Notes from Phoenix

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Phoenix oystersOysters in the desert get a Southwestern kick with jalapeno sauce.

PHOENIX -- I came here to watch the UCF Knights play in the Fiesta Bowl, but I took the advantage of a few extra days here to check out what is going on with restaurants in the Valley of the Sun.

The hot chef here currently is Kevin Binkley, who was a 2013 James Beard Award nominee. He has also cooked at the estimable Inn at Little Washington and the French Laundry. Binkley has a restaurant in the northern part of the valley called Binkley’s, a fine dining destination in Cave Creek. But he’s been opening more casual places that are more approachable, both in terms of price and location. I stopped in on my first night at Bink’s Midtown, on Osbourne Road near 24th Street in Phoenix. 

Bink’s is a small, brightly lit restaurant with tables covered with white cloths and topped with butcher paper. Napkins are kitchen style tea towels (in fact, the majority of restaurants I visited over the past few days used these towels as napkins; that’s not a new thing, and we see them in Central Florida, but it was prevalent). The ambience isn’t anything special; I wondered if a designer had even been consulted. People obviously come here for the quality of the food.

The menu has such classic fare as foie gras and marrow bones but also more creative -- and localized -- items as pork pupusas and posole.

The posole was a hit. It’s a soup with hominy in a richly dark beefy broth with wonderful hunks of pork plus cabbage and radish, seasoned with cilantro and a squeeze of lime. Why doesn’t anyone do posole in Orlando? (And if anyone does, please tell me.)

For my entree I had the pork belly with bok choy and shiitake mushrooms with pickled red pepper relish. It was wonderfully fatty and flavorful.

Phoenix duckDelicious duck at Bink's Midtown.

Rick had the five-spice duck breast, which was distinctive because the medallions were thick coins rather than thinly sliced breast.

The only thing that didn’t satisfy was the sweet onion tart, which was topped with creamy ricotta and dotted with sun-dried tomatoes. It was fairly bland (ricotta isn’t very flavorful on its own), but was improved with just a simple sprinkling of salt (which I had to request, probably raising an eyebrow in the kitchen).

Service was superb, as it was at just about every restaurant I dined in over the last few days. Central Florida could take some cues from the standard of service that seems par for Phoenix eateries.

Here’s a good example: When I approached the door of a restaurant with the unfortunate name The Arrogant Butcher, the hostess, having seen me through the glass door, stepped forward to open it for me. How much nicer than standing behind the counter and waiting for the guests to walk up to her.

It turned out that Arrogant Butcher was one of the brands from a big Phoenix culinary group called Fox Restaurant Concepts. The company has 14 or so brands, most of the one-offs. All are casual, fairly sizey and distinguished by fun decor and excellent service, all the way from that door-opening hostess to the bartenders to the managers. The food was good, though nothing I would call stellar. However, I would be a frequent visitor to any of the restaurants I visited, and I would be more willing to try one of the others in the group just on the reputation.

At the Arrogant Butcher I had a short rib beef stew that was served topped with a fried egg. Certainly the yolk added to the creamy texture of the stew, and there was an OK showing of meat, though I wouldn’t call it chockfull. The jambalaya was done in the traditional manner and had chicken, sausage and shrimp and lots of peppery heat. Despite the name, this Butcher also specialized in a seafood bar, and the fresh (very fresh) oysters were perfectly shucked and served with three sauce choices, including a Southwestern jalapeno version.

Phoenix burgerThe burger gets a passing grade at Culinary Dropout.

Phoenix dropoutCulinary Dropout, one of the oddly named restaurants from Fox Restaurant Concepts.Another of the restaurants is called Culinary Dropout. OK, so the company isn’t great at names. The style here is grunge, but only in the wear-whatever-you-want policy of the young staff (which, when the restaurant is busy, can make it difficult to determine staff from guests). I had a terrific burger while I watched the cooks in the open kitchen do their prep work. The patty was thick and cooked perfectly. The bun was noteworthy, and so were the thick rashers of bacon that topped the meat.

Rick had the brats, served with mashed potatoes and just a bit of sauerkraut. The brats, made in house, were good but could have been better with some spicy mustard, preferably also house made, as well.

The third stop was at Blanco Tacos + Tequila, a more sanely named restaurant with insanely good tacos. I had the carnitas, which were mini but substantial enough. The corn tortillas were topped with pork and lots of chopped white onion and cilantro, which gave them a bright, fresh flavor. Phoenix tacosCarnitas tacos from Blanco Tacos + TequilaThey were served with charro beans (you could choose black beans, too, but black beans I can get back home) and rice with corn and herbs blended in, a nice alternate to the Spanish rice most restaurants with this type of food would serve.

Chips and salsa were also served, and it was no surprise that the chips were fresh and warm and the salsa, a darker red, less lumpy version, had a pleasant spicy note that didn’t overwhelm. I’d forgotten how good salsa is in Phoenix restaurant.

And I say that I had forgotten I mean that I used to live in Phoenix, a long, long time ago.

Back then, in the ‘80s, there was a popular sandwich spot called Duck and Decanter in an open-air mall on Camelback Road. It had a limited menu of sandwiches, but people would go out of their way to go there because the food was high quality and so was the service. I was delighted to see a Duck and Decanter near my hotel (there are now three locations in the valley) and I had to stop in for a sandwich. Same good food and good service. In fact, a couple of members of the family that own the sandwich shops were there, working. 

Working and demonstrating what it takes to make a restaurant successful: participation. I saw it, too, at some of the other restaurants. At Arrogant Butcher, the manager was in the fray on New Year’s Eve. He obviously wasn’t concerned that he might be confused for a server or a table buser.

In fact, it was the service -- the hospitality -- that left the overall impression with me. It left me thinking that Orlando, with our dominance in the service industry, should be standard bearer in the hospitality industry, and we’re not.

So let’s change that. I challenge Central Florida’s restaurants to raise the level of quality of service to be better than anyone else’s. And I challenge the dining public to demand it, to expect it. Let’s get to the level of excellence that will have people who visit from around the world -- even Phoenix -- commenting about Orlando Hospitality.

Note: For more information on all of the restaurants mentioned here, click on the links provided in the story.

And by the way, for the plane ride home, I popped in to a place called Tom’s Tavern and ordered a Cuban sandwich to go. Mid flight, when I took my first bite, I discovered that while Phoenix certainly does Southwestern and Mexican foods well, it may not have a clue about good Cuban food. We’ve got that one covered.

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