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 V: The Mexican Dinner Fiesta-Siesta

Growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, I equated the question “do you want Mexican?” with “do you want to go to Chi-Chi’s?”  Thankfully, after living in the southwest for roughly half my life, I’ve developed a bit more knowledge and appreciation for Mexican cuisine since then.  I’m not about to eat menudo or calf’s brains or anything crazy like that, but I at least appreciate a number of dishes and the diverse flavors of Mexican cuisine.  For this month’s Le Nom, we decided to explore a few different dishes in Mexican cuisine, and as always, the results were amazing.

For starters, we enjoyed two kinds of homemade salsa – red and tomatillo (example).  Tomatillos are a staple in Mexican cuisine, being the primary ingredient in many green sauces.  A member of the tomato family, tomatillos are generally tart in flavor and can provide a bit of a citrus flavor to dishes.  Many tomatillo salsas call for a little bit of sugar to be added to offset the tartness.  We enjoyed both salsas with chips and Tecate Light with lime – always a great selection with chips and salsa!

We had two main dishes to enjoy, the first being machaca (example).  A dish popular in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, machaca is a spicy dish consisting of shredded beef or pork.  Interestingly, even here in Arizona the style of cooking varies by region – in the Tucson area, machaca tends to be dry, yet in the Phoenix area, it has a bit of a soupy consistency.  The Tucson style is more similar to the Mexican style, however the Phoenix style is enjoyable for letting your flour tortilla sop up all of the the spicy liquid that comes with the dish.

Our other dish was my contribution for the night – chicken mole.  This is a dish that is popular all over Mexico, being most popular in Oaxaca.  This wonderful dish is loaded with flavor, typically averaging over 20 ingredients in a given recipe (the recipe I used only has 15 ingredients).  There are a variety of flavors all working together in mole – you have the spiciness of chili powder and a chipotle chile in adobo sauce (recipe note: note that the recipe says ONE chile from the can, not the entire can; I think you could safely go with two for a little extra kick, however). There is also the unique spiciness of cumin, nutmeg, coriander and cinnamon contrasting with the earthiness of toasted sesame seeds and the richness of cocoa powder and peanut butter (the recipe called for 3 TB of cocoa powder – next time I’m adding an additional TB).   If you have never had mole before, this combination of ingredients may sound a little off-putting – I mean, chocolate and chicken? But I assure you, the results are amazing and like nothing you have ever tried.  I even left the raisins in, and I hate raisins.  This recipe in particular is super-easy to do – you simply put all the ingredients in your slow cooker, and let it cook for 5 hours.

Both of the main dishes are perfect for rolling up in tortillas.  Our Tucson friends brought up some of the best fresh tortillas in Arizona from Anita’s Street Market.

For our side, our Tucson friends also made homemade refried beans. (example).  Normally, the beans can take hours to prepare, but thanks to their pressure cooker, they were able to reduce the cooking time significantly.

After loading up on our main dishes, we enjoyed brownies with chipotle chile (example).  The dish contained a number of flavors common in Mexican food – as you can see from the mole, the combination of chocolate, cinnamon and chile is rather popular.  While it may sound odd to have chiles in your brownies, they do not make the brownies spicy; on the contrary, the chiles enhance the richness of the chocolate, giving the brownies a dark chocolate, fudgy flavor.  The hint of cinnamon balances everything out perfectly.  I also really loved these brownies because they are “proper” brownies – all too often, people either make them too fudgy or too cakey.  These were the perfect texture, so mad props to Rachael for baking them!

For our final dish of the night, we were blessed with the Latin American treat of Tres Leches Cake, made by our birthday girl of the evening, Angela.  Angela took the recipe from the wonderful Pioneer Woman web site (which you may remember, is where I got my pots de creme recipe last month) and made a few minor adjustments to the cake.  Her advice is as follows: “The yolks and sugar need to be beaten to look pale white, but also to the point that you can see the nascent batter trace on top of itself. The recipe doesn’t tell you that, but my hubby did. I inadvertently beat the egg whites a bit beyond ‘soft peaks,’ but it wasn’t the worst thing. I baked the cake, removed the cake to cool overnight in the refrigerator with a cotton gauze tea towel atop it, and returned it to the pan for easy transport. I added all of the three milks liquid, only realizing later that some sweetened condensed milk was still in its can. Finally, I did not use Maraschino cherries, as I don’t really like them.”

The cake was really phenomenal – it was spongey and the sauce was delighfuly gooey, however it wasn’t too much so (which I’ve ran into with other Tres Leches Cakes, and ew to a soggy cake). The topping was whipped cream, and even though we were all full, we basically devoured the entire sheet.

After all was said and done, I witnessed something I’ve never seen before at a Le Nom: every single person was sprawled out in our family room in a semi-coma watching Scooby Doo with the kids.  On the floor, on the couch – every one was stretched out, fat and happy.  That’s the only way to end an evening of Mexican food!

We are skipping Le Nom for July due to a number of conflicts regarding the 4th, however we are considering doing a Southern-style picnic on Mount Lemmon for August.  For those of you not in Arizona, Mount Lemmon is perhaps the coolest place you can find in southern Arizona (and houses the southern-most ski resort in the country).  As we hit temperatures of over 110, cooler weather in the pine trees sounds pretty amazing.

Until then? Don’t be afraid to be adventurous and daring in your kitchens! When all else fails, there is pizza, so why not try something new this weekend?