Swishing Well: Shabu Fondue in Phoenix Offers Healthy and Messy Japanese Cuisine

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Shabu-shabu means "swish-swish."
If the crummy part of eating healthy is all the prep work involved, local restaurateur Johnny Chu has swooped in to save health-conscious diners (and anyone who likes fresh food and a nice bowl of soup). At Shabu Fondue, Chu does the chopping and washing and we, at long last, have an estimable shabu-shabu restaurant in Central Phoenix.

In Japanese, shabu-shabu means "swish-swish," because one swishes slices of meat and hunks of fresh vegetables through pots of hot broth that cook them. The windup involves a tasty soup of reduced broth full of bits of what you've been dipping -- easily the best part of an already pleasant meal.

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SumoMaya in Scottsdale Expertly Blends Mexican and Asian Cuisines

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Arroz Con Pato from SumoMaya
In the '70s, my friends and I ate at La Rosa, a Glendale diner that served both Mexican and Chinese food -- not only because we liked both chow mein and chimichangas, but because we thought it was hilarious that a restaurant would offer two such diverse cuisines. Although fusion cuisine was just starting to catch on at the time, it hadn't yet arrived in the desert, and La Rosa kept the sopapillas and the sizzling rice on separate platters.

Fusion dining's often pretentious customs are neatly celebrated at SumoMaya, whose glamorous locale is home to a menu that, with some exceptions, expertly blends Asian and Mexican cuisines in eccentric and more often delicious ways.

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Franco's Italian Cafe in Scottsdale: Classic, Sophisticated, and Delicious

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Seafood risotto at Franco's Italian Cafe.
I rarely eat in Italian restaurants. Raised on basic Italian fare, I'm put off by menus featuring chicken parmigiani and "gourmet" versions of pasta fagioli (peasant food, made with white beans and macaroni in a watery tomato broth, but invariably Italian-­Americanized with veal and a half­-dozen vegetables in the pretentious "Italian" diners that serve it).

Franco's Italian Café is an exception I am always happy to make. Offering a sophisticated cuisine both rustic and refined, this posh Scottsdale restaurant's tired décor (exposed ductwork; big black-­and-­white framed photos of Italian movie stars) is less kitsch or bad planning than an homage to our recent culinary past, when Franco's was a mainstay of fine Italian dining.

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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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