Never one to let the idea of three square meals a day deter me from enjoying a visit to a new city my three plus days in Phoenix, Scottsdale, Glendale, and Chandler would additionally lead me to a number of ancillary eats – some upscale and French, some down n’ dirty Southwest, some new, some old, some hot, and some cold. Beginning first with my love of pastries, the first of these six stops would be at the combined grocery, café, bakery, liquor store, souvenir stand, and pizza parlor that is La Grande Orange Grocery; the sort of place you have to see to believe yet the sort of place where it all seems to “fit.”
Harbored in a small strip mall with plenty of parking plus curbside checkout for those on the go I made my way into La Grande Orange only half knowing what to expect and having already mentioned the commodities entailed the only thing I could think of when I entered the door was a trip to Whole Foods if you condensed the entirety of one store into a space approximately one quarter the size. With cups to one side and cupcakes to the other, wine to my right and coffee to my left my first impression was one of total sensory overload yet at the same once I entered and started to browse I detected a sort of controlled chaos as the various lines moved toward their destination with a good flow.
Having already eaten breakfast and had plenty of coffee with pizza plans at Bianco for later in the day I took my time investigating the space – children’s toys, shirts, travel mugs, cheeses, pre-made salads, locally roasted coffees – before finally approaching the pastry counter to browse the cornucopia of goods. With many items baked in house and others provided by Tammie Coe Bakery two doors down I weighed the options carefully while additionally gauging my hunger and although any number of the options sounded delectable I ended up settling for two; one my own choice and a sort of obligation at this point and the other a recommendation from the young woman at the counter as “the best thing in the world;” a promise I told her I’d hold her to if she was wrong, and after paying the modest tab I made my way to the street with my choices packed up (ostensibly for later, but in reality for enjoyment less than thirty minutes later as I checked into my hotel.)
Beginning first with my selection, La Grande Orange’s very own Red Velvet Cupcake, this large specimen wrapped in red wax paper and topped with an ample pile of cream cheese frosting would prove to be one of the better Red Velvets I’ve had in some time save for the stellar version at Bouchon Bakery just one month prior. Loaded with notes of cocoa and sugar plus the faint taste of cinnamon and what I’m pretty sure was clove I really enjoyed the subtle nuance to this cake and despite the $3.95 price tag the portion was substantially larger and the cake significantly more moist than more expensive versions in other major cities.
Moving next to the suggestion of my cashier, the Tammie Coe Crumb Bun, I really was not sure what to expect of the $2.50 option but what I received, while not the best thing in the world, was without a doubt the best sweet I had on my visit to Arizona. Beginning first with the exterior, this golden biscuit looked something like a cinnamon roll meets a scone with a spiral texture encased in crystal sugar, but digging deeper and peeling off a layer the texture was instead somewhat akin to the famous Breton Kouign Amann kissed with cinnamon and topped with streusel. Layer after buttery layer, bite after yeasty bite, and making a mess of the carpet (crumb bun indeed) all the while all I can say is that if you find yourself in the Phoenix area this is a must try and given the quality of both selections I was lucky to be staying so far from La Grande Orange and Tammie Coe because otherwise I’d have gone back for more.
Another day and another bakery; a second stop on my tour of the Valley of the Sun would take me to Scratch Pastries & Bistro, a relative newcomer (200 to the scene featuring both baked goods and a bistro menu focusing not only on French inspired creations but also frequently utilizing French imported items in their creation. The brainchild of Duc Liao and his wife Noelle based on their time in Paris as a photographer and model, respectively, the space had originally appeared on my radar based on the recommendation of a friend and had only increased its status in my mind by advertising one of my favorite desserts – the Paris Brest – on their website.
Located in a rather unattractive strip-mall beside a Subway my arrival to Scratch would be just past noon and with the thermostat topping the century mark I made my way quickly from the car to the cute French-Chic interior and greeted by two young ladies behind the counter I was asked if I planned to dine in or take some items to go, a decision I debated for a few seconds before I was handed a menu and left to decide. Already with lunch plans I knew the bistro menu was not the choice (though admittedly the duck and foie gras had my attention) and as such I turned my attention to the pastry case only to be told that no Paris Brest was available – a disappointment to be sure, but at the same time given the variety of options (including a number of my other favorites) not totally disheartening and after a few moments of indecision I opted for three selections, paid the modest tab, and made my way outside to enjoy.
Beginning first with the only warm item of the group, an almond croissant fresh from the oven, my first bite from Scratch would show that the Liao’s time in Paris had been well spent as the golden shell shattered on my bite giving way to an airy layered interior with a smear of sweet frangipane that not only added flavor and nuance to the already sweet pastry but also did not weigh down the wispy pastry inside; a fine balance not often seen in American Almond Croissants.
Moving next to another French specialty, a small Salted Caramel Macaron stored refrigerated in a plastic sheath, this two bite $3 cookie would prove rather average largely due to the temperature and a degree of dampness marring its characteristic crackling shell. With the filling ample in flavor I do wonder if perhaps the dry Arizona air has something to do with the decision to store these cookies chilled, but overall it is not a decision I fancied when it came down to texture.
For my final taste of Scratch I opted for an American classic, my typical Red Velvet cupcake, and where the macaron disappointed the cupcake achieved at the highest level; a textural masterpiece ranking in my top 3 red velvet cupcakes of all time. Beginning first with the frosting, seemingly a small puff of sour cream cheese actually tunneling down into the body of the cake, it was quite good but where this cake truly stood out was its density – the sort of moist sponginess that made the cake seem almost undercooked as a bit of red dripped onto my hand, but in reality a veritable cloud of loaded with chocolate and vanilla tones that permeated the palate in perfect balance with the frosting.
Overall Scratch was a good visit and I feel like I (pun intended) merely scratched the surface of what they have to offer – if and when I return I’m calling ahead to make sure they have the Brest and while I’m there I’ll check out that bistro menu because, really, where else can you get duck and foie gras for lunch in town and chase it with a top notch French Pastry or cupcake?
A third day, a third bakery, but this time the goods actually made it back to the hotel and served as breakfast on the day of my departure…well, okay, I had to try a bite of each while they were fresh but I promise the rest made it through both refrigeration and rewarming without further consumption until the next day. For my third and last pastry stop on this tour of the Valley I just so happened to be wandering the Scottsdale Fashion Square before lunch at Cowboy Ciao and opted to stop into The Herb Box based on the recommendation of a friend.
First approaching the upstairs restaurant, at this point thriving with Saturday brunchers, the space is admittedly gorgeous looking out on the river and after browsing the menu (note to self, red velvet pancakes and a divine sounding BLT with ricotta) I subsequently made my way down to the basement bakery, café, coffee shop, and wine store. Greeted on entering by a young lady behind the counter who asked if she could get a beverage ready for me while I waited I agreed to a large iced coffee while I weighed my options; a bevy of muffins, scones, pastries, and desserts totaling at least forty – some standard and some entirely unique but all but a few desirable. Deciding once again to choose one for myself and to rely on my server for the second choice my options were boxed, then bagged, and paying the $13 tab with tax and tip I made my way back to the street.
Beginning first with my selection, a tossup between the Red Velvet Cake and Bread Pudding, the pudding always wins and in this case my selection of Vanilla Bean Bread Pudding with Peach and Peaches n’ Cream Glaze would prove to be the best bread pudding of the trip not only in its present cool state, but even more so the following day after reheating. Dense and packed with notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and most of all vanilla juxtaposing studs of sliced peaches this “pudding” was nearly cakelike in its texture and when topped with the glaze – a dense anglaise with more cinnamon and the fructose sweetness of peaches serving as top notes – it was simply outstanding.
Moving next to my server’s suggestion, another dish billed as “best thing ever,” this is one circumstance where I can actually say that at that very moment I felt like she may have been right because as good as my Bread Pudding had been, the adult Ding Dong was all the better. Beginning first with a dense chocolate cake made with dark Dutch processed cocoa, the base of this dessert was clearly sour cream based and all the better for it as the slight flavors melded perfectly. Moving next to the “cream filling” in this case replaced with a nearly liquid white chocolate marshmallow cream the sweetness was a perfect balance to the cake while the entirety of the dessert was encased in a dense dark chocolate shell flecked with blue edible glitter. A masterpiece both visually, texturally, and in terms of flavor I’d not hesitate to call this one of the best “upscale” takes on American Retail comfort food I’ve ever had (notwithstanding Cathal Armstrong’s Foie Gras Twinkie, of course.)
Doing my best to restrain myself from eating the entirety of both before the following day while carrying the bag from store to store in order to prevent melting in the hot Arizona Sun all I know now is that my next visit to Phoenix/Scottsdale will see me with breakfast or brunch at The Herb Box and desserts from the café below (that may or may not make it out the door, but certainly not to the following day.)
After lunch at Ciao and still with my Herb Box pastries in hand I spent the afternoon wandering Old Town Scottsdale when the sudden urge for caffeine hit me. Knowing there was a Starbucks nearby but wanting something a bit more novel I pulled up the Yelp locator and noted a familiar name from my research on the city; Cartel Coffee Lab, apparently a new location filling the space of a now defunct store that used to serve their beans. Having heard good things about their sourcing, roasting, and brewing I made my way into the small store to find a number of folks lounging, surfing the web, and enjoying their coffee and on making my way to the counter I was met by not only a prompt and friendly barista, but also a knowledgeable one who asked what I liked in a coffee (full, thick, cocoa, low acid for those curious) and he spot-on recommended the Ethiopian Dark Roast at $3/8oz or $16.99/lb.
Taking his suggestion while discussing the other six varieties available I was quoted prices, terroir, and tasting notes as he prepared my single drip and with options ranging from $12.99 for 12oz to $29.99 for 12oz I was told that all were available by the cup if I wanted to taste – a mental note well engrained for my next trip to the area. With coffee prepared and limited options for sweetener (muscovado sugar or Agave nectar only) I opted to drink it black and sipping the brew the flavor was spot on to what I appreciate – velvety, cocoa tinged, and a bit of cherry and almond. An important aspect of any city I’m considering as my next home it is good to know that Phoenix/Scottsdale has a place like this – very important.
With pastries and coffee now well covered and plenty interesting enough to put Phoenix on my culinary map the next question was how well they did Ice Cream, and coming from the self-proclaimed Ice Cream Capital of America I figured I might as well just go for the best to compare head-to-head with the Jeni’s, Bi-Rite’s, and Toscanini’s of the world – in this case, Scottsdale’s own Sweet Republic.
Rated by Bon Appetite as one of the nation’s 10-best and focused on small batch artisan flavors just like the rest of the list Sweet Republic is tucked into a small strip mall off Shea Boulevard and while not simple to find the products are also available by the pint at Whole Foods. Not wanting a pint but rather to sample I made my way up the stairs to the small store to find it largely empty – a surprise since every parlor in Ohio is lined up out the door when it is 100 degrees out, but perhaps not surprising in Scottsdale where temperatures frequently reach such peaks. Entering the store I was greeted by the smell of sugar, vanilla, and that all-too-familiar scent of ice cream cones and within moments I was greeted by a young lady ready with sampling spoons.
Not wanting to be greedy but certainly wanting to sample a couple before buying in my first two tastes of Sweet Republic’s Ice Cream would be Tres Leches, a dense and flavorful but largely one-dimensional vanilla and next Desert Honey, a lovely bite not dissimilar to a frozen liquid Bit-o-Honey. With easily twenty more flavors to taste and my server not seeming to mind my next two bites would prove memorable enough to commit to a double – one scoop of Honey Blue Cheese and the other of Salted Butter Caramel – for $4.25. Waiting for the scoops as I browsed the shops collection of cookies, candies, and even bacon brittle I thanked my server for her assistance and sitting down to enjoy my choices I was very pleased by one and blown away by the other.
Beginning first with the Salted Butter Caramel, a flavor I try everywhere, this dense concoction with pockets of liquid gold oozing from the otherwise milky sweet ice cream was exceptional and on par in all ways with that of Jeni’s back home – potentially even better though a side-by-side would need to be done to be certain. Moving next to the Blue Cheese – easily a top 5 ice cream moment of all time with the sharp notes of the cheese aptly countered by the sweetness of the honey and the overall texture somewhere between frozen frosting and cheesecake; an absolute must try for anyone living in or visiting the area whether it is 100 degrees or not.
Moving finally to the last of my supplementary snacks I’ll start off by saying I’d read about The Fry Bread House a couple of times when planning my trip to The Valley but it did not make my list of must visit stops until just the day prior during dinner at Kai when I was speaking with head Chef Michael O’Dowd about the lack of Native American restaurants in the area (he explained this to me, but that is for another time) and one of his expeditors suggested I should check out Cecilia Miller’s temple of fried dough calling it “about as authentic as it gets around here.”
Hailing from the Tohono O’odham Nation and serving up her style of Indian Tacos around the area for nearly twenty years (and now at two locations) I opted to head to the original Fry Bread House West and having followed my GPS from door to door I found the location with ease on a relatively dingy stretch of 7th Avenue and allocating parking with ease I made my way into the unassuming low-lying restaurant where I was greeted by a short line and then by a curt but friendly waitress who took no time in requesting my order and name before handing me a plastic cup to get my water and suggesting it would be perhaps 10 minutes before my food was ready.
Taking a seat – the table slightly sticky and clearly not wiped down since (at least) the last diners – and browsing the scene while I watched the kitchen work through the small open window I marveled at the flow of the room as patron after patron received his or her food. With some orders having been phoned in and others being delivered to the tables surrounding mine if I had to guess nearly fifteen Fry Breads were served during my nine minute wait and when I finally heard “Michael” called from the front I stepped up to collect my $12 merely seconds before the next order was served up to “Andre.”
Returning to my seat with prizes in hand my first impression was that I’d over ordered as each disc was easily the size of a Frisbee and two-to-three fold as thick, but picking up my first option, the “Indian Taco with Pinto Beans, Shredded Cheddar Cheese, Lettuce” I was next impressed as to just how light the hand stretched bread was – a wisp of pillowy flat bread crisped on the outside by the oil but light and airy within. With the ingredients a standard store-bought admixture of traditional taco toppings and a bit of hot sauce to taste this was a good choice to understand what the “Indian Taco” was all about (and perhaps to understand why diabetes and lipid disorders are so prevalent in their population, as well.)
Moving next to my dessert selection, one of the frequently noted “best dishes” in Phoenix and denoted as an “Award Winning Favorite” on the restaurant menu, the Chocolate and Butter Fry Bread would prove to be every bit the “Fair Food” extravagance I expected with the same airy dough this time served openfaced and drizzled – nay – ladled first with butter and then with melted dark chocolate tinged with what I believe was adobe spice and cinnamon. Sliced and resting atop both wax paper and napkins to soak up the grease I attacked this fry bread with zeal and without going so far as to call it the most sinful thing I’ve eaten this year I will simply say this; it was a once-in-a-year sort of treat that was entirely worth the money, calories, and visit but at the same time the sort of thing that simply feels “bad” for you despite the smile on your face as you’re eating it.