Craving something other than work, studying, and the stressors of moving I again decided to venture out for a day of dining (and studying, and shopping for things for the new house) on the last day of September 2012 – ironically exactly one year after the visit that first brought me to The Valley for an interview. Having already visited some of the city’s best during that first visit and my two months as a resident I took a more carefree approach to this day of eating and opting to focus on newer spots rather than those time tested and true I also went without reservations – a rarity for me – and landed at 5 spots over the course of a day that began with a 4:00am run and concluded with me falling into bed just after midnight.
Needing a breakfast spot with early morning hours to accommodate my friend Aileen and with great coffee (plus free refills if possible) to accommodate some post-meal reading for myself the first stop of the day would take me to Vovomeena, the new spot by DJ Fernandes (Tuck Shop, and Astor House) that had opened just a few weeks prior. Generally not one to visit a spot before they’ve had a chance to work out the kinks – especially a spot that is nearly thirty minutes from my home – suffice it to say that expectations were high and mostly based on a heavily praised coffee program and a menu that had me quite excited as I walked in the door at 7am.
With Aileen and I arriving nearly simultaneously we entered the crisp new space only to be greeted at the front seating area by a pair of baristas standing before the Japanese Cold Brew contraptions and with everyone bright and smiling we were invited to take a seat anywhere we like, eventually settling on a four-top in front of the open kitchen. Greeted next by our server, a delightful young woman named Hedda, and then by the restaurant’s manager it was explained to us that the method of operation was to grab a menu and then order at the counter while coffee is done self-serve and with that in mind we perused the menu and the restaurant’s interior before making our selections – a $45 order inclusive of tax, tip, two coffees, four plates, and a side.
With the space largely empty at such an early hour (but later to fill to capacity as I sat studying till 9:30) we both admired the cozy industrial/shabby chic interior and with The Shins and Minus the Bear amongst the morning soundtrack the restaurant was lively but not loud, though a small group on the outdoor patio seemed to be having quite a good (boisterous) time. Chatting as we waited it would not be long before the food arrived and purported to have overordered I personally thought everything looked just right when our table was filled – particularly as I sipped on my third cup of the Vovomeena’s bold and intensely earthy brew.
Taking notes from various culinary traditions including the Deep South, England, Ireland, Portugal, and more our meal started with a simple buttermilk biscuit topped with salted butter and paired with a side of strawberry rhubarb jam. With a light crisp to the exterior while the interior crumb was moist and rife with lightly sour notes I partook in the top half of the biscuit while my friend enjoyed the bottom and although good on its own the addition of the jam was definitely more my style.
Moving next to the one dish I’d probably not have ordered if I were visiting on my own, the “Banging Pocket” with Shreiner’s Banger, Scrambled eggs, and smoked gouda wrapped in a pita was actually quite good, though largely due to the use of quality ingredients more than anything particularly done with them as the pocket of pillowy bread featured a nice balance of fluffy eggs, spicy sausage, and just enough cheese to make it ‘stick.’ Neglecting the “griddled spuds” on the side largely because I found them a bit too greasy I will note they were quite tender and well complimented by the salt, pepper, and onions.
Noting my propensity for sweet over savory at breakfast it was not until Hedda described the “Boxty” that we decided to order it and while it too was just a bit greasy the overall effect of the hot and crisp potatoes juxtaposed against the sour shredded apple and creamy but sweet mascarpone was quite nice. A sort of sweet meets savory hash brown served with choice of meat I personally would have preferred to see the bacon, also Schreiner’s, more thoroughly cooked but that is just a matter of personal preference as the quality of the meat was quite impressive either way.
For the next choice – the most expensive on the menu with good reason – the B.M.O.C. would prove every bit as good as its description would have you to believe. Beginning at its base with a crispy waffle lightly tinged with vanilla notes and plenty of butter then subsequently topped with apples cooked down in maple syrup, a smoked pork chop, two poached eggs, and finally a crunchy Portuguese donut it would be hard to call this plate anything but gluttonous…or delicious. In a dish where any number of elements could have shined, what truly set this dish apart for me was actually the chop – a smoky and savory slab of meat that was easily cut with a butter knife and fork and nicely matched by the intense sweetness of the rest of the plate. Better than the famous “chop and chick” at Matt’s and less expensive (without the line) this will, and should, become the restaurant’s signature in my opinion.
Moving last to the “dessert for breakfast” item that had originally drawn me into Vovomeena the day the menu was first published, the pain perdu was simply exceptional. Featuring dense banana bread rendered into a custard style bread pudding and subsequently sliced to be fried up on the grill this was everything I want from bread pudding – crisp and caramelized on the exterior, soft and dense within, and topped with bold “whiskey caramel” sauce plus ripe bananas that push the dish ever-so-close to “too sweet” while still keeping things in check, particularly when matched with the Schriener’s Sausage. At $6.95 you’d be hard pressed to find a better breakfast dish in town and having sampled my fair share of bread puddings I’d put this iteration in my top ten.
With Aileen leaving for a family function and myself opting to stay and do some much needed reading as I drank another three or four cups of coffee I can only hope that the crowds that arrived at 8:30 continue for DJ and the team at 1515 North 7th Avenue and just as soon as the menu changes up a bit I’ll be back – though a return visit sooner rather than later for the Johnny Cakes and another round of bread pudding certainly isn’t out of the question either, and I guess I do owe it to myself to check out the Japanese cold brew sometime as well.
With a goodly amount of studying under my belt and Sunday football about to begin my next order of business was finding a space where I could enjoy more excellent food plus the game in reasonable proximity to Vovomeena and having debated Postino Central I changed up my plans en route when I realized that the newer, larger incarnation of Lo-Lo’s Chicken and Waffles was less than ten minutes away and a quick phone call informed me that they would indeed be showing both the Niners and the Lions.
Having heard good things about Lo-Lo’s in the past but wanting to visit the Yuma location before the more convenient Scottsdale locale I was fortunate to have my GPS to guide me as I made my way into a part of Phoenix I’d not yet seen and with downtown traffic lacking on a Sunday I found myself walking through the front doors just moments after kickoff to find the spacious restaurant approximately three quarters full and must say I was taken aback. Perhaps naïve or perhaps colored by my experience at Roscoe’s on Gower I guess I’d expected something a bit more “ghetto,” yet what greeted me instead was something highly polished with gleaming concrete floors, bare brick walls, industrial fixtures, and widely spaced tables as flat screen TVs shined all around and gospel played overhead for patrons old and young, some in their Sunday Best and others in draped in Cardinals gear from head to toe.
Approaching the hostess stand as I looked around the space I was quick to find that much like my surroundings the service too at Lo Lo’s was far superior to Roscoe’s and led by one smiling face at the podium to another at my table towards the back it would not be long before a menu was in hand, water was filled, and a few daily specials were noted – the whole process taking less than five minutes and my order placed within ten, much to my waiter’s delight as he noted “man, you ordered all the best stuff – I hope you brought your appetite.”
Sitting and watching the games as the restaurant’s hustle and bustle continued my neighbors struck up a conversation with me stating that they had been coming to Lo-Lo’s “every few weeks since the day it opened” and admitting it was my first time they suggested it definitely wouldn’t be my last and within moments of the arrival of my meal I knew they were right as every single item that landed on my table looked excellent; the first being a single $3.50 “Aunt Hattie's Salmon Croquette” featuring a crispy external batter surrounding flaky salmon and studded with green onions. Apparently a traditional southern recipe but one I’d not previously encountered I was told that these were best with a splash of Lo-Lo’s “famous” hot sauce and although I generally prefer to avoid condiments I must say my neighbors were right as the acidity of the sauce really helped to bring out some of the more briny notes from the salmon while breading remained crunchy with minimal grease.
Moving next to my main plate, the $14 Soulfood Platter with Chicken Fried Chicken, a golden waffle, macaroni and cheese, plus a round of cornbread it would be hard to find a gripe with this dish save for, maybe, those who like their mac n’ cheese a little over-baked and with a bit of crunch. Featuing a double dipped and friend boneless, skinless breast alongside a bowl of intense and peppery sausage gravy the chicken here was definitely the star of the show with each bite juicy and full of crunch but largely devoid of any oil whatsoever. Nicely spiced and with the gravy further gilding the lily I next turned my attention to the waffle, also crisp but intensely buttery with a good amount of ‘give’ at the center and while pure maple syrup would have been ideal in the end the Mrs. Butterworth’s was fine – the sweetness tempered by the chicken, gravy, and macaroni. Last but not least, the cornbread crowned with a mound of butter was textbook – a little dry, not too sweet, and good both on its own or as a transition between the plate’s other components.
Making short work of the Soulfood plate my primary server, Joseph, stopped by to say “nice job” and asking if I had room for dessert I think he was surprised when I said yes – and even more surprised when I ordered two; one for here, one to go, and both eliciting a slow whistle from the gentleman to my left who said to his wife “that boy can eat” – and much like the savories what I ate next would be outstanding.
Beginning first with the lesser known of Lo-Lo’s signature desserts, a house made banana puddin’ served in a hefty mason jar and topped with an airy dollop of whipped cream - at $5 this is probably the steal of the menu as the container must have contained twenty spoonful of the rich parfait. At times rife with the fructose of banana and at times mellowed by whipped cream or saturated Nilla wafers with plenty of textural nuance added by crumbles and chunks of unsoaked cookie this was precisely my kind of dessert; high end ingredients or not, I love pudding.
Realizing I couldn’t (or a least shouldn’t) leave Lo-Lo’s without trying their oft raved “Sandy Sand's Red Velvet Cake” and knowing I could (but shouldn’t) have eaten it while I was still seated at 10 Yuma Street I asked for a piece to be boxed up and although it wasn’t pretty, the results were just as good as many have suggested – the cake moist, dense, and loaded with cocoa while the cream cheese icing is slick but not too sweet and nicely tempered by the pecans. Generally one to fancy cupcakes over sliced cakes mostly because I prefer there to be more cooked surface area and thus more ‘sponge’ I was particularly interested to see the open baking window as I left the restaurant where the team was assembling the cakes from large springform pans thus allowing the layers to each have more exposure and thus explaining the excellent texture. For my money I’d go with the puddin’, but this is one damned fine Red Velvet, and in the context of the experience that is Lo-Lo’s Chicken and Waffles either make a great finale to a great meal in an unexpected but excellent setting.