SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
I took a Mediterranean cruise in 2015, and my wife and I found ourselves in Rome for a short stop—maybe six total hours. So, in order to maximize our time there, we hired a driver to show us around. His name was Dave. One of the things Dave encouraged us to do was partake in the local fare—in Rome, and in any other city to which we traveled. According to him, it was a surefire way to experience the local culture. As a result, after downplaying the local Eataly (yeah, they have one in Rome!), he took us to his favorite cafe and his favorite joint for a slice of pizza. All on him! Dave was a good guy. Hey, this is supposed to be about Phoenix and Chicago, not Italy! What gives?! Hold on, hold on. I share this story to illustrate the importance and fun in sampling the local cuisine, both from the perspective of guest and host.
When I travel, food plays a significant role. Big surprise, I know. Per Dave’s suggestion, I really enjoy sampling the local food scene. In addition to experiencing the local culture, trying new restaurants, new flavors, new preps, and new ingredients gives my palate a break from the same-old-same-old at home. It lets my brain know, “We’re on vacation, so it’s time to unwind, relax, and recharge.” Look, I can’t help it if my stomach calls most of the shots. As Bruce Hornsby would say, “That’s just the way it is.” Additionally, food can be a great catalyst for the creation of memories. The tastes, the aromas, and the feelings all help contribute to the formation of a memory of a great trip.
Still, when I’m on vacation, there are days where I find myself hankering for a tried-and-true taste of home. Particularly on a longer trip, where my tastebuds experience flavor fatigue or sampling shock, and I just need to regroup. Actually, it’s the culinary version of being “ready to go home.” Now, to be clear, I’ve never really found myself “ready to go home” while on vacation. I tend to scheme ways to stay longer, or find myself planning my next jaunt before I even leave. I never really understood what people meant when they’d say, “I’m ready to go home,” until now. Anyway, sometimes I just need something familiar. Like an introvert who’s been out partying and just needs a few hours to himself, I need a familiar meal to recharge.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. For the same reason Dave encouraged my wife and I to eat locally, it’s hard to find familiar flavors while out of town. After all, the local culture simultaneously dictates and is shaped by the food of the area. That’s the point. Makes sense, right? Of course, intellectually understanding this does my stomach no good when all it wants is some Chicago-style grub. I’ve mentioned how my stomach calls the shots, right? One of the few places in my travels, however, that can accommodate this potentially strange, but not unreasonable idiosyncrasy is the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. Somehow, for a Chicago guy like me, there’s something both extremely different and incredibly comfortable about Phoenix/Scottsdale. This is part of the reason I keep going back.
From a visual perspective, there’s nothing similar about Chicago and Phoenix. One sits in a sun-drenched valley with cacti, mesquite trees, and desert mountains all around. The other is surrounded by flat prairieland, a large lake, and towering concrete-and-steel buildings packed into an urban center. From a meteorological perspective, there’s even less similarity. One is consistently warm and dry, with plenty of sun. The other is hot one day, cold the next, humid in the summer, dry in the winter, and partly cloudy (emphasis on “cloudy” from November through March) for much of the year. From a culinary perspective, however, there’s just enough overlap for me to experience local favorites and still satisfy the occasional craving for home.
Chicago has some pretty unique foods. What’s more, while they are unique, they are pretty regional and insular. Deep dish and stuffed pizza, Chicago-style hot dogs, and Italian beef with giardiniera are a few Windy City classics that are tough to find outside the Chicagoland area. You’d be hard-pressed to have a craving for the aforementioned items satisfied in neighboring Midwestern cities, yet Phoenix, Southwestern desert city about 1,700 miles away from the The Second City has you covered. To get a little more insight into that peculiarity, I contacted a Chicago favorite, Portillo’s, about their two Phoenix area locations.
According to Jack Reed, market manager for the Portillo’s Arizona locations, the rationale behind opening Chicago restaurants around Phoenix is pretty straightforward. He said, “We ship our food to all 50 states and saw a large portion of our orders being sent to Phoenix.” There could be a number of reasons for this, not least of which is, from Jack’s perspective, “Many Chicagoans head down to Phoenix to escape the winters and end up moving to Phoenix full-time because it’s so beautiful. There have also been Chicago-based [businesses opening] offices [in the area].” In the past, people headed to Florida to keep warm and/or retire. This is still true of a lot of East-Coasters. However, given the centralized proximity of the Midwest, and the dry heat in the Southwest, large swaths of Midwesterners found the Phoenix area an attractive alternative to Florida, and started migrating to the desert as the Phoenix area developed.
Additionally, the presence of Chicago’s baseball teams during spring training (mid-February through March) cannot be underestimated. Some accounts indicate the White Sox and Cubs were two of the earliest teams to play exhibition games in Arizona. Regardless, the Cubs have called the desert their spring training home since the 1950s (a rarity in those days) and currently reside just outside of Phoenix, in Mesa. This has likely introduced many Chicago baseball fans to the area, and generated a strong Chicago presence over the years. This was only enhanced when the White Sox moved from Sarasota, Fla. to Tucson, and then from Tucson, Ariz. to Glendale, Cali.
Surprised? Don’t be. In my experience, spring training really is a cool time in Arizona because you have so many visitors looking to escape the winter wearies and get a taste of summer with their favorite team. The feel and energy of the greater Phoenix area is different in these months, and it’s because there’s such a large influx of out-of-towners there to take in a game or two. It’s also contributed to a food migration, of sorts. In fact, it’s the Cubs that brought Chicago favorite Giordano’s to the Phoenix area. Jessica Wenson, Giordano’s manager of marketing and public relations, said, “As the Official Pizza of the Chicago Cubs, we had been asked by the Cubs organization to open a restaurant near their spring training facility for quite some time. We were thrilled to bring our beloved stuffed deep dish pizza to Arrowhead last year and we look forward to expanding our presence in the greater Phoenix/Scottsdale metropolitan area.” Like “Field of Dreams,” people will come for baseball…and pizza!
So, whether you’re there to watch the Cubs or White Sox, take a break from the Chicago winter/early spring and soak up the sun, bask in the warmth as a transplant or retiree, or can’t make the trek to Chicago from the west coast, you can still eat like a Chicagoan during your stay in The Valley of the Sun. If you’re curious, here’s a brief rundown of a few key spots:
Okay, sounds good, but is this a one-way relationship? Are there any Phoenix-area spots that have found their way to Chicago? I’m so glad you asked! As a matter of fact, there’s one I’d like to highlight, in particular. Steak 48 is a new steakhouse in Chicago from the Mastro family (and partner, Scott Troilo). Name sound familiar? It should. They started the Mastro’s Steakhouse chain (of which Chicago has one) in Scottsdale, Ariz. However, they sold Mastro’s Steakhouse about three years prior to the opening of the Chicago location, so by then they had nothing to do with it. Since the sale, they’ve kept busy in the restaurant business, opening Dominick’s Steakhouse and Steak 44 in Scottsdale and Phoenix, respectively. Then, they opened Steak 48 in Houston, and, most recently, Chicago. Wondering what the ‘‘48’’ stands for? It refers to Arizona being the 48th state of the union. The “steak” part should be self-explanatory.
I touched base with Steak 48 and heard back from Carmen Kramer, who handles PR for the restaurants in Chicago and Phoenix. From their perspective, a Chicago entry made a lot of sense for similar reasons as Phoenix makes sense for Chicago establishments. She said, “Chicago and Phoenix are closely connected through business and a love of sports. Naturally, during spring training, Arizona sees a great deal of loyal baseball fans from the Windy City who have become well-versed in [the] area and dining scene. The cities also align on many business ventures and travel between the two has become more common. The weather is different, but the culture and lifestyle feel the same—Chicagoans looking for a warm winter flock to Arizona, while Phoenix residents looking to beat the heat often make their way to Chicago.”
Say what, now? Phoenix residents travel to Chicago? Why?! Well, it’s not always winter in Chicago. When it’s not, it’s actually quite lovely. Summer in Phoenix, however, is hot. Really hot. Unseemingly hot, even. So, in the summer, Phoenix residents will head to a much more comfortable (most of the time) Chicago. Because the Mastro’s name, and the Dominick’s/Steak 44 Brand is strong in the Phoenix market, you’ll have visitors from Phoenix take comfort in a meal at Steak 48. You’ll also have Chicago natives who have had great experiences at Dominick’s or Steak 44 looking to relive a pleasant vacation moment for a couple hours by visiting Steak 48. See, I told you (see above) food has the ability to elicit feelings and memories! In any event, if you’re looking for a Phoenix-style experience while in Chicago, Steak 48 is the spot.
You might be wondering if they hold their own in the steakhouse-rich Chicago market. So far, Steak 48 has been a welcome addition, earning some nice reviews along the way. More than that, they have already been generous community partners. According to Carmen, “In lieu of a grand opening, Steak 48 celebrated its arrival to the city with five opening charity nights, which raised funds for organization with local ties, including Blessings in a Backpack, The Joffrey Ballet, YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, Lurie Children’s Foundation, and Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana.” No matter what, being a solid member of the community goes a long way.
After trying the restaurant, I can vouch for its quality and similarity to its sibling restaurants out west. Prime steaks, wet aged (the way I like them) 28 days, hand-cut in house, were the main event. My wife got a petite filet, and I got a 16-ounce NY strip. They arrived on 500-degree plates, cooked just as ordered, tender, and juicy. They let the meat do the talking here, using minimal seasoning and an ever-so-slight, yet welcome charring. If you want enhancements, they have them, but I don’t think they’re needed. I like to taste the steak. Additional highlights included a warm skillet bread so flavorful that no extra butter was needed (a big deal for me), jumbo shrimp cocktail (pro tip: mix the accompanying cocktail sauce and horseradish), a tomato jam that comes with the burrata appetizer, and a savory-sweet corn creme brulée I’ve only encountered at Steak 48 and Dominick’s. If you have enough room by the end of the meal, my preference is the caramel cake, though we sampled the red velvet bread pudding and found it to be delightful.
As Carmen explained, Phoenix and Chicago share parts of their respective cultures. In addition to sports-related travel, each provides an oasis for the other in their respective off-seasons. Given this, and the fact that residents move freely between the two cities, they’ve come to share some of their food preferences. As a result, guests can immerse themselves in local culture for the majority of their visits, and still enjoy a taste of home every once in a while. This creates a comfort in either city, for visitors and locals of each, and it’s what will help strengthen the bond between Phoenix and Chicago well into the future.
Header image courtesy of Portillo's.