Hap’s Pit Barbecue – Phoenix, Arizona

Hap's Pit Barbecue

Hap's Pit Barbecue

Good barbecue in Arizona? You’d better believe it! Hap’s Pit Barbecue is one happening barbecue joint, one that its proponents believe its name is short for “happiness because that’s what it elicits from its diners–that and audible exclamations of “wow” and “yum.”

Hap’s is a perennial listing on Phoenix magazine’s coveted best restaurant list and the only Phoenix barbecue establishment to earn a five star designation from the Arizona Republic newspaper. If you’re looking for national credentials, it’s been raved about on USA Today.

Despite those impressive plaudits and accolades, what it took to get me to Hap’s was a recommendation by my great friend and fellow barbecue aficionado Dianna Peoples. I’d been fooled before by the magazine rants of critics who obviously didn’t know what they were talking about. This time those critics were spot on!

Hap’s captures you before the door with the wafting olfactory pleasing aroma of smoked meats that smell as if they’ve just come out of a real barbecue pit. You’re greeted by a staff obviously proud of their product–and for good reason. Unfortunately during my first visit, I couldn’t sample all of those good reasons, but what I did sample were some of the best hand-rubbed pork ribs I’ve had in many a year. They were meaty and succulent, absolutely finger-licking delicious.

The interior at Hap's

The interior at Hap's

If you’re famished, the perfect cure for hunger is Hap’s meat sampler which features ribs and chicken along with three meats of your choosing. My choices have been pulled pork, ham, lamb and links all of which bordered on barbecue perfection. The lamb was ameliorated by Hap’s own mint sauce which was thinner than most but an excellent flavor complement to a lamb that had very little gaminess.

Also outstanding are the Old Settler beans which are an amalgam of different beans and bacon. The cornbread is true to its Southern heritage, an excellent complement for the ribs and beans. The ham, pulled pork and links are also superb.

Hap’s could compete in the Texas barbecue arena and that’s a huge compliment.

Photos courtesy of Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik.

Hap’s Pit Barbecue
4801 East Washington
Phoenix, Arizona
(602) 267-0181

LATEST VISIT: 28 April 2004
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pork Ribs, Old Settler Beans, Ham, Lamb, Chicken

Pinnacle Peak Patio – Scottsdale, Arizona

To a lexicologist like me, the word pinnacle has connotations of “the highest point of development or achievement.” In other words, it’s synonymous with ultimate, apogee, culmination, peak, summit, zenith, climax or apex…and those are just the synonyms (a word along with Thesaurus for which there are no synonyms) off the top of my head.

At 3100 feet in elevation, Pinnacle Peak itself is one of the more prominent landmarks in North Scottsdale. Whether seen under a star filled night time canopy or beneath a cerulean summer sky, its weathered boulders, craggy spires and desert vegetation make it one of the more spectacular vistas in the area. Spectacular is certainly not a word you would use to describe the Pinnacle Peak Patio, a gawdy Western facade which has grown into the world’s largest western steakhouse with seating for 1800 people inside and outside for 2000.

Launched in 1957, it has achieved worldwide notoriety as a fun family dining destination–one with a strict “no necktie” policy as enforced by the cutting and stapling to the rafters of over one million cravats over the past 46 years. Ever the cynic, I would have dismissed it entirely as a tourist trap had the world’s preeminent grill chef Bobby Flay not painted it in such a favorable light on one of his Food Network specials.

Additional confirmation from a New York Times critic hailing Pinnacle Peak Patio as serving the “best cowboy steak” only steeled our determination to dine there. By the time we found it (more than an hour after we set off), we were famished and ready to partake of an Adkins dieter’s dream–the 32 ounce Porterhouse called “the Cowboy” on the menu.

Order your mesquite grilled steak “well done” and you’ll be served a charred cowboy boot. Dinner entrees also include a tossed green salad with creamy Italian or ranch dressing, cowboy beans and thick-cut whole wheat bread with butter. It became painfully obvious with each bite we took of our meals that this sprawling restaurant’s name had little to do with the quality of the victuals. The steak was tough and fatty, eliciting a classic epigram from my companion Bill Resnik as to the whip marks on the steak being from where the jockey hit it.

Development of the Pinnacle Peak area has been done with obvious respect for the natural beauty of the area. Spectacular multi-million dollar residences are relatively obfuscated so as to preserve the desert ecology. Amidst God’s natural creations, there, too, is a place for grandiose Western steakhouses such as the Pinnacle Peak Patio. It’s just not a place to which I’ll return.

Pinnacle Peak Patio
10426 East Jomax Road
Scottsdale, AZ
(480) 585-1599

LATEST VISIT: 27 April 2004
BEST BET: Ambience

Buckhorn Saloon – Pinos Altos, New Mexico

The Buckhorn Saloon

In 1859, 49ers returning home from California discovered gold 7000 feet above sea level among the tall pines (Pinos Altos) north of Silver City. Rampant lawlessness, an anything goes attitude in the pursuit of gold and frequent raids by marauding Apaches made prospectors lives exciting to say the least.

The Buckhorn Saloon, circa 1985, offered respite and sustenance in the form of alcohol, entertainment and food, three things still available in this true Old West town. Walk into the saloon and you’re magically transported almost 150 years back in time.

The ambience remains seemingly unchanged as reflected in dim lighting, velvet curtains, wood beamed ceilings and other accoutrements of the day. The menu is more contemporary, featuring seafood, USDA choice steaks and salads, soups and homemade desserts. Libations include Sioux City sarsaparilla, one of the creamiest root beer drinks available anywhere.

To remain consistent with our Old West surroundings, Kim and I both had steaks. The Porterhouse steak is easily an inch and a half thick and prepared with salt, pepper and garlic. It was juicy and succulent with just a hint of pink when ordered medium. At medium well the New York steak isn’t nearly as juicy, but is still highly flavorable. The warm bread has a hint of honey and is served in small loaves.

Order your salad with the ranch dressing and you’ll be asking the wait staff why they haven’t bottled and sold it. It’s rich, creamy and tastier than commercial offerings. Also quite good is the chicken noodle soup which is made with thick egg noodles and white chicken with a broth so savory, it would be criminal to add crackers. The menu includes several homemade desserts but unless you have two stomachs, you probably won’t have room for them.

When done with your meal, stagger on over to the adjacent Old Opera Melodrama playhouse for a raucous evening of revelry and fun. The Opera’s Western plays are bawdy and bodacious with just enough double-entendre to make them more appropriate for adults than children. Pinos Altos has other attractions which make it a must stop in the Land of Enchantment’s wild and history laden Southwest quadrant.

Buckhorn Saloon
Main Street
Pinos Altos, NM

LATEST VISIT: 17 April 2004
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Porterhouse Steak, New York Steak, Sarsaparilla

Carrabba’s Italian Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Carrabba's Italian Grill

Carrabba's Italian Grill

This usually means a meal at one of those copycat national chains I avoid like the plague. Although I don’t generally write about such restaurants (if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all), being a good team player, I do (sometimes begrudgingly) participate in outings to these purveyors of mediocrity.

It never fails to amaze and amuse me to see throngs of diners doing their best imitations of Pavlov’s dogs as they line up to consume what is generally pretty horrible food. It’s obvious those clever Madison Avenue brainwashers have done their job well and thanks to years of subjecting their taste buds to the cruel onslaught of mediocre food, America’s dining public just doesn’t seem to have a clue. It’s also apparent that most chain restaurants have a pretty similar template that includes mass-produced food shipped frozen from corporate headquarters thousands of miles away, a kitschy ambience that assaults the senses and copycat recipes that vary very little from one chain to another.

Cozze in Bianco, Prince Edward Island mussels

Cozze in Bianco, Prince Edward Island mussels

One of the very rare national chains which actually has impressed me over the years is Carrabba’s Italian Grill which just doesn’t subscribe to the same template. At Carrabba’s, the Italian dishes are made to order and are served fresh. High quality ingredients are procured from throughout the world. Only USDA choice beef, chicken and fish are served and they’re never frozen. Imagine that.

Albuquerque’s west side played host to the city’s first Carrabba’s restaurant. Our initial impressions were favorable as we enjoyed the new Italian innovations, effusive service and lively atmosphere of a restaurant who had exploded nation-wide over the past five years.

Over time, however, it seemed this particular Carrabba’s restaurant began to take the little things for granted and the quality of food preparation and service suffered. Immensely popular as most new franchise restaurants are in Albuquerque, it was still a surprise to see it close in 2001.

Colorado trout

Colorado trout

That’s why it surprised me to read a glowing review of Carrabba’s by the Las Vegas Review Journal’s brilliant food critic Heidi Knapp Rinella who listed it as one of her favorite restaurants for 2001. In Las Vegas, Heidi can pick and choose from among restaurants owned and, in some cases operated, by some of the world’s most famous chef glitterati. There had to be a reason she would list a chain restaurant as a favorite.

We made our first return visit in June, 2003 after more than two years’ absence. It didn’t take long for Carrabba’s to win us over again. Warm bread accompanied by olive oil, Balsamic vinegar and herbs started that process and the Calamari Ricardo (served with Italian pepper and lemon butter sauce) sealed the deal.

An even better appetizer is the Cozze in Bianco, fresh Canadian Cove mussels from Prince Edward Island steamed in white wine, Pernod and aromatic basil for the right touch. While the mussels in and of themselves are delicious, the best aspect of this appetizer just might be the broth in which those mussels swim. In addition to the aforementioned ingredients, the broth has evidence of finely chopped onion, zesty lemon and even a hint of fennel for a licorice-like contrast to the brininess of the mussels. You’ll want to dredge up every bit of this broth with that warm bread.

Pasta Sostanza

Pasta Sostanza

Most entrees are accompanied by your choice of soup or salad. The ingredients used to construct each salad have the hallmarks of freshness–crispy mixed field greens, ground Romano cheese, flavorful olives and Pepperonici with a bite.

The lentil and sausage soup is brimming with flavor and includes some of the best Italian fennel sausage we’ve had in Albuquerque. Carrabba’s sausage is indeed special as it is ameliorated with the right amount of oregano and spices to make it wonderfully contrasting in sweet and spicy flavors.

If you fall in love with this sausage as we did, you can get a much bigger portion of sausage on the Rigatoni Campagnolo which features Italian sausage, peppers and Caprino cheese in a Pomodoro sauce.

Although the pasta entrees are superior to those we’ve experienced at other Italian chains, it’s the grilled entrees with which Carrabba’s pulls away from the pack to distinguish itself as a special restaurant.

The grilled Colorado trout, for example, tastes like trout you caught in a high mountain stream then ameliorated with gourmet ingredients and grilled over a campfire. At Carrabba’s, that trout is prepared in a light butter lemon sauce topped with artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes. The trout is light and flaky, the sauce is delicious and the grilled taste just makes it a stand-out.

A fabulous dessert: Blue Bell vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce and roasted cinnamon rum pecans

Grilled shrimp are showcased in an entree called Pasta Sostanza, the restaurant’s most garlic-laden entree. This pasta dish is served in a “Picchi Pacchiu” sauce of crushed tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and basil and is topped with the restaurant’s signature crushed Italian breadcrumbs. The shrimp are sweet and have that crisp snap when you bite into them that signifies their freshness, but it’s the grilled taste that truly makes them special.

Dessert options are bountiful. The homemade chocolate brownie with Blue Bell ice cream is a treat, especially if you’ve never had Blue Bell ice cream. Blue Bell ice cream is a Texas institution and is, in fact, named for the Lone Star state’s official state flower. It is superior by far to the Blue Bunny ice cream sold in New Mexico’s grocery stores.

An even better dessert which also features the incomparable Blue Bell vanilla ice cream is called the John Cole with caramel sauce and roasted cinnamon rum pecans. It is one of the best desserts in town. Ask for a side of chocolate sauce for yet another adventure in taste.

Though Carrabba’s is as much a chain as so many cookie-cutter Italian restaurants in town, it truly distinguishes itself. It’s so good that I sometimes stray from my usually inviolable anti-chain policies. It’s so good, you’ll want to buddy up with your office’s social director in hopes of influencing a future visit!

Carrabba’s Italian Grill
4921 Jefferson, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 5 April 2004
COST: $$
BEST BET: Lentil soup, Calamari, Chicken Parmesan, Rigatoni Campagnolo

Chilacas – Albuquerque, New Mexico

In the vernacular of the cannabis consuming culture “rollin’ fat ones” means something entirely different than what it means at Chilacas where a “fat one” is a giant flour tortilla stuffed with your choice of Spanish rice or cilantro and lime spiked rice; black beans, posole or refried beans; your choice of meat–spiced beef, carne adovada, barbacoa, pollo; salsa or red or green chile; cheddar cheese or sour cream and such additives as lettuce, tomatoes and onions. All of these ingredients can also find a home layered on a Chilacas bowl, served on an order of three tacos or atop a crisp romaine salad and even served low carb style.

Chilacas, which according to a placard on a restaurant wall is a Mexican slang word for New Mexico chiles, is a 2004 entrant into the Albuquerque dining scene. Although innovative for Albuquerque, it follows the concept of Chipotle’s which has a national presence. Chilacas first restaurant in the Land of Enchantment launched in Santa Fe in 2003 but closed within three years. With a production line preparation style reminiscent of Subway, it has a special appeal to people on the go and to youth. That might account for the loud rock music and metallic ambience.

Kim’s version of the fat one was a breakfast burrito complete with carne adovada and various other fixings. For a change, the carne adovada bit back with a nicely piquant flavor. My lunch burrito included spiced beef–traditional ground beef, chile caribe, small diced potatoes and spices. Adding red chile made it worthy of my respect and provided a nice tongue burn. True to Chilacas slogan, the fat ones were indeed prodigious. They are served wrapped in foil so you can peel back just a bit at a time or else have the fat one come apart altogether. We also sampled both spiced beef and carne adovada tacos which were quite good.

10701 Coors Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 3 April 2004
COST: $$
BEST BET: Burritos, Tacos, Salsa and Chips