Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Since moving to Phoenix, I hadn't been to a good divey taco place. Granted there are tons of them around, but I usually stick to my Asian foods. I'd seen El Nopalito mentioned in various posts on Chowhound and after Seth's recent review, I decided to give it a try. Tara had to work Saturday, so I headed down for a late lunch. It's on the southeast corner of Thomas and 24th Street. There was plenty of parking when I got there.
Once inside, there were plenty of empty tables. I took a seat at a six-top so I could have room to read my magazine and not be too crowded. The interior is definitely nothing special, but about what you expect from a divey place. A waitress dropped off a menu and I ordered an iced tea. Another server dropped off the chips and two kinds of salsa with my iced tea. There was a red and green salsa. The green was definitely too spicy for me. The red had a nice smoky flavor, but eventually it's spiciness built and I had the chips plain.
I ordered a bowl of tortilla soup, and three tacos: Al Pastor, Carnitas, and Pollo. I waited for a few minutes, reading my Motor Trend and chips, before my food arrived. The soup was good. There was an avocado slice floating in it but I didn't see any cheese. Lifting the spoon revealed that the cheese had sunk to the bottom. It also proved to have a velcro-like attraction to the bottom of the spoon. Anytime I tried to get a spoonful, a huge chunk of cheese attached itself. I ended up doing what I prefer, and just drank straight from the bowl. I'm not exactly Mr. Manners sometimes, but it got the job done.
The tacos were really good, too. A plate held three small open-face tacos with some small lime wedges on the side. I squeezed a little lime juice on them. The Al Pastor was ok. I liked it, but it didn't jump out at me. The Carnitas was good too, with a nice flavor. My favorite was the Pollo. The chicken meat was cooked or marinated in a reddish sauce and it had a great flavor. I wish the corn tortillas themselves had been a bit thicker, as they tended to tear easily.
After I'd finished the tacos, I downed the last of the soup. As I did, one of the waitresses came by and asked if I wanted anything else. At the time, I wasn't sure which tacos were which, so I tried to describe what turned out to be the Pollo. Unfortunately, Spanish is my fourth language after French and German, and I ended up getting two more Al Pastor. Not what I wanted, but I still enjoyed them.
That would have been the end of the review. However, on Sunday I had the bright idea of getting dim sum at Golden Buddha. We didn't get there until about 1:45pm. They stop serving dim sum at 3pm, so I thought we had enough time. Unfortunately, they'd had a busy day and none of the good stuff was left. I don't count fried chicken knees (and what the hell ARE chicken knees?) as good stuff. We were only able to get some shrimp spring rolls and a couple pot stickers. Literally everything else we normally get was gone. We bagged it and Tara was amenable to trying the tacos, so we headed to El Nopalito.
Since Tara isn't much for spicy, she let me order. I ordered four Pollo, since they were good and I figured she'd enjoy them. I also got two Al Pastor. I then got an Adobada and one the waitress suggessted that began with an "L". I also ordered a chicken chimichanga, since it had intrigued me the previous day.
The chimichanga was very disappointing. I was hoping it would be the same chicken as the tacos, but it wasn't. I found it rather bland and only ate about half. Tara enjoyed the Pollo tacos and wasn't keen on the Al Pastor. I tried the "L" one (sorry, I'm blanking on it's true name) and it was very good. The winner was the Adobada, though. It had great flavor and Tara said that it was her favorite as well. My next visit will definitely consist of a large number of those.
The damage for the first visit was about $13. The second visit came to about $20. The tacos are all 99 cents, so they just invite experimentation. I know I'll be back and can't wait.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
When Tara and I first started going out, we'd go for sushi every Sunday and she got burnt out. She likes sushi, but once a month or so is enough for her. I usually can do lunch on a weekday to get my fix if necessary. Last Friday I was in a fishy mood, and with Tara's blessing, we decided to try Yasu's Asian Bistro. It got a glowing review in the New Times and is pretty close to where we live. We hopped into the car and headed down.
Yasu's is located just west of the Paradise Valley Mall on Cactus. It's on the south side of the strip mall that has the Half-priced Books, Voodoo Daddy's and Target. We got a parking spot right out front and went it. The interior is very nice. It certainly belies the older mallish neighborhood outside. There is a waiting area with 4 or 6 comfy chairs and love seats behind the hostess stand. If you walk straight through the waiting area towards the back, there is a small bar with an LCD tv above it. To the right of the waiting area is the main dining room. One large table takes up the center of the room, with a bunch of two/four tops along the front side and a small sushi bar with two benches along the back. We were seated at a round four-top by the kitchen and the door to the patio. The restaurant was full the whole time we were there, except for a tiny round table next to the sushi bar.
One very funny thing, at least to us, happened. Over the past year or two, we've gone to restaurants and have run across the same server named Brian. The first time was at 33 in Scottsdale. Then we had him at Celsius in Desert Ridge. Last Thanksgiving, we went to Shogun (just down the road from Yasu's in PV) and had him as well. As we were looking over the menu here, someone behind me said "Hi" and Tara looked up and started laughing. It turns out Brian is the GM at Yasu's. Small culinary world in North Phoenix, apparently.
Anyways, back to the food. Yasu's has a tapas-like menu. Lots of small. Their specialty is items grilled over specially imported woods. After taking a long time to look over the menu and asking questions about the items, we made our choices. We both got Cokes.
We started with some edamame. They came out nice and hot, but weren't salted enough for us. Tara asked and got a small dish of sea salt on the side with no problems.
The first thing to arrive was the Red roll I ordered. It was a long roll with two shrimp tempura end-to-end with a spicy tuna mixture on top. It was good, but the spicy was very strong and seemed to focus on the top front of my tongue. It almost felt like I'd burned my tongue. It eventually subsided, but somewhat hindered my taste buds for the meal. The roll came out so fast I thought it was pre-fab, but the shrimp was still hot, so it was fresh made.
Next came a King Mushroom dish. The description on the menu was very tempting, but the execution wasn't what we expected. Some long fibrous mushrooms were quartered and covered with some fried shrimp and some other things. It was very hard to eat with only chopsticks. It was ok, but we're not sure we are the intended audience. It wasn't bad, just not what we expected.
I ordered a bowl of miso soup. It came in a large wooden cup/bowl with a wooden spoon. It was an excellent miso. Lots of seaweed and tofu floated in a very flavorful broth. I could have finished another couple servings of this no problem.
Tara got a shrimp tempura roll. It was pretty much like my Red roll without the spicy tuna topper and only one shrimp. They don't put eel sauce on their roll, unlike most places I'm used to. Tara still enjoyed it though.
Next up was the tempura yellow tail. Yellow tail meat was rolled into a seaweed wrapper, lightly batterred, and fried. Three pieces about the size of a small egg roll came on the plate along with a small bowl of dipping sauce. I liked it and so did Tara.
The last item to arrive was from the grill side of the menu. The tukune is a ground chicken mixture formed into a sausage-sized log and grilled. It was very good. I think there was a sweet sauce over it as well. This was probably my favorite of the night.
Overall we enjoyed Yasu's. All of our dishes were excellently prepared. Any issues we had were probably just personal tastes and expectations. It wasn't quite what we expected, but we still enjoyed it and there are lots of other items we are curious to try. The grilled items are very interesting and they do have a full nigiri/maki menu. The specialty rolls are limited, so if that's what you are looking for, I'd suggest another restaurant. If you are looking for an interesting mix of Japanese grilled items and sushi, this is definitely worth a try. They also have quite a few daily specials as well.
For an idea on pricing, here's the rundown of what we got:
King Mushroom 8.00
Tempura Yellow Tail 7.50
Miso soup 3.00
Shrimp Tempura roll 6.50
Red roll 12.00
The Office is located in what used to be a location of the Dallas-based Rockfish restaurant. Rockfish closed a while ago and I think it's been vacant since. We got there around 8:15 pm or so and it was pretty dead. It's a good-sized space and there were a couple booths and about a half-dozen people at the bar. There were quite a few flat screen TVs hanging around, with mostly ESPN channels but one over the bar had the America Idol finale. Oddly, that TV had it's volume up so it was fighting with the background music in the restaurant. Both Tara and I thought they should have picked one or the other. We were seated immediately in a booth near the bar.
The menu has a distinct Southwest leaning. Almost everything has a chipotle this or chile that in the description. Tara opted for the Gringo Burger, which comes with lettuce, onion, tomato, and a side of the cilantro garlic fries. She ordered it without the lettuce and tomato, but with cheddar. I decided to try their chicken chimichanga with red sauce. It comes with a choice of two sides among rice, fresh veggies, and a few others. I got the casa salad in place of the two sides. I asked what dressings they have, and after he rattled of a few, I chose the mango citrus dressing. He said he'd have it on the side just in case I didn't like it. That seemed like a nice touch. Tara got a Coke and I got iced tea for drinks. After putting in our order, our waiter came back and asked if I wanted my salad with my dinner or as an appetizer. I asked for it first.
A few minutes later, my salad came out. It was a medium plate of mixed greens instead of iceburg, with a couple cherry tomaties, strips of tortilla, and some cheese. I prefer this type of salad to iceburg, so I was happy. The dressing was ok. It had a bit of a zing to it, but wasn't memorable.
In due time, our entrees arrived. Tara's was a place with a lot of fries, with the top of the bun inverted on them and the bottom bun and burger resting on that. The onions were nowhere to be found. Tara's review of the burger was "dry and flavorless". She wasn't impressed. The cilantro garlic fries were crispier than the ones in Prescott, but there was hardly any garlic on them. The ones in Prescott were literally covered in garlic. These had more of a hint. You could see a few bits here and there, but they were a very pale imitation of the ones she loved so much up north.
My chimi looked lonely on the plate, as it was all by itself except for a ramekin of sour cream. The menu lists it as literally a fried version of their burrito. It was good. Nothing special, but I enjoyed the flavors. The red sauce gave it a bit of heat, but not much. Definitely a gringo dish.
Overall, we weren't very impressed. For one, the entrees seemed overpriced. Her burger was nearly $10 and my chimi was $12. We'll happily spend the extra buck for the burgers at Delux, which also has amazing fries. The night before we'd gone to Baby Kay's and I'd gotten their Tuesday night seafood enchilada special for $14, which I loved. When we got the bill, I did my usual guessing of how much and when I saw I was $10 low, I was concerned. Apparently when the waiter punched in the order, he forgot to add her cheese onto her burger. So he added a second burger to the bill instead of just adding cheese to the existing burger. If the restaurant had been busy, I could have excused this. However, he had only two tables with a total of four people. He should have picked up on that. He apologized and redid the check with no problem.
We won't go back on our own. There's nothing that makes The Office stand out from the other restaurants at Desert Ridge, and there are much better choices within easy driving of the shopping center.
Monday, May 21, 2007
We took a seat a the table. The misters were working, so it wasn't too bad. Since it was still full inside, I offered the other two chairs at the table to two guys who arrived after us. One ordered a burger and the other ordered the French Toast.
After a while, the little window opened and they said our food was ready. I went up and they handed out three burgers. They thought we were all one group. Tara came up and took the burgers to the table. They then handed out one order of fries. I told them that we had two orders of fries. They apologized and told us the other fries would be ready in a few minutes. I took the first fries back and gave them to Tara. The burgers were really good. I still prefer their hot dog, but it's a personal thing. A few minutes later the French toast was up and the guy grabbed it. Chunks of the bread were battered and deep fried and served in a cup with real maple syrup on the side. We then got the call that the fries were ready.
I went up, and they handed out two orders of fries. I explained that we already had one, so they let us have the extra one on the house. I took them back to the table and dove into one basket and offered the other guys fries. The fries were also tasty. Well salted and perfect with the ketchup.
The French toast proved too much to eat for the other guy, so he offered us a piece. While it started out crunchy, the steam had softened the bottom pieces. Still, it had a great eggy flavor and is definitely something we want to try in the future. At this point, we got the call that the cookie was done.
I went to get out cookies, and only one was there. I again explained that we ordered two. They said they would put another in the oven and if it wasn't done before we left, they wouldn't charge us. I grabbed the one that was done and went back to the table. I was still working on my fries, but I grabbed a piece of the hot, gooey cookie. It was perfect. It was an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie with big hunks of chocolate. it was also huge. Maybe five or six inches in diameter. We managed to finish all the fries and were pretty much full. Tara ate all the crunchy edges from the cookie. I emptied out our trash and took the plastic containers inside and to pay.
I went inside and we tried to figure out the bill. They only charged us for two of the three fries and one of the two cookies. The second cookie just finished and they let us have it free due to the confusion with our order. All told, we had two cheeseburgers, three fries, two cookies, and two soda. Our bill with the freebies came to just under $20. I offered to pay for the other items, but they insisted. So we got a hell of a deal. I really liked that they didn't argue with us about the ordering issues. They accepted that there had been some confusion on their part and just rolled with it, making sure the customer was happy. Another reason we love this place.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Our total bill came to $55 with tax, which seemed way too low for all the food we had. Our dishes ranged between $2.25 and $3.25. Given the amount of food and how good it was, it's a definite bargain. Service was good. Our drinks were filled and empty plates cleared away as we finished them. I'm used to going on weekends/holidays, and it was odd seeing the dining room so relatively empty.
Friday, May 11, 2007
Are there any restaurants that you love but don't go to anymore due to horrible service? After reading the responses to my PCG review, and an experience we had last night at Shish Kebab House, it got me wondering. How good does the food need to be to overcome fairly abysmal wait staff?
We went to Shish Kebab House last night for dinner. We got there around 7:45pm and there were maybe 6 tables of diners when we got there. A few groups came after us, and they topped out around 9 tables. Service has never been the strong point there, and it was especially bad last night for most of the tables. We were in the middle of the dining room and I was facing the kitchen. They had only two girls waitressing, and from our last visit a few weeks ago, we knew one was still new. It turned out the other was even newer. We overheard at least three tables complaining of bad service, which the new girl shrugged off and merely said "I'm new." We could tell the kitchen staff wasn't happy by how many times and how hard he hit the little "meal is ready bell". I could see the prep table in the room between the kitchen and dining room, and it would be filled with meals. Eventually the owner came out and stood watch over the girls, but that didn't help. At least two tables got wrong dishes and the waitress said "He didn't order that. Well, I didn't HEAR him order."
Our personal experience consisted of being seated by the newer girl and being told the other one would take our order. We always get the same thing, so we didn't need to crack our menu. After about 10 minutes, during which time the waitresses passed us several times, the girl we were told would serve us stopped as she was walking by and asked if we'd ordered yet. Well, our menus were still sitting in front of us on the table, instead of stacked on the front counter, so she lost points there. We then ordered our drinks, hummus, Tara's koubedah, and my gyros platter. She then said "That's it?" Nice. She then went to enter the order and do whatever else she did. While we waited, we got the floor show described above.
Our salads and the hummus came out at the normal pace, but they never gave us small plates to put our pitas on. Drink refills were done fairly timely. No dishes were ever removed from the small two-top we were at, so it got crowded. During the height of the fubar that was the service, I could see our entrees on the prep table. The kitchen guy ended up grabbing our plates and walking behind the front counter and basically handing the plates to our waitress and pointing to our table. Our entrees were still warm, but Tara likes hers blazing hot. Mine was fine for me. Rather than push things too far, we just ate them. The food was still great. I love the peppery gyro meat and Tara generally cleans the hummus bowl down to the glaze.
Overall OUR experience wasn't as bad as the other tables once we ordered. One table next to us complained to the waitress saying they probably won't be back. Rather than get the owner, she gave the "I'm new" reply. Wrong answer. If it was our first trip there, we probably wouldn't go back. However, we love the food there. It's our favorite hummus and my favorite gyros. Tara loves the koubedah. So we can deal with questionable service because we know the food is always good. One problem is the perpetual lack of customers probably doesn't help them maintain good servers. On our first visits we always saw different waitstaff, but the last few before this one we always got the same waitress who was good. She wasn't there last night. They do a good take-out business, but we don't live close enough for that to be an option. At some point the owners need to step up and do something to fix the situation. We really love the food and will go back on that basis, but I'm sure that casual visitors will probably try someplace else after some of the experiences we witnessed.
Thursday, May 10, 2007
Tara was thinking about the pot roast until I reminded her we were making one at home on Wednesday. After that, she looked over the menu and decided to go with one of the nightly specials, a steak on top of beans and corn cakes with a chipotle bbq sauce (on the side for her, since she doesn't do spicy) and topped with fried onions. None of the entrees grabbed me but several of the starters/small plates did, so I decided to get two of them. I chose the pork carnitas and the shrimp and lobster quesadilla. Tara also got a coke and I got an iced tea.
Our entrees took a bit to arrive, but it might have seemed longer since there was no salad or appetizer course. Tara's steak came as advertised. The only problem she had was she ordered it medium or medium-well and it was mostly well-done. She said it was still good, but got a bit chewy. The corn cakes were really good and she loved the crunchy onions. She didn't care for the beans. I tried them and they weren't bad, just not something I liked. I also tried a taste of the chipotle bbq sauce, and it seemed like Heinz sauce mixed with hot sauce. No chipotle flavor, just hot.
My dishes both arrived on large triangular plates. The pork carnitas was a good chunk of pork with piles of pickled onions, fresh cilantro/chopped onions, pico, shredded cabbage, and a ramekin of white cheese and one of green salsa in the center. It came with a container of corn tortillas on the side. The pork had a really good flavor and shredded easily. I rolled up some tacos and the flavors melded perfectly. It reminded me of the street tacos we'd get in Dallas. I got quite a few tortillas and had some leftover. The pork wasn't spicy so Tara tried some and like it as well.
The shrimp and lobster quesadilla was really good too. Sliced into quarters, it had drizzles of some sort of sauce on the top. There was a good amount of shrimp and lobster and the cheese had good flavor too. I saw one piece of lobster that was nearly a whole chunk of claw meat, so they weren't skimping. The flavors of the lobster and shrimp both came through. My only problem was I'd eaten most of the pork before, and couldn't finish the quesadilla. It was good the next day for lunch, though, so it didn't go to waste.
Service was ok. There were times our drinks got empty, but they were usually refilled without us having to actually ask. One thing I did notice was that a table of four girls across from us sat for a LONG time with their menus before their order was taken. I started timing out of curiosity and got at least 15 or 20 minutes before their waitress stopped by. They all had their menus closed, so it wasn't like they looked like they were still deciding. Considering the restaurant was at least three quarters empty by this time, it seemed a bit excessive. Our first trip there for dinner we had a similar bad experience with one of their waitresses. She'd stop by all the surrounding tables, but never came to ours.
We'll definitely go back. I also am curious to try their sister restaurant, Sierra Bonita Grill. I really enjoyed my carnitas and I'm wondering how the more Mexican-influenced SBG is. The only things to be careful of are the possible crowds and occasionally questionable service. It's located at Bethany Home and 16th Street. It's on the SW corner, facing 16th Street.
Sunday, May 6, 2007
When Tara and I started going out, we looked for interesting places that we both might like. We wanted to do breakfast way back, and found The Farmhouse listed on several Best Of lists. We've been to it lots of times, but being the hard-working folks we are, we tend to sleep in on weekends, so making it to Gilbert in time for breakfast takes some advanced planning. Luckily, if we miss The Farmhouse, Joe's Real BBQ is literally across the street. :) We love The Farmhouse, but hadn't been to it in over a year. My parents came down from Maine in March '06, and we took them. I wanted to go to Vonhanson's Meat Market on Alma School in Chandler for some of their heavenly double-smoked bacon, and figured that was a good enough excuse to head down to The Farmhouse for breakfast beforehand.
I guess The Farmhouse used to literally be an old farmhouse, but rising land values in Gilbert made them relocate into the "downtown" area. There's a big sign hanging out front so you can't miss it. It's a fair-sized restaurant, with maybe twenty tables/booths of varying sizes and shapes. One thing I like about them is the eclectic nature of their furniture and utensils. The two larger tables look like they were taken from someone's kitchen. The silverware at the table probably will be mismatched. It just adds to the charm.
There's usually a line out front. We got there about ten to eleven, and were about fifth on the list. The wait can be much longer earlier. We only waited about 5 or 10 minutes before our name as called. It helped that we were a party of two.
We were seated along the south wall at a two top. None of the daily specials piqued our interest, so we both decided to get scrambles. In our rotation of breakfast restaurants, The Farmhouse wins on scrambles. Tara got a bacon, onion, and mushroom scramble, a side of bacon, and a coke. I got a sausage, bacon, and mushroom scramble and a chocolate milk. Cheddar-jack cheese is also include in the scrambles, and they come with wheat toast. I substituted an english muffin on mine. We split one of the cinnamon buns.
A word about the cinnamon buns. They are big. They come with an outstanding citrus-infused glaze. They are very caloric. We love them. It came out first and even splitting it, each half was almost bigger than the smaller plates we got to put them on. As usual, it was gooey excess at its best. Nicely warm, lots of cinnamon, and the glaze give you that special sugar rush your pancreas dreads. We'd barely started on the roll before our scrambles came out. We rearranged our table top and managed to fit everything on it. Barely.
The scrambles were great as well. They don't mess around with the ingredients. Huge chunks of bacon, sausage, and mushrooms were mixed with the eggs and covered with the cheese. I loved it. The home fries are full slices of potatoes with a seasoning on them and nicely browned. If you get a scramble with potatoes, you get the same home fries in your scramble. They don't skimp on the fillings. I was able to eat about 2/3 of scramble and a few home fries. Tara did just the opposite. She ate most of her home fries and barely touched the scramble. To be honest, by the time we finished the roll, we were pretty full. The portions are pretty large for the roughly $8 we paid for each scramble. It's a great deal. The side of bacon was perfectly done. It was just crispy, but not dry. It had really good flavor.
Service is always great as well. As busy as it always is, the waitstaff is able to maneuver through the chaos of narrow aisles and rampant kids with no accidents. They are also very friendly and professional. Without having to ask, our waitress dropped off a glass of water when she noticed I was almost done with my chocolate milk.
The kitchen also gets kudos for speed. They must have everything down to a science, because all their food comes out fast. The restaurant has always been packed when we've been there, but the food has always come out much quicker than seems reasonable. I wish I knew how they do it.
Can a better breakfast be found closer? Probably. But I'll still head down with absolutely no regrets because it's one of those places that is always perfect. And it's only 5 miles from Vonhanson's, so it worked out quite well.