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 I: The Italian Dinner Party

One month after an inaugural meeting filled with friends, appetizers, wine, and …shots?? (how’d that happen??), we had our first official club dinner party.  I named the club “Le Nom,” not to be properly translated as “The Name,” but to be in the vein of “nomnomnomnom.”  As you can tell from my blog titles, I’m not good with names. It’s short, and that’s good enough for me.  Our tagline is “Voulez-vous manger avec moi? Ce soir?” My husband thought that translated as “will you sleep with my food?”  He knows 900 computer languages, but when it comes to the non-geek ones… I love him.

This month was Italian Night, hosted by my stylish friend Kirsten.  Where I normally throw down a plastic tablecloth and put out a bunch of mismatched Solo cups left over from previous parties, she does things like this (yes, that’s a printed menu in each glass):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So yeah, she’s pretty good at this stuff.

The rules for Le Nom are simple: In our first meeting, we agreed to meet the first Saturday of each month, and discussed what international (or regional) cuisines we wanted to have as future themes.  Once a theme is determined for the month, the person who volunteers to host the event cooks the main dish, and everyone else is responsible for making the appetizers, sides, and dessert(s).  We haven’t quite figured out coordinating the courses, but were able to get all aspects of the meal in for Italian Night.

My personal hope for the club was to get together with my foodie friends to enjoy their good company, eat their food, and challenge myself in the culinary arena by making dishes I’ve never made before.  The night did not disappoint!

Listed below is a breakdown of what we ate, recipes (where provided), a little background on each dish, and a suggested wine pairing, should you decide to try it out for yourself.  I apologize for the lack of photos – I completely forgot to take pictures of everyone’s food, either due to excitement or too much Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio.  I’ll leave it to you to guess which was more likely.

 

Caprese Skewers:

Caprese (translated as “in the style of Capri”) is a delicious and light dish that gained popularity in the Campania region of Italy in the 1950s.  Fresh mozzerella (preferably buffalo moazzarella), tomato and basil on a stick – this is a fantastic hors-d’oeuvre for a party.  It’s colorful, delicious, finger-friendly, and doesn’t require any cooking.  When topped with olive oil and balsamic, they are to die for.  I could have had 10 of them.
Suggested Wine Pairing: Chianti or Sangiovese

 

Crab-Stuffed Mushrooms

Another great hors-d’oeuvre for a party.  Italians love their wild mushrooms – among the most coveted are porcini and of course, tartufi (truffles).  Here’s a cooking tip – never store your mushrooms in plastic – it will make them mushy.  Instead, store them in a paper bag, and refrigerate them for no longer than 2-3 days.
Suggested Wine Pairing: any non-oaked Chardonnay

Ribollita

This was my contribution to the theme.  I had this soup for the first time when I visited Florence, and loved all of the different flavors in the soup as well as its heartiness.  Ribollita began as a peasant dish to reuse existing soup, vegetables and older bread.  I used Giada de Laurentiis’ recipe, which is not only tasty, but takes out a lot of prep time by using a few canned and frozen items.  The soup was so pretty, I took a number of pictures as I cooked it, as you can see here.   I love how it has the colors of Italy – red tomatoes, green spinach and white beans.  The recipe also calls for Herbes de Provence, which smells wonderful as it cooks.  I think it turned out pretty good – so much so, I made another batch the next day!
Suggested Wine Pairing: Sangiovese or Chianti.

Bruschetta

Let me tell you about my friend Steven: he covets his Bon Appetit the way some people covet vintage Playboy magazines (or, I guess, National Geographics, but that just doesn’t seem as appropriate).  He is passionate about all things culinary.  He makes his own bacon, for God’s sake.  He is exactly the kind of person who was born for this sort of event.  He brought two things to the party, the first being his amazing bruschetta.  The flavor of the topping was so rich and fresh, I could have dove into a pool of it and eaten my way out.  Instead of putting it in a pool for me to dive into, he put it atop lightly toasted slices of bread, and topped each piece with some cheese, broiling it just enough for the cheese to melt.  Fantastic.  As far as the history of the dish goes, bruschetta has origins back to the 15th century, and existed as a way to use bread that was going stale.  It comes from the verb “bruscare,” which is translated as “to roast over coals.”
Suggested Wine Pairing: Once again, Sangiovese and Chianti are great, although if you want to go with a white, a Sauvignon Blanc would pair well.

 

Handmade Pasta and Meatballs

This was Steven’s other amazing creation – he made fresh fettuccine (or tagliatelle, I’m not sure what the difference is).  I love fresh pasta – it’s so delicate and soft.  The meatballs were full of flavor and moist.  This made me feel bad for not using my pasta roller yet, even though I’ve had it for over 2 years.
Suggested Wine Pairing: Barbera d’Alba, Zinfandel (real Zin, not that fakey white Zin)

 

Sausage and Gravy with Mostaccioli

This style of Ragu was more in the style of the Campania region – lots of sauce, and large chunks of meat.  Ragu is believed to originate from the French ragout, which appeared after Napoleon’s invasion in Italy.  Where Bruschetta and Ribollita were peasant dishes, Ragu was a dish for nobility.  We were lucky enough to get the leftovers for this, and enjoyed them for dinner the next two nights! Needless to say, this reheats well.
Suggested Wine Pairing: Same as above.

 

Chicken Marsala

Marsala is a fortified wine (like Sherry or Port) from Sicily that dates back to the late 1700s.  It can be drank as an accompaniment, of course, but it is also used as an ingredient in a number of dishes, such as Chicken Marsala, some risotto, and tiramisu.  This was Kirsten’s dish, and she did an amazing job of making this dish for 16 people – the fillets were perfectly browned, and the sauce turned out great!
Suggested Wine Pairing: Pinot Noir

 

Chocolate Hazelnut Gelato

Anything Nutella-ish is A+ in my book! Gelato is essentially an Italian ice cream, however there are a few key differences from regular ice cream – there is significantly less butterfat, and it is typically stored at a slightly higher temperature to remain nice and soft. It is believed the chef for the Medici’s in the 16th century created what we know as modern-day gelato.

There are a lot of gelato places in the U.S. that aren’t that great – I’d recommend avoiding large chains if you want to try it.  If you are in the Phoenix Metro, my favorite is Gelato Dolce Vita.  They also make a mean drinking chocolate and cappuccino.  Check them out!
Suggested Wine Pairing:  I’m not big on pairing wine with this kind of dish, but a Port or sweet Sherry (such as a PX) would be nice.

 

Rum Raisin Tiramisu

There is debate whether Tiramisu (Italian for “pick-me-up,” likely for the caffeine in the dessert) originated in Sienna or Treviso.  Regardless of where it came from, it was a great way to end the evening.  It traditionally uses Marsala, but this recipe calls for dark rum – you can’t go wrong with rum, right?
Suggested Wine Pairing: Like the gelato, I’d go with a Port or sweet Sherry for this as well.

 

 

So that was our wonderful Italian Night for Le Nom!  Next month’s assignment? Polynesian/Chinese (odd mix, but people weren’t thrilled with Polynesian, so we decided to mix it up a bit).

What are some of your favorite Italian Dishes? Post below, I’d love to hear them!

Venice, Tainted

A few years ago, Chris and I took our first overseas trip to Italy.  I prepared for months for it – not only did I learn some basic Italian, I learned about their culture so I knew what to expect and how to be respectful.  Mealtimes in Italy are a different experience than in the States – you can expect to spend significantly longer in a restaurant, with a more relaxed style of service and multiple courses to enjoy.  For an eat-while-standing-over-the-sink girl like myself, this was an adjustment, but I appreciated the change.  They are also generally set on their offerings – when you order a meal, there isn’t a whole lot of off the menu customization.

On one of the last days of our trip, we were in Venice, and sat down for lunch at a trattoria.  I became increasingly sick from my traditional Vacation Sinus Infection, and looked forward to relaxing outside and enjoying some Venetian cuisine.  A cruise ship docked in the port for the day bringing with it a grumpy couple who sat down next to us a few minutes after we placed our order.  The man frowned and grumbled at the menu, “where’s the pizza?”  The woman scanned her own menu, clearly irritated.  “We’re in Italy – where’s their pizza?”  My husband Chris helpfully pointed out where it was located on the menu.  The man glared at the pizza section, never looking up to acknowledge Chris’ existence, never mind his helpfulness.  “Where are their toppings? I want a pepperoni pizza!”

I took a sip of my wine and took a breath, hoping the combination of wine and Acti-Due (an Italian version of Sudafed) would slide me into a blissful coma.  I hate conflict and sensed these people were going to be a problem.  Chris remained friendly and gregarious, because he is nicer than I am.  “I don’t think they have pepperoni here.  And it’s a little different in Italy – they list what types of pizza they have and you order from one of those selections.  There aren’t topping choices the way you see at home.”

“Well, that’s silly,” the woman sighed.  “We want a pepperoni pizza.”

Chris shrugged his shoulders.  The man looked up from his menu for a second to look around.  He growled, “Where’s the waiter?  It’s been five minutes,” and stuck his nose back in his menu.

While I silently prayed for them to leave and ruin someone else’s lunch, Chris kept a friendly, disarming demeanor.  “Service takes a while everywhere in Italy…”

The man kept his eyes on his menu and actually waved off Chris.  It was the “talk to the hand” for dusty old taint hairs, apparently.  As Grumpy Old Taint (a.k.a. G.O.T.) did it, the woman started chatting with Chris, and it appeared neither even noticed the rude gesture.  They made small talk about where the couple was from, and she discussed their current travels.  Surprise, surprise: every country they visited had rude people, and guess what?  They hated everything and everyone.  I seriously would love to see a Frommer-style guide from this Debbie Downer: “Explore Italy! These Spaghetti-Slurping Assholes Don’t Even Have Pizza!”

G.O.T. abruptly stood up and started flailing his arms as if he were cast out to sea and trying to get the coast guard’s attention.  “We need SERVICE! Where’s a WAITER?”

Debbie Downer looked up at her useless taint-hair of a husband.  “Charles, the people here are so rude! When are we going to get a pizza?”

Chris looked at me, his eyes saying, Can you believe these people?

I looked at him, my eyes saying, you’re the one who is still talking to them, motherfucker… although I think he interpreted my glance as I know, right?? I really hoped the restaurant knew we weren’t with the Mr. and Mrs. Taint – I didn’t want a loogie in my lunch…

A waiter arrived at their table.  G.O.T. was a man who knew what he wanted – you’ve got to give him that.  And he wanted PIZZA! PEPPERONI PIZZA! The waiter tried explaining they didn’t have pepperoni.  Debbie Downer was not pleased.  “How could you not have pepperoni?”  She passive-aggressively sighed and bargained to customize a pizza based off of the ingredients they did have available that didn’t sound too “weird” or “unpleasant.”  I think they stuck with cheese.

The waiter looked uncomfortable with each question he asked.  “Would you like soup with your-“

“WE JUST WANT PIZZA! RAWR!”

Our food arrived and I asked for the check, so I could get the hell away from these horrible people as soon as I was done eating.  Debbie Downer continued to talk to Chris, and I remained as cordial as I could – unlike G.O.T., even if I don’t like someone I’m going to at least be polite, because I’m not that brand of asshole.

As Debbie Downer talked and complained, G.O.T. snorted and grunted.  I ate my meal.  What brings people to this point?  What lives did these two people live that turned every vacation they ever had into a nightmare?  And why did they keep on doing it if they hated it so much?  They were fortunate enough to travel overseas and see beautiful things they’ve never seen before.  Palaces, weird birds… the most amazing art and architecture in the world! Mr. and Mrs. Taint were very lucky to be in the situation they were in, but they entered into it with the expectation of being disappointed.  Paradoxically, having the expectation of disappointment never disappoints.

I remembered a quote from a former manager I had at a retail gig in college.  She wisely and simply stated, “you just can’t make some people happy, because they are at their happiest when they are miserable.”  Exhibit A and B: sitting next to me in a Venice trattoria.

Chris and I ate our food quickly; even he was tiring of their behavior.  The waiter brought back our change, G.O.T. roared “WHERE’S OUR PIZZA?”

Chris and I stood up to leave.  Through a forced smile, I said “enjoy the rest of your cruise!”

Debbie Downer gave a “thank you” in a way that told us she didn’t comprehend what “enjoy” meant.  Judging by the pizza-deprived caveman she married, I don’t think she ever knew the meaning of the word.

Mr. Taint said something that I could only make out as a “Bah! Grumblesmut!” to bid us adieu.  I never wanted to beat someone so senselessly with a pizza pan as bad as I did at that moment.

Chris muttered as we walked away, “so that’s what they mean by ‘ugly Americans.’”

“I have a favor to ask you.”

“What’s that?”

I stopped him and grabbed his shoulders to look him squarely in the eye.  “If I ever turn into that?  Fucking shoot me.”

We continued walking.  “Same here.”

“Agreed.”

 

Delicious-looking pizza photo taken by Celeste C.  Thanks, Celeste!