On the whole, 2004 has been a good year for this portly penman, as enjoyable dining experiences have easily outweighed poor ones. Indeed, what stays with me, in the form of fat cells as well as recollections, are the great meals I've had on my various eating expeditions throughout the Valley.
Naturally, my mind tends to block out those chow-downs that were memorable for the wrong reasons, save to remember never to return to the scene of the culinary crime. So here, then, are the repasts, or items therein, that still thrill me.
1. Fried chicken gizzards at Stacy's: There's not much I miss about Dixie other than regular reruns of Green Acres, The Dukes of Hazzard, and The Andy Griffith Show, and, of course, the food. Since soul food originated in the South and is the backbone of Southern cuisine in general, all of the soul food spots in town get love from me. But it's chef Stacy Phipps' eatery, just a stone's throw from the New Times building, that I most look forward to visiting.
Critic's choice dishes of 2004
Everything at Stacy's is topnotch, from the catfish and the smothered fried chicken to the fried okra and the dumplings. But what I most adore there are the fried chicken gizzards, those chewy-yet-addictive little morsels of muscle pulled from clucker bellies, so prized at Southern tables. A large basket of those suckers and a glass of sweet tea at lunch will hold a grown man until supper time, and have him dreaming of gizzards when he goes beddy-bye. For his gizzards alone, Stacy's will always be No. 1 in my book.
Stacy's, 1153 East Jefferson Street, Phoenix, 602-254-1736.
2. Thai toast and roast duck in red curry at Siamese Kitchen: If I had my druthers, I'd be snarfing down Thai food nearly every day of the week. By St. Gertrude's golden mice, I'd even write this column from Bangkok if I could! I've eaten at most of the Thai restaurants in the Valley, yet nothing holds a candle to Siamese Kitchen's Thai toast and gang-pedyang, or roast duck in red curry with coconut milk, tomatoes, pineapple chunks, and so on.
That west-side grub house's Thai toast sticks in my synapses like a pic of Eva Longoria in a bikini. Here, chef Vanna Vorachitti grinds chicken, soybean sauce and egg into a paste, which she spreads onto the toast and deep-fries into a crispy, decadent treat to precede the main course. And for that main course, I suggest the aforementioned gang-pedyang, which is equal parts savory, sweet and spicy. In fact, my mouth is watering so much as I write this, I may have to make a run to Siamese Kitchen before I can finish this year-end review.
Siamese Kitchen, 4352 West Olive Avenue (northwest corner of 43rd Avenue and Olive), Glendale, 623-931-3229.
3. Spaghetti and meatballs at Redendo's: Just when I'd given up on finding a decent plate of spaghetti and meatballs in the Valley, along comes Fountain Hills' Redendo's with a nice big bowl of pasta, topped off with plenty of zesty marinara and fist-size spheres of cow flesh, every bite of which is silky and savory.
All praise is due chef Anthony Redendo and his bride Carolyn, who've turned their little nook into a neighborhood Italian bistro, circa Brooklyn in the 1940s. If only it were in central Phoenix!
Redendo's Pizzeria and Pasta, 16948 East Shea Boulevard (at Shea and Saguaro boulevards, next to Circle K), Fountain Hills, 480-816-1356.
4. The gnocchi Sorrentina at Marcellino Ristorante: There's only one Principe della Pasta (i.e., Prince of Pasta) in this burg, and that's chef Marcellino Verzino, who, along with his enchanting wife Sima, runs the elegant Marcellino Ristorante in north Phoenix. See, in addition to authentic Italian meat, chicken and seafood dishes, Marcellino crafts his own hand-made, gourmet pastas, including my fave of faves: gnocchi Sorrentina -- soft, starchy nuggets of pasta, potato and mozzarella inundated with a light tomato sauce. Those gnocchi dumplings are exquisite, each one a little work of art. And though a trip to Marcellino's is always unforgettable, it's this award-winning chef's gnocchi for which I pine the most.
Marcellino Ristorante, 1301 East Northern Avenue, Phoenix, 602-216-0004.
5. Caesar salad at Radda: The more common a menu item, the more likely it will fall victim to the culinary version of Gresham's law; i.e., the proliferation of bad money drives out good money. Thus, the proliferation of subpar Caesar salads makes superb ones nearly extinct!
But north Scottsdale's Radda breathes life into Caesar's corpse with whole, crisp leaves of romaine, arranged like a star on your plate. Over the romaine is a light dressing with cracked pepper, a heavy coat of Parmesan shavings, and a few big, breadlike croutons. Radda also serves a heavenly tiramisu, but I was already hooked on the place after the marvelous Caesar.
Radda Caffe-Bar, 7000 East Shea Boulevard (west of Scottsdale Road, next to Eli's), Scottsdale, 480-778-0800.
6. Nopal Hidalgo at Coyoacán: There's a whole bill of fare full of reasons for folks to trek down to South Mountain for their din-din at Coyoacán. There are those taste-bud-tingling salsas and sides, and I become positively savage over a platter of Coyoacán's sizzling venison strips, or an order of its cochinita pibil, shredded pork baked in rust-colored achiote sauce.
However, Coyoacán's ne plus ultra is its nopal Hidalgo, grilled prickly pear covered in Monterey cheese, mushrooms and chorizo. Slightly sour and of the same viscosity as boiled okra, it offers a unique combination of flavors and textures. I'll have it every time I go.
Coyoacán, 9014 South Central Avenue, Phoenix, 602-323-9010.
7. Bacon burger and root beer float at the Welcome Diner: I tell you, I literally think I get a buzz from downing one of chef Peter Deyo's hamburgers with bacon, along with at least one if not two floats made from Mary Coyle vanilla ice cream and Sparky's microbrewed root beer.
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Deyo mixes the beef in his burgers with pepper and sea salt, then bastes them lovingly with seasoned jus for full effect. I know many go gaga over the Depression-era diner Deyo's in, but I'm all about what the man creates behind the counter. If he was cooking alfresco over a flaming barrel, I'd be on it like a bonnet, people.
Welcome Diner, 924 East Roosevelt Street, Phoenix, 602-495-1111.
Very close runners-up: Eggplant cheesecake at Zest; surf and turf roll at Blue Wasabi; butterfish at Eddie V's; catfish at Bobby C's; the Big Ass Burger at Roaring Fork; the flan at Havana Café; the arnavut ciger, or cubed, fried calves' liver, at Efes Turkish Cuisine; anything at Cherry Blossom; Korean barbecue and sushi at Takamatsu; beer and burgers at Delux; and all the sushi at Hiro Sushi.