Top Chef, S14E13.

Two links before we get to the recap: I have a new Insider post on how the Mets should handle their rotation, with five of six guys coming off some sort of injury; and I reviewed the boardgame Ulm for Paste.

* I think we got a glimpse of Drunk Shirley in the prelude where she slurred “Let’s dooo this” in the toast. Drunk Shirley is the best Shirley.

* The three remaining chefs are flying from Guadalajara to Riviera Maya, on the east coast of the Yucatan peninsula. They walk into the resort (I think it’s a Secrets location, although I didn’t see an orgy anywhere so maybe not) and Sheldon asks “are we in a Jay Z video man?”

* Why are we seeing so much of the chefs in bathing suits? The shot of the three of them walking into the water, which meant clear shots of Brooke’s and Shirley’s behinds, was kind of inappropriate for a cooking show.

* Their first stop is in Valladolid, a city of about 45K located inland on the Yucatan, a beautiful town with lots of Old World Spanish architecture. It’s named for a city in central Spain that was once the Spanish capital.

* Quickfire: Cook a dish that showcases the habanero. (No tilde, please.) The winner gets a one-week vacation for two at any Secrets resort. Their guest judge is Chef Ricardo Muniz Zurita, who literally wrote the book on Mexican cuisine (in Spanish, of course).

* They have to buy all of their ingredients at an open-air food market in the town center, and it looks like chef heaven, with an unbelievable variety of produce and meat being butchered to order. 13/10, would shop there.

* Sheldon appears to speak no Spanish, which I think would be impossible for a chef cooking in the continental U.S. given how many native speakers typically work in restaurant kitchens. Perhaps that’s not true in Hawai’i, though. Brooke at least speaks quite a bit, although she could stand some work on her accent.

* Sheldon’s looking for queso fresco and somehow can’t find any at the market; I guess it’s possible there wasn’t a vendor selling cheese, but I find that a little hard to believe, since there is cheese in Yucatecan cuisine. He then buys a tamal colado without knowing what it is because he thinks it looks like cheese. (It’s actually a traditional Yucatecan tamale with roasted pork or chicken and an achiote and roasted tomato sauce.

* Shirley says that sometimes to wake herself up in the morning she takes a bite of a habenero. I prefer coffee.

* Brooke can’t get her blender open, briefly at least, which is yet another stupid equipment issue that doesn’t tell us anything about who the best chef is. It’s Top Chef. Maybe we could get the chefs some stuff that works?

* The dishes: Brooke made a roasted pork loin with orange and green habanero salsas, with the green ones in a raw fruit and vegetable salsa with jicama, pineapple, and cucumber … Sheldon made a pan-roasted chayote stuffed with the tamal colado and a roasted habanero/tomato/onion salsa. … Shirley made a masa dumpling with poached egg, habanero, and crispy chicharrones.

* Nobody really did poorly here, although I thought the final order was pretty clear. Sheldon’s was too spicy, and the tamal did nothing for his dish. Brooke ends up the winner. It seemed like her dish showcased the habanero best and was the most balanced overall, and Muniz Zurita didn’t hide that that was his favorite.

* Elimination challenge: Jeremiah Tower is there; he’s a California chef who now lives in the Yucatan, which seems like a pretty good place to retire, actually. He has a new book, Start the Fire: How I Began a Food Revolution in America, coming out on April 4th (that’s a preorder link), as well as a related documentary about him produced by Anthony Bourdain.

* The challenge is to make a dish entirely of local ingredients and cook it over an open flame, with no access to electric devices whatsoever, They get to keep their knives, though. This is way too gimmicky for the semifinal challenge, in my view. Just let them cook.

* The challenge will take place in Playa del Carmen, about halfway between Cancun and Tulum on the Yucatan coast. I don’t know if Mexico’s Tourism board paid for all this airtime, but holy crow, I want to go there immediately.

* The three chefs get a tour (from Muniz Zurita and Tower) of some traditional Mayan instruments and ingredients, like a metate, a molcajete (which they called a tamul) mortar and pestle, and the giant herb hoja santa (also called yerba santa, so “holy leaf” or “holy herb,” although if you listen to a lot of hip-hop you might think “holy herb” means a totally different plant).

* When they get to the site of the challenge and see the array of ingredients, there are no alliums and no citrus. The three of them seem like they’re collaborating to try to get their heads around the pantry, given the handicap of lacking any traditional aromatics. I also didn’t see any proteins other than fish; all three chefs end up cooking fish, at least.

* Sheldon is burying sweet potatoes in the coals of the pit, burning the outside, and then scooping out the centers to make a mash. It’s a brilliant method of cooking them without needing too much time.

* Brooke tests one fish fillet on the grill to see if the skin will stick to the grates because she doesn’t think the coals are hot enough. (There’s no open flame, actually, just glowing coals.) She says she’s just “trying to build layers of flavor with no actual dish in (her) head.” Meanwhile, the fish did stick, so she ends up wrapping the fish fillets in hoja santa leaves to grill them safely.

* Sheldon is grilling the fish whole, but never tests the grill like Brooke did … and it sticks. At this moment, I was sure Sheldon was going home. You can’t fuck up a protein, serve it to Tom Colicchio, and think you’re sticking around. But what a lousy way to go – it’s not like Sheldon screwed up the fish while cooking on a plancha or in a skillet. Making a mistake in an unfamiliar environment is just normal.

* I watched this episode with my wife and one of our friends from the bus stop (another mom), and they both commented on Padma’s cleavage before I said a word. So, Padma’s cleavage. How about that.

* Brooke serves first. She did steamed yellow snapper with bean and corn ragout, jicama and papaya relish, and fresh avocado. The sweet salsa (relish) consisted of “lots of stuff.” She used tomatillo juice to try to add some acidity to the two sides, since there was no citrus available. The snapper is perfectly cooked; the judges disagree on the salsas, although Tom says they complemented each other, and we know his vote is the one that counts. The one criticism seems to be that the dish doesn’t have huge flavors, but it’s fish. If you overpower it with big flavors, they’ll ding you for overshadowing the main ingredient.

* Sheldon serves what is basically shredded snapper with annatto crab sauce, Yucatan vegetables, and a habanero salsa on the side. One of the diners thought the hot salsa was too hot, and the sauce in the middle tastes completely of crab, although another diner – they’re all star Mexican chefs – thought that the technique of using masa to thicken the sauce was smart.

* Shirley made steamed grouper, crustacean and roasted habanero-tomato sauce, and dragonfruit and corn salad, along with shrimp salt sprinkled over the top. She chose grouper because she wanted a fatty fish that could stay moist over the direct heat. Tower says “that girl can cook,” and that it says “I know what I was doing at the beginning and then I did it.” Tom praises her for editing.

* Shirley wins, with Graham saying it was “the most composed of the three.” (It certainly looked the prettiest.) Hers was the only dish that didn’t get any criticism from the eight people at the table.

* What happened next seemed a little contrived to me. Sheldon totally blew the fish, unfortunately, and the hot salsa and the crab sauce blew out the diners’ palettes. Brooke’s dish was a little mild or “timid,” and Tom said it was overly complicated with too much going on. How the judges could present this as a very close decision is beyond me; the criticisms of Brooke’s dish may have been entirely valid but they’re hardly equivalent to the criticisms of Sheldon’s. If you botch your protein, you go home.

* And Sheldon is indeed eliminated. I’m sad to see him go, because he’s talented and funny and has definitely become a different person since the last time we saw him (in a good way), but this was the only decision that would have made sense given what else we were told about everyone’s dishes. That leaves Brooke and Shirley in the finals, and I’ll say Brooke is the 3:2 favorite.

* Unrelated to this episode, but while looking into Jeremiah Tower, I saw he co-authored a short book called Table Manners: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why Bother, which came out in October. The title makes it seem dated and fussy, but the descriptions afterwards actually seem kind of modern and relevant. Have any of you read it? I’m hardly the lost son of Judith Martin when it comes to table etiquette, but I’m intrigued by this.

Chicago eats, 2014 edition.

I’ve got a few recent pieces up at, including an early postseason awards preview, a report on a few Binghamton Mets prospects, and a recap of the Under Armour All-American Classic. My last Baseball Tonight podcast as guest host included some great guests, including Bizarre Foods star Andrew Zimmern.

My trip to Chicago for the Under Armour game was, as always, too brief – I was on the ground only about 24 hours, spending seven of them at the ballpark and another eight or so asleep in the hotel (I was so tired I passed out at 11:30, in my clothes, on top of the covers, while trying to read The Magic Mountain). I did get to one new restaurant for lunch, plus revisited an old favorite after the game for a quick dinner.

A friend whose identity shall remain hidden introduced me to a new fried chicken joint in the Avondale neighborhood just west of Wrigley Field called Honey Butter, so named because you get a little cup of soft honey butter that I’m told you’re supposed to smear on the outside of the fried chicken before eating it, and really, who am I to argue with custom? Honey Butter serves boneless breasts and thighs as well as drumsticks (not boneless – that would be difficult), plus a variety of fantastic sides, with a huge emphasis on local, responsible sourcing, including antibiotic-free chicken from a farm in Indiana. (If you want to make one difference in the world based on how you eat, just one simple switch, demand antibiotic-free meat wherever you go.)

The chicken itself was spicy and crispy but still completely moist on the inside; Honey Butter fries at a lower temperature, 315 degrees, to crisp the skin by rendering out more of the fat than a higher temp would, which also helps avoid drying out the exterior part of the meat. As good as the chicken was, however, it was the sides that would send me back to the restaurant: schmaltz mashed potatoes, creamed corn with Thai green curry, roasted garlic grits with scallions and “chicken crust crunchies,” roasted sweet potato salad with cilantro-lime dressing, and kale/cabbage slaw with yogurt-cumin dressing and dried pomegranate arils. The creamed corn was my favorite by far – I would never have thought to mix corn with coconut milk and basil, but the combination was bright and avoided the heaviness I associate with creamed corn. I believe my friend would have voted for the mashed potatoes, another excellent choice, one of which I believe Michael Ruhlman – who wrote an iPad ebook about the fat, one later published as a hardcover – would approve. I’d probably skip the kale salad, especially if they have the collard greens, which weren’t available the day I went.

Honey Butter also serves little half-dollar-sized corn muffins with their meals, a little sweet with an excellent crust all around the exterior, and they offer beer, wine, and cocktails as well. They are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so plan your visit accordingly.

When I appeared on First Take the day after the trade deadline, Skip Bayless came to greet me off set beforehand, and the first question he asked me was, “Have you been to my brother’s restaurant?” (I know Skip doesn’t have a great reputation online, but I’ve enjoyed working with him, and I find him to be both friendly and thoughtful when we talk off air.) That was all the prompting I needed, because while I had been to Frontera Grill before, it had been way too long – over five years, in fact, too long to go without visiting one of the most important Mexican restaurants in the country, especially when it was within walking distance of my hotel.

Rick Bayless was a pioneer of authentic, regional Mexican cuisine in the U.S., and remains dedicated to that cause, even bringing his vision to a tortas stand at O’Hare Airport, a setting where you would never expect to find anything of that quality or focus. Frontera, his flagship, offers a number of Mexican dishes you’d more or less recognize, but prepares them with top-notch ingredients and surrounds them with smaller dishes, like street food, that are probably less familiar to American diners. Since it was late and I’d already had a large amount of meat at lunch, I decided to sample a few of those smaller dishes around a serving of ceviche, which was more than a meal’s worth of protein in itself. Their “tropical tuna cocktail,” served in a martini glass, comprises sashimi-grade Hawaiian bigeye tuna, mixed with a mango salsa and served over a tangy, creamy tomatillo guacamole, with fresh tortilla chips on the side to take the place of utensils. The fish was pristine – I expect no less at this kind of restaurant – but the guacamole was the part I remember most, with enough acidity to balance out the fat of the avocadoes.

For side dishes, I went with the raw jícama salad I posted on Instagram and my Facebook fan page, as well as the callejero-style grilled corn with serrano mayo and cotija. The jícama, tossed with with a chili-lime dressing and served with a little bit of sliced cucumber as well, was shockingly bright and juicy, more than any other jícama I can remember having. It’s served with extra lime wedges, which I thought it needed to bump up the acidity, since jícama itself is more texture than taste. The corn was absolutely ridiculous, sweet and salty and a little spicy with a little acidity from the cheese, decadent with the fat from the cheese and the serrano mayonnaise – the best thing I ate during the visit, even though it’s a dish I’ve had a dozen times at other restaurants.

I sampled the dessert my server suggested, an almond brown-butter cake with almond-cream cheese frosting, a quenelle of toasted almond ice cream, and some almond crumble scatted over the plate. I’d take a cone of that ice cream to go, and the cake itself was moist and had that nutty flavor of the browned milk solids from the butter (in addition to the flavor of the almonds). I could have done without the frosting, but I’m not a huge fan of cream cheese in any form; the tangy, slightly off flavor I always detect in cream cheese dominated even with all of the sugar and almond flavoring added to the frosting.

I also made a pair of visits to Intelligentsia Coffee‘s Millennium Park location, because their coffees are some of the best I’ve ever sampled. They offer a standard espresso made from their Black Cat blend, but also (for an extra dollar) offer a single-origin espresso that changes daily, which I prefer because I get to sample beans from more regions that way. Just be prepared for a little wait, as it was pretty busy both mornings I was there – a good sign given the proliferation of lesser coffee places that don’t offer this kind of quality or this level of income for the farmers.

Arizona eats, March 2014 edition.

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

I tried a handful of new (to me) restaurants on my two-week trip to Arizona, but was a little limited in choices because I had the family with me and we chose to stay further out of town to be closer to friends near where we used to live (and to save the company a little money too). I did get to a few spots I’d been dying to try, and have a few new recommendations for those of you still out there.

Isabel’s Amor is a brand-new authentic Mexican restaurant in western Gilbert, on the northeast corner of Williams Field and Val Vista, and it’s spectacular, offering what I interpreted as Mexican comfort food with very fresh ingredients. We went with two starters, starting with their salsa trio, featuring a fresh vegetable salsa, a tomatillo-avocado pureed salsa, and a chunkier mango-jalapeño salsa; all three were good, none as spicy as the thin red salsa that came gratis, with the mango salsa my personal favorite for the perfect sweet-sour-spice balance and brightness of the mango flavor. Their Mexican street corn (elotes) was outstanding, roasted corn kernels served with cotija cheese, chili powder, cilantro, and a dollop of mayonnaise on top; you’re supposed to stir it all together to form the sauce, which I found produced a better result than the standard version where it’s mixed in the kitchen and can end up very watery by the time it reaches the table. For the entrees, my wife ordered the chili verde, made with beef braised in a dark green chile sauce, mildly spicy, a dish my wife compared favorably (and accurately) to pot roast, Mexican-style. I ordered the pescado de la parrilla, a fillet of corvina drum (fish) heavily marinated in lime juice and tequila and then grilled, served with that same mango-jalapeño salsa, along with sides of rice and your choice of beans. The fish tasted of lime and tequila more than anything, and had the slightly translucent look of fish that has been marinated for a long time before cooking, so the flavors were amazing but the texture wasn’t quite up to the same level. I was very impressed by the black beans, which were al dente rather than the mush I’m used to getting even at decent Mexican restaurants, and the fresh flour tortillas are incredible – someone’s grandmother is clearly making these by hand every morning, probably with lard given how good they taste. I was shocked to find out that the family behind Isabel’s is also reponsible for Someburros, one of the many chains of mediocre Mexican food that pollute the valley, but it appears that someone grew a culinary conscience and decided to offer the public a higher-quality product.

The Welcome Diner is a hipster spot – there’s no other way to describe it, that’s not even an insult, it just is. There are a couple of seats inside at a counter but most of the seating is outside at picnic tables, and the menu is short, mostly burgers and fried-chicken-and-biscuit options. The fried chicken on a biscuit is a bit over the top, really, even the fairly simple option I got – local honey, mustard, and bread and butter pickles, piled on a huge chunk of fried chicken breast, served on a very rich biscuit that couldn’t hold together when I tried to cut the whole thing like a sandwich. The components were all good, but eaten together were too rich and very heavy. My wife ordered a burger well-done – I’ve told her that this is a cardinal sin, but she won’t listen – and received something short of medium. The fries were excellent, though, clearly just cut and fried to order. Remember to wear your vintage clothes, though.

Republica Empanada in downtown Mesa was the other great new find of the trip, serving a number of perfectly-fried hot pockets pastries filled with a variety of meats, traditional and otherwise. I stuck with the traditional options, one with pernil (slow-roasted pork shoulder) and one with chicken and vegetables. Both came with a green dipping sauce that I believe contained tomatillos, cilantro, and a little chili pepper. They also make wonderful maduros, the fried sweet plantains that are among my favorite foods on the planet, serving eight large pieces for just $5. The mere fact that the empanadas are fried and not greasy makes them above-average, and the fact that they had a chicken offering that wasn’t dry or bland pushes them even higher. Two of them and the maduros was a small lunch; three might have been a little too much for me.

I didn’t get to try noca, one of the best-reviewed restaurants in Phoenix proper, but did swing by to grab lunch at nocawich, where they offer a handful of artisan sandwiches every day, including the Dolly, a giant fried-chicken sandwich (thicker than a cutlet but still on the thin side) with house-made pickles and a very flavorful, tangy/creamy cabbage slaw. I shouldn’t have eaten the whole thing – it was at least a portion and a half for me – but I did anyway because it was way too good to let one bite go to waste. I’d really like to get to noca for dinner to try the house-made pastas, but it’s the location that gets me – we didn’t live close, we never stay close when we’re visiting, and it’s not really near any ballparks.

Defalco’s was one of two Italian markets I wanted to try in Scottsdale – the other, Andreoli’s, was a little more out of my way but I understand is very good – and it’s very convenient to Old Town, further south on Scottsdale Road, near Los Sombreros. Defalco’s offers a pretty long list of sandwiches, mostly traditional New York-Italian options. I’ll pretty much always choose a sandwich with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, and roasted red peppers on it; Defalco’s has something like a half a dozen bread choices, and while the focaccia was really good (not too greasy on top), it couldn’t exactly contain what was in the sandwich. Service is a little strange, like they’re doing you a favor, although I wouldn’t anyone was rude, just not the norm for Arizona where, if anything, you get people who seem a little too happy to help.

Taco Haus, the new spinoff of Scottsdale’s Brat Haus, is a little more remote from Salt River Fields than I’d realized, all the way up at Scottsdale Road and Shea Blvd, worth a visit if you want to eat and drink, but not a destination if you just want good tacos – I’d send you to Otro or Gallo Blanco for that. Taco Haus’ tacos are small, street-style, and the various fillings are all high-quality but overdone, too many elements on the plate so that the meat, which should in theory be the star ingredient, gets overwhelmed by acidity or mayonnaise.

Among return visits, the most notable meal was one at crudo, one of the two best restaurants I’ve tried in Arizona (Virtu in Scottsdale is the other). I branched out a bit this time, and would specifically cite the squid-ink risotto with tuna as an absolute standout dish, one that transcends the gimmicky nature of squid-ink dishes (“oooh! black food!”) with the perfect combination of texture, flavor, and presentation. I also love their cocktail menu’s inclusion of many local products, including spirits from the AZ Distilling Company in Tempe.

We split our breakfasts between the Hillside Spot and Crepe Bar. The Hillside Spot has switched from using Cartel Coffee to another vendor, espressions, whose beans I don’t like as much, and we actually had one kind of disappointing meal of about seven breakfasts we had there – a busy Sunday morning when nothing was quite up to par – but every other time it was consistently excellent. Crepe Bar’s menu is more limited but they use heart coffee from Portland, Oregon, which is among my favorite roasters in the country. The regular staff at both places were great, especially once they saw us a few times and got to know my daughter.

I didn’t make it to several spots I wanted to hit, including Atlas Bistro (tried to go without a reservation but they were booked up past our daughter’s bedtime), Bink’s, El Chullo, Beaver Choice, and Draft House in Peoria. There’s always Fall League…

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.

Las Vegas eats, 2012.

I was in Vegas with the family for a good friend’s 40th birthday weekend (or, as we chose to put it, her 39.99999….th birthday), and managed to sneak in two meals at places I can recommend.

Border Grill, located in Mandalay Bay near the hotel’s aquarium, first came to my attention via Top Chef Masters, where Mary Sue Milliken, one of the restaurant’s two founding chefs, won one of season three’s least ridiculous challenges (the fast-food challenge) with a recipe for quinoa fritters that I’ve made probably a dozen times at home since the show first aired. As it turns out, the Border Grill added quinoa fritters to the menu, which was enough to get us to try the restaurant since it’s the rare food item all three of us love.

Those fritters were excellent, larger than I expected and much softer inside without losing any of the crisp exterior – clearly I need to cook my quinoa a little longer, or with more liquid, before cooling it to make the fritters. They’re served with a mildly spicy aji amarillo aioli (although I find they work even better with a homemade chipotle mayonnaise, since the fritters themselves are so mild in flavor). We ended up ordering only smaller plates because the fritters can be so filling – two plates of fritters, one of green corn tamales, and a ceviche duo. The tamales were very sweet with a soft, rustic texture, rather than the mealy masa texture of most of the tamales I’ve ever had. The ceviche duo was half successful; the Peruvian style ceviche, with garlic and ginger, served on a tortilla chip, was phenomenal, but the baja ceviche was overwhelmed by one ingredient – I think it was mustard – and the fish just disappeared under the sauce. I like raw fish preparations that highlight the freshness of the fish itself, but between that heavy sauce and the fine dice of the fish, I couldn’t even tell what the fish was, while the Peruvian version was much more balanced (aside from perhaps a little too much red onion). My daughter also had a quesadilla that was clearly made with a fresh homemade tortilla; I’d offer her opinion, but I don’t think she’s ever met a quesadilla she didn’t like.

The dessert special of the day was mango upside-down cake, served with a quenelle of mango sorbet, and I don’t see why that isn’t a regular menu item printed in large bold letters; the cake was a little sticky-sweet on its own, but if you could get the sorbet and cake all together in one bite, the tanginess of the sorbet (from orange juice, I think) balanced out that sweetness so that the predominant flavor was mango rather than sugar and butter. I happen to love mangos for their complexity – they’re sweet, but with a savory component that reminds me of carrots, so you don’t find yourself beaten over the head with sweetness – and this cake highlighted the fruit perfectly.

I also took the family to Cafe Bouchon, located in the Venetian, for Sunday brunch and ordered something I hadn’t tried before, Bouchon’s take on chicken and waffles, not exactly authentic but one of the most memorable breakfast items I’ve ever had. The chicken is roasted rather than fried, a half bird, the breast still moist, the skin a rich brown and well seasoned, with a hunter’s sauce (a brown sauce made from red wine and mushrooms) on the side. The waffles contained bacon and chives and were airy and crispy and probably contained about a pound of butter, but really, waffles are supposed to have too much fat for any reasonable diet, because that’s what makes them awesome. Bouchon also had a special beignet of the day, filled with raspberry filling that tasted not of sugar but of fresh raspberries, the type of detail I’d expect from a restaurant founded by a chef known for his meticulous approach to cooking. We overordered a little bit, in part because my daughter came down with a cold and we just wanted to ensure there would be something on the table she’d like, but there was nothing on the table – not even the apricot jam or the fresh epi-shaped country bread – that was less than perfect. One caution: It ain’t cheap, but it is decadent.

Dallas eats.

From a culinary perspective, this had to be my most successful winter meetings since Las Vegas in 2008, which isn’t exactly a fair fight since Vegas is something of a food mecca. But Dallas had quite a bit to offer even with my restriction that no meal take place more than 15 minutes’ drive from the Hilton Anatole.

I’ll start with the one place I hit twice, Zaguan Bakery on Oak Lawn Drive, just under a mile and a half from our hotel and on my way back to Love Field to fly home. Zaguan is a South American bakery, featuring pastries, sandwiches, and other dishes from all over that continent, including one of my favorite foods on the planet, the arepa – a thin cornmeal pancake, here sliced lengthwise and stuffed with the fillings of of your choice for a deliciously sloppy sandwich. The slow-cooked beef was whole (I believe brisket) rather than ground, producing a much better texture, and while it comes with a mildly spicy red sauce it’s elevated by fresh guacamole. As good as the arepa was, it was topped by the cachapa, a thick pancake of cornmeal with fresh corn kernels mixed in for a crunchier, sweeter wrap around the same choice of fillings (like an omelet); I had the cachapa with chicken, white meat cooked in a similar sauce but without the depth of flavor from the beef. Both sandwiches are served with plantain chips that you can upgrade to maduros for $0.99 (do this). There’s also a big display case full of sweet pastries that merits a return trip – I only tried one, the alfajor de chocolate, a linzer tarte-like cookie with chocolate frosting between two shortbread cookies with a chocolate glaze on top, not too sweet with a perfect crumbly texture.

My editor Chris Sprow and I went for high-end Mexican on the first night of the meetings at La Duni, a very well-reviewed restaurant over on McKinney. The fresh guacamole appetizer was big and more chunky than smooth (I prefer this style, although I think it’s a matter of taste), with diced onions, cucumbers, and serrano peppers. For the meal, I went with the slow-roasted lomo sandwich, primarily because the restaurant has its own bakery and I can’t turn down fresh bread – in this case, Pan de Yema, a sort of South American brioche that, unfortunately, came out very dry, saved only by the avocado and Manchego in the middle along with the roasted pork. It came with yucca fries dusted in paprika and spritzed with lemon juice, perfectly fried (good thing, as undercooked yucca can kill you); but we also grabbed a side of maduros which were just as perfectly cooked, almost candied while maintaining some firmness inside. Sprow ordered enchiladas con pollo and cleaned his plate so fast I thought he’d eat the napkin too. I don’t care that much about ambience or décor but we both noticed how cool the place looked. One weird thing: They have valet parking … and the valet just pulled the car into the space right next to the front door. I’m pretty sure I could have done that myself.

Il Cane Rosso was the site of the first of our misfit-writers outings – I can’t tell you how much fun these dinners were, even beyond the food – over on the east side of Dallas, serving pizzas cooked in their wood-fired oven at 900 degrees. The house salad was fresh but overdressed; the Caesar, on the other hand, was one of the best I’ve had outside of the garlicky heaven you’ll find at Strip-T’s in Watertown, Massachusetts, although Il Cane Rosso does use anchovies in their Caesar dressing (which isn’t traditional). The pizzas had a great crust (they use imported 00 flour) with the correct amount of char on the outside and high-quality meats among the toppings, although their fresh mozzarella melted more like the low-moisture find you’d get in a grocery store. Of the pizzas we ordered, the prosciutto e rucola, with prosciutto crudo, arugula, and mozzarella, was my favorite. I only tried one of the three desserts we ordered, the zeppole, smaller than the kind I’m used to getting on Long Island but with the right crisp exterior and soft, yeasty interior. They had a solid selection of local beers, and the server (who also gets points for being an Arcade Fire fan) was knowledgeable about the beers and the pizzas. We ordered a substantial amount of food and everyone had at least one drink; with tip, the total ran just $35 a person.

The second group dinner was to Lockhart Smokehouse, in the Bishop Arts District. Lockhart brags “no forks needed,” although I’d call that a slight exaggeration; the brisket was insanely tender with the best outer bark I have ever had on any kind of smoked beef. The smoked sausage, from Kreuz Market in Lockhart (near San Antonio), was fair but didn’t have the same great smoke flavor as the brisket. They smoke food over local post oak, which is apparently common in Texas but isn’t a wood I’ve encountered anywhere else. My fellow writers gave positive reviews to the ribs, the jalapeno sausage, and the smoked chicken. I did try the baked beans but tasted all heat and very little smoke. Sprow’s contribution to the blog follows:

Beware of meat.

Back to solo dining: Tei-An is a Japanese soba house in the Arts District with a slightly peculiar menu mixing traditional Japanese dishes with plates more tailored to the American palate. I went with a soba dish, figuring I should go with something I couldn’t get just anywhere, short green soba noodles served hot with chicken in a mild curry-like sauce (too mild to really be curry, I think). The dish was solid, very filling thanks to the noodles but touching on bland, and the dish came with four mayo-heavy California rolls as a free side dish. The soba noodles were very well made, but just lacked flavor; maybe I ordered the wrong thing, but at a soba house, shouldn’t the soba dishes blow you away?

I ventured out for one breakfast, at Craft Dallas, another outpost in Tom Colicchio’s growing empire. The short rib hash with two eggs any style was a small disappointment, given Craft’s legendary 24-hour short rib dish; the short ribs themselves were fine, but the hash was sitting in a fancy bowl with a very salty sauce on the bottom, and the (perfectly) poached eggs ended up running into that sauce.

Disneyland eats.

I did promise a review of the food at Disneyland, with a warning that it’s nowhere near as good as the food at Disneyworld is. Disneyland’s options are more limited of necessity, but we also found the execution wasn’t as good and had more disappointments than favorites. (I’ve written several posts on the food at Disneyworld over the past four years.)

I’ll start with the two best things we ate. The best meal was at Downtown Disney at the unfortunately named Tortilla Jo’s, which serves much better upscale Mexican fare than you’d expect after hearing the casual-dining name. The server talked me into his favorite dish, the achiote citrus-grilled chicken, which was very good, correctly cooked (that is, not dry) with a ton of flavor from the glaze. It came with chipotle mashed sweet potatoes that didn’t stint on the heat or mask it with sugar, charro beans, and roasted corn on the cob, for a meal that probably could have fed two. My wife was also impressed by her enchiladas suizas, saying they compared well to her favorite Mexican place from back in Massachusetts, and also finding herself full after eating about half her meal. They have aguas frescas although I found the tamarind a little watery. They don’t offer guacamole as a small side item, unfortunately – it’s made tableside, which isn’t ideal for flavor development, and is something like $9 for a very large bowl of the green stuff.

The other hit was the beignets served at the French Market at New Orleans Square, at a side window on the side facing the railroad station. The beignets are thinner than you’d get in New Orleans and are shaped like Mickey, airy inside, freshly fried and golden brown, handed over in a bag with powdered sugar. Skip the “fritters” served elsewhere in New Orleans Square (they were undercooked inside, but also had the wrong texture) and get the beignets instead.

I’d give a passing grade to Naples, the “authentic” pizzeria also at Downtown Disney. The crust was solid, better texture than flavor, mildly charred in the wood-fired ovens, and the quality of the ingredients was top-notch. Unfortunately their basic tomato sauce is badly underseasoned and both the pizza and the pasta with sauce tasted flat. (Get it? Pizza? Flat? Never mind.) I don’t know if we hit them on the wrong day; the executive chef is Italian and I can’t imagine he’d give his imprimatur to this sauce, which tasted more like pureed canned tomatoes than a cooked, seasoned sauce. If they tweaked that, they have everything else in place to have a restaurant I could preach about.

What’s most peculiar about Naples is that the restaurant management group behind it also runs Via Napoli, the new authentic pizzeria at Epcot in the Italy pavilion (which I reviewed earlier this spring). I’ve eaten there three times in the last six months across two trips and there is no comparison – everything at Via Napoli is better, from the crust to how it’s baked to the sauce to the ingredients to the menu, which includes more options for toppings, more ability to customize your pizza, better appetizers (including a verdure fritte that I recommend), and way better desserts, led by ricotta zeppole served with a warm chocolate sauce.

Returning to Disneyland, we had breakfast at La Brea Bakery just at the entrance to the promenade as you walk into the complex from the theme park entrances. The bread was good, the pastries were not (they were tough and gummy), the bacon was high quality, the potatoes served with the egg dishes were also ordinary. It does the job if you want a filling breakfast, which we did, but it’s not something to go out of your way to hit.

Ariel’s Grotto in California Adventure has a prix fixe dinner special that includes admission to the World of Color light show, which was just amazing. My daughter was riveted almost from the start and for days afterward would spontaneously ask us, “Remember when we saw the World of Color?” Clips from Disney films are projected on to sprays of water over the artificial lagoon, interspersed with colored lights and the odd bit of pyrotechnics. That made up for a meal that was just average. You have a choice of antipasti; we went with the vegetarian one so my daughter would have more options; the cheeses (manchego and fresh mozzarella) were excellent but the vegetables were undermarinated. For my main course I chose the grilled redfish with pineapple chutney over wild rice pilaf with sauteed vegetables; the fish was perfectly cooked and well-seasoned, although it needed the sweet/sour flavors of the chutney to boost the flavor, while the sides were just filling the plate. The family-style dessert options were mostly disappointing, led by the “chocolate lava cake” that was around 40-50 degrees, so the inside was thick like grainy fudge, not oozing like lava. (And the server said this wasn’t a kitchen error.) The French macarons, however, were phenomenal, perfect in color, shape, and flavor, the kind for which you’d pay at least $3 apiece at a bakery in LA or Manhattan.

We did one character meal, breakfast with Minnie and Friends, at the Plaza Inn. The character part was fantastic and my daughter was over the moon to meet characters she’d never met before (Eeyore, Tigger, Captain Hook, and Chip). The food was like a hotel buffet, and there were execution problems all over the place, like trays not being replenished, waffle/pancake toppings still at refrigerator temperatures, and slow service everywhere.

The quick-service Mexican place in Frontierland, Rancho del Zocalo, was also very disappointing, the one place where we ended up leaving most of the food on our plates. I tried the grilled fish tacos, which were bitter, overcooked, and badly seasoned. The rice we were served was dry and flavorless. My wife got enchiladas with carne asada and said the steak was too tough to chew – and she typically orders steak or burgers well-done.

What’s so odd about this is how different it is at Disneyworld, where the restaurants are like well-oiled machines and the food is consistent. We have places to which we look forward when heading to Florida, from Raglan Road to Jiko to Flame Tree and now to Via Napoli as well, and plenty of options that are more than just “fill the stomach” even if they’re not automatic favorites. I don’t know if we hit some kind of lull in Anaheim but it didn’t live up to my expectations.

Vegas, Phoenix, and Oklahoma eats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hillside Spot & Barrio Cantina.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.