Monthly Archives: July 2012

Vegan Eats Above and Below the Rim

When the thermometer hits 110 degrees in Phoenix, the natural inclination of the population is to head for higher altitudes. Two of our favorite destinations for day trips or overnight stays are Flagstaff, which is above the Mogollon Rim (the boundary between “way to hot” and “not quite as hot” in Arizona), or Payson, which is just below it. But what’s a vegan to eat in these small towns? As it turns out – plenty!

The vegan destination of choice in these two quiet towns is Macy’s European Coffee House and Bakery.

Macy's European Coffee House and Bakery

In fact, I’ve lobbied to go to Flag just to visit Macy’s on more than one occasion. The menu is entirely vegetarian, and many items are either vegan, or can be made vegan with a bit of tweaking. The atmosphere is seriously mellow, with the staff and patrons seeming to have an unspoken code that even after many visits I have yet to decipher. It’s the closest vibe to that of my old college town of Gainesville, Fla. that I’ve found in Arizona, which makes sense given the proximity to NAU.

First thing’s first, Macy’s has the best coffee I’ve ever had in Arizona. And the prettiest as well.

Macy's latte and vegan danish

They usually have a vegan pastry or too if you get there early enough. On this trip we lucked into a vegan almond Danish.

For lunch, my husband had the hummus pita (without the feta).

Macy's vegan hummus pita

It wasn’t an adventurous choice, but it was delicious and filling.

I really like their burger, which is normally served as a “mushroom and Swiss burger” but I opt for it without those toppings.

Macy's vegan burger

Sometimes I get lucky and they have it on special with toppings other than mushrooms (which I hate) and Swiss (which they don’t have a vegan version of), but on this trip it was a touch plain. The mustard (put accidentally on the hummus plate) livens it up greatly though. And as a bonus – the fresh salsa at Macy’s shouldn’t be missed.

After hiking in the areas outside of town for awhile, we stopped back in Flag for a quick bite before heading back to Phoenix. We decided to try Tacos Locos, a Mexican restaurant right around the corner from Macy’s that has vegan options.

Tacos Locos in Flagstaff, Arizona

Tacos Locos offers eight different vegetarian options on the menu, all of which can be made vegan with ease. The prices are very reasonable too!

Meals come by default with plenty of chips and salsa, as they should (I’m talking to you, Chipotle).

Tacos Locos chips and salsa

The chips were fresh and warm, but the salsa was a bit bland so we spiced it up with optional hot sauces, available upon request.

My husband had the guacamole and veggie tacos, neither of which were world-rockers, but they were serviceable. I had a bean and rice taco and a potato taco.

Tacos Locos vegan tacos

Both were just fine, but the fried shell of the potato taco was the stand-out.

I probably wouldn’t drive to Flag just to go to Tacos Locos like I do for Macy’s, but it’s a nice option for a quick, safe bite.

When we next said, “We can’t take it anymore” and needed to get out of town, we headed to Payson. Lucky for us, our dining choice was not limited to Taco Bell vs. Subway. Ayothaya Thai Café is a decent Thai restaurant in Payson with a wide assortment of vegetarian items on the menu. When we asked if the dishes had fish oil/sauce or if they were truly vegetarian, they confirmed that there was no fish product involved. They menu also clearly states that they use vegetable oil.

Based on how crowded the restaurant was at 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday, I’d say it is dining destination #1 for Paysonites. There was an odd duet of acoustic folk singers on a stage at the front of the restaurant, which was decidedly not Thai-esq, but they clearly had a strong local fan base.

We had read in reviews that the service at Ayothaya left a lot to be desired, so we ordered a fresh garden roll appetizer to start just to make sure we didn’t starve.

Ayothaya vegan garden rolls

They came out within minutes, which was a good thing because the meal took another 45 to arrive. But, it also meant they had probably been made hours before, and they tasted like it. The peanut sauce was good enough to cover up what the garden rolls lacked though.

I was intrigued that they had tempeh items on the menu, so I ordered the tempeh with mint leaves.

Ayothaya vegan tempeh with mint leaves

It was a light stir-fry but while I was hoping for something “minty” and flavorful, it was a little bland and greasy. The tempeh wasn’t very compelling either.

My husband did much better with the almond Thai curry.

Ayothaya vegan almond Thai curry

This was full of delicate spicy and the tofu was cooked perfectly.

There were plenty of other interesting options on the menu, such as the tofu royale, or the pra ram joe, so I hope to visit again soon!

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Gourmet Vegan Dining in Phoenix? Christopher’s Says Yes We Can!

Christopher's

Several years ago, a co-worker in DC treated me to an amazing vegan tasting menu with wine pairings at the Mandarin Oriental. I’ve dreamed of replicating the experience in Phoenix, and thought my husband’s birthday was a good excuse to try to make it happen. I developed a list of top 10 gourmet restaurants in Phoenix that do tasting menus with the intent to call each one and ask if they could do a vegan meal until I got a “yes.” Lucky for me, the first one on the list, Christopher’s, put me on hold for a minute and came back with the magic words: “Chef Christopher said yes, we can do that!” I knew we were in safe hands because I said, “I wanted to do something a little more special than Green for his birthday” and the person on the phone said “I love Green!”

Christopher’s regular menu doesn’t hold much interest for vegans. But I had been to the chef’s previous venue, Christopher’s Fermier, before turning vegan and knew it was top notch. We were seated in a “semi-private” glassed-off room in the center of the restaurant. It’s a great spot to see everything, while still being able to have a conversation. I’ll admit I was very nervous about what we’d be served since I’m such a fussy eater and am not comfortable giving control over my choices to someone who doesn’t know me. All I asked up front was “no mushrooms please.” Before we started, the waiter told us the chef had been to two different stores to find the meal’s ingredients and had labored over it all day. He previewed the menu with us and it all sounded excellent!

Below is a description of all six courses. It was the most creative and unique vegan meal I’ve ever had. It didn’t have the self confidence of a Millennium meal, but it was inspired and aspirational. The tastes varied from strong to subtle, and the portions were ideal. I didn’t take pictures of the meal, but I did try to take good notes. Of course, after the third round of food and drink, the notes bcame illegible. The wines may be off a bit, but I tried to capture them accurately.

Before the meal we were treated to delicious fresh bread with olive oil. I kept saying to myself, “don’t fill up on bread” but it was too good.

Course one: Tomato tea paired with sparkling wine from Wrigley Mansion

When the waiter said “tomato tea” I had to ask him to say it again. This was essentially the “soup” course, but it was unlike any soup I’ve ever had. At its base was a chilled tomato puree garnished with basil chiffonade. The tea was then poured over the top. It created a very thin tomato broth with a hint of lemon juice. This may have been our favorite single dish. It was light, healthy and unique. The wine was a keeper as well, as in “no, don’t take that one” when they brought the next course and wine pairing.

Course two: Coriander infused heritage carrots with saffron jus paired with Chockstone Riesling Victoria

This was also a nice light dish but surprisingly full of flavor. The baby carrots (two orange, two yellow, two purple) were peeled and just barely exposed to heat; they retained their full texture. In fact, they were firmer than I would have liked, if only because the oomph required to cut them threatened to splash the jus on our clothes. Unfortunately, the bread plate didn’t get refilled in time, so we were unable to soak up the marvelous coriander and saffron broth.

Course three: Freekeh with grilled asparagus, chive and tomato sauce paired with Montes Sauvignon Blanc

This was the best pairing of the night. The wine had an apple fragrance, which became more pronounced as it warmed to room temperature. We had never had Freekeh before, which is a wheat grain picked while still green and roasted. It was very firm, similar in texture to buckwheat, but without the overpowering flavor.  It was gently placed on top of the tomato sauce, which was not ambitious but very complementary to the grain. The savory dish brought out the elusive sweet notes in the otherwise very dry wine. The asparagus was very small, almost a garnish. It was the most filling of the dishes.

Course four: Ratatouille with tofu and bell pepper coulee paired with Vina Cousino Macul Finis Terrae Red Wine Maipo Valley

This was probably the least creative of the dishes. We are not big fans of ratatouille, since it’s pretty much a full-on nightshade-a-thon. But it complimented the tofu, which was lightly cooked, unseasoned and bore the pronounced grill-marks of being cooked over an open fire, very nicely. It was also another great wine pairing, now switched to red.

Course five: Red and yellow beet garbanzo bean ravioli stuffed w/tofu and topped with truffle oil paired with Marc Bredif Chinon

This was the dish that made us say “Is it really vegan?” Clearly extra effort was put in here to create vegan ravioli for us. The ravioli rested on a bright beet infusion and the tofu filling mimicked ricotta. The ravioli dough was somewhat chalky and inelastic, but very flavorful. This was a great finish to the main meal!

Course six: Mango and lemon sorbet with raspberries paired with desert wine (I didn’t catch the name)

A pleasent pairing to finish the night. The sweetness of the sorbet brought out the strong alcohol flavor of the dessert wine, giving the night a nice send-off. Elements at the Sanctuary does sorbet better, however.

The evening itself was a very special experience; probably the only way a vegan can have the full Christopher’s gourmet experience. You need to come prepared with sense of adventure, since you never know what they will serve. So if, like me, you cannot stand certain foods, you’d better tell them in advance. The dishes were all excellently prepared, and well crafted. However, you could still tell that they were out of their wheelhouse with vegan cuisine. You can’t expect Christopher’s to compete with a core vegan gourmet experience like at San Francisco’s Millennium, but when you add in the cost for flights and a hotel, it is a good compromise.

In summary, I’d like to say a big Thank You to Christopher’s for taking a chance, being accommodating and creating a unique celebration that could hardly be topped.

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Filed under Obsessions, vegan food, vegan Phoenix