Best Of :: Food & Drink
What happens when a food-obsessed restaurant fanatic teams up with an equally passionate young chef with an impressive résumé? You end up with Noca, one of the most highly anticipated restaurants of 2008. Without a doubt, Eliot Wexler is the city's most tireless gourmet, who not only became a regular at the best dining spots in town but worked a yearlong stint, unpaid, for acclaimed local chef Kevin Binkley — all to quench his thirst for culinary expertise. Wexler's plan to open a restaurant picked up speed when he recruited talented chef Chris Curtiss, who'd worked at some of San Francisco's top-rated restaurants with French Laundry alum Ron Siegel before coming to Phoenix and turning heads at downtown's now-defunct Circa 1900.
Together, Wexler and Curtiss have assembled a staff of seasoned professionals to give their fledgling operation the kind of polish that most newbie restaurateurs would kill for, and they've sourced the best ingredients available, from Bob McClendon's organic produce to fresh seafood from the same supplier that Sea Saw's Nobuo Fukuda uses.
That said, Noca's atmosphere is refreshingly unpretentious, and the ingredient-driven cuisine is far from fussy. In fact, it's playful at times, from the "caviar" of organic eggplant, served out of a caviar tin with warm blinis, to the "milk and cookies" dessert, featuring fresh chocolate chip cookies and a frothy malted vanilla shake. Ultra-fresh crudo dishes and luscious handmade pastas are not to be missed, while the juicy pork chop, paired with crispy, melt-in-your-mouth pork belly, will make you smile from the first bite to the last. Even the Simple Supper, a wallet-friendly three-course tasting menu, is craveworthy. But really, it's no wonder Noca appeals to foodies — it's run by the biggest one of them all.
Who says kids get to have all the fun? The best merry-go-round in Phoenix just happens to be a grown-up playground, a place where you can eat an upscale dinner while watching the world go by. It's the Compass Restaurant, a revolving eatery at the top of downtown's Hyatt Regency. There are 360-degree views to go along with executive chef Troy Knapp's Southwestern-tinged contemporary menu. Highlights include grilled bison and garden gazpacho with cornbread croutons; smoked salmon "enchiladas" with Vidalia crema, savory lemon curd, and micro basil; and baked chilaquiles with grilled nopales, roasted peppers, and smoked tomato butter. We promise the Compass spins so slowly that you won't experience vertigo. Go crazy with the award-winning wine list, however, and all bets are off.
Harold's Cave Creek Corral has long billed itself as "the original Wild West Saloon and Restaurant," but back in the day, the proprietors took the roaring good time in a whole different direction.
Harold and Ruth Gavagan, who'd bought Cave Creek Corral in 1950 and added "Harold's" to the name, held daily a cowboy show in front of the restaurant for years, but decided to switch things up when a guy named Carl Mulhauser started working for the restaurant in the late '60s. Turns out, Mulhauser was a former circus lion tamer with connections to obtain some animals.
The Gavagans' daughter, Janet, was a teenager at the time and recalls her late parents' decision to let Mulhauser buy two or three lions and do a circus-style performance every afternoon. The animals lived in a cage right behind the restaurant.
"Prior to that, there was no thought of having lions or tigers, but it was a way to stand out from the other steakhouses in the Valley at the time," she says. "My dad was very inventive when it came to hiring people."
Mulhauser took care of the animals and did the shows for a couple of years, but when he moved on, so did the lions. A few years later, in the mid-'70s, he came back, this time performing with tigers. It was all over by the end of the decade, and nobody's quite sure whether the lions and tigers ended up in a zoo or a flashy Las Vegas show. But for some locals, it made a lasting impression.
Michael Seitts, a Scottsdale native who's spent plenty of time at Harold's over the years, says he's still amazed that anybody pulled it off.
"It was crazy," he says. "Like something out of Monty Python."
The animals are gone, but the restaurant's still around.
A carnival ain't a carnival unless your dining options include some manner of foodstuff that's been placed on a stick. In fact, on our last visit to the midway, our repast consisted of individually skewered deep-fried Twinkies, tasty egg rolls, and the undisputed king of impaled edibles, the corn dog. And outside the carnival circuit, the best place we've found this deep-fried delight of a flavorful frank covered in cornmeal is at the Gilbert location of Al's Chicago Style. We've forgone the kind of middling corn dogs available at places like Sonic or am/pm in favor of a juicy, all-beef Chicago-style wiener covered in crispy and delicious batter that just melts in our mouth. If you're feeling daring, try adding a few helpings of jalapeño pepper hot sauce or Tabasco onto your dog instead of the usual ketchup and mustard, but keep a cool drink handy.
Besides corn dogs, funnel cakes, or any other foodstuff that's been cooked in an unhealthful amount of grease or lard, a longtime staple of local carnivals, fairs, or street festivals has been Indian fry bread. And much to our doctor's chagrin, we've eaten more than our fair share of this doughy, deep-fried Native American specialty, and it's usually been covered with such toppings as honey and powdered sugar or sumptuous meats and chilies. So whenever we've got a hankering for this debaucherous deliciousness (and a fair or carnival isn't readily available), we head for the Fry Bread House, where owner Cecelia Miller has been clogging our arteries for more than 15 years. Miller and company offer a variety of flavorful fillings atop their chewy and flaky fry bread (which is the size of a LP record), ranging from the standard "Indian taco" (homemade refried beans, lettuce, and cheese) to chorizo, chilies, and ground beef. We've noshed there twice this week alone, but we swear, doc, we'll atone for it with a few extra rounds of cardio this week at the gym. Promise.
You won't find any wacky mirrors in this funhouse, although House of Tricks does have a way of skewing one's perspective — in a good way. Once you set foot into the outdoor patio, sheltered by huge leafy trees and decked out with tiny white lights, all feels right with the world. Your mood is bound to improve even more once you find something on the interesting wine list. Inside, the charm of this 1920s cottage starts to work its magic on you, and expert service only heightens the feeling that life is grand, indeed. As for the New American menu — well, that will make you smile, too. Options run the gamut from black tea-spiced ahi tuna to pistachio-crusted rack of lamb to smoked chile-glazed hanger steak. Nope, House of Tricks isn't the typical funhouse. But, hey, it's a restaurant in an old house — and eating here sure is fun.