Inn Season: At this time of year, most Valley residents need a flashing "No Vacancy" sign to put in front of their homes. That's because the relatives you purposely moved thousands of miles to get away from somehow manage to track you down for a visit. My usual technique for getting rid of them is to provide directions to the Lost Dutchman mine. That takes care of most of them. A few intrepid souls, though, have somehow made it back. And when they do, I feel obligated to take them to lunch. At least, that's what I did for Mom. She's an extraordinarily difficult woman to please at a restaurant. She's the Will Rogers of dining: She never met a meal she didn't like--to send back. Like most New Yorkers, she's terribly provincial. A few years ago, I took her on an outing to Payson. We went to a local restaurant, where she ordered a sandwich and asked, as if she were at her favorite Brooklyn deli, if she could have it served on "real Jewish rye." "Mom," I explained to her, "they don't have real Jewish rye here. They don't even have real Jews." So when it came time to choose a lunch spot in town, I had to do some serious thinking. I wanted to give her a taste of the Southwest. But she hates Mexican food or anything spicy. And her adventure level is zero.
Luckily, I thought of Sam's Cafe. And she loved it. I had to twist her arm to try the poblano chicken chowder, but once she did, I couldn't wrestle it back. The grilled tuna sandwich on thick slices of sun-dried tomato bread got her complete approval. She even gave a thumbs up to the chipotle mayonnaise. And the complimentary white chocolate "tamale" sent her out smiling.
Sam's Cafe seems like a perfect place to take out-of-town guests. The menu manages to appeal to both demanding locals and skittish visitors. And the food is very skillfully prepared.
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There are two Sam's Cafes. One is downtown in Arizona Center. I prefer the less noisy one at 2566 East Camelback, in Biltmore Fashion Park.
Having a Wine Time: Maybe you can't afford to give a wine-loving spouse or friend a Burgundy from Domaine de la Romane-Conti, a Penfolds Grange from Australia or an Eiswein from Germany. But with some scrimping, you can provide a vicarious thrill. They can read all about them, and just about anything else that has to do with their favorite beverage, in a stupendous new reference book, The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson (Oxford University Press, $49.95). This 1,088-page tome takes you alphabetically through 3,000 entries--from Abboccato (it's Italian for "medium sweet") to Zweigelt (Austria's most popular dark-berried grape variety).
Ever wonder what a blanc de noirs is? Curious about the difference between Armagnac and cognac? Interested in Rumanian wines? What wine goes well with oysters? The answers are here.
Astonishingly, there's a brief mention of Arizona wines buried in the "United States" listing: "The Terra Rosa, or red soil, in the south east appears promising for Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon vines." California, New York, Washington, Oregon and even Texas rate their own separate articles.