Fez in Central Phoenix Plays It Safe But Gets It Right

Categories: Cafe Reviews

fez-arroz-con-pollo-mercandetti.jpg
Jackie Mercandetti
Arroz con pollo at Fex in Phoenix is sublime.
I have two questions: When did every American male under the age of 30 start sporting a beard, and why don't I eat at Fez more often?

I can't answer the first of these, nor do I especially care to. But I can tell you that the answer to the second is "I plan to, from now on."

I'd stopped dining at Fez not long after it opened on Central Avenue a few years ago. The music was too loud and, although I found their pesto Caesar first-rate, I don't enjoy eating in a disco. I got my pesto Caesar salad to go, when I ate there at all. But Fez has relocated, moving into the former Portland's space just off Central Avenue. Friendly, easy service (most of it from young, bearded guys), a nice wide patio for dining, and an open indoor dining room and bar are no longer enough. Given the number of restaurants and diners opening all over town -- places with high-end tasting menus, crafted cocktails and gimmickry based on locally grown everything -- any restaurant, old or new, needs to offer some real reason to return.

More »

Steak 44 in Phoenix Wins With Seafood and Falls Short on Steak

Categories: Cafe Reviews

Steak-44-booth-mercandetti.jpg
Jackie Mercandetti
Booths looking into the kitchen at Steak 44 in Phoenix.
Deliverance came at the end of dinner at Steak 44, by way of a memorable and tasty dessert. Nearly everything else up until then, during my initial visit, had been a disappointment.

Located in the former Cork 'n' Cleaver site at 44th Street and Camelback Road, Steak 44 is the latest addition to the Mastro family dynasty of restaurants, a more casual sibling to Dominick's Steakhouse, opened in 2011 in the Scottsdale Quarter. The ambiance is clubby and stylish, with polished dark wood, tables topped with crisp, white linen, and some nice top-shelf touches like properly chilled salad forks and a warm towel at the end of the meal. Top­flight service involves a staff of servers and a headwaiter with a more-­than-­passing knowledge of his wine list. The overall effect is of a tony bar with above­-average dining rooms grafted on. I lucked out on my second visit and was seated at a wide-windowed booth far from the kitchen.

More »

Normal Diner in Tempe: A Fun, Retro Diner With Serious Eats

Categories: Cafe Reviews

normal-chicken-waffles-mercandetti.jpg
Jackie Mercandetti
Boneless chicken breast with red velvet waffles makes for a fun take on a classic pairing.
A young friend of mine is sad that the stack of pancakes with the whipped-cream smile she used to order from the IHOP at Apache and Mill is part of her past, now. The former pancake house disappeared when its host, the Twin Palms Hotel, was shuttered last year. But here's good news for both my little pal and anyone who likes inventive cuisine and isn't put off by ersatz hipster décor: Normal Diner, located in (and independent of) the new boutique hotel The Graduate Tempe, is on its way to really being something.

A long counter with chrome stools recalls chain diners of yore, while a counter with juices, coffee, and an array of to-go nibbles reflects its largely college-aged clientele. A wall installation of 8-track tapes, retro diner-ware, and bills tucked into vintage trash novels telegraphs Normal's camp, '70s-centric approach to dining. Fortunately, Normal's chef Brian Archibald is dead serious about what comes out of his kitchen.

More »

Delice Bistro in Tempe Serves Marvelous Baked Goods and So-So Sandwiches

Categories: Cafe Reviews

delcie-salad-crepe-mercandtti.jpg
Jackie Mercandetti
Delice Bistro in Tempe is just so-so.
I really wanted to love Delice, mostly because owner Feras Tarabichi works double-time to make diners feel at home. During each of my recent visits, I watched as he visited tableside with each of his guests, inquiring about their entrées or the delicious pastries they'd ordered. Tarabichi has created a menu more stylish and complicated than one would expect to find in a Mill Avenue bistro that likely caters mostly to ASU students and visitors to the next-door movie multiplex.

But, like a lot of ambitious bistros, Delice (pronounced Da-lees) has yet to arrive at greatness. This European-style bakery and patisserie serves marvelous baked goods and pastries, and its breakfast foods are highly flavored and neatly made. But the sandwiches and salads that make up its lunch and dinner menu typically fall short.

More »

Cuff in Glendale: Well-Tailored Cuisine That's Worth a Drive to the 'Burbs

Categories: Cafe Reviews

cuff-food-mercandetti.jpg
Jackie Mercandetti
Chef Tom Harvey has brought cuisine to downtown Glendale at Cuff.
Cuisine has come to downtown Glendale.

Cuff is a casual, locally owned New American restaurant featuring the culinary skills of chef Tom Harvey, late of Eddie V's in Scottsdale. Harvey and restaurateur David Chang have partnered with chef Matteo Cataldo to launch a laid-back bar and diner that offers expertly prepared, familiar fare which, with very few exceptions, is worth a drive to the burbs.

More »

Paz Cantina in Downtown Phoenix Is a Very Nice Taco Stand With Inexpensive Food

Categories: Cafe Reviews

paz-cantina-guacamole-mercandetti.jpg
Jackie Mercandetti
Hints of onion and garlic and nice, ripe chunks of avocado made Paz Cantina's guacamole a real treat.
Chef Brian Webb and restaurateur Joseph Aguayo have made names for themselves as adventurous food pioneers. Aguayo brought bold, affordable Mexican fare to downtown in 2010 with his popular Verde, which closed after just seven months. Webb, who previously worked at Pointe South Mountain Resort in Phoenix, took the lead in the food truck craze when his and wife Margita's Hey Joe! mobile eatery turned heads with their take on Filipino street food. (The couple won New Times' 2011 culinary Big Brain award.)

Last year, Webb and Aguayo teamed with Michael Reyes (of Scottsdale's Pure Sushi and the sublime Otro Café) to launch Paz Cantina in the former home of The Local, which also closed after only half a year. With all that restauranting behind them, expectations were high. The result from this revered trio's joint venture is a mixed bag of inconsistently pleasurable food and service.

More »

Aloha Kitchen in Mesa Serves a Satisfying Taste of Hawaiian Tradition

Categories: Cafe Reviews

spam-musubi-aloha-kitchen-mercandetti.jpg
Jackie Mercandetti
Spam musubi at Aloha Kitchen in Mesa
For Hawaiians, taro is more than an edible plant. It's an ancestor to all Hawaiian people.

According to legend, the taro plant is the elder brother of mankind. Watered by the tears of goddess of Ho'ohokukalani, the plant nourished the people, and, in turn, the people cared for the taro. It only make sense that taro, or kalo in Hawaiian, is an essential ingredient in the islands' cuisine.

The plant's leaves, called lu'au, are the key ingredient in laulau, a traditional dish that features chunks of meat (usually pork) wrapped in the leaves and steamed. Done right, the result blends fatty, salty, and rich meaty flavors together in simple but perfect balance. And for those who love Hawaiian food, well-prepared laulau is the most satisfying kind of soul food, the type of dish that can connect a diner not only to a personal memory, but also to a deep cultural history.

More »

Relish Burger Bistro at the Phoenician: Above-Average Burgers at a High Price Point

Categories: Cafe Reviews

Relish-SalmonBurger-Mercandetti.jpg
Jackie Mercandetti
Ironically, the Salmon Burger from Relish Burger is the restaurant's best dish.
Sometimes a room is just a room. Other times, it's a warning that you're about to pay $20 for a pretty good hamburger.

Located on the Phoenician resort's golf course, Relish Burger Bistro's ambiance screams "hotel restaurant!" Facing a window is recommended: The nice views of the golf course are mitigated by the strictly conference-room décor of this clubhouse cafe's interior.

But no one is coming here, presumably, to admire Relish's décor. Not yet a destination for burger fans, this newish bistro wants to do battle with the spate of other burger joints that have been popping up like nutgrass the past couple years. Its menu promises more than most resort diners, and delivers on some of those promises, too.

More »

El Chullo in Central Phoenix Serves Peruvian Specialties -- and Lots of Potatoes

Categories: Cafe Reviews

Escabechedepollo-ElChullo-Mercandetti.jpg
Jackie Mercandetti
Escabeche de pollo from El Chullo in Phoenix
Rice, beans, fish, and root vegetables are standard fare, but within the cozy red and gold walls of El Chullo, a casual Peruvian restaurant in Central Phoenix, such ingredients are anything but.

Take a seat in this small restaurant and your server will greet you with a little dish of what look like, but definitely are not, peanuts. These are cancha, or corn nuts, and far superior to the American snack food. From this moment, the server will remain attentive and helpful for the rest of your meal. Feel free to ask questions.

More »

Mark Tarbell's The Tavern in Phoenix Offers a Taste of the Past, In a Good Way

Categories: Cafe Reviews

TarbellsTavern-ShortRib-Mercandetti.jpg
Jackie Mercandetti
Slow-cooked Scotch beef from Tarbell's The Tavern
Those of us of a certain age remember fondly Sportsman's Fine Wines, a longtime landmark on the southeast corner of Camelback Road and 32nd Street and one of very few decent wine shops in town. And some of us who love a good Caesar salad and a nice escargot have been whining ever since Barmouche, much-decorated restaurateur, chef, and wine expert Mark Tarbell's popular European bistro, closed more than a decade ago.


More »
Loading...