Category Archives: Gilbert

Feasting in Phoenix: Over 10 Food and Drink Stops in Under 48 Hours

Dinner-hour rush at Joe's Farm Grill in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert

Dinner-hour rush at Joe’s Farm Grill in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert

Here’s a news flash: Phoenix is big, sprawling and crisscrossed with freeways. It’s suburbia taken to its illogical conclusion in the water-parched “Valley” as the locals call it. Hope you like heat. The temperature climbed to over 90 F. when I was there in mid-April; at higher elevations not that far away, it dipped below freezing at night.

A friend said I would hate Phoenix: the heat, the crowds, the cookie-cutter retirement communities. I didn’t have strong feelings either way. It was mostly a navigation problem to solve, where a GPS device certainly helped. I was there over a weekend, so the traffic was surprisingly light, and a couple I stayed with through airbnb gave me a Monday morning route that avoided the choked freeways.

There are some good things about the Phoenix area for the road-trip diner. Because it’s so car-centeric and sprawling, it’s often pretty easy to find free parking at or close to your destination. The warm climate means it’s also a great place to have an evening meal or drink outdoors. And in a city this big, there are lots of good, independent places to eat or drink, often at reasonable prices. I managed to gorge at over 10 great eateries and drinkeries in less than two days… without requiring bypass surgery.

As to why you’d be going to, or passing through, Phoenix, there’s spring baseball, a surprising amount of hiking and climbing in the surrounding hills and, of course, golf all winter long. Thousands of Canadian snowbirds can’t all be wrong.

I’ve pretty much avoided the DDD curse on my road-food journeys. The airing of a Guy Fieri Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program on the Food Network can reportedly double the number of customers thronging to many featured restaurants. The infrequent occasions when I’ve hit a DDD spot, I’ve gone early or late in the meal cycle to avoid the lines. But I arrive at *Joe’s Farm Grill in upscale Gilbert, outside of Phoenix, on a glorious spring Saturday at 5 pm. Outside, the line extends to the curb. Inside, customers are inching along through those winding queue dividers you see in airports. The waiting gives me time to study the menu and the history of the Johnston family farm, which still grows lettuce and tomatoes used in the meals and tends olive, date and fruit trees.

The line does move smartly, thanks to a well-oiled crew of at least eight that churns out burgers, chicken sandwiches and smoked pork. In no time, a little pager buzzes and my Fontina burger is ready, loaded with roasted red peppers, mushrooms, pecan pesto and melted cheese. By the time I’ve put the lettuce and tomato on top, it takes a minute to get through the greenery and into the moist, perfectly cooked patty, wonderfully complemented by an order of rosemary-dill panko crumb onion rings. The clincher is sitting on the patio, looking out at the farm, alongside young families at picnic tables. Joe’s efficiently serves fine food, in a wonderful setting. Just try to get there before everyone else does.

Great patty, farm-fresh produce and panko onion rings add up to a perfect burger at Joe's Farm Grill

Great patty, farm-fresh produce and panko onion rings add up to a perfect burger at Joe’s Farm Grill

Joe’s Farm Grill
3000 East Ray Road, Gilbert
Daily breakfast 8 am-11 am, lunch and dinner 11 am-9 pm
Joe's Farm Grill on Urbanspoon

Want to check out the bar scene in the Phoenix area? Head over to SanTan Brewing Co. in Chandler, southeast of the big city. On a sultry Saturday evening, the taps are flowing, the music is pounding and the patrons are yelling to be heard. If it’s too noisy and hot inside, head to the outdoor patio (it’s one of the benefits of living in Phoenix), where there’s a long row of counter stools behind the busy bartenders. Mix the suds with something substantial, like a big plate of nachos or a massive sandwich.

SanTan Brewing
8 South San Marcos Place, Chandler
Monday to Thursday 11 am-1 am, Friday-Saturday 11 am-2 am, Sunday 10 am-1 am
Santan Brewing Company on Urbanspoon

I walk into a dimly lit bar, where about eight guys are hunched over a wooden counter. It’s 7:30, on a Sunday morning in aptly named Dick’s Hideaway (there’s no sign above the door, only a menu in the window). The patrons are nursing Bloody Marys, beers, glasses of red and maybe hangovers. But they’re mostly here to inhale honking big breakfasts, served on hot pewter plates. There is another room, with a couple of cool, copper common tables. But really, you want to be rubbing shoulders on a bar stool, watching a short-order pro whip up everything from French toast to eggs Benedict with two chunks of tenderloin steak. It’s not cheap. My jalapeno Eggs Benedict runs $15 but features thick pieces of Nuesle’s pork loin and comes, as most of the plates do, with big scoops of good potatoes and beans. It’s a massive amount of first-class food (the couple behind me wisely shares a plate) in a unique environment worth checking out, if you can snag a seat.

Even my hands are a bit shaky as I dig into this massive eggs benedict breakfast at Dick's Hideaway

Even my hands are a bit shaky as I dig into this massive eggs benedict breakfast at Dick’s Hideaway

Dick’s Hideaway
6008 North 16 Street, Phoenix
Brunch and lunch daily 7 am-4 pm, dinner 4 pm
Dick's Hideaway on Urbanspoon

I’m not sure if everywhere in Phoenix is like this, but there’s a healthy line at *Lux Central at 8 on a Sunday morning. But they’ve nailed the efficiency thing, taking my Americano order while I’m standing in line. It’s ready, with a little nametag on a saucer, by the time I reach the till. En route, I pass tempting scones and mixed-berry corn muffins, but the most spectacular dish is a puffy, fruit-laden Dutch pancake (only $6) that’s made to order. Lux is a cool place to people watch from a retro couch or a table lined with old-fashioned typewriters.

Lux Central is a cool place to hang out and savour a coffee

Lux Central is a cool place to hang out and savour a coffee

This puffy, fruit-laden Dutch pancake is a stunner at Lux Central

This puffy, fruit-laden Dutch pancake is a stunner at Lux Central

Lux Central
4400 North Central Avenue (near downtown Phoenix)
Sunday to Thursday 6 am-midnight, Friday-Saturday 6 am-2 am
Lux Central on Urbanspoon

I seem to have hit a Phoenix daily double: a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives-featured place with no crowds. Indeed on a late Sunday morning, Los Taquitos Mexican Grill, a cheery but unassuming place in a Phoenix strip mall, is mostly vacant. It’s certainly not like this on Taco Tuesdays, when folks are lining up for $1 meat tacos. But the asada, pastor and pollo tacos are still a bargain at the regular a la carte price of $1.49, as is my excellent fish version ($1.99), featuring tender chunks of flesh topped by onions, cilantro and salsa in a double-tortilla envelope. What seals the deal is the server handing me a squeeze bottle of tomatillo-jalapeno sauce so fresh it’s still warm. I have room for a nice ceviche tostada—a crisp tortilla covered in shrimp marinated in lime juice and mixed with pico de gallo.

A fine shrimp ceviche tostada at Los Taquitos Mexican Grill

A fine shrimp ceviche tostada at Los Taquitos Mexican Grill

Los Taquitos Mexican Grill
7000 North 16 Street, Phoenix (also 4747 East Elliot Road)
Monday to Saturday 9 am-9 pm, Sunday 9 am-8 pm
Los Taquitos Grill on Urbanspoon

Hankering for a torta the size of a tortoise? Look no further than Los Reyes de la Torta, where the Latino locals head en masse for a fix of the big Mexican sandwiches, along with oversized quesadillas and sopes (layered masa disks). If you can’t decide which of 20 tortas to order, go with the monster Del Rey ($9.50): The meats alone include ham, pork sirloin, breaded beef, chorizo and hot dogs, along with some veggies for balance. My Mexican torta ($8) is a more restrained meal-and-a-half, featuring grilled steak and onions, refried beans and avocado. While manfully tackling this, I watch families converse in Spanish, tuck into their meals with gusto and sip from big goblets of agua frescas festooned with little umbrellas.

A hearty steak torta at Los Reyes de la Torta

A hearty steak torta at Los Reyes de la Torta

Los Reyes de la Torta
9230 North 7 Street, Phoenix (also another Phoenix and a Tempe location)
Monday to Thursday 10 am-9 pm, Friday 10 am-10 pm, weekends 9 am-10 pm
Los Taquitos Grill on Urbanspoon

How can a penny-pinching road tripper occasionally enjoy higher-end fare without blowing the budget? Why, by taking advantage of happy hours, which many fancier places offer to lure early-bird customers. Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar is no exception, knocking a dollar or two off many drinks and a number of menu items from 3-6 pm an unusual seven days a week. After getting, say, a discount margarita or Pinot gris, be sure to order a big bowl of excellent, chunky guacamole. The accompanying first-class, salty chips start out as house-made tortillas turned into tortilla chips. I would have been happy just filling up on this $5 treat. The grilled, wild shrimp tacos are also superior, emboldened by the hot sauce that’s, you guessed it, made in house. I should have stopped there, only $11 poorer for a pint and a couple of fine appies. But I then add a cortada salad, not noticing in the menu description the words “corn chips” and “crunchy” dried peas, which threaten my molars. Gallo Blanco is part of the charming, boutique Clarendon Hotel, which features a cool pool, framed on one end by a wall of water.

Fabulous guacamole and chips at Gallo Blance Cafe & Bar

Fabulous guacamole and chips at Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar

Be sure to check out the funky pool at the Clarendon Hotel, beside the Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar

Be sure to check out the funky pool at the Clarendon Hotel, beside the Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar

Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar
401 West Clarendon Avenue, Phoenix
Sunday to Thursday 7:30 am-10 pm, Friday-Saturday 7:30 am-11 pm
Gallo Blanco Cafe on Urbanspoon

As I mentioned in an earlier post, *D’Lish Drive-Thru (“Healthy on the go”) is a fantastic place for breakfast. It’s well worth going inside to watch the friendliest, liveliest crew of guys in action. While I’m eating an excellent breakfast AZ Burro—featuring smoked turkey, avocado, egg whites and a hash patty—Josh comes over with a complementary cup of Breakfast Buzz: an invigorating iced mix of protein powder, espresso, peanut butter, banana and chocolate. Sounds strange, but it’s delicious. Why don’t more cafes concoct creative drinks like this? Another innovative breakfast item is an organic quinoa porridge with vanilla macaroon granola, fruit and steamed milk. Apparently, it’s popular with Arizona Cardinal football players, who double up with a burro or maybe a California Club on toasted artisan bread.

A lively crew greets you at the fabulous D'Lish Drive-Thru in Scottsdale

A lively crew greets you at the fabulous D’Lish Drive-Thru in Scottsdale

This excellent AZ Burro is one of many creative, healthy breakfast choices at D'Lish Drive-Thru

This excellent AZ Burro is one of many creative, healthy breakfast choices at D’Lish Drive-Thru

D’lish Drive Thru
2613 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale (also a Tempe location)
Weekdays 6 am-4 pm, weekends 7 am-4 pm
D'Lish Drive Thru on Urbanspoon

The folks at D’Lish tell me to get a Philly cheesesteak sandwich at nearby DeFalco’s Italian Deli. “It’s the best in The Valley,” one server says. But it’s an Italian deli, and I’m feeling like meatballs, which are house made, as is the tomato sauce. Squeezed inside a soft roll, the meatballs are indeed large, fall-apart tender and nicely seasoned. A guy at the next table takes delivery of an overflowing Philly cheesesteak. Mmmm. I’m sure either choice would be the right one.

House-made meatballs and tomato sauce inside a soft roll at DeFalco's Italian Deli in Scottsdale

House-made meatballs and tomato sauce inside a soft roll at DeFalco’s Italian Deli in Scottsdale

DeFalco’s Italian Deli
2334 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
Monday to Saturday 10 am-9 pm, Sunday 11 am-9 pm
Defalco's Italian Deli and Grocery on Urbanspoon

The hostess at *The Parlor Pizzeria guides me to her favourite seats, at the counter overlooking the wood-fired oven, naturally. The hair-cutting chairs are reminders of the previous tenant, a beauty salon. “Can I get a cut while I’m waiting?” I ask. “If we’ve got time,” she quips. After some five minutes in a 460 F. oven, my eight-inch Forager pizza ($10 for a generous six slices) emerges with a lovely, bubbly char on the thin crust. The topping is a compelling, rich mix of wild boar meatball, rabbit sausage and finocchiona (boy, these Italian salamis play havoc with spell check). Add some radicchio, thinly sliced fennel and rosemary and I’ve got a first-rate pie, chased with a little French press pot of java. As for the trim, I need an inch taken off… my belly.

Boar meatballs and rabbit sausage highlight this great thin-crust pie at The Parlor Pizzeria

Boar meatballs and rabbit sausage highlight this great thin-crust pie at The Parlor Pizzeria

The Parlor Pizzeria
1916 East Camelback Road, Phoenix
Monday to Thursday 11 am-10 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-11 pm. Closed Sunday
The Parlor Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

When you get right down to it, the bedrock of Mexican cuisine is the lowly tortilla. It’s used to wrap burritos, embrace enchiladas and precariously hold together tacos. When deep fried, it becomes tortilla chips and the base for sopes, tostadas and flautas. But wanting to taste a tortilla unsullied by other flavours, I head to a Phoenix institution, Carolina’s Mexican Food, where they steadily churn out fresh tortillas. I order a single tortilla, with only a pool of melted butter added. It comes out warm, incredibly fresh, chewy… and large enough to wrap me as a shroud. All this for $1.25. The next time, I’ll try something fancier like a chimichanga. But this is about celebrating the tortilla in all its naked glory.

This massive, fresh-made tortilla set me back all of $1.25 at Carolina's Mexican Food

This massive, fresh-made tortilla set me back all of $1.25 at Carolina’s Mexican Food

Carolina’s Mexican Food
1202 East Mohave Street (and one other Phoenix location)
Weekdays 7 am-7:30 pm, Saturday 7 am-6 pm. Closed Sunday
Carolina's Mexican Food on Urbanspoon

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Best Burgers in the Mountain West

Big, beefy burger with an onion ring cap at Burger Dive in Billings, Montana

Big, beefy burger with an onion ring cap at Burger Dive in Billings, Montana

Americans are pinkos? When it comes to ordering burgers medium rare at a lot of places, yes. Heck, some burger joints recommend it.

Meanwhile, in Canada, many restaurants are so afraid of incurring the wrath of health inspectors, they cook their patties to a shoe-leather well done.

Thus, regardless of where you come down on the health issue, American places that offer a choice of how you want your six-ounce patty cooked have an automatic hind leg up in my list of top burgers in the mountain west. That’s because a medium-rare or medium burger, like a steak, simply has more flavour and juiciness than dead cow cooked brown all the way through.

Other criteria that move burgers up my list are:

  • Fresh-ground, locally sourced meat from the tastiest parts of the critter
  • Hand-formed patties. Uniform-shaped pucks are evidence, in my mind, of frozen, imported patties of unknown origin. Indeed, they may be an assemblage of many animal parts and fillers
  • Good, fresh buns. An overlooked detail in many places, a good bun shouldn’t disintegrate and should add some flavour and texture to the mix
  • Interesting toppings certainly help, but a really good burger shouldn’t need too much stuff disguising the main attraction: the meat.

Without further ado, here are my highly subjective picks of best red-meat burgers from my travels through the mountain west of the U.S. and Canada. As always, a * indicates a standout.

*Diablo Burger can be a bit hard to find: It’s down an alley or out the back of a mall in downtown Flagstaff, Arizona. Kind of like rounding up stray cows. Which is somewhat appropriate, given all its natural meat comes from local, open-range ranches. My search for this hole-in-the-wall, unadorned place is rewarded with arguably the finest burger I’ve had a recent road trip, and I’ve had some damn good ones. Because the beef is 95 per cent lean, Diablo’s recommends a medium-rare burger. And the six-ounce patty indeed comes out pink in the middle and incredibly moist and flavourful. I choose the Blake burger ($11.75), featuring Hatch chile mayo, roasted green chiles and sharp cheddar. It’s all squeezed inside an excellent, locally made English muffin with a nice touch: DB branded on top. The toppings are aptly subtle and the lettuce and slice of red tomato are on the side, for me to add if so desired. But when the meat is this good, I don’t want distractions, though I do scarf down the hand-cut Belgian fries lying beneath this burger king.

At Diablo Burger, it's not just the cattle that are branded

At Diablo Burger, it’s not just the cattle that are branded

Diablo Burger
120 North Leroux Street, Flagstaff, Arizona (also a Tucson location)
Monday-Wednesday 11 am-9 pm, Thursday-Saturday 11 am-10 pm. Closed Sunday
Diablo Burger on Urbanspoon

Note: Bobcat Bite is relocating to 311 Old Santa Fe Trail in late summer 2013, under the name Santa Fe Bite.

Nearly ducking my head to get through the door of *Bobcat Bite, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I momentarily think I’ve entered a homesteader’s cabin (albeit with a pink adobe exterior and pictures of bobcats lining the walls). That’s because the low, dark wood beams are barely higher than the lanky cook’s head, and there’s scarcely room for half a dozen, tightly spaced tables and about the same number of counter seats; I’m asked to move over to make room for a couple of new arrivals. So the character of the place already has me excited. But really, I’m here for my baptismal GCCB (green chile cheeseburger for the non-cognoscenti), a legendary New Mexico concoction, and Bobcat’s version supposedly tops the list. You know it’s authentic when they ask how you want that 10-ounce, freshly ground chuck patty cooked. I go for the recommended medium rare, with no fries to sully the experience. And boy, does it deliver—two inches of one of the most succulent burgers I’ve ever tasted, with the melted chile-cheese topping adding some pleasant but not obtrusive heat. Bobcat’s GCCB is worth every bite for only $9; I don’t even touch the accompanying potato chips.

Good luck getting your mouth around this green chile cheeseburger at Bobcat Bite

Good luck getting your mouth around this 10-ounce green chile cheeseburger at Bobcat Bite

Bobcat Bite
420 Old Las Vegas Highway, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Wednesday to Saturday 11 am-8 pm, Sunday 11 am-5 pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday
Bobcat Bite Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Joe’s Farm Grill, a happening place in upscale Gilbert, outside of Phoenix, produces its own tomatoes and lettuce that go on its local, natural and fresh-ground chuck burgers. Despite the line, an efficient crew soon produces my Fontina burger ($9.50), loaded with roasted red peppers, mushrooms, pecan pesto and melted cheese. It takes a minute to get through the greenery and into the moist, perfectly cooked patty. The burger is wonderfully complemented with an order of rosemary-dill, panko-crumb onion rings, the crispness of the fried batter nicely offsetting the soft, slippery onion inside. What puts things over the top is sitting on the patio on a spring evening—alongside mostly young families at picnic tables—looking out at the farm and a magnificent tamarisk, its giant branches paralleling the ground before reaching skyward.

Joe’s Farm Grill
3000 East Ray Road, Gilbert, Arizona
Daily breakfast 8 am-11 am, lunch and dinner 11 am-9 pm
Joe's Farm Grill on Urbanspoon

At Joe's Farm Grill, most of the fixings are right off the farm.

At Joe’s Farm Grill, most of the fixings are right off the farm.

I’ve covered this in a previous post, but *Bingo Burger, in Pueblo, Colorado certainly produced the best lamb burger I’ve ever tasted. All burgers and fries are cooked to order, and from a counter seat I can watch my thick, hand-formed patty grilled and then finished under a lid. Next come the twice-cooked fries—from San Luis Valley potatoes—tossed with a little salt. My God, these are easily the best fries on the trip, good enough I don’t want to sully them with the roasted garlic dipping sauce. The Goat Hill burger ($9.75, Colorado-raised lamb with goat cheese, mushrooms and a lemon-rosemary aioli) is right up there with it, cooked slightly pink as requested and requiring a well-hinged mouth to bite into.

Succulence of the lamb at Bingo Burger

Succulence of the lamb at Bingo Burger

Bingo Burger
101 Central Plaza, Pueblo, Colorado
Monday to Thursday 11 am-8 pm, Friday and Saturday 11 am-9 pm. Closed Sunday
Joe's Farm Grill on Urbanspoon

Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery, in Boulder, Colorado boasts a lineup of 12 third-of-a-pound burgers, the Colorado-raised beef cooked to medium. The signature burger is called Date Night, an unusual medley of roasted poblano peppers, smoked bacon, melted goat cheese and, wait for it, date puree. The combination works surprisingly well, with the sweetness of the dates proving a counterpoint to the poblanos’ pungency. The obligatory accompaniment is a generous serving of hot fries that, the menu promises, will be redone if they’re not perfect.

A "date" with a fine burger at Mountain Sun Pub

A “date” with a fine burger at Mountain Sun Pub

Mountain Sun Pub
1535 Pearl Street, Boulder Colorado (a second location at 627 South Broadway)
Daily 11 am-1 am. Cash only
Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery on Urbanspoon

*Charcut Roast House, in my hometown of Calgary, Alberta, breaks most of my road-trip food rules. It’s in downtown Calgary, which means parking and a vacant table are hard to find at lunch. It’s fairly expensive and its signature burger is made of…. pork? Just ignore all this, and go eat at one of the city’s deservedly hottest restaurants. Here’s a tip: Get there before noon and ask for a seat at the counter, where you’ll get a ringside seat of a first-class team of chefs in action.

A friend and I both order the house-ground burger, a massive nine ounces of a unique blend of sausage and beef (70-30%), accompanied by a pile of Parmesan fries and homemade ketchup. Partway through the grill-top cooking, co-owner Connie DeSousa (she finished third in Top Chef Canada; check out the tattoo on her arm), peers over the counter and asks if we’d like an egg and some aioli spread on that burger. After nodding yes, we tuck into these juicy monsters, held together with thick, gooey cheese and a bun that miraculously survives the mauling. Sure, it costs $17, but for one of the better and bigger burgers I’ve had anywhere, it’s still good value. And if we’d paid attention to the name, the Share burger, we could easily have split it.

Charcut Roast House
101, 899 Centre Street SW, Calgary, Alberta
Monday-Tuesday 11 am-11 pm, Wednesday-Friday 11 am-1 am, Saturday 5 pm-1 am, Sunday 5 pm-10 pm
CHARCUT Roast House on Urbanspoon

Honourable Mentions: Sugar Nymphs Bistro, is in the tiny town of Penasco on the scenic High Road between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico. But it’s definitely a destination restaurant, thanks to the reputation of owner and former Greens Restaurant (San Francisco) chef Kai Harper Leah. I only had a delicious bite, but my sister said the green chile cheeseburger was one of the best burgers she’s tasted.
Sugar Nymphs Bistro on Urbanspoon

Sugar Nymphs Bistro, Penasco New Mexico

Lovely green chile cheeseburger at Sugar Nymphs Bistro

It doesn’t get more local than Chuckwagon Cafe, in the heart of cattle country, in the town of Turner Valley, an hour’s drive southwest of Calgary. Owner and chief cook Terry Myhre finishes steers at his nearby ranch and has them processed into various cuts for dense, hand-formed burgers or steak benedict.
Chuckwagon Cafe on Urbanspoon

The burgers are almost straight off the range at Chuckwagon Cafe

The burgers are almost straight off the range at Chuckwagon Cafe

At the The Burger Dive, in Billings, Montana, my Blackened Sabbath is an unusual combination of blackened seasoning, blue cheese, bacon, garlic mayo and the kicker, a thick onion ring that provides a contrasting crunch to the luscious burger.
The Burger Dive on Urbanspoon