May was a good month for eating in Phoenix. And it's not because I spent all month bouncing around from new restaurant to new restaurant, but rather because I got to explore some spots that have been open for years, serving good food steadily and without pretense. It's these restaurants that make up the backbone of the food scene in this town, and yet, they're often the ones that fail to get attention and praise. This month also kicked off the Day of Dinner series at the Clever Koi with an event featuring chef Michael Babcock. The dinner was exceptional and I'm sharing one of the best dishes here.
From a soul-satisfying bowl of menudo to what might just be the best horchata in town, here are the best things I ate and drank last month. I hope you get to try some of it for yourself soon.
Menudo at Barrio Urbano
Like menudo? Then you'll be happy to know that James Beard Award-nominated chef Silvana Salcido Esparza serves menudo estilo Chihuahua seven days a week at Barrio Urbano at The Yard. This younger, sleeker version of Barrio Cafe serves an excellent breakfast menu all day, and though you'll be hard-pressed to pick between options such as chilaquiles and torrejas (French toast made with bolillio toast), the menudo is certainly not to be missed. The rich, red broth comes spiked with chile de guajillo and is loaded with hominy, tripe, and a spoon-tender hunk of pata. You'll also get a side dish of chiles, red onions, cilantro, and more to add to the bowl, and I usually add a generous amount of all three. The peppers will have you sweating about halfway through the meal, but that doesn't stop me from sopping up the extra broth with fluffy pieces of bolillio roll.
Octopus at the Day of Dinner at The Clever Koi with Michael Babcock
Over 10 courses and six cocktail pairings, The Clever Koi team and guest chef Michael Babcock of Welcome Diner and Welcome Chicken + Donuts highlighted some of Arizona's best ingredients and flavors with creativity and precision. This was the first of this summer's Day of Dinners at The Clever Koi in Central Phoenix, and the event, held on Sunday, May 30, kicked off the series with a bang. There was a stunning spread of Gilbert-grown peaches paired with Fresno chiles, smoked pecan, and crumbly cornbread and a rich, cheesy ancient grain risotto reminiscent of chef Dan Barber's now-famous Rotation Risotto — except made with Arizona's own white Sonora wheat. My favorite flavors of the night came during course two, in the form of a plate of octopus paired with housemade giardinieria, cucumber, and Calabrian chili aoili. The combinations of octopus and Calabrian chili may not have been the most groundbreaking of the night, but the balance — salty, acidic, and with just the right amount of spice — and perfect execution made this a truly memorable dish.
Lechon Kawali at Wholly Grill
Filipino food isn't impossible to come by in Phoenix — but it's not that widespread either, which is why it's so great that you can find simple but well-done Filipino food at Wholly Grill in Mekong Plaza. The little counter service spot inside the food court specializes in grilled foods, as you might guess from the name, but the lechon kawali (which is available regularly, unlike the Cebu-style lechon that's only available on weekends) is my go-to dish. For under $10 bucks you get a heap of deep-fried pieces of pork belly served with a vinegar and liver sauce for dipping. I love how crispy this place gets the exterior of each piece of meat; the crunch makes a perfect contrast to the layers of unctuous fat.
Al Hamka Freekeh
It's not everyday you get to break bread (and I mean that literally, in this case) with a farmer in the middle of one of his fields, but last month I did just that with farmer Hussein Al Hamka and his wife, Shreenen. I went out to their small farm in Chandler to learn about the wheat he's turning into freekeh, a traditional Middle Eastern food product, with help from Hayden Flour Mills. We toured the field, talked about how to turn durum wheat into roasted freekeh, and then enjoyed a few dishes Shreenen made to showcase the final product. There were yogurt-based freekeh salads and freekeh-and-honey candies and little freekeh patties, but I think I liked the plain freekeh best of all. The roasted green wheat berries have a surprisingly robust flavor that's sweet, because the young wheat doesn't quite mature before its harvested, but also rich and nutty thanks to the roasting process. I found myself going back again and again for handfuls of plain roasted freekeh; the crunchy texture and subtle sweetness remind me of granola.
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Horchata at La Santisima Gourmet Taco Shop
This 16th Street taco shop is a favorite spot for just about everyone who takes Mexican food seriously. Between the top-notch tacos and the epic salsa bar, which features a dozen housemade varieties of salsa, there's no good reason to not stop into La Santisima for a bite. But the lengthy menu and many, many favorite dishes can distract from how awesome the horchata is here. Seriously. Some of the best in town. It's made fresh, not from a mix, and features a surprisingly generous amount of fresh fruit including strawberries and cantaloupe. On top you'll find a sprinkling of cinnamon making this a sweet and refreshing drink with well-balanced flavors.