Setting aside food chat site allegiances for the moment, it’s the time of summer when restaurants die. And there’s been what seems like an explosion of really exceptional mom & pop ethnic joints over the past year, and these guys need all the exposure they can get. If these restaurants go under while mainstream joints dominate the conversation, it’d really be a tragedy, because they’re all turning out fabulous food and trying (in some cases struggling) to find their audience. Please check them out. Please discuss them. Help get the word out if you feel they deserve it. Christopher’s, Bourbon Steak and Distrito will still be there.
This is a Pakistani joint on Granite Reef just north of McDowell, and it’s run by an ex-biotech career changer who’s been catering for a few years, and recently jumped on a restaurant space when he found a good deal. The menu’s predictably long on meats and short on vegetables, but the pakoras are exceptional, crisp and beautifully spiced and shockingly light on oil, served in a huge pile with a pair of solid chutneys. All of the grilled meats I’ve tried are delicious, but I’ve found myself especially fond of the Chicken Tikka, charred but tender with a pleasing level of heat and a surprising depth of flavor. The dishes that have been destroying me, however, are the curries. The Beef Nihari (A curry? Listed on that section of the menu, anyway.) puts huge, tender chunks of beef in an oily, spicy curry that’s almost gravy-like, rich and silky with an intense meat flavor – like a celebration of beef bones. The Chicken Qorma is unlike any qorma I’ve had anywhere, thick and sticky and so aggressively spiced that tasting it is total sensory overload. It is *INTENSE*, shockingly complex, whole spices strewn all over the place, and it’s completely fabulous. What’s more, as an illustration that the chef is trying his best to do the right thing, he started doing it with bone-in chicken, switched to boneless when the non-Pakistani crowd complained, and recently switched back because he decided that it’s more important that he make the food the way he knows it should be made. The place is routinely deserted, and it’s a crime. They need help and they deserve it.
Café Ga Hyang
Ga Hyang isn’t new, but they’re approaching their one year anniversary under new ownership, with a completely revamped menu that does Korean the right way and ditched the Chinese save for a couple of Chinese dishes that are now made “Korean style.” It’s run by a couple of Takamatsu’s old cooks, but I never had anything approaching this good at Takamatsu. I suspect they weren’t free to make the food they way they wanted there (though this is speculation on my part). Duk Boki puts chewy rice cakes in a sauce that almost looks like marinara except that it’s made of fire, pureed chiles with loads of garlic. The Haemul Pajeon is one of the best dishes on the menu, not because it’s out of the Korean restaurant mainstream, but because it’s done exceptionally well, with an incredible crisp texture and an abundance of seafood. There are no table grills, so BBQ isn’t a strength, but it’s still solid, my favorite being the Sam Gyup Sahl, thick-cut pork belly served sizzling with salted sesame oil, ssamjang, vinegared lettuce and big chunks of raw garlic and green chile. Naeng Myun is made for Arizona summer, thin, glutinous buckwheat noodles swimming in an ice cold beef broth with Asian pear, cucumber and brisket, and served with a spicy house-made mustard. The Cham Pong is a fiery but deeply flavored soup with tons of seafood and thick, beautifully-textured noodles made fresh in house. But arguably the best thing is the banchan, rarely served fewer than a dozen at a time, all prepared in-house, all brilliantly fresh and vibrant, and a shining example of how these guys are operating at a different level than the other Korean joints in town. They got a great writeup in the New Times a couple of months ago, but the same week they (temporarily) lost their liquor license, and the loss of the late night beer crowd is really hurting them. They won’t have the license until after the summer. I’m worried that might be too late. They need all the help they can get to make it through the summer.
It’s been a good few months for Central Asian. I’ve only been here once, but man, every single time I hear from somebody who’s been here, they had a fabulous meal. I had some Afghani mantoo, tender lamb dumplings bathed in yogurt, a sweet, spiced tomato sauce and a handful of dried mint. This dish is just so damn likeable, and though the sauces seem heavy at first, the lamb shines right on through. The grilled meats here are awesome, and I especially love the Beef Sheesh Kabab, abundant with the natural sweetness of tons of onion, and the Chicken Malai Boti, bursting with bright, fresh herbs and a fairly significant kick. Beef Bolanee was also delightful, a filling of ground meat seasoned with garlic and dried herbs sandwiched between an almost crepe-like bread, crisp and lightly browned with just enough body to retain a bit of bready character. These guys seem to be finding a crowd, but it’s slow going and they deserve better.
Tumi Fine Peruvian Cuisine
It’s tough to find an East Valley Peruvian restaurant that Oscar Graham *hasn’t* had a hand in at some point, but his new place is called Tumi Fine Peruvian Cuisine, and it’s tiny, and it’s exactly what anybody who spent any time at Contigo Peru while he was in the kitchen there has come to expect from him. Papa Rellena, mashed potatoes mixed with beef, raisins, egg and onions, formed into thick torpedoes and fried until they have a crisp exterior and creamy middle, are awesome on their own and better with the accompanying aji amarillo. Seco de Res is almost like Peruvian pot roast, tender beef in a delicious gravy with creamy white beans – a nice Italian influence. The Aji de Gallina I had didn’t quite have the zip of what I get at Contigo Peru, but I like it almost as much and it’s available through the week, not just on the weekend. Arroz con Mariscos had great balance, and a formidable mix of seafood. Really good stuff. It’s been a little while since my last visit (need to get back), but this guy is one of the main reasons we have a surprisingly good Peruvian scene in Phoenix, and on that basis alone he deserves support. That the food rocks makes it easy.
“We're not talking about foodies. Foodies eat where they're told; ... Chowhounds, on the other hand, blaze trails, combing gleefully through neighborhoods for hidden culinary treasure. They despise hype, and while they appreciate refined ambiance and service, they can't be fooled by mere flash.”
Had to Google that one. Help these places and others like them thrive. Show these folks that we appreciate these kinds of restaurants, and demonstrate to others who might be considering going out on that limb that if they do things right, they can succeed. Please, wherever you choose to do it, dig, Chowhounds... dig!