Birmingham eats, 2015 edition.

I had to get up at 5 am and connect through Orlando to get to Birmingham for the Vanderbilt-Alabama game on Saturday, so once I got to my rental car I headed straight for Octane Coffee in the Homewood neighborhood, the best coffee place I’ve found in Birmingham. It’s not on par with my favorite small roasters – Intelligentsia, Four Barrel, Counter Culture, Cartel, etc. – but it’s a lighter roast of higher-quality beans than your mass-market chains offer. I hung out for a while to write a few things, including starting the mock draft post for Tuesday, and ended up chatting about SSRIs with a few med school students sitting at my table, then chatting boardgames with a young couple playing Rivals for Catan (who also suggested a newish game called The Duke to me).

I was there long enough that I ended up going next door to the Mexican/BBQ place Little Donkey for lunch. Their midday menu offers plates for $8.75 with two tacos of your choosing, most of which contain large piles of smoked meats, and one of their sides. (You can also get a burrito, a salad, or tamales instead of tacos.) I also added a grilled corn on the cob for $2, and the total was more food than I could consume because the tacos were so much larger than I expected. The pork al pastor was the better option, although I did like the smoked brisket too; the latter probably just had too much meat relative to its toppings. The chipotle slaw was perfectly flavored, with the egg in the dressing cutting some of the sharpness of the pepper, and the elote (corn) was solid-average other than (I’m nitpicking) a very uneven distribution of the paprika on the outside. They make their tortillas by hand, and it was evident as they were worth the trip all by themselves. Reader Aaron, who lives nearby, says dinner isn’t quite such good value, but I thought it was very reasonable for the size and quantity of the lunch.

While I was sitting in Octane, Alton Brown sent out a tweet to his favorite road eats from the southern portion of his national tour, and on it was Steel City Pops, which is located right next door to Octane. Serving large paletas in fruit and dairy options for $3 a pop from five (soon to be seven) area locations, Steel City has a great assortment of straightforward and clever flavor combinations that change from time to time. I went with guava, which tasted like … guava. It was good, though. I wanted to try the caramel or the coffee, but didn’t think I could handle that on top of lunch.

My last meal was a substantial disappointment, due to what I think was a process breakdown in the kitchen. Hot & Hot Fish Club is one of the top-rated restaurants in the city, winning a James Beard Award in 2012, offering a menu full of farm-to-table that reflects seasonal produce as well as any I’ve come across. The menu on Saturday was loaded with spring vegetables across the starters and mains, and I was quite optimistic after seeing the salad, with young lettuce leaves still on the head along with English peas, shaved Parmiggiano-Reggiano, and a tart dressing that might have contained anchovies (although the menu didn’t say so, and that would be an odd omission). Even the breads to start the meal, served with fresh butter and their own green salt with dried herbs, were superb, especially the soft white bread, with the crust of a sponge bread but the tender crumb of a highly enriched loaf.

Then I waited. It was somewhere between 30 and 40 minutes before my entree arrived, and that only because I finally asked my server (the bartender) for an ETA on it. He later explained that when he asked the kitchen to fire the dish, they hadn’t done so, and when it did arrive less than five minutes after he made the second request, it wasn’t right – edible, certainly, not worth sending back, but not right, either. The dish was duck breast with “crispy” duck confit served with creamy grits, a blueberry gastrique, grilled peaches, and pecans. The duck breast was almost too tough to chew or even cut; the confit thigh wasn’t crispy in any way and its meat didn’t want to come off the bone. The gastrique was absent, although there were maybe a dozen cooked blueberries in two pockets on the plate. I dislike sending food that is edible back to the kitchen; something has to be unsafe to eat or cooked beyond palatability for me to take that step. This wasn’t at that level; it was just done wrong. The bartender had the kitchen send out a small cup of their spring pea soup, pureed with fresh mint and creme fraiche, but that was – and I don’t use this word often or lightly – terrible. The peas tasted both raw and underripe, so the soup was grassy and very bitter. We grow English peas in our backyard every spring, and when ripe they are juicy and sweet and perfect right out of the pod. Sometimes we pick a pod that isn’t ready, and that was the flavor in the soup. The kitchen just had an off night.

Dana Point eats.

I did breakfast both days at Harbor House, a diner right on PCH in Dana Point, going back on day two because day one’s meal was so good. That first meal was scrambled eggs with chorizo, home fries, and toast. The eggs/chorizo were probably the best I’ve ever had – not overwhelmingly spicy (seriously, I can only take so much heat at 8:30 a.m.), obviously made to order rather than as part of a huge batch – and the home fries were just a pinch of salt away from perfection, with no grease, plenty of crispy browned bits, and soft interiors. The second meal was pancakes, bacon, and eggs; the pancakes were solid-average, good but unremarkable in flavor and – like most pancakes – a little heavy, and while the bacon came in thick slices that could have been fried a little longer to get some crisp to them.

I had one lunch at R.J.’s in Dana Point Harbor, although they’re also open for breakfast and seem to have a local following. The turkey sandwich with feta is pretty much just that, turkey roasted in-house with lettuce, tomato, red onion, and a sprinkling of feta cheese, plus mayo if you’re so inclined (I wasn’t). The turkey was excellent, nothing like the cheap previously-sliced stuff you get in too many restaurants, and the bread (a French roll) was obviously fresh. The sandwich comes with soup or salad; you might want to try the soup, as the salad was drowned twice over in dressing. Getting into the place was kind of tricky; the best way seems to be to go westbound on Dana Point Harbor Drive and pull into the lot just past the intersection with Golden Lantern.

My other lunch was too much of a good thing, a Mexican place called Olemandi right across from the beach. The food was amazing, but the portion sizes were absolutely over the top. Their carnitas are among the best I’ve ever had, moist but with some browned ends, deeply flavored but neither too acidic nor too spicy, allowing the flavor of the meat to still take center stage. The dish comes with a small amount of very good Spanish rice, a large serving of refried beans, plus tortillas, guacamole, sour cream, and so on. All of that plus easily 3/4 pound to one pound of carnitas makes a great value for $16, but it’s also ridiculous to send that much food back when, like me, you have no place to which you can take leftovers. Oh, and the meal comes with tortilla soup, which was very rustic (just a delicious broth and tortilla strips with a little diced tomato) but sort of added to the gluttony. I can’t really complain about having too much food, but sending that quantity of food to the disposal/trash does bother me a lot.

I had one very, very bad meal on the trip, sushi at Gen Kai in Dana Point. The fish was bland, boring, slightly tough, and way too cold. I wouldn’t say it was bad in the sense of going bad, since I wouldn’t have eaten it, but it was unacceptably low quality fish. Even the green tea was a mess (way too hot – green tea should be brewed at around 160 degrees). I did make it up to myself by stopping in Seal Beach en route to the airport and having my last meal of the trip at Koi, amazing as usual and relatively quiet for a place that usually offers a wait for a seat at the sushi bar.

Phoenix eats, 2008 edition.

We’re leaving Arizona on Thursday, but since I doubt I’ll hit anywhere new before we go, here’s my workup of new Phoenix restaurants. I’m going to start with the best recommendations, and then proceed to the neutral reviews and then the trashing.

We had two real hits for dinner on the trip. One is a two-location mini-chain called Blu Burger, which offers gourmet burgers with significant choices to customize your meal. You have your choice of seven burger types, but there’s not much reason to go here and order something other than the ½ pound burger made from American Kobe beef, also known as Wagyu, from the name of the breed of cattle. The result is the best burger I’ve ever tasted, due to the higher fat content of the beef (although the beef is higher in unsaturated fat and oleic acid than most beef), resulting in a buttery texture and a mellow, rich beef flavor. From the choice of burger, you move to four choices of bun, more cheese options than I care to think about, at least sixteen toppings and thirteen sauce/condiment options, as well as a choice of French fries, cole slaw, field greens, sweet potato fries, or onion rings as your side. I’ve tried the French fries (they’re beer-battered, which is just weird) and the sweet potato fries (blah, and a little soggy), but the attraction is the burgers. My personal favorite combo so far is fresh mushrooms, pickles, red onion, romaine lettuce, goat cheese, ketchup, and Dijon mustard. They do have other sandwich options, but who cares?

The other hit dinner spot is Los Sombreros, a Mexican restaurant in south Scottsdale, south of Old Town and disturbingly close to Zorba’s Adult Video Shop. Los Sombreros serves authentic Mexican cuisine with a healthy selection of margaritas and a sizable wine list. The standard chips/salsa package includes two salsas, one mild with chunks of roasted peppers, the other spicy with tomatillos and smoked hot peppers. Their carnitas dish is delicious and overgenerous – it’s too much pig for me to eat in one serving, and comes with a scoop of fresh guacamole, a side of their peppery Mexican rice (with none of that gritty tomato-sauce nonsense you get in most crappy Mexican joints), and their black beans, which have never seen the inside of a can and come with a sprinkling of queso fresco. The best part of the carnitas dish is the inclusion of all of the ends of the pork, which is always the place for the best flavor. I also tried their puerco en chipotle, a similar cut of pork in a spicy green salsa, with a little bit of queso Oaxaca melted on top; the pork was moister in this dish, although I missed the guacamole from the carnitas platter, while the salsa was identical or close to the great smoky/spicy version that came with the chips. I tasted the mole poblano but found that the spicy/earthy mole flavor completely overshadowed the chicken. My wife went for the chicken enchiladas on both visits and raved about them, while my daughter was happy just to eat the rice. I’m not much of a drinker, but I decided to try their basic margarita, which contains tequila, triple sec, and sour mix, and liked the balance of lime/lemon flavors against the tequila, which was present but never overwhelming. (The last time I tried straight tequila was almost twenty years ago, in college, shortly after which I nearly blinded myself by forgetting to close the top of the photocopier before pressing Copy. Good times.)

We also found a solid gelateria in north Scottsdale, just south of the intersection with 101, deep in the shopping center that contains a Borders and a movie theater. Called The Sweet Life, it was founded by two men whose grandfather owned a gelateria in Italy, and they’ve really nailed the texture of true gelato, which is very hard to find in any U.S. gelateria. Their caramel gelato was outstanding, not too sweet, with a solid balance of that burnt-sugar flavor that all caramel ice creams should have. The chocolate had a good cocoa flavor but tasted shallow to me, as if the gelato itself was too low in fat, which is possible since gelato is typically made with egg yolks and milk but not cream.

The last stop among the top recommendations was in Tucson, at a bakery/sandwich shop called Beyond Bread. This is the place Panera wishes it could be, but never will, with fresher ingredients, outstanding bread, and a pretty solid chocolate chip cookie, although I have to confess that Paradise Bakery, for all its flaws, is still the chocolate chip cookie champ for m.e

On to the neutral reviews … Near ASU’s campus is a small, poorly labeled barbecue joint called Urban Campfire. I went with their pulled pork sliders – three small sandwiches overflowing with pulled pork, with a small side of beans. The pork’s texture was great, but I have no idea how it tasted, because it came drowned in a very hot barbecue sauce. That’s hot in terms of temperature – it had to be boiling when the pork was added – and spice, which crushed my taste buds by the time I’d gotten halfway through the plate. If you try the place, ask for the sauce on the side, or just try the beef ribs, which looked like a better choice.

Sushi Dozo is located in an old fast-food building on Miller Rd in Scottsdale, between Camelback and Indian School. The sushi here was solid-average, but not great, and given the cost of good sushi, I generally don’t go back to any sushi place that wasn’t great. The salmon in the nigiri was fresh, but had a very, very faint off taste to me, as if there was a small bit of mayonnaise mixed in with the wasabi that was holding the fish to the rice. I tried a few different rolls but wasn’t blown away by their spicy tuna or their unagi. It’s passable in a pinch, but Sapporo in north Scottsdale is still better, and several people told me to try Stingray nearer to Old Town for better sushi.

The Old Town Tortilla Factory is fine for what it is, which is an attempt to fuse Mexican cooking with upscale American cuisine, although I was surprised at their inability to cook pork properly. I ordered one of their “signature” dishes, a ten-ounce pork chop served with a raspberry-ancho chile sauce over garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed vegetables. The veggies turned out to be 90% zucchini and squash, which doesn’t rank high in either taste or nutrition. The sauce was very good, better than I expected given the weird nature of the combination, but the heat of the chiles kept it from becoming too sweet. The problem was the pork chop, which was well-done; you can’t cook pork chops or pork loin past medium if you want your customers to be able to chew it. My wife ordered a pork in chile verde sauce and had a similar problem – the meat wasn’t the typical pork shoulder, but was a loin chop that had been roasted and sliced. Her meal came with flour tortillas that had clearly been made by a machine. The best part of the meal was the thick, freshly-made potato tortillas that came in lieu of chips and salsa.

On to the duds … Cantina Laredo in the Kierland area of North Scottsdale is trying to do what the Tortilla Factory is, providing upscale Mexican cuisine in a fancy atmosphere. The food sucks. I can’t remember the last time I had a meal that bland, and I certainly didn’t appreciate paying that much for it. I ordered an enchiladas mole dish, and all it lacked was salt, flavor, and spice. My wife had the same complaint. And they get extra points off for offering guacamole made at your table for $9. Guacamole should be made ahead of time and given a chance for the flavors to develop. Table-side guacamole will either be a disappointment or loaded with salt to mask the mistake.

The 5 & Diner made a list of the area’s best burgers that I found in one of those local magazines aimed at tourists, but unlike Blu Burger, it didn’t measure up. The beef was nothing special, the burger was dry, and the fries had come out of a freezer bag. Next.

Blue Agave is another kicked-up Mexican joint, located in the same shopping center as The Sweet Life, and while their food tasted fine, their service is a huge problem. The sides on both of our plates were lukewarm at best. The refried beans on my dish had a skin on them, which comes from overcooking or sitting at room temperature or both. The salsa had been puréed. Even the fish tacos weren’t quite right, with red cabbage and too much cilantro – I didn’t know cilantro could taste bitter, but it didn’t – instead of the standard green cabbage and sauce.

Apple Café is a local, health-oriented deli behind the Scottsdale airport. Their food was fresh, but really lacking in flavor, and we weren’t thrilled that the pancakes weren’t labeled as buckwheat, although to my daughter’s credit she still did some damage to them. They’re trying hard, but low-fat often does mean low-flavor.

Finally, I want to give an honorable mention to Chloe’s Corner, a little upscale corner-deli place in the tony Kierland Commons shopping center. I didn’t eat there, but my wife and daughter both loved their grilled cheese sandwiches, and they offer coffee for 25 cents a cup. We didn’t do breakfast out while we were here, but they do offer a number of hot breakfast options and it’s worth a try.