Flagstaff for Foodies

Written by Wynter Holden Category: Travel Issue: January 2013
Group Free

The locavore revolution has spilled over into everybody’s favorite snowbound college town. Check out these great Flagstaff bites.

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As the largest and most-visited town in northern Arizona, Flagstaff is a haven for wintertime ski bunnies and summertime sunbirds fleeing the blistering Sonoran heat. Though summer residency pads the city’s year-round population of around 65,000, “Flag” remains the type of place where strangers make small talk and restaurants set out doggie bowls for customers with four-legged friends in tow. It might be difficult to imagine this unpretentious mountain berg as a foodie mecca, but historic downtown Flagstaff is home to some of the region’s top eateries, from a Neapolitan pizzeria to a stylish urban kitchen whose co-owner did a weeklong stint as Paul McCartney’s private chef.

Diablo Burger

Many Flagstaff restaurants source produce and meats from sustainable, local farms. Diablo Burger (120 N. Leroux St., 928-774-3274, diabloburger.com) grills lean, open-range beef raised on northern Arizona ranches that have been in operation for four generations. Diablo’s hefty 6-ounce patties are served on Phoenix’s own MJ Bread branded with the restaurant’s logo, and accompanied by a side of double-fried Belgian potatoes dusted with an addictive herb blend. Diners can customize their Diablo Burger or opt for pre-designed choices ($9.75-$12.75) such as the Vitamin B with bacon, beets, and bleu cheese and the tongue-in-cheek Cheech burger with guacamole, pepper jack and jalapeños. Diablo’s quirky digs are customized with copper-top tables and shiny red tractor seats. Unfortunately, El Diablo takes a rest on Sundays, and you’ll have to bring cash because, as its website quips, “Banks don’t serve cheeseburgers.”

Don’t eat meat? Long before the vegan lifestyle surged in post-millennial popularity, Maria Ruiz was serving hemp burgers and salads with soy cheese at the pint-sized Morning Glory Café (115 S. San Francisco St., 928-774-3705). Though Ruiz passed away in 2009, her legacy of healthful, no-harm cuisine continues via organic soups and blue corn tamales offered from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Veggie lovers will also find locally farmed products at the downtown Flagstaff Community Market (flagstaffmarket.com), a pop-up that runs Sundays from May to October. Along with non-edible sundries like natural yarn and flowers, favorite finds have included pesticide-free apples from Chino Valley Farms and Crooked Sky’s leafy greens.

Criollo Latin Kitchen

McClendon’s Select, Black Mesa Ranch and Tortilla Lady constitute the Arizona-centric supplier list at Criollo Latin Kitchen (16 N. San Francisco St., 928-774-0541, criollolatinkitchen.com), a Spanish-influenced eatery from Paul and Laura Moir, who also own acclaimed Flagstaff restaurant Brix. Executive chef David Smith’s seasonal menu runs the gamut from traditional ropa vieja and pork pibil to coconut-masa-fried calamari and pork belly tacos. Criollo’s commitment to the “buy local” movement goes beyond the ingredients: The bar’s rustic wood planks were milled by Silas Page at AP Sawmill, and paintings by local artists adorn the exposed brick walls.              

Vino Loco Wine Shop & Bar

If you’re looking for local libations, head to Vino Loco Wine Shop & Bar (22 E. Birch Ave., 928-226-1764, vinolocoflag.com), where you’ll find a huge selection of Arizona wines among the 300-plus bottles on the store’s packed shelves. Co-owner Meghann Miller always features at least two native wines on tap. Try a tasting flight of 2-ounce pours for $9, or indulge in a carafe of Arizona Stronghold Tazi for $23 to pair with cheese plates and truffles. Speaking of chocolate, you’re tilting at windmills if you expect to leave

The Sweet Shoppe and Nut House

The Sweet Shoppe and Nut House (15 E. Aspen Ave., 928-213-9000, sweet-shoppe-nut-house.myshopify.com) without at least one of Blake and Jennifer Rolley’s sugary confections. Since the couple opened the shop in 2011, Flagstaff’s visitors – and their waistlines – haven’t been the same. Sample a free sliver of fudge in such flavors as tiger butter and orange cream, or take home one of the shop’s house-made caramel apples, marshmallows or flavored barks. What’s even scarier than the calorie count of the Sundae Bash truffle with peanut butter, ganache, and three types of chocolate is that the Sweet & Nut house ships gift crates, so you don’t even have to leave home to get your sugar fix.

Flag’s culinary core is divided by the railroad that borders historic Route 66 between Beaver and Elden Streets. While there’s technically no “wrong” side of the tracks, you’ll definitely see a shift when crossing to the grittier Southside district. Here, quaint bungalows and converted warehouses are home to some of Flag’s quirkier restaurants.

It’s nearly impossible to score a seat inside Pizzicletta (203 W. Phoenix Ave., 928-774-3242, pizzicletta.com), and not just because the dining area is smaller than a walk-in closet. “Simplicity runs deep in my business ethos and menu,” chef-owner Caleb Schiff says. “I believe less is more and that the best way to present Italian food is by keeping things simple.”

After taking a bicycle trek through Italy, Schiff was inspired to build a Neapolitan pizza oven in his backyard. When he opened Pizzicletta in 2011, he imported a beast of a brick oven from Italy that crisps pies at a whopping 900 degrees. Schiff offers five signature pizzas, including traditional margherita and Amore oi Mari, a prosciutto- and mascarpone-covered specialty named for a pie he discovered in the southern Italian town of Matera. Other offerings include a goat cheese salad, two pies of the day and house-made gelato. If you can’t find a seat, or you’re looking to wash your ’za down with a craft brew, Pizzicletta delivers to the adjacent Mother Road Brewing Company (7 S. Mikes Pike, 928-774-9139).

Down the street, Greek Islands (109 E. Phoenix St., 928-779-0106, greekislandsflagstaff.com) is a delightful hole-in-the-wall you won’t want to miss. Plates of spanakopita, gyros, and pastitsio with creamy béchamel sauce are rich and plentiful, though you’ll have to overlook the rickety chairs and leaky patio ceiling that come with this no-frills dining experience. Outside of downtown, the gastronomic world tour continues at Himalayan Grill (801 Milton Rd., 928-213-5444, himalayangrill.com), where you’ll find spicy Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan curries, and Salsa Brava (2220 E. Route 66, 928-779-5293, salsabravaflagstaff.com), the kitschy Route 66 Mexican eatery featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. The delectable pineapple-habanero salsa is reason alone to visit the latter for a taco plate.

In stark contrast to these unassuming ethnic eateries is Tinderbox Kitchen (34 S. San Francisco St., 928-226-8400, tinderboxkitchen.com), an upscale, dinner-only comfort food restaurant owned by cousins Scott and Kevin Heinonen. Look for gentrified American classics, from buffalo meatloaf and juniper-cured venison to seared sea scallops with sunchoke chips and charcuterie boards. The dress code is relaxed, but if you’re wary of showing up in flip-flops and shorts, the adjacent Annex offers Tinderbox burgers, charcuterie and beer in a more casual, lounge-like atmosphere. Bonus: There’s a giant wooden peg game on the outdoor patio.

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Considering Tinderbox’s meaty menu, it’s not surprising to find Chef Scott Heinonen – who once personally cheffed for Paul McCartney – teaching classes on preparing wild game at Flagstaff’s Seasoned Kitchen (106 N. San Francisco St., 928-213-5942, seasonedkitchenaz.com) cooking shop. Heinonen is just one of many local chefs who have made appearances in the store’s fully stocked demo kitchen. Home cooks will feel a little like Alice tumbling down a gastronomic rabbit hole into a wonderland of teapots, espresso machines, G. Houston pottery and Wusthof knives. For chefs tired of boring whites, Seasoned Kitchen also stocks knife-carrying kits and aprons in fun fabrics (think pink polka dots and martinis).

Flagstaff is hip to modern food trends, whether it’s chic wine boutiques or restaurants using locally farmed products. However, until recently, there was one dining destination that remained elusive: the supper club. We’re talking back door haunts like Durant’s in Phoenix, where you can imagine a young Dean Martin or Sammy Davis Jr. enjoying a post-filet smoke. Cigarettes may be verboten in public now, but Cyrano’s Seafood & Chophouse (1850 N. Fort Valley Rd., 928-779-0900, cyranosdining.com) boasts other features that would make the Rat Pack swoon. “We grew up in the ’60s and ’70s. Those were the places we went to as kids,” recalls Glenn Menein, who opened Cyrano’s with his wife, Julia, in September 2012. The restaurant’s moniker is a tribute to Cyrano de Bergerac author Edmond Rostand, rumored to be a distant relative of Menein. Dining at the 14-table restaurant is an intimate experience worthy of the romantic poet, and one that comes with complimentary bread and flavored butter, warm hand towels, and palate cleansers between courses. “I thought this would be mainly a special occasion place that people would come to for birthdays and anniversaries,” Menein says. “But we’ve had some customers come in every week since we opened.” 

On the surface, Flag’s residents seem more concerned with pet-friendly patios and powder conditions on the slopes than they do about the locavore movement or molecular gastronomy. But appearances can be deceiving. Perhaps these juicy tidbits will encourage foodies to hike up to Arizona’s high country for a taste of what its culinary community has to offer.

Hormone-free meats and bubbly pizzas aren’t the only things cooking in Flagstaff. In September, the Museum of Northern Arizona (3101 N. Fort Valley Rd., 928-774-5213, musnaz.org) unveiled Mountain Lion!, an exhibit that examines the history and behavior of cougars. According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Arizona is home to an estimated 2,500-3,000 mountain lions, several of which were spotted on the greens of a Scottsdale golf course in 2011. You won’t see any live critters at the museum’s educational showcase, but there are plenty of photographs and fast facts to keep visitors occupied. The exhibition continues through Sunday, August 4, 2013.

Adrenaline junkies who prefer action to observation are flocking to Flagstaff Extreme (Fort Tuthill County Park, 888-259-0125, flagstaffextreme.com), the first adventure course of its type in Arizona. The Tarzan-like park experience features four zones that increase in difficulty and height. Along with zip lines, the tree-to-tree path is studded with “action elements” such as a stand-up swing, pirate rope climb and skateboard ride. Make it through all four zones and you’ll be eligible for a survivor’s T-shirt. “Of all the people who start and could conceivably do the whole course, about 35 percent finish,” owner Paul Kent says. Daunting odds for sure, but the bragging rights are priceless.

If you’re one of the 10 percent who require rescuing during Kent’s adventure course, keep your feet planted on terra firma with a self-guided tour of Flagstaff’s urban murals. Among the recent creations is “Mural Joe” Cornelius’ True Blue (18 N. Leroux St., muraljoe.com), a colorful mélange of scenes celebrating Flagstaff and Northern Arizona University. Cycling, track and field, and football athletes are represented, along with NAU’s marching band and lumberjack mascot. The painting took nine months to complete and was signed by Cornelius on September 13, 2012.