In the words of Bitter & Twisted Principle Barman and Proprietor Ross Simon, the downtown cocktail lounge is "a bar that happens to have great food." As in, first and foremost, this place is about the drinks.
But just because Bitter & Twisted isn't a "restaurant" per se, doesn't mean they've skimped when it comes to the culinary offerings. On the contrary, chef and partner Bob Tam has created an inspired menu of street food that's just about as forward-thinking as Simon's 24-page cocktail book. You might think that putting the drinks in the forefront would be a negative thing to a chef, but to the contrary Tam's used the situation to his advantage.
Tam and Simon got connected when the chef was doing consulting work for Gertrude's at the Desert Botanical Garden; Simon was handling the cocktails. At that time Tam was already looking for a perfect concept to go into the space inside the Lurhs Tower. He knew the space should really be a bar, to pay homage to the fact that it once housed the Prohibition Offices. So when he got a glimpse pf Simon's plans for a world-class drinking destination, he knew he'd gotten lucky.
"He obviously did his homework," Tam says. "I said, 'The bar is the focus, I'll do what you need.'"
So they settled on the idea of offering street and tavern food from around the world. Tam drew much of his inspiration from the time he spent working at Betelnut in San Francisco, a restaurant known and well-loved for its menu of Asian cuisine.
He describes the menu as "bar bites from around the world," though it's easy to see much of the influences come from Asian cuisines. It makes perfect sense considering the chef was born in Hong Kong, raised in San Francisco, and worked for years as R&D chef for P.F. Changs.
Bitter & Twisted's concise menu of bar snacks and sharebale plates includes creations such as Seoul Fried Chicken and a charred cuttlefish dish that combines glass noodles, dill, Thai basil, and chile lime sauce. In short, not the kind of fare you see on menus very often.
Tam says that's because with the drinks being the main focus, he's able to take creative risks that other chefs can't.
"Those big, weird, crazy, flavors makes sense in this context," Tam says.
At first glance you might be surprised to see items like a burger and ramen (and now a ramen burger) on the menu. They're not exactly what an average drinker thinks of as a bar snack. But Tam explains that he's built his menu -- in particular the late-night menu -- to appeal to industry folks, who get off late but still want a place to get a good drink and real, good food.
"We want to feed those who feed others," Tam explains. "But we're trying to keep things approachable."
Describe the menu at Bitter and Twisted in five words: Fun, worldly, innovative, adventurous, family-style.
One thing you want people to understand about the menu: We just wanted to have a lot of fun with the food menu. We avoided the typical, standard deep-fried bar grub and focused on elevating the perception of what great bar food and snacks can be...with a global approach.
One dish that best represents your vision for the concept: Seoul Fried Chicken with Watermelon Kimchi. Simple, straight forward, yet unique twists on contemporary trends and old school classics....something old ....something new...but simply delicious! It's "fusion" without the "confusion"
Your favorite food/drink pairing: At Bitter and Twisted: Seoul Fried Chicken and the Love Fruit Medley Personal all time favorite : Oysters and Martinis. Notice "oysters" and "martinis" are both plurals. I want it now!
Your favorite ingredient to cook with is...there is no better personal satisfaction for me than to cook what our fans want. People have been asking for a Ramen Burger so I try to put my spin on Bitter and Twisted's version by cooking the Ramen in our house bacon broth. So as you bite through the crispy noodles you'll pick up subtle hints of porky goodness.
The most overrated ingredient is...I generally can understand why most "hot" ingredients get that way. As a chef, your job is to find and bring out the best qualities in every ingredient. But if I had to pick one it would have to be lobster. I'll never understand why that stuff is so expensive.
What's the biggest difference between being a corporate chef and owning your own business: Not that there is anything wrong with cooking for the masses, but my/our food is so much more personal now. It has my and my staff's personality all over it; almost every dish or special we run has a story. Example, we ran Chuy's Chicken Chili Verde "Quesa-Calzone," come in and ask me about this and I'll tell you a story....
The biggest lesson your learned from working with P.F. Chang's: Being paid to do research for a living was incredible. In the beginning I was cocky and overpaid (please don't tell that to Board of Directors over at PFCB). It was a hard lesson but I eventually learned that as creative and whimsical as I try to be, I am only strong as the foundation I stand on. I eventually learned to strip down a cuisine's/culture's prevailing flavors and really understand why they have worked for centuries. With that foundation, I started to have successes making yummy variations that were both contemporary and approachable. If I had to coin this epiphany in just one word it would be "humility." I do not have more to offer any country's cuisine/culture, that country's cuisine/culture has more to offer me.
Name one of your mentors in the kitchen and the best thing he/she taught you: Barney Brown the chef who gave me my first chef gig. He was loved and respected by all. He taught me to "nurture your staff," if you take care of them, they will take care of you.
One national restaurant you admire and why: Momofuku. I went there back when it was just a stand alone little noodle bar, way before David Chang blew up [and] for me it confirmed that I was not alone, that a new way of looking at food (especially Asian) can be delicious and financially viable. I didn't know he would blow up that big, I just loved his style cause I felt completely connected to it. Also he was one of the first that I heard of that embraced the "Chef by Collaborative Effort," where his entire team contributes to the menu.
One thing you've eaten in the last year that blew you away: Kung Fu Gyoza's (Mekong Plaza Food Court) traditional Beijing version of mushu with lily bulbs and wood ear mushrooms. Not so much that it's the best thing that I have ever tasted, but it blew me away that they had the gall to do the traditional Beijing version of it, one that could potentially turn off most Americans. Hats off! .It was really good...transported me back to the Hutongs of Beijing.
Your favorite local restaurant right now: Cheese and Stuff. I was just there to get a Lebanon Bologne Sandwich right before this interview (no joke). These guys have been here forever it seems and they are so nice to me. they make me whatever I want, however I want it, and do it all with a smile.
Your favorite spot for cheap eats in Phoenix: I'm hoping on the bandwagon: Pho Thanh. It's walking distance from my house so I'm there a lot.
The most underrated restaurant in Phoenix right now: Harumi. They put forbidden rice in all their sushi. How cool is that?
If you could travel anywhere tomorrow where would you go and what would you eat there: It's a toss-up between France for caneles or Scottland for haggis.
What do you think will be the next culinary trend: Collaborative efforts. Am I the only one tired of the "celebrity chef"? Without my team I am just a guy with an idea or two. But with my team...it's limitless.
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One thing Phoenix could use more of: More supporters and developers that will make Phoenix into a more walkable city.
One thing Phoenix could use less of: Developers that build spaces that alienate locals.
Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: BJ Hernandez -- Havana Patio Cafe Matt Taylor -- Gertrude's at the Desert Botanical Garden Jennifer Russo-Fitzgerald -- The Market by Jennifer's Jared Lupin -- Umami Michael O'Dowd -- Urban Vine Dennis Delamater -- The Post Doc Brown -- Doc Brown's Artisan Ice Cream Josh Bracher -- Second Story Liquor Bar Chris McKinley -- The Local Chris Mayo -- Central Bistro James Fox -- Bootleggers Jay and Christine Wisniewski -- Caffe Boa Joe Absolor - Clever Koi Jason Grossmiller - Arizona Distilling Company Chris Collins - Grassroots Kitchen and Tap Perry Rea - Queen Creek Olive Mill Adam Brown - Noca Steve Kraus - Press Coffee Roastery Jason Raducha and Claudio Urciuoli - Noble Bread Sasha Raj - 24 Carrots Nick LaRosa - Nook Joey Maggiore - Cuttlefish Country Velador - Super Chunk Sweets and Treats James Porter - Petite Maison Cullen Campbell - Crudo Mel Mecinas - Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North Meagan Micozzi - Scarletta Bakes Tyson Holzheimer and Joe Strelnik - Snooze, an A.M. Eatery Paul McCabe - T. Cook's at the Royal Palms Eugenia Theodosopoulos - Essence Bakery Cafe Eddie Hantas - Hummus Xpress Jay Bogsinke - St. Francis Dustin Christofolo - Quiessence Blaise and DJ Aki - The Sushi Room Sacha Levine - Rancho Pinot and FnB Andrew Nienke - Cafe Monarch Kevin Lentz - French Grocery Aurore de Beauduy - Vogue Bistro Justin Olsen - Bink's Midtown Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz - Republica Empanada Brian Peterson - Cork Brian Webb - Hey Joe! Filipino Street Food Lester Gonzalez - Cowboy Ciao Renetto-Mario Etsitty - Tertio German Sega - Roka Akor Marco Bianco - Pizzeria Bianco Brad and Kat Moore - Short Leash Hot Dogs and Sit...Stay