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By Robrt L. Pela
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All right. It's high time someone stood up and said something, and no one else seems to be making a move, so here I go.
For the second time in a week, I've seen nettles on a menu.
808 E. Jefferson St.
Phoenix, AZ 85034
Region: Central Phoenix
This is what I know about nettles: They invaded my front yard last year to the point that I'm sure I poisoned my portion of the water table trying to eradicate them; they have stinging hairs that make them the Chinese stars of plants; and I don't want to pay $22 a plate for them.
Now, I know it's the trend to incorporate non-traditional ingredients for unexpected elements and ingenuity. I mean, how many ways can you fry a chicken? (It turns out there are only two ways: good and not good.) I know it's important to shake things up in the culinary word (or people start to fall asleep) or try to drum up excitement for one another by saying reprehensible things like, "Those two flavors playing on my tongue, basking in their season," or, "The wine tasted like jam and sunshine" — thus making asses out of themselves on Urban Spoon.
I get that. I'm not so old-fashioned that I want all my meals served in aspic. But every now and then, the trends start going a little haywire (The Wedge, anyone?), and I have to ask myself if I'm so out of the loop that I'm in orbit, or if someone's trying to play a joke on the citizens of Foodieland.
I will be the first to admit that I'm not a foodie. No ingredient has ever "basked in its season" or played on my tongue. I just know good food when I chew on it and enjoy eating it. Bad food makes me angry; silly food sends me into a rage. Urban Spoon makes me want to put out hits on people. Yet I'm starting to see an awful lot of silly food creeping onto the menus of some of my formerly favorite restaurants in the Northwest, where I now live.
It's spread gradually, as all poxes do, to the point that I've been confronted with a menu of unappetizing offerings at a restaurant I used to love. For example, creamed rabbit makes my mouth water in a way that's a signal I need to locate a private area. And if I wanted to eat a pigeon, I would have learned how to use a slingshot when I lived in Phoenix and solved a droppings problem at the same time.
Seriously. I'm not picking pigeon. Or veal cheeks or pig's stomach or parts of a little lamb's brain. Though I agree that all are great conversation starters, I'd rather stand by the punch bowl and talk about the felonies I've committed than admit that I just ate things the Donner party wouldn't have considered.
I suspect this trend of exploratory cuisine is rolling to a fever pitch because everybody who ever boiled water wearing a paper hat wants to be on Iron Chef or Top Chef Masters, and one way to stand out is to serve what no one else is serving — whether it's lion from a supplier that was once convicted of selling federally protected animals or the mouth of a pig (with or without lipstick). Throw stuff that should be ground into sausage straight on to the grill and make a sauce for it. Froth up a nice, spit-like foam and people will think you're a genius.
But it's not genius, inventive, or even showboaty. It's just silly.
The thing is this: My grandfather got on a boat in 1914 and sailed from Italy to New York City specifically so that my father or any of his children didn't have to ever eat pigeon. Ever. I'm nearly positive that when he reached Ellis Island, the reason he gave for coming to America was because he didn't really like pig lips. And, in any case, the dish should never be served with anything foamy floating on top of it unless you were just very rude to your waiter.
And I almost know for a fact that he cried as he slapped the immigration agent's lectern, "Nettles are bullshit! For 22 bucks a plate, serve me something that doesn't leave splinters in my mouth! This is America. Give me a tenderloin!"
Because nettles are things you eat when the potatoes get blight before you can pull them out of the ground. Pigeon is something you attack when every other animal has already been eaten. These are foods of last resort. It's the menu for the apocalypse. And while I can appreciate the objective of butchering an animal and using all of it, isn't that the precise reason we shove things in casings, tuck it into a bun, and squeeze ketchup all over it? Everything gets used. Really. I promise. I've eaten pig lips before and so have you, I'm certain of it.
We just didn't know it because it plumped when we cooked it.
Frankly, I'm sorry to say that there's nothing smart, nouveau, or exciting about eating the things our ancestors ate when they were hungry, poor, and couldn't afford decent cuts of meat. It's the same food they sailed across an ocean to escape.
Just consider this a warning before your favorite restaurant goes a little beastly and tries to slip hooves onto its menu. Even if it has marmalade pesto foam on it, refrain. The day may come when you have to eat a foot. Today is not that day.
This is the part where you fall on your knees and thank whomever you need to thank that you live in Phoenix. You have amazing restaurants you can depend on, places that haven't changed their menus or recipes in decades and are there for you when you need something wonderful and reliable. Places that would never allow you to feel smug for ordering a bed of weeds even if you were attending a pretentious party afterward. This city was built on refried beans and tortillas. Stuff that's passed the test of time and not only survived, but still thrives. Each is a stone in the rock-solid foundation of Phoenix restaurants, and if I don't make it to one of them when I come back to my hometown, I feel cheated and get pissy.
There was a time when I ate at Rosita's Place (2310 E. McDowell Rd., 602-244-9779) every single day. It was down the street from my house, the beans are something magical, and I miss their green and red salsas more than I do my 18-year-old waist measurement. Been around since the '50s, with the pictures on the walls to prove it. Their newest waitress has only been there about seven years. Close your eyes and point to the menu. Everything is good here. Authentic Sonoran style.
During my extended stay at ASU, I survived in part because of the $1.20 wings at Long Wong's happy hour, but also because of Restaurant Mexico (423 S. Mill Ave., Ste. A, Tempe, 480-967-3280), which was then conveniently located right across the street from the university. I learned what mole was here (although to be honest, I was expecting chicken covered in Hershey's syrup), I had my first sope, and I had the lightbulb moment that queso fresco was actually the real Mexican food cheese. The people who eat the Mexico City-style grub here have been regulars for 30 years, even when it was next to a dirty bookstore. Don't be afraid. Now it's next to a law office.
Now, if you put melted butter on my burrito, I am just going to love you forever. Thank you, Casa Reynoso (3138 S. Mill Ave., Tempe, 480-966-0776, www.casareynoso.com), for filling that part of me I had no idea was empty. Established 27 years ago in this spot, the establishment is run by the same family who reigns over southeastern Arizona Mexican fare in the Globe tradition, which consists of fresh tortillas and the creamiest beans on the planet. And melted butter. I personally find that genius.
Rito's (907 N. 14th St., 602-262-9842) is the kind of place that you know about only because you live in the neighborhood or because someone from the neighborhood has taken you there — or you know someone who got shot down the street. Operating out of the old family homestead on 14th Street and Garfield, this place presents some challenges: There's usually a long line, and there's really no air conditioning or inside seating. But there's a reason people still eat there in mid-July on picnic tables under a tree in what used to be the front yard. I am telling you the truth that if you've never had a mixed burrito (beans, cheese, and green chile beef) from Rito's, rejoice, because your best food days are ahead of you. Plus everything's about $3 and is packaged to go, anyway, so if you work downtown or midtown, you're in the game.
Now, as a departure, there are no refried beans or tortillas at my next favorite place, but that's okay: There are plenty of fried things drowning in gravy instead. Mrs. White's Golden Rule Café (808 E. Jefferson St., 602-262-9256) has been in Arizona way longer than Jan Brewer. If you go expecting incredibly good food that may some day contribute to the hardening of an artery you probably don't need anyway, you will never be disappointed. Stand-outs are everything on the menu, which is written on a wall. My choice is usually chicken-fried steak. But I have to warn you: If chitlins should be the special that day, don't think you're a badass because you once ate a pigeon or a rabbit cooked in milk. Chitlins are for the pros only, and should you order those unprepared for the experience, you'll be wishing you had a plate full of nettles instead.
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Stanley's on McDowell near 22nd st is a pretty good old Phoenix place. I ate at the Nogales cafe in the deuce before it was torn down for AWA, now usair. Totally agree about Mrs. Whites and Ritos. If you read this Laurie, I want you to know I laughed pot loud while reading your other piece about the pot pies. You are a terrific writer and I miss your contributions to PNT. I've read your book of short stories, the one with "Red Mice", and think your writing has improved since then.
This 'nettles as food' phenomenon concerns me. OK, so I'm easily concerned about things.
When I was little and lived in rural Pennsylvania, we called the stuff "Burn Hazel." Years later I learned that it was a bastardization of the word brenhassel (sp? I don't know) a german word for stinging nettles.
I would run through the stuff down by the creek and the sting would last a half hour or more.
Has anyone ever checked to see if these things can sting your esophagus and stomach? I see anaphylactic shock in someone's future unless cooking the darn things renders them harmless.
I'd love to know the scientific stuff behind thsi.