3633 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix
Chef-owner Esther Mbaikambey delivered a lightening bolt to the West Valley last November when she opened her authentic Afro-Caribbean eatery named after a traditional African sticky dough made from starchy cassava-root flour. The outwardly nondescript joint celebrates the vibrant cuisine of her native Nigeria and Jamaica between its mango-hued walls. As for the food, Mbaikambey’s got your goat, mon, and it’s so delicious you’ll wonder why Americans don’t eat more of it. Try goat bundled in cassava leaves stuffed with beef, dried smoked fish and peanuts. Yassa chicken may come from Senegal, but it is international comfort food when marinated and deep fried, set atop sautéed onions, bell peppers and rice, and served with a side of black eyed peas. You won’t be able to stop spooning up dumpling soup – bobbing with carrots, onions, tomatoes, corn and plump dumplings – until every last drop of beef and chicken broth is gone. For a sweet finish, the sugar pie hits the spot, or try the pof-pofs – dense, deep-fried flour dumplings rich with sugar and butter.
Pssst. Have we got some tasty news for you. Here’s the skinny on some super-secret menus at our super Valley restaurants.
668 N. 44th St.
(Cofco Chinese Cultural Center), Phoenix
You’re not crazy. The people at other tables around you are eating more interesting dishes than your Kung Pao chicken. That’s because they’ve got the inside scoop on a more interesting menu, one that’s reserved for diners who appreciate authentic Szechwan specialties instead of Americanized Chinese foods. To be clear, the gringo-ized sweet and sour shrimp served at this colorful, boisterous eatery near Sky Harbor Airport is first-rate. But if you beckon your waiter over and whisper “menu 2,” you’ll be rewarded with delights like pig ear, fuqi feipian (deeply spiced beef offal), slippery stir-fried pig intestine with pickled chile, earthy tea-tree mushrooms burbling fragrantly in a hot pot, or a plate of mixed mountain vegetables spiked with jalapeño. The menu is in Chinese with vague English translation, and most of the staff doesn’t grasp enough English to help explain, so just trust. Not all menu 2 dishes are offbeat; some treasures include tea-smoked duck, dim sum, impossibly moist twice-cooked pork, and a mix of fresh seafoods atop sizzling rice cake.
Think you’re a big eater? Tackle these belt-busting victuals with an unexpected caveat: The food actually tastes terrific.
Papi Chulo’s Mexican Grill
5101 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale
Facing down a 6-pound, 2-ounce burrito can be intimidating. Imagine a sofa cushion crossbred with a tortilla, and then fathom trying to cram the whole crazy thing down your gullet. Since the Big Papi Burrito Challenge began last September, more than 50 contenders have gone teeth to tortilla with this brobdingnagian burro.
Most know grilled cheese as an ooey-gooey after-school treat, but in the hands of these chefs, it’s griddled grandeur.
Citizen Public House
7111 E. Fifth Ave., Scottsdale
CPH chef-owner Bernie Kantak cooked up a reputation for creative recipes years ago, when he helmed the kitchen of Cowboy Ciao in downtown Scottsdale and delivered dishes like blue corn elk tostada. Now, with his sleek new urban pub/eatery just around the corner, he’s working his magic once again.
Caldo is Spanish for “soup,” but it means a belly-warming meal in any language. Get fired up with these rich twists on traditional Latin recipes.
3815 N. Brown Ave.,
Chef-owner Matt Carter is known for his unique and often complex modern Latin American creations. So leave it to him to put a contemporary spin on savory caldo de pollo, too. While the recipe typically features chunky, whole pieces of chicken and entire leaves of cabbage plus halved potatoes all boiled together, Carter simmers slow-smoked chicken with ample amounts of sweet roasted corn (he names the dish Sopa De Elote, or corn soup, $12). Many caldos call for rice, but he uses hominy kernels that are dried, then cooked until the edges are slightly crisp. Avocado and a touch of mostarda relish bring texture and a silky sweetness to the golden broth. If you’re craving an even heartier soup, Carter can accommodate with his sumptuous pozole, a rich stew of red chile, smoked pork, hominy and avocado, spritzed with lime and served with dunkable corn tortillas ($10). Soups, by the way, are well-known hangover helpers, so be proactive and order one of The Mission’s Mexican Painkiller cocktails – it’s a venomous mix of Milagro tequila, Bacardi rum, 360 vodka, triple sec, coconut milk and pineapple juice ($12).
Who says you can’t improve a classic? Try these marvelously modern twists on eggs Benedict.
9832 N. Seventh St., Phoenix
Restaurateurs Don Talbot, Laura Fettig and Clay Moizo have turned the morning meal upside down, with unexpected eye-openers like breakfast pizzas (“brizzas”), a savory vegan Soyrizo burrito, and decadent French toast crafted from a hand-cut French baguette dipped in vanilla custard.
Fall is prime fungi season, so we’ve foraged and found some mouthwatering mushroom dishes at three of the Valley’s best restaurants.
5009 E. Washington St., Phoenix
Since 1947, this Arizona landmark has been known for its beef. Big, juicy slabs of aged steak and prime rib, served old-school style with a relish tray and basket of baking-soda biscuits. Yet proprietor Gary Lasko has another secret passion, and it involves digging in the dirt. He is a forager, scouring for edible treasures all over the country, including Arizona. He puts his picks on the Stockyards’ specials menu, and depending on season and availability, the selection might showcase wild black morels from Washington State, or porcinis, oyster mushrooms, lobster mushrooms and chanterelles from the Rocky Mountain region.
Whether simple or stacked, sandwiches never go out of style. So ditch the Subway and dig into one of these scrumptious sammies.
Noca owner Eliot Wexler can be a very cruel man. If you join his “Foodie Army” – that is, sign up for e-mails on special insider menus – he alerts you when Chef Chris Curtiss’ designer sandwiches are available. He writes tempting descriptions, such as for the Wagyu pastrami served open-face on MJ’s pumpernickel with homemade pickled cabbage, red onion and Dijon foam: “The intoxicating aroma draws me into the kitchen like Astro, the dog from The Jetsons.” The problem? He sends these notes in the morning, when our earliest chance to eat the sandwich is many hours away.
His other mean streak? Selections aren’t always available, like the very rare Heritage Red Wattle ham or the black truffle lobster roll. Wagyu pastrami ($23) is offered every Tuesday and Thursday, unless it runs out, and it often does since the precious meat takes five days to brine, one day to smoke and two days to roast.
Thursdays also mean Kobe cheese steak ($25). And Wednesdays are equally wonderful, featuring a Maine lobster roll ($23) that tumbles seafood from French Laundry supplier Ingrid Bengis along with celery root, fine herbs and roasted garlic aioli on a buttery toasted brioche bun with a side of duck-fat French fries.
We’re calling it the sandwich diet, courtesy of Chef Aaron May. Part one: breakfast. Two pieces of buttery, panini-pressed bread cradle wisps of pancetta, provolone, tomato and a fried egg that gushes its golden yolk when pricked with a fork. Or perhaps we’ll take a sweeter start to the day, with curls of prosciutto, chewy fig and a thick slather of sweet butter. May also knows how to make perfect scrambled eggs, cooking them soft and moist, layering them with peppery arugula and juicy tomato, and tucking it all within rustic bread.
Part two: lunch. Shall it be salty bresaola, arugula, ricotta and lemon, or Italian tuna decorated with capers, shallots, herbs and tangy, anchovy-kissed tonnato sauce? Chicken salad on ciabatta beckons, too, gussied up with herb aioli, grape tomatoes and shaved almonds.
Part three: dinner. Technically, no sandwiches are offered at this hour, but how else would you describe an appetizer of toasted ciabatta brushed with olive oil and cherry-wood balsamico under a mound of creamy sheep’s milk ricotta? We also adore thick country bread spread with whole roasted garlic and sea salt. OK, so this diet may not be particularly low-cal, but dang, it’s delicious.
This working olive farm and mill uses its own custom-pressed fruits and oils to accent its Italian-inspired café menu. Most of the extra virgin olive oil comes from a grove less than a half-mile from the restaurant growing an international blend of classic Tuscan, Spanish manzanillo and sevillano, Tunisian barouni, Greek kalamata and mission olives. You can taste their work at its buttery best on the pendolina, a panino of marinated and roasted mushrooms, squash, peppers, onions, fennel, fontina and arugula drizzled with Tuscan Estate extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and sweet tomato Parmesan crema.
Owner Perry Rea also uses fresh, local ingredients from the Pork Shop for delightful combos such as the Kalamata, which piles Italian salami, caraway salami, capicola, roasted tomato, arugula, provolone, red onion and artichoke-roasted garlic tapenade on ciabatta.
Some sammies are simple, like the Frantoio of fresh mozzarella, vine-ripened tomatoes and Del Piero pesto. Others are sophisticated, like the Lucca: smoked turkey breast, brie, sliced green apple, arugula, caramelized red onion and fig tapenade on whole wheat ciabatta.
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