You know that connection between smell and memory? Ever since my first taste of Parisian street food, in college, the aroma of crepes has perked me up as thoroughly as any cup of espresso.
That taste was hard-earned. I schlepped a heavy suitcase to the bus stop on a miserably slushy New York winter day, endured the crowded ride to La Guardia Airport, waited too long at the check-in counter, and then found out I had to turn around and go right back home: The flight was canceled because of snow. (Oh, those chaotic days before smart phones!) On day two, I did the whole thing all over again and was a zombie by the time I landed at Charles de Gaulle.
Somehow, in a jetlagged haze, I achingly made my way to the train, to the subway, and then to a tiny budget hotel on the Left Bank — amazing what one can accomplish while sleepwalking. That part of the trip is a faded blur, but I distinctly remember the moment I got to my destination because there was a crepe stand on the corner.
Michele Laudig cafe
My brain fired up as soon as I sensed the lush, heavy smell of butter and sizzling crepe batter hanging in the cold air. Somehow I'd gotten used to the pollution and dirty sidewalks of the Big Apple, and now I'd just landed in Oz, where they smother everything in Nutella.
Crepes go with just about anything — depending on the filling, they can be breakfast, lunch, or dessert, as elaborate as an omelet or as simple as a pancake. (Naturally, the Japanese are so obsessed with crepes that you can find them in any 7-Eleven. Genius.)
Although it's hot enough here to melt butter on the sidewalk, the Valley only has a handful of places to nosh on a fresh crepe.
The newest is Chez Vous Crepes & Gelato (8787 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-443-2575), a charming cafe at The Shops at Gainey Village, owned by a French expat couple who took a liking to Scottsdale while on vacation. Come to visit, return to open a restaurant? I like that model.
Casual, affordable Euro eats, like a Niçoise salad and croque monsieur sandwich, complement 14 different sweet and savory crepes. Yes, they have standard models filled with Nutella or sugar and lemon juice, but I was more intrigued by the hefty entrée crepes.
They were made with buckwheat, lending the thin cakes a distinctive, slightly tangy flavor. A fried-egg topping was the highlight of the "French Favorite," filled with ham and Swiss, while creamy béchamel sauce turned the namesake "Chez-Vous" crepe into a naughty treat. It was packed with roasted chicken and sautéed mushrooms — and it disappeared quickly.
Sandwich Club (4020 N. Scottsdale Road, Ste. 102, Scottsdale, 480-990-2582) has plenty of panini on the menu — and accordingly, the atmosphere resembles a deli, with counter service and a big menu board — but there are nearly as many kinds of made-to-order crepes. Planted right in the heart of Old Town, it's a reliable pit stop and a welcome alternative to fast food chains.
These were some of the biggest portions I sampled, plump with fillings and neatly folded into rectangles. Creamy goat cheese, tomato, and basil made for a light but pleasant breakfast bite on a day I was feeling kind of rough, while ham, Brie, and tomato was more substantial, for a quick lunch. There's also a "build your own" option.
In Ahwatukee, Cupz 'N Crepes Coffeehouse & Creperie (4232 E. Chandler Blvd., 480-706-1963) does double time as a hangout for java and web surfing (there's free Wi-Fi, natch) and a leisurely breakfast and lunch destination. It's in the same strip mall as Sushi Ken and Mr. Chao's Asia Bistro, so you can even swing by for a dessert crepe after filling up on noodles or fried rice next door.
Cupz 'N Crepes serves smaller portions than the others, although the prices are smaller, too. For me, one crepe wasn't quite enough, while two were almost going overboard. They were delicious, though, so I endured.
Do you like chicken? If so, you're in luck here, because more than half of the savory crepes come with some spin on chicken. I liked "The Nat," inspired by Buffalo wings with chicken chunks, blue cheese crumbles, romaine, tomatoes, and tangy-hot wings sauce, with some blue cheese dressing on the side.
Even better was my dessert, a whipped cream-covered creation called "The Shirley." Cream cheese and strawberries kept Nutella filling and chocolate sauce in check; I practically licked the plate with this one.
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SHOW ME HOW
Unlike these other creperies, Truckin' Good Food (www.truckingoodfood.com, twitter.com/truckingoodfood) doesn't have a permanent home. Instead, this cute, crepe-centric food truck makes the rounds at local farmers markets in Downtown Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale, and Ahwatukee. Check the website or Twitter for the lowdown on the current route.
What I love about Truckin' Good Food is the quality of the ingredients (ham from local purveyors The Meat Shop, cheese from Crow's Dairy) and the rotating menu. It's hard to go wrong with Nutella, banana, and spiced walnuts, or seasonal fruit with granola and honey.
Likewise, the savory crepes are killer — I enjoyed the "Old Country," with San Marzano tomatoes, tapenade, feta, and herbs, and the "Ham It Up," with ham, cheddar, honey Dijon mustard, and herbs.
Parisian street food served in the parking lots of Phoenix? I'd like to tell these Truckin' people merci beaucoup.