Monday, July 30, 2007

Durant's - a lazy approach to a review

Durant's. Around the food scene in Phoenix, Durant's has been a stalwart for 58 years. It's the epitome of an old school steak joint with a mafia vibe. We decided to go here for our third anniversary. Tara's a steak junkie and has been wanting to go here for years. Rather than write a review myself, I'll just put a link in to her take on the evening.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Shiro Japanese restaurant

After having been watching our money following our San Diego, I was in the mood for something a bit more than a sandwich for lunch when I got paid on Friday. I'd read that the chef from the old Ayako at the Biltmore mall had opened a place at Tatum and Shea. Since that's close enough for me to go for lunch, I decided to try it. It's tucked away among the shops in the horribly designed mall on the NE corner of the intersection. The traffic pattern is horrible, but I've noticed that a lot of the malls around here are similarly challenged.

Being a new place, the interior is very nice. A long, dark-wood sushi bar lines the left side, with a boomerang-like shape. About 17 seats line it. Small tables line the immediate entry way until the space widens at the bend in the sushi bar. Quite a few tables are in the deceptively deep restaurant. There were a few tables taken, but no one was at the bar, which is where I sat.

Since it was my first time, I ordered my staples: tuna, salmon, yellowtail, and unagi. I also got a shrimp tempura roll. I handed my order to the sushi chef in front of me and looked over the menu while I waited. They have several bento box lunch specials with various combinations for sushi, sashimi, tempura, and meats. There are a lot of cooked dishes I didn't recognize, so I'm guessing they might be more of a native Japanese thing than I'm used to.

After a little while, my three raw sushi choices arrived. Long, narrow pieces of fish sat atop nicely sized rice chunks. The fish wasn't cut with any care for presentation. Frayed edges were apparent on the salmon. It all tasted ok. Nothing special, but no fishy tastes or smells.

My shrimp tempura roll arrived next. A fairly small, five-piece roll was on a small boat-shaped dish. Instead of the usual sweet eel sauce, the back 1/4 of the dish had a deep pool of a ginger-based sauce. The roll was ok and the sauce was interesting, if nothing else. It kind of reminded me of a ginger salad dressing with a darker soy mixed with it, so it wasn't sweet at all. I guess they should get some credit for being different, but it wasn't my thing. I love ginger, so it wasn't that. I'm sure some people will really enjoy it.

The letdown of the meal was the eel. I noticed that it wasn't very hot coming out of the toaster oven, but it was warm. I'm pretty sure part of it wasn't cooked all the way, so it very mushy. I managed to swallow it, but it was a far cry from the sublime unagi I had recently at Hana on 7th Ave.

Service was acceptable until the end. Once the waiter took my credit card, he set it down by the register and I didn't get it back for a good ten or fifteen minutes. I could see both waiters hanging around that area, but mostly they were watching the muted TVs above the bar which had coverage of the horrible helicopter crash that at that point had just happened. I was getting ready to walk over and ask what was up when he finally brought it over.

Overall it was a let down. Yasu Bistro just up Tatum at Cactus or Kampai Sushi on Bell are much better choices. Yasu is much more adventurous and Kampai does the basics very well.
My bill came to $28 after tax. Given the presentation and iffy quality of the cooked eel, it's not the best deal. Luckily, dinner was our anniversary celebration at Durant's.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Three years and a day...

Yesterday was Tara and my third anniversary together. We had a low-key celebration, as the days off for San Diego hit both of our last checks. I baked her some devil's food cake cupcakes from a great recipe I found online and got her a Vosges Barcelona Bar. It's an exotic candy bar with hickory smoked almonds, chunks of grey sea salt, and deep milk chocolate that's 41% cacao. She got me a Lindt milk chocolate truffle candy bar and a little Transformer (an in-joke between us). We'll probably have a real celebration dinner either this weekend or in a few weeks. We still haven't decided where we want to go yet. Kai or Binkley's are our wish, but finances might bring us back to earth. Lon's or T. Cook's are where we've done our past celebrations.

Our first date was at Blue Wasabi in N. Scottsdale, just as it was becoming an a-hole hangout. They still had the 1/2 price for wearing blue on Sundays, so it was a pretty good deal. That's long since ended and the crowded interior filled with Scottsdale jerks isn't worth putting up with. I loved the food when it was a good night, but we had sketchy service many times.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Blast from the past...

Growing up, for reasons unknown to me, my mother liked Peugeots. There was a dealer near us in Maine, McElman Subaru Peugeot, and every once in a while, I remember driving by with my family. Eventually, we got our first one, a red diesel 1978 504 wagon, in the early 80s. It was a manual and fairly gutless, but once up to speed, the French suspension gave it a great ride. Over the years, we had many more: a 505 Turbodiesel wagon, a 505 GL gas sedan, and the last and best, a 505 Turbo (gas, not diesel) that was a blast. Being French cars, they had their quirks. Little things would go wrong and need to be serviced and eventually would irritate. But when they ran, they had a great ride. Lots of travel for a comfy ride but still very sporty. Eventually Mom and Dad fell victim to the SUV sickness and got a Chevy Blazer, but I was always partial to the quirky Peugeots. I think they are what started me on my European car fetish. As finicky as they were, they still drove way better than any American cars. Today, Peugeots are long-gone from these shores, although they still are huge in Europe. I am on my second Audi now, a little black A3 2.0 I got in September. I traded my trusty '02 A4 3.0 quattro for it. Tara hates the sports suspension and the a/c isn't cold enough for her. I love it though.

So today I am driving to the gym and what do my eyes behold? The first running Peugeot 505 wagon I've seen in years. It was very similar to this one. Our 505 wagon this style, but white. The last Peugeot I'd seen was a junker in the weeds near our friends house in Mountain View, CA, a year ago. I'm not sure how much longer it'll stay running, but it's nice to see some are still plugging along.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Around the world in two stores

This weekend Tara and I decided to hit a couple of the ethnic markets in the area. We needed some sesame seeds for a recipe and the local supermarket had 1 oz for $8. I knew if we tried an Asian market, we could find some cheaper. We went to the 99 Ranch Market in the Chinese Cultural Center at 44th Street and the 202. While not as huge as Lee Lee's Market in Chandler, they are much closer and usually have what we are looking for. We found 8 oz of sesame seeds for $1.29. Unfortunately, while browsing, Tara discovered that they also sell pork uterus in their meat department. After she got over her queasiness, we continued shopping.

Our next stop was Phoenix Ranch Market. No relation to the 99 Ranch Market, PRM is a huge Mexican supermarket at Roosevelt and 16th Street. It has the atmosphere of a carnival when it's busy, but it wasn't too bad when we went. The whole western wall inside the store is a food court with just about any Mexican specialty you could want. There is a tortilla factory just beyond the food court churning out fresh tortillas. Very good ones, by the way. They also have large fresh seafood selection, a huge fresh meat market, and tons of fresh vegetables. Their prices are also below most of the other supermarkets, so many things are a bargain. We got some ground beef, chicken breasts, and beef fajita meat. I've wanted to try the shrimp ceviche so we got some of that as well. I also decided to finally try some of their horchata, a white, milky type drink with vanilla and cinnamon. I really enjoyed it, but it wasn't Tara's thing.

The only downside of PRM is the parking lot. It's a nightmare. All rules of driving appear to be thrown out by the people there. It terrified us on our first visit around Christmas. Luckily it wasn't as bad on this visit, but still scary.

Cornish Pasty Co - Tempe

One of the more unusual restaurants in the Valley is the Cornish Pasty Company. Currently a single location on the NE corner of Hardy and University, it's primary dish is the pasty, pronounced "pass-tee". A pasty is a pocket pie that resembles a calzone. It originated as an easy meal for miners in Cornwall to bring with them. One end would have meat, the other would have some type of a dessert. The thick crust let them eat it without utensils and protect the food from the toxic chemicals they dealt with in the mines and covered their fingers. Eat most of it and discard the small piece you held with your fingers, and all was well.

Cornish Pasty Co. has a fairly simple menu. Three pages of pasties, some salads, three or four sides, and some dessert pasties. In addition, they have a fairly good and diverse selection of import beer.

The space itself is very long and narrow, somehow fitting for a dish that originated in a mine. Along the right side are mostly two-tops with a few seats at a small ledge. I don't remember that from my first visit. At the very back of the restaurant is a triangle-shaped three-top and in the far corner is a long table that will seat eight. Along the left side is a long bar with stools and clips for purses to hang.

We entered and there were maybe seven customers. A couple was sitting at one of the two-tops and another was in the very back at the big table. Three people were seated at the long bar. We too the triangle table so we'd have a bit more room, as the two-tops are very narrow and butted right up to the wall. Menus are on the table, so we each grabbed one and looked over the selection.

The pasty selection is vast. It ranges from the traditional sausage, mashed potatoes, and rutabega pasty to more exotic ones with chicken tikka masala or carne adovada, and plenty in between. They also have nearly a full page of Vegetarian pasties as well. I tried the tikka masala on our first visit while Tara had the Shepard's Pie. I liked mine but hers had no flavor, so she wasn't very inclined to make a return visit. This time she decided to get the Royale with Cheese, basically a cheeseburger with bacon and onions inside a pasty crust. She got it with a side of ketchup. I went with the Carne Adovada, pork marinated in a New Mexico chile stew, onions, Hatch green peppers, and rice. It came with sides of sour cream and salsa.

We waited a few minutes and a waitress finally came by to take our drink orders. We both got water with lemon. After she came back, we ordered our meal.

The pastys are premade, but frozen, so it takes about 20-25 minutes for them to cook. They are also availabe to buy frozen and take to cook at home.

After the wait, our pasties arrived. Unlike our first visit, where they were served on parchment paper with no utensils, they now serve them cut in half on an oval metal plate with metal forks and knives. They arrived at the table HOT. I cut one half of mine into small pieces so it would cool faster. Tara has a much higher heat tolerance than me, so she tried her almost at once.

She really liked it this time. She said there was very good flavor and it was almost like a cheeseburger. The crust was golden brown, crusty, and flaky.

Mine also had a great looking crust. Perfectly cooked, flaky, crusty, and not at all doughy. I'd love to just have an empty crusty to try. My Carne Adovada was really good. It had a definite spiciness from the chiles. Not too bad, but hot enough that my eyes started to sweat. The meat was very tender and with a little dollop of sour cream, tasted wonderful. It was like a chimichanga with a flaky crust. I loved it. Probably not anywhere near authentic, but the flavor is what matters, and I enjoyed it. For authentic Mexican, Rosita's is three doors down.

We both cleaned our plates and waited for the check. We've noticed on both occasions that service is somewhat slow. Even with almost no customers, they take their time. Eventually our waitress came by and we got the check. The total was $14.50 with tax. The pasties are pretty good sized, so this is a pretty good deal. Tara is willing to go back now that she knows there's something she enjoys. CPC is definitely an interesting place and worth trying once or twice. The broad range of fillings should make it easy to find something you will like.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


Tara loves bacon. I wish I could say I was the love of her life, but I know better. If she could move to Vermont or Hawaii and legally marry a slab of bacon, I'd be suddenly single again. A while back, we decided to go to Chandler and look around Von Hanson's Meat Market. It is the lone Arizona location of a Minnesota-based company. We'd heard they carried cheese curds, and she loves those. While we were there, in addition to the curds, we picked up some meats, one of which was a couple pounds of their double-smoked bacon. It's thick-cut and absolutely amazing. Even after cooking it for too long, it still tastes great. I'm not a huge bacon lover like Tara, but I really enjoy this. We've also tried samples of their sausages and stuff, and most of it is equally good. We've heard on CH that they also have good hot dogs, so next trip we'll need to check that out. Unfortunately, I've accidentally gotten another ex-Minnesotan on CH by the name of AZHotdish hooked on the bacon. :) Hopefully there'll be a twelve-step program created soon for it.
Any other former Minnesotans reading this in the Metroplex might be interested in knowing that Von Hanson's also carries some other Minnesota treats, like Gedney's pickles. It's located on Alma School in Chandler between Elliot and Warner I think.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

More cheese, Gromit?

It's always A Fine Day Out when I run across a new cheese I like. Growing up, we always had Cracker Barrel and it was always white. For some reason, after moving to Texas, I discovered the CB there was colored orange, even my favorite, Extra Sharp White. I had to look for the Vermont White to get my fix. Psychological or not, the orange tastes different and reminds me too much of American Cheese, which I hate.

This weekend while hunting down the elusive Bacon candy bar, I ran across some really good cheese at the Wild Oats we stopped at. They were sampling KALTBACH Le Gruyère, a cave-aged cheese. I really enjoyed it.

I also LOVE Kerrygold Dubliner cheese. Luckily, Sam's and Costco usually carry it, so it's far cheaper per pound than at the supermarket. It just hits the endorphin center.

I'm a huge fan of sharp Cheddars. Central Market in Plano, TX, had a great cheese selection and I'd hit it every week or two. I found Austrailian and Canadian chedders that were great. Parmesan Reggiano is also now standard. The Kraft Parmesan is relegated to our garlic Parmesan mushrooms like we had at the Gilroy Garlic Festival last year. Man, those were mushroom-shaped crack. :)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Yet another Osha Thai Cafe visit

We tried to go to Lemongrass Thai Cuisine today, but despite the door saying they are open 4pm-9pm, a hand-written note next to it said Closed on Sundays. Oh well. So instead we went to Osha.
Tara has had a hard time finding an entree there, but this time she found one. She got the Spicy Cashew dish with pork with as mild spice as possible. She really liked it and a will definitely get it again.
Maybelline, the older of the owner's two daughter who waitress there, has suggested the masamun beef curry several times. I got it this time and it was very good. A bowl with carrots, potatoes, onions, and hunks of tender beef in a dark yellow curry sauce with a dollop of coconut milk on top. The yellow curry has a shorter half-life then red or green curry, so my mouth wasn't burning for a long time after eating it. I'd definitely recommend it for people who enjoy masamun.
Our appetizer was the Osha Golden Pockets again. As usual, they were great.
I didn't get any Tom Kha this time despite the near narcotic addictiveness of it.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Guilty Pleasures

Normally I like to avoid chain restaurants and the like. However, I do have some guilty pleasures. I've been eating fairly healthy the past week to try to lose some weight. My doc suggested it would be a good idea. :) Both Tara and I were in the mood to go out, so we decided to hit Benihana. We enjoy the goofy show the chefs put on and we both have dishes we like: Tara goes for the chateaubriand and I go for the hibachi shrimp. I also love the ginger dressing and she loves the onion soup.

Another one for me is Chipotle. I love getting a nice huge chicken burrito with black beans, rice, pico, cheese and sour cream. I also love their chips with the lime flavor.

Dairy Queen Peanut Buster Parfait with chocolate ice cream. Georgetown, ME, where I grew up has only one road leading to it due to the fact it's an island. Growing up, you had to pass the DQ in Woolwich, ME. It was literally on the corner where you turned south on Route 127 to head to Georgetown. So that was where we always went for ice cream, except for the occasional trip to the LONG gone Dairy Joy on the west end of the Carlton Bridge connecting Bath and Woolwich. I'd hit the DQ a lot in the summers after I got my driver's license. Luckily working for my Dad's construction company during those same summers burned of those and any other extra calories I found. So the PBP's remind me of my massively misspent youth. :)

Basic McDonalds or Burger King hamburgers. Sometimes I just crave a cheap, mass-produced hamburger. I don't know why.

Sweet and sour chicken. Again, another remnant of growing up. We'd go to Chinese restaurant in the Holiday Inn (I think that's what it was) in Brunswick, ME, and I'd get that. Once in college in Worcester, MA, my friends would tool on me because that was all I'd order at Ping's Garden. So I eventually stopped getting that and started to try nearly everything else on the menu. Ping's was cheap and had great food, so we ate there a lot. One week, I went there three times, each time with a different one of my female college friends, and the hostess started giving me weird looks. :) I still have the soft spot for sweet and sour, so from time to time I give in to the urge.

Houston's Hickory Burger, without the Canadian bacon. Something about the combo of the beef, shredded cheddar cheese, and the bbq sauce on it just works for me.

Wendy's Frosty's. To me, it's like a huge cup of soft serve chocolate ice cream, but far cheaper than a similar amount of DQ ice cream.

Again speaking of DQ, I love their Krunch Kote topping. I never fail to have a lot of it fall on my shirt, but I just love it. However, my friend Joe in Maine dwarfs me in that. For him, Krunch Kote is the main course and the ice cream or frozen custard is purely incidental.

Fluff. You can't find it easily in Phoenix or Dallas, but nothing takes decades off my age like a toasted peanut butter and Fluff sandwich. Don't ask me to explain the difference, but marshmallow creme just doesn't cut it.

Jelly Bellys, primarily cherry and grape. Unknown why, but I just like them. I'm sure where ever my abused first car, a bright red 1978 Chevette Scooter (yes, even Chevettes could be made even cheaper with cardboard door panels), ended up, it still has fossilized grape Jelly Bellys under the seats from a bag that spilled.

Thanks to Joe for reminding me of the Fat Boy, a throwback to 50's drive-in diners. Located in Brunswick, ME, it's a big square green building with parking spots around it. You park nose-first and when you are ready to order, you turn your headlights on and the waitpersons come to you. Nothing great, but fun for the nostalgia.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Shades Oceanfront Bistro - Ocean Beach (San Diego)

Our last night in San Diego, I asked Tara what she was in the mood for. After having her fill of Asian (Thai, dim sum, and Vietnamese), she said she wanted a burger. I looked on the Chowhound board and found a couple of candidtates: Rocky's and Hodad's, which were both about 9 miles northwest of our hotel, but actually not that far apart from each other. We hit Rocky's first. It turned out to be a neighborhood pub type place and was packed. We didn't feel like waiting, so we headed for Hodad's. Hodad's was out in Ocean Beach, just a block from the ocean. We snagged a spot on the busy main drag, and walked back up the street to the restaurant. It was a brightly colored place, and even more packed than Rocky's had been. We didn't want to wait and headed back to the car. On our way, we stopped into the candy store we'd passed on the walk to Hodad's. As we were purchasing some pecan-covered chocolate toffee, we told the owner about our thwarted burger plans. She mentioned that she really liked a place just down the street and one block over called Shades. She mentioned having been there the night before and had getting a huge portion of fish and chips. They apparently had a large menu, and we decided to give it a try.

After a short walk (tossing the candy into the car on our way) we had a beautiful view of the sunset over the Pacific. Tara tried to get a picture, but her camera showed a really dark pict on it's screen. She has it on her blog I believe. After marveling at the view, we turned right and saw Shades right in front of us. We went up the steps onto a pretty big patio and walked around the outside seating to the entrance. Since it was still pretty nice out, we opted for seating outside. There was a breeze off the water, but they had a plexiglass barrier that blocked most of it.

We were presented with menus and they had a large selection. The soup of the day was a crab bisque. Most of the entrees came with soup or salad. Tara is a fan of fish and chips, and had pretty much decided on that once the candy lady mentioned it. I got Hawaiian chicken , which is two breasts marinated in a teriyaki glaze with pineapple slices and fries. We both opted for the crab bisque.

While we waited, the couple next to us got their order. A massive salad was placed in front of the lady and Tara commented on it's size. The lady heard and asked if she wanted to share.

Our bisque came out in a few minutes and it was really good. Rich and creamy and was great in the cooling night air.

Our main dishes arrived and Tara's fish and chips was impressive. Like the lady said, the amount of fish was daunting. Five huge pieces of Icelandic cod were lightly battered and fried to a nice golden brown. She really enjoyed them but wasn't able to eat it all.

My chicken was also a more than healthy portion. It was topped with more of the teriyaki sauce. The chicken was really moist and it was a good meal. The fries were fairly thick and crunchy.

This was also our only meal that we had no issues with the service. Our waitress was cheery and very helpful. Refills were on time and we never needed to ask for anything. At one point during the meal, a group of drunk twenty-somethings had a loud mock fight just outside the outside seating that was disrupting, but otherwise it was a great way to end our trip, overlooking the ocean and smelling the salt air. Even though the ocean was on the wrong side, it still reminded me home.

Saigon on Fifth - San Diego

Our luck with restaurants got better as our visit to San Diego wore on. While looking for Kitima, I'd noticed the sign for Saigon on Fifth. After we left Kitima, we went down the block to Saigon to look at the menu. Upon entering, I could tell it wasn't your typical Vietnamese place. It had a gorgeous interior, and looked very upscale. The menu wasn't your typical Vietnamese either. It had some dishes that I'd only seen at another more upscale VN place in Dallas years ago. I snagged a takeout menu to study better and told Tara I'd definitely like to try this place.

Sunday night, we decided to give it a try. We drove by several times because we couldn't tell if it was open or not. It was dark inside and the Open sign was turned off. After our third drive-by, Tara said she saw people inside, so we parked in the adjacent underground parking garage (parking in the Hillcrest district sucks, for those who haven't been). We took the elevator up and came out in an indoor courtyard garden. We noticed tables setup just to our left, and wondered of it was part of the restaurant. We exited the building and walked around to the front door of the restaurant. It was indeed open and quite a few tables in the front room were occupied. We were seated in a booth in the corner and given the menus.

What had initially captured my attention on the first look was some of the Table Specialties: Beef a la Grill, Vinegar Fondue Beef, and Sugar Cane Shrimp. I haven't seen these at too many restaurants. I thought about getting one of them, but after our long walk to and from the cruise, and several hours on the water, I wasn't feeling that ambitious. Instead, I asked our very helpful waitress about some of the dishes and decided on a noodle dish with duck confit. It's not on the takeout menu I have, and I can't remember the exact name or all the ingredients. Tara went with the 360 degree Beef. I got a small bowl of dumpling soup. For appetizers, we got Imperial rolls and Cream Cheese Wonton. We both ordered Cokes to drink.

When the drinks arrived, we both thought they tasted odd. Tara thought hers was diet Coke, while mine just tasted flat. When our waitress came by, we asked for new drinks: Tara got a new glass of Coke, and I switched to lemonade. This round was fine. We're not quite sure what happened the first time, but it was the only glitch of the night.

My dumpling soup arrived shortly after and I loved it. The bowl was full of vegetables and two large dumplings. The broth was very rich and holding it my mouth I could taste all the flavor. It certainly seemed like a homemade stock to me. The vegetables were still crunchy and the dumplings were very good too. The dumplings were stuffed with a combination of shrimp, crab, and chicken. I could have gone for another bowl. Tara really enjoyed it too, and her taste turned into many more spoonfuls. A definite hit.

The cream cheese wontons were filled with a cream cheese seasoned with scallions and spices. They were very good as well. The plum sauce that came with them tasted homemade and was very good. No complaints on these either.

The Imperial rolls were filled with fresh crab meat, shrimp, chicken, and vegetables. I believe they came with a peanut sauce as well as plum sauce, but I could be mistaken. They were as good as the rest of the meal. Freshly rolled and the ingredients were top notch.

Tara's 360 degree beef was cubes of filet mignon that had been marinated and then sauteed with black pepper and garlic and served in a sauce. The bite I had was very tender with really good flavor. She really liked it.

My dish had several pieces of duck confit on top of a mound of noodles, with vegetables on one end, and something else that I can't remember on the other. The duck was great. Rich flavor and falling off the bones. I just wish a little bigger amount of it was included. The noodles were also very good, with a strong flavor of the sauce they were cooked in. I never actually tried the vegetables. I was full by that time.

All of the dishes came on really nice dishes and the presentation was outstanding. Stuff wasn't just dumped on the plate. It was a very nice touch and matched the atmosphere the interior of the restaurant suggested. The service was fine as well once the initial drink thing was ironed out. Our waitress was very helpful and stopped by frequently to make sure our drinks were filled and everything was going ok.

All in all, we enjoyed our meal immensely. After the horrible service at China Max and the bizarre experience at Kitima, this was a welcome change.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Hearing loss...

So my doctor has been on me to lose weight, so I've finally decided to do it. As part of that, I've been looking for relatively healthy recipes to cook at home. I'm a pretty good cook, and used to have a bunch of staples I'd make when in college and when I first moved to Texas. Ever since I've started making above slave wages, however, I love eating out and well, it's caught up with me in my old age. I'm much better at baking, especially cookies. When it's on the stove top, Tara usually takes command. Tonight, however, she was tired when she got home, so I decided to give the Citrus Chicken recipe a try. Being an engineer by training, if not occupation, I tend to follow the recipe fairly strictly the first time I make something. I did that tonight, and had one of my more miserable cooking failures. I got the pan a bit too hot, and we discovered that the smoke detectors hooked into the home alarm we have are DEAFENING. Being in the same small room with it (it's in our laundry room), caused my ears to go into white-noise mode. It was like the time I was at an air show in Hartford and an F-16 did a fly-by. You can hear and then you just get static. It's good to know that if the house ever does catch on fire, there's no way in hell we'll sleep through the alarm.

For those still reading, my worst cooking failure was my one and only attempt to make Chicken Kiev. Let's just say that the oil got too hot and flames were involved. I was just learning to cook at that time, and it stuck with me.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Centro Paninoteca

A new panini place in Scottsdale had been mentioned on the CH board and I decided to give it a try. Centro Paninoteca is located in the NW corner of Scottsdale and Shea, amid the many shops that comprise the area. If you turn at the 71st Street light from Shea, it'll be on your right on Becker Lane. It's tucked back from the rest of the shops on that side, so you might have to look for it. I was in the area to drop something off at Tara's job, and swung by on my way to do that. It was around 1pm and I was the only one in the place aside from Chris, the owner.

It's a fairly small place, with a short bar along the right side and maybe ten tables filling the rest of it. I took a seat at the bar and looked over the menu. Chris introduced himself and we chatted while I decided. Being a salami and pepperoni fan, I immediately zeroed in on the Italian Press: spiced pepperoni, salami, tomato sauce, rosemary, fresh mozzarella, and parmesan on an herb flat bread. I got an iced green tea to drink.

Chris was very friendly and talked about many things. I told him I'd heard about his place from Chowhound and he said he'd just recently been hearing a lot about CH. We talked about Delux, where he used to work, and food in Phoenix in general.

My sandwich arrived piping hot with a side of spiced sweet potato chip. He also gave me a sample of an aioli he was playing with to dip the chips in. The spice on the chip overpowered the aioli and I actually didn't care for either. He told me that a 1/2 salad can be substituted for the chips. The sandwich itself was great. All the flavors melded together perfectly and it hit all of my taste buds. Nothing stood out individually, but as a whole, wow. It had a nice crust from the grill as well. I was full, but really wanted to order another one. Chris said he'd put an extra ingredient in, a few paper-thin slices of soppresata.

A week or so later, after Tara and I got back from our San Diego trip, we stopped in for dinner one night when she was working late. There was a waitress working along with Chris, and a few people were eating at one of the tables and another man at the bar. Chris remembered me, which was nice. I got the same sandwich and Tara got the special, a panini with chicken wrapped in proscuito. This time, my sandwich wasn't as hot, more towards warm, but still really good. Tara's was very hot, so I think mine was cooked before hers, and cooled a bit while hers was cooking. We enjoyed both.

We'll definitely go back to try the other stuff on the menu. The menu I got from my first visit has seven appetizers, three salads, and eleven paninis on it. Chris said he's still tweaking it, so it might be slightly different in the future.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Dragonfly Vietnamese restaurant

I really enjoy Vietnamese food, but it's not one of Tara's favorites. She's had some bad experiences and generally can't find much she likes on the menus. I was in a noodlely mood yesterday, so she humored me and we decided to try Dragonfly. I'd heard great things about the food, but mixed comments on service. Since Vietnamese restaurants, at least in my experience, aren't big on service, I usually cut them more slack than other places.

We found the restaurant in the northwest corner of a mall at Dobson and Southern in Mesa. We got there around 2pm and the fairly spacious restaurant only had one other table. A waitress showed us to a corner table and we looked over the menu. A quick look told me that there wasn't much Tara would care for, but she said she could find something. One thing I liked was that there was a whole section for summer rolls, one of my favorite things. The waitress came by for drinks, and Tara went with a coke while I got a limeade. When she returned with the drinks, she asked if we'd like to get an appetizer. She suggested the summer roll sampler and we went with it. After looking over the menu, Tara decided to get a pork noodle dish that she could get with crispy noodles. I went with Bun Saigon.

A few minutes later, the summer rolls arrived. A large square plate held four different rolls, each cut in half. There were also two bowls of peanut sauce, one with a large dollop of srichi sauce on top. One thing I noticed right off was the rolls appeared to have been made ahead of time. The wrappers were dried and chewy, so I was disappointed with that. The sampler contained: salmon rolls, shrimp, char-grilled pork, and I think a shrimp and pork. Once I got past the wrapper, the rolls were really good. Neither Tara or I cared for the salmon, but I really liked the others. If they had been rolled fresh, I would have loved them.

Tara's entree arrived only a couple minutes after the summer rolls. She liked the noodles but didn't care for the pork. She found it too fatty. We decided that when I'm in the mood for Vietnamese, she'll stay home.

My Bun Saigon was really good. It had cured pork, char-grilled pork, and shrimp in a bowl on top of the noodles. An egg roll was cut into four pieces on top of it all A separate dish held the sliced carrots, cukes, and sprouts, along with a bowl of very spicy nuac mam. It was too spice for me, but I was able to get some plain nuac mam by asking. I wasn't sure how I'd like the cured pork, but I ended up really enjoying it. The grilled pork was charred nicely and had a sweet flavor. The egg roll was outstanding as well. I will need to get a separate order of them next time I visit.I poured the nuac mam over the whole thing and had no complaints. It was just right.

Service was fine as well. Our drinks were refilled promptly and any requests were handled with no problems. I'll definitely keep it in mind when I am in the mood for Vietnamese if I'm in the area. If the summer rolls were rolled fresh, I'd make the extra drive for them.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Feeney's - Phoenix

Tara was in a steak mood tonight. Normally, we do Outback, since she likes the steaks and I can usually find something. Tonight, I decided to consult the Chowhound Southwest Oracle. I ran across Feeney's mentioned in the Hidden Gems thread. I did some Googling to get some idea of price and menu, and what I found seemed to be something that would work. We jumped in the car and headed to Feeney's, which is located just south of Maryland on 12th Street.

After a short trip down the 51, we exited Glendale and headed south on 12th. Feeney's was easy to find and we parked out front. Several people were enjoying beverages on the small patio near the front door. We entered and it was a long, low building. Rough-hewn boards and exposed brick walls segmented the space. A small waiting lounge was on the immediate left, with two dining rooms beyond it on the left. On the right was the bar, followed by another small dining room, and at the far end was the salad bar/kitchen, and another long dining room on the right side of that. The hostess seated us in the small dining room adjacent to the bar. We were at a four-top and had the small four table room to ourselves. A doorway connected it to the bar, so we got to experience drunk guys getting excited at the Diamondbacks game or loudly singing along badly with Paul Simon.

Shortly after we saw down, a waitress who seemed to be at the wrong restaurant took our drink order. She was dressed in heels and basically a naughty schoolgirl outfit, complete with a plaid miniskirt that Tara estimated was about four inches too short and ten years too young for her. She took our order for my iced tea and Tara's Sprite. As she was getting them, an elderly waiter came in and listed off a lengthy list of specials. One that got my attention was a chicken special, which I ordered. Tara got the 10-ounce sirloin. We both got a baked potato and the salad bar. A baked potato or rice, and soup or salad bar were included with the entrees.

Just as we were about to get our salads, a wrapped basket of warm bread was dropped off. It contained slices of pumpernickel and rye bread along with soft butter patties. We put the napking back over the bread and went to get our salads. The salad bar was fairly basic. A big bowl of chopped iceberg lettuce with bowls of sliced veggies, a few types of mixed salads (macaroni, potato, etc) and several vats of dressing. One nice touch was that the metal salad bowls were chilled. We loaded up and headed back to the table.

When we got back to the table, we found the waiter dropping off a small pitcher of iced tea so I could keep my glass filled. It more than lasted me the whole meal. However, refills for Tara's soda proved problematic. Even though we were right next to the waitress area of the bar, the waitress/hooker made no effort to refill Tara's empty glass. The waiter would pass by without glancing in our direction as he wandered in and out of the bar and the two dining areas across from us. We finished our salads and the bread and it was still empty after a very long period. I went to the bathroom and when I got back the entrees had arrived and her drink was refilled, but only after she explicitly asked him to fill it. Oddly enough, after it was refilled, the waitress popped her head in and asked if we were doing ok with drinks. Timing is everything I guess.

The meals themselves were really good. Tara really enjoyed her steak. The center was done to the medium she asked for, but the edges were definitely medium-well. Still, that didn't bother her and she was happy.

My dish, whose exact name escapes me, was a flattened chicken breast wrapped around chopped ham and mozzarella, rolled in panko and baked. It was covered with a sherry mushroom sauce. It was very good. All the flavors came through and I liked it a lot. The baked potato was somewhat small and didn't look very appetizing, but it tasted fine. I didn't eat a lot of it due to wanting to save room for dessert.

Once we finished our entrees, I ordered a slice of the mudd pie. I've loved mudd pie since first trying some at a restaurant my mother worked at in the early 80s. This version sounded a lot like that one. Mocha ice cream, chocolate crumb crust, chocolate topping, whipped cream and nuts. This one arrived and we were disappointed. While it looked good, it was rock hard. I'm fairly sure liquid nitrogen was involved in the cooling. I had to use my fork and spoon (my knife was removed with my plate earlier) along with help from Tara to cut the pie into a manageable piece. Another letdown was the chocolate sauce. It was applied to the pie when it was made, so it was ice cold as well. The chocolate crust, essentially crushed oreo-type cookies, was only on the very bottom and spotty at that. While the dessert had promise, it was just too cold and the chilled chocolate was like taffy to Tara. I used to make mudd pie with all these same ingredients all the time, along with a homemade chocolate sauce, and it was far superior. Not a great end to the meal.

When we were done, we asked for the check set it and the credit card on the table. And waited and waited and waited. Apparently we became invisible. I watched our waiter go into the room directly across from us at least 10 times and into the room just beyond it as many. He'd walk into the bar next to us empty handed, talk, and leave again. The slutty waitress was hanging around there as well, and even walking withing three feet of our table, never glanced our way. After a good fifteen minutes, the waiter walked down the hall, turned, kinda looked surprised we were still sitting there, and grabbed our bill with nary a word. He came back and we got ready to leave. Once thing caught my eye on the bill, namely the pie was charged higher than on the menu. On the way out, I looked at the menu and it was lower than on our bill. I mentioned this to the hostess and they redid the bill correctly with no complaints.

Overall we liked the food. However, the service was not satisfactory on the whole. There were only four tables for the majority of the time we were there, so there was no reason for the drinks not to be topped off. The fairly useless waitress spent most of her time in the doorway to the bar by our table, flirting with the drunk guys and generally ignoring us when we actually needed something. The waiter seemed to forget we were there at all from time to time. Up until when we got the bill, we were fairly happy with the experience. After being ignored for such a long time, however, that faded rapidly. They weren't busy. Being one of only four or five tables with customers out of maybe 20 or so tables, we should have seen or been seen a lot more often. The waitstaff didn't seem to be overburdened. The waitress certainly had a lot of free time. I really hate it when bad service ruins what was essentially a really good meal.

China Max - San Diego trip

I love me my dim sum, and so does Tara. I looked through the Cali boards on CH for good dim sum places in San Diego. I saw a few places mentioned, and China Max seemed to get good reviews. Emerald and Jasmine did as well, but I decided to try CM. Sunday morning we plugged the address into Matilda (my randomly chosen name for my Magellan Roadmate 360 GPS, a godsend for foodies. :) ) and we headed out from the Hilton. In short order, we were on Convoy looking for the building. Luckily I recognized the building from a picture on it's website and we pulled in.

We got there a half hour or so after they opened and only a few tables were occupied. We were taken to a table along the back wall. The hostess had grabbed a couple menus, but inexplicably, she took them back to the hostess stand with her. We're not quite sure why she did that. She did drop off a dim sum list and a pencil so we could select our choices. There was a picture menu on the table for dim sum, so you could see what they looked like before ordering. Unlike most places, dim sum wasn't wheeled around on carts. They took your order and brought your selections out. We made our choices and waited for a waiter/waitress to stop by. And waited. And waited. The staff seemed to hit an invisible force field on their way to our table. They would head towards it, and then veer off to a larger table. This happened probably a dozen times. The restaurant filled up, but we seemed to be in limbo. Eventually, someone pointed to our table and one of the staff reluctantly came by to take our order. At this point, we weren't overly impressed with service.

We ordered shumai, shark-fin dumplings, a beef-filled ball that Tara likes, shrimp egg rolls, shrimp balls rolled in crunchy noodles, and one or two other others that I forget. I also got a pot of tea and Tara some coke. Once the order got in, the dishes came out in stages. All of it was very good. One thing I noticed was that the shumai and shark-fin dumplings seemed to have distinct fillings. At Golden Buddha here in Phoenix, they seem to have the same filling in different shapes. Among the last things to come out were the shrimp balls, and they were huge. I was full by that point, and Tara couldn't even finish one of them. The had wider and thicker noodles than at GB. They looked good, but I was in danger of a belt breach. We had no complaints at all about the food. It was on par with what I've had in NYC, Boston, and San Francisco. The service, however, was pretty bad. Not sure if they were concentrating on the bigger tips or what, but we certainly felt red-headed.

At dinner later that night at Saigon (write-up forthcoming), our waitress mentioned that she liked Emerald and Jasmine better than China Max, even if they were more expensive. The next trip to SD, we'll probably try one of them.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Ciro's Pizza - San Diego Gaslamp Quarter

After the drive from Yuma and the bizarre lunch experience at Kitima, we chilled out at the hotel for the rest of the afternoon. We'd driven by the USS Midway and Star of India windjammer along the shore on the way back to the hotel. I mentioned that a harbor cruise might be fun and Tara agreed. We looked through the literature at the hotel and found some discount coupons and eventually book a cruise for Sunday. We surfed online, napped, and generally did nothing. Around 9pm, I suggested finding something to eat. The Gaslamp Quarter just outside our hotel is the favored destination for clubbers and tourists, so it's not very cheap and generally very crowded. I did find a reference to a Ciero's pizza that was both good and cheap. Eventually I found it's address just a few blocks away and we walked over.

Ciro's bills itself as a Bronx-style pizzeria and sells by the pie or slice. It's a tiny storefront with four tables on the sidwalk and a few seats along a counter to the left of the kitchen area. I got a slice of pepperoni and one with all meat. Tara got a pepperoni and a half dozen garlic knots. She got a coke and I got a root beer. The lady behind the counter slid our slices and knots into the oven to warm them and we grabbed our drinks. In the back of the kitchen we could see dozens of cooked pizzas on racks. It smelled great.

While Tara snagged a table on the patio, I waited for the food. After a few minutes, it came out and I brought it to the table. It was perfect. The crust was nice and crunchy, the slice the right amount of greasy, and the sauce and toppings were spiced just right. I loved it. The outside crust was chewy. This was my favorite meal of the trip. Simple, basic, and done perfectly for what it was. Tara's knots were a bit underdone and they were out of marinara for them. She wished they were more garlicy. The pizza had no such problems. All for only $15. A bargain in the Gaslamp.

Kitima - San Diego Hillcrest district

Our first meal in SD was at Kitima. The concierge at the Hilton suggested one Thai place in the Hillcrest district, but it was closed for lunch. Kitima was his second recommendation and really easy to find. We basically took Fifth Avenue straight north from the hotel for a few miles to University and Kitima was on the far west side of that block. Parking was a nightmare, but we found a lot of Fourth Ave and just had a short stroll.

The restaurant had a nice interior. It was long and narrow with stairs leading to an upstairs with a grand piano visible on the far end. We were seated at the second table in from the open doors and took a look a the menus. Most of it seem like fairly standard Thai cuisine. We ordered a couple appetizers (spring rolls and another quesadilla-type thing with meat in the middle), Tara got a noodle dish, and I got peanut chicken dish. Tara also ordered a coke while I got ice water and a pot of jasmine tea.

While we waited, we enjoyed the novelty of not sweltering with the main doors of the restaurant wide open. I was facing the door, so I could people-watch, while Tara got to watch the interactions inside. One older couple came in and had a disjointed conversation with the hostess/waitress about when their to-go order would be ready.

After a few minutes, our appetizers arrived. Both were pretty good, although on the smallish side. All the ingredients were very fresh and we enjoyed them. However, my tea had yet to materialize. About four of five waitstaff arrived right after we ordered, and one of them brought our appetizers. Tara asked him about the tea and shortly after that, he brought some out.

Our entrees came out a few minutes after we finished our appetizers. Both came out on sizable plates. Tara like her noodles a lot, until she tried my dish. Then she stated that she ordered the wrong thing. My dish ended up being essentially large pieces of chicken satay on a bed of wilted spinach, drenched in a great peanut sauce. A shaped pile of rice was on the side. I loved it. Tons of peanuts sauce, a little bite of the curry from the chicken. Once I finished the chicken, Tara frowned and said she'd been hoping I'd offer her a full piece. She did make do by using the leftover rice to sop up every last bit of the sauce, though. I'm not sure why she was complaining, because she polished off her noodles and left barely any scraps. Up until that point, it had been a pretty good experience. The missing tea could be chalked up to miscommunication, as English didn't seem to be spoken very well by the servers.

Then the check arrived.

One of my little games is to guesstimate the totals. I came up with about $42. The check was for $52. I looked it over and thought the prices seemed higher on the bill than the menu. I knew for sure that the soda was listed at $2.50, not the $2.95 on the check. I asked for a menu and started comparing prices. My dish was $10.95 on the menu, billed for $13.95. Tara's noodles were $9.95, we were charged 11.95. The apps were fine. I pointed out the discrepencies and the bill was redone correctly. Tara wondered how many people came in and were overbilled without realizing it. This put a damper on the meal and the tip as well. One price I could see, but three out of five items? Seems like a scam to me. We paid and left, vowing to look elsewhere for Thai on our next visit.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

San Diego trip

We just got back from a weekend trip to San Diego. I'm a rampant Porschephile and I happened to find out that their national Porsche Parade this year was being held in San Diego this weekend. After Hotwire-ing a sweet 4-star hotel in the Gaslamp District, Tara and I headed out Friday night. We stayed the night in Yuma and got to SD by about 1pm. Neither of us had ever been there, so it was fun doing touristy stuff. Not to mention the 75-80 degree temps, compared to Phoenix's 113 temps during the same time.

We took a two-hour cruise of the inner and outer harbors, ambled around the Gaslamp a bit, toured the USS Midway, and of course ate. While I was at the Porsche Concours D'Elegance, Tara took a trip to Old Town. We had a great time. The only downside was Tara didn't think she'd need sunscreen on the cruise, while I practically bathed in the SPF50. Blond, bald, and extreme UV don't mix for me. I have barely any color while Tara fried her face and arms. She's getting better.

We stayed at the Hilton Gaslamp District for the same price as a Sheraton Four Points I had been looking at. We were right on the water and it was a very nice hotel. The only downside was the $30/day for the valet parking, but we still made out very well.

I'll post about our food later. :) While the food was generally really good, the restaurant experiences were wildly inconsistent.