Cafe Reviews

Gut Reaction

Ten years is a long time.

When I moved here from California a decade ago, I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry.

I was thrilled with the affordable housing. I was thrilled that my kids could walk to school unescorted. I was thrilled that my car insurance rates were cut in half. I was thrilled with the clean air. I was thrilled that a rush-hour "traffic jam" only meant I might have to wait an extra light at a busy intersection. And I was thrilled by the wide open spaces and ring of unspoiled desert around the city.

I was unhappy, however, that there was no major league baseball. I was unhappy that every movie theater showed the same crummy Hollywood films. I was unhappy that the museums, theater, symphony and opera were third-rate. I was unhappy that so many of our elected officials were stupid, small-minded and corrupt. And I was unhappy that so many citizens believed they had a constitutional right to arm themselves with bazookas, rocket launchers and tactical nuclear weapons.

But nothing was more distressing to me than the gastronomic situation. With very few exceptions, it was almost impossible to find those things that make life worth living: a cappuccino, good bread, organic produce, authentic Chinese food, fine wine, premium ice cream, corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, topnotch restaurants and old-neighborhood pizza.

A lot has changed since then, some for the better, some for the worse. However, it's clear that, when it comes to eating, this town is no longer in the Dark Ages. So let me give my personal Best of Phoenix tribute to 10 courageous food-and-drink pioneers, the folks whose efforts helped lead us out of the culinary wilderness.

Coffee Plantation: It's hard to believe now, when there's a coffee house on every corner, but until the first Coffee Plantation opened on Mill Avenue in the late 1980s, you had about as much chance of tracking down a decaf mocha latte in the Valley as you did tracking down Sasquatch. I remember combing the streets, looking for a place to settle in with a cup of coffee and a newspaper, and ending up in a fast-food outlet. I'd spent years in the Third World, but no place seemed more God-forsaken than this.

Thank you, Coffee Plantation, for trailblazing the coffee-house scene and raising coffee consciousness.

Arizona Bread Company: Probably nothing depressed me more about Phoenix than the horrible bread. Tasteless white bread, pseudo-baguettes and mushy plastic-wrapped loaves were the order of the day.

But in 1994, a family of Ohio transplants taught themselves the art of breadmaking and opened a bakery the likes of which this town had never seen. All of a sudden, locals were turned on to wonderful artisanal breads: crusty chewy baguettes, olive bread, focaccia, rosemary loaves, raisin-pecan sourdough and real European rye.

Thank you, Arizona Bread Company, for showing us just how good bread can be.

AJ's Purveyor of Fine Foods: Upscale markets never thrived in this town until the 1990s. That's when AJ's spread from Scottsdale throughout the Valley, and the high-end grocery store concept finally took hold for good.

AJ's transformed the business. Stocked with prime meats, fresh seafood, exceptional produce, imported cheeses, fine wines and organic foods, and staffed with employees focused on service, AJ's made food-shopping fun. The hot food sections, which prepared restaurant-quality, ready-to-go meals, also made life easier.

Even if you didn't shop at AJ's, you still benefited. That's because other Valley supermarkets had to pick up their own quality in order to compete.

Thank you, AJ's, for putting the "super" back in supermarket.

Trader Joe's: When I left Los Angeles, I missed three things: my friends, the ocean and Trader Joe's. Ever since Trader Joe's moved here, I've found I can get along quite well without my old friends and the sea.

This one-of-a-kind store is perfect for those of us with champagne tastes and beer budgets. Whether it's Italian pasta, German beers, French cheeses, Spanish capers, Hungarian peppers, Indian basmati rice, Turkish dried apricots or California jumbo pistachios, Trader Joe's has an around-the-world selection of stuff that, if you could find it anyplace else, would be twice the price.

Thank you, Trader Joe's, for making good eating affordable.

Carnegie Deli: Housed in the doomed Scottsdale Galleria, this branch of the New York original lasted about six months back in 1992. But what a glorious six months it was.

Phoenix hadn't seen anything like it before, and hasn't since: 22-ounce pastrami and corned beef sandwiches, made with meat brought in from New York, kishka, kasha varnishkes, chopped liver, stuffed cabbage, blintzes, latkes, chicken-in-the-pot and knishes the size of my first apartment.

We still don't have anything resembling a real New York-style deli here. But for a brief while, the Carnegie Deli brought a slice of the Big Apple to the desert Southwest.

Thank you, Carnegie Deli, for keeping the deli flame alive.

Sportsman's Wines, Spirits and (Other) Flavours: When this shop opened in 1987, local wine retailing was generally pretty primitive. For the most part, merchants used a simple system to display the merchandise: On one shelf were wines with screw caps, on the other, wines with corks.

It took time, but after a few years, this place brought big-city sophistication to the wine scene. Whether it's a first-growth Bordeaux, Italian Supertuscan or German trockenbeerenauslese, Sportsman's carries all the heavy hitters. It also introduced the Valley to once hard-to-find wines that now even supermarkets routinely carry: Beaumes-de-Venise, Lustau sherries and Alsatian Gewürztraminer. And the proprietors seem to know everything about every wine on the planet.

Thank you, Sportsman's, for making the 1990s the days of wine and roses.

Marble Slab Creamery: Some people shoot up heroin. Others sniff cocaine. Me, I eat ice cream.

That's why I spent several months in the Dolly Madison wing of the Betty Ford Clinic, learning to live without ice cream. When I first arrived in this town, that was no problem. That is, until 1993, when Marble Slab came along.

This Texas-based outfit churns up fresh, premium ice cream, with enough butterfat to clog the arteries of a moose. I'm so addicted, I shouldn't even drive in the same zip code as a Marble Slab outlet.

The lush textures and intense flavors hit the brain's every pleasure zone. And the Valley's long, long summer only makes the temptation that much easier to yield to.

Thank you, Marble Slab, for making life richer and sweeter.

Rancho Pinot Grill: This jewel paved a path for my favorite kind of restaurant: small, casual, chef-run places, where the emphasis is on fresh, high-quality ingredients, and the kitchen has the skill and imagination to use them.

Rancho Pinot started out as a BYOB in a shopping-center storefront, before moving on to more impressive Scottsdale digs. And it charted the way for a new breed of 1990s restaurant: Café Patou, Coup Des Tartes, Razz's, Gregory's Grill, Cowboy Ciao, Restaurant Hapa and Convivo.

Thank you, Rancho Pinot Grill, for proving to other talented chef/proprietors that if you build it, we will come.

C-Fu Gourmet: My heart sank when, the day after I came here, a friend sent me to a "great" Chinese restaurant that used canned peas and carrots, frozen fish and a menu that could have come from a 1950s Chinese-American diner.

Fortunately, C-Fu Gourmet saved my sanity. This place, which started out in a small Tempe storefront before moving east to Chandler and north to Paradise Valley, is the real deal, a Hong Kong-style restaurant where the fish is so fresh it's still swimming when you order it. The Sunday dim sum brunch, meanwhile, could compete with the ones you find in Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco. Wallet-friendly prices don't hurt, either.

Thank you, C-Fu Gourmet, for bringing ethnic authenticity to a town long unfamiliar with the concept.

Pizzeria Bianco: It's easy to make pizza. And even using frozen dough, canned tomato sauce, dried spices and processed cheese, the result can taste okay.

But when you make it from scratch -- fresh dough, homemade sauce, the best cheeses, just-plucked-from-the-ground herbs -- the results can be extraordinary.

We found that out after Bronx-born Chris Bianco opened Pizzeria Bianco and stood watch in front of his wood-burning brick oven. This is pizza that wouldn't be out of place in Naples, vibrant flavors resting on a perfect crisp, chewy base.

Thank you, Pizzeria Bianco, for demonstrating that in an age of technology, the art of craftsmanship can still flourish.

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Howard Seftel