Five Casual Arizona Eateries I’m Going to Miss and You’re Going to Love

Even though I’ll be moving to one of the great foodie cities of the world, I’ve always considered the dining options in the Phoenix area to be vastly underrated.  Not only can you find great Mexican food and steakhouses in the Valley of the Sun, there are endless restaurants featuring just about every cuisine you can imagine – from French to Ethiopian to Native American fusion, Phoenix has something for everyone.  For those who don’t want to spend big bucks on the fancier restaurants in town, I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite casual eateries in the Valley.  I am going to miss these options once I leave – if you live in the Phoenix area or plan to visit some time soon, be sure to check these eateries out if you are looking for a good bite to eat and don’t want to break the bank!

Rancho de Tia Rosa
Type of food: Baja Mexican
Why I love it:  Before we get to the food, let me tell you about the property.  Dennis Sirrine, owner of Tia Rosa, was a general contractor by trade.  He and his wife purchased the property Tia sits on, and designed and built the property himself.  I love the design for not only its authentic Mexican flair, but the restaurant is brilliantly broken out into smaller sections so that you always feel like you are in an intimate space.  My favorite location to eat, weather-permitting, is their back patio – with heat lamps and misters, comfortable booth seating and beautifully-kept gardens, it is a relaxing place to hang out and enjoy the company you are with.

Tia Rosa’s menu has your typical gringo foods for those who fear a little adventure, but their specialty is seafood.  The only time I venture away from their seafood section is to have their delicious chicken mole.  You’ll find that the majority of their food isn’t overly heavy, and in some cases, not all that fattening, if you are watching what you eat.  They have an abundant selection of salads, soups, and many of their dishes won’t leave you feeling too guilty.  This makes you feel a little better about chowing down on their chips and salsa or sipping one of the best house margaritas in town.
My Go-To Dish:  I love their seafood tacos.  I typically get a grilled shrimp taco, which comes with pineapple salsa, lettuce and cheese, and a grilled salmon taco, which comes with mango salsa, lettuce and cheese.  Both are on soft, thin tacos and have a nice combination of savory and sweet.  When you’re loading up on chips and margaritas, this is a main dish that won’t send you into a coma.
For More Info, visit: http://www.ranchodetiarosa.com/

Essence Bakery Cafe
The type of food: French and Greek-inspired breakfast and lunch fare
Why I Love it: Tucked away in a little strip mall just a couple of blocks away from ASU, this is my go-to place for the rare times I go out to lunch at work.  Owner Eugenia Theodosopoulos is of Greek heritage and was trained at École Lenôtre in Paris.  Her foods are never heavy, and a lot of care and attention has been put into every dish.  Take, for example, her croissants.  She brought in a famed pastry chef with the rare M.O.F. designation to consider the temperature, humidity, and other factors in Arizona and come up with the perfect croissant under these conditions.  Biting into a chocolate-filled croissant at Essence is a little taste of heaven.
My Go-To Dish: While I love everything I’ve had on the menu – the Croque Madame, Croque Monsieur, a chicken salad sandwich with lemon and basil, spanakopita, there is one thing Essence is famous for in the valley: macarons.  No, not those gross coconut blobs your Aunt Trudy forces on you every Christmas, these are French macarons – delicate, merinque-like cookies filled with icing or jams.   Eugenia makes many wonderful pastries every day, yet when I’m in there, I cannot resist buying macarons.  It’s like an addiction – any time you see a new flavor, you have to try it.  So far, I can’t decide if my favorite is her espresso, hazelnut, lime, meyer lemon or raspberry rose macarons.  Or her rum filled? Or the mint chocolate?  See, they all are delicious, there’s no way to choose just one.  For those of you who want to try these confections but won’t be in town any time soon? They Deliver!
For more info, visit: http://www.essencebakery.com/

Four Peaks Brewery
The type of food: Mirco-brews and barfare
Why I Love it: Over the years, some very good brewery-restaurants have popped up throughout Arizona – San Tan Brewery in Chandler, Oak Creek Brewery up in Sedona…but there is one that is the Godfather of Arizona Breweries, and that is Four Peaks.  Four Peaks is the place you go to when you want to meet up with friends after work, have a couple of beers, and grab a bite of comfort food. Their fare is pretty standard for a pub – tasty burgers, pizza, and appetizers with the occasional dish incorporating one of their beers, but they shine with their famous brews.  No Phoenix-area resident with a love of beer goes for long without Four Peaks’ Kiltlifter (a red Scottish ale) in their fridge.  In addition to that, they have a wide selection of regular brews, from IPAs to Peach ale, to Hefeweizen and Oatmeal Stout to quench your palate.  Their seasonal beers are also quite good, with their Pumpkin Porter being so in demand they can’t keep up with production around this time of year, and wait to offer it in growlers.
My Go-To Dish: When I’m at Four Peaks, I don’t want to go too fancy – I’m relaxing with friends, after all!  I’ll just order a mushroom-swiss burger, and get a Snakebite to drink along with it.  What is a Snakebite? An interesting combination of two of their beers – you’ll have to order it and find out!
For more info, visit: http://www.fourpeaks.com/

Gelato Dolce Vita
The type of food: Gelato, coffee, cannoli and now Italian deli fare at their East Mesa location
Why I Love it: If you consider gelato to be that junk you get at the gelato spot, you’re in for a pleasant surprise – Italian husband and American wife-team Walter and Marti bring these authentic Italian treats to you daily, and I guarantee if you close your eyes as you let that hazelnut gelato melt in your mouth or sip on that cup of cappuccino, you just might  believe you’re in Florence.  They rotate out flavors often, but every gelato made is of the highest quality and use fresh ingredients.  I especially love the fresh, natural flavor of their fruit flavors.  I also appreciate when they roll out something a little weird, like their chile chocolate gelato, or a gorgonzola gelato.
My Go-To Dish: As much as we love their gelato, I crave their cannoli, cappuccino, and drinking chocolate.  If you are a chocolate lover and never had authentic drinking chocolate before, on a cold night, give them a visit, and if it’s available, be sure to give it a try.
For more info, visit: http://www.gelatodolcevita.com/

Flancer’s
The type of food: fancy pizza, sandwiches and pasta
Why I Love it: When you live in east Mesa, there aren’t many dining options outside of the Applebees and Olive Gardens of the world.  Thanks to Tia Rosa, Flancers, and Red, White & Brew, we at last have a few good alternatives.
Flancer’s is a nice small spot with a couple of televisions on ESPN and psychedelic concert posters adorning the walls.  The service is always friendly and the food is unique and delicious.  While their pasta is a bit of a weak point on the menu, their pizza and sandwiches are one-of-a-kind, using ingredients like prickly pear juice or green chiles to jazz up a simple dish.  They offer a lot of options for sides, allowing you to incorporate healthier options, if you so choose.
My Go-To Dish: As much as I love their pizzas and calzones, sandwiches are where it’s at.  My personal favorite is their Perfect Prickly Pear Chicken sandwich with green chile mayonnaise and a side of their crispy sweet potato fries.  When I’m not in the mood for regular bread, I’ll get it on a whole wheat tortilla.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my husband’s favorite on the menu, their We Must Meat, I Ain’t Lion sandwich, consisting of filet mignon, caramelized onions, gorgonzola and chipotle mayo.  It is a great combination of flavors and is sure to fill you up.
For more info, visit: http://www.flancers.com

Honorable Mention:
Red White and Brew – located in East Mesa, this is a great place to take the family (i.e., a large group of picky eaters).  In fact, it’s become our go-to place when we take out my in-laws and 10 year-old nephew.  From pizza to burgers to great fish entrees (their pecan salmon is my favorite), there is something for everyone here.  Don’t let the name fool you – while they have a respectable selection of wines and beer, the emphasis here is the food.  Web site: http://www.rwbaz.com/
Cornish Pasty Co. – I prefer the Gilbert location to the scary, claustrophobic flagship Tempe hole-in-the wall (which is a nightmare for lunch on a workday, quite frankly).  Bring your appetite, the calzone-like pasties are enormous and filled with potatoes, stuffing, meat, gravy, and just about everything you can think of.  You’ll love every last bite, but they are sure to send you into a food coma.  Be sure to check out their beer selection while you’re there, especially if you’re a fan of British imports.  Web site: http://www.cornishpastyco.com/
Dilly’s Deli – One of my favorite lunch spots in town.  Their bread for sandwiches is thick and perfectly toasted, they give you a ton of meat and toppings, and best of all, their bread bowl soups are out of this world.  I’ve heard all the soups are delicious, but after all this time I still haven’t been willing to move beyond their potato soup.  Web site: http://dillysdeli.com/

Le Nom, Volume III: A French Dinner Party

When life deals you lemons, throw them away and make cheese sauce.  This is the lesson I learned from this month’s Le Nom.

Due to a few scheduling conflicts, we had a smaller group for this dinner party.  To make sure we continued with the tradition of having more food than anyone can possibly eat, I decided to contribute not one, but three dishes to ensure we had a little bit of everything.

My initial plan was to make garlic aioli for us to dip bread in.  I found a recipe on food.com, which called for a fruity olive oil.  This was the perfect opportunity to use the Queen Creek Olive Mill Meyer Lemon Olive Oil.  Queen Creek Olive Mill is the only company in Arizona to make their own EVOO, and offer a number of unique flavors  – Mexican Lime, Roasted Garlic, and Chocolate are but a few. They practice sustainable farming and have a great reputation around the valley. I’ve been dying to try them out.  Unfortunately, I either completely screwed up the recipe for the aioli, or it was a bad recipe to begin with.  When I made it, I expressed my concerns over the result on Facebook.  My chef friend Brian asked me what the problem was.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: “What should the texture of aioli be?”
Brian: “Mayonnaise.”
Me: “Yeah…it’s like soup.”
Brian: “What was the proportion of egg to oil?
Me: “One Egg, 1.5 cups olive oil.”
Brian: “A whole egg?”
Me: “Yup.”
Brian: “That’s the problem. Here’s what you do…”

He gave me excellent instructions on attempting to revive my soupy aioli.  Unfortunately, it didn’t really work, and I decided to give it a little taste to see if it was even worth saving.  Between the high amount of olive oil and the lemon juice the recipe called for, the mixture tasted like oily lemon, and not in a good way.  The olive oil was an amazing olive oil (I got a second bottle for non-aioli purposes), however this recipe just didn’t work at all. I’ve decided to have Brian or gourmand-friend Steven show me how to make aioli someday.  I’m pretty sure the majority of this fail is on me.  I’m a visual learner, and I think I need to see someone make it.

Why am I telling you about the dish that failed? Because I want you to know that it’s okay to screw up a dish.  It was a pricey screw up, but the only way to reach new horizons with cooking or anything in life, is to take a risk, be willing to see it blow up in your face, learn from it, and move on.  So? I moved on.

The next recipe I tackled was pots de crème. I have always wanted to make pots de crème, which is basically a sexy, naughty version of custard or pudding.  I found a great recipe on The Pioneer Woman’s web site – it’s not a traditional way of making pots de crème as there is no baking involved, but this recipe is super-easy, can be made ahead and is a silky chocolatey treat.  I particularly appreciate how she explains she made a mistake with the temperature of the eggs and coffee, because I probably would have done the same thing had she not mentioned it.  I had some Godiva liqueur on hand, so per her suggestion, I replaced the vanilla extract with the liqueur.  I also added white chocolate Godiva liqueur to the whipped cream – I need to practice this more.  I used to be really good at boozy whipped cream, but lately I’ve been adding in the liqueur too early, and it’s not thickening as much as it needs to.
Pairing suggestion: You could go with an alcohol pairing, like Raspberry Lambic, or banyuls, but I think just a good old-fashioned cup of coffee works here.  It is so rich, you need the bitterness of a cup of coffee to balance it out.

The next thing to tackle was Cauliflower Gratin.  Why did I choose this dish? Well, for one thing, I wanted to have a vegetable on the table.  Second, it has all the ingredients that make French food delicious – cream, butter and cheese.  Magical things happen when these three ingredients come together.  This is also a simple recipe, and I think it came out perfectly.  I’ll be making it again on Memorial Day weekend for friends who missed this month’s Le Nom.
Pairing suggestion:  Since this is a side, you’ll want to pair to your main dish, but if you decide to have a mountain of Cauliflower Gratin for dinner – and there’s nothing wrong with that – an unoaked Chardonnay would be a tasty choice.  I think a mildly sweet Riesling might work too.

So, the house was clean, the table was set, the gratin was in the oven and people were soon to arrive.  I needed a replacement for my Aioli Fail, so I decided to wing it.  I had a ton of Gruyère left over, so I decided to basically take an Alfredo recipe, replace the Parmesan with Gruyère, omit the garlic, and at the suggestion of Steven, add white pepper and nutmeg for seasoning.  While it didn’t thicken very well initially (as it cooled, it was much thicker), it was cheesy goodness that was devoured by all.  Was it a “French” dish? I’m not totally sure - Gruyère is from Switzerland, but it’s used in many French dishes – quiche, croque-monsieur, french onion soup… I’ll give myself a pass.
Pairing suggestion: again, an unoaked chardonnay or a Riesling would work.  A Brut champagne would be pretty yummy too. One of the Le Nommers brought a Sauv Blanc that worked nicely.

While we were enjoying the cheese sauce, another Le Nom member showed up, explaining their own challenge with the dish they were going to bring – a peach crème brûlée for dessert.  Apparently, video games and baking do not go well when done simultaneously! Not a problem for us – again, we always have more than enough food, and we had an emergency dessert waiting in the wings.

After enjoying our bread and cheese sauce, it was time for the main meal – inside a beautiful Le Cresuset oval French oven, Steven and Jennie brought with them the dish of all dishes, Juila Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon.  Because I’m a little nerdy, I was excited to try this particular recipe because I loved the movie Julie & Julia, and the boeuf bourguignon was a critical plot point in the movie.  It also looked really yummy on film.

Served atop egg noodles, this dish is a mix of elegance and comfort food. It is a labor of love – taking all day to make, as several of the ingredients must be prepared in advance prior to adding them into the stew. From the Burgundy region, boeuf bourguignon was originally a food for peasants, but today it tends to reside in the world of haute cuisine.
Suggested Wine Pairing:  We enjoyed pinot noir with the dish, however a nice Syrah or Cabernet would also go well here.

All of the food was delicious, and we actually had the perfect amount of food for six people.  My only regret was not saving a bit of the boeuf for myself for the next day.  What was I thinking?

Next month, we are heading back to this continent to tackle Mexican cuisine.  There are so many regions to choose from, and so many different dishes that can be made – carnitas, flan, enchiladas, mole sauce, ceviche…yum.  I can’t wait to see what everyone brings!

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