Heard Dat! Everything We Ate in NOLA

New Orleans has been on my bucketlist for many, many years. Mostly, I wanted to get to the famous Cafe Du Monde of the French Quarter. New Orleans is famous for spicy creole dishes, indulgent desserts, and fresh seafood. While in the city for the American College of Cardiology conference, Boyfriend (now Fiancé) and I made sure to try as many New Orleans classics as possible.

#1 Arnaud’s

Starting with one of the oldest NOLA institutions, we booked date night at this classy restaurant prepared to dine on some of the best, high-quality creole cuisine. Though this restaurant is just off of crowded, wild Bourbon Street, Arnaud’s weeds out the drunken riffraff with a fairly strict dress code. Waitstaff in tuxedos seated us in a comfortable corner of the beautiful dining room, even placing the napkins on our laps.

While waiting for the table we reserved on Open Table, we enjoyed drinks at French 75, the attached bar named after the renowned champagne cocktail. I enjoyed the sweet and sour French 75 while Fiancé sipped on a bourbon.

In true NOLA fashion, no one takes themselves too seriously. A warm loaf of bread was placed on the table. We were told to tear off the bread and don’t bother worrying about the crumbs. There was a delicious crust that crackled with every tear. We did our best not to fill up on the bread. Our waitress then stopped by with a unique little tool to quickly gather our crumbs like they were never there. (Another waiter was kind enough to give me one!)

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I ordered the “Jazzy Menu”, a tasting menu with choices of appetizers, entrees, and dessert. My appetizer was a delicious salad with spicy pecans, bold Stilton blue cheese, and acidic vinaigrette. Fiancé enjoyed a Caesar salad, then added on some escargot (my favorite). He tried one and said “it tasted like dirt”, so I ate the rest. The de-shelled snails are served in a pool of garlic, butter, and parsley with a small pastry on top.

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My main course was scallops in a creamy mushroom sauce and small whipped potatoes piped in between each buttery scallop. Fiancé had the Steak au Poivre, cooked rare. Arnaud’s, as a rule, does not bring steak knives as all steaks should be easily cut with a butter knife.

Finally for dessert, Fiancé enjoyed a decadent chocolate toffee bombe. My Paris-Brest was slightly disappointing as the pâte à choux dough was tough rather than light and airy.

#2 Heard Dat Kitchen

The best NOLA food is soul food. I found this hole-in-the-wall recommended on some websites. It is a true hole-in-the-wall, housed in a tiny shack attached to a small gambling room. There is a small window and one two-person table inside. The remaining seating is colorful benches outside.

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We ordered the homemade sugary fruit punch called “Dat Shyt.” The sweetness helped tone down the saltiness of our meal. Dat Fries were covered in Cajun seasoning, candied bacon, and a creamy sauce. I ate salty fried chicken with red beans and rice. The meat and sausage were so tender and the spice level was absolutely perfect. Fiancé devoured fried chicken with peppery mac ‘n’ cheese. All of our plates were clean by the end of our meal.

#3 Napoleon House

We stumbled upon this place by accident while wandering after finding the Carousel Bar was too packed to order a sazerac. I had read a brief comment on Chowhound that they enjoyed the sazerac there. The bar was full, so we agreed to be seated.

The sazerac here is made with absinthe, as the original recipe indicates. Per our waiter, they are one of the only NOLA restaurants to continue using absinthe. We ordered a charcuterie plate full of NOLA delicacies: pate, headcheese sausage, boudin meatballs, and alligator sausage served with toast and various toppings like pepper jam and mustard.

Fiancé ordered a half mufaletta which was huge! I have always enjoyed the tangy olive topping of this sandwich. The meat was tasty and not too salty. The fluffy focaccia bread prevented an overwhelming salt flavor from the combination of pickled vegetables and cured meats.

We ended our “second dinner” with cannolis filled with traditional ricotta cream on one end and chocolate cream on the other. I was immensely impressed by the shell, which did not become soggy and remained intact as we ate.

#4 Mother’s Restaurant

Mother’s reminds me of a New York Jewish deli, though keep in mind this food is not kosher. Line up outside and make your way past the deli counter to order at the cash register. The line looks long, but they serve quickly. Take a seat and one of the lovely waitstaff (who call you “baby”) will bring you your order. There’s more seating around the corner, so don’t be upset if there are no seats near the counter – the building is larger than it looks.

Mother’s serves up NOLA favorites like po’ boys, gumbo, and catfish. No frills, no fluff, and a ton of homestyle flavor. It’s fairly inexpensive, and obviously a favorite choice for lunch. Fiancé enjoyed a massive sandwich while I ate a perfectly portioned duck and andouille sausage gumbo. It was spicy without overwhelming my poor, sensitive taste buds. The meat was tender and I was comfortably full after finishing the size “Small” bowl. When you think of Creole food, this is the place to go.

#5 Cafe Du Monde

The original Cafe Du Monde is located in the French Quarter near Jackson Square on Decatur Street. There are 2 lines, one for seating and one for “to-go” orders. I recommend eating in the restaurant as the long line goes quickly. Once you’re at the front of the line, jump on any empty tables. The waitstaff will quickly tidy up messy tables. Keep in mind this is cash only.

We quickly sat at a small table. A waitress cleared the previous order, including the piles of powdered sugar. We ordered a cafe au lait and a hot chocolate to go with our beignets. It warmed us up after waiting in line in the chilly weather. These beignets are world-famous for a reason. They are light, fluffy pillows of fried dough buried in sweet powdered sugar. Get messy and enjoy!

Restaurant to Skip: Willa Jean

I’d heard great things online about Willa Jean, a fairly new restaurant to the NOLA food scene. Not to be confused with the famous Willa Mae Scotch House, this place is more modern and trendy. I enjoyed a latté flavored with herbs and turmeric. We split some poutine before our entreés. I had a rabbit pot pie, and Fiancé had their famous fried chicken sandwich Our food was about average, and our meal was essentially ruined by a nearby table filled with obnoxious women swapping sexcapades. Shortly after our dinner here, we stumbled onto Napoleon House, which was better in every way.

Have you tried any of these restaurants? Are there any “must try” places that I missed? Let me know in the comments!

What We Ate in Vegas

My birthday last year ended up being a trip to Vegas, courtesy of Boyfriend (now Fiancé). The Las Vegas food scene has an odd reputation. In one hotel you can find elegant Michelin starred restaurant not far from a greasy fast food joints famous for massive burgers or pizza. Famous chefs open their chains or run hotel buffets. There’s an insane number of options to choose from, but here are some of the places we tried!

#1: Black Tap

Black Tap’s mother restaurant in New York earned its fame on Instagram. Their popularity started with Crazyshakes, milkshakes with “extras” like pieces of cake and candies around the rim. For my birthday, I wanted to have one of these giant milkshakes. Out of the many choices, we picked the Cookie Shake: a vanilla frosted rim with cookie crumbles topped with a ‘cookiewich,’ crumbled cookies, chocolate chips, whipped cream & chocolate drizzle.

The milkshake lives up to its “crazy” reputation. It was huge and covered in sugar. I wasn’t able to finish it by myself or with the help of Boyfriend. Was it worth $15? I’m not so sure, but I did it for the ‘gram.

We ordered some fries with gochugang ketchup (my favorite!) to off-set the intense sweetness.

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Boyfriend ordered a burger, as “craft” burgers are supposed to be Black Tap’s specialty. There was nothing particularly special about the burger, though Boyfriend enjoyed it and finished the whole thing.

#2: Sprinkles + Margaritaville

Wandering around the strip, you’ll walk by plenty of shops with snacks and drinks. Las Vegas allows for open containers, so I grabbed a delicious mango margarita from Margaritaville. They were generous with the alcohol, but the flavors covered up any harshness.

While sipping from my souvenir cup, we came across Sprinkle Cupcakes. Sprinkles has a Phoenix location and is owned by one of the judges from Cupcake Wars. As a rewards member, I get a free cupcake on my birthday. I probably should have considered a flavor better matched to my drink, but I loved this Cuban Coffee Chocolate cupcake.

Sprinkles cupcakes are rich and flavorful. The menu changes frequently (even offering special edition cupcakes for holidays and events).

#3: Hash House A-Go-Go

It’s no surprise that Vegas is home to some intense hangover food. I heard about this place from Guy Fieri’s Triple D show, and it just so happened to be in our hotel. This restaurant describes their fare as “twisted farm food.” They make country breakfast on a Vegas scale.

I ordered a single apple pancake. The entire pancake was even bigger than my normal dinner plate. I probably would have appreciated more cinnamon and spices, but I was happy to recover from the night before with this carb monstrosity.

I think Boyfriend should have won a T-shirt for finishing his tower of chicken and waffles. He might have preferred fewer fried green onions, but the chicken was moist and flavorful. I thought the waffles were a bit dry, but that was easily remedied with maple syrup.

#4: Bardot Brassiere

Birthdays usually mean fancy dinners, at least for me. I reserved a table at this lovely restaurant inside the Aria, run by famous chef Michael Mina. As a high class restaurant, the menu changes often so what we ate may not be available if you visit.

We started our meal with a spin on chicken wings, duck wings a l’orange. For the entreé, I enjoyed my favorite protein – lamb – with crisp veggies and smooth potatoes (underneath). Though I probably should have had red wine, I tried Chablis for the first time and loved it.

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I wish I could find more pictures of this meal because it was truly lovely. I’m glad we booked early, because later in the evening the place was packed! The ambience is like a Parisian café set in the post-WWII era, stunningly beautiful. The food was fantastic and the service was great. This a great

I’ve been to other restaurants in Las Vegas (including my favorite: Sage in the Aria), but I always love to try new places! What’s your favorite restaurant in Vegas?

Tourist Home in Flagstaff

It’s summer vacation! That means travel, barbecues, family time, and days off. If you live in Phoenix, you’re probably dying to drive up north to get away from the heat. Flagstaff is popular in the winter, but there is plenty of hiking and other natural attractions to draw tourists in the summer. As a result, downtown Flagstaff has been developing a more trendy food scene.

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On National Doughnut Day this year, Boyfriend and I did some research while up in Flagstaff. A Yelp search brought up Tourist Home downtown. The name comes from the origin of the building – an old boarding house for tourists in Flagstaff. Located conveniently next to a city parking lot, you can use one of multiple entrances to go inside. Though the outside building design is loyal to the older, brown, cabin-style architecture you would expect to see up north, the interior is well-designed and trendy. Take a seat at the bar or head to the bakery counter to order.

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There is a vast array of pastries, but given the “holiday,” we focused on the doughnuts available. Tourist Home is famous for their cruellers, so of course we had to get one…. followed by two other doughnuts because they were having a special, okay?

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My favorite was the ?

 

Boyfriend liked the creuller, but he enjoyed the

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I promise we ate food other than doughnuts for breakfast. I ordered a slice of the quiche of the day, expecting a small slice for a healthier contrast to the doughnuts I’d had earlier. Instead I ended up with a piece that puts Chicago-style pizza to shame. The dense, massive slice was accompanied by a very fresh, lightly dressed salad. The salad was a acidic and light contrast to the heavy and salty quiche.

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Boyfriend opted for a local favorite – huevos rancheros. Homemade tortillas were topped with black beans, an egg with a runny yolk, cotija cheese, and a smooth, spicy tomato salsa. This was served with a side of crispy home fries. This is still his favorite, despite trying huevos rancheros at other restaurants since our visit to Tourist Home.

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I’m not sure if the breakfast was the greatest I’ve ever had, especially since the price of food seemed higher than in Phoenix. I enjoyed eating outside in the cool breeze, watching people pass by walking their dogs. I was impressed by the variety of the menu. Breakfast at Tourist Home can vary from juices and protein-rich options to coffee and doughnuts or other rich pastries. After breakfast, enjoy a walk around the city, hit up an event on campus, or head over to the famous Riordan Mansion.

Price: $30-$40 for 2 people
Atmosphere: 5/5
Service: 5/5
Food: 3.5/5

Everything We Ate At Disneyland

Summer is almost here! This means family vacations, roadtrips, and maybe even trips to Disneyland! Some people may go to Disneyland for the rides, but I’ve recently come to enjoy the smaller details of the Happiest Place on Earth. Clothing, customized ears, souvenirs, and food all add to the magic. I did my research on the most highly recommended snacks. Keep in mind you can rack up quite the bill buying all of your food at the park.

#1 Pooh’s Corner: Tigger Tail

After getting soaked on the Splash Mountain log ride, I needed a sweet treat to forget about this misery of wet clothing in the cold December weather. Right next to the ride’s exit is Pooh’s Corner. Stop in for sweet treats with a Winnie the Pooh theme. Tigger has always been my favorite, so I ordered a Tigger Tail – marshmallow’s stacked in a zig-zag then dipped in orange and black chocolate with orange sprinkles.

#2 Bengal Barbeque: Chicken & Beef Satay

Across from the Jungle Cruise in Adventureland is the … Keeping with the theme, they offer “exotic” foods from “far off places.” The main course is primarily meat skewers. This was a meal set called the Bengal Rice Plate, which comes with chicken skewers, a “tiger tail” breadstick, and a beef skewer. I enjoyed the flavors, but there was not much food despite the price. Boyfriend and I were still quite hungry following our little meal. If you feel like a quiet place to eat, we stole away to the deserted Aladdin pavilion nearby.

#3 Belle’s Tavern: Poutine

Our lunch from Bengal Barbeque wasn’t really enough to share, so we wandered to find another place for lunch. We stopped in at Belle’s Tavern in Fantasyland for a heartier meal. Boyfriend ordered a burger meal, pretty standard for most Disneyland restaurants. We also split an order of poutine, which is a French-Canadian dish made of meat, cheese, and gravy over French fries. The cheese curds tasted like they were probably frozen at some point, so I think I might have preferred melted cheese instead. The meat was tender and rich from the gravy.

#4 Tomorrowland: Lightsaber Churro

After we trekked through most of the park, our last few rides were located in Tomorrowland. We enjoyed a late night snack of Lightsaber churros, which is really just a churro dipped in colored sprinkles. Disneyland churros are readily available all over the park, but the lightsaber version is only available in Tomorrowland. Choose the Jedi or the Dark Side (blue or red)! I’m not sure if there’s an increase in price, but there’s not really a difference between these and their regular churros.

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Do you guys have any favorite Disney treats? I really wanted to have a Monte Cristo in “New Orleans,” but the reservations were full for the whole day! Make sure to use the Disneyland app to book early, so you’re not caught wandering around to the most deserted restaurants.

Ice Cream Cake & Mighty Moo’s

Ever since we were little, my brother has loved the cotton candy ice cream at Maggie Moo’s (which closed down). His mouth and tongue would be bright blue, made worse by the bubblegum candies he liked to add to his ice cream. I came across a post on Buzzfeed, listing the best ice cream places in each state. Arizona’s is a small ice cream parlor in the West Valley called Mighty Moo’s. Mighty Moo’s makes homemade, hand-churned ice cream, shakes, and floats with unique flavors. The flavors are often changed depending on the season. (I was dying to try their Octoberfest pretzel & beer flavor).

This local place is small with great charm. You can tell it’s a hit with the locals, who wait outside the doors before opening. One sweet older lady said she came every week for her praline ice cream. Buy a cone, a cup, a pint, or other special treats. Next on the list is the “reverse” root-beer float – cream soda with root-beer flavored ice cream! Though it may be a bit of a drive for many, the ice cream is worth it. There’s a greater variety than Phoenix favorites such as Churn.

It turns out Mighty Moo’s carried a flavor called “Elsa,” a bright blue cotton candy flavored ice cream. Naturally, I thought of my brother. It’s a sickeningly sweet flavor for my tastes, but it made a perfect birthday cake for him.

To make an ice cream cake, you do not have to use cotton candy ice cream. Pick a favorite ice cream, hand-churned like Mighty Moo’s or your favorite store bought brand. My only recommendation is to make it the day before hand so that the ice cream can really freeze! (Seriously, save yourself the mess.)

Now the ice cream cake recipe actually has a cake recipe of it’s own, but I have had bad experiences with cakes that involve boiled water, so I chose to use this chocolate cake recipe instead. It’s up to you which recipe you use (or your own!) but my instruction will be for a different chocolate cake recipe.

Ingredients:

For the Cake

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, softened
  • 1cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk

Filling and Decoration

  • 4 cups ice cream
  • 2 cups chocolate frosting
  • Chocolate sprinkles, for decorating

Instructions:

1) Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease one 10-in. springform pan.

You can line it with parchment paper, but I usually choose to use butter or pam and flour. Since my springform pan is a bit tricky to butter, I used pam. Sprinkle in a few tbsp. of flour and then coat the pan. Turn it sideways and turn it like you would a steering wheel to coat the sides. Shake out the excess flour.

2) In a small bowl, combine flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt.

3) In large bowl, with mixer at low speed, beat butter and brown and granulated sugars until blended. Increase speed to high; beat 5 minutes or until pale and fluffy, occasionally scraping bowl with rubber spatula.

It’s really important that your ingredients be room temperature. They’ll blend easier, especially butter.

4) Reduce speed to medium-low; add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla until blended. Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture; beat just until batter is smooth, occasionally scraping bowl with rubber spatula.

5) Spoon batter into pan. Bake 30-40 min. or until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. 

I’m not as clear as the baking time because I tried the original bake time, forgetting that a 10 in. pan takes longer to cook than a few 8 in. pans. Put it in for 30 min. and keep an eye on it.

6) Let the cake cool for 10 min. Once cool enough to handle, take the cake out and let it cool on wire racks.

7) Once cool, cut the cake into two halves. Wrap the layers in plastic wrap and freeze for at least 2 hours.

8) Place one layer of frozen cake into the (clean) springform pan.

Here’s where it gets messy!! I made such a mess that I’ve made some suggestions on how to make it easier.

9) Remove your ice cream from the freezer. Thaw for about 10 min. Once softer, spread the ice cream on top of the cake layer in the springform pan.

It may not take very long to melt the ice cream. Since I live in Arizona and this was hand-churned, the ice cream melted quickly. I might consider melting the ice cream completely for a more smooth surface.

10) Place the other cake layer over the top of the ice cream. Place the plastic wrap over the top to seal. Freeze again for at least 2 hours.

Two hours was not enough to keep everything from melting and falling apart. I would suggest freezing overnight.

12. Remove the cake from the pan and frost fast! Otherwise your ice cream will melt.

13. Decorate as desired and then wrap with plastic wrap. Use toothpicks to keep it from touching the frosting if you want.

14. Remove from the freezer about 10-15 min. before serving to thaw a little.

Final Thoughts: In hindsight, hand-churned ice cream may not have been a good choice, but my little brother was happy with it. If I ever do this again, I’ve got some strategies to make the ice cream part less frantic and messy. Even though I disliked the ice cream by itself, in the cake it was super delicious!

If you’d like, stop in at Mighty Moo for a tasty treat!

Mushu Asian Grill: Stir Fry Destination

If there’s one type of cuisine I’m picky about, its Chinese food. Since I lived there for over a year, I learned about and ate many, many Chinese dishes from a variety of cuisines. China, as a large and ancient nation, has dishes varying by region. Traditionally there are 8 major cuisines: Anhui, Fujianese, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuanese, Zhejiang, and Cantonese. Each correlates to a specific geographic region; furthermore, each area has unique flavor profiles and ingredients. Sichuanese food (or Szechuan in the US) is well-known for fiery, tongue-numbingly spicy dishes, often deep red in color. Fujian province is located on the coast, so seafood is highlighted in this region’s dishes.

Most often, I eat Asian food in East Mesa, where I can read Chinese menus and speak Chinese to my servers. However, recently I started taking a summer class (ugh OChem) at Phoenix College. My high school football team used to play their Friday night games at the stadium there, so I had frequently visited Hamburger Works. Across the street is a small tan building with a bright red door. I had passed by Mushu Asian Grill for several years, but never actually stopped in to try their food. Boyfriend and I took the opportunity to test it out.

The restaurant is a member of the Arizona Chinese Restaurants Association, often supporting local Chinese organizations and events like the Dragonboat Festival. Their Yelp reviews are consistently positive. Pictures online showed fresh food. Apparently, their menu changes occasionally to maintain variety.

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The inside is clean and organized, thankfully not kitschy. It was also empty. Boyfriend and I were the only diners seated at a table. Though several people came in, they ordered stir-fry to go. We enjoyed a very quiet meal on an early Thursday evening at a small table in the corner. The only noise came from the boss, who sat at her desk in another corner jabbering away in Mandarin.

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We started off with some potstickers, a light appetizer to give me an idea of what kind of flavors to expect. I enjoyed the crispy dumpling skin (the result of the dumpling sticking to the pot). The inside flavoring was juicy but a little bland. This was easily improved with some soy sauce or chili oil.

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I chose a classic dish often mistaken for “Americanized Chinese” food: Kung Pao Chicken. I used to eat it fairly regularly at a small cafe near my campus in Nanjing. You should expect a chicken and vegetable dish with thick sauce, slightly spicy, and topped with peanuts.

Boyfriend does not particularly care for Chinese food. Fortunately, Mushu is well-known for their Make-Your-Own Stirfry. You have even turn your stir fry into a burrito. Choose your protein and sauce. Step up to the vegetable bar, take a bowl and stack your bowl with fresh, bright vegetables. They’ll cook your stir fry, then serve it to your table.

Without any other guests in the restaurant, I was surprised it took as long as it did to serve us, but I assume that was from the different cook-times between a main dish and a simple stir-fry. I did appreciate that our food was served at the same time. Stir-fry is served in an individual bowl, while the food on-menu is served traditional Chinese “family-style.” Our waitress disappeared once she served the food, only to return once it was time for the bill.

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The Kung Pao Chicken was served on a larger platter with a side of rice. I served myself some food onto a small plate. I was surprised at the appearance of the dish. All of the components were there, but the sauce was thin and light as opposed to the dark, thick sauce to which I’ve become accustomed. Each common ingredient was present: chicken, spicy peppers, bell peppers, various veggies, and peanuts. The celery seemed as if it hadn’t been cooked, only tossed in at the end. Though this added crunch, the raw celery flavor didn’t seem to mesh well with the other components. Perhaps this is a lighter version from a different area.

The DIY stirfry was the star of the meal. Though my boyfriend chose fewer vegetables than I would, the meat, noodles, and sauce were all flavorful. There were a variety of options for noodles. We opted for a thin wheat noodle, and we were given plenty of it. The noodles and other ingredients were all well-coated with a thick, garlicky, savory sauce. Next time I’ll make my own packed full of the fresh veggies, and maybe try another sauce.

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Overall, the place has a nice atmosphere where you can work on homework or read while you enjoy a quiet meal.  Take-out is, of course, an option – and apparently quite popular based on the number of people who left without ever sitting at a table. While it’s not the best Chinese food I’ve ever had in the Valley, the stir fry is a quick, delicious option, especially if you’re attending classes at Phoenix College. Check out their website for more information.

Service: 3/5

Price:  $10-$15 per person

Food: 3.5/5

Durant’s: A Phoenix Institution

The growing food community in Phoenix often focuses on new, trendy restaurants offering a variety of fresh flavors. Often overlooked is the classic steakhouse in downtown Phoenix – Durant’s. The pink steakhouse off Central Avenue serves the freshest steak in the state, usually to an older crowd that loves this Phoenix gem.

The small pink building’s facade can be deceiving. My boyfriend was surprised that I would choose to make reservations (on Open Table). Then we drove around back, since diners enter through the kitchen. The parking lot was full of cars, as was the dining room.

The decor may seem old-fashioned, particularly the velvet walls. But you know what they say: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Durant’s has been serving the best steaks in Arizona for decades. The pink hue to the lighting doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to their menu and service.

We were seated in a cozy booth in a corner. Our server dropped off their usual starter, cold, raw vegetables served over ice. The service was, as always, incredible. Our servers were attentive without being overbearing. My water was always full. Boyfriend was served a nice glass of scotch. Durant’s has a full bar with an extensive wine list. You can find any drink to pair with your meal.

Our appetizers were quite large. I ordered a jumbo shrimp cocktail. The shrimp were large, fresh, and ice cold. I enjoyed the tart horseradish flavor of the cocktail sauce. Boyfriend ordered Kobe sliders, which I thought would be smaller. The sliders might as well have been an entree. Three huge, juicy umami sliders were served on a simple platter. I don’t know if they were truly Kobe beef, but the meat was obviously fresh and high-quality. Boyfriend refused to leave them uneaten despite ordering a massive steak to follow.

Steak is really the way to go at Durant’s. This is not the place to order chicken, though you may be surprised by their seafood selection. Choose a cut then choose sides to go with them. Boyfriend ordered a 20 oz. Delmonico steak. He prefers his steak rare, and Durant’s is really the only place that I trust to cook a steak rare. His steak was served with crips, flavorful waffle fries. It seems an odd choice to serve with such a classy meal, but was a nice crunch compared to the soft, buttery steak.

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Sorry about my pictures. I was way too preoccupied with the meal.

I ordered my usual, the lamb chops. I despise the mint jelly served with it because it takes like toothpaste. However, I could eat those lamb chops every single day. As classless as it was, I picked up those lamb chops to eat every piece of meat off that bone. I focused on the tender, spiced lamb and was unable to finish the delicious, garlicky mashed potatoes I chose for my side.

When I booked our reservation, I let them know that it was Boyfriend’s birthday. They let us choose any one of their desserts from their long list. I know Durant’s is well-known for their cheesecakes, but Boyfriend has never turned down a brownie. Our server brought us a massive tower of brownie with ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate and caramel sauce, and chocolate shavings. Even though we were both incredibly full, we couldn’t help but eat the whole gooey, rich, chocolatey dish.

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After eating over dozens of meals together, I finally succeeded in finding a meal that rendered Boyfriend speechless. There’s a special awe to having a meal that is so delicious that it makes you think of your favorite meals from your childhood. Boyfriend grew up on a cattle ranch with access to the fresh beef on a regular basis. For a restaurant to serve him a perfectly cooked, fresh, and juicy steak that reminded him of home, it’s something I will never forget. Thank you Durant’s for an amazing experience.

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For more information, you can check out their website.

Price: Expect between $50-$100 per person.
Atmosphere: 3.5/5
Service: 4.5/5
Food: 5/5

Is Urban Cookies Worth the Hype?

IMG_4768Every foodie is always on the lookout for the best local treats. The best ice cream, cookies, cupcakes, and pastries are listed or featured on television specials. Some chefs and bakers are known for their wins in food competitions. Phoenix is home to many of the places featured on Food Network shows and foodie blogs.
According to Business Insider, Urban Cookies is the best bakery in the state of Arizona. They made a name for themselves after winning Cupcake Wars. Urban Cookies serves cupcakes without artificial colors or flavors, which probably won them points with the judge Florian.
As I revise this old review, it is important to note that the bakery moved locations. I visited the tiny storefront on the corner of Highland & 7th Street. Even on a Sunday afternoon there was a long line for one of their famous sweet treats. The old location was a tiny, cramped space, forcing us to stand outside in the heat while we waited in line. Most, if not all, seating was outside the building. Fortunately, the staff worked to assist customers as fast as possible. The staff is friendly and willing to explain the choices. They worked as fast as they could without making the customer feel rushed. The new location is still on 7th Street, but closer to Thomas. I assume they realized the need for a space large enough to accommodate their popularity.
The Cupcakes
Urban Cookies offers cookies, cupcakes, baked doughnuts, and ice cream cookie sandwiches. My focus was on their award-winning cupcakes. I purchased four cupcakes, a nice mix of classic and new flavors. None of these use artificial flavoring or coloring. The “Brown Velvet” cupcake, a red velvet cupcake without red food coloring, embodies this mission. These simple and neat cupcakes are presented in a plain brown box.
The classic cupcakes were $2.99, but for $3.49 per specialty cupcake, though the prices may have changed. The price may be inflated due to the prestige of a Cupcake Wars winner. Still, I wouldn’t consider the price exorbitant. A dozen is almost $40, and I remember that being a factor in not purchasing them for a family event. There’s a large selection of flavors: from classics like chocolate to their “fan favorites” like cherry cheesecake.
According to their website, they also have some seasonal flavors and change the decor to suit the season. For example, in the fall, they add a pumpkin cupcake to their menu. They also offer vegan and gluten-free options.
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Cupcake #1: Mint Chocolate
This was my favorite cupcake of the day. Mint chocolate is one of my all-time favorite flavors, so I was looking forward to trying this one. The chocolate cake was moist and not too rich. It was a little dense for my tastes, but that’s more an issue of personal preference. I prefer a light texture, less like a traditional cake. I didn’t quite like the color of the frosting, but I can only assume they colored it naturally. I’m also not a fan of this particular swirl (It’s a swirl I call the “poop swirl” and I hate it on Georgetown Cupcakes too). The cool, refreshing mint flavor was kept in check by the chocolate shavings on the outside.
Cupcake #2: German Chocolate
I’m not sure if Urban Cookies uses different chocolate cake recipes. This cake tasted suspiciously like the same cake as the mint chocolate cupcake. I guess if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. At the very least, they get points for consistent bakes. The topping was the star of this cupcake. There were several flavors (coconut, caramel, and pecan) that mingled well together. The subtle caramel frosting allowed the coconut and nuttiness to come through. I was in love with the almost toffee-like crunch and chewiness.
Cupcake #3: Orange Blossom
This was the worst cupcake I have ever eaten. I was trying to find a nice way to say this, but I legitimately could not even finish it. The olive oil base cake was moist but too dense. I could not taste any orange flavor, even without eating the frosting. The frosting was the issue. The thin frosting began to slide off the cupcake (despite all the others remaining intact). The flavor was the biggest problem. A heavy-handed use of rose water made the frosting virtually inedible. It was so strong my brother said it tasted like “floor cleaner.” I’m not sure if the baker didn’t taste it, or if this is how they prefer the flavor. Regardless, I don’t even think I’d be willing to try this on another day.
Cupcake #4: Churro
This was most certainly the heaviest cupcake I’ve ever held in my hand. I was most impressed by the technique of this cupcake. They had to distinguish between a regular cupcake and a churro. Through some baking sorcery, they blended both desserts to create a churro-like exterior with a soft, moist interior. Instead of creating a churro-flavored cupcake, they made a fusion of two delicious desserts.
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Unfortunately, the light cake was weighed down by the overly sweet cream cheese. Don’t get me wrong; I love sweet, but it was too much for a mild flavored cake. The cinnamon sugar on the cake and frosting helped draw away from the cream cheese.
These were not the greatest cupcakes I’ve ever had, even here in the Valley. However, I appreciate their all natural approach to flavors and baking. Most of the cupcakes were sweet and tasty, so I can understand why they have such a wonderful reputation. Overall, I enjoyed the creative flavors, rich cakes, and strong flavors. If you’d like to try for yourself, stay far away from the Orange Blossom cupcake. Urban Cookies also makes cookies and other desserts. Now that they’ve moved, it may be worth returning to try some other desserts offered on their menu.
For more information about Urban Cookies, check out their website.
Have you been to this bakery? Did you enjoy your experience? Do you agree with my review? Comment below!
Price: $3.59 – $3.79 each / $43.08 – $45.48 per doz (+ tax) for cupcakes. See their website for complete pricing.
Atmosphere: 3/5
Service: 4/5
Food: 3.5/5

Abyssinia Restaurant: Delicious Adventure

As a foodie, I make a point of trying as many unfamiliar foods as I can. I’ve had British, French, German, Mexican, Italian, Russian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, and other cuisines from all around the world. I am least familiar with cuisine from Africa. Last year around the new year, I vowed to take more “tiny adventures.” This concept belongs to the Tiny Adventure Club, who encourages people to step out of their comfort zone. Trying Ethiopian food for the first time seemed like a good way to get started.

 
Abyssinia Restaurant & Cafe is a tiny hole-in-the-wall downtown down the street from the VA hospital in downtown Phoenix (7th St. & Indian School). It was a rainy night when I tried to hunt down the small restaurant, tucked into the corner of a nondescript strip mall. I must have driven past this place a million times and never noticed it. In fact, I passed by it the first time by accident. The sign on the building isn’t as clear, and I may have been distracted by a neighboring neon sign.
 
I was wary at first. The exterior doesn’t stand out, and the neighborhood isn’t the greatest. Stepping in from the cold rainy night was like being transported to a new world. The interior was brightly decorated. Every table was lit with a small candle. The portrait of an unfamiliar monarch hangs on the wall.

The tables were spacious, but there’s always something off-putting about the sticky plastic covers often placed over table mats.
There were others in the restaurant, but it was quiet. We were seated in a back corner for privacy. The staff seemed to consist of two people, a man and woman. Rather than feel ignored, the two seemed to do the work of five people. They visited often to check on us with bright smiles.
 
Fun fact: Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of coffee. I ordered a traditional coffee ceremony. Naturally I had no idea what was in store. The female employee emerged from the kitchen with a hot skillet of coffee beans. She was roasting them by hand and had come to waft the strong, earthy scent for the table.
 
After checking the Yelp, it came to my attention that the female employee is the owner. She is a warm, friendly woman prepared for our unfamiliarity with her dishes. At her suggestion, we ordered an Azeb Gouda Mixed Platter. This way we could try a little of everything. Most Ethiopian dishes are served with a thin, not-quite sour bread made from fermented teff flour called injera. Atop our large injera were a variety of colorful dishes similar to the consistency of stew.
 
According to their menu, this dish offers a sample of zilzil tibs (braised beef with peppers), gomen besiga (beef with greens), quanta firfir (sun-dried meat sauteed with garlic, onion, and special butter), and Ethiopian cheese. I’ve done my best to identify each separate component. I don’t recognize every dish, so I wonder if they provided a unique platter to give us an authentic first experience. Extra injera is divided so you can scoop up one (or more!) of the colorful offerings.

 

 

The zil-zil tibs are located in the middle. It’s no wonder why they made it the star of the platter. It was by far my favorite, savory and a perfect consistency. I was afraid it might be mushy. At the bottom of the plate is the gomen besiga, slightly sour, slightly bitter greens reminiscent of collard greens. On the left is quanta firfir, providing a brighter element in a plate of fermented and sour dishes. The yellow dish consists of corn, which offered a sweetness to cleanse my palette.

This was my first time having Ethiopian food, so I know I’m definitely not the expert. However, I can tell you that I enjoyed every aspect of my meal. The restaurant was cozy and quiet, perfect for a more adventurous but still intimate date night. The staff was kind and accomodating to guests who are unfamiliar to their fare. The coffee was strong and rich, and the food was well balanced with a variety of flavors. Between the amount of food and the vehicle for eating (your hands and some bread), I’d highly recommend this for a group of friends looking to have fun and try something new.

If you’d like more information, check out their website!

Price: $10-$20 per person

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 5/5

Food: 5/5

 

 

Pappadeux’s: Fresh Cajun Flavors

Finding fresh seafood is no easy feat in the desert. I’m known for my tendency to avoid seafood if I’m not sure of the source. How fresh can it be if you had to ship it in from somewhere else? High-end restaurants may be able to fly in same-day catches, but most places in the Valley lack that luxury. Even so, a Louisiana Cajun-style chain has earned a reputation for their spicy Southern-comfort seafood.
Pappadeux’s, located at Peoria and the I-17, is situated in a large building with an open layout. At night, lights illuminate a green courtyard out front with a fountain. Entering into the building brings about a change in scenery. Stuffed fish hang on the walls with kitschy pictures over red tables and chairs. Overall the dining area has a comfortable, casual atmosphere.
On an early Sunday afternoon, the restaurant was uncrowded, but grew busier as time passed. With the quality of service and food, I would assume it’s usually more crowded.

Our waitress was friendly and accommodated the waves of our party arriving separately. She has mastered her timing, never interrupting the flow of conversation or dining, yet always available when needed. Her knowledge of the menu was extensive. When I asked a more complicated question, she was willing and eager to ask the chef.
The comfortable atmosphere in combination with the friendly, well-timed service made the amazing food that much more enjoyable.

Appetizers

We started simple with some fried calamari and fried alligator, a dish I didn’t think we could get in Arizona. Both were fried to crispy perfection without an excess of grease. The meat inside was tender and juicy, a delicate balance between textures that I’ve never seemed to manage when frying my own food.
These choices may seem adventurous, but alligator tastes similar to any other white meat. Calamari is a bit chewy by nature, so if you dislike chewy textures I would avoid this item. Fortunately, our calamari was cooked without making the meat rubbery and hard to eat.
Both meats were served with sauces, a garlic aoli for the calamari and a spicy sauce for the alligator. While the sauces added an extra punch, the spices in the breading provided enough flavor to keep me from smothering the meat in sauce.

Entrees

The menu has a diverse selection of entrees from catfish to lobster. Keep in mind, if you don’t care for seafood, your options are limited. It’s called Pappadeaux’s Seafood Kitchen, so if you’re not there for the fish, why are you even there?
I can honestly say I’ve never had fish this good in the Valley. When I ate seafood in Maine, the key was to rely on pure, natural flavors; all you needed was a little butter. Pappadeux’s, on the other hand, utilizes the freshness of the fish combined with a powerful array of herbs and spices.

Catfish Etouffe

1. Glazed Cedar Plank Salmon
This was the dish that caught everyone’s eye. It’s a beautiful pink cut of salmon served on a wooden block of cedar. This is a common way to cook fish that imbues the fish with a smoky flavor. The asparagus was crisp, not overcooked or mushy whatsoever. The salmon was a beautiful amber color from the mustard glaze. Often when salmon is overcooked, you end up with a distinct fishy taste. This fish was fork-tender and cooked to perfection with a balance between the marinade and its natural flavor.

2. Catfish with Red Beans and Rice

This is a classic New Orleans dish, so I was hoping for some originality. Instead, I got a rather plainly presented dish of spiced, fried catfish with beans and rice. It wasn’t as spicy as I was hoping, but it’s obvious the kitchen has mastered the art the fish fry. The bland presentation left much to be desired, but the flavor is perfect for the picky eater. If you were looking for your favorite Louisiana meal, you’ll get what you ordered. This dish is a classic for a reason, but don’t expect a revelation.

3. Grilled Costa Rican Mahi

This was my personal favorite and without competition, the best fish I’ve ever had. The fish was perfectly cooked, warm, buttery, and moist. Hot peppers added a bit of an extra kick, but light enough not to disrupt the flavor of the fish. I wouldn’t even put lemon on it. It cut through without difficulty, but it didn’t fall apart. I immensely enjoyed the pieces of crab meat, which added a firmer texture to the dish. The fish was served in neatly atop some creamy grits and buttery squash. I could eat this every day for the rest of my life

Desserts


 

1. Andes Mint Cheesecake

If you’re like me, the best part about Olive Garden was the Andes mints at the end of the meal. Pappadeux’s has taken this a step further, making these minty treats into a rich, creamy cheesecake. The color is not a bright green, which I would have considered off-putting. The chocolate cookie crust helped cut through the mint, preventing a “one-note” flavor. I enjoyed the cool mint taste after a meal laden with spice. Plus, who doesn’t like a dessert made out of their favorite candy?

2. Praline Bread Pudding Souffle

This souffle embodies the soul of the South. Bourbon and praline are two classic Southern flavors. Together they create a savory-sweet twist on an underrated dessert. The souffle, served in a ramekin, stays hot, but gets a little mushy toward the bottom. The crunch on top should keep .p .

3. Banana Pudding

The banana pudding would not be my first choice when offered the other options on the menu. They did their best to play with new additions to a plain dessert. Whole slices of banana and vanilla wafers add extra texture and a more natural flavor than banana extract.

Pappadeux’s was a delightful meal full of flavorful spices and fresh seafood, a true gem in a this dry, hot desert. I would recommend this bright restaurant for family dinners and gatherings. It may be suitable for a fun date with good food, but it’s a down-home, comfortable atmosphere. You can impress with the food, but not the atmosphere. You are paying for fresh seafood, so larger parties can end up with a hefty bill.
To find out more about Pappadeux’s, check out their website.
Price: $30 and under per person
Atmosphere: 4/5
Service: 5/5
Food: 5/5