewhere, mostly in Boston, which changes the texture of the final dish substantially. I’d also give Pho Chandler a nod over Cyclo for friendlier service.

In Scottsdale, I’ve now had lunch at Culinary Dropout, located just across Camelback from Fashion Square Mall, three times when meeting friends in from out of town or who work in the area, and it’s been a home run each time. The orecchiette with short rib meat and butter beans in a tomato sauce is bright and fresh but very filling with a late kick; I’m mildly obsessed with short ribs, by far my favorite cut of cow, and even with all of the other heavier elements in the dish the rib meat remains the clear star, accentuated by the acidity of the tomato sauce. The chicken hash with fried egg and black truffles is a rich and hearty if you’re into mushrooms, but was a little on the light side for lunch. The turkey pastrami on a pretzel roll was good but my least favorite of the three dishes, primarily because the meat is so salty and then comes on a salty roll with good yet also salty hand-cut fries on the side … I love salt and season aggressively when I cook, but this felt like a dish aimed at getting you to order another beer. (I could think of worse outcomes, though.) The place has kind of a funky gastropub look and feel, but the food is strong enough for a business lunch.

Zinburger is owned by the same restaurant group as Culinary Dropout and the eponymous dish there is so good I have now made my own version several times at home. Located across from the Ritz-Carlton in a small mall featuring a Cheesecake Factory – and really, how stupid do you have to be to go eat that garbage with Zinburger about 30-40 meters away? – Zinburger offers DIY burger options, but the version that bears the restaurant’s name is the winner: Zinfandel-braised onions, Manchego cheese, and a thin layer of mayonnaise. I’m not sure how Zinburger does their onions, but my version comes pretty close – I caramelize them in the traditional way, then deglaze the pan with wine and let the onions plump back up a little with the new liquid before serving. They also offer several types of hand-cut fries, including “double truffle fries” and sweet potato, both of which were excellent although I find sweet potato fries a little too sweet. (Sweet potato chips, on the other hand, are awesome.) I regret to inform you that I did not try any of Zinburger’s shakes.

Vegas, Phoenix, and Oklahoma eats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Valley eats.

One music note (pun intended) before I get to the food: Arcade Fire’s new album The Suburbs (best album I’ve heard in 2010) and their debut album Funeral are both just $5 as mp3 downloads on, probably just through the end of the month (Sunday night). Their second album, Neon Bible, is just $5.99 as a download, but I don’t think that disc measures up – you could buy “Keep the Car Running” and call it a day.

Jason Grey has been trying to get me to try Rancho de Tia Rosa in Mesa for at least three years now, but it was never convenient until we moved to this part of the Valley. (When we were here for spring training, we’d stay in north Scottsdale, near Kierland, so heading out to eastern Mesa for dinner was a haul and would have screwed with my daughter’s bed time.) The restaurant absolutely lived up to expectations, especially since, like Ortega’s in San Diego, Tia Rosa makes their own old-school flour tortillas, the biggest delimiter for me between an ordinary Mexican restaurant and an above-average one. We’ve been there once so far, although we’re going again soon, and the portions are generous with very fresh ingredients. I ordered the carne asada, figuring I’d start with a classic dish (the menu has a mix of classics and modern Mexican cuisine); the flavor was outstanding, deep, smoky, not too salty, but unfortunately the meat had dried out a little, probably because it was slow-cooked all day and then held a little too warm for service. I don’t pay extra for ambiance, but my wife was impressed by the building and décor inside; I’m more about the tortillas and salsas and bright flavors, enough that I’m willing to give them a pass on the dryness of the main course.

In downtown Mesa on Main Street, there’s a small lunch place called Mangos that apparently keeps inconsistent hours for dinner, but for lunch it’s more of a nicer twist on a taco shop. Their fish taco is the best I’ve ever had, hot, crispy, non-greasy, with just enough seasoning, and their aguas frescas were outstanding – I went with the cashier’s recommendation, a mix of watermelon and pineapple. The shrimp taco wasn’t as good as the fish taco, mostly because it seemed undersalted, but all ingredients on both tacos were fresh, and the tacos plus beans and rice ran about $11 for more food than I could think about eating. Mangos has a sister restaurant in downtown Chandler called El Zocalo that is just a poor imitation of Tia Rosa, as expensive but with inferior product; you’re paying mostly for setting and atmosphere, and I’d rather pay for the food.

The Urban Grocery and Wine Bar at the Phoenix Public Market doesn’t have an extensive menu, but the market itself is worth checking out. At the grocery counter you can order a few sandwich items, including a roast beef sandwich that feels artisanal through all of its ingredients, from the baguette to the spicy mustard to the unusual pickles, and the sandwich is generously filled. My only complaint was that the roast beef was sliced thickly and incorrectly, resulting in a very tough product that detracted from the experience, but if that’s not the norm, it’s a steal at $7.

For pizza, I’d still call Grimaldi’s the tops among casual places in the area, but Florencia’s on Ray in Ahwautukee (near 40th) does a very solid rendition of New York-style pizza, with just a little too much sauce separating them from NYC slice-dom. The Italian sausage had a nice pronounced fennel note, and the sauce isn’t sweet as it too often is outside of New York. The pesto was a little oily for me but had a good balance of basil, garlic, and cheese. The garden salad, while basic, has always included very fresh ingredients, and the homemade balsamic dressing is solid if a touch thin.

We’ve tried three local dessert options, two of which are gelaterias. The winner there is Angel Sweet, on Chandler Blvd just east of Dobson, tucked in a strip mall with a Starbucks and a Basha’s. The owner of Angel Sweet – whom we’ve never seen – is reportedly Japanese, but I think he has an Italian soul given how incredibly smooth and precise his gelatos are. The super dark chocolate does not boast without cause, as it is about as black as the last banana with strong cocoa flavor, while the mint is actually a straciatella with an unusually round, full mint flavor. The panna cotta and crème caramel are similar, but I prefer the darker caramel notes in the panna cotta. The coconut, one of my two bellwether flavors along with dark chocolate, is bright and fresh and not too sweet. My wife and daughter are both big fans of the seasonal pumpkin pie flavor.

The other gelateria we’ve found is Enzo’s, on Ray Road, run by an emigrant from Italy who also pulls what looks like a legit shot of espresso. He’s extremely friendly, but unfortunately the gelato we had was slightly grainy and didn’t have the same powerful flavors as Angel Sweet’s. Che peccato.

Cake Cafe on Ray Rd in Ahwautukee is primarily a cupcake shop that also sells custom cakes, typically selling a dozen or so cupcake flavors on any given day. I’d call it fringe-average, not quite as good as Sprinkles (which to me is the definition of solid-average, useful since it’s likely some of you have tried it) because the cupcakes tend to be slightly dry, and the frosting portions are a little meager. The buttercreams are smooth and rich with solid flavors, as good as my own but made with (I assume) less swearing. At $2 apiece they’re actually a good value relative to what most cupcake shops charge.

Finally, to the burger debate. It started on Twitter when someone asked if I’d tried Smash Burger, which I did shortly afterwards, but devolved into a partisan Five Guys/In-n-Out argument, which I assume was geographically motivated. Smash Burger itself was a big disappointment; other than the fact that the burger was extremely hot when it reached the table, there was nothing good about the meal. The burger was greasy, but not with the rich, fulfilling flavor of beef fat – it tasted of the grill, of a thousand burgers and chicken breasts and other who-knows-what made before, a stale, slightly burned flavor that made me feel like I was in a rundown diner at 1 in the morning. The fries, covered in a rosemary-garlic mixture, weren’t fresh-cut and probably went from a freezer bag to the deep fryer. With In-n-Out here and Five Guys invading, I see no reason to think Smash Burger can succeed. Then again, I have no idea how Burger King still exists, so who knows.

As for Five Guys and In-n-Out, I stand by my assessment that Five Guys offers a better burger. Most of the counterarguments I’ve heard revolve around the In-n-Out burger package, not the meat itself. When you cook an extremely thin, tightly packed hamburger to well done, as In-n-Out does, you’re going to end up with a dry product. In-n-Out compensates for that by putting Thousand Island dressing, which at its heart is just jarred mayonnaise, on the bun, which adds fat back to the sandwich and keeps the bottom bun from getting soggy, but the burger itself is as dry as it gets. If you don’t believe me, try this experiment: Order a plain burger at both In-n-Out and Five Guys – no cheese, no condiments, no vegetation. Just the burger. Five Guys also cooks their burgers to well done – I wish they would stop at medium well – but the burger is thicker and loosely packed, so it retains some moisture and fat. I just don’t see any comparison.