Taste of the Nation Arizona

There are a several facets of my life that stay relatively separate: my family, my work, my friendships, my business, etc. Each piece is very important to me and each helps me to grow, but I often (selfishly) keep them separate, so I always have an escape. Because of this, there are a lot of very important people in my life that never fully understand me. I share stories and they try to relate, but that’s usually where it ends.

There’s a common philosophy that food and wine bring people together. I’ll be the first to attest that a bottle of my favorite wine cracked open in my empty house is little to get excited about; it usually just tastes like… wine. But take that same bottle to a dinner party, or a picnic by the creek, or share it on a romantic night and it turns into something spectacular! Some of you are nodding your heads right now and recalling wonderful memories, but others will think I’m totally exaggerating and blow off the concept. It’s not that you haven’t had a great meal or tasted a great wine, it’s just that you haven’t consciously opened up your senses to work in harmony.

Last Sunday evening several of my worlds collided and I had the opportunity to share this concept with a dear friend (we’ll dub her AB). The event was Taste of the Nation at Sanctuary Resort, a gathering of 11 chefs to prepare menus from cities around the country, all in an effort to curb childhood hunger. The evening started with a cocktail contest, where AB and I sampled various concoctions to sufficiently warm things up. Terrific cheeses were also provided by MouCo and shrimp skewers from the Herb Box. Having the opportunity to introduce AB to several of my foodie friends in an active environment, where no one was forced to make awkward small talk, was great.

It was time to be seated for dinner. Now, I must confess we were skeptical about our table assignment, as Kansas City was the locale, we were told the main features were BBQ & bourbon (neither of which excite me), and Cafe ZuZu was in charge of the cooking (I hadn’t ever tasted any of their cuisine). Shame on me for doubting the powers that be (you know who you are), as each course was incredibly delectable. The first course was a barbeque-glazed lobster over corn grits with a buttery sauce to accentuate the decadence of the dish. And it was presented in a damn cool dish too (I want a set of those!). A crisp Pinot Gris helped to cut the richness of flavors and it all went down way too easily.

The second course included a spare rib with a bourbon barbeque sauce (my apologies for the half-eaten picture, I just couldn’t wait). The meat practically fell off the bone and the sauce was sweet with a little spice, but carefully avoided overpowering the rib. On the opposite side, pork belly… I’ve never met a pork belly I didn’t like. Even the slaw in the center was tasty (and I’ve always hated slaw). Not being a bourbon girl, I had a hard time with the fig cocktail, but I was getting pretty toasty by now anyway.

I think it was at this point that AB completely shocked me. She’s always a finicky eater, needing to know every little thing that’s on her plate while having multiple dipping sauces available at all times. I watched as she cleared her plate and said she was, without a doubt, going to be visiting Cafe ZuZu in the near future.

By course 3 we were completely spoiled. Potato fingerlings with petite green beans, microgreens, lardons, and a quail egg. That’s right, what’s a salad without bacon, eggs, and potatoes? This was a great pairing with the light Pinot Noir. I mentioned such and AB said “see, that I don’t know. The wine is good and the food is great, but I have no idea if they go together?” This is when the night was taken to a new level and more of my worlds collided. “It’s not as complicated as some make it out to be,” I said, “take a drink of water and then a sip of wine.” She complied followed by a nod. “Now take a bite of the bacon and a sip of the wine.” Her eyes grew wide and she said “wow, it just like amplified the flavor of the bacon!” My job here is done.

When you didn’t think it could get any more meat-alicious, course 4 was presented. Short ribs and “brownies” (aka burnt ends). What you probably can’t tell from the picture is that there are razz cherries and garlic cloves that have been soaked in some mystery wine sauce atop the burnt ends (let that sink in for a minute). I cannot begin to describe the amazing flavors, but if you hear that chef Sean Currid has disappeared, it’s likely because someone has kidnapped him to recreate this amazing recipe.

How can you bring a meal like that to a close? Well, you can’t. But you can try with an almond apple tart, salted caramel ice cream, and a dessert wine that might as well be bottled for syrup.

Was it a beautiful venue? Indeed. Decadent food? Without a doubt. Tasty drinks? Yes. Intriguing people-watching? Sure. All for a good cause? Absolutely. Would I have enjoyed it half as much without my dear friend? Not a chance. We lowered the top on the convertible, soaking up the cool night air and moonlight as we bonded about boys on the drive home… it was a good night… scratch that, it was a great night.

Thanks so much to everyone that helped organize the event! And to Sean Currid and his team from Cafe ZuZu and Hotel Valley Ho, you rocked the evening.

Austin Review

I’ve been told time and time again that Austin is my kind of town, but it took 35 years to get my ass out there. After a piece of cake flight, I met up with one of my girls and we grabbed a rental car. The drive from the airport to a friend’s apartment was amazing; rolling hills with bridges over serene water. I was awestruck by the contrast of the stone cliffs cut through the intensely green hills. Of course, the trip was not free from my insane clumsiness. We couldn’t get through the gate at the apartment complex because she’s got no home phone to buzz us through. A car came out and I tried to discreetly sneak through, but the damn thing closed too fast. I had to back up to the side to let another car in and was then instructed by my passenger to “gun it” to follow them through. Of course, gunning it would’ve been much more productive had I not still been in reverse. Barely avoiding jumping the curb and hitting a tree, we proceeded through the gate after the next car, unable to breathe through tears of laughter.

Once united, we headed downtown to figure out what all the bat fuss was about. For the Austin neophytes, apparently the Congress bridge is home to 1.5 million bats who take off at night in search of food. As it’s the largest urban bat colony, there is even a “bat hotline” to call for parking information and expected takeoff time. We planted ourselves on a couple blankets in the grass and watched as bats filed out from under the bridge in large clouds. As you can see from the picture, it’s difficult to snap pictures of the bats themselves, but it’s quite a tourist attraction and was a nice introduction to the lively vibe of the city.

Having survived bat-mania, we headed down South Congress for a late dinner and a little nightlife. Toiling over the decision about where to eat, we landed inside the South Congress Cafe, a trendy spot with a 15 minute wait at like 9:30pm. Despite the posh atmosphere, the vibe was quite comfortable and welcoming.

Thanks to a ringing endorsement from our waitress, we started with the most tender calamari I have ever had in my life (and trust me, I’ve eaten a LOT of squid). When the entrées came out we were in such a pleasant mood that we just couldn’t resist some food or foul/fowl antics with the Goat Cheese and Bacon Stuffed Quail dish. Don’t let the immaturity fool you, the flavor was incredible with a balsamic blackberry sage “gastrique”. I ordered the Beef Milanesa that quickly became the hit of the evening. The waitress was kind enough to bring an extra dish of the crawfish cream gravy that I proceeded to drown my beef, garlic mashed potatoes, and even the remaining bread from the basket in… it was outstanding. Unfortunately, the crab enchiladas appeared to be a bit of a let-down in comparison to the indulgence of the other dishes, but we left quite happy with our decision to dine at South Congress Cafe in a land of culinary treats.

The amount of people out on the streets in the middle of the night was overwhelming; there’s no denying the energy of this city. The crowd is incredibly diverse and yet comfortable, with everyone embracing the idea of keeping Austin weird. We slept with the windows open to a beautiful cool breeze and I awoke to the sun rising over the lush landscape… then proceeded to flip over and sleep another couple of hours. We debated about breakfast and took a tweeps suggestion of Torchy’s for breakfast tacos. Sure enough, they were fresh and tasty and went well with the creamy guac and chips we got on the side. The “Little Nookies” weren’t so much the deep-fried chocolate chip cookies described, as they came out chewy cornflake-coated cookie dough balls. Horrible texture, but you can’t win ’em all.

We headed back to South Congress to see what the daylight had to offer us beside blistering heat. We lucked out with little humidity, but after a few funky galleries and some ridiculous spending on jewelry at the artisan tents, we were toast. Austin has a great street-food culture and refreshment was calling. I snapped a picture of these awesome condos I was checking out while chillin’ with my “tiger’s blood” sno-cone (the top floor supposedly houses an indoor hot tub).

After driving to check out the sites and taking much-needed showers, we headed out to Fino for dinner.  The Za’atar Potato Chips with Preserved Lemon Yogurt was an exciting combination and the Pork Pinchito Skewers were tender and tasty at happy hour prices. The Fried Anchovie Olives left a bit to be desired, but seeing as how they were on the house, we were hardly swayed to run. I have to admit I was also thrown by my sangria that was pink and seemed packed with green apple slices, but my entrée was a tasty treat with a light and flaky Loch Duart Salmon over roasted corn and local tomatoes. The Texas Grass-fed Steak was huge, but surprisingly tough against the melt-in-your-mouth Yukon Gold Potato & Manchego Gratin. And finally, the Roasted Dewberry Hills Farm Chicken was unbelievably tender and juicy, with the smoked paprika glaze forming a beautiful crust. Having some time to kill before the big show, we went to Téo for some gelato (highly recommend the caramel flavor) and relaxing conversation on the patio.

It was now time to head to the infamous Antone’s to check out the Austin music scene. The opening “band” (I put that in quotes because I’m not convinced they were unified in any sense) was a horrible rendition of a high school band warm-up session. Saxophone and trumpet blaring with a weak beat on a drum set and scratching on electric guitar strings does not a band make. It was painful for all involved and, had I not known the main act was incredible live, I would’ve walked out with a sour taste for the local talent. However, I had faith that the sounds would get better and was proven correct with the second act called The Soldier Thread, a solidly talented group of youngin’s. While not exactly lyrically complex, the vocals were haunting and the addition of the viola and xylophone took it up a notch to download-worthy.

My one wish for the night was that I had gone with my usual concert attire and donned my docs. Unfortunately, I dressed up and my toes were numb before the main act even took the stage. As I watched Bob Schneider chat up the VIP crowd in the comfort of his “hometown,” I could barely resist the urge to strangle him for making me stand around in heels, waiting for him to take the stage; I was literally standing on pins and needles and any excitement was draining fast. It was well after 11pm when the band kicked in and I have to admit they seemed to have a different air about them from the Phoenix performances I’ve witnessed. I think it was a little bit of laziness mixed with some fun funkiness. I obviously wouldn’t have seen Bob perform numerous times if I didn’t think he put on an amazing live show and this was no exception, between the one-handed keyboarding and the harmonica strapped to his chin, I have never known anyone to hold such diverse talent. He sings everything from rap to bluegrass to romantic ballads, but what took the cake was when he picked up a trumpet and (after drenching him in valve-oil), kept up with the incredible Ollie Steck. You’ve officially impressed me once again, Bob.

After crawling back to the apartment and soaking my feet in a bathtub of cold water, we slept in until some ungodly hour. The Triumph Cafe provided a solid breakfast with a patio perfect for lounging, surrounded by big trees and active birds. I was sad to leave this place where I felt so at ease and yet so energized and even sadder to say goodbye to good friends. I was almost convinced to stay an extra couple days, I had the time off and Bob was playing an even more intimate show the following night. My friends took opposing sides like the angel and devil on each shoulder, but I decided to depart with a longing in my heart (and some money left in my wallet and diet plan in the works).

Until next time, Austin…

Secret Decoder Ring

I’m not going to pretend to be a master of Twitter; it intrigues me and I have done my best to flail around the crazy Twitterverse for the past year or so. While there are millions of tweets that are pointless and some just plain crazies, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to have met a damn fun crowd of great people!

Last night I knew I was in for trouble. For some reason there was a plethora of gatherings occurring in the Phoenix and Scottsdale areas and I had the urge to attend all of them. It started with a simple #cheesedate at Petit Fromage, where the lovely Lara threw away all concept of rehab for her broken wing to sling us some damn tasty artisan cheeses from around the world. She even provided an impromptu lesson on her vast collection of cheese knives and the secret of salami handling.
Her shop is located within Delicious Dishes on 7th St & Missouri, where I was surprised to find the prices on Arizona Stronghold wines are several bucks cheaper than most retail outlets (you’re welcome for that handy nugget!).

After the #cheesedate, several of us headed to SunUp Brewery on Camelback to meet up with Joel. He’s had to deal with the ChowBella-dubbed “shit show” of a #CrazyAmy saga all week and sometimes you just want to provide the unspoken support of having a brewski at the tramp & loser table with a bunch of vagabonds.

After the brewery I made a stop at home and almost got sucked into the abyss of my couch. I think I lost an hour or two of time, but my love of Stephanie, from @skinnyjeans fame, got my ass out to O’Donoghue’s in north Scottsdale just in time to find all the tweeps were closing their tabs. Some quick socializing with Tim from Weekly Wine Journal and Eric from Shwaag and a gander at the band, Easton Ashe, got me motivated to hit late night at Petite Maison in old town.

As if a late night #staffmeal with melt-in-your-mouth foie gras mac & cheese and a Citrus-vodka Ginger Rosemary Rickey red cup special isn’t enough to get me out to Petite Maison, it was the ever-so-charming @GritsNYC’s birthday celebration! If you haven’t yet met Stacey, she is the most genuine person on the face of the planet, and her husband @sir_eccles has got some bollocks. The event would not have been complete without some hair-singeing: shots of bootleg limoncello and Tony of Desert Smoke BBQ gracing the birthday girl with an unreleased bottle of ghost chili sauce that she proudly displayed from her cleavage.

As the night wrapped up I came home to find texts, tweets, and Facebook mentions to remind me that overcoming my social-hermit tendencies is always worth the effort. And if you’re curious about the powers of social media and looking to find that secret decoder ring to understand more of this post, do yourself a favor and contact Diya Marketing… I guarantee, she wears the ring with grace.

Thanks to all these friends and tweeps for including me in on the fun:

@DiyaMarketing, @PetitFromageAZ, @GritsNYC, @SkinnyJeans, @SherilynMclain, @DragonflyTweet, @AndrewKfromAZ, @sir_eccles, @AZHotDish, @wklywinejournal, @CWGalli, @DesertSmokeBBQ, @FoodTrampEF, @ciaoMari, @lafinguy, @1Tap, @azlobo, @fluxus73, @PetiteMaisonAZ (and non-tweeters Nathan & Lisa and anyone else I may have missed!)

Stay tuned, as the #PumaProwl will be hitting the road in September for an all-day wine tour with Arizona Grape Escapes!! I cannot begin to imagine how entertaining that journey is going to be…

Just a drop

I love the rain. Perhaps it’s just a freak thing about having grown up in the desert, but nothing energizes me more than rainfall. As I sit alone in my contemplation, with monsoon storms building around me, I can’t resist the urge to turn my attention toward the raindrop…

One solitary drop, making an amazing journey from the sky. As it soars through the air, completely vulnerable and exposed, its beauty glistens in whatever remaining light may be found. Hoping not to be part of a storm of destruction, but knowing only few can be part of a rainbow, this is perhaps the most thrilling time for all. Just when the possibilities seem endless, it smashes into the surface of reality and breaks into a million molecules.

Not to be swayed by the harshness of the land, the molecules penetrate in the most unobtrusive manner, until it’s safe to reunite and rebuild. The drop continues to travel through layers of dirt and around obstacles of rock, seeking to bond with others. At some point the drop finds the main stream and goes with the flow, but this state cannot contain it for long. It breaks apart to find its own path and searches for more. After moments of both unity and loneliness, the drop finally serves its ultimate purpose: to support life in the simplest form. Such a brief moment could easily be overlooked, but it has attained fulfillment of which has never been dreamed.

Upon finding true meaning for its existence, the drop disseminates into the atmosphere in anticipation of doing it all over again.

Puma Prowl

Jack’s sense of restlessness has been temporarily silenced. Some of you may have heard bits and pieces about an unofficial inaugural event called the Puma Prowl that occurred on Tuesday May 25, 2010. Mark that day in the history books, as it is likely to start a revolution. Alright, maybe that’s overselling it a bit, but it certainly felt like more than your usual girls night out.

The concept can be credited back to a few male Twitter personalities, @JuxtaPalate, @AZHotDish, and @EricEatsOut who came up with the brilliant idea to meet up for a dine-around to the local establishments that attract the “douchebag” element; dubbed Scene Cuisine. The night appeared to be a bit of a bust, with a lack of a scene at any of the chosen spots. Not to be left out, the single(ish) female Twitter foodie community decided to mock the stereotypical Scottsdale cougar crowd and plan a Puma Prowl around local establishments.

It was discussed that we would all wear some kind of animal print and do this up right in impersonating the native cougars, but apparently some pumas tried to hold on to their pride (pun intended). Needless to say, I showed up with my chest popping out of a jungle-print top, all bejeweled in pearls and stood out as a complete eye-sore… but I can take it! We chose RnR in Old Town Scottsdale as our first stop and hadn’t made the connection that anywhere with TVs would be PACKED for the Suns playoff game, but we temporarily commandeered a reserved table and at least got one round of drinks in us. Mine was a Chambord margarita and, at happy hour price, was quite a tasty deal. After a bit of an annoyance with the bill (RnR boasted happy hour all day with a secret word, but you apparently only got the happy hour prices if you specifically asked for them… repeatedly), we decided some eats were in order and headed to The Mission.

I’m a newbie to this whole foodie thing and had only previously tasted one thing from The Mission, the Almejas al Vapor (Peruvian clam stew w/rock shrimp, chorizo, pan de yucca, aji amarillo, & roasted corn). One word: STELLAR. It lived up to the memory, and went very well with the avocado margarita and chips and guacamole (just trust me). Unfortunately, I’m horrible at names after a few margs, but the folks at The Mission treated us incredibly well and even brought out a beautiful tower of shots made with pineapple, Malibu, and Midori(?) that we aptly named the Bomb Paparazzi, as we made a total spectacle of the event with flashes from our cell phone cameras.

After departing, we hit the Rusty Spur Saloon with some hesitation. We stood at the door of the tiny establishment expressing our uneasiness as the owner came out to coax us inside. Live music and a desire for more shots allowed the owner to win this battle and we were delighted to see that the male vocals of the duet were coming from behind the bar! Indeed, the bartender was slinging drinks with one hand and masterfully dominating a mic with the other. After being called out and having to explain to the entire establishment that we were on a Puma Prowl (with pleasure), the owner showered us with schwag appropriate for the occasion; thongs and condoms.

Following many fun antics with the gifts and crowd at the Spur, we returned to RnR for parting cocktails. Astonishingly, live music had started from the Wilkins Duo and one of them recognized us from earlier in the evening, chiming into the mic “hey, the ladies are back!” They were quite entertaining and we all shared a bottle of bubbly to top off the night.

Above is a general recap of the night’s events, but I haven’t yet addressed my fellow pumi (don’t hammer me for the improper plural, it just sounds more fun). I had a lot of hesitation about attending, as I only know a few of them through previous events; the night could have easily become dominated by ridiculously competitive and catty attitudes. However, we created an incredibly comfortable and naturally social environment that, from my perception, was totally genuine. Not by design, but rather by coincidence, all these fabulous women are in marketing and/or have taken the plunge to start their own businesses. I think this played a big part in making this event a success. Everyone seemed to be incredibly confident and mature, while embracing the immaturity of the evening. This truly wasn’t just another night of chasing guys and talkin’ schmack, we’ve reinvented the typical “girls night out” into a little thing we call Puma Prowl.

A huge THANK YOU to @PetitFromageAZ @DiyaMarketing @CiaoMari @Dragonflytweet @Noshtopia and @SherilynMclain for including me in the fun and cheers to future gatherings!

Memorable quotes from the evening:

  • “Nobody puts Puma Prowl in the corner!”
  • “I like it cause it has protein in it.”
  • “Do you need a big kitchen to do it in?”
  • “Wow! Can I take a picture of your cleavage?”
  • “That would leave a sour taste in my mouth… and my uterus.”
  • “No jackrabbits, please!”
  • “What happens at The Spur stays at The Spur.”
  • “Grab your panties, ladies. Let’s go!”

Case of the Mondays

After a beautiful and relaxing weekend, I find myself with a case of the Mondays. Getting ready this morning, while gargling, my mouthwash forms a giant bubble that pops and splashes in my eye. “It burns, IT BURNS!!!!” As I’m floundering through the cabinet looking for eye drops, I can’t help but have a Fight Club moment:

“You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world. This is your life.”

I am Jack’s sense of restlessness.

Time to Reset Expectations

I stay out of political discussions and I’m not even going to comment on the immigration controversy, but lately I’ve made some observations about the Arizona police force that have raised questions about priorities. These observations are general in nature; I don’t wish to single out Scottsdale or Phoenix or Paradise Valley, but rather encourage everyone to do their part in resetting expectations of those that vow to “protect and serve.”

Observation #1: I’m on my way to work and a guy in the lane next to me is swaying between lanes while entering the freeway. After merging on at an incredulous 45 MPH, he leaves his left turn signal blinking while still straddling the lane lines. He continued along this pace with such erratic behavior that everyone around either slowed to keep their distance or sped past at least two lanes away. Not far ahead there was a friendly police office perched atop an overpass with his radar gun directed at everyone speeding by. Was there any effort made to pull over the hazardous driver that was likely to take out everyone in rush hour traffic? Absolutely not, collecting fines for speeding is much more important to the bottom line. 

Observation #2: I’m driving home and there are two cars pulled over in the carpool lane. By the looks of the drivers that were huddled by the concrete wall, they had either been in an accident or one was a disabled vehicle and the other was there to assist. As I passed by and thought “how dangerous to be stuck in the middle of a busy freeway during rush hour,” a cop drove by in the lane next to me. Again, any effort made to assist these stranded motorists? Not that I could tell.

Observation #3: Now this occurs all the time, but it just so happens all three of these observations were made within 3 days. As I’m chugging along on my way home I notice that traffic is moving surprisingly slow. I check all my mirrors and realize it’s because a cop is driving down the carpool lane with his lights on. Now I’m trying to remember if we’re required to pull to the side of the road and stop on an actual freeway, or is that just surface streets? I don’t hear a siren, but the lights are clearly flashing, I wonder who he’s pulling over? As everyone slows and gets out of his way for fear that they’re the next to get a ticket, the guy speeds right along and cuts across 3 lanes of traffic. Wow, there must be something going on, but why no siren? Oh wait, he finds his exit, shuts off his lights, and goes along on his merry way.

Now I’m not trying to bash our police force, I’ve known plenty of cops that have made incredible sacrifices. That being said, I feel these observations are a reflection on our society.  Perhaps we’ve become such a consumer-based culture that collecting funding through speeding tickets is more important than a possible safety risk. The well-being of our neighbor is clearly only their concern. An environment where nothing is wrong as long as we can get away with it. Perhaps it’s time to reset expectations, not only of our police force, but of ourselves.