Aloha Kitchen in Mesa Serves a Satisfying Taste of Hawaiian Tradition

Categories: Cafe Review

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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.

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

Categories: Cafe Review

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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.

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

Categories: Cafe Review

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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.

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

Categories: Cafe Review

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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.


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Tomaso Maggiore's Vivo! Ristorante Offers Refined Italian Dining in Scottsdale

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Antipasto-Tagliere-Charcuterie Board from Vivo! in Scottsdale
Few are surprised that, in less than half a year, Vivo! Ristorante has established itself as one of the more refined dining spots in town. Its pedigree helps: Vivo! is the latest offering from Phoenix restaurateur Tomaso Maggiore, creator of Tomaso's and a long list of other local restaurants. After decades of managing popular Italian eateries, Maggiore, who opened Vivo! last fall at Lincoln Drive and Scottsdale Road, knows a thing or two about modern Italian cuisine, and has established himself as one of the best chefs in the Valley. His menus are intelligent, authentic, and light, his creativity built around tradition and tempered by good taste.

Maggiore's latest restaurant specializes in seafood, pastas, and wood-­fired pizzas. Its more original conceits include a mozzarella bar and a handful of daring entrées (like eggplant torte, slices of eggplant baked with cheese fondue, and squid­ink "black" pasta with seafood). Upscale yet inviting, patterned after old­-time, uptown supper clubs, Vivo! features a wraparound bar that separates booths from tables in a single large, open room. I like that Maggiore keeps his restaurant open during the no man's man's land between lunch and dinner, and that his wait staff has just enough attitude to suggest they know their stuff.

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Mika's Greek in Downtown Phoenix Serves Surprisingly Authentic Greek Fare

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
A Gyro Platter from Mika's Green in Phoenix.
You want authentic souvlaki, or a decent gyro, and you want it now. Usually, fast food and Greek aren't a great mix; falafel doesn't do well under heat lamps, and whoever heard of made-ahead lamb skewers? If you're craving excellent Greek fare, you're likely headed to someplace with faux Athenian décor, a lounge, and a live belly dancer.

Mika's Greek is neither a supper club nor one of those depressing, prefab fast food joints. Having recently expanded its small chain of two East Valley locations to downtown Phoenix, locally owned Mika's is a spotless diner that serves fresh-made, almost entirely authentic Greek fare. There are next to no surprises on Mika's menu, just customary Greek cuisine -- flavors and textures that send you briefly to Amphipolis, even when some of the traditional dishes fall short.

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Second Story Liquor Bar in Scottsdale Struggles to Achieve Success

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Samosa Lobster Pie from Second Story Liquor Bar in Scottsdale.
I'm a fan of nouvelle cuisine and never balk at paying premium prices for fine food. But while Second Story Liquor Bar offers both the teeny portions of fussy food and the prices one expects from a four-star restaurant, it does so without benefit of fine cuisine or distinction. Uneventful entrées and one-note sides can't be cloaked by the nearly endless gimmickry offered here.

Located on the corner of Third Avenue and Scottsdale Road, this glamorous culinary disappointment is the brainchild of restaurateur Tommy Plato, who also owns the downstairs Gelato Spot Caffe. Second Story's stunning décor features dark leather booths and a dramatic chandelier; its main dining room is flanked by an outdoor eating patio and built around a floor-level window that gazes into the downstairs cafe. Its billing as "the restaurant in the sky" -- it's located on the top floor of a two-story building -- is as outlandish as its menu.

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Hodori in Mesa Offers Korean Eats for Adventurous Diners

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Haemul jungol, a Korean seafood stew from Hodori in Mesa.
Growing up near the Pacific Ocean, I've eaten my fair share of seafood. But I was a little unnerved when I unearthed an unidentifiable withered, round mystery from my bowl of haemul jungol - a bubbling seafood stew served piping hot at Hodori, a Korean restaurant in Mesa. The giant silver bowl of soup, called a "casserole" on the restaurant's menu, included a medley of familiar ocean creatures - everything from head-on shrimps, whole crabs, and clams to one large squid the server cut into pieces with scissors before plopping them into the crimson broth.

I was okay with that. And the soup was delicious, overflowing with triangles of soft tofu, thick udon-style noodles, and fresh vegetables and herbs, an entrée for two that simmered on a tabletop convection burner until the piquant smells could no longer be resisted. Each spoonful delivered a delicate balance of briny ocean flavor and a pleasing level of spice.

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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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