Miami eats.

My recap of the 2017 Futures Game is now up for Insiders.

Downtown Miami itself is … not that great, really. The city was badly overmatched by the traffic and crowds in town for the weekend, with cops stationed at many corners but not doing anything to direct traffic or stop the many drivers doing illegal things (right turn from the left lane, blowing through red lights). I ended up spending most of my free time in the artsy Wynwood area, which seems to be the booming neighborhood for food, bars, and culture.

Lung Yai Thai Tapas is not really a tapas place, but it does indeed appear to be a Thai place, and I’d read several glowing reviews before my trip. I also rarely eat Thai food at or near home, since my wife is allergic to shellfish and Thai cuisine has a lot of hidden shellfish (oyster sauce, shrimp paste) in its recipes. Lung Yai’s lunch menu had mostly familiar dishes, so I went with the green papaya salad and with the first dish in the ‘chef’s recommendations’ section, khao soi gai, a northern Thai noodle dish served like a soup, with a coconut milk-curry sauce over boiled egg noodles and chicken, with crispy fried noodles on top. My experience with northern Thai dishes is pretty limited, but the khao soi had a huge umami base with the natural sweetness of the coconut and the flavors of yellow curry without any heat. It’s a tiny spot, with maybe 15 seats around a long counter, in a rundown neighborhood, but the food justified the trip out of my way. I’ve seen comments online that there’s a soup-Nazi atmosphere here, with rules you have to follow, but service was friendly and attentive, and if there were unwritten rules I guess I didn’t break any.

Kyu is an uber-trendy see-and-be-seen sort of restaurant that happens to serve great food, although it certainly wasn’t my sort of scene, and the front of house staff had a little bit of that “we’re doing you a favor by letting you eat here” vibe that drives me up a wall. But the food itself was worth the wait. Their duck breast “burnt ends” is really just a slow-smoked duck breast that develops a bbq char on the outside of the skin and the texture of a high-quality pork chop in the center despite being cooked through (which would ordinarily dry a duck breast out). I think there was five-spice in the rub and/or the sauce it’s served on, which, by the way, is all it’s served on: you get a large duck breast cut into slices and that’s it. I had ordered one side, the grilled baby bok choy with crispy garlic and chiles, which is the best bok choy dish I’ve ever had – garlic and chile are the two main flavor affinities for bok choy anyway, but this version had multiple textures and really crushed the salt-spice component. The garlic was there but didn’t overpower the dish, which I think is often a copout for dark green vegetable preparations. Kyu is particularly well known for their coconut cake, with what I think is a cream cheese-based icing (it was sweet and a little tangy, not just straight sweet), served with a scoop of coconut ice cream, and I can vouch that 1) it was amazing in every aspect and 2) when it showed up there was suddenly a lot of attention from the folks sitting and standing around me.

Panther Coffee is the best-known third-wave roaster in south Florida, maybe in all of Florida, and they do both outstanding espresso and some unique varietals for pour-over preparations. The espresso was bright and balancced with a ton of body, just lacking that sweetness that some of my favorite espressos (Blue Bottle in particular) offer. For a pour-over, I tried a Tanzanian that had a lot of berry and stone fruit notes but not the citrus of a lot of East African beans. Panther also has a big selection of high-quality pastries – I had a croissant, because coffee on an empty stomach is not a pleasant experience for me – from area bakeries, including some donuts that looked like little works of art.

I had drinks on Sunday night with longtime friend Will Leitch, which we realized is probably the longest conversation we’ve ever had in person despite knowing each other for a really long time. (I first met him when he did a reading for his book God Save the Fan in LA, so that had to be the spring of 2008.) We met up at the bar portion of Edge Steak & Bar inside the Four Seasons, which is actually not priced like a Four Seasons hotel restaurant might be and has a great bar menu of small plates as well as an enormous whiskey selection if you’re inclined to that sort of spirit. I tried two dishes – the bay scallop crudo with grapefruit, pomegranate seeds, and cucumbers, which had the perfect acid/sweet ratio; and the tostones with an avocado spread that was kind of a mild guacamole, also very good but on the heavy side. I can also verify that two of their Boulevardier cocktails, in essence a negroni with rye, were enough that I was glad I hadn’t driven to the hotel.

I left first thing Monday morning, but if I’d had one more dinner in Miami I would have tried to get to Niu Kitchen, a tapas place specializing in regional Spanish dishes, with jamón iberico and boquerones on the menu. That’ll have to wait for a scouting trip down there next year.

San Francisco and Los Angeles eats.

The San Francisco pizzeria del Popolo is run by Jon Darsky, who worked for a little while in player development and scouting for Cleveland and another MLB org … I forgot which one because we need to talk about how good the food was. The pizza was outstanding, both the dough – thin, not quite Neapolitan thin but close to it, with just the right bit of chew too it – and the homemade sausage that they use as a topping. The menu is simple, with about a half-dozen starters and a half-dozen or so pizza options, nothing more, which is more than enough when the pizza is this good. Jon, whom I didn’t know before that visit, sent out their Brussels sprouts starter, charred but still firm and bright green, with salva cremasco, shaved turnips, and hazelnuts; as well as the ridiculously luscious coconut-lime sorbet, since I was with Ian Miller (the bassist for Puig Destroyer and Kowloon Walled City), who is vegan. Del Popolo was on that Food & Wine pizzeria list I’ve mentioned several times and have been slowly eating my way through, and it’s one of the best I’ve hit.

Also on that list is the very highly-regarded flour + water in the Mission district, although I get the sense their pastas are better than their pizzas. I went with the margherita, feeling a bit uninspired by the other options, and what I got was just sort of average – the tomato sauce was pureed too evenly, the crust didn’t have much char or good chew, and the whole thing was a little bland. It’s a good pizza relative to most, but compared to the other places on that F&W list – Bianco, Keste, even Roberta’s which somehow missed that list – it’s just okay. The salad I got, however, was outstanding: curly endive with Meyer lemon vinaigrette, artichokes, cardoons, taggiasca olives, & fried capers. It was a big reminder that California produce is often the best produce of all.

I was famished when I got into San Francisco on Wednesday afternoon after appearing on a panel at the Stanford GSB sports analytics conference, so I went to Cotogna for a big meal rather than trying to eat light and hold on for dinner. Cotogna is fairly new and I found it on that Eater list of the 38 “most essential” (whatever) restaurants in the U.S. for 2016, a list I’ll mention a few times in this post. Cotogna does “rustic” Italian cuisine, but it’s not peasant food by any stretch – the restaurant includes a giant cast-iron, wood-fired hearth for spit-roasting meats, and a pizza oven where I presume they’re also baking their ridiculous focaccia ($4 for a giant strip of it). Their broccoli starter, which is so new it’s not on their online menu, was an out-of-this-world homage to my favorite brassica: the florets are cooked two ways and are tossed with neonata (a southern Italian condiment of small fish preserved in vinegar with garlic and chilis), then are served on a layer of bright green broccoli and parsley puree, seasoned with espelette, and topped with shaved bottarga and fried kale leaves. The chef de cuisine, Chris Marcino, was kind enough to explain the dish to me – also, he’s a Phillies fan – and said they pan-fry some of the florets and broccoli leaves, and then cook other florets and small stems in a cast-iron skillet in their pizza oven to get some caramelization. It’s ornate, but it’s like a monument to broccoli.

For the main course, I went with what I think is Cotogna’s signature pasta dish, agnolotti del plin, a classic Piemontese dish of small pockets of pasta around a filling of mixed pork, veal, and often turkey or chicken. Cotogna roasts the meats before grinding them into the filling for the paper-thing pasta, and then uses the juices from the meats to make the sauce (sugo d’arrosto, the “sauce of the roasting”) for the dish. The dish probably originated as a way to use meat scraps that weren’t enough for a full meal, but this is a plate I’d fly across the country to eat. I’m not treating Eater’s list as gospel, but they absolutely nailed it on Cotogna.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the coffee I had in San Francisco, where you can’t swing a cat around by its tail without hitting three hipsters discussing their favorite artisan roaster. I finally got to a Four Barrel location, even though I’ve been drinking their coffee on and off for years – it’s served at Giant Coffee in Phoenix, and I’ve bought beans from them online. It’s … well, it’s great coffee, really. I happen to really like their Friendo Blendo espresso mix, which varies seasonally but is usually half an East African bean (Ethiopian this time) and half a Central American (Guatemalan). I also stopped by a Sightglass shop for a cup of their Ethiopian coffee, which I found a little underwhelming just because I expected more brightness and fruit. I liked the fact that their space, right down the street from flour + water, is so bright.

Moving south to the LA area, I chased Guerrilla Tacos (also on that Eater 38 list) for two days before I finally caught them for a lunch that was absolutely worth the effort. The truck typically parks in front of some local coffee shops – Cognoscenti and Blacktop appear to be the current favorites, although they’ve been near a Blue Bottle location befroe – and are only open 10-2 on days they’re out. The menu changes daily, with four taco options and an agua fresca each day. The day I went the menu featured a breakfast taco with scrambled eggs, pancetta, pinto beans, and queso fresco; an ahi poke tostada with uni and scallions; and a sweet potato taco with feta, scallions, and almonds. The breakfast taco was my favorite of the three, in no small part because the flour tortilla was so good (made with lard, perhaps?), and the sweet potato taco was also superb, even though I’d never have thought to put feta with sweet potatoes. The eggs really benefited from the salt and spice in the pancetta and beans; I do love eggs in most forms but plain scrambled eggs are a little too boring. The tuna poke was more like sashimi and should have been sliced more thinly so it was easier to eat, although the quality of the fish itself was obviously very high.

Blacktop Coffee sometimes uses beans from Sightglass, but the day I was there they were using some local private roaster; their menu couldn’t be simpler as you order your espresso “black” for $3 or “white” (whatever milk-based drink you want) for $4. The coffee was good, well-balanced with good body, but should have been a little hotter. They also have a toast program, because of course they do.

I mentioned on Twitter that I had a serendipitous encounter at ink., the main restaurant of Top Chef Season 6 winner Michael Voltaggio; I was sitting at the chef’s counter when Voltaggio came out to speak to the diner next to me, which turned out to be season 7 winner Kevin Sbraga, whose namesake Philly restaurant I visited (and loved) in January. Anyway, I’ve been dying to get to ink. for a few years now, and just barely sneaked it in this trip – I was so tired I didn’t want to make the nearly hourlong drive from my hotel, but I figured I’d regret not going. I had four dishes, and three were just out of sight, stuff I couldn’t make at home and that was unlike most restaurant dishes I’ve had elsewhere. Their twist on cacio e pepe involved paper-thin vermicelli made of celery root, served over shima aji (striped jack or cocinero) sashimi with a truffle coulis, taking an Italian concept and making it over as a Japanese dish, pasta without pasta, lighter than a wheat-centric dish but more satisfying than raw fish would be by itself. Their octopus with “ink. shells” (a play on words, since the pasta is made with ink), shaved fennel, and paprika was a little more traditional but still exceptional because the octopus itself was well-cooked, meaty just up to the edge of toughness without crossing over, as masticably satisfying as red meat but lighter and almost sweet thanks to the browning on the exterior. And the dessert … the deconstructed apple pie dessert, with crumbled shortbread, apple gelee, apples, and “burnt wood” semifreddo (it had a slightly smoky flavor but if you hadn’t told me I would have said it was fior di latte) was just unreal. If you got everything in one bite, it was apple pie a la mode, but with new textures and a brighter flavor. I had one dish I didn’t care for; the radishes with togarashi-miso butter were not at all what I expected, just plain, whole radishes, served with shiso leaves to wrap them and dip them in the butter. We grow radishes in the backyard every year, so this was nothing I couldn’t do at home; I expected some kind of preparation of the radishes, at least, but the server noticed I didn’t eat much of the dish and took it off the bill without a word from me. I also had one of their house cocktails, a rye drink with cardamaro bitters, burnt orange, maple, and toasted pecan bitters that gave the whole drink the aroma of brown butter. I could drink this every night very happily.

I tried another spot on that Eater list, the Thai restaurant Night + Market Song, and was … confused, I guess. I don’t know authentic Thai food that well; I know Americanized Thai, and I think I know when something is more or less Americanized, but this menu mostly comprised foods that were new to me (not a bad thing), and somehow I ended up ordering a lot of meat. The “boxing chicken” is gai yang, a street food authentic to Bangkok that is coated in a wet rub of cilantro, sugar, garlic, pepper, and fish sauce, and then grilled until the skin is crispy. Night + Market Song’s version is all thigh meat, which is the best part of the bird anyway, and comes with papaya salad (medium or hot; medium was plenty hot for me) and sticky rice, which was served in plastic wrap and came out in a slab. You’re supposed to use your hands (fine) to roll pieces into a ball, but this slab was so tough I couldn’t make that happen. I also thought the knife work on the papaya salad was really rough – some vegetables weren’t even cut through. The pork toro, grilled fatty pig neck served with a chile-soy dip, was a good starter, salty like bacon but chewier like jowl meat, although it merely added to the sense that I was just eating way too much meat.

Jon & Vinny’s is an Italian restaurant and pizzeria, located across from their famous meatery Animal, in Fairfax, with a focus on southern Italian fare and a lot of dishes that showcase great produce. I went with a friend of mine who lives in the area, and he ordered the LA Woman pizza, essentially a margherita with burrata in lieu of the mozzarella, with a dough I’d put in between those of del Popolo and flour + water for overall taste and texture. It was the other stuff that set J&V’s apart, though: their meatballs are huge yet evenly cooked, rich but not too dense, served with enormous slabs of garlic bread in a garlicky tomato sauce with a pile of ricotta on the side of the plate. That could easily be a meal on its own, but we kept going. The salad of shaved zucchini with arugula, fennel, hazelnuts, meyer lemon vinaigrette, and a blizzard of shaved pecorino pepato, a sheep’s milk cheese with peppercorns in it, was a big pile of spring – very bright flavors, vibrant green colors, tangy and sharp with a hint of sweetness from the fennel and the nuts. The bruschetta was really about the bread; the tomatoes were certainly good, but the bread was a sponge of olive oil by the time I arrived and I was debating whether to eat it or exfoliate my face with it. (I ate it.) The fried scallions were amazing and stayed crunchy even as they cooled because of the cornmeal coating, although we overordered and didn’t expect the giant pile that arrived at the table. For dessert, because we are pigs, I got the Italian flag (rainbow) cookies, which were sublime thanks to the dark chocolate on top, although I didn’t get any real almond flavor from the sponge cake layers, while Jay got the cream-filled donut which was a tad better than your local Krispy Kreme’s version.

I also want to give props to Jason Kang over at Seoulmate, right next to Blair Field in Long Beach with a new location out in Fullerton; this wasn’t my first meal there but I don’t go to Long Beach without eating there. Seoulmate is fast-casual Korean food, both traditional dishes like bulgogi (Jason’s mentioned some of the recipes are based on family versions) and Korean tacos and burritos. Everything is top-notch, but it’s the preparation of the meats that separates Seoulmate from other Asian taco places I’ve hit; I had the pork bulgogi this time, pork belly heavily marinated in a spicy soy and ginger mixture that starts to inundate the rice underneath, served with kimchi (also spicy) and a small salad. I’ve also had the tacos, the beef bulgogi, and the bibimbap on previous visits, and can vouch that they’re all excellent, with the two bulgogis my favorites. Jason’s a reader, but I promise I wouldn’t recommend his place if I didn’t genuinely like the food.

Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego eats.

I had a column up from earlier today looking at which organizations are deepest at each position; there’s a lot of Pittsburgh on there. This week’s Behind the Dish podcast features my conversation with Padres VP and former Mets scouting director Chad McDonald.

I went to Salt’s Cure with a friend during the Area Code Games, just on the recommendation of a reader who thought it was my kind of place – a spot-on suggestion, since restaurants with small menus that change daily are very much up my alley. We started with their cheese plate, featuring a trio of California cheeses, one each from cow’s, goat’s, and sheep’s milks, as well as a little apricot jam and some grilled bread. As expected, I liked the goat and sheep options but didn’t love the cow’s – a function of my palate, not the cheeses themselves. I intended to eat something light that night but couldn’t pass up the braised pork shoulder over creamy grits with caramelized onions, a meal that photographed poorly but that was perfectly cooked, with the (cheese-less) grits a good balance to the fatty/salty meat and the sweet/tart flavors from the onions. We also ordered the very simple raw kale salad on the side, which was only the second-best kale salad I had that week. My friend got the lamb sirloin with romanos beans and romesco, all of which he raved about – I didn’t try it as I’m just not a huge fan of lamb. For dessert, we had these multi-layered chocolate custards that were rich and dark and not too sweet … I can’t even remember what the other layers were. This was a huge find, just a fantastic locally-focused place with amazing food.

My second swing to Umami burger, first since February of 2010, was just as good as the last time out – their original burger is an umami-bomb, and now they offer ice cream sandwiches that are also pretty spectacular.

I discovered Caulfield’s in January when Bobby Flay tweeted that it was the “best new restaurant in LA,” which seemed like sufficient reason to check the place out. It’s located in the Thompson Hotel in Beverly Hills, but isn’t your ordinary hotel restaurant, with an inventive, seasonally-informed menu that has lots of lighter dishes that don’t sacrifice flavor. I ordered a starter, the albacore tuna and sockeye salmon poke, and a salad, a kale salad with almonds, hard-boiled eggs, bacon, and anchovy dressing. The poke was solid, although the wasabi-ginger-soy dressing overwhelmed the fish a little bit, especially the albacore tuna which doesn’t have a pronounced enough flavor to survive that much salt and heat. The salad, however, was among the best I’ve ever had: thin ribbons of kale perfectly dressed with an umami-heavy dressing (think Caesar dressing, but without the parmiggiano-reggiano), with added texture from the almonds and the smoky boost from the bacon. It was absolutely perfect, and that’s before I consider its high content of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.

Over in Long Beach, there isn’t a whole lot to recommend. I went to Koi in Seal Beach for sushi, as I do every year, although I admit it’s a little weird to park across from the hair salon where eight people were killed in 2011. The fish at Koi is outstanding, with a specials board always up showing what’s fresh, and many of the nigiri options come with the sauce of the sushi-ya’s choice.

As for new spots, Lord Windsor Roasters is a new-ish third-wave (meaning lighter roasts) coffee roastery and cafe on 3rd, about ten minutes’ drive from Blair Field. They roast their coffees in the back of the store, with three options available for pourovers each day I was there, as well as their own blend for espresso drinks. The pourover was a little weak by my standards, without much body, as if the grind was a little too coarse, but I loved their espresso for flavor and texture.

I can also recommend Thiptara, a Thai restaurant on PCH right by Blair Field, which has the standard Thai dishes but also has some more regional items, like the yellow pumpkin curry with chicken that I had as an entree. The sauce includes a roasted chili paste as well as the spices you’d expect to find in Thai yellow curry, with a coconut milk base, but it’s the chunks of al dente pumpkin that set the dish apart, bringing sweetness to balance the salty and spicy notes of the sauce. I also had the green papaya salad, with carrot, cherry tomatoes, and string beans in a garlic-chili-lime dressing, which was just mildly spicy. The salad had great color and crunch and everything was obviously very fresh.

The trip to San Diego was a little less successful. Breakfast at the Mission was amazing, as always. Cafe 222 was a mess, the second time I’ve been disappointed there – and thus the last. I drove up the coast a little to visit Bird Rock coffee roasters, where I got a decent espresso (although too small to be the double I’d ordered) and was shocked to see an option for Chemex coffee using geisha beans (which are the world’s most expensive) that cost $9 for a cup.

Dinner at Craft and Commerce was a mixed bag. I had a good salad to start, with citrus supremes, avocado, and sliced jicama, although the fried goat cheese came in ping pong ball-sized chunks that were at room temperature when that should be served warm. They were also out of their signature dessert item, warm beignets with chocolate-bourbon sauce, even though it’s not a yeast dough and could be made to order if need be.

Trio (Philadelphia).

When I mentioned that I was moving to Delaware, reader Andrew reached out to me to invite me to the restaurant he manages in Philadelphia, Trio, among the city’s best-reviewed Thai restaurants, with a menu that includes a few influences from outside of Thailand along with traditional Thai items. The meal was superb, and my wife (who loves Thai food but rarely has it due to a shellfish allergy) and daughter (who’s a pretty good eater, but didn’t like Thai food the first time she tried it) both enjoyed their meals tremendously.

For starters, my wife ordered the vegetarian spring rolls, which included shiitake mushrooms along the julienned cabbage and onions in the filling, and were fried perfectly and served extremely hot. These also formed a significant part of my daughter’s dinner once she stopped complaining about the temperature (and we pointed out that she could actually wait a second before trying to eat them … she inherited her patience from her father). I ordered one of the special items, a strawberry gazpacho with jicama, avocado, and chili peppers, a little on the sweet side for me but with a good balance of acid and heat underneath the natural sweetness of the berries.

My entree choice was the crispy roast duck, a standard menu item with a sauce accompaniment that changes frequently; on Saturday the sauce was a lychee-cherry concoction, sweet and tangy, but barely necessary given how amazing the duck was. The breast meat was cooked just past medium, not dry but not still quacking, which is how I prefer it, while the skin was crispy without any grease and allowed the natural sweetness of the skin to shine through. My daughter loves duck as well and helped me pick the bones clean, while she also dipped everything she could into the sauce on my plate, including the duck and the lemongrass pork meatballs she stole from my wife’s pad thai. Those meatballs were outstanding, incredibly aromatic with lemongrass, onion, and (I believe) ginger, while the sauce on the noodles themselves was less sweet than the pad thai I typically get on the rare occasions I order the dish at Thai restaurants. (I avoid it because it seems to be the most “Americanized” dish at such places, made sweeter for U.S. palates, but losing me in the process.) My daughter didn’t love her own entree, a basil fried rice dish that had a strong cumin flavor and some surprising late heat that I thought was excellent but was a little too spicy for her.

The dessert menu is more eclectic, reflecting the owner’s current interest in Mexican cuisine (he’s also a pastry chef, and owns the small Mexican restaurant Isobel on the same street as Trio). My daughter inhaled her tres leches cake with homemade marshmallow sauce, while my wife and I split a chocolate-hazelnut mousse with an Oreo crust … and I might point out that the mousse and the marshmallow sauce also went together very well.

Trio is BYOB, and the place is fairly small so I’d recommend a reservation for a weekend. It’s a wonderful spot, and it was a nice treat for me to have Thai food with the family, made possible because the staff was so good about dealing with our unfortunate (especially for a Thai restaurant) allergies. Full disclosure – the meal was comped, although I left a tip for about 50% of what the bill would have been.

The meal at Trio finished off a day in Philly for three of us that began at Shake Shack – the first experience there for my wife and daughter; my daughter loved their grilled cheese while my wife and I split a fair trade coffee shake that tasted like real coffee – and included several hours at the amazing Please Touch Museum, the main children’s museum in Philly, with a few fun exhibits of vintage toys that made my wife and me feel very, very old. I did get a kick out of the displays of Easy-Bake Ovens throughout their history (as well as some knockoffs; my daughter couldn’t name a single room as her favorite, but she enjoyed the art room, the small rock-climbing wall, and the astronomy/rockets room, where kids launch foam rockets off air guns to try to put them through hoops hanging from the ceiling.

Phoenix eats, part 10.

First Arizona Fall League update of 2011 is up for Insiders, leading off with Anthony Gose.

When we first moved to Arizona last year, I grabbed a copy of Phoenix Magazine‘s September issue, which included their annual list of the best new restaurants in the Valley – an impulse purchase that led us to three of our favorite restaurants in the area, The Hillside Spot, Culinary Dropout, and ‘Pomo Pizzeria. This year’s list is now online (although I picked up the paper copy a month ago) and I’ve hit three of the 23 restaurants on their list, including one knockout, the upscale Thai restaurant Soi4.

Located in the Gainey shopping plaza in central Scottsdale, at the intersection of Scottsdale Road and Doubletree Ranch (which becomes Via de Ventura, so it’s close to the Salt River stadium), Soi4 is Thai cuisine, updating classic Thai dishes with modern twists in a trendy Scottsdale atmosphere (if you live around here, you know the positives and negatives in that phrase). Soi4’s take on panang neur uses perfectly-braised short ribs in place of more typical, inexpensive cuts like rump steak. The ribs come with a mixture of chopped red and green bell peppers and cucumbers with a slightly spicy red curry/coconut milk sauce with thai basil. The only better-cooked short ribs I have ever had were at Tom Colicchio’s craftsteak in Las Vegas (twice), and that’s a restaurant that specializes in beef – and costs about three times as much. For an appetizer, I tried their kao pode tod, spiced corn fritters served with a cucumber relish and a spicy clear sauce for drizzling, another traditional Thai dish taken up several notches with stunning presentation, almost a work of art on the plate, with crisp exteriors, bright centers of mostly corn with some minced lemongrass, and no sign of grease or oil on the plate. It’s a little more expensive than your typical Thai place – those two items and a pot of hot tea (bonus points for loose leaf) came to $24 before tip – but absolutely justifies the cost through freshness of ingredients and the masterful preparations.

The Arrogant Butcher, a short walk west of Chase Field, was more middle of the road on my visit, solid food marred by a single kitchen error. It’s yet another outpost from Fox Restaurant Concepts, the people behind Culinary Dropout and Zinburger, this time focused primarily on meats, including charcuterie and slow-cooked meat dishes like the short rib stew I tried on my one visit. The stew was hearty and filling, with small (maybe one-inch) chunks of short rib and red beans, served with a fried egg on top and a rich corn muffin on the side. But the stew contained a large piece of connective tissue – I can’t think of the last time I was in a decent restaurant and had to spit out a piece of food, but this was unchewable and certainly not something I wanted in my stomach. It was just one piece, an oversight by a prep cook, but that undermined the whole meal for me. They offer a strong selection of small sides, including grilled mushrooms, marcona almonds, or the one I tried, roasted red peppers, sliced thinly and tossed in balsamic vinegar.

The third place I’ve tried from that list was Spasso Pizzeria and Mozzarella Bar in Phoenix just off 51, a huge disappointment across the board. The mozzarella is apparently made fresh in house, but for $12, the plate of two cheeses (we also chose scamorza, another cow’s milk cheese that’s dried to produce a harder texture) included just two slices of each plus some very unappetizing-looking, drab/grey roasted vegetables, all unseasoned and undressed. Even the mozzarella itself was unsalted, which is a small crime, and was totally unremarkable in flavor or texture – you can buy equivalent or better fresh mozzarella in any Trader Joes (and there’s one next door!) or Whole Foods. The pizza was entirely ordinary aside from the use of the same fresh mozzarella on top, and everything was inordinately pricey given how inexpensive the ingredients are. Even the crème brulee, which I bought only because my daughter wanted something for dessert, was all wrong, served in a deep ramekin so the ratio of sugar crust to custard was way off. With so many better pizza options in the Valley, I can’t see why anyone would go here and pay more for an inferior product. UPDATE: It appears that Spasso has closed. Can’t say I’m surprised.

That same issue of Phoenix Magazine included a great article on the second act for Chris Bianco, the owner/chef/genius behind Pizzeria Bianco and Pane Bianco. He’s become one of the Southwest’s greatest advocates for local agriculture and biodiversity, an amazing adaptation for a man whose first career, making every pizza by hand, ended abruptly as airborne flour particles worsened his asthma, causing his doctor to give him a “quit or die” warning he had to heed.

Vegas, Phoenix, and Oklahoma eats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday links and bullets.

• Yesterday’s chat transcript.
• I won’t say the name of the Project Runway winner, for those of you who DVR’d it but haven’t watched it, but it looked to me like the judges chose probability over upside – and I’m a firm believer in going for upside. You have a chance to get an all-world talent, whether it’s a #1 starter or a fashion genius or a revolutionary chef, that’s who you go for. This wasn’t an example of the upside designer flopping in the finals; my wife, the real PR fan in the house, was mad because she thought the upside designer did exactly what the judges praised the designer for all season.
• Had breakfast this morning at the Hillside Spot in Ahwautukee, at Warner and 48th just west of I-10. To borrow a term from a certain AFL super-fan, it was “out-STAN-ding.” I’ve been hoping to find a funky, progressive kind of breakfast/lunch spot like that since we moved here, and I’m glad Phoenix magazine highlighted them last month. The food took a little while to get to us, even though the place wasn’t busy, but everything was made to order and that is the best reason in the world to wait for food.
• This NPR story on how the private prison industry pushed through Arizona’s immigration law is a model for modern journalism, a type of investigative reporting I don’t see as often as I did ten or fifteen years ago. I wish NPR did more of it, and given how many candidates campaigning here are using their position on the law as a major part of their platforms, it should be mailed to every voter in Arizona before Tuesday. (I’m not advocating a vote either way on any candidate or ballot question – merely that voters should be informed before making any voting decisions.)

• One of my favorite restaurants in Vegas, Lotus of Siam, is opening a second location Greenwich Village.
• I’m still under the weather, so I didn’t head to any AFL games and won’t today, but the forced rest meant that I finished Richard Russo’s tremendous novel Bridge of Sighs and am already halfway through Dave Jamieson’s Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession, a quirky history of the baseball card industry – or a history of the quirky baseball card industry, and the quirky people at the heart of it. (I received a review copy of Mint Condition from the publisher.) I hope to post a review of Bridge of Sighs over the weekend.

Las Vegas eats, 2010 edition.

Latest draft blog post is on Kyle Blair, Sammy Solis, and Cory Vaughn. I’ll be on Baseball Tonight on ESPN Radio tonight in the 10 pm EST hour, and on Mike & Mike on Wednesday morning at 8:10 am EST. I recorded 45-second previews for M&M on the four AL West teams, which will air some time over the next two weeks.

You’ve asked about this week’s chat (maybe Friday, definitely not the usual time on Thursday) and a podcast (still working on it, so Jason and I will probably bootstrap one in the short term). Thanks for bearing with me.

I spent under 48 hours in Vegas last week and mostly went to places I’ve already talked about here (in December 2008) or in chats. I only have one truly new place to recommend an inexpensive breakfast spot in a strip mall a mile or two west of the Strip, called The Maple Tree. The concept is to serve the food you’d find in a New England diner or bed-and-breakfast, although I think it’s fair to say it’s more straight-up American breakfast. The one distinctive item I had was the maple muffin, a very light, airy pastry like an angel food cake with a pronounced maple flavor and none of the heaviness of a typical muffin. For the meal, I did a sampler so I could at least taste the pancake (fluffy, but a little bland without the syrup) while also getting the usual eggs, meat (a kielbasa sausage that was seared on the outside and therefore cold at the center), and country potatoes. Everything is cooked to order – in fact, I heard the waitress ask the cook why he only does one plate at a time, which is inefficient but meant I knew what I was getting was freshly prepared – and all that food ran only about $13 including tea.

Jason Churchill and I went to craftsteak on Friday night – and no, per diem didn’t quite cover it – which was my first time there since 2004. It was as spectacular as I remembered it, especially the 24-hour braised short rib, which is one of their signature dishes. (Granted, I’m not sure that 24 hours of braising, if that’s what they’re really saying, is necessary, but the dish is amazingly tender). For sides, we went with the mushroom risotto – a lot creamier than a typical risotto, and a little more al dente than a truly authentic one, but still plus courtesy of the mix of perfectly-sauteed wild mushrooms – and the asparagus, which was probably over a half-pound before cooking and flavored with fresh thyme. With two entrees and two sides, no booze, no dessert, the pre-tip bill was over $100, so I could easily see two people with big appetites and strong livers racking up a $200-250 bill no problem.

Churchill and I also hit two places where I’d eaten on that last trip, with both matching their previous reports. We went to Firefly with a crowd – there were six of us – so we ended up with a few items I hadn’t tried before. The tuna tartare was fair, good-quality fish but not all that flavorful outside of the mango/avocado accompaniment, but the merguez (spicy lamb sausage) was outstanding, and while I skipped the lamb chops the sauteed lentils that came with it were good enough to be a menu item in their own right. We also did lunch at Lotus of Siam, which is currently expanding but still open for business; the khao soi was somewhere between a noodle dish and a tom kha gai (soup), with sweet and spicy flavors brought to life by the assortment of pickled vegetables served alongside it.

Indianapolis eats.

Indianapolis seems like a perfectly nice place to visit in the spring or summer, but its potential as a “walking city” (even though downtown is pretty heavy on the chain restaurants) was nonexistent the last two days, with temperatures of 20 F or below and winds from 20-40 mph or more. I rented a car, so I wasn’t limited to Subway and Rock Bottom, and was fortunate to have a cheat sheet of restaurants from reader Aaron G., who is responsible for sending me to every place in this writeup except for the barbecue joint GT South’s (which was recommended by at least one of you before the trip).

Taste Café is about twenty minutes outside the center of Indianapolis in a neighborhood called Broad Ripple, about as far as I ventured from downtown on the trip, and if it had been closer I probably would have gone every morning for breakfast. Their waffles looked amazing, but my visit to Taste was to serve as breakfast and lunch so I chose something more likely to get me through to dinner (which it did), an egg and bacon sandwich on Pullman bread with basil aioli. The eggs were over an inch thick, and I ended up doing a little culinary surgery to keep the sandwich from falling apart, while the basil aioli gave a sweet background note that balanced out the salty, smoky bacon. The bread – well, it’s hard to screw up Pullman bread, and this was very soft but strong enough to hold the contents together. The dish came with breakfast potatoes which were swimming in olive oil. Taste offers a solid selection of loose teas and a lot of seating for a breakfast/lunch café.

Hoaglin To Go Café does, in fact, offer seating and table service, despite the name, although they seem to do a thriving take-out service. Their breakfast menu focuses on egg dishes like omelets and quiches, but the standout item here is their potato gratin dish called pommes anna, sliced potatoes cooked through but still al dente with gruyere as the accent but not so much that the gratin fell apart. The omelet of the day (called their “Big O,” aren’t they clever) contained sausage, mushrooms, and artichokes, but it came as a simple omelet folded over those ingredients, rather than having them cooked in the omelet with the eggs as the binder. They also use high-quality sandwich bread.

Café Patachou is a local mini-chain that has a location within “walking distance*” of my hotel and the Marriott. The menu is a little less adventurous and inspired than those of the previous two places, although it offers plenty of options and the food quality is fine. I finally gave in and had a waffle, which was properly cooked with a crispy exterior but was very dense inside, and came with a slightly sad little fruit cup that I hope would be better when fruit is actually in season in Indiana. They have a wide selection of bagged teas from a company called Revolution.

*“Walking distance” is, of course, only applicable at certain times of year. I did walk to the café from my hotel, all of four blocks, and couldn’t feel my ears, the end of my nose, or my fingers (despite my gloves) by the time I got to the restaurant, and had to catch my breath when I got inside. I’d like to think Minor League Baseball has learned its lesson about putting the winter meetings** in cold-weather sites, but I doubt it.

**If Minor League Baseball organized the offseason meetings for the NHL, they’d rotate between Phoenix, Miami, and Houston.

Siam Square is a new Thai restaurant just outside downtown on the northwest-bound side of Virginia with a menu that reaches into other Asian cuisines but offers a number of standard and, according to my dinner partner Alex Speier (of WEEI.com fame), authentic Thai dishes. The vegetarian spring rolls contained fresh julienned vegetables instead of the sad, limp, cabbage-like slop they normally contain, and the rolls were about as non-greasy as spring rolls can get. The sweet sauce that usually accompanies them was kicked up about three notches with red chile pepper, so the sauce was complex instead of cloying. Their “siam ginger” stir fry was full of strips of ginger like strands of spaghetti squash, a vague hint of sweetness (palm sugar?), and fresh vegetables that still had all their texture and crunch even through cooking. The menu actually labels many dishes as “Mild not available,” although I tasted Alex’s pad pem and didn’t find it very spicy, which says something since I find almost everything with chile pepper in it to be spicy. The restaurant offers a bonus in a highly attractive blonde (and not Thai) server named Erin who probably justifies a visit to Siam Square all by herself.

Harry & Izzy’s is the casual restaurant next door to and associated with the century-old steakhouse St. Elmo’s, although the exteriors couldn’t be more different, with St. Elmo’s looking tired while Harry & Izzy’s looks new and inviting. What appears to be their signature sandwich, thinly sliced prime rib au jus with fresh horseradish sauce on focaccia, is outstanding, with meat that melts in your mouth and is tender and moist enough that the jus is truly optional. It comes with hand-cut fries on the side for $15 (that’s the lunch price), the same as I paid for just a steak sandwich at Lobel’s stand at Yankee Stadium for an inferior product.

GT South’s came in a recommendation from one of you (I apologize for forgetting who sent it) and also showed up online as a highly-regarded Q joint, so I trekked it out with Alex again to their location right off I-70. They have the standard array of smoked meats except for sausage, and allow you to add four ribs to any platter for about $5. Both the ribs and pulled pork were solid-average, good texture and strong smoky flavor, although the pulled pork was only lukewarm when it hit the table. Their turnip greens were oversalted, but the cornbread muffin that comes with the dish is money, with a perfect crust and a hint of tang from buttermilk. Alex went for the brisket and crushed it, which I’ll consider an endorsement.

Yats is a hole in the wall – in fact, you get your food from the kitchen through a hole in the wall that separates it from the dining room. Yats serves Cajun food, and they believe presentation is a waste of time, with most dishes comprising a stew or soup slopped over a bed of white rice. The menu is limited on Mondays, the day I went, but the hunter’s stew – andouille sausage, three beans, and tomatoes – was hearty, filling, not too salty, just a little too spicy so that the taste of the beans lost the battle. It’s a good place to eat when you want to be full for hours, and the meal and drink cost under $8.

The one disappointment of the trip was, unfortunately, one of the best-known and best-reviewed places, as well as a strong recommendation from Aaron G. and from Will Carroll, a small artisanal food shop and sandwich counter called Goose the Market. The store – part salumeria, part gelateria, part wine/beer shop, part fancy packaged food vendor – is certainly a foodie’s paradise, with high-end, small-batch, local goods mixed with somewhat rare or obscure imported items (like 00 flour, something I rarely see anywhere around Boston, or very good olive oils). The salumeria has many expected meat items and some unexpected ones like salmon pastrami, and the staff behind the counter are friendly and helpful. Even the cold drink case held a few surprises, like root beer and cream soda from Goose Island Brewery in Chicago. The disappointment came in the sandwich I ordered, the Batali, with a mix of Italian meats and cheeses on an outstanding pain a l’ancienne baguette with a hard, toothy crust. Unfortunately, the sandwich is piled with so many toppings that the meat and cheese are completely lost under the mayonnaise, pickled onions, and sliced jalapeños that I have no idea how good or flavorful the star ingredients actually were. I wish I’d had another day to try it again and order the same sandwich without the nonsense. It’s maybe a five to seven minute drive from downtown, straight north up Meridian from Monument Circle.

Sarasota eats (and links).

Links first: Today’s chat transcript. My podcast with the drunks at Drunk Jays Fans. Some intriguing-looking jalapeno cornbread with a recipe, although it includes sugar, which makes it corn cake, doesn’t it? Jerry Crasnick wrote a good piece on Adenhart that gets a little more at Adenhart as a person than as a prospect. (Seriously, stop talking about his baseball future. It’s trivial.)

Speaking of Adenhart and the chat, did anyone get what I was saying here?

J.B. (Dunmore, PA): As a father, today’s news really upset me. Three lives lost and another in the driver that is pretty much over. This may sound harsh but I really hope that young man spends a good chunk of his life behind bars.

Keith Law: They should release the other driver and give him a pass to the Angels’ clubhouse for Friday’s game. And then lock the doors.

I was suggesting that the killer (let’s not mince words – that’s what he is) would be locked in the clubhouse with Adenhart’s teammates. It doesn’t read that way to me now.

On to more mundane matters: I was in Sarasota for the last three days and ate a lot of needlessly heavy food. My go-to place from years past, an Amish restaurant called Yoder’s, wasn’t quite up to my memories of it. They’re best known for their pies, and while they do have a great variety, I had three flavors in three days and didn’t love any of them. The strawberry-rhubarb pie was packed but with about 90% rhubarb; if I wanted rhubarb pie, I would have ordered it, since that’s another option. The peach pie and blackberry pie were both filled with gooey cornstarchy liquid and not enough fruit. Their pie crusts are very good, though – tender, not really flaky, very soft and buttery.

The food is mostly comfort food. Their fried chicken is above-average, pressure-fried (the Colonel’s method!) to produce a crisp crust and fully-cooked meat in a shorter time than traditional skillet-frying, which takes about 45 minutes. Unfortunately, the meat I got was lukewarm and I had to send the thigh back. (The drumstick wasn’t much warmer, but you can’t put a fried drumstick in front of me and get it back unless you use the jaws of life.) Their roast turkey is solid-average – it peels apart like it’s been smoked but doesn’t have the slightly rubbery texture that I always associate with smoked turkey – while their smoked pulled pork was moist but kind of flavorless. The stuffing was mushy, and the green beans were grayish-green from overcooking. I did have one meal at another Amish restaurant down the street, called Mom’s, with pretty similar results.

Tropical Thai in northern Sarasota was just bad. The chicken in the chicken with green curry was barely cooked and way too soft – almost like a great steak, except that that texture is great in steak and lousy in poultry – and the sauce had clearly been thickened with some kind of starch, while the vegetables in it were also undercooked.

And one more dud before I get to the two recommendations: Dutch Valley is a diner that claims to be known for its Belgian waffles (spelled “Belgium waffles” on the sign outside, which I now know was a warning). Putting pancake batter on a Belgian waffle iron does not produce a Belgian waffle – it produces a thick, dense, doughy cake-like waffle that, if cooled to room temperature, might make a suitable mattress for a hamster.

Word of Mouth was a better bet for breakfast, at least a solid 50, although I found the food to be a little hit or miss. On the plus side, their scone of the day today was pineapple-coconut (right out of the oven) and it was incredible – slightly dry, like a good scone should be; sweet but not overly so; with bits of actual coconut inside and a crumbly texture. Their home fries are nicely browned and cooked with onions, although today’s onions were more black than brown. The Tex-Mex omelet with chorizo had absolutely no salt in the egg portion, and when I ordered eggs over medium the other day I got something about five seconds past over easy. They serve Harney & Sons teas and the service is very good, but they play awful music (John Mayer on Tuesday, Hootie & the Blowfish today). There are two locations, and I went to the on Cattlemen near Bee Ridge. It’s a solid 50.

Mi Pueblo is a local mini-chain of Mexican places serving mostly the usual fare of burritos, enchiladas, and tacos. Their tacos al carbon with steak were outstanding. The steak was soft – how often have you had steak in a taco or fajita and needed a hacksaw to chew it? Mi Pueblo’s was at the other end of the spectrum. The rice was fresh and gently seasoned, not sticky with tomato paste or sauce. The one I went to, at the corner of McIntosh and Bee Ridge, is tiny and there was a wait when I arrived on a Wednesday night after 7, so the locals seem to have caught on. Based on one dish I’d hazard a grade of 55.