A Day Out in the Desert, Phoenix AZ

…after a long drive spanning over the course of a week I arrived in Phoenix on July 4, 2012 and with my mother having made the trip with me we did a bit more dining in the valley of the sun before she flew home; I then spent the next thirty-seven days eating nothing but the things I prepared in my apartment kitchen while dealing with everything from a new job and board preparation to moving company snafus and surveying the land for a new ‘permanent’ home. Now, to those who know me the concept of me going months (even a year back in the mid-2000s) without dining out is not uncommon, but all things being equal this time it was not really by choice but more so due to lack of time and on August 11th I decided to set aside a day to get out and dine…even if studying and housing issues did manage to find their way into the agenda.

Beginning the day as I do most, with a morning run well before the sun is up, the first stop on this 6-stop tour would be downtown – a place I’ve now discovered to be devoid of most signs of human life on a Saturday…except for a small parcel of land at 801 North 1st Street entitled “Matt’s Big Breakfast” where a line of thirty or so was already waiting for the approximately 20 seats inside. Having heard of the nearly decade old establishment owned and operated by Matt Pool during my first visit to Phoenix but unable to make it downtown before ten on any day during that trip (when lines reportedly top two hours despite triple digit temperatures) I have to admit that I really had not anticipated the line to be so long at 6:55am and for a moment I contemplated heading elsewhere, but with my books in hand and nothing better to do my curiosity won out and I added my name to the paper list and took a seat in the rapidly dissipating shade.

Sitting and reading while a pair of ASU students talked about having seen Matt’s on (presumably a repeat) of Diners, Dives, and Drive-Ins the previous night I tried to ignore them (and Guy Fiere’s existence in general) while a few people trickled out of the restaurant and with my name at least ten parties down on the list I was surprised when it was called – the solo diner benefit, it seems, landing me an end seat on the counter only fifteen minutes after I arrived and given the expedient service at Matt’s a fortuitous happening that had me leaving the restaurant before the aforementioned students had even entered the doors.

Seated at the counter with a menu I’d already memorized in hand and a daily special that held little interest I perused the interior – small, stark, but efficient and exceptionally clean – before my server filled my water glass, offered me coffee, and fielded a pair of questions prior to taking my order and handing it over to the kitchen less than five feet away. With the space tight and my location literally on the verge of the kitchen and the pass it would not be long before my coffee was filled – a single pour that I subsequently sent back due to a combination of thin mouth-feel, acrid flavor, and no artificial sweetener – and even less time before my stool would be bumped into for the first of thirty times…to say the least this is not a place I’d choose to linger.

Seated and watching the action of the kitchen as plate after plate came through the window and regular after regular chatted with Matt’s wife at the cash register it would not be long before my order would arrive and with the restaurant’s strong dedication to local/organic/fresh sourcing the items that were presented quickly made me realize why so many people deal with long waits and less-than-comfortable seating to experience Matt’s Big Breakfast – the food is really quite excellent, beginning first with a perfect hotcake served with pure maple syrup and far too much (or perhaps just the right amount of) butter for $2.75.

Moving from the dainty golden flapjack to something more substantial, my second dish would actually consist of two plates and four items in the form of “The Chop & Chick” – an $8.95 breakfast comprised of a Pan Seared Iowa Pork Rib Chop with 2 Poached Eggs, Hash Browns, and Whole grain Toast with Blueberry Rhubarb Jam. Apparently their most ‘famous’ dish it is a little difficult to decide which aspect of the plate was the best considering the quality of perfectly poached eggs (something even good restaurants tend to overcook,) crisp yet buttery potatoes and lightly herbed juicy pork chop but in the end I think I would have to give the nod to the toast – hand cut thick, rife with seeds and a rich earthiness, and topped with house made preserves featuring what seemed to be no sugar at all but rather the essence of blueberries with a slight savoriness from the rhubarb…a strong contender for best jam/preserves I’ve ever encountered and reason enough to revisit Matt’s when it moves to its new digs a few doors down (and hopefully decreases wait times and seat bumps…and perhaps finds a coffee roaster whose beans better compliment the quality of the food.)

Leaving Matt’s low on caffeine and realizing Jiffy-Lube and Chase were not yet open to accomplish my afternoon errands I decided to next pay a visit to Jobot Coffee – a place I’d heard both good (music, coffee) and less-than-stellar (patrons, service) things about and pointing my GPS to the address I at first wondered if I’d mistyped; to say the least the area is residential and unassuming, but upon seeing the “Coffee” sign I assumed I was in the right place, parked, and walked in as Sigur Ros Takk played on the outdoor speakers.

Half knowing what to expect from a house-come-coffee shop named the “best place to take a scenester” by the local media I entered the doors of JoBot to the aromatics of coffee and a bar populated by the partially hung-over and half-shaven but surprisingly also to smiling faces and families sitting with their Ipads as the kitchen turned out respectable looking sweet and savory crepes. Not realizing that the space served food in addition to coffee I was greeted by a young lady at the bar who asked if I wanted a menu or if I knew what I’d like I deferred for a moment while I perused the options – eventually settling on an iced Toddy and a pair of pastries made in-house that morning – a $10 tab including a $1 tip.

With the space almost intentionally run-down looking and tables, benches, and chairs strewn throughout three rooms I found bench and 2 tables near the back where a defunct piano sat alongside a family of four and after getting out my books took my first sip of the Toddy – a rich blend from Cartel with a bit of stone-fruit up front and deep chocolate notes on the finish before moving on to my pastries – a $2.50 Strawberry “DohNut” and a $4.00 slice of Dr. Pepper Cake. Beginning first with the donut – a small ring that was possibly baked rather than fried given the total lack of grease, rich cake-like texture, and pockets of berries plus an ample coat of not-too-sweet strawberry glaze I have to say the it was more ‘muffin’ than donut, but all in all it was still quite good. Moving next to the cake – dense, fudgy, and just bitter enough between the cocoa and the nuts to balance the saccharine sweetness of the soda it has been a long long time since I ordered something as simple as “chocolate cake” and while there is no doubt I could have made something like this at home it was a really nice reminder of how good ‘comfort food’ can sometimes be – particularly with really good coffee in a relaxed setting.

With a few hours past and a few tasks accomplished the next stop of my day would be at Pane Bianco – the sandwich shop from the Valley’s most celebrated Chef, Chris Bianco. Having made my pilgrimage to the eponymous pizzeria during my first trip to Phoenix, Pane had been on my radar since the day I moved to town but given the lunch-only hours and my office location in North Scottsdale I knew a weekend would be best and as luck would have it a new website (http://www.pizzeriabianco.com/) and seven day 11a-3p schedule had been rolled out just the week prior.

Arriving at the surprisingly large space (especially when compared to Matt’s and JoBot from earlier that day – and compared to Pizzeria Bianco as well) shortly after 11:30 and allocating parking in the free lot juxtaposing the Light Rail I debated for a moment whether dine-in or to-go was best and opting for the former made my way into the restaurant where two couples already sat. Greeted by one of two servers it was suggested I could take “any seat I wanted” and opting for a bench in the center of the room where a menu awaited I sat down to browse the menu as well as the daily specials listed on the chalkboard – almost all sounding appealing, but a bit different than the Saturday special listed on the website. With a small list of beverages available I was asked soon if I was ready to order or if I needed a few minutes I deferred and requested a glass of water that would never reach even half-empty despite me drinking from it consistently and the restaurant soon filling to capacity.

Having debated the specials but eventually undeterred from the reason I’d come in the first place I soon placed my order for a sandwich and an ‘appetizer’ which I was told would be ‘just a few minutes’ and as while I waited I checked out the small market at the Take Away section featuring the famous focaccia, cans of tomatoes, dried pasta, and apparel before returning to my seat where my items would arrive shortly – the first a Manchego and Tomato Sauce Focaccia del Giorno featuring Bianco’s delectable wood fired focaccia in all of its spongy glory topped with sweet, ripe tomatoes and an ample layer of briny Manchego; at $4.50 probably the most expensive “Grandma Slice” I’ve ever had yet at the same time also probably the best…or at least on par with that at DiFara in Brooklyn for best of its genre.

Moving next to the original target of my desire, a sandwich of Bianco’s House Made Mozzarella, Tomatoes, and Basil on Wood Fired Focaccia my first thought was “wow – that is a lot of cheese” while my second, after a bite, was “wow – that is a lot of flavor.” Perhaps as pure of a sandwich as you can find and the result of exquisite ingredients on top quality bread there is really nothing ‘special’ about the composition of this sandwich aside from the fact that it simply works – a largely unmanipulated masterpiece only improved by a touch of sea salt and cracked black pepper.

Largely unaware on entering that Pane serves dessert it was with much delight that I realized soon after sitting down that three options were available that day and while the flourless chocolate cake I saw emerge from the kitchen to the table next to me looked quite nice there was simply no way I was passing up the Organic Vanilla Bean Rice Pudding with Candied Pecans – another simplistic stunner with creamy Arborio rice imbued with a rich vanilla custard flicked with whole vanilla beans and a few pecans for crunch. Delicate and smooth, flavorful without being overly sweet, and *almost* thick enough to stand a spoon up straight it was not quite the best rice pudding I’ve ever had – but a top five contender without a shadow of a doubt – a reason in and of itself to return to Pane Bianco…though to be fair, if I returned it would take pretty spectacular daily specials to prevent me from ordering the exact same trio of items once again. With Chris and his team now two for two it is only a matter of time before I make my way to Italian Restaurant… and honestly, that time is likely measured in hours and days as opposed to weeks and months.

Previously unaware that Pane Bianco served dessert I’d already made plans for dessert after lunch and given its close proximity plus my sister’s mantra that there is always room for ice cream (because it simply “fills in the cracks”) I did not let the delectable rice pudding from moments before deter me from driving up the street to Churn. A small space situated next to apparent brunch favorite “The Windsor” I admittedly drove right past the small shop at first due to the lack of signage but catching my mistake quickly I took a right and then found myself at the complimentary valet who assured me he could either park my car – or that I could take one of the fifteen minute spots in front of Churn, a much more logical option.

Disembarking from the car and making my way past a family through the doors it was no more than 5 seconds after I entered the door that I was greeted by a friendly woman and with kitsch and candy dominating the space outside the case I was offered a taste of “any and all” that eventually turned into a taste of Vietnamese Coffee, Toasted Coconut, Butter Pecan, Double Chocolate, and Peaches and Honey Ice creams as well as a Peanut Butter Bar. With the textures very creamy, almost like gelato, and fresh flavors focused on subtlety without being excessively sweet – particularly the peaches and honey as well as the toasted coconut – I will admit that making a decision of two flavors in a cup/cone vs. a cookie sandwich was tough but in the end I just couldn’t pass up a fresh baked Snicker Doodle and Chocolate Chip cookie wrapped around Butter Pecan.

Beginning first with the ice cream, I will admit that overall I probably enjoyed the flavor (and novelty) of the peaches and honey a bit more than the butter pecan, but when taking into account what would work best with the baked goods the subtle toasty notes of the butter pecan won me over along with the texture – like thickened almond butter without chunks or whole pecans at all. Moving next to the cookies, I would have probably deferred had it not been for the Snickerdoodle but rife with cinnamon and butter I simply couldn’t pass up my favorite childhood baked good while the chocolate chip was also good, but certainly not better than those made by my aunt or many other bakeries. A nice space with great service I’d certainly go back, though in the future I’d go with more stomach space to try one of the designer sundaes…plus a few more cookies served up warm as opposed to cooled by ice cream.

Forced back to Scottsdale by my realtor and the never ending list of documents necessary to purchase a home (yes, even on a Saturday) I had been debating when to use the Local Dines gift certificate I’d picked up for Praying Monk and without dinner plans for another four hours I figured Saturday would be as good a day as any – particularly as I’d recently heard about the top notch soundtrack described on Chow Bella. Not a drinker by any stretch but happy to explore the menu a bit while reading and listening to great tunes I arrived at the space just prior to 2pm and much to my surprise found the restaurant nearly empty – a mother and daughter finishing their burgers as I took a seat near the window.

Heavy on wood – both reclaimed and polished – constituting everything from the floors to the tables to the open rafters of the ceiling I was greeted quickly upon seating by a young man named Spencer who, along with a female bartender, were apparently the only persons working front of the house that afternoon and with the menu presented I spent a few minutes perusing as Pearl Jam played over head and with my decisions largely made before I even entered the door I had a full glass of water and my order placed by the time the song ended and progressed to Radiohead; to say the least I agreed with Praying Monk’s recent nomination for best restaurant soundtrack.

With the table next to me settling the check as I read and listened to the soundtrack move to Zeppelin, Stones, and Nirvana it would not be long before Spencer would return with my appetizer selections, one hot and one cold, the first a $5 quintet of “hush puppies with tenderbelly ham and tupelo honey.” Crisp on the exterior and toothsome within featuring great cornbread flavor and a touch of brine from the ham each hushpuppy was surprisingly light and low on grease while the honey was delivered thin, warm, and in excessive portion on the side. Great snack/bar food with a happy hour price of a mere $2.50 it would be hard for me not to order these on a return visit given my affinity for both cornbread and honey – ham included or not – but for Southern/Soul food purists it may be better to look elsewhere as the ham is definitely notable on the palate.

For the cold appetizer (not on the appetizer section, mind you, and thus not half off happy hour) the $16 “F This” PB&J Foie Gras Torchon was one part of my original reason for visiting Praying Monk in the first place and served in a small sealed jar with a layer of whipped and compressed liver at the base topped by blackberry jam and house made peanut butter mousse I’d be hard pressed to name a better torchon or terrine under $20 outside of Paris. Arriving as perhaps a 2oz portion of each layer alongside a small stack of toasted baguettes (more available on request – and you will want more) each aspect of the composition was nicely flavored and with the sapor of the foie balanced nicely by the unsweetened berries the peanut butter added a bit of salt and a light toasted flavor that lingered on the palate. Having had far less successful attempts at Foie Gras with PB&J at notably more expensive restaurants I’d consider this a must order.

With the waiter, the bartender, a chef or two, and myself now being entertained by The Red Hot Chili Peppers my main course of “Kentucky Fried Quail” would arrive as I was slowly enjoying the foie gras and with the small bird surprisingly plump I again set aside the liver (…I mean really, it could have made a really good dessert as well) and moved onto the hot dish before me; the first bite a crackling of deep fried skin and lightly herbed breading that would set the tone for everything on the well composed plate. With small bones still present but easily navigable the quail itself was not-surprisingly lean with just enough fat to keep it juicy and with a the bird’s slight gamey flavor well met by the breading even more levity and balance was found in the accoutrements – a mild lightly dressed slaw of Brussels sprots and “Red, White, and Bleu” potato salad featuring tender redskin potatoes, a touch of mayo, and punchy bleu cheese…unnecessarily upscale comfort food perhaps, but damned good as well.

With the hour now nearing three Spencer returned to ask if I wanted to see the dessert menu and with my mantra that it never hurts to look I said sure and received a short list of four choices, all of which sounded okay but none which sounded great, and as such I deferred to my server’s opinion and he recommended the “Fourplay” based on his own personal preference for cheesecake – something I rarely order but was willing to chance given the quality of the savories (and the fact that I still had $4 to spend in order to use my gift certificate) and in the end, a good recommendation though certainly not on par with the savories. Described on the menu as “Flourless chocolate cake, New York Cheesecake, Chocolate Cream, Milk Chocolate Parfait, and a Chocolate Fan” and mere minutes after ordering it was clear from the start that this was a pre-prepared dessert and while each texture was nice enough the cake itself was a tad spongy thus relying on the ‘fan’ to add a bit of crunch – rich but not heavy, cold but not frozen, the flavor itself was not all that different from a Hostess Ho-Ho…not a ‘bad’ thing, but at $7 perhaps the only overpriced item I ordered and an area where the Praying Monk could definitely stand to improve.

With the check settled – a veritable steal considering the gift certificate – and an ample tip added for the 1 to 1 service I sat for a few moments reading and listening to Beast of Burden before making my way to the restroom (check out the sink – very cool) and then the door where the Scottsdale Sun had basted my car to a pleasant 121 degrees. A long day of dining behind me and dinner yet to go I hope Praying Monk is turning better business on other days of the week – my guess is that it’d be an awesome place to watch some College Football in the coming months, particularly given the quality of the food (and beer list if you’re into that.) I wonder if they carry the Big10 Network…

Category(s): Arizona, Churn, Coffee, Foie, Food, Ice Cream, JoBot Coffee, Matt's Big Breakfast, Pancakes, Pane Bianco, Phoenix, Pizza, Pork, Praying Monk

2 Responses to A Day Out in the Desert, Phoenix AZ

  1. I’m glad Praying Monk turned out well for you! I made that comment on FB because I’ve never had much luck at any other Aaron May’s restaurant. Maybe this place could be his ‘new beginning!’

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