Posted by: gbdub | March 30, 2011

Once ‘Round the Old Block: A Taste of Old Town Scottsdale

Here’s something a bit different – a review of someone else’s cooking! As a (very appreciated) birthday gift, I was taken on a food based tour of Old Town Scottsdale (no relation to Frank Miller’s Old Town). The tour was offered by Arizona Food Tours, and made for an interesting and tasty afternoon’s diversion.

Now, Old Town Scottsdale is, at first glance, a typical Old West themed tourist trap: several blocks of gift shops hawking moccasins, Native American jewelry, and t-shirts emblazoned with “Arizona” and/or crude camping related puns. But there are other layers – dozens of interesting (if occasionally a bit snooty) art galleries, high-end fashion shopping a few blocks away, a boisterous  nightlife, and a surprisingly eclectic array of dining establishments. There are more than a few stereotypes surrounding Scottsdale, and most of them are true. The local wildlife comes in many forms, from cougars to old-money bluehairs to $30k millionaires to gold diggers of both the Stetson-hatted-pickaxe-wielding and surgically-enhanced-Prada-toting varieties. This is a city that calls itself “The West’s Most Western Town” and yet has storefronts for Versace and Tiffany & Co. in its massive Fashion Square (that’s a “shopping mall” to you proles). Subtlety is not Scottdale’s strong suit.

Now, this type of town is not my usual cup of tea. But with the right guide and frequent stops for some tasty food, Old Town can make for an undeniably fun day. Arizona Food Tours provide all of that. Based on the reactions of the wide range of locals and visitors from across the country, I wasn’t the only one having a good time. For an out-of-towner, it’s a great  first taste of the area, and for a local it can open your eyes to some places you may have walked right past but never thought to sample. So with all that, let’s start the tour…

The tour starts off with passing out logo’d water bottles – a nice touch, and a necessity when we’re not in the midst of a February cold snap – and a short lecture on some local history in front of the city’s old school/police station/courthouse, under the gaze of a statue of Mr. Scott himself. From there, we head out toward our first destination, past a guitar strumming busker in front of a pile of Navajo rugs and a for-hire carriage towed by a stout horse decked out in a pink feather headpiece and – I kid you not – gold glitter hoof polish. If I were more meta-inclined, I would comment on how perfectly this encapsulates the entire Old Town milieu, but mostly I’m hungry.

I was not aware that horses were capable of shame…

The Rusty Spur Saloon

Stop 1 is Scottsdale’s oldest still-open saloon, the Rusty Spur. The place is exactly what you’d expect – swinging doors open to a small, dark bar with wooden tables, and walls decked out in old license plates, beer signs, and assorted knick-knacks and Old West chintz. In one corner sits a small stage where there is live entertainment everyday from open to last call – typically a soloist crooning some mellow country tunes in the day, and rather more… exuberant entertainment at night (the weekend regulars call themselves the Psychobilly Rodeo Band, and I’m told that’s an accurate description). At stage left is a sign warning the patrons “No Midget Tossing”. A common pastime is for patrons to doodle on dollar bills and tack them to the wall. In short, the Spur is a perfect dive – loud, rough around the edges, kind of tacky, and fun if you’re into that sort of thing (but who isn’t, at least every now and then?).

This place positively oozes class…

A south of the border slider

The food offering to the tour-goers is a slider-sized version of the Rusty Spur’s “South of the Border Burger”. A thick beef patty is topped with green chiles, cheddar cheese, and bacon, served up on a soft white roll. The topping combination is excellent – if you haven’t tried green chiles on a burger, you need to. Sweet, earthy, and a bit spicy, they are the perfect burger topper. And if you don’t like cheddar and smoky bacon, there really is no help for you. However, the patty itself was a bit dry, and the toppings could have been a bit more generous. I’ll chalk some of this up to translating a full-size burger to slider form for a large group of folks who might need their burgers well-done (poor misguided souls…). Anyway, it’s good enough to give it another go, and I’ll have to check it out again.

Bill posting with my lovely companion, foodie-in-training, and funding provider for this expedition

A work of art, if I do say so myself. Who put that Wiscy plate there?

Overall: A fun old-west themed dive bar. Go if you’re into live music, solid bar food, and cold American beer. Don’t go if you like peace and quiet, feng shui, or your liver.

Outrageous Olive Oils & Vinegars

Outrageous Olive Oils & Vinegars, in glorious Slightly-out-of-Focus-Vision

The next stop is Outrageous Olive Oils & Vinegars – a purveyor of dozens of varieties of aged and infused… olive oils and vinegars (bet you didn’t see that one coming). I will henceforth refer to them as O3&V because the whole name is a lot to type. The shop is always open for samples, but we get something of a guided tour. If you’ve never sampled olive oil and/or vinegar before, you may be somewhat weirded out by the prospect of sipping straight vinegar or oil from a little paper cup; don’t be, especially not here.

O3&V has a number of oils from various regions around the world, but their specialty is infused oil and vinegar with surprisingly rich and varied flavors. Some of my favorites are the blood orange and chipotle olive oils – the first intensely citrusy, the second with a rich smoky heat. On the vinegar side, the 18 year old balsamic and dark chocolate balsamic were both tasty. I’ve really grown to like balsamic vinegar, with it’s deeply sweet, lightly tart fruity flavor and rich mouthfeel. The dark chocolate infusion adds a nice dimension – this would be excellent on strawberries or cheesecake.

A fancy tray for fancy oil

I can’t claim to be a vinegar or olive oil connoisseur, but to my untrained palate, everything at O3&V is tasty, interesting, and surprisingly fun to sample (and hey, it’s good for you!). The flavors are vibrant without tasting at all artificial or syrupy, and most do an excellent job of complementing rather than clashing with the underlying base. The staff is friendly and offers up several excellent suggestions for using their product, most intriguingly a recipe for olive oil cake made with the blood orange infused oil. They also offer up a 10% discount to visitors from the tour. Not bad.

Overall: a different tasting experience offering an interesting, quality product. Go if you’re into intriguing food products or want to impress your friends with your refined palate – in other words, if you’re the sort of person that reads food blogs for fun.

Su Vino Winery

Stop 3 is more what you’d expect when you first think of “tasting” – a winery in the midst of Scottsdale’s huge block of upscale art galleries. Su Vino is a functioning winery, but it’s not associated with a vineyard. Instead, it’s a “microwinery” that whips up small batches of wine using grapes sourced from around the world. One of their more intriguing services is allowing patrons to order custom wines (Su Vino means “your wine”). Want more oak in your chardonnay? Some syrah in your pinot? They can probably do that, so long as you’re up for buying 30 bottles. For a custom gift with a bit less of a commitment, you can design your own customized label and apply it to as few or as many bottles as you want for just a couple dollars more than the cost of the wine.

All for me?

We had two generous samples of wine at Su Vino. The first was their Chardonnay, a lightly oaked example of the style with a nice amount of citrusy acidity. It’s more refreshing and less buttery than many California-style Chards. Su Vino also offers a fully unoaked version. The second was Ruby, a fun off-dry red designed to be drinkable in the heat of an Arizona summer, where a dry, tannic red can be off-putting. Something like a less-fruity, less-sweet sangria, Ruby has full red flavor with minimal tannin and a non-cloying sweetness. Not a connoisseur’s red, but it definitely fits the bill as a red for backyard barbecues or the person who claims to not like reds.

The bottling, corking, and labeling station. Would look good in my kitchen.

The Su Vino tasting room is attractive in a modern dark wood style, with probably a dozen tables and a bar for enjoying their wine and various nibbles (cheese and crackers, caprese, antipasto, and some very delicious-looking mascarpone stuffed strawberries with chocolate wine sauce). In the back of the bar, patrons can watch the proprietors bottle and label wines.

Overall: A fun tasting experience – the wines aren’t out-of-this-world, but they are accessible, moderately priced, and fun and are served in a nice atmosphere. Go if you’re looking for an enjoyable wine bar with some fun styles, or if you need some high-class wedding favors. Skip it if you can’t put away your wine snob mode and the idea of chocolate infused port horrifies you.

Frank and Lupe’s

Beyond this wall lies mystery and intrigue. Also a bar.

Stop 4 is Frank and Lupe’s (warning: website plays cheesy music), the Arizona wing of a restaurant originally established in New Mexico. We set up on the back patio, a friendly outdoor bar with the hint of rough around the edges that it seems most decent neighborhood Mexican joints require. We sit down to cold beer and margaritas and wait for our foodstuffs: stuffed sopapillas.

Hot Pockets, New Mexican style

Sopaipillas,  deep fried Mexican puffed flatbread, are typically served in sweet form for dessert, but our savory example at Frank and Lupe’s is stuffed with seasoned beef and topped with cheese, cilantro, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and your choice of homemade red or green sauces (or both, for “Christmas style”).  The sopaipilla itself is perfect, with a crisp golden-brown exterior and a chewy center. The seasoned beef filling is underwhelming, but this is trumped by the red and green sauces, which are excellent. I’d like them spicier, but they have a nice bite for the average palate. The verde sauce is particularly good, swimming with chunks of New Mexico chile, blackened to add a hint of earthy smoke.  I’m told the star of the show at Frank and Lupe’s is the cheese crisp, a sort of Mexican pizza consisting of a giant melty cheese and veggie topped fried tortilla. I didn’t get to sample it, but, having seen an example on the table of some other patrons on the way out, I can heartily agree with the recommendation.

Overall: A decent neighborhood New Mexican joint, go if you’re looking to satisfy your Mexican craving on a hot Arizona evening. Skip if you want a cloth napkin fine dining experience.

Cowboy Ciao

Yes, this is a bad pun. Don’t let that stop you.

Stop 5 is an off-beat bistro serving up an eclectic and frequently changing mix of fine eats not easily described. From the “testosterone salad” of port-charred beef tenderloin topped with blue cheese, bourbon-soaked cherries and … ahem … potato chips, to the habanero-apricot glazed tiger shrimp, the quirky dishes playfully blend Southwestern and global flavors into modern American cuisine.

Our sample plate is a salad with its own fan club that is representative of the Cowboy Ciao style: the Stetson Chopped salad. This is a mix of ingredients that, individually, don’t seem to fit, but together are beguilingly delicious. The Stetson consists of chopped arugula, Israeli couscous, diced tomatoes, pepitas (shelled, toasted pumpkin seeds), dried currants, asiago cheese, a pesto-aioli dressing, and air-dried sweet corn kernels. Protein is typically provided by diced smoked salmon, but our tasting version uses grilled chicken to good effect. While our salads were pre-mixed, the salad is usually served in a delightful series of rows on the plate, inviting the diner to mix their own.

The Stetson – do not wear on head

Something just works with the salad. There is a near-perfect balance of flavors, and an outright symphony of textures, from the crisp arugula to the crunchy pepitas to the softly popping couscous. For me, the crowning ingredient is the dried corn, which has an intense corn flavor and concentrated sweetness paired with a crisp, airy, almost weightless texture. Overall, it’s very good and impossible to properly describe. Cowboy Ciao is a place I’ll definitely visit again.

Overall: Eclectically delicious fine dining. Go if you want to impress your companion with your unique yet refined tastes. Skip if your idea of an adventurous meal is having two ladles of au jus on your prime rib.

The Sugar Bowl

Most mental images of “ice cream parlor” look something like this. Most do not, however, have banners for the local curling club on the back wall

At last we come to dessert. The Sugar Bowl is an old-fashioned ice cream parlor that’s been selling its wares in Old Town since 1958. It’s even been referenced in numerous occasions in the long-lived Sunday strip “Family Circus” – and it’s exactly that sort of place. The Sugar Bowl is brashly nostalgic, decked out in Pepto pink with heaping glass bowls of ice cream dotting the tables. A party annex on the side offers arcade games.

The Top Hat, like the Stetson, makes for impractical but delicious headwear. Note: let’s see how good a picture YOU take with your hand in a cast

We sample the Top Hat Sundae, a cream puff stuffed with vanilla ice cream, topped off with hot fudge and whipped cream. This is, as you’d expect, delicious. Nothing adventurous or out there, just old-fashioned, sweet ice cream deliciousness and fudgy goodness. The cream puff is a perfect complement, though a bit tough to get through with the provided plastic to-go spoons (dine-in patrons get metal flatware, of course). The sundae certainly sates the sweet tooth. The Sugar Bowl also serves up sandwhiches etc., but I’m told the desserts are the clear stars of the show. It’s a nice last stop in Old Town that, to risk inducing groans, leaves a good taste in your mouth.

Overall: Tasty, old-fashioned desserts in a classic soda fountain atmosphere. Go if your sweet tooth or your nostalgia bone demand satisfaction. Avoid if you hate children or are on a diet.

And that’s the end of the tour. It makes for a fun afternoon with a knowledgeable guide and interesting, tasty stops. You’ll get in a good walk and a nice light lunch. All food and a bottle of water are included in the reasonable ~$40 ticket price, although drinks at the stops are extra.  My only complaint is that, at many of the locations, I’d have loved to sample smaller portions of a larger variety of the menu items rather than a relatively large single sample.

Two tours with different stops are offered every day except in summer, when it’s too bloody hot. Arizona Food Tours get a good-for-just-about-everyone recommendation. Try it out if you’re in town and you’ve got an afternoon to spare.

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