Justin Drinks: Penicillin Cocktail

Posted on September 27, 2013

The Penicillin Cocktail

The Varnish Bar, Los Angeles. May 2013.

Let me get this drink off my chest.

I love the simple ceremony of sitting at your favorite bar after a long day, drinking patient, precious cocktails that were crafted by highly attuned barmen (or women). For myself, an ideal drinking experience is letting go, avoiding the nearest cocktail menu, and relinquishing your fate to talented soldiers behind the bar.

If you were to ask me what’s my all-time favorite cocktail characteristic, I’d say fresh citrus without flinching. I love nothing more than acerbic, bright bites of fresh lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, you name it. Even with food, sparks of citrus often improve the experience.

I also love a smoky spirit. Mescal has always been a friend, I’ve always held loyalty to the varying spice of rye whiskey, and of course: the campfire magic of a single malt Scotch.

A perfect cocktail is a quilt of otherwise disparate flavors, sewn together to create something worth enjoying until the last drop. For me, when you go down this road, a “perfect cocktail” is the Penicillin – first exposed to a few years ago at a capable spot, while avoiding the cocktail menu, after a very long day.

There is a reason fresh lemon and a degree of whiskey (in the Penicillin’s case, a blended Scotch whisky) are familiar bedfellows. However, expand that pair, building with the fresh spice of raw ginger, the nutty sweetness of honey and a float of an Islay single malt Scotch, and the Penicillin’s winning formula moves front and center.

The Penicillin Cocktail - NYC Milk & Honey mixologist Sam Ross’ original recipe:

  • 2 ounces blended Scotch
  • 1⁄4 ounces Islay single malt Scotch
  • 3⁄4 ounces honey syrup (water-diluted honey)
  • 1⁄8 oz. fresh lemon juice
  • 3⁄8 oz. fresh ginger juice

A beautiful alternative is the Dutch Penicillin, most recently enjoyed by one of Arizona’s bucket-list bartenders and cocktail consultants, notable gentleman Travis Nass at The Last Drop Bar in Paradise Valley, Ariz., where the blended Scotch is swapped with Bols Genever, a still-smoky but quick-finishing Dutch style gin.

Grub Love: Fish Tacos at Tacos Atoyac

Posted on June 23, 2012

Tacos de pescado

A great taco is a bite hard to forget. A great fish taco is sometimes a bite hard to find.

From local hangouts to corporate franchises alike, fish tacos are ubiquitous, especially here in the Southwest, but an infestation of the bland erode our memory of the truly delicious.

If you haven’t already been to Tacos Atoyac in North Central Phoenix, you should go, now. Located on the NEC of Glendale and 19th Avenues, this spare, no-fuss spot is slightly ajar the well-traveled paths of many, however, it deserves any detour. It is simply one of the best taco spots in town. And yes: they serve some damn good fish tacos.

Sealed inside a thin crust of seasoned batter, Tacos Atoyac’s tacos de pescado present flaky, delicate hunks of searing hot white fish that give immediately. And like any wonderful, Baja-style fish taco, these few-bite handfuls are layered in pliable, warm flour tortillas with a crunchy, bitter cabbage and onion slaw and zags of a spiced, buttery crema.

From their creamy, warming horchata, their carne asada – perfectly charred – and their sinful Al Pastor (chopped pork marinated in pineapple; spices), seasoned to the point of perfumed, some serious thought goes into the food at this tiny, independent Phoenix taquería.

All varieties are super cheap (no taco over $1.50 each), arrive with a sachel of salty grilled onions and spicy jalapeños, and are each made-to-order. Whether you’re riding solo or standing in a line five-deep (I’ve been there), the consistency and patience adhered to each and every taco shoveled out of this humble, pocket-sized establishment is yet another reason to fall desperately in love with it.

Tacos Atoyac also serves menudo, and a whole list of burros, tortas, tamales, desserts, and so on. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to try any of them.

It’s those fish tacos I keep dreaming about most.

Tacos Atoyac | 1830 W. Glendale Ave | 602-864-2746 | North Central Phoenix

Tacos Atoyac on Urbanspoon

Justin Drinks: The Last Word Cocktail

Posted on March 19, 2012

With tumbles of thyme at Lux Central.

Justin Drinks is a column carrying the sole intent of highlighting beverages I love. Alcoholic and non, they are brief punches of drinkable love.

The Last Word is my kind of drink. Aromatic, sharp and provocative, it outlines the type of classy cocktails I adore.

Like many of history’s finest swills, the Last Word reads plain on paper. When painted precisely, however, it smacks with a delicate power that uncovers its quiet popularity. Perfumed by the witchery of green Chartreuse, rounded equally by gin’s juniper bite and the bitter cuff of maraschino liqueur―all electrified with the cut of fresh lime juice―as brief as the Last Word’s recipe card may be, this jade looker is no modest sip.

Too much Chartreuse? Too arresting. Too much gin? Too stiff. Too much maraschino liqueur? Too one note. Too much lime? Too abrasive. We’re talking a meticulous experiment in great booze.

Some garnish with fresh herbs, some instead trim with a complimenting slice of cucumber or wedge of citrus, however, most simply sink in a Luxardo or brandied cherry. The Last Word can be served up and proud, or humbly, washed over ice. Want to, dare I say, soften its might? Opt for a drip of simple syrup or agave.

Feeling moody? Substitute the gin with a fiery mezcal by ordering La Ultima Palabra, one of my favorite alterations. Or, have your barman make you the Last Word’s most well-known sibling the Final Ward, a rough, handsome sip that utilizes the distinct spice of rye whiskey in place of gin’s piney familiarity.

Whatever your method (or taste) may be, the Last Word remains one my gold-standards.

The Last Word:

  • 1 part gin (Plymouth is a great stand-by; Junipero for a kick)
  • 1 part green Chartreuse
  • 1 part maraschino liqueur
  • 1 part fresh lime juice

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Arizona: White Mountain Eating

Posted on March 4, 2012

The cabin road under winter's hold.

Benefiting from increased abuse of my in-law’s mountain refuge in Show Low, Ariz., an alpine escape is never more than a two and a half hour drive from Phoenix. During the summer months especially, this translates to a welcomed contrast of 80 degrees, woodsy breezes and afternoon thunder showers, to 115 and melting.

The idea of dining out in the Show Low, Pinetop-Lakeside and general White Mountain area(s) of eastern Arizona can be painful. However, after sustained homework of the region’s buffet over the years, I can now vouch for a growing selection of spots I’d declare worth a venture out for.

First, let’s be frank with what’s in abundance here. There is zero shortage of so-so BBQ in the area – meats absent of their tender intentions, under seasoned sides that taste like warming lamp leftovers, and neon-hued sauces that could incite shock. There is also no loss for hyper-Americanized Mexican restaurants, sub-par bar food (burgers, sandwiches, fried everything) and Italian restaurants that make the label “red-sauce” read endearing.

Non-comprehensive and non-exhaustive (my eyes are always open), below are eight food and drink related highlights in the area worth visiting, listed in no intentional order:

1. Grumpy Jake’s BBQ & Catering:

Peanuts while you wait.

Grumpy Jake’s BBQ is a definite light in the field. In fact, this is some of the better pulled pork and beef brisket in Arizona outside of the major cities. The meats are smoked and tender, the sauce is rightfully tangy, and a range of above-average sides also help bolster this barbecue experience. Update: Grumpy Jake’s has recently come under new ownership since my last visit; menu changes reported.

2. Cafe Bocado:

Pulled pork special at Cafe Bocado.

In an area so defined by similarities, anything that breaks the mold deserves praise. Fresh, almost entirely homemade fare highlights a decisively upmarket eatery buzzing with local creativity. Open for breakfast, lunch and now dinner, Cafe Bocado is a well-loved neighborhood outpost for those looking for something a little more satisfying, with a little more care and personality. Hearty sandwiches and substantial salads absorb the menu’s majority, however, a rotating selection of house-made baked goods, and an upstanding selection of quiches (think airy, pillowy pies of egg and varied savories, inches thick), make for an eating experience that emerges from the local fray. The recent addition of a dinner menu continues to wow in a local climate that tends to lack. From daily pastas, fresh smoothies and vegetarian options, to fish and other meaty specials, Cafe Bocado is hands-down the best food in a radius of about 50-plus miles. Local growers Linden Market also regularly sells their organic produce at Cafe Bocado on select days of the week. Stay tuned: Full feature on Cafe Bocado coming soon.

3. Sal & Teresa’s:

Rope lights and best Mex in town.

For what it lacks in curb appeal and atmosphere (fluorescent illumination that makes Wal-Mart feel sultry), Sal and Teresa’s is one of the original workhorses in the vicinity serving that saucy, old-school, Sonoran-style Mexican food we native Arizonan’s grew up indoctrinated with. With small cues to New Mexican and Tex-Mex staples, Sal and Teresa’s elevates what Mexican can be locally. The chile is hotter, the flavors a bit rounder, and, despite the frothing neon-cheese, molten by salamander or microwave (hear no evil, see no evil), Sal and Teresa’s is easily the local gold-standard in south-of-the-border eating.

4: Darbi’s Cafe:

Darbi's Monte Cristo.

Darbi’s Cafe is tight, cozy, and, as it should be: straightforward and humble. This small cabin restaurant packs crowds for their soul-warming breakfasts, homemade baked goods and above-average casual eating. Open for lunch and dinner, it’s their sunrise menu that still earns Darbi’s its bounty of praise. Their decadent Monte Cristo sandwich will also satisfy.

5. Red Devil:

An acceptable standby for pizza in Phoenix, in Pinetop-Lakside Red Devil seems downright indulgent. A classic Americanized pizzeria – thick, doughy crust; generous helpings of strangely sweet tomato sauce; common topping combos like “the works,” and “Hawaiian,” there’s no masquerading what’s happening here. It’s pizza that middle-America loves, but done well. Red Devil is easily one of the better places to eat in the area, and the unending daily crowds help prove this sentiment.

6. Coffee Mania:

Worth the stop.

A tiny bookend at the tail of an old motor inn in downtown Show Low presents Coffee Mania, probably one of the better java spots in the area. Independently owned and operated, and full of personality, Coffee Mania imports a worthy catalog of fine coffees and teas, as well as serves a respectable range of house-made baked goods.

7. The Turquoise Room:

Uniquely, proudly Arizona.

The acclaimed in-house restaurant at the historic La Posada Inn, in dusty Winslow, Ariz., might be an afternoon jog from Show Low, but it’s effort appropriately made. The small hotel itself, charming and pitch-perfect with airs of old Arizona, is full of surprising artwork and the regional character. The Turquoise Room, led by James Beard-nominated chef John Sharpe, does an impressive job showcasing its inherent geography, sourcing almost exclusively from independent purveyors located within the state. Though its dinner menu absorbs the majority of the restaurant’s press, breakfast and lunch are no hotel afterthoughts here. With hyper-local and intentionally seasonal offerings, from sandwiches to entrees, daily soups to desserts, The Turquoise Room presents genuinely fantastic Arizona eating. I’m always excited to return.

8. Red Rock Lavender Farms:

The aromatics in close view.

Located in Concho, Ariz., about a 20-minute drive north of Show Low, Red Rock Lavender Farms feels like an anomaly. After a brief guided tour, however, you once again realize how the state’s diverse topography can allow for yet another myth-buster in a procession of many – incredible Arizona wines, some of the best olive oil anywhere is made in Arizona, the bounty of fresh, organic produce grown right outside the deserts of Phoenix is astonishing, just to spout a meager few. Now, throw thriving lavender fields onto that stately pile of edible accolades. In fact, Red Rock Farms is one of the largest lavender farms in North America, benefiting from an immediate soil makeup that is apparently as nutrient spoiled as sacrosanct Provence itself. A small gift shop also exists, carrying everything from potted lavender plants to take home, essential oils and sprays to assist in sleep and relaxation, lavender-heavy items for the sole purpose of insect repellent, to yes, varied mixes for use in cooking and drinking.

As always, roundups like these are brief and never complete. More White Mountain eating on the horizon.

Grub Love: Pane Bianco’s MTB Sandwich

Posted on April 24, 2011

Chris Bianco is very talented, we know. Slinging those iconic golden pies for the unyielding masses (almost) every night, the James Beard Award-wining chef’s notorious work ethic at his fabled Pizzeria Bianco has never seemed anything south of remarkable.

At Bianco’s sharper and more accessible cousin Pane Bianco, the chef manages to parlay his drive for the perfectly tailored pizza–an intuitive ratio of inspiration, meticulous ingredients and masterful execution–into one of the best sandwich shops in the city.

One of my absolutes at Pane Bianco is their peerless mozzarella, tomato and basil sandwich. Buttery, handmade buffalo mozzarella makes face time with minty basil and ripe, glossy tomatoes (both of which are house-grown), all gently pressed between doughy rounds of Bianco’s fine-tuned ciabatta-lite bread, blistered briefly in the kitchen’s sizable wood-burning oven. It’s Bianco’s nuanced skill, stockpiled for our effortless consumption.

Not one player shines brighter than its neighbor–the endgame of all moving parts; an education in simplicity done right.

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This edible affair is not monogamous, however. For my ode to Pane Bianco’s tuna sandwich (and dreamy rice pudding) in the Downtown Phoenix Journal, go HERE.

Pane Bianco | 4404 N. Central Ave | 602-234-2100 | Midtown Phoenix

Pane Bianco on Urbanspoon

Beckett’s Table

Posted on October 28, 2010

Good things come, eventually. In a city full of neglected culinary forces in constant search of a permanent anchor, painfully talented chefs and bright ideas often seem to float haphazardly with no center of gravity, lacking any sense of community. Absolute talent rarely lingers long, all too often leaving Phoenix behind when serious notoriety or success is reached. Many examples exist to the contrary, but unfortunately skill here is often overlooked for more generic pastures by far too many. Chef Justin Beckett is one of the latest local characters to push against the forces that frequently burden Phoenix’s culinary map. The adept, severely affable chef not only made a name for himself here, he decided to stay put when things took a negative turn. Chef Beckett’s cooking career ascended most notably several years ago after the rise and crash of Canal, downtown Scottsdale’s pre-Great Recession shrine to restaurant frivolity. And though that shrine is now a tomb, it wasn’t because of the food. The sole arsenal that kept Canal afloat for longer than expected was the food—it was not only solid, it was often exceedingly so. Underneath the muzzle of $30 lobster sandwiches (which were delicious, btw) and gratuitous fashion shows, ignited routinely down a raised island catwalk through the restaurant’s dining room (I can’t make this stuff up), chef Justin Beckett was creating some of the brightest food in the city. Beckett generated interest with confident cooking—sometimes serious, sometimes sensed with needed humor. After Canal finally raised its white flag to the reaper of misguided restaurant concepts, chef Beckett (along with his wife Michelle and close friends Scott and Katie Stephens) immediately embarked on a pilgrimage to helm a restaurant guided entirely by his own reins. As the brainstorming finalized, and the new physicality of his dream began to form, Justin Beckett also made a consorted effort to remain an active personality in the local community. Through various big-ticket media appearances, and most notably, a strong presence via social media (follow him on Twitter: HERE), Beckett amassed a devoted following anxiously awaiting his every move. Beckett’s visibility never waned, and it appears about to pay off. Located along the Arcadia neighborhood’s western fringe, at one far end of an otherwise homely shopping plaza along Indian School Rd. and 38th St., the eagerly anticipated Beckett’s Table exists in the entirely revised, now unrecognizable space that once housed the tortured restaurant That’s Italiano. Beckett’s eponymous eatery is the year-long (if not life-long) culmination of his focus, and enthusiasm. The interior of Beckett’s Table straddles cavernous and cozy, polished and honest. Restaurant centerpieces exist in the form of a wide exhibition kitchen centered toward the room’s rear (chef Beckett’s main stage), and the nearly room-length communal table procured and crafted from reclaimed wood. Transmitting the chummy vibe of a well-designed living room that somehow evolved in to an energetic dining space, Beckett’s Table is gearing for neighborhood longevity. Tapping into Beckett’s drive for classic comfort foods with pointed quirks, Beckett’s Table plans to play with a seasonal menu of time-tested benchmarks, molded with contemporary flair and technique. Think chicken and dumplings with saffron cream ($16); beef bourguignon shepherd’s pie (you read correctly; $16); pork osso bucco with a squash spätzle ($17); grits with andouille sausage ($8); and wonderfully, a vegetable-bright version of matzo ball soup ($6). For dessert? I say the s’mores, thanks to chocolate-dipped bacon ($5), and the fig-pecan pie, served adjacent to house-made cream cheese and citrus ice cream ($5). Besides a wine and brew menu hawking varieties from both Arizona and destinations beyond our borders, Beckett’s Table also has an equally sharp listing of specialty crafted cocktails. Now open for dinner only (5 to 10 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday), lunch service will evolve in time. Beckett’s Table | BeckettsTable.com | 3717 E. Indian School Rd | 602-954-1700 | Biltmore Arcadia Beckett's Table on Urbanspoon

Arizona Restaurant Week 2010

Posted on September 20, 2010

Excited? Expected?

Foodly politics aside, events like the already in-progress Arizona Restaurant Week (Sept. 18th-26th) not only benefit local restaurants directly, injecting often sorely needed adrenaline into otherwise deserved-but-stagnate establishments, it also helps sell to a wider society our inherent dining offerings as a whole.

In a perpetually insecure state like Arizona, often plagued with the complacency of mediocrity⎯in seemingly everything⎯the truth is, Phoenix (and Arizona) truly does pull some credible tonnage in its dining arsenal that could spar with some of the best in the nation. We may not always hold the largest in sheer numbers, the breadth of diversity, and, we may not always rank highest in the hallways of Condé Nast, but sometimes we frankly deserve a little more respect.

This week is another opportunity to help connect the dots. Widely participated events like AZRW (and others) assist in encouraging everyday diners to break from their often staid, routine trade routes, allowing them to discover local eating in an updated light.

AZRW 2010

I’m happily participating in AZRW as much as I can. Everyone should sincerely do the same, particularly in regard to the independent, one-of-a-kind establishments we need thriving so achingly⎯not the sleazy, overtly corporate spots that weaseled their way onto the list of otherwise standout participants.

For the local food-obsessed community in particular, we should never be satisfied with marginal rankings or ignorant perceptions. If you love Phoenix, if you love Tucson, if you love Arizona, we need to do a better job at selling what we already have to be proud of. What am I most excited about, every year? Observing freshman diners trying new restaurants, eating new foods, all the while discovering there’s more to their respective communities and neighborhoods than initially assumed.

Dependent on the restaurant level, special AZRW, three-course prix fixe menus are set at either $29 or $39 price points⎯some of which even work a glass of wine into the price. A very reasonable negotiation if you ask me.

What restaurants look interesting to you? Make your reservations, now.

AZRW attack plans? Pundits I respect–
+ Chef, author, critic Gwen Walter’s organizing: HERE
+ PR wizard, “food nerd” Ty Largo’s pointers: HERE

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