We're more than 500 meals into 2018. That is, if you skip second breakfasts, merendas, midnight snacks, and go by the standard American breakfast-lunch-dinner model. Of those 500-plus meals, I have eaten hundreds of good ones, and many great ones, too. Here are four that tend to haunt me, in sensory flashes, around the time morning slips into afternoon and that lunch hunger gets fierce. I have eaten each of the four recently. And each is ideal, beautifully made, and sure to leave you feeling great.
Polenta with Pork Ragú from Virtú
3701 North Marshall Way, Scottsdale
“That style of pork ragù my mom used to make when I was a kid,” Osso says. “She’d do a big bowl of polenta, and serve that big ragù over the top.”
If the family had leftovers, Osso’s mom would often serve them with frittata or eggs on Sunday. At Virtù, he serves his own version for brunch. Osso uses simple, thoughtful ingredients and uses them well. The pork is from Niman Ranch.
“What we do is get these long-bone pork chops in. We French the bones so we get the rib meat. We turn that into a ragù.” The ragù is made from just pork, tomato, wine, garlic, and tomato paste. Virtù is open for brunch on weekdays. If you go then, you can taste the pork ragù with polenta, one of the best Italian dishes I’ve eaten in the Valley.
That ragù and that polenta go together like the notes of a catchy song. Mascarpone textures the polenta with a silkiness and creamy depth. The pork ragù hews closer to an intense, long-stewed cacciatore than what you think of when you think of tomato-based sauce. The pork flavor is potent. Wild. Thrilling. Capable of launching the dreaming mind to faraway places.
Tuna Melt from Chula Seafood
8015 East Roosevelt Street, Scottsdale
On Wednesdays at Chula, tuna melts fly off the hot press.
They crowd onto a monster panini press, capable of handling four sandwiches at a time. The folks at Chula put an aggressive press on your sandwich, ridging the bread with the grooves of the grill. The toasting lasts a while. It results in outer bread with some brown splotches, some burnt spots, and a crisp character that, with another minute of toasting, would be a genuine crunch.
The tuna in the middle, though, is soft. It has been cooked confit-style. That means cooked immersed in fat, a method that yields fall-apart tuna, duck, chicken, or whatever has been cooked.
This tuna melt speaks with a strong Southwestern accent. Green chiles provide low heat, a mere candle flicker of cool burn. You can still get the mild flavor of albacore and the dreamy quality of melted cheese, sprinkled on with a restrained hand. The cheese is queso Oaxaca. The toasted vehicle is Noble Bread, two slices of sexy grill-furrowed goodness. Yep, we're miles from Bumblebee, American cheese, and English muffins.
Moroccan Flatbread from Lior the Baker
10953 North Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, #105, Scottsdale
Lior and Lily Ben-Shushan have been baking Israeli-style pastries in Scottsdale for the last few years. Last fall, they changed the name of their shop to Lior the Baker. Since, the shop has been kosher. The lineup of challah, almond challah, chocolate croissants, almond croissants, rugelach (many flavors), cookies, and other pastries and breads is sure to hook you on a bagful of fresh-baked goods.
If you go on Friday, there will also be a Moroccan flatbread rained with za'atar. The bread is like an uneven pizza with more fluff and buttery heft, the surface lunar with pocks and bumps. Za'atar covers all but the rounded ends in thick green drifts that form a sort of crust, giving the flatbread the look of a spice rack that somebody smashed with a baseball bat, and the wild aroma of a garden.
The Moroccan flatbread is easily one of the best things I've tasted in Arizona. Take some home. Eat it for dinner with fried egg. Or heat a wedge in the toaster, cut, and serve with drinks. This stuff is ridiculous. Lior and Lily should be getting more raves for the incredible baking they're doing.
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Roast Beef Sandwich from Worth Takeaway
218 West Main Street, Mesa
Worth Takeaway is a sandwich shop that one struggles to find fault with, not that you're looking. Soft, springy ciabatta delivers you right to the goods inside of its roast beef sandwich. The roast beef is soft, too, with the tenderness and simple mineral flavor of slow-cooked beef. Worth brines the meat for 24 hours before slow-roasting. The shreds are nice and tender.
A light horseradish crema light drops the beef into a familiar flavor landscape. Giardiniera — pickled vegetables — changes with the seasons and what local farmers have in stock. That may be, say, pink radishes, turnips, and Romanesco (an heirloom cauliflower). The crema lends zip and softness. The giardiniera loops in clean acidity and gentle snap. There are a lot of components. Each shows consideration.
The sandwich architects at Worth find the right places for these components. Each part just kind of disappears into the whole, like the strokes in a great painting or the notes of a favorite song.