Best Of :: Food & Drink
Matt and Erenia Pool, we love you guys. And, boy, we'd love to clone you — or at least your fantastic little, er, big breakfast joint. The buzz on Matt's Big Breakfast has been strong ever since it opened a few years ago, and indeed, there's always been a bit of a wait for a table. The growing popularity of the downtown farmers market, just a block away, has given more exposure to Matt's homey dishes, from perfect, fluffy pancakes to fresh-squeezed local orange juice to savory egg scrambles. And after a visit from the Food Network, which featured Matt's Big Breakfast on an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives earlier this year, the restaurant's hungry customer base blew up into a daily mob. We know Matt's has become a success precisely because it isn't a chain — it's a friendly, family-run spot where food made from scratch, with top-notch ingredients, is always the priority. So perhaps we'll never see a Matt's empire across the Valley — but it's nice to dream, isn't it?
Who says kids get to have all the fun? The best merry-go-round in Phoenix just happens to be a grown-up playground, a place where you can eat an upscale dinner while watching the world go by. It's the Compass Restaurant, a revolving eatery at the top of downtown's Hyatt Regency. There are 360-degree views to go along with executive chef Troy Knapp's Southwestern-tinged contemporary menu. Highlights include grilled bison and garden gazpacho with cornbread croutons; smoked salmon "enchiladas" with Vidalia crema, savory lemon curd, and micro basil; and baked chilaquiles with grilled nopales, roasted peppers, and smoked tomato butter. We promise the Compass spins so slowly that you won't experience vertigo. Go crazy with the award-winning wine list, however, and all bets are off.
Harold's Cave Creek Corral has long billed itself as "the original Wild West Saloon and Restaurant," but back in the day, the proprietors took the roaring good time in a whole different direction.
Harold and Ruth Gavagan, who'd bought Cave Creek Corral in 1950 and added "Harold's" to the name, held daily a cowboy show in front of the restaurant for years, but decided to switch things up when a guy named Carl Mulhauser started working for the restaurant in the late '60s. Turns out, Mulhauser was a former circus lion tamer with connections to obtain some animals.
The Gavagans' daughter, Janet, was a teenager at the time and recalls her late parents' decision to let Mulhauser buy two or three lions and do a circus-style performance every afternoon. The animals lived in a cage right behind the restaurant.
"Prior to that, there was no thought of having lions or tigers, but it was a way to stand out from the other steakhouses in the Valley at the time," she says. "My dad was very inventive when it came to hiring people."
Mulhauser took care of the animals and did the shows for a couple of years, but when he moved on, so did the lions. A few years later, in the mid-'70s, he came back, this time performing with tigers. It was all over by the end of the decade, and nobody's quite sure whether the lions and tigers ended up in a zoo or a flashy Las Vegas show. But for some locals, it made a lasting impression.
Michael Seitts, a Scottsdale native who's spent plenty of time at Harold's over the years, says he's still amazed that anybody pulled it off.
"It was crazy," he says. "Like something out of Monty Python."
The animals are gone, but the restaurant's still around.
A carnival ain't a carnival unless your dining options include some manner of foodstuff that's been placed on a stick. In fact, on our last visit to the midway, our repast consisted of individually skewered deep-fried Twinkies, tasty egg rolls, and the undisputed king of impaled edibles, the corn dog. And outside the carnival circuit, the best place we've found this deep-fried delight of a flavorful frank covered in cornmeal is at the Gilbert location of Al's Chicago Style. We've forgone the kind of middling corn dogs available at places like Sonic or am/pm in favor of a juicy, all-beef Chicago-style wiener covered in crispy and delicious batter that just melts in our mouth. If you're feeling daring, try adding a few helpings of jalapeño pepper hot sauce or Tabasco onto your dog instead of the usual ketchup and mustard, but keep a cool drink handy.
Besides corn dogs, funnel cakes, or any other foodstuff that's been cooked in an unhealthful amount of grease or lard, a longtime staple of local carnivals, fairs, or street festivals has been Indian fry bread. And much to our doctor's chagrin, we've eaten more than our fair share of this doughy, deep-fried Native American specialty, and it's usually been covered with such toppings as honey and powdered sugar or sumptuous meats and chilies. So whenever we've got a hankering for this debaucherous deliciousness (and a fair or carnival isn't readily available), we head for the Fry Bread House, where owner Cecelia Miller has been clogging our arteries for more than 15 years. Miller and company offer a variety of flavorful fillings atop their chewy and flaky fry bread (which is the size of a LP record), ranging from the standard "Indian taco" (homemade refried beans, lettuce, and cheese) to chorizo, chilies, and ground beef. We've noshed there twice this week alone, but we swear, doc, we'll atone for it with a few extra rounds of cardio this week at the gym. Promise.
You won't find any wacky mirrors in this funhouse, although House of Tricks does have a way of skewing one's perspective — in a good way. Once you set foot into the outdoor patio, sheltered by huge leafy trees and decked out with tiny white lights, all feels right with the world. Your mood is bound to improve even more once you find something on the interesting wine list. Inside, the charm of this 1920s cottage starts to work its magic on you, and expert service only heightens the feeling that life is grand, indeed. As for the New American menu — well, that will make you smile, too. Options run the gamut from black tea-spiced ahi tuna to pistachio-crusted rack of lamb to smoked chile-glazed hanger steak. Nope, House of Tricks isn't the typical funhouse. But, hey, it's a restaurant in an old house — and eating here sure is fun.
Thanks to an overzealous dentist and a few mishaps with broken fillings, we were reluctantly forced as children to swear off candy apples, as the sticky-yet-fruity confection murdered the inside of our mouth. And our promise stuck — up until last year, that is, after we started indulging our sweet tooth with the deliciousness of Candy's Apples. More than just dunking the fruit in a hard candy shell, this north Phoenix confectioner takes gigantic Granny Smith apples and covers them with nuts, dollops of caramel, or other sinful substances. There are 10 selections — each weighing 1.5 pounds — to choose from but our favorite, by far, is "The Kum Ba Yah," which features a heaping portion of marshmallows and graham cracker pieces drizzled over with streams of milk chocolate. Another tempting choice is "The Texan," in which the apple is doused in ample amounts of pecans, caramel, and chocolate. We've attempted giving a few of these beauties as gifts to our friends and family, but somehow they've never made it into the hands of our nearest and dearest. Oops.
How do we love Digestif? We'd count the ways, but there are just too many. For starters, there's executive chef Payton Curry, who puts his heart into handmade pasta and housemade charcuterie. There's pastry chef Tracy Dempsey, who had already impressed us at Digestif's sister restaurants (Cowboy Ciao, Kazimierz, and Sea Saw) but now gives us new confections to crave. And how could we forget Pavle Milic, the attentive general manager, who's got more charm in his pinky finger than most people could muster after going through etiquette boot camp? Milic's snazzy old-school absinthe presentation, complete with slotted spoon, sugar cube, and vintage-style water fountain, is worth a visit unto itself. Not that we'd ever dream of coming here and not indulging in the fantastic eats. The delectable "Farm to Table" vegetable plate, the crispy skin duck breast, the chorizo-topped crostata fresh out of the stone hearth oven — it's all good.
Sometimes we come to Digestif just to soak up the laid-back '60s living-room vibe and hip, 21st-century indie-rock soundtrack (courtesy of Stinkweeds' Kimber Lanning), and even then we can't resist noshing on top-notch snacks, from Pecorino cheese to housemade pancetta. And what about drinks? The restaurant is named after a type of European liqueur that's supposed to aid digestion, so thankfully the selection lives up to it. Digestif's craft cocktails rock, and naturally the wine list is mind-blowing. We wouldn't expect anything less from restaurateur/celebrity wino Peter Kasperski, who definitely deserves a toast for this tasty addition to our culinary scene.
These days, there aren't too many reminders that Scottsdale is "The West's Most Western Town," a slogan coined by the city's first mayor, Malcolm White, back in 1951. Heck, if it weren't for the lack of an ocean nearby, the glitzy scene in downtown Scottsdale might even pass as Miami or L.A. But there are still remnants of the Old West to be found here, if only in the form of tourist destinations. For proof, head north, young man — waaay north — to Pinnacle Peak Patio, where cowboy nostalgia has been in style since it opened in 1957. The place started out as a general store but has grown into a sprawling eatery where you can dig into a mesquite-smoked steak, knock back a pint of ice-cold Pinnacle Peak Amber Ale (one of the microbrews made on-site), and dance to live country music. Feel free to show up in a Stetson and a sturdy pair of boots, but leave your tie at home, lest it be snipped off and added to the collection hanging from the ceiling as a reminder of the restaurant's "no necktie policy." If you'd heard the desert was harsh, now you'll understand why.
You think it's a hike up to Cave Creek for dinner? Consider that foodies from around the country fly into town just to try chef-owner Kevin Binkley's inventive, French-influenced American cuisine, and then see how you feel about going the extra mile for a top-notch gourmet experience.
Of course, it'll all make sense once you're comfortably seated in the cozy, low-key dining room, sipping on a fantastic wine, enjoying attentive, doting service, and nibbling on a series of surprising amuses bouches between courses. Everything's beautifully presented and crafted from the best ingredients available, from the simplest salad to the most sophisticated seafood dish. Needless to say, it's worth the drive — and it sure beats trekking to New York or San Francisco to eat at other restaurants of this caliber.
What is it in the desert soil that's making Thai Basil flourish? We're not sure, but we suspect it has something to do with locals' taste for fiery food. (Surely you didn't think we limit ourselves to spicy Mexican cuisine, did you?) In just three years, Thai Basil has grown from one modest eatery (a dressed-up former sub shop near ASU) into a burgeoning chain with additional locations in Ahwatukee, Chandler, and central Phoenix. And if you count Thai Elephant, a popular downtown eatery run by the same folks, that makes five restaurants. Obviously, they're doing something right, from friendly service and a clean, cheerful atmosphere to craveable food that haunts you until you give in to another splurge (belly-wise, not budget-wise). We're hooked on the creamy, complex curries, the toothsome pad Thai, and the namesake Thai Basil, with fresh basil, plenty of vegetables, and a choice of meat in a fragrant garlic sauce. Strong, sweet Thai iced tea and sticky rice with ripe mango are essential, too, considering how well they soothe our taste buds after a "Thai hot" meal.
What happens when a food-obsessed restaurant fanatic teams up with an equally passionate young chef with an impressive résumé? You end up with Noca, one of the most highly anticipated restaurants of 2008. Without a doubt, Eliot Wexler is the city's most tireless gourmet, who not only became a regular at the best dining spots in town but worked a yearlong stint, unpaid, for acclaimed local chef Kevin Binkley — all to quench his thirst for culinary expertise. Wexler's plan to open a restaurant picked up speed when he recruited talented chef Chris Curtiss, who'd worked at some of San Francisco's top-rated restaurants with French Laundry alum Ron Siegel before coming to Phoenix and turning heads at downtown's now-defunct Circa 1900.
Together, Wexler and Curtiss have assembled a staff of seasoned professionals to give their fledgling operation the kind of polish that most newbie restaurateurs would kill for, and they've sourced the best ingredients available, from Bob McClendon's organic produce to fresh seafood from the same supplier that Sea Saw's Nobuo Fukuda uses.
That said, Noca's atmosphere is refreshingly unpretentious, and the ingredient-driven cuisine is far from fussy. In fact, it's playful at times, from the "caviar" of organic eggplant, served out of a caviar tin with warm blinis, to the "milk and cookies" dessert, featuring fresh chocolate chip cookies and a frothy malted vanilla shake. Ultra-fresh crudo dishes and luscious handmade pastas are not to be missed, while the juicy pork chop, paired with crispy, melt-in-your-mouth pork belly, will make you smile from the first bite to the last. Even the Simple Supper, a wallet-friendly three-course tasting menu, is craveworthy. But really, it's no wonder Noca appeals to foodies — it's run by the biggest one of them all.