The Hollywood stereotype of restaurant critics paints them rather unflatteringly as condescending misanthropes to be feared. Those stereotypes would have you believe restaurant critics are eager to pounce on and expose the slightest imperfection. Armed with pedantic palates and polysyllabic vocabularies overflowing with unfavorable adjectives, critics are painted as joyless beings whose quest it is to impart their misery on the restaurants they evaluate. To the critic, the exemplar is French cuisine and everything else is so much schlock to be disdained.
Consider the 1988 movie Mystic Pizza in which a snobbish restaurant critic renown for his “make or break” reviews deigned to visit a pizza parlor of all places. With a stern countenance and belittling attitude, he based his entire review on having sampled little more than one bite. Ostensibly his palate was sophisticated enough to render a verdict on the pizza after a minuscule sample.
Even the restaurant critics on animated features tend to be snotty. The aptly named Anton Ego from the delightful 2007 Pixar movie Ratatouille may have summed it up best: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and read.”
Sometimes stereotypes aren’t far from the truth. There are some restaurant critics, particularly in largely populated metropolises, who wear those dour stereotypes like badges of honor. That’s especially true when expressing their learned preference for “cuisine” as opposed to “food.” All of their anointed restaurants tend to be of the haughty high-brow variety and readers are treated to a cavalcade of reviews heralding the critics’ haute cuisine favorites. Some of these critics won’t deign to visit “real people” restaurants, much less recommend them.
That’s certainly not the case with one of my very favorite food critics, Phoenix-based Nikki Buchanan. She defies Hollywood stereotypes, not only reviewing and recommending the off-the-well-eaten path treasures and humble havens of real food, but listing them as among her favorites. Moreover, she writes in a light-hearted, personable manner and unlike “restaurant” critics, writes about bakeries, cafes, cocinas, pizzerias, sushi bars and even taco trucks.
In the April 2010 edition of Arizona Highways magazine, Nikki named Arizona’s best restaurants for 2010. It’s a great list, a true “best of” and not an enumeration of the elite and elegant. The list includes some of the most highly regarded restaurants in Phoenix, Sedona and Tucson, but it also includes far lesser-known and much more modest diners and cafes in rural enclaves such as Lake Havasu City, Page, Snowflake, Cornville, Yuma and Bisbee, none of which is a budding hub of population.
Far from being a burgeoning boom town, Bisbee has seen its population decline since the exodus of the little city’s copper-mining operations. It remains, however, a town that’s too beautiful not to survive. It is now an idyllic artists colony capitalizing on a climate the Chamber of Commerce claims has “the best climate on Earth.” The southernmost mile-high city in America, its average year-round temperature is about 74-degrees. Attitudinally and in the way multi-hued homes are splayed on steep hillsides accessible only on foot, it might remind you of San Francisco–only friendly.
Bisbee’s best lunch spot, according to Nikki Buchanan, is Cafe Cornucopia in the heart of a Main Street which could pass for a 1930s movie set. Occupying the first floor of a historical building, its exterior stone facade reminiscent of days of yore, Cafe Cornucopia has none of the flash and panache of modern restaurants. Its signage is plainly lettered with a monochromatic horn of plenty image. A large picture window, though tinted, doesn’t entirely obfuscate views of the restaurant’s interior. It is a bright and cheery ambience, floors clean enough to eat from.
Cafe Cornucopia is much longer than it is wide with tables for two lined up against the east wall and picture window. A small bar counter sits three more patrons in close proximity to one of the most enticing displays of pastry perfection you’ll ever find. At the rear of the restaurant are beautiful stained glass windows and a small balcony, remnants of the days in which a saloon occupied the venue. Scrawled on two slate boards is the restaurant’s menu. It’s hardly a compendium of lunch favorites, but rather a showcase of a select number of sumptuous sandwiches, soups and pastries.
The menu features two comforting soups de jour accompanied by a buttered slab of freshly baked rolled-oats-and honey bread delivered warm, towering sandwiches crafted on artisan bread, an inventive specialty quiche and soup and sandwich combinations. Fresh-squeezed lemonade (or an alternate ade such as strawberry-lemonade) as well as superb smoothies are available to wash your meal down. Baked goods of the day might include cookies, brownies and scones.
Cafe Cornucopia is bustling with activity, but the amicable staff is capable and upbeat, treating all guests to welcoming smiles. We got there at precisely eleven o’clock and fifteen minutes later not a seat could be found. Some, like us, came because of Nikki Buchanan’s enticing invitation to one of Arizona’s 25 best restaurants. Others are frequent visitors, locals who recognize they’re in the presence of gastronomic greatness.
The made-to-order strawberry lemonade is the epitome of freshness–freshly squeezed lemons and ripe, red strawberries all naturally sweetened and wholly unlike the cloying, kids’ Kool-Aid-like strawberry lemonade some chains offer. Cafe Cornucopia’s rendition is several orders of magnitude better than any other strawberry lemonade we’ve ever had. The raspberry razzmatazz, a frothy pink smoothie served ice cold might be even better, a refreshing elixir for what ails you. You might even long for a thirst-inspiring hundred-degree day so you could have two or three.
Having been away from the Land of Enchantment for five days, we needed a green chile fix and Nikki assured us we would find it at Cafe Cornucopia in the form of “much-loved Hatch green chile and cheddar.” This sandwich is crafted on a canvas of homemade ten grain bread. The first thing you’ll notice about this bread is just how moist it is. It’s wholly unlike the desiccated,desert dry bread you might buy at a grocery store. It’s also slicked thickly and has the memorable aroma of bread just out of the oven. It brought back memories of the ten-grain bread we enjoyed at the Mermaid in Burford, England.
The next thing you’ll notice on the sandwich is just how simple it is–strips of Hatch green chile and melted Cheddar cheese. The green chile is only mild on the piquancy scale, emphasizing instead the fruitiness of the chile and not its heat. The Cheddar provides a sharp and complementary contrast while fresh tomato slices add a bit of acidity. You probably won’t call this a designer sandwich, but it is fabulous in its delicious simplicity.
Few things are as simple and comforting as the combination of soup and salad. Cafe Cornucopia’s soup du jour offerings will wrap you in a cocoon of warmth and comfort. The butternut squash soup is absolutely wonderful and it actually tastes like butternut squash and not artificial seasonings. It’s not as thick as some of its genre, but it’s rich and creamy and it doesn’t have any unnecessary “attention grabbers” that are sometimes included in inferior soups. The soup is served with a thick, buttered slice of heavenly freshly baked rolled-oats-and honey bread delivered warm.
We lucked upon another green chile enlivened special of the day in the green chile and Cheddar quiche. Cafe Cornucopia’s version is simply the very best quiche we’ve ever had–the quintessential quiche! A feather-light crust is the canvas for velvet-smooth eggs punctuated by fresh, fruity green chile. Fragility and delicate yet robust in flavor, it is the essence of egg-based satisfaction.
Worthy accompaniment to the quiche is yet another warm, comforting bowl of soup with a thick slice of that “to dream about” honey rolled oats bread. Try the split pea soup and you’ll realize what you’ve been missing all those years you’ve thought all split pea soup was like Campbell’s Soup aberration. Though it’s not rib-stickingly thick, it’s rich, creamy and extremely satisfying. On top of that it’s high in fibre and good for you being a source of low in fat plant protein.
Cafe Cornucopia’s baked goods are as delicious as they are pleasing to the eye. They provide the climatic finish all meals should have. The chocolate brownies are light, delicious and chocolatey. Moist and tender on the inside, they need no embellishment or additives. The lemon bars are similarly terrific with the definite and pronounced tanginess of lemon.
I’ve dined at about a hundred restaurants in Arizona and Cafe Cornucopia ranks with the very best of them. In fact, given a choice as to one restaurant to return to next, it would be Cafe Cornucopia where the horn of plenty symbolizes a plethora of flavors and deliciousness.
14 Main Street
LATEST VISIT: 16 April 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Hatch Green Chile & Cheddar Sandwich on Ten Grain Bread, Hatch Green Chile and Cheddar Quiche, Chocolate Brownie, Lemon Bar, Strawberry Lemonade, Raspberry Razzmatazz, Split Pea Soup, Butternut Squash Soup