At Southern Rail in Phoenix, Chef Justin Beckett Does Southern Fare with Finesse

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Crispy duck, cornbread salad and casserole, and bread pudding at Southern Rail.
At first glance, there's plenty about Justin Beckett's Southern Rail to suggest it's going to be just another pileup of overworked dining trends. There's the rustic­-meets­-Steampunk décor, the open kitchen, the communal table set with mismatched flatware, Homer Laughlin diner ware, and dishtowel as serviette.

It's the neatly rehabbed comfort food from Beckett, of popular Arcadia eatery Beckett's Table fame, that sets this deluxe dinner house apart. Housed in part of The Newton, former home of The Beef Eaters, Southern Rail takes the trend in mashing up fine dining with Mason­Dixon cuisine a step further. The tidy, not­-overwhelming menu features dishes tarted up with sausage gravy and sides of cornbread, to be sure, but Beckett has finessed classic American dishes with some more subtle Southern influences, as well.

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Barbecue at Astor House in Coronado: Hit and Miss -- and Hold the Sauce

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
A year into smoking meats Astor House emerges as a better barbecue joint.
I rave so often and so loudly about Tuck Shop, my friends believe I'm an investor in the popular restaurant. And I dine so frequently at Vovomeena, the staff and I are on a first­-name basis. But I admit to having abandoned Astor House, a smallish eatery in the Coronado neighborhood that's operated by the same folks who own Tuck Shop and Vovomeena, after only one visit. The diner's New Orleans-­themed snack food menu bored me, and I never returned. But word that this tiny diner, which shares a building with Tuck Shop, had traded in shared plates for a pair of hickory­-wood smokers piqued my interest and, eventually, filled my belly with some delicious (and, admittedly, a couple of ho­hum) smoked meats.

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But First, Dessert: Casa Filipina Is Great with Sweets and the Savory Side Is Worth Exploring

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Casa Filipina delivers excellent sweets, but it's worth your while to explore the restaurant's savory side, too.
I've been eating it my whole life. I know the truth. Filipino food isn't sexy.

There's little glamor in a reddish-brown stew of bitter vegetables in garlicky shrimp paste sauce or a whole fried fish that stares at you unblinkingly as you separate bits of meat from its skeleton. This food doesn't make you want to take out your phone and snap a photo, and for first-time diners, it doesn't exactly make you want to dig in.

I believe that's at least part of the reason Filipino fare has yet to break into the mainstream while many other Asian cuisines have managed to find a place in the regular eating rotations of American diners.

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Mejico in Central Phoenix Delivers Well-Prepared, Northern Mexican-Inspired Fare

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Enchiladas de Res, Queso Fundido, and Chile Relleno with flan.
If the crowds at Mejico Cocina Mejicana are any indication, there's room for another Mexican restaurant in Phoenix.

And if the well-­prepared, northern Mexican-­inspired fare there is a guarantee, this cool, contemporary restaurant, opened in February in the old Linda's space, ought to be around for a long time.

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Chef Bernie Kantak's The Gladly: Neat New American Cuisine

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Chef Bernie Kantak's cuisine won't have you missing Ruth's Chris Steakhouse.
Anyone waxing melancholy about the loss of Ruth's Chris Steakhouse either hadn't eaten there during the sad year before that venerable steakhouse was shuttered or has yet to dine at The Gladly, which moved into Ruth's longtime location late last summer. Even if the owners of Scottsdale's award-winning Citizen Public House, the powerhouse behind The Gladly, weren't offering impossibly inexpensive happy hour prices on house cocktails and high-end appetizers, Chef Bernie Kantak's tasty lunch and dinner menus would be reason enough to celebrate this neat New American restaurant.

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Gertrude's at The Desert Botanical Garden

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Gertrude's tuna sandwich
I was determined, while dining at Gertrude's, not to be distracted by the chatter of tourists seated at tables on either side of mine at this Desert Botanical Garden hotspot. Fortunately, the food on Gertrude's recently redesigned menu was mostly so dreary, it was impossible to think of much else.

Because this restaurant, named for Desert Botanical Garden founder Gertrude Divine Webster, caters to that year-round, garden-visiting tourist trade, I expected a surplus of popular foods and a ton of clever Southwestern cuisine. There was plenty of such fare when Chef Steve Eldridge was at the helm of the kitchen here, and nearly all of it was excellent. And while there's lots of prickly pear jus and Queen Creek calamatas to be found among the new, post-Eldridge sides and entrées, very little of what my dining companions and I ordered proved tasty enough to finish.

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10 Places to Eat Calamari in Metro Phoenix

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Fez in Phoenix offers fried calamari with a side of paprika aioli.
My grandmother referred to it in the singular: calamaro. I saw her prepare squid only once, in the late 1970s while visiting my parents and me from her home in Ohio. I watched Grandma while she cleaned the ugly thing, removing the body from the tentacles; cutting the body in half and then into strips. She'd already soaked the slimy pink mollusk in milk; I'd encountered it floating in a bowl in the fridge when I returned from school the day before.

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Ancient Chinese Secret: Asian Hong Kong Diner in Tempe Serves Excellent Cantonese Cuisine

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Peking duck and garlic snow pea leaves.
A meal at Hong Kong Asian Diner in Tempe is like eating at your favorite aunt's house. That is, if your aunt owned a Chinese restaurant that served expertly executed Cantonese cuisine.

On Sunday nights, multi-generational Chinese families usually occupy the large tables in the center of the restaurant's clean but dated dining room. Owner Choi Kuang flits from one party to the next, making enthusiastic conversation with customers and urging guests to finish this dish or that.

She usually will be your server, and be warned: She's a powerful force -- in a good way.

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Tarnished Treasure: 24 Carrots in Tempe Misses the Mark

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercadetti
Tacos, a carrot overeasy drink with an Arizona bowl.
I believe that you should eat whatever makes you feel good and stay away from whatever doesn't. When I heard about 24 Carrots, a Tempe restaurant and juice bar specializing in vegan cuisine, I was excited, because meat-free food has come a long, long way since the advent of the Tofurkey. Unfortunately, for a restaurant that specializes in promoting vegan and raw food, 24 Carrots offers little in the way of innovation, and the food is just not great.

There seems to be a gaping void at 24 Carrots. The space feels incomplete, the source of the ingredients is shrouded in mystery, the food is generally missing flavor, and the service is spotty at best. There is no sign above the storefront. Handwritten notes and store hours are Scotch-taped to the doors. I would be willing to give the slow service and half-finished décor the benefit of the doubt if this were a brand-new restaurant. But 24 Carrots opened its Tempe location in December after a five-year stint in Chandler -- it seems the owner has had more than sufficient time to work out the kinks.


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Breaking the Cyclo: After 12 Years, Cyclo in Chandler Could Use A Fresh Start

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Bun Cha Ha Noi (left), Bun Sai Gon (right).
Entering Cyclo for the first time, you'll notice one thing before anything else: owner Justina Duong. On a recent summer evening, she's wearing a flowered maxi dress, dramatic false eyelashes, and a hip pixie cut. Her elegance appears effortless, like she's a guest herself. She immediately starts talking to a new customer about moon cycles and how the heat affects them, as if she's chatting with a gal pal over Cosmos.

After 12 years in business, it's obvious that Duong must know what she's doing at her Chandler Vietnamese fusion restaurant, Cyclo.

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