Winter – a bountiful banquet of food and beverages – part 2: Phoenix Valley and NYC

Living in a popular destination spot like Phoenix, I receive a lot of requests from out-of-town guests as to where to eat when they come to the valley. My family and I have vacationed or lived in the valley for many years and during that time we have compiled a list of several restaurants that have filtered out to be some of our favorites.

Although ambience is a nice asset to any dining experience, it is generally the food that brings us back again and again. Our restaurant list varies from the family owned Los Dos Molinos – a trio of authentic Mexican restaurants known for spicy food and Kick-Ass margaritas; to the fine dining experiences at any one of the Mastro’s Steakhouses in the valley – both of which I have blogged about in the past.

If you’re looking for a romantic evening out, it does not get much better than Lon’s, at the Hermosa Inn, tucked back into a residential area in Paradise Valley, just east of the Biltmore area. A soft glow eminates from lights hung from the low overhanging branches of the many trees that pepper the front outside eating area. Or you can dine closer to the bee hive fireplace on cooler evenings.

Lon’s at the Hermosa Inn for a romantic dinner. (copyright Jill Richards)

The food is garden-to-table fine dining American cuisine – the garden being a one acre plot right outside the kitchen, inclusive of fruit trees to kick up both food and cocktails. With to share dishes such as ‘Truffle Mac’ or ‘Blistered Peppers;’ or main dishes such as ‘Dry-Aged Strip with Chimchurri sauce’ or the ‘Pork Chop served with polenta and poached baby apples’ – the whole dining experience is one not to be missed.

If Italian is what you’re craving, I’d recommend checking out Casa Mia. An understated, but newly renovated, small restaurant run by an Italian family, tucked in a mostly empty line of retail spaces just off of Shea on 136th Street. The fact this place is hard to get into without a little forethought, goes to its reputation as being a destination eatery that has earned it’s business through word of mouth. And those are happy mouths sated  by homemade pastas like the melt in your mouth pillows of gnocchi with basil and fresh tomato sauce, or any of their veal or fish dishes. And mama’s homemade bread to sop of all the delectable sauces.

A new Scottsdale favorite to check out is Soi 4 Bangkok eatery. An authentic Thai restaurant with fresh and flavorful dishes like the ‘Neur pad tua’ – stir-fried Angus steak cubes with snap peas and onion rings in mild roasted chili jam, washed down with unique cocktails like cilantro infused vodka with lime juice served in a salty spiced rimmed martini glass. Very friendly service in a sleek contemporary setting.

One of the delectable small plates at Soi 4 Thai restaurant in Scottsdale.

If you head into Fountain Hills, you can again hit the gammet of dining experiences. From your basic Mexican food at Que Bueno: I recommend their patron silver margarita on the rocks with salt that comes in a large thick glass that requires two hands to drink from served with their award-winning salsa and warm chips; to the newly opened Italian restaurant Arrivederci (there are more in the valley) that has a great view of the world-famous fountain; to one of our favorite restaurants in the valley, Alchemy at Copperwynd, offering up one of the finest views in all of Fountain Hills and the valley.

Alchemy restaurant at Copperwynd in Fountain Hills. One of the best views in the valley.

Alchemy has been through several changes over the years, but these days you are assured of a tantalizing menu, fresh and flavorful dishes served by professional waitstaff. For the ‘Crispy Brussel Sprouts’ the chef peels the leaves off of each sprout and lightly crisps them with flavors of Worcestershire gastrique, truffle oil and cojita. Absolutely to die for! The ‘Burrata Panzella’ salad with pumpernickel croutons, figs, butternut squash and roasted tomato vinaigrette bursts with flavor. The ‘Sea Scallops’ – served with a grilled mushroom puree, snap peas, brown butter breadcrumbs and hibiscus syrup are so flavorful they have a hard time keeping up to the evenings demand for them.

If you need a quick pick me up or a late night snack, Senor Taco is our family go to fast food joint. An expansive menu with some creative Mexican dishes to rival a much higher end restaurant. Known for their shrimp burritos, they also go bold with such feasts as the California burrito – filled with carne asada or pollo asado, french fries, sour cream, salsa fresca & cheese.

A carne asada soft shell taco from Senor Taco, Fountain Hills.

A carne asada soft shell taco from Senor Taco, Fountain Hills.

My daughter, Allison, hit a few new hot spots in NYC:

Knowing the chef helps

Though I love consuming their artistry in every shape, size, and color, I’ve never managed to befriend any chefs. Luckily, I have two friends with sous-chefs for brothers. In the first two months of 2015, I ate for the first time at both of their restaurants: Txikito, in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, and Charlie Bird, in the western reaches of SoHo, also called the South Village.

Knowing the (sous) chef doesn’t mean you get a meal for free, but it does mean that every plate you order comes hand-in-hand with an even better one you didn’t; that everyone treats you with an extra dose of kindness; and that you’ll still pay less than the listed price.

Txikito is an upscale Basque tapas restaurant, and the friend whose brother works there is Chilean. Translation: small plates, major flair. It’s been a month, and I can still easily conjure up the languid texture of the “txipiron encebollado” ($16)–a lavish pile of squid ribbons tossed with sweet onions and pine nuts. Plated in the shape of a flattened rose, the octopus carpaccio ($15) was at once rich and delicate, oil-soaked and airy. The kroketas of the day, filled with cheese and salty cod, tasted like warmth itself. But the crowned prince of the night was the Spanish version of French toast, stolen off the brunch menu of Txikito’s sister restaurant La Vara and served up as dessert. Pillowed dough, caramelized syrup, and a whiff of citrus. The evening was blustery, a Monday, but the restaurant was still filled with a happy murmur. Just slow enough though for our chef to bring out one of his dishes himself and pull out the empty chair at our table for a humble hello.

Txikito restaurant in NYC. (picture by gourmet.com)

In contrast, I saw Charlie Bird at prime time. Late on a Thursday night. The restaurant bills itself as a little bit hip hop, influenced by downtown culture and the history of street art and jazz (the name is a fusion of Charlie Parker and his nickname “Bird”). So I was surprised to find the space awash in light, subdued colors: cream tables, bourbon-hued bucket chairs, walls the color of book pages. To our left, lined up above a bank of mustard-colored booth seating, was the bit of pizzazz I’d been expecting: a framed series of hyper-realistic boombox photographs. The only fault critics seem to have found with Charlie Bird’s food is its saltiness. If it’s too salty for them, they can leave the eating to me. Burrata toast ($12), farro salad ($16), gnocchi rosa ($18), crispy smoked eggplant ($10), pappardelle with rabbit ($20), and the rice krispie-laced chocolate budino ($12)–we ate it all and somehow heaved ourselves out of our chairs after. I’ve also read they have an excellent barolo on the menu, but even with the chef hook-up, that was a little too fancy for our wallets.

Charlie Bird eatery in NYC.

Charlie Bird eatery in NYC.

 

Summer fun – in the desert?

“Are you crazy?” ask my friends from the north.

“Certifiably,” I reply with a wry smile.

August has been my family’s go to month to vacation in the southwest for over a decade. We love heading down there mid-August for a couple of weeks or however long everybody’s schedule allows.

“Isn’t it like 110 degrees down there this time of year?” they continue.

“Absolutely,” I reply holding strong with my smile.

These friends, who have never been to the hot southwest, are incredulous as to why we would vacation, or as my Canadian friends say, “holiday,” in such hot locales, when there are so many cool(er) weather destinations to check out.

There certainly is some weight to that argument. We bought our first vacation home in Arizona in December of 2003, and no one said “boo” about that decision based on the time of year. Heading to the great southwest, from any of the heavily wintered Canadian provinces or U.S. states when it’s well below freezing with several inches of snow on the ground for a good thaw out in the hot desert is almost a must to survive the rest of the winter spent in the frozen tundra.

“What can you even do in that kind of heat?” their questions continue.

“Everything!” I reply and go on a sales-pitch rant.

These people live in areas where it can get to 30-40 below, for weeks on end, and they say I’m crazy for doing the same, just at the opposite end of the temperature spectrum. You can get frostbite in a matter of minutes at those kind of cold temps. And you can sunburn in a matter of minutes in temps of 110+. Cars can freeze up, wheels break, electronic systems shut down in freezing temps. Cars can overheat, asphalt streets get soft, you can singe your hands and legs on hot steering wheels and seats in intensely hot temps.

But my family and I have found August is a very enjoyable time of year to be in the desert. The pool temperatures are absolutely perfect. The heat of the sun, and the overnight warm temps, keep the pool at a comfortable 90 degrees – naturally – no heater needed. Just cool enough for an overheated body. Floating on a partially submerged floatie, with a cool-beverage in hand, and life is pretty darn good. Take a quick dip to cool down the whole body, and if a little breeze comes over the pool you can actually feel chilled in 115 degree temps.

The boys bake in the August Arizona sun, while the girls chill at the pool bar wondering where that Cabana boy is.

The boys bake in the August Arizona sun, while the girls chill at the pool bar wondering where that Cabana boy is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even the pups need to stay cool!

Even the pups need to stay cool!

Or stand tall and get a free body scrub compliments of a summertime haboob!

Or you can stand tall and get a free body scrub compliments of a summertime haboob!

Because there are not enough hardy souls that head to the southwest in the dead of summer it’s a great time to take advantage of  empty golf courses at greatly reduced prices. A foursome who doesn’t dawdle too much can easily finish in well under 4 hours. With a beverage cart driving by every few holes and a cooler on the cart with multiple ice-cold bottles of water as well as towels doused in ice-cold water to wrap around your neck, playing golf can be a very enjoyable activity in the heat of the summer.

But if weathering the great outdoors is just too much to ask, then jump in your air-conditioned car and head to one of the many air-conditioned malls – i.e. Fashion Square, Scottsdale Quarter, Kierland Commons, Desert Ridge, Tempe Marketplace. Or to one of the many movie theaters with stadium seating, comfy leather reclining seats, bar and food service – i.e. iPic Theaters, Studio Movie Grill, Ultra Cinemas. Or how about the interesting and interactive Musical Instrument Museum.

If you’re feeling a little more adventurous and have extra time on your hands, rent a fun little sports car and hit the road. A four-hour drive will have you in Vegas – make a quick pit stop at the Hoover Dam. Spend several hours in the mega air-conditioned casinos, take in a show, or feast at some of the best restaurants in the country.

Road trip to Vegas, pit stop at the Hoover Dam

Road trip to Vegas, pit stop at the Hoover Dam

Or make the 2 1/2 drive to Williams, AZ, just west of Flagstaff, to jump on an air-conditioned train into the Grand Canyon. A 2 1/2 train ride in; several hours to wander around the canyon; and a 2 1/2 hour train ride back.

After you have worked up a good appetite, it’s time to settle into one of the many great eating experiences in the valley. No matter where you are staying, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Fountain Hills, Mesa…there are multiple options for great food within a very short drive. Mexican is obviously a favorite food in the southwest, but the demands of even the most picky tastebuds will be fully satisfied. Some of our favorites include:

Los Dos Molinos – authentic Mexican eats; try any of the pork dishes, slow roasted all day long. Very spicy. $$ South Phoenix

My friend Vicki enjoying her pork dish at Los Dos Molinos

My friend enjoying her pork dish at Los Dos Molinos

Mastro’s Steakhouse – fine dining w/live music; best steaks in town (in my family’s humble opinion). $$$$ N. Scottsdale

Father and son...

Father and son and…

the fellas enjoying surf and turf at Mastro's Steakhouse

the fellas enjoying surf and turf at Mastro’s Steakhouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lon’s at the Hermosa Inn –  fine dining – great outdoor seating; a little bit of everything food wise. $$$$ Paradise Valley

True Food Kitchen – good food that’s good for you. $$ Scottsdale

Sofrita – spanish tapas $$Alchemy – contemporary American $$$$Sapori or Arrivederci – Italian $$$. Fountain Hills

Blue Adobe Grill – American Mexican; great flavors. $$$ Mesa & Scottsdale

Casa Mia – authentic Italian with homemade pastas. $$$ Scottsdale

T. Cooks at Royal Palms – fine, dining – fresh and flavorful American cuisine. $$$ Phoenix

Pure Sushi – fresh sushi and flavorful Asian dishes. $$$ N. Scottsdale