31 October 2011

Arizona & Out

As I write this post, I'm sitting on a wall in Tempe, AZ. It's a funky, studenty district of Phoenix, dotted with great little shops, a couple of chains, some fun food places and a marvellous store called Old Town Books who've just sold me a copy of The Playboy Gourmet for $13 after mentally calculating the sales tax and writing the receipt by hand.

I'm also slightly regretting the last burger but it might be some time before I get to enjoy a Five Guys again: this wall in Tempe is pretty much my last 'stop' before I fly back home. In my vague defence, it means I won't have to eat on the plane, I went for the 'Little Burger' option (a single patty), shunned 90% of the bun, didn't order fries and had already undertaken the vow to diet hard during November. The case-building falls apart, however, when you consider in the hour before Five Guys I'd had a great mixed ice cream (caramel, apple and pumpkin and cinnamon ice creams with added Graham Cracker crust and chocolate chips) at Sparky's Old Town Creamery and - sorry colon - the apparently ironically-named 'medium' option at a new chain (well, for me) called, not inappropriately, Fatburger. Both were what you'd expect from a mid-range US burger outlet: freshly prepared, beefy, dense, well-charred and utterly delicious (if a little under-seasoned: thank you very much US salt police).

While I stand by my earlier theory that much of the enjoyment of such a handheld snack is the location and setting - being in America makes me happy, good burgers make me happy, the combination of the two makes me very happy - you can't help but wonder why we don't get this quality of mainstream burgers in the UK. There is the separate issue of local food culture, of course, and I'd also argue my support of that until I'm blue in the face. I'm not one for 'authentic' - I think I've made that clear before - and stand by my flippant response of hoping there's a blogger / writer in Bangkok attempting to hunt down Thailand's best pork pie. That's often greeted with the responses along the lines of 'why would they want to do that when their local food is so good?' to which I can reply with an exasperated 'exactly!'

Er... I digress. I'll expand on this at a later date - or ramble on in a pub about it some time. Again. My 'quest' isn't for 'authentic' though: it's the quest for 'delicious' and a sense of the sheer enjoyment of food.

On this trip, even when things haven't been delicious (a piece of deep fried rattlesnake springs to mind) they've always been enjoyable, thanks to the setting, the weather and, most of all, the impeccable company. I often get a little maudlin on the last day of holiday or one of these trips, as there's a sense of reality creeping back in and that feeling is far more intense with this trip than with most. Last Sunday, we were a bunch of strangers brought together by fate (and the Arizona CVB). This weekend, as we head back to our homes in the UK, Corsica, Montreal and Germany, it's a group of, I hope, genuine, long-term, proper friends saying a heartfelt goodbye.
So, dear general reader, I hope you'll indulge me (and Team Arizona will forgive me for any omissions) as I raise an imaginary glass (and throw in an in-joke or two) to the impeccable company of Peter, Claire, Nadia, Caroline, Marina and the violent Laura: whatever Adele may reckon, however many times a day, I don't think I could ever find someone like you...

And Kara, Marjorie, Jackie, Scott, Jerry and, particularly, the legendary Curt. Massive thanks for your enthusiasm, company, organisational skills and all-round loveliness: I'd whoop a little and high five the lot of you but, as we've established, that's not going to end very impressively...
I regularly say you can slap me if I ever appear to be taking my life and career for granted (and that's a general invitation to anyone out there). If I ever appear to have taken last week for granted, I'd probably deserve to be shot too. Cheers all. You - and Arizona - have been incredible.

28 October 2011

Home On The Range

I have mentioned to many people over the years that, if I ever take what I do for a living for granted, they are allowed / encouraged to slap me. Hard.

They can also refer me back to this post, if they'd prefer a less violent intervention. Mind you, if I ever take a day like yesterday for granted, I should probably slap myself. Harder.

The day ended with a mostly decent dinner in the breathtaking, Frank Lloyd-Wright inspired Arizona Biltmore Hotel. Before that, it involved a couple of hours at MIM, Phoenix's Musical Instrument Museum, which turned out to be one of the most impressive, educational and unifying museum experiences I've had in years. And before that came one of the best mornings I can remember.

I'll long argue that food isn't just about the quality of what's on the plate, but also the context. Breakfast at Tanque Verde outside Tucson had both. In spades.

It began with a horse ride across Arizona's ruggedly beautiful terrain. Yes, they found a horse big enough, no it didn't need a 'spare' after ferrying me up and downhill: seriously, I did most of those jokes myself. There had been speculation that I'd get a huge horse, probably jet black, with a terrifyingly masculine name like Thunder or Braveheart. Well, he wasn't jet black but Ricochet certainly scored on the other counts...

While I was never really in control, I think we came to an understanding and Ricochet tolerated me for an hour as we gently made our way to Tanque Verde's Old Homestead, where exec chef Ben had created the sort of breakfast that defies logic and makes me very happy indeed. Somehow, on a few open ranges, Ben and colleagues had produced chilaquiles, bacon, homemade sausage, New York strips, a hash, beans, biscuits, apple butter, lime-and-raspberry butter, kickass 'Cowboy' coffee, cranberry and pumpkin pancakes and, most remarkably, pumpkin souffles. Actually, his souffle thunder was promptly stolen by the colleague who caramelised buns and crisp doughnuts in a pan of melted sugar over an open campfire...
There's little more to add. Words can't do it justice, the pictures I know don't do it justice. By the time Ricochet brought me back, I was relaxed, content and beaming - and will probably be doing the latter until the end of next week.

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27 October 2011

The Generation Game

When a restaurant has run since 1922, chances are it's doing something right. Tucson's El Charro is the 89-year old in question and, yes, they're doing something right. Hell, if the plates we were served today are indicative of El Charro's whole menu, they're doing everything right.
In preparation for this lunch - Mexican food the closest I've (yet) been to Mexico - I skipped breakfast, instead nursing a coffee on the balcony, while watching hummingbirds flit about oh so prettily in the sun. The appetite was boosted by a gentle walking tour of Tucson, which is a fascinating and rather pretty place. Well, certainly Downtown, which is full of funky old buildings, many of which have been turned into trendy hang outs... Or, in the case of Hotel Congress, remains as ubercool as it's always been.

After a wander, some fine ghostly tales at the Congress and an all-too-short trip to a rock and roll photo exhibition (which, among other things, reminded me how bloody good Bjork's Big Time Sensuality was - and how bizarrely adorable she was in the video(s)) the local history took on an edible theme as we came round the back of El Charro. That way, we could see the cages of beef that they leave drying outside for their signature carne seca.

That, like everything else, was punchily flavoured and 'simple' - but the kind of simplicity that implies (and undoubtedly involves) painstaking levels of preparation. Tortilla chips were crisp, light and a perfect vehicle for the sassy, boldly garlic-heavy, downright gorgeous, drinkable-by-the-pint salsa. Guacamole was unadulterated save for, I believe, coriander and lime, which let the avocados sing. Cheese crisp - essentially a huge crisp tortilla base covered in cheese and grilled - was as crazily good as the description sounds.

And then it got better. Tortilla soup rivalled Dean Fearing's more complex version from last year (a Feb post - as useful as this e mail blogging is, I can't do links). Chicken mole was silky, warming and rich, the chocolate evident but not overpowering... This tasted like a mole with history. Rice and beans satisfied in their unflashy, but perfectly cooked / deeply flavoured way (which no doubt means years of practice and a grasp of spices and seasoning most of us can nly dream of). Underneath those sat a tasty little corn fritter with the texture of a good Thai fish cake and admirably lacking in greasiness. And then there was the carne, the dried meat falling apart in deeply flavoured, spicy strands that defied all logic. Well, all my western, English logic anyway.

As we attempted to squeeze in rich, sweet mouthfuls of pumpkin and pecan tamales, the current owner told us charming, very affectionate tales of her great aunt Monica Flin who founded the restaurant, beat the Great Depression, neatly avoided Prohibition (the old booze in a teapot trick), spoiled 28 god children and vast numbers of nephews and nieces and just enjoyed life to the full. I'll raise a glass - salt-rimmed, of course - to that.
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25 October 2011

A Good Heat

Today has been a day for American classics and spice. In the case of breakfast and a fine, messy, almost shirt-staining Huevos Rancheros at the hotel, it was both.

You have to like a kitchen that offers two 'grades' of HR: green or red. Green is the mild, red 'has some spice to it' warned the waitress. She wasn't kidding. Some places virtually apologise in advance for chilli heat but then ignore a dish's heritage and turn it into something indifferent and polite. Not the case here. Eggs were rich, bright yellow and gleefully runny, the tortilla crisp and light and, one assumes, freshly made, while the sauce and meat packed the sort of punch that'll wake you up more then a double ristretto in a cold shower..

To be fair, we probably shouldn't have been hungry after five mostly impressive courses at Icha Maajoh last night. The stand out was the alleged main, a loin of young venison, served with matchsticks of colourful winter vegetables and on a 'salad' (my word, not theirs) of Brussels sprout leaves. I'd had venison and sprout leaves in Houston last year and it's a very good combination. This was better for two reasons. The first was pancetta, the crispy / chewy saltiness always a great foil for sprouts. The second? Hands up who said chestnuts? Wrong although, to be fair, that would have worked. Intriguingly - and doctor-worryingly - Chef Adams had thrown some nuggets of exquisitely cooked lobster into the mix. It may not have done much for my cholestrol but my tastebuds did a little bit of a Snoopy dance.

Happily - and necessarily - the morning then involved a gentle hike around the Highlands Center, a wander around the Phippen Museum (an excellent collection of cowboy artists, including some stunning bronzes) and another, brisker hike around some spectacular scenery. And then we undid all the good with a classic diner lunch at Prescott's charming Lone Spur Cafe, the sort of local eaterie you've seen in a thousand movies. Big salads, onion rings, soup (chipotle chicken), pastrami sandwiches and burgers filled the table. For me though, I resisted the lure or the French Dip (even with memories of Meateasy's version ringing in my mind) and snarfed a grand, messy, oozing Tuna Melt. It needed a little livening up but that was easy as Lone Spur is the kind of place to offer Tabasco, Chipotle Tabasco and Cholula sauces on the table. For that alone I'd applaud them, let alone for the excellent cheery service, the calorific delights of the huge portions, the regular soft drink top-ups and the cowboy-themed surroundings. Quite literally a fine bunch of chaps... 

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24 October 2011

AZ Shade of Winter

'It's perfect here.' If I had a dollar for everytime a resident of Arizona had told me that - or words to that effect - in the last 24 hours, I'd have... Well, three dollars. But you can see the appeal.

I'm currently in Prescott - pronounced Pres-kit by the locals and like the rotund nonsense-spouting Labour man by visitors and newcomers - and it's a charming little spot. The average age is, apparently, over 50 as the climate - nicely warm all year round, bugger all rain, pleasant levels of humidity - make it highly appealing. It is, perhaps, a little twee; on first walk through, it appears easier to buy a souvenir desk sign, a cowboy hat or some funky popcorn than it does groceries or a pair of jeans. But hey, while I wouldn't want to live there (but ask me again in, er, seven years) it's a perfectly lovely spot to while away a few days. Local pride is obvious, the pace of life is instantly relaxing and while I'm still not convinced by caramel-covered cheese popcorn, they know how to mince a decent bit of Aberdeen Angus and smother it in cheese and spicy stuff. And that, my friends, is the definition of civilised.

The photos are from lunch at The Palace, which is like stepping into a Western - down to the good time girl (a dummy, happily) overlooking the dark woods, guns and cowboy memorabilia. And in that sort of scenario, what else can you do but sip on a sasparilla (still not sure, but sort of root-beery), sprinkle on their own brand of hot sauce and consume a large chunk of cow in a bun?

Whether it was the best preparation for an hour of canoeing around a spectacularly beautiful lake is debatable (the 'almost impossible to capsize' declaration made by Dave, our kayaking expert, got a thorough test, that's for sure) but it was a fine, non-sinky sort of afternoon. It probably doesn't justify dinner either but hey, when has that ever stopped me?

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23 October 2011


So, apparently, Blogspot will allow me to post directly by e mail? Well, let's see if it's true.

After several years of hearing how marvellous In N Out Burgers are, last night in Tempe Arizona I got to experience it firsthand. I'd been cynical that much of the enjoyment of what is a pretty basic burger comes from being on the West Coast of America while eating one: In N Out's spread over the last 60+ years has been slightly geographically limited.

I still stand by that a little but, unlike that two Euro bottle of wine that tasted wonderful on your balcony in Greece last summer and like vinegar when you tried to recapture the feeling in the Home Counties, the In N Out burger IS a thing of simple, messy, salty, fatty joy. Fries were not my cup of tea but hey, that just means I'll shun them next time and swap in another Double Double. I'd call that Win Win.