By Gwen Ashley Walters | NOVEMBER 17, 2013 | NEWS & NIBBLES


According to legend, 100 years had elapsed and no koi ever made it past the treacherous waterfall at the end of a long, arduous upstream journey. Most koi turned around without even trying. A few hundred kept swimming ahead, over and over again, to no avail. No one knows why, but one fateful day, a single koi finally leaped high enough to clear the formidable waterfall. As a reward for his dedication and perseverance, the gods turned the victorious koi into a golden dragon who spent the rest of eternity soaring high above earth, tucked safely away in the heavens.

Back on earth, four friends, who met while working in a modern Italian restaurant in Phoenix, started their own determined journey upstream a year ago. On November 25 (pending final inspections), these focused thirty-somethings will reach the waterfall they’ve been metaphorically swimming toward the past 12 months.


Photo courtesy of Clever Koi. (L-R) Joshua James, Jared Porter, Nicholas Campisano, Joe Absolor

Chefs Jared Porter and Joe Absolor, General Manager Nick Campisano, and Beverage Director Joshua James are set to open one of the most anticipated new restaurants in Phoenix this year: Clever Koi, a modern Asian-American tavern.

Conveniently located on the Metro Light Rail just north of Indian School Road on Central Avenue, Clever Koi once housed a furniture store. Construction on the infill development project began more than four months ago with the splitting of the old building into two distinct spaces. A covered breezeway separates the two buildings; Clever Koi to the south and a proposed salon and wine bar to the north.


Photo courtesy of Clever Koi

All four partners took an active role in the construction, wielding hammers, drills and welding torches (above), and the occasional rock hauling for the landscaped front patio (below). They partnered with nearly a dozen local craftsmen, including Bang Bang Designs, who, among other things, salvaged wood beams from the inside demolition and repurposed them into a long, rustic bench on the front patio.


Photo courtesy of Clever Koi. (L-R) Joe Absolor, Nicholas Campisano

Are these first time restaurateurs nervous? You bet, but they are also electrified by the opportunity to “bring something different” to the dining scene.  Clever Koi is billed as a casual, modern Asian restaurant, yet not a single one of them is Asian. That doesn’t phase them because they aren’t trying to duplicate “authentic” Asian cuisine.

“Jared and I traveled a lot over the past few years to Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco,” says Absolor. “We started [eating in] Italian restaurants but found ourselves gravitating to the Asian stuff.”

They concluded there was nothing in Phoenix like what they were eating in these food-centric cities. That both thrilled — and scared — them as they formulated their future restaurant.

Porter says, “We’ve been trying to figure out if there is a desire for this [type of] food. We love it, but will it transfer from those food cities to here?”

That is the $64,000 question. Is Phoenix ready to embrace what the top food cities have been slinging for the past decade?

Come back later and we’ll share more details from our interview with the four partners, including what’s on the menu and a surprise the partners didn’t count on that put the opening date in jeopardy.

Clever Koi
4236 N. Central Ave., Phoenix

By Gwen Ashley Walters | FEBRUARY 19, 2012 | RESTAURANT JOURNAL

In 1993, I dined at Aqua in San Francisco, a restaurant headed by a 20-something, Egyptian-born, American-bred chef named Michael Mina. To me, it was revolutionary.

It was the first time I ate a piece of fish that wasn’t caught by my mother and subsequently fried. I don’t remember what type of fish it was, but I remember it was buttery, delicate and visually stunning. And I remember being mesmerized by the look and feel of Aqua — a sparkling Poseidon wonderland.

Before that exalted dinner, I was in the early stage of a fateful affair with food, the result of marrying into a family whose womenfolk were phenomenal Southern home cooks. The Aqua experience was another piece of a puzzle I was subconsciously putting together — revealing a map that would lead me in whole new direction. Less than two years later, I left the corporate world and moved across the country to attend culinary school.

Fast forward to the summer of 2008, when I received an assignment from my editor at PHOENIX magazine to review a new steakhouse at The Scottsdale Princess resort called Bourbon Steak — a Michael Mina restaurant. There was plenty of scandalous buzz surrounding the opening of Bourbon Steak, most notably a $175 Japanese A5 Kobe strip steak on the menu. I blew my generous budget before the end of my second visit, but I went back one more time on my own dime before I wrote the review to dive deeper into the estimable menu. (Yes, I did eat that conspicuous steak, and loved every bite.)

Mina recently celebrated 20 years as a successful chef and restaurateur during a tribute dinner in his eponymous San Francisco restaurant, Michael Mina — the former home of Aqua, where he began his meteoric rise.

Instead of kicking back and enjoying the spoils of celebrity chef fame, Mina is doing what he knows best: he is opening his 20th restaurant, a new concept called Pabu, a Japanese izakaya at the Baltimore Four Seasons, in collaboration with his friend, Chef Ken Tominaga, owner of Hana Japanese in Santa Rosa.

Mina was in Scottsdale last week to visit his team and help introduce a few new seasonal dishes. I caught up with him after he’d spent the day writing the new menu, tasting the new dishes and generally cheer-leading his team, headed by Executive Chef Daniel Patino.

Mina and Patino courtesy of Bourbon Steak

Sitting outside, he comments on one of the reasons he looks forward to coming to town: the weather.

“It’s so calm, so still — there’s no wind,” he says. “Where we are, you don’t have many nights where you can sit out after work and relax.” He doesn’t even mind the hot Arizona summers, a welcome change of pace from his usually chilly base in the Bay Area.

I tell him about trying the infamous $175 steak, and he laughs. I ask if the economy drove it off the menu. The steak did generate buzz, he says, but no, it wasn’t the economy. Japan stopped exporting their Kobe beef to the U.S. It’s just as well, Mina says, citing the sensibilities that came with the economic crash in late 2008, plus the increasing quality of the more reasonably priced American Wagyu.

“Anyone who tells you the economy doesn’t impact high end restaurants? Well, that’s not the case. Only a few restaurants are that bullet proof,” he says.

Bourbon Steak in Scottsdale has weathered the recent rough waters by building a loyal, local clientele. Relying on resort guests, Mina says, can only take a restaurant so far. He believes the reason the restaurant has not only survived, but thrived, is because they work hard to appeal to locals through seasonal menu changes and attention to detail, especially focusing on the guest experience via exceptional service.

Mina’s Recipe for Success

With 19 — almost 20 — restaurants in 10 different cities, Mina has plenty to keep track of, including more than 1,300 employees. How does he do it?

“Well, I was very fortunate. I’ve had two opportunities to do this, first with Aqua. When I spun off [to form the Mina Group], I had the chance to start over, and I made a commitment to building an infrastructure before building a restaurant. I’ve had a lot of good people who worked with me for many years. We’ve grown up together, really, and that team became the core of my company,” he says.

Part of Mina’s infrastructure is a website developed for just the staff, both in the kitchen and the front of the house. Mina is also committed to constant training and education. The website, which took five years to create, contains thousands of recipes and videos.

Chef Matthew Taylor of Phoenix-based Restaurant noca, who was Executive Sous Chef at the Las Vegas Michael Mina restaurant at the Bellagio and the Nobhill Tavern at the MGM Grand for two years before taking over at noca last fall, says “Mina surrounds himself with great people and he’s not ego-driven — at all.”

Taylor also says that at any given moment, Mina can tell you exactly what’s going on in each restaurant — from what is on the menu to the financial forecasts. Taylor helped create content for the staff website, and says there’s nothing else like it.

“It’s really cool,” Taylor says. “There are recipes for every dish and videos for each dish — videos showing how to cook the dish, videos on how to plate it, and in some cases, how to serve it.”

While the rest of us can’t access the private staff database, we can get a glimpse of Mina’s cooking philosophy on the public website through a series of short cooking videos demonstrating his mantra of “acidity, sweetness, spice and richness.”

“What’s really fun is when you get into things that combine these [attributes], like pineapple or green apple, with both acid and sweetness,” he says.

Some of Mina’s favorite ingredients? They all fit into one of his four cornerstones of balanced cooking. He adores citrus and Banyuls, an aged French red wine vinegar (acid); and radishes, ginger and chiles (heat); and coconut cream and avocado (richness).

Exchange of Knowledge

Mina says he was lucky. “I was center stage of a major restaurant at a young age. That doesn’t happen very often. I got to learn from watching great people who came to work for me and I had a very open mind. I still do. Now when I want to learn something, I learn from my chefs. It’s an exchange of knowledge and it’s great.”

Twenty years later, Mina is still drawn to the same thing that led him to cooking in the first place: a desire to understand the craft of cooking.

Almost as many years later, so am I, thanks in part to Mina.

The Mina Group

Bourbon Steak
The Scottsdale Fairmont Princess Resort
7575 E. Princess Drive, Scottsdale


By Gwen Ashley Walters | NOVEMBER 15, 2011 | RESTAURANT JOURNAL

Steam rose seductively from the pushcart’s top like the smoke from an illicit cigarette. We just had to stop because the tamal lady and her tiny, wrapped bundles of “corn love” might not be there on the way home.

Of course, stopping meant that we would be late picking up my father from work, which had consequences. He was the editor of our hometown newspaper and punctuality, like grammar, was akin to godliness; not so much in the religiousness sense, but in the goodness sense. If you tell someone you are going to be there at noon, by goodness, you’d better be there at noon.

The tamales were a fleeting luxury and one my mother couldn’t pass up. Once spotted, an eager gringo public snapped up the tamales, and the tamal lady might not show up again for months. Dad eventually stopped complaining about the brawny pork smell that permeated our car on these rare occasions, but he never developed mom’s love of homemade tamales.

I suspect Mom wouldn’t have been so enthralled with the tamales either if she’d attempted to make some herself. There is a reason homemade tamales are reserved for special occasions like Christmas, or the birth or baptism of a child, or any number of familial celebrations that bring loved ones together.

A Labor of Love

Making tamales is a time-consuming, tedious endeavor, which is why many families, even in Mexico, says Azucena Tovar, owner of Los Sombreros restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona, opt for buying tamales from other families instead of making their own.

Cornhusks must be soaked for hours. The masa must be laboriously whipped to perfection with just the right amount of fat and liquid. Tamal fillings must be prepared in advance, some taking a day or two to prepare alone.

Once all the components are assembled, the real work begins. Masa is spread just so on the soaked corn husks. A dab of filling is added, and the masa is gathered up and gently squeezed to encase the filling. The husks are folded and then tied with thin strips of more cornhusks. Finally, the tamales are steamed until they are just done: the masa firm, but not too firm. It’s a process best tackled by multiple hands.

Tovar remembers her own family buying tamales from a neighbor, instead of making them at home. “My mom was very busy, she was an entrepreneur,” says the equally busy and entrepreneurial Tovar, “and she had 11 children, so there was no time to make tamales. But we always had tamales at Christmas, of course. We just bought them from neighbors instead of making them ourselves.”

Tovar’s mother owned a market, selling among other things fresh poultry, artisan cheeses, and milk straight from a nearby farm. Tovar grew up in the Mexican colonial city of San Miguel de Allende with a household cook – drinking fresh squeezed orange juice and nibbling on homemade tortillas – but apparently the cook drew the line at the arduous task of making tamales. With neighbors nearby willing to sell them to other neighbors, it seemed the rationale way to go.

When Tovar opened Los Sombreros with partner Jeffrey Smedstad in 1994, it didn’t take them long figure out that their busy neighborhood residents could also use some handmade tamales. So in 1995, the couple began offering The Twelve Tamales of Christmas during the holiday season. When Tovar bought out Smedstad’s interest in Los Sombreros in 2006, she was determined to keep the twelve tamales tradition alive.

The first year Los Sombreros sold a couple hundred packages, and the next year, as word spread beyond the neighborhood, residents from all over the valley were calling to order the tamales, all beautifully boxed up and decorated with Christmas ornaments. As the restaurant gained national attention from the top food magazines, people from all over the country were calling to order the Christmas tamales.

Tovar says that’s when things got a little crazy, the year they tried incorporating mail order into the mix to satisfy the growing demand. She’s comfortable producing about 2,000 packages during the season these days, and selling them strictly in the valley. Still, 2,000 packages equates to 24,000 tamales. The key to producing that many handcrafted tamales is organization – that, and nimble fingers.

Because Los Sombreros is only open for dinner, the staff takes advantage of early November and December mornings, transforming the tiny kitchen at the corner of Scottsdale Road and Virginia into a virtual tamal factory. Shortly after 6 a.m. each morning, soaked cornhusks are spread out, covering every inch of kitchen counter space. The next eight hours are a Zen-like whirl of masa-spreading, filling topping, rolling, tying, steaming, cooling and packaging.  At 2 p.m., the operation is halted; the kitchen is scrubbed clean and restocked for the evening service.

Tamale Time

For the 16th year in a row, Los Sombreros is taking orders for the 12 Tamales of Christmas between November 16 and December 23. Sometimes the line of customers waiting to pick up their bundles of corn nirvana, stretches a city block.

Avoid the long lines by ordering early (the restaurant needs 48 hours notice and pre-payment anyway). Even though the tamales are fresh, Tovar says you can freeze them for a couple of weeks.

The flavors of the 12 tamales are partially inspired from her hometown of San Miguel de Allende, where six flavors – not a dozen – are more common. Other flavors are gleaned from Tovar’s travels throughout Mexico, like Oaxaca where chocolate tamales are common, and the Yucatan, the inspiration for spicy pork seasoned with a touch of habanero.

There are vegetarian tamales, meat lover tamales, cheese lover tamales and dessert tamales. Traditional tamales, such as beef and pork, are part of the dozen, but these “traditional” tamales are far superior to those street corner tamales my Mom coveted all those years ago.

In essence, there are tamales for every taste among the delectable dozen.

Best of all, they’re already gift wrapped, so to speak.

The Twelve Tamales of Christmas

Fresh Green Corn
Chorizo & Black Bean
Rajas & Cheese
Pineapple & Raisin
Red Chile Beef
Spicy Pork
Chipotle Pork
Beef & Cheese
Smoked Chicken & Chipotle
Tomatillo & Chicken
Dark Chocolate

photos courtesy of Los Sombreros

Los Sombreros
2534 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale

Call or visit the website to order.
November 16 through December 23
$29.95 for 12 Tamales of Christmas


By Gwen Ashley Walters | SEPTEMBER 26, 2011 | RESTAURANT JOURNAL

Chef Jeff Smedstad is one cool cat. The bandana tied around his head keeps his curly, salt-and-pepper locks out of his eyes. Dressed in chef whites, he’s rocking out at his temple to corn, the Elote Cafe in Sedona, Arizona.

Smedstad has a tight-knit band of brethren (others might call them employees) who understand and execute his vision. As a result, Smedstad’s four year-old, casual Elote Cafe is one of the best Mexican restaurants in the state — possibly in the whole U.S. People are starting to notice.

Tourists are mesmerized by Elote. Locals are charmed. Mention dining in Sedona, and Elote bubbles to the top.

Smedstad, tall, handsome, and rather Zen-like, isn’t fazed by awards or accolades or whatever. He’s just doing his thing. His “thing” drives people in droves to the second floor of the King’s Ransom Hotel, only to cool their heels because a drove of others arrived before them.

Elote Cafe — without apology — doesn’t take reservations, and when the doors open at 5:00 p.m., there is only so much a 70-or-so seat restaurant can do. Waits ensue. People don’t seem to mind too much, though, because Smedstad doesn’t take those waiting to feast on the king’s corn for granted.

The bar, just left of the hostess stand, is ready and waiting with a bowl of spiced popcorn and a margarita or a local beer (or Mexican beer), or a glass of Arizona wine.

If you like ginger, try the ginger margarita. It’s biting — in a good way — with reposado tequila, fresh ginger-lime juice, and a rim of salt mixed with ground ginger.

Like that spice on the popcorn? You can pick up a jar from the wooden case next to the hostess stand. Smedstad is laid back, but he’s also savvy. He’s successfully packaged Elote in to-go mementos, such as the spice mix and his Elote Cafe Cookbook, now in its third printing. He’s even working on a second cookbook, which he says will be more personal, but still grounded in the cuisine he’s loved and cooked for more than 20 years.

Elote, the Mexican word for cob, generally refers to a hand-held street snack of grilled corn on the cob, slathered in mayo, rolled in tangy cotija and sprinkled with ground chile.

Smedstad’s twist is deconstruction. He cuts the corn from the cob, mixes it with mayo and a splash of cream and hot sauce, and cooks it in a seasoned skillet until it’s thick and creamy. The kitchen makes gallons of it every night. It looks rich but it’s not heavy, unless you eat the whole bowl yourself. Easy to do.

Although he doesn’t shout it from the rooftop (or even splatter it all over the menu), Smedstad embraces seasonality, sourcing local products like heirloom tomatoes and sunflower sprouts from a farmer down the road in Cottonwood.

Oaxacan cheese, layered between juicy tomato slices in his tomato salad, is pulled daily in the kitchen.

Forgive my blurry pictures. I couldn’t adjust the camera in time to capture the fast pull-and-stretch and ultimate gathering-in-a-ball of this mozzarella-like cheese.

Back at the table, my hand is much steadier. But not for long, as I tear into smoked pork cheeks sitting on top of a corn pancake, surrounded by a fresh tomato sauce tinged with Mexican oregano, the whole thing drizzled with a lime aioli.

Succulent doesn’t even begin to describe the fork-tender meat. It practically melts in my mouth.

Smedstad sends out a butternut squash soup with an aged sherry reduction, salsa verde and toasted pepitas. The flavors silently scream, or was that me?

If the elote dish is the signature appetizer, the lamb adobo is the signature entree.

The magic starts with a slow smoke outside the restaurant in an old commercial banquet cart that Smedstad rigged as a smoker. After the smoke, the lamb shanks are simmered in a sauce of chiles, garlic, a touch of brown sugar, cinnamon and clove until the sauce is as thick as molasses.  If you can only order one dish, this is the one.

Of course you must save room for dessert, and Elote’s chocolate tamal and pumpkin flan are exquisite. We took advantage of a special dessert, blackberry ice cream made with blackberries foraged nearby.

Sedona is Arizona’s second most popular tourist attraction, after the Grand Canyon. And while there are several noteworthy restaurants in Sedona, there is only one Elote Cafe … well on its way to becoming the third most popular attraction, and well worth the wait.



Elote Cafe
771 Highway 179, Sedona, AZ


Open Tuesday through Saturday

5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Reservations are not accepted

By Gwen Ashley Walters | JANUARY 01, 2011 | RESTAURANT JOURNAL

Partners Becky Windels and Susan Smederovac-Wilcox were hoping for a quiet, “soft” opening for The Herb Box, as most restaurant owners do, but that didn’t happen.

The Herb Box in Old Town Scottsdale officially opens today, just in time for the mayhem known as Fiesta Bowl week.

“We ended up with a hard opening — The Herb Box way,” Chef Windels quipped.

As if opening to the public wasn’t enough, the new Herb Box is hosting ESPN’s “green” room for the coming week, too.

Fortunately, this isn’t the dynamic duo’s first rodeo. The Herb Box started out as a catering business (which still accounts for a significant part of the business) in 1995 at Shea Boulevard.

Windels says that location is transferring to this new Southbridge prime spot, while the DC Ranch restaurant and market will continue to serve North Scottsdale.

Oh, and they just opened an Herb Box branch in a Minnesota health club last month, too.

In just over two months, Windels and Wilcox transformed the former Estate House restaurant space into a contemporary, bright and airy space, adding patio doors and moving the bar from one side of the room to the other. The patio doors and the new windows to the bar will bring a little bit of the outside inside.

The Estate House’s muted, butter-colored walls have been replaced with splashes of color — tangerine, navy blue and cream — and The Herb Box’s trademark use of bold accent patterns add just a touch of whimsy here and there.

There is just as much seating outside on the wrap-around, two-tiered patio as there is inside.

On the way to the bathrooms, a portal offers a tiny glimpse into the sparkling white kitchen.

On the other side of the door, the staff gets a gentle reminder that it’s “showtime” before they step into the dining room.

The menu is packed with dishes that have put The Herb Box on the fresh-is-best map with huge market salads (my favorite is the Urban Market Steak Salad ($15) a mixture of medium rare steak with watercress, avocado, bacon and sweet dried corn with a tangy blue cheese vinaigrette.

There are shared plates (I’m crazy about the fried olives), wraps, sandwiches, flat breads and The Herb Box’s signature butternut squash corn enchiladas with a tomatillo sauce (vegetarian and gluten free, by the way).

Facing Steton Drive is the grab-and-go Herb Box Market. In the morning, sit at French market patio tables with an espresso and a house-made pastry, or at lunch, pick up a cup of soup or a sandwich to go.

Soon you’ll be able to buy a bottle of wine to take with a wrapped plate of cheese and salumi, or grab an entree to take home for dinner.

“This is my baby, my playground” Windels said, gesturing to the corner market.

The Herb Box is a member of Slow Food and supports local growers like The Simple Farm and Maya’s Farm.

Today’s opening of The Herb Box is another compelling reason to linger in the Old Town Scottsdale/Southbridge area, already populated with the award winning FnB, Cowboy Ciao and Metro Brassiere, just to name a few.

Congrats to Chef Windels, Wilcox and The Herb Box team.

The Herb Box
Old Town Scottsdale
7134 East Stetson Drive, Scottsdale

By Gwen Ashley Walters | DECEMBER 23, 2010 | RESTAURANT JOURNAL

Instead of an acquired taste, perhaps an acquired texture is more accurate.

On the menu at a Chinese noodle shop (where I adored the hand pulled noodles, by the way) I spot “spicy pig’s ear” offered in two sizes: small ($4.50) or large ($7.75).

Pig’s ear was also printed on the daily specials board.

Curious? You bet, since I’d never had them before — and they were not only on the menu but the specials board, too. It was time.

Now that I have had them, I can confidently say: I don’t care for them. But after some research, I learned there are plenty of people who do.

I even found a recipe in one of my favorite cookbooks, David Tanis’s A Platter of Figs, although his experience with pig’s ear came in Paris. How did I miss that the 15 times I’ve read through his book?

Apparently, chilled, sliced pig’s ear is a common treat in China, usually served with beer.

Admittedly, the flavor was appealing — the ears were glazed in a barely-sweet, dark soy sauce, and there was that unmistakable delicious pork flavor.

The problem for me was the texture. Crunchy isn’t quite accurate and neither is chewy — it fell somewhere in between crunchy and chewy.

No offense to anyone who delights in chilled, sliced pig’s ear, but I think next time I’ll skip the ear and take the beer.

By Gwen Ashley Walters | DECEMBER 09, 2010 | RESTAURANT JOURNAL

Chef Bryan Dooley of Bryan’s Black Mountain Barbecue is a thoughtful guy. In the midst of smoking hundreds of pounds of beef, pork and chicken, he thinks about vegetarians.

“I think about vegetables the way a vegetarian restaurant does,” he says. “To me, vegetables shouldn’t be an afterthought.”

True, and that’s why I named his vegetarian “pulled” spaghetti squash sandwich one of the best sandwiches (meat or otherwise) in the January 2010 issue of PHOENIX Magazine.

Make no mistake, Bryan’s BBQ is a meat lovers haven, but Dooley always has something up his chef’s coat sleeve for those who eschew meat. Besides the pulled squash sandwich that’s on the menu year-round, Dooley offers seasonal items, often geared toward the non-meat eaters.

This past summer, he whipped up a juicy heirloom tomato sandwich and this fall, he dazzled diners with a fried artichoke po’ boy.

He’s tinkering in the kitchen again, thinking about what to offer his vegetarian friends this spring.

And he’s come up with something creative, incredibly tasty, and yet, a tad on the quirky side.

He calls it Veg-A-Pickle-Pie.

Veg-A-Pickle-Pie? I snickered when he first told me the name, but then I tasted it, and while it has a funny name, there’s nothing silly about the layers of flavor Dooley’s packed into his vegetable pie.

So what is it, exactly?

It’s a savory pie with a natural sweetness that comes from two root vegetables roasted to coax out the inherent sugars. He layers a pie crust with pureed roasted sweet potatoes spiked with chipotle.

Next, he sprinkles chopped, pickled green beans over the sweet potatoes. He experimented with spinach, but he’s leaning toward the pickled green beans. On top of the green beans, he layers a roasted beet and herb puree, and then he bakes it.

The kicker — what makes the flavors pop — is the topping of dill pickles.

“I made the pie and thought, yeah, this is nice, but then I put the pickles on it and said YEAH, that’s it,” he says.

I know what you’re thinking. Pickles? I thought the same thing until I tasted it with and without the pickles. The dilly vinegar really heightens the flavor of the beets.

Still, homey dill pickle slices on this gorgeous pie? Dooley likes the funky look of a crinkle-cut pickle covered pie, but I asked him, “why not julienne (matchstick) the pickles to dress it up a bit?” After all, he has a plume of lemon-pepper vinaigrette dressed watercress sitting on the side.

“I like the kinda Route 66 look of the down home pickle slices,” he says.

To humor me, he juliennes the pickle slices, and admits that it’s easier to get a taste of pickle with every bite of the pie.

Even though Dooley is a trained chef with years of high-end resort cooking under his belt, he considers himself, at heart, a simple BBQ guy.

OK, but what simple BBQ guy dreams up olive-studded coleslaw and root beer marinated apple rings with pink peppercorns?

Or, a roasted beet and sweet potato pie with dill pickles?

The verdict?

I’d order it — and I’m not a vegetarian. Of course, I’d order it with a side of the toothy pork ribs or the tender beef brisket that put Bryan’s BBQ on the must-eat Valley dining map.

Dooley’s still tinkering with the recipe, and hasn’t decided if this will be his spring Vegetarian special or not (there are some logistics to work out), but one thing is for sure:

The guy loves to play in the kitchen, and while he’s stoking the pecan wood fire in his smoker full of meat, he’s dreaming of delicious ways to bring vegetarians to his table.

So what do you think? Would you order the Veg-A-Pickle Pie?

Bryan’s Black Mountain BBQ
6130 East Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek

photo credits:1, 2, 3: Bryan Dooley; 4, 5: Gwen Ashley Walters

By Gwen Ashley Walters | JULY 29, 2010 | RESTAURANT JOURNAL

Culturally speaking, Phoenix became much richer on April 24, with the opening of MIM, the world’s first global musical museum, a 190,000 square-foot, two-story complex featuring more than 10,000 instruments and associated objects.

Perhaps the best kept secret of the barely 3-month old museum is the bright and airy café located off the main wing.

And here’s another secret: you don’t have to purchase an admission ticket to eat in the café.

All you have to do is stop at the admissions desk and ask for a pass for the café.

Café might be a misnomer, as the set up is cafeteria-style, although this isn’t your run-of-the-mill cafeteria — or typical museum café for that matter.

The café is operated by Bon Appétit Management company, and the kitchen is run by Edward Farrow, a chef with serious credentials including the River Café in New York, The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, and Kai, Arizona’s only 5-Diamond restaurant.

While the setting seems like a cafeteria — shuffling through a food line, paying at a register at the end, and eventually, placing your tray on a conveyor belt headed for the dishwasher — the cuisine tells a different story.

The menu is driven by Bon Appetit’s “Circle of Responsibility” philosophy. Crafted — and subsequently labeled — with identifiers like “Organic,” “Vegetarian,” “Gluten Free,” Low Fat,” and “Farm to Fork.”

The Farm to Fork label means the ingredients are locally sourced, and Chef Farrow is on speed dial with local producers like Queen Creek Olive Mill, The Meat Shop, Fossil Creek Creamery, and Seacat Gardens.

The menu features a weekly soup and another that changes every two days ($2.95 cup/$3.95 bowl), just like the global special ($8.25), a personal-size pizza ($7.25), an AZ local special ($8.25), and a grill special ($8.25).

The global dish might be a braised rabbit panni, with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and havarti, served with a bowl of Mediterranean olives. (pictured above)

There are weekly deli sandwiches and burgers — beef, turkey and veggie — and even a hot dog.

House made potato chips ($1.75) with sea salt are made fresh daily.

Theoretically, you could eat here every day and never have the same dish twice.

The grill special could be a fine piece of halibut, rubbed with a sweet chile glaze, seared to just done, and served with a tomatillo-avocado salsa, and black, forbidden rice topped with pine nuts and sunflower seeds. (pictured below)

Did I mention it was only $8.25?

The Café at MIM makes all their desserts in-house, and they change frequently, too, like a cherry chocolate cream tart, a marble cake parfait and a Sonoran lemon cake, all $4.50.

For $6, there’s a local cheese plate, with cheese, flat bread, fig and date cake, and honey.

Could this little gem be one of the best lunch spots in the Valley? Maybe. It certainly exceeds the quality vs. price ratio.

And it couldn’t be easier to get to, located just one block south of the 101 off Tatum Boulevard.

On second thought, maybe we should just keep this little secret between us.

Café at the MIM
4725 East Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily

By Gwen Ashley Walters | JULY 02, 2010 | RESTAURANT JOURNAL

Ever wonder what it would be like to be behind the scenes in your favorite restaurant? I had the opportunity to spend a day with award-winning Chef Kevin Binkley of Binkley’s restaurant in Cave Creek, Arizona. Here’s what happened:

(Note: My article first appeared in Edible Phoenix)

Perched on a barstool in the most talked about restaurant in the valley, I can only see a fraction of the kitchen through the tiny window behind the bar. I am certain that there is more going on than meets the eye, but all I see is a tall man with a neatly trimmed goatee and Zen-like movements. Plate after plate is placed in the window before it disappears into the hands of a stealth-moving server.  What is going on back there that I can’t see? The curiosity is killing me.

Kevin and Amy Binkley opened Binkley’s Restaurant in the unlikely northern valley cowboy outpost of Cave Creek in May, 2004 to much fanfare. The local media persistently drool over Binkley’s edible art. It takes weeks to secure a reservation. Kevin’s champion culinary pedigree includes serious stints at two of the countries most renowned restaurants: Virginia’s The Inn at Little Washington, and The French Laundry in Napa Valley.

What would it be like to walk in his shoes for a day? I recently found out when Kevin agreed to let me shadow him for a day, from the moment he arrived, until he locked the doors at the end of the evening. Would I still be blinded by the glamour of Phoenix’s hottest new restaurant?

Just after noon on a Tuesday, Kevin leads me through the swinging doors to the kitchen.  I am transported from a quiet 52-seat dining room into another world; blinding lights, clanging pots, and muted chatter from a half dozen cooks milling about cramped quarters. Kevin introduces me to his crew, snuggled between a line of stoves on one side, and a slim countertop on the other. “I hire future chefs, not cooks,” he says. “They will leave here ready to open their own places.”

1:00 p.m. Kevin found out before he arrived that two of his key suppliers would be late. We squeeze our way through the line and he answers a handful of questions from his young cooks. We pause briefly at the 2 foot by 3 foot window that peers into the dining room, the stage from which he will conduct his band of artisans in a few hours.

He cleans a tray of Alfonsino, snapper-like red fish from New Zealand, which less than 48 hours ago were swimming in the ocean.  After scaling the fish, Kevin methodically fillets them with a long, sharp slicing knife, his favorite.

1:45 p.m. The stovetops are blazing, covered with a half dozen pots. More fresh fish arrives at the back door. A four foot Ono in a Styrofoam container is perched on ice. Kevin points out a chunk missing near the tail. “They removed that to check the quality. I only want sushi grade,” he says.

A pan of roasted chestnuts emerges from the oven and a cook with asbestos hands painstakingly peels them for tonight’s soup. Kevin finishes filleting the Alfonsino, showing me the white flecks in the flesh. “That’s fat content – it’s just buttery, and melts in your mouth,” he gushes.

2:15 p.m. A cook is wedged in the teeny pantry in the back working under a spotlight. He hollows an indentation in baked fingerling potatoes, scoops the flesh into a bowl, and mashes butter, crème fraîche, and herbs into the potato remnants. He carefully pipes the filling into the hollowed fingerlings, creating miniature twice-baked potatoes with perfectly coiffed tops. Before he makes the whole batch, he bakes off two to check the consistency of the filling.

2:45 p.m. Kevin turns his attention to a cook who is boiling hand-cut French fries. He says he learned the key to perfectly crunchy French fries while vacationing in London last summer. The secret is a triple cooking process. He first boils the potatoes, and then blanches them in 325 degree oil, before a final fry at 350 degrees when ordered.

3:00 p.m. Four cooks break away from their tasks to check in the late produce. Kevin is on the phone with his rep, complaining about the late delivery as his cooks scramble to dole out the supplies.

He tackles the Ono, slicing down one side of the backbone, taking steps as it is too long to cut in one fell swoop, even with his lengthy arm span. He turns the fish and cuts the other side and frowns. The flesh is not smooth. Bad handling he says, and instead of the 20 portions he was counting on, he only manages 13. The scraps are given to a cook to prepare for the staff meal.

3:25 p.m. More chestnuts are stripped from their roasted shells, as Kevin checks on the progress. Quietly disappointed, he instructs another cook to start a celery root soup, and makes a notation on the menu. Chestnuts are now slated as a garnish instead of the main attraction.

4:00 p.m. The mood in the kitchen switches gears – less talking and a quickened pace. Kevin scales Barramundi, farm-raised fish with mottled gray skin glinting pink and blue that will be roasted whole. Scales fly everywhere; one lands on my shoe that I find later, a badge of honor. He shows me the bright crimson gills. “It’s fresh as can be, but it’s also a function of how they kill it. They slowly decrease the water temperature, eventually freezing the fish to death,” he says. Cruel, I ask? He nods slowly and then shrugs, as if to say it is all part of the food chain.

He stops to sweep the floor around his station. No one bats an eye.

4:30 p.m. Kevin has his eye on everything and everyone, gently prodding some cooks. He chats with the pastry cook about a new dessert. She suggests bread pudding but he counters with panna cotta, with olive oil.  “Maybe add a vanilla bean in addition to extra virgin olive oil,” he says. He instructs a cook to puree the celery root soup after the staff meal.

5:10 p.m. The cooks adjourn to the dining room to review the menu with the servers, who ask questions about the origins of the evening’s entrées. Once they return to the kitchen, the cooks review prep lists, and gather all the ingredients they’ll need once the orders start rolling in.  Kevin’s hands are still for the first time all day. He slides on a crisp, clean chef’s coat. The party is about to start.

5:30 p.m. The first guests arrive, and Kevin chats with them through his window. The cooks are stacking piles of dishes and sauté pans near their stations. Kevin shows me three menus for the evening. “We don’t ‘86’ anything. We just print new menus and switch gears,” he says.

Only a few pots sit bubbling on the stove, a far cry from the height of thirteen I counted two hours ago. I’ve only seen a fraction of what really transpired these past five hours. Now it’s show time. I squeeze into a corner hoping to stay out of the fray.

6:00 p.m. The ticket machine spews its first order. Kevin calls out the courses by name, to no one in particular it seems, but the appropriate cook repeats the order and sets to work. Soon more orders rattle through the machine, and now four tickets hang under his window. Kevin is moving through the line, tasting everything, adjusting seasonings. He calls out for a VIP plate, a baby octopus salad, and then tells the customer at the bar “just because you’ve retired doesn’t mean you can get away with only two courses.”

6:30 p.m. The line is hopping. Kevin inspects a foie gras trio appetizer plate and gently chides the cook to “broaden her horizons, do something different,” with the balsamic reduction drizzle design. She asks if he’ll show her how he would do it. “You want me to do a plate for you,” he kids in his best mafia voice. “No,” she says, “I can handle it.” The ticket machine is spitting more orders. “One lamb, medium rare, one Ono, well done – what a shame,” he says. He believes this fish is best at medium, if not medium-rare.

7:00 p.m. A few minutes of calm preside over the kitchen and everyone takes the brief respite to clean their stations. The ticket machine cranks up again. Two cooks are huddled in the back, still peeling chestnuts. A cook puts an octopus salad in the window. Kevin pulls it down, and gently whispers something in the cook’s ear. The plate is rearranged and passes inspection. He hasn’t raised his voice once today, nor thrown any fits, nor made anyone feel inferior.

7:30 p.m. The appetizer station is behind. Kevin calls up two cooks from the back, both ecstatic to leave the chestnuts behind and join the front line. More tickets are flying out of the machine; he now has five in front of him. Plates are put in front of him with rapid succession, and he deftly addresses each one, fussing with the components. He marks his tickets as each plate leaves the kitchen. At any given time, he knows which table is on which course.

7:45 p.m. The line is bump and grind; a flurry of choreographed bounces. All that’s missing is a little Lambada music. The orders are whizzing through the ticket machine. Kevin calls them out; his cooks repeat the words, in zombie-like monotones, toggling between constructing plates and searing proteins. The appetizer station is in the weeds again and reinforcements reappear from the back. Arms reach over bodies, grabbing squeeze bottles and plates. The sound of sizzling meat drowns out the clattering ticket machine.

8:00 p.m. Kevin leans toward the window to shoot the breeze with guests; meanwhile the kitchen is in a chaotic modern dance, a furious pace. He calls for another VIP plate, this time seared duck breast with quinoa and candied mint. He returns another octopus plate to the cook and gently says, “Remember?”  The cook nods and tries again. Kevin inspects a salad with a crisp prosciutto garnish, and adds another one. “We’re cheap on the prosciutto tonight, are we?” chiding the cook. She has to fry more to make up for her boss’s generosity. He finishes assembling a half dozen other dishes and grabs more tickets, now multiplying like rabbits.

8:30 p.m. The cooks are moving at warp speed, their faces intent. Kevin checks with his expediter on the other side of the window for a pulse on the dining room. She tells him to slow down on table 22, they’re not progressing, but table 9 is ahead of schedule. The ticket machine coughs up two more orders. Kevin fillets a roasted fish, “I love roasting fish on the bone, it’s so juicy,” he says, handing me a piece that fell off the fillet. He softly tells the octopus plate-challenged cook to re-plate a duck appetizer, with a better mango design.

9:00 p.m. Only 2 tickets hang in front of Kevin as the machine cranks up again, and more guests arrive at the door. The cooks fill the lull in action with chestnut peeling. Kevin calls out more orders, and the line takes off again. He marks the tickets, now numbering five, keeping track of who’s on first. Tete de Moines is gathered in a ribbon by the girolle cutter, one of six cheeses for another VIP plate. He doles out a dozen VIP plates through the course of the evening.

9:30 p.m. Kevin fillets another whole fish, and tells me how his cooks can read him like a book. “Sometimes I just look at them, and they know what I want.” A guest returns a medium-cooked Ono for more cooking. Kevin asks if the guest knew it was supposed to be served medium. He rolls his eyes, but returns the fish to the line for a hot oil bath, requesting fresh garnishes and sides for the doomed fish. Three tickets are working and the machine spits out another order.

10:00 p.m. The hot line begins to break down as a friend of Kevin’s, another local chef, pops in to say hi. Kevin treats him to a thrice-cooked French fry, asking the chef if he’s ever tasted a more perfect fry. No, the chef says, savoring the crunch. The kitchen is slowing down. Cooks pull inventory from the refrigerators to count what’s left over. Kevin plates two last dishes, and then begins to put away his garnishes. He washes the counter and walls with a bucket of hot, soapy water. His stage gleams.

10:30 p.m. Kevin leaves the kitchen to circle the dining room, stopping at the handful of lingering tables. He sits at the bar to chat with his chef friend, and jots notes down on a piece of paper. The cooks are cleaning the kitchen, putting leftover inventory away and making their own notes.

10:50 p.m. Two tables are hanging on. Kevin orders a glass of zinfandel. The last guests leave and he stands to bid them goodnight. They stop and admire the framed Bon Appétit page proclaiming Binkley’s Restaurant one of the top “Hot 50: Where to Eat Now.”  He tells me after the guests leave that this was a good night. He jokes that he would have preferred a little more chaos. He is still two hours away from locking the door.

11:00 p.m. His friend takes off, and Kevin turns back to his notes. He wants to order some candy-stripe beets to add color to the roasted beet appetizer. He notes that the herb garden just off the kitchen side door needs watering, and he takes me into the back to check on his microgreens– radish, mustard greens, and amaranth, among others – suspiciously hidden high atop a shelf in the back pantry, nurtured by grow lights.  The cooks are almost finished cleaning, and he tells them to meet him in the dining room for the postmortem.

11:30 p.m. The cooks straggle to the front, chatting about who sold more food, how disasters were averted. Some grab a beer from the bar before settling down to business. Kevin announces he has shrimp coming in from Florida later in the week. He asks if there are enough roasted beets for tomorrow. He switches gears faster than a Maserati. “Duck breast, how many do we have? We’re good on soup?” he kids. Laughter erupts as everyone took a turn peeling chestnuts throughout the day.

12:00 a.m. Each cook has his or her prep list in front of them. Kevin has a copy of the menu. The pheasant will be replaced with veal. Do they want to do veal squared, he asks? Yes, cheek and sweetbread. He wants to bring in Red Oak lettuce from a local farm to add color to the salad greens. “Do we still have gooseberries?” he asks. Yes. “I say we do duck confit perogies, with gooseberries.” Kevin and his band of cooks speak like they move in the kitchen, a dance done a hundred times before. At the end of an hour, they have re-written more than half of the menu for tomorrow, and an order list is put together.

12:30 a.m. The cooks begin to disperse. Kevin sits alone at the table, reviewing the newly minted menu and assembling his order list. He calls in the orders, leaving detailed messages for a handful of suppliers. He smiles at me, not showing even a hint of exhaustion. In fact, he seems eerily peaceful. The last task is to turn off the lights, set the alarm and lock the door, but not before one last stroll through the kitchen, checking equipment, and pausing a moment to reflect on another day on the books. The party is over. At least until tomorrow.

Binkley’s Restaurant

6920 E. Cave Creek Road

Cave Creek, AZ 85331

(480) 437-1072

By Gwen Ashley Walters | JUNE 09, 2010 | RESTAURANT JOURNAL

Bryan’s BBQ in Cave Creek is known for their pecan smoked meats, traditional but creative sides (olive-studded coleslaw) and a fine bottle selection of craft brews. In fact, I reviewed them for Phoenix Magazine last year.

I just tasted a new tomato sandwich chef/owner Bryan Dooley and his sous chef Rob Olson put on the menu for summer.

Holy smokes.

What’s BBQ-y about this sandwich? Nothing.

Well, maybe the fact that they smoke the sea salt sprinkled on the tomatoes in the pecan wood oven.

And the djion mustard sauce has a smidgen of molasses. And they’re serving it with the soft white bread that comes with all the barbecue plates.

Of course, they’re slathering said bread with butter and toasting it to perfection on the griddle.

The watercress garnish? Well, they are a couple of trained chefs.

There isn’t anything fancy about this sandwich, though.

It’s just one delicious bite of summer.

Bryan’s Black Mountain BBQ
Tomato sandwich ($7.95, with 1 side)
6130 East Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek
(480) 575-7155

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