Stick to baseball, 4/15/17.

I updated my ranking of the top 50 prospects in the minors this week; there’s minimal reranking in there, just status notes on players, with guys moving up to replace those already in the majors. (Jesse Winker was promoted after the piece ran.) I wrote a long draft blog post on Hunter Greene, Brian McKay, and other draft prospects I’ve seen so far. I also held a Klawchat on Thursday.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

  • The one great longread I saw this week was from Backchannel on what’s happened to Google Books, the tech giant’s stated effort to scan every book, ever, to make them all searchable. I’ve used this feature quite a few times, including during the research for Smart Baseball, where I could search for certain terms or keywords in books I couldn’t get my hands on.
  • California passed a tougher law on childhood vaccinations, and, lo and behold, inoculation rates went up about 3 percentage points.
  • The handful of loonies who opposed the law largely claimed “parental choice” as a reason why they should be allowed to deny their children a safe, effective treatment that can prevent debilitating and sometimes fatal diseases. It’s a terrible argument, because those “choices” affect everyone, not just your children. (Also, that choice isn’t for you – it’s for your child, who can’t choose for him/herself, and depends on you to take care of his/her medical needs.)
  • If you’ve seen a vaccine denier point to measles outbreaks in China as evidence the MMR vaccine doesn’t work, well, the outbreaks occurred among unvaccinated groups. Facts may not carry the day with deniers, but it is on the rational among us to make sure the truth is still out there for people who might be on the fence.
  • A Utah judge praised a convicted sexual abuser during sentencing, with at least one of the victims present. This kind of behavior will only discourage victims from coming forward in the future. Utah judges may be removed from the bench via a judicial conduct commission censure or a 2/3 vote of the legislature, so if you live in that state, get on the phone.
  • I think my new least favorite food buzzword is “clean.” Panera, which is a decent chain choice if you want something vegetarian while traveling, claims its food is 100% “clean,” which means absolutely nothing unless previously they were rolling their bread dough out on the floor. It’s also a buzzword for people who eat weird, ultra-restricted diets that probably don’t provide enough nutrition because so-called “clean eaters” often skip dairy or wheat, foods that are often demonized without scientific basis. I’ll keep eatin’ dirty, thanks.
  • Dr. David Dao, the passenger beaten and dragged off a United flight last week, has filed court papers in preparation for a lawsuit and compared his treatment to what he experienced while fighting in the Vietnam War. Tim Wu of the New Yorker wrote about why he stopped flying United after it merged with Continental. Deadspin’s Albert Burneko discussed the absurdity of backing the corporation in such cases.
  • An American doctor has been charged with mutilating the genitalia of two girls under the age of 10, a barbaric practice common in eastern African countries and in Indonesia known as female genital mutilation.
  • New Mexico has banned “lunch shaming,” the cruel practice of embarrassing children whose parents have unpaid school meal debts.
  • I listened to the entire seven episodes of the podcast S-Town, and I’m not sure if I think the time was well spent. Did I really get anything out of it? Was John B. McLemore, who was most likely a manic depressive on top of the later medical issues revealed in the final episode, someone worthy of a seven-hour biography? The Atlantic also asks about the ethics of revealing so much of his life after his death, and the details of other characters in the play. The Guardian went to Woodstock, Alabama, to interview the locals about their sudden bit of fame, and most didn’t seem to mind the portrayals.
  • I was apparently behind the times, as I was unfamiliar with the Twitter replies-to-retweets ratio until this past week.
  • Paul Krugman wrote that publicity stunts aren’t policy and then Trump ordered (or simply handwaved along) the dropping of the ‘mother of all bombs’ on Afghanistan. It’s working, though: Compare media coverage of the Russian connection, or of GOP rollbacks of Obama policies, to coverage of the Syria and Afghanistan bombings and now our taunting of North Korea. (For what it’s worth, the North Korean government has always been the one that worried me, because it’s essentially sociopathy in government form, and they’re well-funded enough to do mass damage to someone, South Korea or Japan or us. But I would prefer to see a long-term policy solution to the issue, not threatening to Pyongyang to wag the dog.)
  • There can be no beatings and imprisoning of gays in Chechnya because there are no gays in Chechnya, say Chechnyan authorities. This Guardian report says otherwise.
  • I enjoyed this interview with Dana Cree, pastry chef for Chicago’s Publican restaurant group and author of the new cookbook Hello, My Name Is Ice Cream: The Art and Science of the Scoop. Within the Q&A she discusses which ingredients serve as stabilizers to minimize the size of ice crystals in ice cream, providing a smoother texture. I personally do not like the eggless ice cream known as Philadelphia-style, which is just dairy, sugar, and flavors, for that very reason. I prefer frozen custard, sometimes called New York ice cream, which includes egg yolks – often a lot – and less butterfat, because the yolks contain lecithin, which emulsifies the fat and the water in the base and thus prevents large crystals from forming. Lecithin can break down at subzero temperatures, however, so vegetable gums may be better if you’re going super-cold, if you can’t eat eggs, or if you don’t want that slight eggnog note in a delicate flavor like vanilla bean.
  • The first part of this NPR Fresh Air interview with author David Owen, about the Colorado River, is interesting and particularly relevant to me, because one of the main reasons I did not want to remain a long-term resident of Arizona was that the state has no strategy for dealing with the coming water crisis in the region. The Colorado River is overtaxed, badly, and Arizona’s idea of coping is storing a few years of water in underground reserves. He has a new book out on the topic, Where the Water Goes, and discusses some of it in the Q&A. Then he talks about golfing with Donald Trump and I moved on with my life.

Salted caramel rum ice cream.

So I posted a video and a picture on my Instagram feed of this salted caramel rum ice cream, the video showing the sugar caramelizing and the picture showing the final product. That generated a few recipe requests, so here’s my best rendering of what I did, because I winged it at a few points.

If you’ve never made caramel, it is chemistry in motion and the movement of the sugar through various stages never ceases to fascinate me … but it’s also a bit dangerous, as the sugar will reach temperatures well above boiling, and if it splashes at all, it will stick to your skin. Don’t skip the corn syrup in the recipe; the addition of an additional sugar beyond sucrose prevents sugar crystals from forming, which would prevent caramelization.

You’ll need an ice-cream maker of some sort for this, as well as a metallic whisk, and I recommend a heatproof silicone spatula for stirring the custard once the eggs are integrated.

Salted rum caramel ice cream

1 vanilla bean
1 cup white sugar
1 Tbsp light corn syrup
¼ cup water
1.5 cups heavy cream
1 cup milk (2% or higher)
6 large egg yolks
2 Tbsp rum
large pinch of salt

1. Whisk egg yolks to an even blend in a large bowl and set aside.

2. Split the vanilla bean and scrape out the interior seeds into a sauce pan with the sugar, corn syrup, and water. Warm over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved, then boil rapidly, occasionally brushing down the sides of the pan to remove any sugar crystals, until the mixture starts to turn brown, around 320 F/160 C. Swirl pan occasionally to ensure even heating and to prevent burning once the browning begins. When the entire mixture is a deep amber color (around 340 F), turn off the heat.

3. Add cream to the pan carefully (it may splatter), then return to low heat and whisk or stir to dissolve all solids. Add milk and heat to a simmer.

4. Slowly pour the hot mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, to temper the eggs. (If you pour too fast, you’ll just scramble the yolks.) Return the entire mixture to the saucepan and heat over medium-low, stirring constantly until the custard reaches 170 F/76 C. (The heatproof rubber spatula will let you scrape the bottom of the pan to prevent any of the mixture from overcooking.)

5. Remove the pan from the heat and add the rum and salt. Store in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, process in an ice cream maker; mine took about 25 minutes to reach the right texture. Freeze until firm.

If you enjoyed this, check out my annual list of cookbook recommendations or my gift guide for cooks too!

Stick to baseball, 7/30/16.

It’s been a busy week already and I assume the next 52 hours will be even more so; here are my three Insider posts on trades from the last seven days:

• The Aroldis Chapman trade
• The Texas/Atlanta trade and the Blue Jays’ two deals
• The Andrew Cashner and Eduardo Nunez trades

I also have a draft blog post up on last week’s Under Armour Game, and I held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

I’ll be on ESPN’s trade deadline show on Monday from 1 to 4 pm ET, after which I’m taking a few days off to work on my book and on some other personal projects.

And now, the links…

  • Dr. Mike Sonne, an injury prevention researcher and a baseball fan, argues that pitch clocks may increase pitcher injury risk by reducing recovery time for fatiguing muscles. So maybe pace of game isn’t such a huge problem.
  • If you missed this on Twitter you really should read Eireann Dolan’s story about her autistic brother, from how he was bullied as a kid to the nightmare they all just went through with him.
  • Iowa Republican Steve King says racist stuff on a regular basis and keeps winning re-election. The Iowa Starting line blog looks at why.
  • As always, I’m nobody’s expert on these matters, but I feel like the rejection of state “vote fraud” laws, including this week’s invalidation of North Carolina’s law as racist, is the biggest story of this election cycle. One, with African-American voters favoring Clinton in historic proportions, it seems like striking down these laws could help her in several critical states, including the swing state of North Carolina. Two, killing these laws – based on the entirely fraudulent fear of fraudulent voting – will have an effect on many elections to come, and, one might hope, will slow efforts to disenfranchise entire demographic groups.
  • BuzzFeed political editor (and longtime reader of mine) Katherine Miller wrote a great longread on how Trump “broke” the conservative movement.
  • Trump has faced multiple allegations of sexual assault from women over the last several decades, including one from his ex-wife Ivana. Everyone dismissed such claims against Bill Clinton in 1991-92, but a quarter-century later, the climate around rape and sexual assault is, or seemed to be, much changed. Perhaps Hannibal Burress needs to joke about it before it’ll go anywhere.
  • A large Swedish study on the environmental impacts of organic agriculture versus conventional found differences in each direction, with neither side clearly favored. This is especially important for consumers, in that food labeled “organic” isn’t going to be more nutritious or necessarily better for the environment. But there’s a problem within the problem here – the term “organic” has itself been watered down (pun intended) from what the term meant when Lord Northbourne coined it in 1940. So-called “natural” pesticides aren’t going to automatically better for the environment, for example, and dumping organic fertilizers into the soil won’t have the same effect as using compost and working in crops (like clover or legumes) that increase nitrogen content in the soil.
  • Those “recyclable” disposable coffee cups aren’t recyclable at all, not unless you have access to one of the very few facilities capable of doing so. This means tons of cups end up in landfills every year, so why don’t we demand better?
  • Scientific American explains a card trick that relies on a simple cipher and the cooperation of a partner.
  • A tough longread on a 20-year-old unsolved missing persons case on the Isle of Wight. The police seem to have botched the earliest stages of the investigation, which may render the case unsolvable.
  • German scientists found a bacterium living inside human noses that produces a chemical toxic to Staphylococcus aureus, the bacterium that causes MRSA. Now if only it worked against gonorrhea, the bacterium behind which has evolved resistance to all known antibiotics.
  • Joe Biden has to acknowledge the LIQUID SWORDS tweet at some point, right? If I see him around here I’m going to ask him.
  • Why are police officers enforcing Trump’s ban on Washington Post reporters? They’re claiming it’s a security issue, but that’s clearly not the case.
  • I wrote about a year ago about an essay I read on the unsolved abc problem in mathematics and the abstruse proof offered by a Japanese mathematician, Shinichi Mochizuki, who created a whole new branch of math to solve it – which meant no one was sure if he actually had solved it at all. Scientific American offers an update and some new commentary, including criticism of Mochizuki’s unwillingness to travel or work with others on the proof.
  • In a new book, Innovation and its Enemies, Calestous Juma explains why people often hate new stuff, and talks about what variables affect adoption rates or drive opposition.
  • The National Post gave the fraudumentary Vaxxed zero stars and an admonition not to see it.
  • Speaking of fraud, anything that claims it can “boost your immune system” is lying and even they worked, it’s a terrible idea. If you pay for these “enhanced” water products, or for useless supplements like Airborne, you might as well flush your money down the toilet.
  • The elusive DC-area chef Peter Chang is opening what he calls the restaurant of his dreams in Bethesda. I’ve been to his place in Charlottesville, and I thought it was excellent but have very little history or knowledge of Sichuan cuisine to compare it to.
  • Congrats to Pizzeria Vetri, our favorite pizzeria in Philly and just one of our favorite restaurants there period, for winning Philly magazine’s Best Soft-Serve Ice Cream nod for 2016.
  • Seth Meyers on “Bernie or Bust” twits:

Phoenix and Sacramento eats.

I was treated to dinner at opening night for Chris Bianco’s newest restaurant in Phoenix, Tratto, a place with – gasp – no pizza, just house-made pastas and other dishes inspired largely by regional Italian cuisine, especially the peasant foods that are near and dear to Bianco’s heart. While he’s made his name as both one of the country’s most prominent pizzaiolo’s and the king of Phoenix’s under-the-radar food scene, Bianco’s passion extends to all foods, and Tratto’s menu allows him to pursue that further by working with more local vendors and incorporating ingredients you’d never see on his pizzerias’ menus.

The menu at Tratto, which is next door to the Pizzeria Bianco location in the Town & Country shopping center at 20th and Highland, is going to change frequently, but the format is simple – a couple of starters, a couple of pasta dishes, a couple of mains, and a couple of desserts, two of each on the day I was there. I took Chris’s recommendations and ordered the beets, the tonnarelli, and the “piccolo” chicken, after which there was no room for anything else.

Opening night at the new pasta place from @pizzeriabianco

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

The tonnarelli was the star of the night, a dish of maybe five ingredients that showcased the pasta (also known as spaghetti alla chitarra, referring to the guitar-like device used to cut it) by coating it with a luxurious sauce without much else on the plate. Tonnarelli are thicker than most hand-cut pastas, like spaghetti but square in cross-section rather than round, so they have a substantial tooth to them and take longer to cook than flat shapes. Pasta alla gricia is cooked with guanciale, a type of cured meat like bacon but made from the pig’s jowls, that is rendered and tossed with the starchy pasta water to make a thick, salty sauce that’s finished with Pecorino Romano, itself a pungent, salty cheese of sheep’s milk. It’s like pasta alla carbonara without eggs. Tratto’s was perfect because the pasta was perfect, and the guanciale and cheese combine for a fatty, salty, umami-rich sauce that go particularly well with the various forms of alcohol available (Tratto has a well-stocked liquor bar, including an impressive collection of amaros).

Tonnarolli alla gricia – house made pasta with guanciale and pecorino Romano, also at Tratto

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

The “piccolo” chicken is not your ordinary four-pound broiler-fryer, but a local, uncaged variety that’s closer to pasture-raised in texture, bigger than a Cornish game hen but small enough that you could have that and a starter or side vegetable and call it a meal. Tratto splits the bird, roasts it, and finishes it under the salamander, and the bird is seasoned only with salt, pepper, lemon, and bay leaves. I rarely order chicken in restaurants, especially not anything with the white meat (which has no taste if we’re talking about a normal bird), but Chris said to me it’s both the best and the most expensive chicken he’s ever had in one of his restaurants, and it showed through in how much flavor the chicken had with minimal seasoning. I would have used the amazing bread to sop up the liquid on the plate but I’d already done that with the pasta.

The whole wood-roasted "piccolo chicken" at Tratto

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

The beets were the one dish I didn’t love – they were roasted perfectly, fork-tender, but as much as I love beets I think they need more acidity than the dish included, and the gorgonzola-based sauce didn’t quite get there. The breads, made over at Pane Bianco (which I’ve mentioned before, but has since been expanded and is now the central baking operation for the Bianco group, as well as an amazing sandwich shop with daily pizza al taglio specials), are spectacular, and the bar program at Tratto is also very impressive. I sat at the bar and got to admire the selection of high-end spirits and chat up the knowledgeable bartender as well, who fixed a “turmeric mule” for me with Ford’s Gin. They also have Amaro Montenegro, which is my favorite drinking bitters and I think a requirement for any real Italian place.

I had one meal in Sacramento, for which I solicited suggestions from my Twitter audience (including several dozen would-be comedians suggesting chains or fast-food places, which was rather unoriginal). Many of your best suggestions were closed on Monday night, my only evening there, but I did have a wonderful meal at Magpie, which one of you suggested with the hook that they have homemade ice cream sandwiches for dessert. The highest praise I can offer this place is that I still enjoyed the meal despite having a painful migraine for most of it.

Magpie’s menu also changes frequently, but the two dishes I had prior to the main event both appear to be regular items. The crispy pork belly starter included several large cubes of perfectly-cooked belly, crispy on the exterior but tender on the interior, served with slivers of apricot, coriander honey, pickled onions, and frisee. Pork belly pairs well with anything sweet, but needs some tartness to cut that sweetness and the fattiness of the meat itself, which here came from both the sweet-tart apricots and the pickled onions. The duck confit salad was really two dishes in one bowl: A confit duck leg, served hot over roasted potatoes, served in the center of a salad of spring vegetables, including snap peas and English peas, as well as Brooks cherries and a cherry vinaigrette. I think if I ate this again, I’d ask for a separate plate so I could cut or shred the duck and then toss the meat into the salad, as it was hard to get all of the flavors into one bite. Duck and tart fruits pair so well together but I rarely got that combination, although the duck itself was nicely cooked and the potatoes had soaked up some flavor from sitting under the leg.

The ice cream sandwich, though, man … that’s good stuff. I don’t even love star anise, but the soft graham-like wafers had just a hint of star anise flavor around the central block of smooth vanilla ice cream. Whatever, I’m not going to do this dessert justice. It was big enough for two people to share and I nearly ate the whole thing despite the fact that I could barely hold my head up at this point. I’d like to go back there some time when I’m feeling okay and perhaps try one of their house cocktails too.

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.


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


* 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.

Keste and more NYC eats.

I’m chatting today at 1 pm ET.

In the last three weeks, I’ve hit three more places from Food and Wine‘s list of the 48 best pizzerias in the country (I don’t know why they chose 48, and it’s 47 now anyway with one closed), and I’ve at least found one rival to Pizzeria Bianco for the best pizzeria in the country, as well as hitting the first of the four spots from the list located in Brooklyn.

Keste, located on Bleecker in Greenwich Village, is run by an Italian pizzaiolo who was born and raised outside of Naples and learned the craft of pizza-making in that city, the capital of pizza in Italy. The style is true Neapolitan, with a thin crust and a soft center so that the crust struggles to support the toppings, and Keste does it correctly, something few places that boast of serving “authentic” Neapolitan pizzas manage to do. The menu is quite large, with a huge selection of pizzas with tomato sauce, a small selection of “white” pizzas, and a number of gluten-free options. My friend Toby and I ordered two pizzas and split them – the margherita with buffalo mozzarella and the daily special with burrata, prosciutto, and truffle oil.

The crusts on both were spectacular, exactly as promised, with a little char on the exterior, good tooth on the exterior crust, and just enough underneath to keep the toppings off the plate and give some texture contrast. The special was among the best pizzas I’ve ever had thanks to the creaminess and bright flavor of the burrata, and the salty-but-not-too-salty prosciutto, as well as the hint of truffle flavor that didn’t overwhelm any of the other ingredients. The margherita was notable more for the brightness of the tomatoes than anything else, with good balance between that and the mozzarella di bufala. The flavors on both pizzas were loud, in a good way, and everything was balanced and fresh and just incredible.

A few weeks ago, I managed to sneak into Co., the pizzeria founded by Jim Lahey of no-knead bread fame, for dinner with my family on a trip to Boston. The crust was outstanding, as you’d expect, but the rest of the experience fell very short for us. For one thing, the pizzas were small and sparsely topped, skimping especially on cheese, which is kind of the essential ingredient when pizza is the entree because it’s the only real protein source on any pizza without meat. For another, I am not sure when I have ever been in a colder restaurant than Co. was on that night – it could not have been over 65 degrees in there – and it was incredibly loud. I was more impressed with the bread and olive oil starter, which does a better job of showing off Lahey’s technique, than I was with either of the pizzas we ordered. I’ll tolerate atmosphere issues if the food is amazing, but the crust was just good, not enough to make me want to deal with the conditions there.

Franny’s in Brooklyn was an outright disappointment, however – so sparsely topped that it was more like having bread for lunch than pizza, with almost nothing beyond a thin layer of tomato sauce on top. The crust was gorgeous, with some blistering on the exterior, great tooth to the exterior, and a good contrast between the edge and the interior. But man, you need to put something on top of the pizza to get me to fight my way down Flatbush to come eat at your place.

Moving on from pizza … After Keste, Toby dragged me kicking and screaming to Grom, a gelateria (one of two Groms in the city, plus a summer location in Central Park) that imports the product from Italy. Their commitment to product quality is insane, with organic eggs, spring water for their sorbets, and fruit from their own farm in Costigliole d’Asti. And the gelato is amazing – the dark chocolate “sorbet,” made with egg yolks and Colombian chocolate but no dairy, is as intense as eating a bar of very dark chocolate but with the creamy texture of actual gelato; the caffè flavor uses Guatemalan coffee beans to create a dark coffee flavor that doesn’t hide the coffee behind sugar and cream. It’s a hell of an experience even when you’re already overstuffed with pizza. (I also love that their URL is; too bad walla.ce isn’t available.)

Culture Espresso on 38th Street doesn’t roast its own coffee, but buys from some of the best roasters in the country – currently using coffees from Heart roasters in Portland, Oregon, a micro-roaster that specializes in very light roasts of single-estate coffees. Culture is currently using a blend of two coffees, an Ethiopian and a Central American (I think the barista said Colombian), which produced a medium-bodied shot that still had the bright strawberry notes of the east African half of the blend.

Atlanta, Lexington, Charleston, Durham eats.

My updated ranking of the top 50 prospects for this year’s Rule 4 Draft is up now for Insiders.

I returned to Richard Blais’ The Spence on my second run through Atlanta – this time I paid – and happened to hit them on the first day of a new menu, with a handful of new highlights. I ordered a salt cod and potato dish that took the standard bacalao formula and instead whipped the salt cod into the potatoes, mellowing their flavor (I like it, but it is on the fishy end of the spectrum). The pork terrine is still on the menu, but the jam served with it seems to change weekly – my week had celery and rhubarb in it and was superb, sweet and tangy to balance the mustard/salty flavor of the terrine. The pasta contained porcini in the dough as well as in the dish, not as good as the English-pea cavatappi (which was unreal) but strong in its own right, with that earthy, almost meaty flavor coming through in each bite. For dessert, the chocolate-peanut dish with roasted banana ice cream was weird in a good way – it looked like nothing, just blocks of milk chocolate with various crumbs and a small scoop of the ice cream, but if you took every element together it was like a rich, extremely luxurious adult candy bar. I also had another Sailor’s Crutch, their gin-lemon-falernum-soda concoction that is among my new favorite cocktails.

Before the game that night, I ate at Tasty China in Marietta, apparently another outpost of the infamous DC-area chef Peter Chang, who specializes in Szechuan cuisine and has a habit of disappearing from the scene for months at a time. I tried his place in Charlottesville two years ago and was blown away, figuratively but also literally by the spice level of his food. Tasty China, on the other hand, was a little bit of a disappointment, even though I asked the server for a recommendation. I ended up with a tea-smoked crispy duck, half a duck to be specific, that tasted great but was on the dry side, since it came with no sauce or other flavoring besides the smoke. The food there may be amazing and authentic but I didn’t get that experience.

Moving up the coast to South Carolina, I took a recommendation from J.C. Bradbury to try Shealy’s BBQ in Leesville, right next to Lexington where I was seeing Nick Ciuffo. The Q itself was nothing special – their pulled pork is shredded and served in sauce – but the fried chicken was something else. The food is served buffet-style, one price, all you can eat, and while I do not look kindly on all-you-can-eat places, the fried chicken was worth the whole experience, even the relatively boring sides that weren’t all that hot. Just go and get some chicken and cornbread and everything else will work itself out.

In Charleston, I ended up returning to Husk, but this time at at the Bar at Husk, in the carriage house next door. The menu there only has a few small items, but one is their well-reviewed burger, which might be the best burger I’ve ever had, even though it’s served very simply, with just a few toppings. It’s apparently chef Sean Brock’s ode to In-n-Out, with two fairly thin patties, but comprising brisket, chuck, and hickory-smoked bacon ground together. (That article says it’s 100% chuck now, but the bartender who took my order said it includes brisket.) I omitted the American cheese, because no matter what Sean Brock says that stuff is nasty. I left the rest alone – white onion, pickles, and Brock’s sauce, which includes mayo, ketchup, and mustard, all served on a squishy brioche-like bun. It’s a thing of beauty.

My next trip took me to North Carolina, with three new spots as well as a few old favorites. I spent a night in Hickory, where local eats are somewhat limited, but did have an adequate “jerk” chicken sandwich and local beer at the Olde Hickory Tap Room, which serves its full menu till 11 pm and a limited menu till 2 am, key if you’re there to see the Crawdads. The jerk chicken is a half-pound breast, butterflied and glazed with a sweet and slightly spicy jerk-ish sauce, served with mayo, lettuce, and tomato on a very good but too thinly-sliced sourdough bread. The Irish roasted root vegetable side is a little meager but definitely superior to the standard fries or chips. It’s a very broad menu, which isn’t always a great sign, but if you’re trying to avoid chain restaurants in Hickory it’s at least extensive enough that you’ll find something worth your time.

In Durham, I tried two new spots, including Mateo Tapas, owned by the same folks behind Vin Rouge (which has this bacon jam that is among the best things I have ever eaten anywhere … and yes, I went again this trip). Mateo’s lunch tapas menu focuses on the basics, mostly authentic items, just prepared a little more American style. For example, their boquerones (white anchovies) taste fresh and clean with olive oil and salt but are served filleted rather than whole. Their Spanish tortilla, a dish of olive-oil poached potatoes molded into a frittata-like cake with several eggs, has a thin chorizo-mayonnaise on top that gave the dish some needed spice. The gambas, shrimp cooked in garlicky olive oil, was probably the most traditionally-prepared dish I ordered, while the least was the grilled bread with three spreads – butternut-romesco, green olive, and beet, with the olive by far my favorite, while the beet was too sweet and the romesco a little plain. Given the quality of the food the prices were very reasonable, with those four plates more than a meal for me and a total of around $30 including tax and tip. Like most tapas places, though, it’s probably a better experience and value with a crowd.

I can also recommend a very new (ten days old, I believe) ice cream parlor right in downtown Durham called, appropriately enough, The Parlour. Run by the brother and sister-in-law of longtime reader and occasional dish commenter Daphne, The Parlour makes some insanely high-quality ice cream, low-overrun, very creamy, with a small number of flavors that showcase a lot of creativity. The salted butter caramel might be a little cliché, but it tasted just like real, homemade caramel sauce that you might eat with a tablespoon when your wife isn’t looking. (Not that I’ve ever done that.) The chocolate espresso stout cake was rich chocolate ice cream, not as dark as I like it but not very sweet, with bits of the cake swirled in the ice cream. I crushed two scoops and could have gone for more if I had been insane.

As for other spots in Durham, I returned to Rue Cler and Nanataco from my last trip, as well as Vin Rouge from a previous visit. I branched out a little, trying the braised beef tongue and smoked hog jowl tacos at Nanataco and a special duck confit salad at Vin Rouge, all worth having again. Vin Rouge does everything in-house, smoking their own meats and making their own bread (at another of their restaurants), while sourcing most things locally – just the kind of restaurant I love to support, as long as the food is amazing.

Hawai’i eats.

I’ve got posts up for Insiders on the Hanson-Walden trade and the Span-Meyer trade, and did a Klawchat yesterday as well.

I’d never set foot in Hawai’i before our vacation there last week, so we spent a lot of time getting oriented and didn’t really start nailing the culinary tourism until the fourth or fifth day there, after which point I found a bunch of spots worth recommending. I’ll get to the food in a moment, but first some quick thoughts on touring Kauai and Oahu in general:

* Kauai was gorgeous; we spent five days there at the Marriott Beach Club in Lihue (everything was via Rewards Points), which has a great pool, including a kiddie pool with a slide, and a beach on a large, calm lagoon. The rooms were nothing special at all, and the food all over the hotel was overpriced. The biggest lesson for us was that it was worthwhile to rent a car at least for a day or two – we drove to Waimea Canyon, also called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific; and Kalalau Point, which overlooks the Napali coast and the northwest shore of the island. The car also allowed us to tour the Kauai Coffee plantation, visit the Koloa Rum Company (and buy a bottle of their dark – pricey at $30, but smooth with a bright vanilla finish), and do a little more shopping.

* The big shocker on Oahu was the traffic – I can see why there’s a local push for a light-rail line into the western suburbs, because traffic on I-H1 (an “interstate” highway) is pretty brutal, and there seemed to be no enforcement of HOV lane restrictions. We stayed out at Ko Olina, so the car was a necessity, and also drove to Sea Life Park so my wife could swim with a dolphin, which was a longtime wish of hers. I can understand people who skip Oahu entirely and fly straight to Maui or Kauai, though – the scenic parts of Oahu are a hike from Honolulu.

I’ve got two food spots to recommend on Oahu, plus one that’s great if you’re up for the price. The Whole Ox Deli isn’t actually a deli but is more of a lunch counter with picnic tables, and reminded me in many ways of our favorite Arizona haunt, The Hillside Spot, for the focus on sourcing local ingredients and making everything from scratch. The Whole Ox got its start via Kickstarter, which raised funds for a smoker that they use to smoke pork shoulder for their pulled pork sandwich, although I ended up getting the porchetta sandwich with cracklins, mustardy mayo, and caramelized fennel, everything in perfect balance on a soft baguette. The fried potatoes are like grown-up french fires, skin-on red potatoes halved or quartered, either steamed or parboiled (I assume) and then fried till brown and crispy all over. This was absolutely worth fighting our way into downtown Honolulu to visit.

So was Downtown Coffee, which is located in the Fort Street Mall, a tiny shop run by a husband-and-wife team who roast their coffees every Saturday and sell a handful of artisan pastries including a matcha torte with bamboo charcoal crust that defied any expectation I’d had – it’s sweet but subtle, without the bitter grassy taste I associate with matcha. As for the coffee, I had a cup of their downtown blend and liked it enough to buy a 7 ounce bag of their beans to try at home as espresso, as well as a smaller bag of their lighter Maui Mokka peaberry roast, on the owner’s suggestion. He was kind enough to spend about 10-15 minutes walking me through all their roasts, showing me samples of five different ones to discuss their qualities for espresso, and even gave me a sample of another drip coffee for comparison’s sake. I’ve already finished off the Maui Mokka, which produced a very smooth shot with a strong crema, a little less assertively acidic than the lighter African roasts I’ve gotten from Intelligentsia.

The one pricey meal we had on Oahu was the result of me being a company man and visiting Disney’s Aulani resort to try their dinner buffet at Makahiki. The resort is gorgeous inside, reminiscent in style of Disney’s Polynesian Resort but more updated with more open space inside. I generally avoid buffets, with two exceptions – Las Vegas and Disney, where the quality is higher and the turnover is faster. Makahiki’s buffet was very broad, with a raw fish table that included poke, sashimi, and oysters on the half-shell; cooked shellfish, including red snow crab legs; a wide selection of meat and vegetable dishes, including Hawaiian purple sweet potatoes both steamed and fried tempura-style; and a dessert table that had molten chocolate cakes that were more molten than cake, making it a great dipping sauce for the fresh berries on the next table. For a buffet, it was great. It also runs $46 per adult and $21 per child, so even with my employee discount we still dropped over $100, including two drinks and tip. They did have a full selection of local beers from Kona, including the Big Wave Golden Ale which had a very pronounced citrus flavor and virtually no bitterness.

Moving over to Kauai, the best meal option at the Marriott is the overpriced Duke’s, which earns raves for a salad bar that is really just a nice salad bar. Their fish was very fresh, and I liked their basmati rice pilaf, but the “hula pie” dessert is incredibly overrated, probably more famous for its size than its taste. We fared much better heading across Rice St to the Feral Pig, a fairly new spot with no ambience but amazing food, including house-smoked bacon and pulled pork and a solid selection of local beers as well. They hand-cut their French fries and incorporate pork belly into a number of dishes, including two specials I ordered – the potstickers, made by hand and fried just until hot through without drying the pork out, and the special burger with half Kauai-raised beef and half pork belly as well as bacon on top. I asked how they cured the bacon, and the owner said he used a recipe from one of Michael Ruhlman’s books, although they don’t use sodium nitrite, so the bacon is grey rather than pink and has a porkier flavor. Everything was excellent and it was about half of what we’d pay for inferior food at the hotel.

Lappert’s is a local ice cream chain with four locations on Kauai and two on other islands. Try the Kauai Pie, Kona coffee ice cream with fudge swirl, coconut flakes, and macadamia nuts. I never tried another flavor because why bother. Next to the Lappert’s in Hanapepe is a new-ish looking taco stand called Paco’s Tacos, which makes outstanding carnitas, slow-cooked but crispy on the outside, probably deep-fried once it’s done cooking but so, so good. The only disappointment was the guacamole, made fresh but lacking salt and acid for me. It’s a good one-two combo if you remember to save room for ice cream.

I had an interesting twist on poke at the Hanalei Dolphin restaurant in Hanalei, down towards Poipu, near a shop my wife wanted to visit. Two kinds of raw fish (one was ahi) and some cooked prawns were tossed in a coconut-lemongrass sauce that threatened to overpower the fish but never quite got there, served over a bed of mixed greens with some root-vegetable chips on the side (taro and purple sweet potato, I think) if you’d rather not use a fork. I only had poke three times on the trip, never at a truly local spot like a good fish market, so I can only say that this had the best overall flavor but I can’t speak to its authenticity.

My final recommendation is the Saturday morning farmers’ market at Kauai Community College, right near Lihue and next door to the Koloa Rum Company. The fresh fruit there was out of sight – large, juicy starfruits with orange flesh and a subtle sweet-citrus flavor; papayas with reddish-orange flesh that were also bursting with sugar; plus huge jackfruits, apple bananas, pineapple, and more than we could hope to try. We did buy some butterscotch roasted macadamia nuts from the Kauai Nut Roasters and jams from Monkeypod, but had to pass on the desserts offered by one vendor whose name I can’t find – she had a lilikoi (passion fruit) custard that was absolutely incredible but would have spoiled in the car since we were headed out to the Canyon.

One more note – several readers recommended a noodle shop called Hamura Saimin in downtown Lihue, but after talking to several locals, I passed. Every person I asked said the shop uses too much MSG in their broth, and that the place isn’t very clean, which is about the one non-food-related variable that I care about when deciding where to eat. I also read a few reviews that mentioned the use of a Spam knockoff in some of their soups, and I won’t touch that stuff, even if it is a local tradition. Meat doesn’t come from cans.

NYC eats + Flip Burger in Atlanta.

Mario Batali’s Lupa, a “Roman-style osteria,” focuses on traditional Italian dishes (both primi, pasta dishes, and secondi, proteins), done with top-quality ingredients and many elements produced in-house. In Italy, you’d typically have a primo and a secondo at a high-end restaurant, but the portions at Lupa were too large for us to order that way, so we each went with a starter, a primo, and dessert.

Everything I had was strong, but there were minor execution issues with both the appetizer and the dessert that didn’t match the memorable primo. That pasta dish was a special that night, house-made pappardelle with a soffrito-based duck ragout, meaning it had no tomatoes in it. The ragout was hearty and rich but not heavy and was correctly seasoned, while the pappardelle were cooked perfectly al dente, of course. The starter, a salad of arugula, radish, fennel, and radicchio, comprised top-quality vegetables but was slightly overdressed – not enough to have it pooling on the bottom of the dish, but enough that the vinegar overpowered the peppery/spicy produce underneath it, which was slightly disappointing. For dessert, the zuppa inglese – an Italian spin on an English trifle, with the sponge cake soaked in espresso – was marred by a crunchy powder on top that was too hard to chew; I’m assuming the powder was there for texture contrast with the soft trifle (custard and soft sponge cake) but ended up detracting from the dish as a whole. My wife’s fresh mozzarella di bufala appetizer came with a strongly-flavored herb/olive oil mixture, with the fresh oregano taking over the dish a little, a combination I really liked but she didn’t. Her main course was asparagus agnolotti in a light butter sauce, tasting, as it should, strongly of fresh asparagus (in the agnolotti and shaved over the top). Her favorite dish of the night was the hazelnut tartufo, which I didn’t try.

I’m nitpicking here because of where I was – these are minor execution issues, not problems with concepts or ingredients. But I expected a 70, and paid like the restaurant was a 70, but what I got was more 60 or strong 55, recommended, but not a place I’m racing to visit again.

At Citi Field on Saturday night I had my first experience with the cult favorite burger joint Shake Shack; locations in stadiums, like airports, aren’t always the best way to judge a food outlet, so this may be low, but I’d grade the meal as a 60 shake, a 55 burger, and 50 fries. The caramel shake lived up to the name, smooth and strongly flavored (although it’s weird to have any caramel ice cream product without salt), with perfect mouthfeel – no iciness, no graininess. Shake Shack’s burgers are made from a proprietary blend of beef, which their site says is antibiotic-free Angus beef, “vegetarian fed, humanely raised and source verified,” and the burger does taste very strongly of good quality beef – salty, and a little greasy from the grill (albeit in a good way, not like Smashburger’s). As fast food burgers go, it’s better than In-n-Out’s, but In-n-Out destroys Shake Shack in the fries department, as this Shake Shack’s weren’t freshly cut (I don’t know about regular locations) and I could very easily have skipped them. They also have, or at least say they have, a strong commitment to sustainability and limiting their footprint, which doesn’t make the food taste any better but is always nice to hear. If their regular locations are better than the stadium stand – their menus are more extensive, and the food is probably even fresher – I couldn’t see choosing In-n-Out or Five Guys over this.

‘wichcraft, Tom Colicchio’s mini-chain of high-end sandwich shops mostly around New York City, is a small marvel – charging marginally more than national sandwich stores like Panera that peddle massively inferior food. I’m not sure how widely you can expand this concept, but it’s great that it even exists and shows that it is possible to run a business with responsibly-sourced, high-quality ingredients, like pole-caught tuna or organic arugula, made on some of the best bread you will ever find at a sandwich place. My only criticism of that tuna sandwich, made with shaved fennel, diced green olives, and a very light touch of fresh mayonnaise, was that it was hard to keep the sandwich together, but the flavors worked well together. It’s a $9 sandwich, but a far better value than a $6, mayo-drenched tuna salad at a national chain.

On my last trip to Georgia, I did manage to run over to Flip Burger, Richard Blais’ high-end burger “boutique” that now has two locations in Atlanta and one in Birmingham, and features several different types of burgers as well as milkshakes made with liquid nitrogen, which sounds cool but does have the benefit of producing a smoother finished product. The shake was an even bigger star than the burger, just like at Shake Shack but better on both counts – I couldn’t pull the trigger on the foie gras milkshake, and the Krispy Kreme one just sounded too sweet, so I went for the caramel turtle shake, which was surprisingly balanced, sweet but also salty and even a little savory. For the burger, I went with the rbq, a 5.5-ounce patty of hanger steak, brisket, and short rib, topped with pulled smoked brisket, coleslaw, barbeque sauce, and “smoked” mayo; it was something of an umami explosion, rich and very meaty – if you like the flavor of really high-quality beef, this is your burger. I wouldn’t have deleted a thing. The fries are cooked in beef tallow, which I respect tremendously, but this batch was too greasy for me to enjoy, probably a sign that the fat wasn’t hot enough. Needless to say, I was still full about six hours later. Flip does offer non-beef options, including a “fauxlafel” burger, as well as salads and a full bar.

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.