The countdown to Best of Phoenix is on. Mark your calendar: This year's issue will be on newsstands September 26. What better way to warm up than by asking some local "experts" to list their own personal bests? This week FnB co-owner Pavle Milic shares his five favorite spots to dine out with the kids.
Although I was ambivalent about writing about this subject, I decided to do it. So here's the situation: Lorenzo is 4, Oliver is 6, and Hannah is 14. You would think all my kids are "restaurant brats," meaning they'll eat anything. Truth is, they have a dynamic range of tastes and dislikes. Lorenzo is near-vegetarian; Oliver is a die-hard carnivore; Hannah will eat most things. Almost always, the house is the best option to please everyone in the comfort of my own kitchen and stretchy pants. Besides, the house is a controlled environment, and if a meltdown by any were to occur, then I can yell without getting accusatory glances from anyone -- other than my own kids.
I also remember the time I took Hannah to Bouchon in Yountville, California. She was probably 5 or 6. I really wanted her to try oysters, so I ordered a half dozen. To my surprise, Hannah took a keen liking to Kumamotos -- small, sweet, plump, and crunchy oysters. She loved the zippiness of the champagne vinegar mignonette. A few weeks later, I took Hannah out on a date and she wanted to order her own appetizer this time. "I will take a dozen Kumamotos" straight-faced Hannah says to our server. Ladies and gentlemen, that was a $36 appetizer for 6-year-old. Whew.
So although we mostly eat at home, when we go out, we do have our faves! Here they are:
Pizzeria Bianco Bianco's pie always pleases the kids. Oliver goes crazy for the Spiedini. Chris [Bianco] always has some nice crunchy and fresh market salad. On my last visit, I had an über-refreshing watermelon and fennel salad with large whole Italian parsley leaves and crushed black peppercorns. Another big plus is the fact that Chris cares about sourcing and being part of the community. It's also nice to know that Bianco's pizzeria is part of the dining fabric of our city; part of our community.
Disclaimer: I have known Chris since he used to work at my stepdad's place back in the late '80s -- Franco's Trattoria. We also worked together at Rancho Pinot Grill when it was at Town and Country, so I feel like he's family. Another excuse to go to Bianco's with the kids: The Arizona Science Center is right next door and the Phoenix Children's Museum is right across the street.
Brat Haus Let me count the reasons. Family-friendly open space. Ping-pong table. Jenga. Darts. Corn Hole. Oh, and the chef-owner cares about providing real food. Payton Curry is a die-hard enthusiast of all things local. His menu caters to both adults and kids. If the kids want "Kid Menu: items he offers hot dogs and grilled cheese. Parents surely will be pleased by comforting brats and killer fries. And, oh, the beer selection. Plenty of offerings in this department. If you're lucky enough to spot Payton, say hello. He is a kid whisperer. They love him. And if you ask him, he'll give them a tour of the kitchen.
Joe's Farm Grill Located in Gilbert in Agritopia, Joe's Farm Grill actually is the house that was built by Joe's parents back in 1967 -- Jim and Virginia Johnston. Joe and his two other brothers were raised on this property and they all still live near there. Towering above and protecting the house from wind is a stunning, tall tamarisk tree. The restaurant sources directly from its own farm. All the food is made from scratch. The grill serves wild-caught salmon, hormone-free chicken, local natural beef. I appreciate a restaurant that makes this decision to be more mindful about our diets and where we get our food.
The kitchen is wrapped by windows allowing you to see everything that goes on. The "al fresco" area is charming, with lots of grass and picnic tables. They always talk about the bathrooms. They are sleek and futuristic, and the kids get a kick out of the G.I. Joes and Barbies on display. You just have to see them for yourself. The restaurant has a certain charm that is true blue Americana. Due west of Agritopia on Ray is Cosmo Dog Park. It is, in my opinion, the best one in Arizona; a cool place to take your doggy. There's lots of space and a lake. Both my Lucy and Luna love it there.
Noca Eliot Wexler, who owns Noca, is another operator who loves kids. He reminds me of the old-school New York maitre'd who would take kids back to the kitchen. Anyone who has been to Noca knows about the cotton candy. After dinner and before dessert you get a nice fluffy cloud of it. Eliot took Oliver back there to show him the how it is made. So here's the big time Lagniappe: Kids eat free on Sunday. Say what? Yup, Noca serves simple supper on Sundays. Kids are served an abbreviated version of the adults menu if the kids are feeling adventurous. Wexler also offers other kid items as well. In short, Noca is an accessible fine dining establishment, in a contemporary setting that is the perfect 'rite of passage' joint for kiddos. Bonus: We the parents smile with a Negroni in hand.
Carniceria Cuernavaca Who doesn't like tacos or mesquite-grilled chicken? I like to take the kids here because this is as real as it gets for Mexican food here in Arizona. I'm not saying it's the only place where you can experience real Mexican food, but it's my choice. I knew of Carniceria Cuernavaca mainly for their killer deal: for $10, you can take home a mesquite-grilled 1/2 chicken, frijoles, salsa, and tortillas. Flavorful, delicious and just down right tasty. It wasn't until a former employee of mine, David Rivera, told me that inside to the left when you walk in, there are two tables with plastic tablecloth and on the other side, a small kitchen. Oliver loves the chicken tacos. I love the secret sauce (that doesn't have a name but is always in the middle of the table) that is made from mesquite-grilled chile de Arbol that is then pureed with onions and plenty of garlic and allowed to steep in oil.
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Armando the owner is almost always there, so be sure to name-drop; tell him that Pavle sent you. I like taking the kids here because not only is the food good, they get a chance to experience an unusual cultural setting that is enriching for parents and children alike.