Arizona spring training dining guide, 2016 edition.

I have lots of dish posts on food in the Valley, searchable via the search box above or by location tags like Phoenix, Scottsdale, or Mesa. This is now my fourth edition of the dining guide, and my second since moving back to the east coast last summer; I’ve done my best to keep up with restaurant news from out there, but I’m aware I’m likely falling behind. Nothing’s new in the structure and I’ve left the list of places in downtown Phoenix that aren’t close to any ballpark at the end. A lot of the text is unchanged from last year, so don’t be shocked if it seems familiar.

Scottsdale/Old Town (San Francisco):

* Virtu Honest Craft: Award-winning, including a James Beard nomination for best new restaurant in the country, with reason, as this might be the best restaurant in all of Arizona. Virtu is only a 12-minute walk from Scottsdale Stadium and offers inventive, attractive, and most importantly delicious food that plays with textures and flavors in unexpected ways. I went there in October and wrote up the meal in depth.

* Citizen Public House: This was my birthday dinner spot each of the last two years we were out there, if that gives you some sense of how much I liked it. I love the pork belly pastrami starter with rye spaetzle, shredded brussels sprouts, and mustard vinaigrette. I love the short ribs with a dark cherry glaze. I loved the seared scallops on grits. I loved the bacon-fat popcorn and the chicken-and-waffles starter. The only thing I didn’t love was, surprisingly, the duck breast, which was so rare that I couldn’t cut it. Great beer selection as well as well as the best negroni I’ve ever had.

* FnB: I’ve had lunch and dinner here and never been disappointed at all; it rivals Virtu and crudo for the best restaurant in Phoenix, with a menu of smaller plates that often showcase produce of a quality I didn’t think you could get in the state of Arizona. Chef Charleen Badman was just nominated for the James Beard Award for Best Chef, Southwest, for the second year in a row.

* Pig and Pickle: Just outside of Old Town, and only open since November, they do things with pig and with pickles, like the braised pork belly, yam puree, and brussels sprouts slaw starter that was pretty special, as well as a great selection of cocktails.

* Barrio Queen: A spinoff of Barrio Cafe (reviewed below), Barrio Queen is all about the mini tacos, which you order on a piece of paper like you’d get at a sushi place. They range from about $2.50 to $6 apiece and everything I tried was excellent, especially the same cochinita pibil that is a signature dish at the original Cafe.

* Culinary Dropout: A gastropub of sorts, located right near Old Town across from the Fashion Square mall. Definitely a good place to go with pickier eaters, since the menu is broad and most of it is easily recognizable. The chicken truffle hash and the turkey pastrami are both very good.

* Arcadia Farms: Farm-to-table breakfast dishes and sandwiches. Not cheap, but you are paying for quality and for a philosophy of food. I have been there twice and service, while friendly, was leisurely both times.

* Grimaldi’s: Local chain, related to the Brooklyn establishment of the same name. Very good (grade 55) thin-crust, coal-fired pizzas, including nut-free pesto, and similarly solid salads in generous portions. Not terribly cost-effective for one person for dinner, although they’ve finally introduced a more affordable lunch menu.

* Distrito: Inside the Saguaro hotel is this cool, upscale Mexican place, an offshoot of the restaurant of the same name in Philadelphia, serving mostly small plates at a slightly high price point but with very high-quality ingredients, including the best huitlacoche dish I’ve had, and an excellent questo fundido with duck barbacoa. I also liked their Sunday brunch … except for the coffee, which was like molten lead. I haven’t been here since the makeover, however.

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

* Los Sombreros: A bit of a drive south of Old Town into the only part of Scottsdale that you might call “sketchy,” Los Sombreros does high-end authentic Mexican at Scottsdale-ish prices but with large portions and very high quality.

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

* I should mention Franco’s Italian Caffe, right on Scottsdale Road, as it’s very highly regarded by locals, but I was very disappointed. Authentic Italian cuisine is light, focused on simple recipes with big flavors but rarely heavy, while Franco’s menu skews toward what I think of as New York-Italian cuisine, with heavier dishes including lots of heavy cream and salt. It’s not my thing, but I won’t judge you if it’s yours. I also tried The Upton, a new small-plates-and-cocktails kind of place just off Scottsdale road south of Camelback, but their execution was very uneven (e.g., the fried oysters’ batter was inedibly salty) and the service was just kind of weird. I ate at EVO in Scottsdale in October and had a uniformly awful experience.

Scottsdale central/north (Arizona/Colorado):

* Soi4: upscale Thai and Thai-fusion, very close to the park. Owned by the same family that runs Soi4 in Oakland. Full review of my first visit. I’ve gotten pad see ew as a takeout item from here a few times and it was always excellent, full of that crunchy bitter brassica (similar to rapini), and smoking hot.

* Il Bosco: Wood-fired pizzas, cooked around 750 degrees, at a nice midpoint between the ultra-thin almost cracker-like Italian style and the slightly doughier New York style I grew up eating. Their salads are also outstanding and they source a lot of ingredients locally, including olives and EVOO from the Queen Creek Olive Mill. I’ve met the owner and talked to him several times, and he was kind enough to give my daughter a little tour behind the counter and let her pour her own water from their filtration machine, which she loved.

* ‘Pomo Pizzeria: This location is in the same shopping center as Soi4, with others in downtown Phoenix and out in Gilbert. Authentic, Neapolitan-style pizza, not as good as Bianco, but in the running for the second-best pizza in Arizona along with cibo. Toppings include a lot of salty cured meats designed (I assume) to keep you drinking … not that there’s anything wrong with that. Full review.

* Press: In that same shopping center is a small coffee shop where they roast their own beans and will make you a cup of coffee using your method of choice (vacuum, French press, pour-over), as well as the usual run of espresso-based options. There’s apparently also a location at Sky Harbor in Terminal 4 by the B gates (USAirways), although I haven’t visited that one.

* Butterfields: The lines are crazy on the weekends, but if you like a basic diner and want good pancakes or waffles this is one of the better options in the Valley.

* Sweet Republic: I actually find this place to be a little overrated, but if you prefer traditional New York ice cream to gelato or custard, then it’s a good bet, and not far north of the park, just east of the 101 on Shea.

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

* Perk Eatery: West of Scottsdale road and the Kierland mall, on Greenway, probably stretching the definition of what’s near Salt River Fields, but Phoenix doesn’t have a ton of good breakfast spots and this is one of the few. It’s a diner by another name, open for breakfast and lunch, with a slow-roasted pork option along with the regular array of breakfast meats, and rosemary potatoes that are a must with any egg dish.

Tempe (Angels):

* Hillside Spot, Ahwatukee (Phoenix). My favorite place to eat in the Valley, right off I-10 at the corner of Warner and 48th. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I recommend the pulled pork sandwich, the chilaquiles, the grilled corn appetizer, the house-cut French fries, the pancakes (best in Arizona), and the coffee from Cartel Coffee Lab. The Spot sources as much as they possibly can from local growers or providers, even providing four local beers on tap, and you can get out for under $15 including tax and tip. I’ve written about it more than once; here’s one of my posts, which talks about that pork sandwich. They’ve also added an evening menu called “Cocina 10,” including (on some nights) a really great take on fried fish tacos. For breakfast and lunch they’re outstanding, but I have found dinner service to be a little less consistent – but still usually great.

* Crepe Bar: Amazing savory and sweet crepes, and expertly pulled espresso shots using beans from heart coffee roasters, one of the best micro-roasters I’ve come across. They use a lot of local ingredients, including produce from Agritopia Farms (which also hosts Joe’s Farm Grill in Gilbert, seen on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Douche), and bake their own brioche if you’re not in the mood for a regular or buckwheat crepe.

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

* Cornish Pasty Company: Just what the name says – large, hearty Cornish pasties with dozens of traditional and non-traditional filling options. I’ve eaten one for lunch and then skipped dinner. Convenient to the A’s ballpark. Second location in Mesa isn’t too far from the Cubs’ park and is bigger with more parking, and there’s one within a mile of the Giants’ place in Scottsdale.

* Four Peaks Brewery: One of the best local microbreweries with surprisingly solid food as well. You’ll see their beers all over the place, but the restaurant is absolutely worth hitting. Parking is very difficult on Friday through Sunday nights, though. Also very convenient to the A’s ballpark.

* Cartel Coffee Lab: Among the best coffee roasters in the Valley, and now in an expanded place that doesn’t feel so much like a fly-by-night operation. They’re also in the C wing of Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor, in downtown Phoenix, and right in Old Town Scottsdale near Citizen Public House.

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

Mesa (Cubs):

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

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

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

* Chou’s Kitchen: Just over the line in Chandler, at the intersection of Alma School (north-south) and Ray (east-west), this hole-in-the-wall place does dongbei cai, the cuisine of northeastern China – what we used to call Manchuria – which is heavy on dumplings, mostly fried and generally delicious, with large portions designed for sharing and vinegar on the table for dipping. I also love their lao hu cai or “tiger salad,” a vinegary mix of shredded vegetables, scallions, cilantro, jalapenos, and peanuts.

* Pros Ranch Market: A Mexican/Latin American grocery store south of the ballpark (at Stapley and Southern) with a large quick-service department offering some of the best burritos (including, hands-down, the best carnitas) I’ve had in Arizona. The enchiladas are solid, my daughter loves their quesadillas, they make great aguas frescas in eight to twelve flavors, and there’s an extensive selection of Mexican pastries. You can stuff yourself here for under $10. There’s another location near the A’s ballpark in Phoenix as well.

* Thai Spices: In a strip mall of Asian restaurants, Thai Spices is among the best Thai places I’ve found around here, just doing a great job with the basics of Thai (or perhaps Americanized Thai) cuisine. I really loved their soups, both tom yum (clear, sour/spicy soup with lemongrass) and tom ka (sweeter, with coconut milk, and also lemongrass), as well as the green curry.

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

Maryvale (Milwaukee):

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

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

Goodyear (Cincinnati/Cleveland):

* Ground Control. In the Avondale/Litchfield Park area, but kind of between Goodyear and Glendale, this coffee-shop has upgraded its menu so it’s now a craft-beer paradise and upscale sandwich shop and coffee bar and even gelateria. I’ve been twice; the service can be a little spacey but the food is very good and I even liked the coffee. They do breakfast as well. This place should be so much more popular than it is, given the paucity of quality non-chain options in the area.

* Raul and Theresa’s: Very good, authentic, reasonably priced Mexican food, really fresh, always made to order. The guacamole is outstanding. It’s south of the stadium and doesn’t look like much on the outside, but I would call it a can’t-miss spot if you’re going to a Cincinnati or Cleveland game, since there isn’t much else out here that isn’t a bad chain.

Glendale (Dodgers/White Sox):

* If you’re headed here or even to Goodyear, swing by Tortas Paquime in Avondale. They do traditional Mexican sandwiches, with the torta ahogada – literally a “drowned” sandwich – covered in a slightly spicy red sauce, although that was a little over-the-top heavy for me. Solid aguas frescas here as well.

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

* You might also try Siam Thai, which is in Glendale on Northern but is at least 15 minutes away from the park, heading east. It is, however, superlative Thai food, perhaps the highest-rated Thai place in the Valley.

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

Peoria:

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

Surprise:

* I’ve got one good rec out this way, the new-ish Vietnamese place Saigon Kitchen up on Bell Road just north of the ballpark. There’s good Vietnamese food to be had out here if you work to find it, and this is the best, especially in presentation – the menu is familiar, the food is a little brighter and fresher, and the place is far more welcoming. I’ve yet to try Amuse Bouche, probably the best-reviewed restaurant in Surprise, which does a more casual sandwich/panini menu at lunch before shifting to fine dining for dinner.

Away from the parks: Downtown Phoenix and Camelback East

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

* Pizzeria Bianco: Most convenient to Chase Field. Best pizza I have ever had in the United States. No reservations, closed Sunday-Monday, waits for dinner can run to four hours, but they’re now open for lunch and if you get there before twelve the wait usually isn’t too bad. Parking is validated at the Science Museum garage. There’s now a second, larger location just off route 51 in the Town and Country shopping center, serving a few pasta items as well as the signature pizzas. By the end of March, a trattoria serving house-made pastas with locally grown wheat will open in the space next to that Town and Country pizzeria.

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

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

* Barrio Cafe: About 15 minutes west of Phoenix Muni via the 202/51. Best high-end Mexican food I’ve had out here, edging out Los Sombreros in Scottsdale. Table-side guacamole is very gimmicky (and, per Rick Bayless, suboptimal for flavor development), but the ingredients, including pomegranate arils, are very fresh. Great cochinita pibil too. There’s now a location at Sky Harbor’s Terminal 4, past security near the D gates. Chef Silvana has also opened a cocktail bar with lots of small plates, serving three meals a day, at The Yard in Phoenix.

* The Grind: The best burger I’ve had out here, far superior to the nearby Delux, which is overrated for reasons I don’t quite fathom. (Maybe people just love getting their fries in miniature shopping carts.) The Grind cooks its burgers in a 1000-degree coal oven, so you get an impressive crust on the exterior of the burger even if it’s just rare inside. Their macaroni and cheese got very high marks from my daughter, a fairly tough critic. They have photos of local dignitaries on the wall, including Jan Brewer and Mark Grace, which might cause you to lose your appetite.

* Chelsea’s Kitchen: I’ve only been to the airport location, in the center of Terminal 4 before security, where the food was excellent but the service a little confused. The short rib taco plate would feed two adults – that has to be at least ¾ of a pound of meat. Their kale-quinoa salad sounds disgustingly healthy, but is delicious despite that. Both this and The Grind (and North Fattoria, an Italian restaurant from the Culinary Dropout people) are near Camelback and 40th, about 6 miles/13 minutes west of Scottsdale Stadium.

* crudo: There isn’t much high-end cuisine in Phoenix – I think that’s our one real deficiency – but Chef Cullen Campbell does a great job of filling that void here with a simple menu that has four parts: crudo dishes, raw fish Italian-style, emphasis on tuna; fresh mozzarella dishes, including the ever-popular burrata; small pasta dishes, like last fall’s wonderful squash dumplings with pork belly ragout; and larger entrees, with four to five items in each sections. The desserts, like so many in the Valley, are from Tracy Dempsey, the premier pastry chef in the area. Like the previous two spots, it’s about 12-13 minutes west of the Giants’ ballpark. This is now my go-to rec when someone wants a splurge meal in Phoenix or wants more adventurous cuisine.

* Zinburger: Not the top burger around here but a damn good one, especially the namesake option (red zinfandel-braised onions, Manchego, mayo), along with strong hand-cut fries and above-average milkshakes. Located in a shopping center across the street from the Ritz. Try the salted caramel shake if you go. There are also two locations in Tucson, and two in New Jersey that are licensed but independently owned and operated.

* cibo: Maybe the second-best pizzas in town, with more options than Bianco offers, along with a broad menu of phenomenal salads and antipasti, including cured meats, roasted vegetables, and (when available) a superb burrata.

* Pane Bianco: Sandwiches from the Bianco mini-empire, just a few options, served on focaccia made with the same dough used to make the pizzas at Pizzeria Bianco. My one experience here was disappointing, mostly due to the bread being a little dry, but the cult following here is tremendous and I may have just caught them on a bad day.

* Otro Cafe: The chef behind Gallo Blanco (which is now closed) has a new place, with a very simple menu – a few taco items, a few tortas with the same meats you’ll find on the taco menu, a few Mexican street-food starters, and a full bar. There’s a bit more focus on local fare here, and the guacamole is my favorite in the Valley.

* Matt’s Big Breakfast and Giant Coffee. Owned by the same guy, located a few blocks apart, but not otherwise connected as Matt’s doesn’t use Giant’s coffee. Matt’s is the best pure-breakfast place in the Valley, and one major reason is that they use the black-pepper bacon from Queen Creek’s The Pork Shop. Everything here is good, but the veteran move is breakfast at Matt’s original location with coffee or espresso afterwards at Giant. (Matt’s uses ROC, from Cave Creek, a popular roaster with Valley restaurants but nowhere near Giant’s quality.) Giant uses direct-trade beans for its espresso from Four Barrel and usually has three or four single-origin options for pour-overs. Matt’s recently opened a second location that should take some pressure off the lines at the first spot.

* Federal Pizza. Federal’s was the best Brussels sprout pizza I’d ever tried until I found Motorino in NYC, and even then it was close. I’ve tried a few of their pizzas and their roasted vegetable board, loving everything, and their crust is a great compromise for folks who want more chew and less of the cracker-thin crust of a place like Bianco.

* The Gladly. The second location from the folks behind Citizen Public House, the Gladly’s location and menu are built more around the alcohol – I think the atmosphere they’re going for is cocktail party, or upscale happy-hour, with smart food to go with the booze. I had a mixed experience in my one meal there, loving the chicken-liver pate starter but finding less success with the duck ramen (which I’m told is a dish they frequently tweak). Given their track record at CPH, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

* Blue Hound. Another great cocktail bar that happens to offer good food, mostly sandwiches and other items you’d expect at a quality bar, although I’ve only been here for drinks and bar snacks (like the tater tots, which I highly recommend).

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

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

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

Feel free to offer your own suggestions for places I haven’t listed or tried in the comments below. I believe everything I’ve listed here is still open, but if you know that one of these restaurants has shut its doors, again, please let me know.

Arizona eats, October 2015 edition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arizona spring training dining guide, 2015 edition.

I have lots of dish posts on food in the Valley, searchable via the search box above or by location tags like Phoenix, Scottsdale, or Mesa. This is now my fourth edition of the dining guide, and my second since moving back to the east coast last summer; I’ve done my best to keep up with restaurant news from out there, but I’m aware I’m likely falling behind. Nothing’s new in the structure and I’ve left the list of places in downtown Phoenix that aren’t close to any ballpark at the end. A lot of the text is unchanged from last year, so don’t be shocked if it seems familiar.

Scottsdale/Old Town (San Francisco):

* Virtu Honest Craft: Award-winning, including a James Beard nomination for best new restaurant in the country, with reason, as this might be the best restaurant in all of Arizona. Virtu is only a 12-minute walk from Scottsdale Stadium and offers inventive, attractive, and most importantly delicious food that plays with textures and flavors in unexpected ways. I went there in October and wrote up the meal in depth.

* Citizen Public House: This was my birthday dinner spot each of the last two years we were out there, if that gives you some sense of how much I liked it. I love the pork belly pastrami starter with rye spaetzle, shredded brussels sprouts, and mustard vinaigrette. I love the short ribs with a dark cherry glaze. I loved the seared scallops on grits. I loved the bacon-fat popcorn and the chicken-and-waffles starter. The only thing I didn’t love was, surprisingly, the duck breast, which was so rare that I couldn’t cut it. Great beer selection as well as well as the best negroni I’ve ever had.

* FnB/Cafe Baratin: One restaurant with two concepts, a minimalist lunch, where the menu comprises just six items (one salad, one sandwich, one starter, one veg, one potted/pickled item, and one dessert), with more open-ended haute cuisine at dinner. They appear to have retired the Baratin name and merged the two concepts into one space and under one name, FnB. I’ve had lunch and dinner here and never been disappointed at all.

* Pig and Pickle: Just outside of Old Town, and only open since November, they do things with pig and with pickles, like the braised pork belly, yam puree, and brussels sprouts slaw starter that was pretty special, as well as a great selection of cocktails.

* Barrio Queen: A spinoff of Barrio Cafe (reviewed below), Barrio Queen is all about the mini tacos, which you order on a piece of paper like you’d get at a sushi place. They range from about $2.50 to $6 apiece and everything I tried was excellent, especially the same cochinita pibil that is a signature dish at the original Cafe.

* Culinary Dropout: A gastropub of sorts, located right near Old Town across from the Fashion Square mall. Definitely a good place to go with pickier eaters, since the menu is broad and most of it is easily recognizable. The chicken truffle hash and the turkey pastrami are both very good.

* Arcadia Farms: Farm-to-table breakfast dishes and sandwiches. Not cheap, but you are paying for quality and for a philosophy of food. I have been there twice and service, while friendly, was leisurely both times.

* Grimaldi’s: Local chain, related to the Brooklyn establishment of the same name. Very good (grade 55) thin-crust, coal-fired pizzas, including nut-free pesto, and similarly solid salads in generous portions. Not terribly cost-effective for one person for dinner, although they’ve finally introduced a more affordable lunch menu.

* Distrito: Inside the Saguaro hotel is this cool, upscale Mexican place, an offshoot of the restaurant of the same name in Philadelphia, serving mostly small plates at a slightly high price point but with very high-quality ingredients, including the best huitlacoche dish I’ve had, and an excellent questo fundido with duck barbacoa. I also liked their Sunday brunch … except for the coffee, which was like molten lead. I haven’t been here since the makeover, however.

* Los Sombreros: A bit of a drive south of Old Town into the only part of Scottsdale that you might call “sketchy,” Los Sombreros does high-end authentic Mexican at Scottsdale-ish prices but with large portions and very high quality.

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

* I should mention Franco’s Italian Caffe, right on Scottsdale Road, as it’s very highly regarded by locals, but I was very disappointed. Authentic Italian cuisine is light, focused on simple recipes with big flavors but rarely heavy, while Franco’s menu skews toward what I think of as New York-Italian cuisine, with heavier dishes including lots of heavy cream and salt. It’s not my thing, but I won’t judge you if it’s yours. I also tried The Upton, a new small-plates-and-cocktails kind of place just off Scottsdale road south of Camelback, but their execution was very uneven (e.g., the fried oysters’ batter was inedibly salty) and the service was just kind of weird.

Scottsdale central/north (Arizona/Colorado):

* Soi4: upscale Thai and Thai-fusion, very close to the park. Owned by the same family that runs Soi4 in Oakland. Full review of my first visit. I’ve gotten pad see ew as a takeout item from here a few times and it was always excellent, full of that crunchy bitter brassica (similar to rapini), and smoking hot.

* Il Bosco: Wood-fired pizzas, cooked around 750 degrees, at a nice midpoint between the ultra-thin almost cracker-like Italian style and the slightly doughier New York style I grew up eating. Their salads are also outstanding and they source a lot of ingredients locally, including olives and EVOO from the Queen Creek Olive Mill. I’ve met the owner and talked to him several times, and he was kind enough to give my daughter a little tour behind the counter and let her pour her own water from their filtration machine, which she loved.

* ‘Pomo Pizzeria: This location is in the same shopping center as Soi4, with others in downtown Phoenix and out in Gilbert. Authentic, Neapolitan-style pizza, not as good as Bianco, but in the running for the second-best pizza in Arizona along with cibo. Toppings include a lot of salty cured meats designed (I assume) to keep you drinking … not that there’s anything wrong with that. Full review.

* True Food Kitchen: I’ve been to a TFK in Newport Beach and enjoyed the menu’s emphasis on fresh produce, not always healthful per se but more like healthful twists on familiar dishes. There are two in the Valley now, one downtown, and one located at the heart of a shopping center on the east side of Scottsdale Road, just north of Greenway and across from the Kierland mall. The same complex includes Tanzy, a Mediterranean (mostly regional Italian) restaurant and cocktail bar that gets strong reviews for its lengthy menu of salads, sandwiches, and pricier dinner entrees, although I just don’t think it’s good value for the cost.

* Press: In that same shopping center is a small coffee shop where they roast their own beans and will make you a cup of coffee using your method of choice (vacuum, French press, pour-over), as well as the usual run of espresso-based options. There’s apparently also a location at Sky Harbor in Terminal 4 by the B gates (USAirways), although I haven’t visited that one.

* Butterfields: The lines are crazy on the weekends, but if you like a basic diner and want good pancakes or waffles this is one of the better options in the Valley.

* Sweet Republic: I actually find this place to be a little overrated, but if you prefer traditional New York ice cream to gelato or custard, then it’s a good bet, and not far north of the park, just east of the 101 on Shea.

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

* Perk Eatery: West of Scottsdale road and the Kierland mall, on Greenway, probably stretching the definition of what’s near Salt River Fields, but Phoenix doesn’t have a ton of good breakfast spots and this is one of the few. It’s a diner by another name, open for breakfast and lunch, with a slow-roasted pork option along with the regular array of breakfast meats, and rosemary potatoes that are a must with any egg dish.

Tempe (Angels):

* Hillside Spot, Ahwatukee (Phoenix). My favorite place to eat in the Valley, right off I-10 at the corner of Warner and 48th. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I recommend the pulled pork sandwich, the chilaquiles, the grilled corn appetizer, the house-cut French fries, the pancakes (best in Arizona), and the coffee from Cartel Coffee Lab. The Spot sources as much as they possibly can from local growers or providers, even providing four local beers on tap, and you can get out for under $15 including tax and tip. I’ve written about it more than once; here’s one of my posts, which talks about that pork sandwich. They’ve also added an evening menu called “Cocina 10,” including (on some nights) a really great take on fried fish tacos. For breakfast and lunch they’re outstanding, but I have found dinner service to be a little less consistent – but still usually great.

* Crepe Bar: Amazing savory and sweet crepes, and expertly pulled espresso shots using beans from heart coffee roasters, one of the best micro-roasters I’ve come across. They use a lot of local ingredients, including produce from Agritopia Farms (which also hosts Joe’s Farm Grill in Gilbert, seen on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Douche), and bake their own brioche if you’re not in the mood for a regular or buckwheat crepe.

* Cornish Pasty Company: Just what the name says – large, hearty Cornish pasties with dozens of traditional and non-traditional filling options. I’ve eaten one for lunch and then skipped dinner. Second location in Mesa isn’t too far from the Cubs’ and A’s parks and is bigger with more parking.

* Four Peaks Brewery: One of our best local microbreweries with surprisingly solid food as well. You’ll see their beers all over the place, but the restaurant is absolutely worth hitting. Parking is very difficult on Friday through Sunday nights, though.

* Cartel Coffee Lab: Among the best coffee roasters in the Valley, and now in an expanded place that doesn’t feel so much like a fly-by-night operation. They’re also in the C wing of Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor.

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

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

Mesa (Cubs):

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

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

* Urban Picnic: In downtown Mesa, south and slightly west of the ballpark, and my favorite spot near the Cubs’ facility. They do a small selection of sandwiches on some of the best crunchy French bread you’ll find out this way, with the Caprese sandwich (fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil) and the roast beef with horseradish my two favorites. I will say that while the lavender lemonade might sound intriguing, it tastes like perfume.

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

* Chou’s Kitchen: Just over the line in Chandler, at the intersection of Alma School (north-south) and Ray (east-west), this hole-in-the-wall place does dongbei cai, the cuisine of northeastern China – what we used to call Manchuria – which is heavy on dumplings, mostly fried and generally delicious, with large portions designed for sharing and vinegar on the table for dipping. I also love their lao hu cai or “tiger salad,” a vinegary mix of shredded vegetables, scallions, cilantro, jalapenos, and peanuts.

* Pros Ranch Market: A Mexican/Latin American grocery store south of the ballpark (at Stapley and Southern) with a large quick-service department offering some of the best burritos (including, hands-down, the best carnitas) I’ve had in Arizona. The enchiladas are solid, my daughter loves their quesadillas, they make great aguas frescas in eight to twelve flavors, and there’s an extensive selection of Mexican pastries. You can stuff yourself here for under $10.

* Thai Spices: In a strip mall of Asian restaurants, Thai Spices is among the best Thai places I’ve found around here, just doing a great job with the basics of Thai (or perhaps Americanized Thai) cuisine. I really loved their soups, both tom yum (clear, sour/spicy soup with lemongrass) and tom ka (sweeter, with coconut milk, and also lemongrass), as well as the green curry.

* Rancho de Tia Rosa: A bit east of the ballpark, Tia Rosa has a large, upscale yet family-friendly Mexican restaurant with a smaller take-out taqueria located on-site as well. I wouldn’t call it high-end, but it’s expensive relative to the typical crappy chain faux-Mex restaurants that seem to be everywhere out here (Macayo’s, Arriba, Garcia’s … avoid all of those).

* On my to-do list: Beaver Choice, a Swedish-Polish comfort food joint that, despite the comical name (“The turkey? Thanks, I just had it stuffed”) gets great reviews and even offers a gluten-free menu. Schnitzels, pierogis, gravlax … you’re speaking my language.

Maryvale (Milwaukee):

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

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

Goodyear (Cincinnati/Cleveland):

* Ground Control. In the Avondale/Litchfield Park area, but kind of between Goodyear and Glendale, this coffee-shop has upgraded its menu so it’s now a craft-beer paradise and upscale sandwich shop and coffee bar and even gelateria. I’ve been twice; the service can be a little spacey but the food is very good and I even liked the coffee. They do breakfast as well. This place should be so much more popular than it is, given the paucity of quality non-chain options in the area.

* Raul and Theresa’s: Very good, authentic, reasonably priced Mexican food, really fresh, always made to order. The guacamole is outstanding. It’s south of the stadium and doesn’t look like much on the outside, but I would call it a can’t-miss spot if you’re going to a Cincinnati or Cleveland game, since there isn’t much else out here that isn’t a bad chain.

Glendale (Dodgers/White Sox):

* If you’re headed here or even to Goodyear, swing by Tortas Paquime in Avondale. They do traditional Mexican sandwiches, with the torta ahogada – literally a “drowned” sandwich – covered in a slightly spicy red sauce, although that was a little over-the-top heavy for me. Solid aguas frescas here as well.

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

* You might also try Siam Thai, which is in Glendale on Northern but is at least 15 minutes away from the park, heading east. It is, however, superlative Thai food, perhaps the highest-rated Thai place in the Valley.

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

Peoria:

* It’s a wasteland of chains out here; the best options I know are both very good local chains, Grimaldi’s and Blu Burger. The latter is a family favorite of ours, since there’s something for the picky eaters of the family (hint: not me), and there’s a Blu Burger very close to our house; they offer several kinds of burgers with an impressive list of build-your-own options. My daughter loves their grilled cheese and zucchini fries.

Surprise:

* I’ve got one good rec out this way, the new-ish Vietnamese place Saigon Kitchen up on Bell Road just north of the ballpark. There’s good Vietnamese food to be had out here if you work to find it, and this is the best, especially in presentation – the menu is familiar, the food is a little brighter and fresher, and the place is far more welcoming. I’ve yet to try Amuse Bouche, probably the best-reviewed restaurant in Surprise, which does a more casual sandwich/panini menu at lunch before shifting to fine dining for dinner.

Away from the parks: Downtown Phoenix and Camelback East

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

* Pizzeria Bianco: Most convenient to Chase Field. Best pizza I have ever had in the United States. No reservations, closed Sunday-Monday, waits for dinner can run to four hours, but they’re now open for lunch and if you get there before twelve the wait usually isn’t too bad. Parking is validated at the Science Museum garage. There’s now a second, larger location just off route 51 in the Town and Country shopping center, serving a few pasta items as well as the signature pizzas.

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

* Barrio Cafe: About 15 minutes west of Phoenix Muni via the 202/51. Best high-end Mexican food I’ve had out here, edging out Los Sombreros in Scottsdale. Table-side guacamole is very gimmicky (and, per Rick Bayless, suboptimal for flavor development), but the ingredients, including pomegranate arils, are very fresh. Great cochinita pibil too. There’s now a location at Sky Harbor’s Terminal 4, past security near the D gates.

* The Grind: The best burger I’ve had out here, far superior to the nearby Delux, which is overrated for reasons I don’t quite fathom. (Maybe people just love getting their fries in miniature shopping carts.) The Grind cooks its burgers in a 1000-degree coal oven, so you get an impressive crust on the exterior of the burger even if it’s just rare inside. Their macaroni and cheese got very high marks from my daughter, a fairly tough critic. They have photos of local dignitaries on the wall, including Jan Brewer and Mark Grace, which might cause you to lose your appetite.

* Chelsea’s Kitchen: I’ve only been to the airport location, in the center of Terminal 4 before security, where the food was excellent but the service a little confused. The short rib taco plate would feed two adults – that has to be at least ¾ of a pound of meat. Their kale-quinoa salad sounds disgustingly healthy, but is delicious despite that. Both this and The Grind (and North Fattoria, an Italian restaurant from the Culinary Dropout people) are near Camelback and 40th, about 6 miles/13 minutes west of Scottsdale Stadium.

* crudo: There isn’t much high-end cuisine in Phoenix – I think that’s our one real deficiency – but Chef Cullen Campbell does a great job of filling that void here with a simple menu that has four parts: crudo dishes, raw fish Italian-style, emphasis on tuna; fresh mozzarella dishes, including the ever-popular burrata; small pasta dishes, like last fall’s wonderful squash dumplings with pork belly ragout; and larger entrees, with four to five items in each sections. The desserts, like so many in the Valley, are from Tracy Dempsey, the premier pastry chef in the area. Like the previous two spots, it’s about 12-13 minutes west of the Giants’ ballpark. This is now my go-to rec when someone wants a splurge meal in Phoenix or wants more adventurous cuisine.

* Zinburger: Not the top burger around here but a damn good one, especially the namesake option (red zinfandel-braised onions, Manchego, mayo), along with strong hand-cut fries and above-average milkshakes. Located in a shopping center across the street from the Ritz. Try the salted caramel shake if you go. There are also two locations in Tucson, and two in New Jersey that are licensed but independently owned and operated.

* cibo: Maybe the second-best pizzas in town, with more options than Bianco offers, along with a broad menu of phenomenal salads and antipasti, including cured meats, roasted vegetables, and (when available) a superb burrata.

* Pane Bianco: Sandwiches from the Bianco mini-empire, just a few options, served on focaccia made with the same dough used to make the pizzas at Pizzeria Bianco. My one experience here was disappointing, mostly due to the bread being a little dry, but the cult following here is tremendous and I may have just caught them on a bad day.

* Otro Cafe: The chef behind Gallo Blanco (which is now closed) has a new place, with a very simple menu – a few taco items, a few tortas with the same meats you’ll find on the taco menu, a few Mexican street-food starters, and a full bar. There’s a bit more focus on local fare here, and the guacamole is my favorite in the Valley.

* Matt’s Big Breakfast and Giant Coffee. Owned by the same guy, located a few blocks apart, but not otherwise connected as Matt’s doesn’t use Giant’s coffee. Matt’s is the best pure-breakfast place in the Valley, and one major reason is that they use the black-pepper bacon from Queen Creek’s The Pork Shop. Everything here is good, but my veteran move was breakfast at Matt’s with espresso afterwards at Giant. (Matt’s uses ROC, from Cave Creek, a popular roaster with Valley restaurants but nowhere near Giant’s quality.) Giant uses direct-trade beans for its espresso and usually has three or four single-origin options for pour-overs.

* Federal Pizza. Federal’s was the best Brussels sprout pizza I’d ever tried until I found Motorino in NYC, and even then it was close. I’ve tried a few of their pizzas and their roasted vegetable board, loving everything, and their crust is a great compromise for folks who want more chew and less of the cracker-thin crust of a place like Bianco.

* The Gladly. The second location from the folks behind Citizen Public House, the Gladly’s location and menu are built more around the alcohol – I think the atmosphere they’re going for is cocktail party, or upscale happy-hour, with smart food to go with the booze. I had a mixed experience in my one meal there, loving the chicken-liver pate starter but finding less success with the duck ramen (which I’m told is a dish they frequently tweak). Given their track record at CPH, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

* Blue Hound. Another great cocktail bar that happens to offer good food, mostly sandwiches and other items you’d expect at a quality bar, although I’ve only been here for drinks and bar snacks (like the tater tots, which I highly recommend).

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

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

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

Feel free to offer your own suggestions for places I haven’t listed or tried in the comments below. I believe everything I’ve listed here is still open, but if you know that one of these restaurants has shut its doors, again, please let me know.

Arizona eats, October 2014.

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

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

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

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Glazed pork belly starter from the Revival in Tempe AZ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

Arizona spring training dining guide, 2014 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 third edition of the dining guide, and my first since moving back to the east coast last summer; I’ve done my best to keep up with restaurant news from out there, but the list of places I’d like to try is growing faster than I can check them off it. Nothing’s new in the structure and I’ve left the list of places in downtown Phoenix that aren’t close to any ballpark at the end. A lot of the text is unchanged from last year, so don’t be shocked if it seems familiar.

Scottsdale/Old Town (San Francisco):

* Virtu Honest Craft: Award-winning, including a James Beard nomination for best new restaurant in the country, with reason, as this might be the best restaurant in all of Arizona. Virtu is only a 12-minute walk from Scottsdale Stadium and offers inventive, attractive, and most importantly delicious food that plays with textures and flavors in unexpected ways. I went there in October and wrote up the meal in depth.

* Citizen Public House: This was my birthday dinner spot each of the last two years we were out there, if that gives you some sense of how much I liked it. I love the pork belly pastrami starter with rye spaetzle, shredded brussels sprouts, and mustard vinaigrette. I love the short ribs with a dark cherry glaze. I loved the seared scallops on grits. I loved the bacon-fat popcorn and the chicken-and-waffles starter. The only thing I didn’t love was, surprisingly, the duck breast, which was so rare that I couldn’t cut it. Great beer selection as well as well as the best negroni I’ve ever had.

* FnB/Cafe Baratin: One restaurant with two concepts, a minimalist lunch, where the menu comprises just six items (one salad, one sandwich, one starter, one veg, one potted/pickled item, and one dessert), with more open-ended haute cuisine at dinner. They appear to have retired the Baratin name and merged the two concepts into one space and under one name, FnB. I’ve only tried the lunch here, but I’ve been four times and have been blown away each time, including one vegetarian, Middle Eastern-inspired sandwich that was the best eggplant dish I have ever eaten. Also, I don’t really like eggplant. It’s absolutely amazing and I am ashamed that I don’t think to recommend it more often.

* 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. I loved the braised duck leg, although the mung bean cake served underneath it was overcooked around the edges.

* Barrio Queen: A spinoff of Barrio Cafe (reviewed below), Barrio Queen is all about the mini tacos, which you order on a piece of paper like you’d get at a sushi place. They range from about $2.50 to $6 apiece and everything I tried was excellent, especially the same cochinita pibil that is a signature dish at the original Cafe.

* Culinary Dropout: A gastropub of sorts, located right near Old Town across from the Fashion Square mall. Definitely a good place to go with pickier eaters, since the menu is broad and most of it is easily recognizable. The chicken truffle hash and the turkey pastrami are both very good.

* Arcadia Farms: Farm-to-table breakfast dishes and sandwiches. Not cheap, but you are paying for quality and for a philosophy of food. I have been there twice and service, while friendly, was leisurely both times.

* Grimaldi’s: Local chain, related to the Brooklyn establishment of the same name. Very good (grade 55) thin-crust, coal-fired pizzas, including nut-free pesto, and similarly solid salads in generous portions. Not terribly cost-effective for one person for dinner, although they’ve finally introduced a more affordable lunch menu.

* Distrito: Inside the Saguaro hotel is this cool, upscale Mexican place, an offshoot of the restaurant of the same name in Philadelphia, serving mostly small plates at a slightly high price point but with very high-quality ingredients, including the best huitlacoche dish I’ve had, and an excellent questo fundido with duck barbacoa. I also liked their Sunday brunch … except for the coffee, which was like molten lead. I haven’t been here since the makeover, however.

* Los Sombreros: A bit of a drive south of Old Town into the only part of Scottsdale that you might call “sketchy,” Los Sombreros does high-end authentic Mexican at Scottsdale-ish prices but with large portions and very high quality.

* 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.

* A recommendation from Brandon McCarthy – Atlas Bistro, a farm-to-table restaurant on Scottsdale Road south of Thomas (so south of the Giants’ stadium). Their menu changes frequently, but there’s a heavy focus on local produce, and they also seem to take their cheese courses very seriously.

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.

* True Food Kitchen: I’ve been to a TFK in Newport Beach and enjoyed the menu’s emphasis on fresh produce, not always healthful per se but more like healthful twists on familiar dishes. There are two in the Valley now, one downtown, and one located at the heart of a shopping center on the east side of Scottsdale Road, just north of Greenway and across from the Kierland mall. The same complex includes Tanzy, a Mediterranean (mostly regional Italian) restaurant and cocktail bar that gets strong reviews for its lengthy menu of salads, sandwiches, and pricier dinner entrees.

* 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.

* 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.

* Taco Haus: I haven’t tried this spot yet, the newest outpost from the folks behind Old Town’s Brat Haus, but it’s getting better reviews than the original, which had great beer but so-so food.

* Amy’s Baking Company: I’m just kidding.

Tempe (Angels):

* Hillside Spot, Ahwatukee (Phoenix). My favorite place to eat in the Valley, right off I-10 at the corner of Warner and 48th. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I recommend the pulled pork sandwich, the chilaquiles, the grilled corn appetizer, the house-cut French fries, the pancakes (best in Arizona), and the coffee from Cartel Coffee Lab. The Spot sources as much as they possibly can from local growers or providers, even providing four local beers on tap, and you can get out for under $15 including tax and tip. I’ve written about it more than once; here’s one of my posts, which talks about that pork sandwich. They’ve also added an evening menu called “Cocina 10,” including (on some nights) a really great take on fried fish tacos. For breakfast and lunch they’re outstanding, but I have found dinner service to be a little less consistent – but still usually great.

* Crepe Bar: Amazing savory and sweet crepes, and expertly pulled espresso shots using beans from heart coffee roasters, one of the best micro-roasters I’ve come across. They use a lot of local ingredients, including produce from Agritopia Farms (which also hosts Joe’s Farm Grill in Gilbert, seen on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Douche), and bake their own brioche if you’re not in the mood for a regular or buckwheat crepe.

* Cornish Pasty Company: Just what the name says – large, hearty Cornish pasties with dozens of traditional and non-traditional filling options. I’ve eaten one for lunch and then skipped dinner. Second location in Mesa isn’t too far from the Cubs’ park and is bigger with more parking. Convenient to the A’s ballpark. UPDATE: Readers report that there’s now a third location close to the Giants’ stadium.

* Four Peaks Brewery: One of our best local microbreweries with surprisingly solid food as well. You’ll see their beers all over the place, but the restaurant is absolutely worth hitting. Parking is very difficult on Friday through Sunday nights, though. 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.

Mesa (Cubs):

* Urban Picnic: In downtown Mesa, south and slightly west of the ballpark, and my favorite spot near the Cubs’ facility. They do a small selection of sandwiches on some of the best crunchy French bread you’ll find out this way, with the Caprese sandwich (fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil) and the roast beef with horseradish my two favorites. I will say that while the lavender lemonade might sound intriguing, it tastes like perfume.

* 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.

m* Rancho de Tia Rosa: A bit east of the ballpark, Tia Rosa has a large, upscale yet family-friendly Mexican restaurant with a smaller take-out taqueria located on-site as well. I wouldn’t call it high-end, but it’s expensive relative to the typical crappy chain faux-Mex restaurants that seem to be everywhere out here (Macayo’s, Arriba, Garcia’s … avoid all of those).

* On my to-do list: Beaver Choice, a Swedish-Polish comfort food joint that, despite the comical name (“The turkey? Thanks, I just had it stuffed”) gets great reviews and even offers a gluten-free menu. Schnitzels, pierogis, gravlax … you’re speaking my language.

* Also on my to-do list: Republica Empanada. Huge variety of empanadas, and unless you’re gluten-free, you have no reason to dislike empanadas. They also offer maduros, arroz con pollo, dessert empanadas, and a decent beer selection.

* Last one: Miu’s Cuisine, not far from the Cubs’ park, just east of 101. I tried it once and it absolutely blew out my palate with capsaicin. I like moderately spicy food, but this stuff, while quite authentic to Szechuan cuisine, was inedible to me. If you like fire, this is your place. But I warned you.

Phoenix (Oakland):

Everything in Tempe is pretty close to here as well, and you’re not that far from Old Town Scottsdale either.

* Pros Ranch Market: Mentioned above in the Mesa section – from the Oakland park, just hop on the 202 west, get off at 24th, head south (left), right on Roosevelt. Also very close to the west exit from the airport – my old Fall League tradition was to get off the plane and head right here for lunch before going to my first game.

* Honey Bear’s BBQ: Just under the highway when you head west from the ballpark, they offer solid smoked meats but below-average baked beans. There’s not a lot of good Q out here – the best I know of is Bryan’s in Cave Creek, which is a hike from the closest stadium – so Honey Bear’s gets a little overrated.

* 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.

* 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.

I’ve got more downtown suggestions below, after all of the other ballparks, most of which are better for after a game at Phoenix Muni than before.

Maryvale (Milwaukee):

* Hank the Stray Dog was actually trying to escape from Maryvale. You should too.

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.

* 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.

* Two places I haven’t tried in Glendale but that come recommended: La Piazza Al Forno, thin-crust, wood-fired pizzas that are reportedly good but not as good as Bianco’s or Cibo’s; and Arrowhead Grill, new American food at a moderate price point.

Peoria:

* It’s a wasteland of chains out here; the best options I know are both very good local chains, Grimaldi’s and Blu Burger. The latter is a family favorite of ours, since there’s something for the picky eaters of the family (hint: not me), and there’s a Blu Burger very close to our house; they offer several kinds of burgers with an impressive list of build-your-own options. My daughter loves their grilled cheese and zucchini fries.

* On the to-do list: Draft House, offering beer and Cornish pasties. I’m dying for new ideas out in the west Valley, so please, send more over if you have them.

Surprise:

* I’ve got one good rec out this way, the new-ish Vietnamese place Saigon Kitchen up on Bell Road just north of the ballpark. There’s good Vietnamese food to be had out here if you work to find it, and this is the best, especially in presentation – the menu is familiar, the food is a little brighter and fresher, and the place is far more welcoming. I’ve yet to try Amuse Bouche, probably the best-reviewed restaurant in Surprise, which does a more casual sandwich/panini menu at lunch before shifting to fine dining for dinner.

Away from the parks: Downtown Phoenix and Camelback East

* 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.

* ‘Pomo Pizzeria: Relocated from Scottsdale into a new, larger space. Authentic, Neapolitan-style pizza, not as good as Bianco, but as good as any other pizza I’ve tried in Arizona. 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.

* 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.

* Gallo Blanco: Tucked into the Clarendon hotel, this spot, owned by the same group behind the Hillside Spot and the various Bianco restaurants, is my favorite gourmet taco place in the area, even though it’s more upscale and a touch pricier than you’d expect a taco place to be – the target market here is the business crowd, whether at lunch or at happy hour. They make their own tortillas, they offer a solid selection of fillings, and the flavors are all big and bright. And it’s way better than the highly overrated La Condesa, where they spend too much time on their absurd salsa bar while they’re using prefab corn tacos that feel like those rubber pads you use to open the lids on glass jars.

* Otro Cafe: The chef behind Gallo Blanco has a new place, with a very simple menu – a few taco items, a few tortas with the same meats you’ll find on the taco menu, a few Mexican street-food starters, and a full bar. There’s a bit more focus on local fare here, and the guacamole is my favorite in the Valley.

* Matt’s Big Breakfast and Giant Coffee. Owned by the same guy, located a few blocks apart, but not otherwise connected as Matt’s doesn’t use Giant’s coffee. Matt’s is the best pure-breakfast place in the Valley, and one major reason is that they use the black-pepper bacon from Queen Creek’s The Pork Shop. Everything here is good, but my veteran move was breakfast at Matt’s with espresso afterwards at Giant. (Matt’s uses ROC, from Cave Creek, a popular roaster with Valley restaurants but nowhere near Giant’s quality.) Giant uses direct-trade beans for its espresso and usually has three or four single-origin options for pour-overs.

* Federal Pizza. Federal’s was the best Brussels sprout pizza I’d ever tried until I found Motorino in NYC, and even then it was close. I’ve tried a few of their pizzas and their roasted vegetable board, loving everything, and their crust is a great compromise for folks who want more chew and less of the cracker-thin crust of a place like Bianco. Federal vs. ‘Pomo is a tough call for me, although the buzz on ‘Pomo since their move is that they’ve pulled a Goldschmidt and improved beyond my expectations.

* 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).

Other places that I’ve read or heard great things about, but haven’t tried yet, all in Phoenix or Scottsdale unless otherwise noted: Welcome Diner (that’s the next place I need to try), Bink’s Cafe (high-end/experimental cuisine), O.H.S.O. Eatery and nanoBrewery, El Chullo (Peruvian food in downtown Phoenix), Mejico.

I’ll update this post with any new places I try over the next two months, and of course, feel free to offer your own suggestions 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.

Arizona eats, October 2013 edition.

My first Arizona Fall League update went up on Thursday afternoon. The next one will go up on Monday morning … that is, a few hours from now.

I had a bittersweet experience in Arizona last week, my first extended trip there since we moved out of the state in June. The pleasure in seeing Fall League games, catching up with some friends, and visiting old haunts couldn’t surpass the feeling that all of that – plus the spectacular weather – was no longer mine, that the drive south on the 101 was no longer to my house, that winter was waiting for me on the other side of the trip. (I define winter as “not summer.”) I did manage to distract myself by hitting four new restaurants while I was on the ground there, at least.

Crêpe Bar in Tempe is the new brick-and-mortar place from the chef behind Truckin’ Good Food, and you know they’re serious about food when you see they use coffee from heart roasters in Portland, Oregon. Turns out they have a real barista who pulls a damn good shot of espresso, and the drip coffee earned raves from my friend Sam. Crêpe Bar also offers cold-brewed coffee, which they prep daily and allow to steep for about 24 hours, as well as V60 and Aeropress pour-overs, so it’s worth going if only for the coffee. As for the crepes, I’ll just point out that I had a crêpe with vanilla custard, strawberries, toasted slivered almonds, and some 55% Valrhona chocolate, and you’ll just be jealous.

Located in the Bespoke Inn in Old Town Scottsdale, a mere 12-minute walk from Scottsdale Stadium, Virtu Honest Craft just made Esquire‘s list of the 18 best new restaurants in the country, and it might be the best restaurant in the state of Arizona now – something I wouldn’t say lightly, having tried and loved crudo, Citizen Public House, Pizzeria Bianco, cibo, and others. Virtu’s food was just a slight cut above its competitors, offering inventive plates that played with flavors and textures in clever ways with visually appealing presentations. Kiley McDaniel met me for dinner, but was a little late, so I ordered one of the happy hour crostini options, with piquillo pepper jam and manchego cheese, a great twist on the ordinary fig jam or quince paste crostini concept that brought a hint of spice and less straight sugar to the bite. Then the gluttony began in earnest: the chef sent out a large antipasto plate with three cheeses, truffled salami, Sicilian olives, and marcona almonds, as well as honey to pair with the blue cheese. That was free (I think all the early tables got one), but came out after we’d ordered two starters and two entrees, so things got out of hand quickly. The chef’s snack starter is almost a meal in itself: A pile of hand-cut French fries tossed with sausage, mozzarella curd, and what I think was a sweetened balsamic reduction, topped with an over easy egg. We also went with the item that the Phoenix New Times’ Chow Bella blog highlighted, the grilled asparagus with duck egg, bacon candy, peppered feta, and foie gras hollandaise. The chef’s snack was comfort food, hearty, salty, fatty, and of course a little heavy, while the asparagus plate was like brunch for dinner, bright colors leading to brighter flavors if you could manipulate everything into one bite, which wasn’t always easy.

For the mains, I went with the smoked duck, which came on a smashed plantain with small grilled chunks of foie gras and pomegranate arils. Kiley ordered the seared scallops, served on a pumpkin/onion mash with a white chocolate beurre blanc. I think we both preferred the scallop dish, which was better executed across the board, with perfectly-cooked sea scallops paired beautifully with the fall flavors of the squash and onion; my only comment here is that the dish needed a finish of acid, even something as simple as lemon juice (although I imagine a place like Virtu would instead go with a yuzu foam or a champagne vinegar gelée). The duck itself was cooked nicely but smoking duck does rob you of the glory of crispy duck skin, and the plantain mash had been cooked a second time on a griddle to provide that crispness, a process that made it too crunchy and even charred the edges a little bit. The proteins seem to be standard here but the sides change at least every few weeks depending on what’s in season; I’d recommend whatever they’re doing with scallops and would trust in the chef beyond that.

Otro Cafe is the newest spot from Doug Robson, the Mexican-born (really) chef behind the menus at Gallo Blanco and the Hillside Spot. Otro’s menu is simple – 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. Kiley joined me for this meal as well, so we split the elote callejero – roasted corn on the cob with paprika, cotija cheese, and a little mayonnaise, which the server will shave off the cob for you tableside. I also ordered the small guacamole because Kiley is a misanthropic devil-worshipper who hates avocadoes. Both were superb, just simple and fresh items with big flavors thanks to the tomatillos in the guacamole or the salty-tangy burst from the cotija in the corn. For tacos, we each ordered the same trio (tacos range from $2.50 to $3.50 apiece) – the pork “al pastor,” the carne asada, and the grilled marinated shrimp, all of which were excellent. The carne asada was my favorite, even though I’m generally not a big steak eater; Otro uses seasoned grilled ribeye, chopped and topped with lettuce, an aji (chili pepper) aioli, cilantro, and guacamole. The shrimp was second, marinated in achiote and topped with red and white cabbage, chili pepper, and more guacamole, all outstanding although the shrimp ended up in the background beneath the spice and acid of the cabbage/chili slaw. The pork al pastor was still good, served with salsa verde, a little pineapple, and more cilantro, although I missed the better bite of the steak and, well, that was the only taco without guacamole and it was going to suffer by comparison. Otro also offers a number of small side dishes, including two rotating options from local farms/CSAs, for just $4-5. Some items are $1 off at happy hour so the two of us got out of there for under $30 combined and had probably consumed too much food.

The Gladly is the new venture from the group behind Citizen Public House, focused a little more on cocktails and small plates and less on the mains that made CPH our favorite spot for an elegant dinner out. The Gladly’s chicken liver pate starter, where the liver is blended with pistachio nuts, was by far the best item I had, and while I’m not sure eating a half-cup of the stuff at one sitting was the wisest nutritional move for me, that is what I did because it was too good to pass up (especially with whole-grain mustard and pickled onions to add to the crostini). The Brussels sprouts starter might be a meal for a vegetarian, as it’s served on a plate of creamy white-corn polenta; I prefer Brussels sprouts a little more cooked than this, as they were still too bitter at the center and hard to cut, but the combination of the sprouts and the grits was excellent. The one dish I didn’t love was the duck ramen – five-spice duck “ham” served in a giant bowl of miso broth with ramen and pea greens. The broth itself was a little bland, light on salt but also lacking any clearly defined flavor, and while I love duck prosciutto, its flavor was muted after sitting in the hot miso broth for a while. I’d love to give the Gladly a second shot, preferably when I can indulge in the drink menu, but also to try some of the other small plates like the paprika-cured pork belly, or the pigstrami sandwich, which turns my favorite starter at CPH into a smoked pork butt sandwich with a Brussels sprout sauerkraut as the slaw.

As for repeat visits, I had breakfast at the Hillside Spot three times and everything was just as I left it, from the chilaquiles to the pancakes to the chocolate chip cookies, so good job there. I also went back to Matt’s Big Breakfast which remained top-notch and swung by Giant Coffee (owned by Matt) and had a great espresso there. Saigon Kitchen in Surprise was a little disappointing, but only in that the bun with chicken I ordered came with these giant pieces of lettuce that got in the way of the noodles and other vegetables that were sort of buried at the bottom. I did have the hilarious experience of watching the seventy-odd woman next to me send back a bowl of pho (soup) that was hot enough for me to see the steam from a meter away because she claimed it wasn’t hot enough.

Some places I wanted to try but didn’t have time to visit: the Welcome Diner, La Piazza Locale, and Bink’s Cafe, all in Phoenix proper, and Altitude Coffee Lab in Scottsdale. There’s always spring training, I guess…

More Phoenix eats + recent reads.

I’ll be on Baseball Tonight on ESPN this evening (Tuesday) at 9:30 ET/6:30 Arizona time. I’ve also got a new Insider column up about a conversation I had with Brandon Belt about his swing. Today’s Behind the Dish podcast features Baseball-Reference founder Sean Forman talking WAR, defense, R-level, and more.

First up, some local food notes.

Tanzy calls itself a “Mediterranean” restaurant, but it’s just upscale Italian-influenced food, done very well at slightly elevated prices because of its location in the Kierland area of Scottsdale. It’s in the same shopping complex on the east side of Scottsdale Road that houses Press Coffee, True Food Kitchen, and yet another location of Grimaldi’s Pizza, across from the Kierland Commons mall itself.

I took the girls there for dinner on Thursday, knowing it would be our last chance for a family meal for a week because of games and travel, and we went a little overboard, getting a good bit more food than required. We started with one of their antipasto platters, this one including fresh mozzarella that is pulled for you tableside and seasoned with your choice of four different salts. The mozzarella itself was fine, probably best because it was warm, but it was probably the least interesting thing on the platter, which also included basil pesto (nut-free!), olive tapenade, dried figs, tomatoes marinated in garlic and olive oil, strawberries, and crusty pieces of country bread. This became my daughter’s dinner, since she’s never met a fresh mozzarella dish she didn’t love, and her only complaint was that the tomatoes were too spicy because of the raw garlic.

My wife ordered two starters as her dinner, an eggplant/mozzarella/tomato stack that she loved and that I didn’t try because I don’t love eggplant, and the fried brussels sprouts, an enormous serving of the brassicas lightly breaded (tempura-like), drizzled with a mustardy aioli and served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce. I went with the risotto, which wasn’t risotto at all, lacking any of the creamy sauce that makes that dish so distinctive (formed from the blending of stock with starch granules that separate from the rice during the slow cooking process).

Where Tanzy excelled was in desserts and cocktails. My daughter picked the white chocolate Chambourd crème brulee – the child has a sophisticated palate, which should cause absolute hell for any future suitors – and it was absurdly good, with a perfect texture beneath the sugar-glass shell. For a drink, I tried their “spice and ice,” made with five-year aged Barbados rum, mango puree, and their own ginger-habanero syrup, with a seven-spice mixture on the rim of the glass. It was odd to drink something so bright and sweet (almost too much so) only to have it bite back at the finish.

I’d go back there, ordering a little differently, but I think I could do much better for my dollar even just within Scottsdale – Citizen Public House and Searsucker both offer superior food at comparable or lower price points. Tanzy does have a more reasonably-priced lunch menu with sandwich options that might be a better way to experience their food.

Essence Bakery in Tempe popped on my radar recently because local foodies have praised their croissants and macarons, the latter of which is a small obsession of mine. (I can’t quite get them right, although my last batch was close, just a touch too moist inside so they couldn’t hold up when filled.) I met a friend at Essence, which is on University just east of Hardy (right near ASU), for breakfast over the weekend and was very impressed by the quality of their ingredients – even if you just want your basic EMPT* breakfast, this is one of the best options in the area.

* Eggs, meat, potatoes, toast – the breakfast of champions.

Eggs are eggs as long as they’re fresh and cooked correctly, which these were. Essence has its own variety of breakfast sausage, and the potatoes on the plate aren’t generic hash browns or “breakfast potatoes” (whatever the funk that is), but come as a mashed potato cake, like a knish but softer inside. The toast options include sliced, toasted baguette, which comes with a little bit of what I assume was homemade jam. There isn’t a ton of seating, but I didn’t have to wait to get a table; if people realize how good this place is, though, I could see that becoming a problem.

I don’t believe I ever mentioned Giant Coffee in downtown Phoenix, run by Matt of Matt’s Big Breakfast, yet another high-end coffee roaster and bar along the lines of Press or Cartel. It’s been long enough since I went to Giant that I can’t tell you what variety of beans I tried, but I sampled their espresso and their pour-over and would recommend both if you’re serious about coffee.

Shifting gears to books, the last book I read, Ian Stewart’s In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World, was a dud. I enjoy math/science books, even if they get a little technical, but Stewart’s book made the mistake of trying to cover more ground in a short pop-science book than the subject matter permitted. He’d present an equation, give very little about its origins or derivations, and then throw it out there and jump right into applications and subsequent developments. The writing was dry and there was none of the narrative structure you’d get from a longer exposition on the development of one specific formula or equation or proof.

Before that, I read another of Richard Stark’s Parker novels, Plunder Squad, sent to me by the folks at the University of Chicago Press. (It’s just $4 on the Kindle.) That’s the fourth Parker novel I’ve read now, and there’s definitely a sameness to them – Parker gets involved in a heist, something goes wrong, and there’s a good amount of violence and amoral behavior involved in extricating himself – but Stark’s writing is so sharp and his definition of the Parker character so precise that the familiarity doesn’t bore or bother me. It’s odd to compare Stark’s hard-boiled crime writing to P.G. Wodehouse’s upper-class comedies of manners, but they share that attribute – they could almost recycle plots without losing readers, because of the quality of their prose and the way they crafted and developed characters. Als

Next up for books: I’m almost through D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and also have Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World in my suitcase.

More Phoenix/Valley eats.

I’m glad to report I’ve found another solid non-chain option out in the west Valley, moderately convenient to Glendale and not far off the route to Goodyear – Ground Control, a coffee roaster that has a strong menu of salads and sandwiches, located on the border of Avondale and Goodyear. I’ve only visited once so far, but the chipotle turkey sandwich, with freshly sliced roasted turkey, havarti, tomatoes, and a thin spread of chipotle mayo, came on an incredible rosemary flatbread along with a side salad for just under $10. The flatbread meant that most of what I got was filling, not bread, and when the filling is good (as mine was) this is a favorable ratio. Ground Control also offers cheese boards and gelato made in-house, if you’re not racing off to a game as I was.

Back in Phoenix, after years of hearing recommendations from locals (including some of you), I finally made it to Beckett’s Table, which is next door to the strip mall that houses crudo. Beckett’s Table’s general vibe is upscale comfort food, with a menu full of hearty dishes that often center on a rich ingredient (short ribs, dumplings, pork shanks), never deviate too far from the spirit of the dish, but use top-quality ingredients to elevate it. I had that pork shank, called a “pork osso buco confit,” and couldn’t get over how rich and yet clean-tasting it was, not heavy or fatty like I feared it might be if it wasn’t cooked long or slowly enough. I was there with my daughter, whose mac and cheese was actually made fresh (not from a box), after which she ate a sizable chunk of Joe Posnanski’s chocolate cheesecake. (I knew once he offered to share, he was in trouble.) I was impressed by the real food on the kids’ menu; it’s not smaller portions of adult entrees, but at least it’s food cooked to order that treats kids like actual people, not like pets. We started with a cheese board while we waited for Joe, which came with three small slices of a 60-day aged goat cheese, grilled pieces of sliced sourdough from a local baker, house-made cranberry chutney, and spiced nuts, all outstanding but not a great value at $15. Those of you who follow me on Twitter saw the chocolate-covered bacon s’mores, but I have to tell you it looked better than it tasted; the best part was actually the homemade marshmallows. Everything was good, but I’d order differently on my next visit.

Tuesday night, I was solo for dinner and tried Franco’s Italian Caffe on Scottsdale Road, which has found a devoted following after just a few months, partly because Franco had previously run restaurants here before moving to New York while his daughter was in school there. Franco himself is Italian-born, but the menu is more Italian by way of New York City, with fare that is heavier than the bright, clean flavors of true Italian food. The pasta erbe aromatiche, apparently a signature dish (according to my server, who was very friendly but butchered every Italian word he said), comprises strozzapretti in a sauce of prosciutto cotto fresh herbs, and white wine reduced and then finished with a thick coating of cream. My pasta was slightly overcooked, not Olive Garden level but still further than I would call “al dente,” and the sauce, while full of the flavors of the herbs and pleasantly salty, was just way too heavy. The burrata starter special was also quite ordinary, with the cheese lacking salt and the prosciutto crudo not enough to make up for it. This is good Italian-American food, but based on one dinner at each place, I think Davanti Enoteca just up the road is a better option. EDIT: Davanti closed in May of 2013.

For more eats around here, sorted by stadium, check out my Arizona spring training dining guide.

Phoenix-area eats, March 2013 update.

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

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

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

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

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

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