Sorry to disappoint, but no, we're not indulging in pot brownies or some other drug-laced food during the Festival of Lights. This is a serious religious holiday, folks. So for this week's Battle of the Dishes, we're clogging our stomachs and arteries with greasy donuts!
Apparently, oil-fried dough balls (called sufganiyot or loukoumades depending on toppings/fillings) pay tribute to the "Chanukah Miracle" when a single flask of oil lasted eight days. This shiksa doesn't know much about Jewish tradition, but I've choked down matzoh brei and Manischewitz before and would take a fried dough ball over that any day.
In One Corner: The Parlor
1916 E. Camelback Rd. in Phoenix
We love it when old buildings are renovated and repurposed into something new rather than being torn down (*cough* Cine Capri) to build some boring skyscraper or strip mall. The Parlor on Camelback is one of my new faves, a long-running beauty parlor gutted and transformed into a chic restaurant with mid-century modern bones and a slick, urban feel. The dining room is open and dark, with a large wine rack acting as a divider and daily specials penned on a chalkboard near the front door.
The outdoor patio is lovely on cool nights, but the best seats in the house are at the wood-topped bar, where you can watch the pizza chefs twirl and bake The Parlor's tasty pies. We couldn't help but order one, a delicious customized 12-incher with Schreiner's sausage, goat cheese and rosemary. That was a great start, as was the creamy shrimp and cauliflower bisque on special during our visit.
The Parlor offers fried dough balls called zeppoles, the Italian version that's common at fairs and festivals on the East Coast. Their twist is that flavors and ingredients vary by season; for example, the menu currently features zeppoles made with butternut squash for fall. Vegetables in my zeppole??? EEK! Sounds like some sneaky way to add vitamins and nutrients to a food that clearly lacks any health benefits. Hey, Parlor chefs, who are you -- my mother?
Now I'll eat crow as I tell you The Parlor's Sweet Fall Squash Zeppole were effing amazing. Five matzoh ball sized fritters arrived in a little basket, served with honey mascarpone and cranberry orange jam for dipping. I bit in and savored the sugar coated crisp brown shell, which gave way to a fluffy cake-like interior with chunks of yellow-orange squash throughout. The veggie was perfectly cooked so it stayed slightly firm. A hint of nutmeg and cinnamon upped the sweetness factor.
"These are delicious," murmured my companion, who I'd kept in the dark. "Are there sweet potatoes in here or something?" The taste was similar to a good sweet potato french fry, but the squash had a lighter flavor and more porous, airy texture than its starchier cousin. Honeyed mascarpone was a decadent addition, adding creamy texture and a mild, milky flavor that contrasted with the tart cranberry orange relish. (Use the latter sparingly, as it's mealy like marmalade and makes your mouth pucker.)
Lucky we'd already eaten soup and pizza, or I'd have busted my diet and pigged out in an orgy of fried doughy goodness with two more orders of fall zeppoles. Yeah, they were that good.
In the Other Corner: The Grind
3961 E. Camelback Rd. in Phoenix
Yelp! steered me to The Grind, Chef Matt McLinn's coal-fired burger joint some twenty blocks east of The Parlor. Yelper reviews on the place are mixed, ranging from complaints about poor service and overpriced food (e.g. "Undercooked bacon, awful and bland mac and cheese, and mashed potatoes that I'm sure were instant") to user Ray D.'s assertion that The Grind's burger is better than Delux's. Hmm. But the one thing locals seem to agree on is that the donuts with salted caramel sauce are the bomb.
The Grind is trendy and teeny-tiny, though there are plans to expand into the old Fenix space next door. Dim lighting, dark furniture and a shiny bar complete the modern look. On the weekends, music is often cranked up so loud you can't hear a barfly burp, but on weeknights the noise level is more palatable. The menu is as tiny as the digs, with a handful of salads and burgers and two or three entrees. After trying one of the coal-fired burgers (a little dry and charred, but decent), my dining partner and I ordered dessert.
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Five small donut rings arrived on wax paper in a small wooden platter. If Krispy Kreme and Cheerios mated, this would be their offspring. Apparently everything here is tiny except the burgers. I bit in to a donut and was rewarded with a greasy, doughy mouthful of what tasted remarkably like a warm Krispy Kreme glazed donut.
"Um... this is exactly like the donuts my mom made in the Fry Daddy when I was a kid," quipped my partner. "They're good, but I can make these at home." I agreed that the donuts were not spectacular on their own. However, when dipped in the warm gooey salted caramel my opinion of them improved. The dipping sauce was the best part of the dessert; the sweet, pure caramel was incredibly light and it was just salty enough for contrast.
The donuts might have been "meh," but I literally licked the metal container of salted caramel clean.
The Winner: While Chanukah lasts, I'll take it as an excuse to go order more of the delectable Fall Squash Zeppoles at The Parlor -- ideally with a side of The Grind's salted butter caramel sauce.