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Trip report: Phoenix + Tucson


Restaurants & Bars 5

Trip report: Phoenix + Tucson

Bob Libkind | Mar 24, 2003 09:59 PM

I'm a bit late with this report (it's been two weeks since my return to Philadelphia), but here goes.

First of all, many thanks to the contributors to this board and "Bob and Jim's Tucson Adventure" from the Chowhound Special Reports section for some great ideas.

The ostensible purpose of my week-long visit to Phoenix, with a one-day sojourn to Tucson, was to enjoy some Cactus League games and escape the frigid environs of Philadelphia. But another objective was to enjoy some Mexican and Southwestern/New Mexican vittles which, except for a few taquerias recently emerged in Philadelphia, are sorely lacking.

My first meal on the evening of arrival, however, was not SW'ern, not even close. More like southeastern, as in the Carribean, i.e., Cuba. I found my way to Maxie's new location on Camelback and ordered the Cuban sandwich. Tasty, hit the spot for a traveler who just wanted to soothe hunger pangs. But hardly to be mistaken for the real thing served in Union City NJ or Miami. Mostly because of the bread. Not that the bread was bad, it just wasn't a Cuban long roll. Just like the essential part of a Philadelphia cheesesteak is the qualities of the bread, so it is with a Cuban. The atmosphere at Maxie's was non-descript and slightly off-putting, but the price was right for a frugal meal, especially when combined with my i*dine discount.

The following day I took in a ballgame. I called my wife, who was back in Philadelphia and is a native of Racine, Wisconsin, to tell her I was at a game, but made her guess who was the home team by telling her what I ate for lunch at the Maryvale ballpark: A brat downed with a Leinie’s. Translation: a bratwurst accompanied by a Leinenkugel’s beer. She immediately figured out I was at a Brewer’s game. They lost to the White Sox, but it was by far the best meal I had at any of the three Cactus League parks I visited (the others being Peoria and Diablo.

After watching the sun descend behind the hills at Squaw Peak, and enjoying a Holts Special Maduro I imported with me from Philadelphia, I headed south to Barrio Café. And immediately left after learning that the wait would be more than an hour -- and on a Thursday night! Went back to my resort in North Phoenix, relaxed, changed…and then went back. By this time it was about 8:30 and I only had to wait about 10 minutes ‘til I could settle in at the tiny bar. I started off with a huge bowl of queso fundido with chorizo mixed in accompanied by great fried carbohydrates. Forgive the imprecision of my menu description, but I didn’t take notes, I just slid the food down my ravenous and welcoming gullet as efficiently as I could. Yummmmmy. I followed that with tamal de la Huasteca with black mole, on the recommendation of IAmJacksBrain. (Thank you, Jack.) The tamale itself was superb, and the black mole and accompaniments pleasingly piquant. However, the chicken stuffed into the tamale was disappointing. It suffered from my most common complaint about chicken: dried out. For some reason, many restaurants insist on using white breast meat when a particular dish would be consideraby improved with dark meat and/or thigh meat. Had the chef used the less prime cuts and simmered them in a sauce before incorporating it into the tamal, then I would be absolutely raving about this dish. That said, I will definitely have to explore the Barrio Café’s menu in depth on a future trip. And everyone there seemed to be having a good time, including the musicians. Looks like a great party place.

Friday night, after enjoying the Giants-Mariners game at Peoria under warm, sunny southwestern skies (I had an In and Out burger for lunch – the fries were superb, the burger so-so – therefore I skipped the hot dogs at the game), I made my way over to Roaring Fork. Great looking place (even if it is in an office building) and incredible value for happy hour, which is when I arrived. It seems I wasn’t the only one to want to enjoy T.G.I.F. happy hour here. It was jammed packed. I stood around nursing a seltzer, hoovering like a vulture near some of the bar tables where diners were nearing the end of their meal, planning to pounce as soon as they vacated. I tried to look very hungry to make them feel guilty and hurry their meal. But I was too slow! No sooner than had one couple departed detable than it was grabbed by another couple. But me, being the brash Easterner, brazenly noted that the table had three bar stools, they were only using two of them, and it would be a sin to waste the third. Think of the poor, starving children in India. And me. Would they mind if an intruder joining them? They did not. So I had a most pleasant pair of dining companions, a couple from Chandler: she a health care worker originally from Chicago, he a food industry type from Brooklyn.

On to the Roaring Fork’s food…

After nibbling on the jerky (if one was tempted to kill for jerky, this would be the one to face manslaughter charges over) and ordering a Sonoran ale, I opted for the green chile pork stew, while my dining companions shared a Big Ass Burger. As good as the burger looked, I was well-satisified by the stew. (Gimme melted cheese and some hog and I’m in heaven, as you could probably tell from my queso fundido at Barrio Café the night before.) As a matter of fact, I’m craving either of those dishes as I write. I pledged to myself that a second trip to Roaring Fork for a full meal could not wait until a future visit to Phoenix.

Saturday found me waking before dawn for the drive to Tucson, watching the sun rise somewhere to the east of Coolidge. All this was so I could visit Saguro National Park and the Sonoran Desert Museum before I pretended to be a Mad Dog or Englishman and go out in the midday sun. I will confess here that upon approaching the outskirts of Tucson on I-10, I indulged in a guilty pleasure: sausage mcmuffins for breakfast. Thus fortified, I headed over the backroads of the National Park and arrived at the museum shortly after it opened.

By the time I finished my tourist gig in late morning, all that walking made me hungry, and I had a ballgame to get to. Unfortunately, after paying $5 to park my rental Taurus at TEP for the D-backs game, they closed the box office: it was a sellout, not even room onh the lawn. So no hot dogs at the ballpark for me. Still being hungry, took my $5 parking refund and bee-lined it to Taqueria Pico de Gallo, as recommend by the Alpha Dog and Bob Okumura. What a find! As Bob and Jim noted in their Tucson special report, this place is all about the wonderful corn tortillas. Definitely worth a detour. The tamale was good, not spectacular. (I preferred the tamale at Barrio Café for its basic component, even if the chicken failed to impress.)

With an afternoon to kill, I went back to Saguaro National Park, found a spot under a shady shelter, and communed with the cacti. Then, back to Tucson to meet up with some friends. They took me to Maya Quetzal, a Guatemalan restaurant at 429 N. 4th Ave., in what looked to me to be a student strip near the university. It was a perfect, inexpensive, tasty and relaxing meal, and especailly conducive to easy-going comradeship in the back patio. I wolfed down a combination enchilada plate (cheese and pork, again) with black beans and rice, swilling down iced tea.

Back in Phoenix on Sunday, I endured the Rangers-Angels game at Tempe (the hot dogs were big but bland) until the score was something like 9-2 in the third inning (who cares who won!). So, I spent the rest of the day poolside and smoking another cigar. For dinner I found my way back to Scottsdale, this time to Los Sombreros where after a short wait in the early evening air I found a stool at the patio bar. Good value, good food! A few months earlier in Philadelphia I had joined a bunch of other Chowhounds (what is known as the Dangerous Dining Club) at Paloma, an upscale Mexican-French restaurant – the chef is Mexican, but trained in French cooking. There, my main course was Lamb Shank Tapatio (normally the chef does lamb chops with this sauce, but for the DDC, which has a $25 limit for a three-course meal, exclusive of cash bar, he opted for the shank; as much as I enjoy chops, I think the shank is a better bet for this dish). Well, at Los Sombreros they also offered lamb shank, here called Lamb Adobo — the most expensive entrée on the menu, I believe. And they were even better than at Paloma. Here the meat, as it should, gave itself up from the bone with only the gentlest coaxing (it wanted to be eaten, as if it were a Schmoo), its flavors intense and satisfying. (For a starter, I once again fell under the spell of cheese with Queso Fundido.)

Monday morning, my last full day in the Valley. Off to Scottsdale for trinket shopping and gallery browsing. A pedestrian lunch on the way back to the pool at La Madeleine on Camelback (I think East 3100 block). Not terrible. But not recommended. Pretty routine. Lunch counters in Philadelphia do about as well.

Dinner was back to Roaring Fork. You must understand that when I first saw the wine list on the web before my departure to Phoenix, I knew it was my kind of place. Any restaurant that boasts a wine list featuring “The Seven Deadly Zins” has got to be superior. I am an unadulterated zinhead, whether it be Rosenblum’s Vintner’s Cuvee, my neighbor Ralph's home pressed and fermented concoction, or high end swill. So of course, I opted for a glass of the high end swill: Chateau Potelle (as much as I’m a zucker for zin, I go particularly patooie over Paso Robles, especially one like this. A bit extravagant for me (a glass at $12.50 costs more than I usually spend on a bottle at home), but a nice luxury for the last night of my vacation.

Given that I can’t get enough melted cheese, and, as you have no doubt deduced by now, lamb being my favorite red meat, I zeroed in on the New Mexico Fondue Pot With Little Lamb Chops, Pistachio Bread & Squash as a starter. What a mouthful. Three or four tiny frenched rib chops (I actually prefer them with the fat left on, though) to accompany the same queso that provided the base for the green chile pork stew. Wow, was I happy. The pistachio bread and squash (butternut, I think) were perfect complements, the nut bread adding an exotic counterpoint and the sweet squash balancing out and holding together the entire taste range. Then came my main, a delicately pink and juicy pork porterhouse, perfectly cooked. (Too many kitchens think trichinosis is still a problem and therefore decide “the other white meat” should be cooked until gray.) Dessert was totally out of the question. Perhaps another time.

That’s the long story of a week of food in Phoenix, from one Hound’s perspective. Lots more exploring and research (strictly in the name of science) to do on my next trip.

Thanks again for all of your suggestions. My only regret is that I had did not have enough time to try them all!


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