Cafe Reviews

Matt's Big Breakfast, Postino, Latitude Eight, and More Bring a World of Summer Cuisine to the Valley

Summer in Phoenix is a good excuse to take a 'round-the-world tour. Sure, the cost of airfare might be prohibitive, but, hey, at least I can send my taste buds on a journey.

In fact, some of my favorite dishes around town happen to be those cool, refreshing, "summery" foods that are as essential to survival (and sanity) as air-conditioning and shade. So in the name of adventure, I've come up with a globetrotting sampling of different flavors and cultures.

The most obvious choice is a good salad — which, surprisingly, is a lot harder to come by than it should be. Every restaurant should have at least one salad that's as interesting and filling as anything on the entrée list. Sadly, so few do.

Vincent's Market Bistro does an excellent salade Niçoise, with seared albacore tuna and anchovy fillets atop a bed of greens, along with beets, hard-boiled eggs, and chilled potatoes. Hey, if you can't vacation in southern France, you can at least eat like you're there.

For something more exotic — and for those days when the carnivore in me is ravenous for red meat — I'm a fan of the top-notch Thai beef salad at Latitude Eight Thai Grill, where juicy grilled flank steak is jazzed up with toasted rice, Thai chili, red onion, cucumber, and cilantro. Cold, tangy papaya salad with grilled prawns is also a good way to fill up and cool down.

And then there's the deceptively basic-sounding mixed greens salad at the new Postino Central, where the old Katz Deli has been transformed into a breezy hangout just as hip as the original. This salad is anything but boring, with red grapes, sliced pear, candied pecans, Gorgonzola, and poppy seed vinaigrette to give pizzazz to the greens. What really makes the dish are the crispy leeks scattered on top — so mouthwatering that I inevitably eat every last speck. And it probably goes without saying, but Postino's famous bruschetta hits the spot this time of year, too.

Beyond salads, there are some interesting specialty dishes to check out. Andreoli Italian Grocer has become so much more than a run-of-the-mill Italian deli, serving up homemade pastas and daily specials like vitello tonnato, a quintessential summer dish. It consists of thin slices of chilled veal in a creamy, lightly tangy tuna sauce, studded with salty capers — I'm drooling at the thought of it right now.

With their scrumptious contrasts between tangy and mild, crunchy and creamy, the crispy northern Indian snacks called chaat are one of the draws at The Dhaba. There are several on the menu; I'm partial to ambala tiki chaat, a couple of crisp potato pancakes heaped with garbanzo beans, diced red onion, tamarind chutney, yogurt sauce, and fresh mint. Order this, and watch it disappear in minutes.

I never tire of Mexican seafood dishes, and when it's sizzling outside, I get irresistible cravings for a fresh seafood cocktail, like the campechana grande at Mariscos Playa Hermosa. Just as you'd expect from the beach-y name of the restaurant, this mixed cocktail delivers cold comfort straight out of the sea, with plump shrimp bobbing along the rim of an oversized glass. Along with shrimp, it's stocked with whole oysters and chunks of scallop, squid, octopus, and abalone, plus cucumber and onion in a flavorful, spicy tomato broth. On top, there's a fat slice of ripe avocado and sprigs of cilantro. This, along with an icy glass of jamaica (hibiscus) agua fresca, makes any 115 degree day feel like a breeze — if only temporarily.

Sushi is a no-brainer on a hellish day, but cold Japanese noodle dishes can be exhilarating, too. Usually, I stop by Cherry Blossom Noodle Café for the hiyashi chuka (cold egg noodles tossed with grilled chicken, shredded lettuce, cucumber, and sesame dressing) or zaru soba (cold buckwheat noodles served with salty soy-based sauce). They're so slurp-worthy that they almost qualify as thirst quenchers.

Another favorite is Vietnamese noodles — if it's chilly, I'm down with pho, and if the temps are soaring, give me bun. Da Vang does a classic rendition of this chilled rice vermicelli dish, with crunchy sprouts, shredded lettuce, fresh mint and cilantro, crushed peanuts, tangy nuoc cham sauce, and a variety of toppings, from grilled shrimp to barbecued pork to tiny, crisp spring rolls. On the side, a couple of shrimp-stuffed goi cuon (summer rolls wrapped in rice paper) taste wonderful this time of year.

And for an American classic like the Cobb salad, I appreciate that such an unlikely place as Matt's Big Breakfast, home of hot-off-the-griddle pancakes and scrambled eggs, serves a killer version. When I'm not in the mood for sizzling bacon, I can still get my bacon fix when it's tossed in with Romaine and iceberg lettuce, hard-boiled eggs, tomato, Kalamata olives, big chunks of chicken, Maytag blue cheese, and red wine vinaigrette. The egg salad sandwich here also rocks.

Yeah, it'd be great to ditch town and put that passport to good use. But in the meantime, staying inside and chowing down sounds like a delicious idea.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig