Thursday, September 15, 2011

Phoenix, AZ

Cupcakes By Design
1528 E Bethany Home Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85014. 602.277.2300
Hours: Tues - Friday 10am-6pm, Saturday 10am-4pm

Hi my name is Katie, and I have a cupcake addiction. To date, my favorite cupcakes have been 1) Hey Cupcake in Austin, TX, 2) Cupcakes Couture Manhattan Beach, CA. I'm still searching for my favorite cupcakery in my home state of Arizona, but until I find something I like more; I was ecstatic to find Cupcake by Design just down the highway from my house.

This isn't the first time I've paid $3.50 for a cupcake (decorative cupcakes are $4), and I liked some things about different cakes we tried.  This is the first time I haven't seen a discount when you buy a half dozen ($21). Mini's are available for pre-order at $2 a mini.
Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup

The flavors we tried were my signature Red Velvet (red velvet cake, cream cheese filled, with cream cheese frosting), Devil's Delight (Devil's food cake, filled with bavarian cream, and fudge icing), Love My Peanut Butter (peanut butter cake, fudge filled, peanut buyer cream icing), and Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup (Devil's food cake, peanut butter filled, chocolate peanut butter icing).

The red velvet had a pretty deep red color, and a moist cake, but I liked the cream cheese filling (which there could have been more of!) better than the cream cheese icing, which was just a little too sugary. The Devil's Delight was skimpy on the bavarian cream, but had a delicious devil's food flavor and a the fudge icing was a nice balance. This one I ate in the shop, and the owner even had complimentary water and coffee set out for patrons who decided to enjoy her deliciousness before they even left the store. It was a nice touch, and reinforced what a great neighborhood feel you can find in the Uptown area.

The Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup had what seemed like solid peanut butter in the center, and was tasty when you distributed it between bites. If not, you may look a little like Mr. Ed as you eat this tasty cake. I probably should have had the Love my Peanut Butter before the chocolate peanut butter, because I totally lost the peanut butter flavor in the second cupcake. Some of this could be as a result of by tastebuds still lingering in the strong chocolatey peanut buttery goodness from the cake before. And if you're thinking, wait, did this chick really eat 4 cupcakes? Yes and no. I brought them to a friend's house and we cut them up and all had tastes of each one and shared our thoughts.

Final verdict: Would I go back for more? Yes. Is my search over for the perfect cupcakery in AZ? No, I will still be on the lookout for a replacement. Until then, I have found a tasty place for my tastebuds to flirt until I find "the one."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Manhattan Beach, CA - Cupcake Challenge

So often when I travel I have a strange sweet tooth for cupcakes. I’m not a big fan of sweets and desserts, and much prefer the more savory dishes and drinks to something overly sugared. However, the draw of three cupcake bakeries within a half hour walk of each other is something I can’t resist, and it becomes quite easy for me to self sacrifice and choke down a few cupcakes in the spirit of competition.  I think it stems from watching too many airings of cupcake wars. The rules were simple, eat one cupcake onsite (any flavor) for a first impression, but take a red velvet to go and have a side-by-side taste test at the end to determine the winner.

The first stop on our walking tour was:

CAKE Bake Shop 3319 Highland Ave, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266, 310.545.CAKE

CAKE received 3.5 stars out of 31 reviews on yelp, and most of the comments were similar, cute shop, nice owners, but mediocre cake. Being one to judge (but liking to form my own opinions and realizing that a review from a year ago might not be accurate of the experience you’ll walk into today) I went in with an open mind. My first impressions were that they were cute and clean, but a little sparse on the sweets.  You can find their flavor schedule on their website, and on a Tuesday afternoon we had the options of: Vanilla cake and vanilla butter cream, vanilla cake and chocolate butter cream, chocolate cake and chocolate butter cream, chocolate cake with vanilla butter cream, red velvet cake with cream cheese icing, and a yellow cake with some kind of fruit compote.

Price-wise, they sell a Dozen cupcakes for $32 ($2.66 a cupcake) and a Dozen mini cupcakes for $22 ($1.83 a mini) and although I didn’t pay, I remember it being about $3-$3.50 a cupcake sold separately and $2 for a mini. I had a bite of the chocolate on chocolate, and my impression was OK. It wasn’t overly dry or too moist, but the chocolate cake didn’t boast a lot of flavor or richness. At first taste I’d agree with most of the Yelpers with a 3 star rating. However, that could all change with the red velvet challenge….

Next stop was:

Beckers Bakery and Deli 1025 Manhattan Ave, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266, 310.372.3214

Beckers has been a family owned bake shop since 1942. Located 1.2 miles down the beach from CAKE, this little shop is right off the Manhattan Pier and got a four star average from yelpers. The bakery is not strictly a cupcake joint, but all cakes, cookies, donuts, and deli sandwiches.

Beckers had some interesting flavors to offer like a maple syrup and bacon cupcake (which sounds odd, but in my opinion worked!) They had a variety of mini’s ($1.50)and regular cupcakes ($2.50), and while their other baked items were really cute, some of their cupcakes looked a little sloppy. We equated it to a middle class bakery. Not too much fuss, tasty, with a sense of humor (as shown by their Charlie Sheen “still winning,” Beiber Fever, and Sesame Street cookies). Unfortunately for the cupcake challenge, the rest of the bakery was more appealing, but I’d come here first for cookies so far!

Last but not least, we walked down to:

Cupcakes Couture 916 Manhattan Ave, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266, 310.372.9200

Our last Cupcakery is located only 259 ft down the street from Beckers. Modeled after a NYC 5th Street Boutique, Cupcake Couture averaged 3.5 stars from yelpers and had the cutest storefront and most cohesive logo and décor. While those things have nothing to do with the quality of the cupcake (in Texas, my favorite cupcakes come from a trailer park, I’m talking taste only here!) it does have a certain appeal to my inner diva. If I were to throw a party where my guests would see the boxes it came in – Cupcakes Couture would be the obvious winner for straight up cuteness. Lucky for us, the cupcakery's business partner is a Cordon Bleu graduate with a passion for pastry and french dessert techniques. 

Again, while things can look great and have a financial backer that dumped some cash into the shop, will they put their money where my mouth is??? I tried not to be prejudice as I gazed at the cupcake display. 

Oh so pretty!.... The flavor offerings were much more varied than at CAKE, and these cupcakes looked so much more appealing than Beckers. They feature larger "Couture" cupcake ($7) in either Sunday Mimosa, Summer Passion Berry, or Blackberry Cabernet, that are larger than a normal cupcake and are available only on certain days. Other days of the week, you may find a normal size cake ($4) in Vanilla Mint Chip, Summer Peaches, Beer and Pretzels, Apple Cobbler, 24 Karat Ginger, Cookies & Cream, Banana Cream Pie, Sea Salted Caramel, Strawberry Cheesecake, Lady in Red, Black and White, Chocolate Obsession, Tuxedo, or Glitz and Glamour. The mini's have their own unique flavors: Berries and Cream, Lemon Coconut, Peanut Butter, Neapolitan, Strawberry Lemonade, Nutella Banana, or Salted Tuxedo.

You’d think that there would be a vast price difference by the look of the cake and the décor in the shop, however these mini’s were $.25 less than those at CAKE. Can I be in love yet? Oh yeah, not til we compare red velvets! Most complaints on yelp were about price, but I'm willing to pay an extra $1.50 for a bigger flavor variety and super cute decorations! 

On to the competition!!!
The official Wikipedia definition of a red velvet cake or cupcake commonly contains buttermilk, butter, flour, cocoa, and red food coloring, most commonly paired with cream cheese frosting. Red Velvet is not a chocolate cake with red food coloring, but rather a yellow cake with a kiss of chocolate. The red color is often enhanced with food coloring, but comes naturally from a chemical reaction between the cocoa powder and an acidic ingredient like buttermilk or vinegar.

We tasted the cakes in the order we obtained them: CAKE's mini cupcake was cute and lightly chocolately, but had an overly sugary icing that really turned me off to the rest of the cake. Beckers had a better frosting, but the cake was almost tasteless and overall appearance of cake and icing looked sloppy - the sides were spilling over and the icing and chocolate shavings looked slopped on. We all know I favor the Cupcake Couture decorations, but this one also had the best cream cheese frosting, and also had the most chocolate flavor without tasting like a straight up chocolate cupcake. Cupcake Couture Wins!!! Because out of these three shops, this is the one I'm planning on taking a walk down the beach to visit again!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Manhattan Beach, CA

Sloopy’s Beach Café 3416 Highland Ave, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266, 310.545.1373

Some places you visit for the food, some for the atmosphere, and some for the unique décor. Sloopy’s definitely falls into the décor category! It looks pretty unassuming from the outside, just a clean, somewhat organic looking little place on café row along Highland Ave in Manhattan Beach.

Inside however, it’s like you walked into an elf’s kitchen. Orchids are mixed into every surface, the walls are covered with greenery, moss, and hanging plants, there’s a water feature tucked away in the corner, and even the tables look like they’ve been scavenged from an abandoned old barn and re-purposed by some crafty woodland creature. In fact, their big bowls of salad  (that looked delicious as I food gazed other people’s tables) fit right into the décor!  

In alignment with it’s setting, Sloopy’s menu features farm-fresh ingredients, natural meats, sustainable fisheries and organic coffees.  You seat yourself and order from a window where they call your name when your food is ready, as well as bus your own table before you leave. I can’t say the staff was overly impressive with their customer service, but the draw is the kooky atmosphere. This isn’t the kind of place you become a regular at and they remember your name and food order. However, it could become that if you threw in a super friendly, kinda hippie-ish waitress.

I ordered the chicken club, a grilled chicken breast on a honey wheat bun with cracked pepper mayo, cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, sprouts, and cucumber ($9). It came out much differently than I was expecting from the typical club sandwich I’ve been used to: the ratio of greenery to meat and cheese felt a bit unbalanced and there was barely any of the pepper mayo, making the whole thing a bit bland. My friends however, ordered burgers and the Manhattan sandwich and were very happy with the flavor profile of the food, so I think I just ordered the wrong thing on the wrong day.  Next time I’m back in Manhattan Beach, I do plan to come back again and have a picnic in the garden, but I’m thinking some ice tea and a salad might be the next thing I try! 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Gilbert, AZ

Liberty Market 230 N Gilbert Rd, Gilbert, AZ 85234, 480.892.1900

Located in the Heritage District in Gilbert, from the outside, Liberty Market doesn't look like much. In fact if I hadn't found it on google maps with a high rating, I probably would have driven by without ever stopping to go in! Originally when it was built in 1935, the market was 80% retail and 20% restaurant food, however a recent remodel has reversed those numbers and created a hip, vibrant atmosphere that is a pleasant surprise considering the exterior appearance. The market is set up to embrace the take out or dine in concept, where all patrons order at the counter and are given a table number and allowed to seat themselves.

In a very out of character moment I was enjoying the company and conversation and forgot to take pictures of the food! We tried the Grilled Chicken Pasta ($12) with a parmesan cheese sauce, bacon and seasonal veggies was surprisingly light for a cheese sauce. It had a perfect blend of flavor and an airy quality that coated the chicken, pasta and veggies without feeling overpowering or sticky.

Any restaurant that has wood fired pizza is a must try
for me, and we had the Molinari Pizza ($11) with salami, sicilian olives, and basil. It was the perfect size for two people to share and combine with a salad or other entree, and the smokiness of the wood fire oven lent a taste of authenticity that made it feel right at home in this historical area.

One nice touch in restaurants is when the bathrooms continue the theme, and lucky for me I stopped in before leaving! Instead of wallpaper, the walls have recipe after recipe sharpie markered with a few pictures mixed in for good measure. It's like grandma went crazy and wrote her recipe box all over the bathroom walls. But if you're lucky, you just might find the recipe for the delicious dish you just ate so you can re-create it at home! Lucky for me, I couldn't find it, so it looks like I'll just have to come back again!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Kenosha, WI

Frank's Diner 508 58th St, Kenosha, WI 53140, 262-657-1017

Franks_Diner2009_colorKenosha, WI is a small lakeside community about six miles north of the Illinois boarder on Lake Michigan. Through most of the 1900's it was largely industrial with several plants involved in automobile manufacturing. In the last 20 years, most of the plants have shut down and residents now commute to white collar jobs in Chicago or Milwaukee. My first impression driving through was not exactly of a thriving town, in fact at least 50% of the store fronts we passed were vacant. But Kenosha is home to Frank's Diner, which has a special place in my heart and is a must visit on Sunday mornings whenever I go back to Illinois or Wiscon

Frank's came to Wisconsin in 1926 and is housed in a old train dining car. Over the years, renovations have been made, but the unique feel of the train car adds a certain historical dive element to this breakfast diner! On any given weekend day, you can expect a line that starts down the center of the car (counter on the right, seating on the left) and out the front door. Really, it's a cool set up because as you wait, you can ogle people's food, enjoy a mimosa, and watch Lynn and Chris work their magic at the grill behind the counter. The diner has some of the elements of a good dive bar, bobble heads and dinosaurs up on a shelf, sassy signs that shout out "Order what you want, eat what you get!" and friendly banter between the staff. It's enough going on that you could come by yourself for breakfast, sit at the counter and be completely entertained the entire meal.

But let's get down to the main business of why that line goes out the door: the food. Since I was introduced to Frank's I've had nothing but their garbage plates (although the non garbage plates I've seen other people order look delicious too). The garbage plate is hash browns, green peppers, onions, jalapeños, eggs, ham, bacon, sausage, or veggie (zucchini, mushroom, tomato, pepper, onion, and jalapeños) with fresh baked toast. A full garbage plate with 5 eggs and three meats is only $10.50 and literally covers the plate. For those of us with normal stomaches who can't win eating challenges, they do serve a 1/2 garbage plate made with only 3 eggs and less meats... But regardless of your quantity, the quality is there and will bring you back for another every time!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Manhattan Beach, CA

North End Caffe 3421 Highland Avenue, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266, 310-546-GRUB

This place has two of my favorite things: a Triple D (Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives) endorsement and a good friend's recommendation! My friends from Chicago take a yearly trip to stay with a childhood friend at his place less than 200 yards from Manhattan beach. Consciously, I know I'm right next to LA. But this beach community feels nothing like I imagined LA to be like. Surrounded by uniquely designed beach condo's there's one little strip of breakfast joints on Highland Ave with about 4 great places all across the street from each other.

North End Caffe serves all meals, and was my friend's favorite, so we started our vacation food journey here, and it did not disappoint! The cafe itself seats about 20 people inside, and about 16 outdoors and boasts a beach view that combined with coffee or a bloody mary could cure any hangover! Being a family run caffe, the fresh baked bread and daily specials attract locals and tourist alike, but they keep coming back for the food that not only looks pretty, but tastes amazing as well! Breakfast joints often tend to be pancake or egg oriented, and this one definitely has an egg based breakfast menu with mexican elements and a witty play on words. Choose from Huevos Divorciados, El Gringo, 13 different breakfast sandwiches, etc, and expect salsa or guacamole with anything you may order!

Bree got Dos Tacos, a breakfast taco on corn tortillas that come with lightly spiced side potatoes. The potatoes were nicely cooked, soft in the middle with a nice crunch on the outside, but could have used either more spice or a different flavor combo to make them memorable.

My Sicilian eggs were a scramble of spinach, capers, tomatoes, and cheese and had a light blend of flavors instead of the power punch of tastes you might expect from the capers. In fact I kept eating even after I was full because it just tasted so darn good! The ciabatta toast was a big surprise for me because I think of ciabatta as primarily a sandwich bread, but with some jelly and
butter it paired perfectly with the egg scramble.

 Not only would I recommend this beachy little caffe for it's breakfast, after my experience this morning I plan on going back to try lunch and dinner as well. The fettuccine carbonara was featured by Guy Fieri, and their extensive lunch menu of salads and sandwiches as well as the lack of dinner menu (there's simple a Facebook link where you can view the nightly dinner specials) has me intrigued. But that may be tomorrow, because even though it's almost 2pm, I'm still full from breakfast!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Downtown Phoenix, AZ

Matt's Big Breakfast 801 North 1st Street, Phoenix, AZ 85004

I'm an avid food network watcher, and heard about this little breakfast joint from both Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives and Phoenix Magazine's "Best Of" issue. I'd actually tried it once before last summer and been only mildly impressed. The breakfast menu is only 9 items long, with Oats and Frosted Flakes as two of the items. My first visit, the lack of variety did turn me off. I'd ordered the "Hog and Chick" which is eggs and bacon, and I think my lack of enthusiasm was embedded in ordering such a basic item. I mean, when it comes down to it, how much different can you make scrambled eggs and bacon?

This trip however was different. The history of Matt's is based on organic, fresh ingredients. In fact, there is not a freezer or microwave in the restaurant. The bread is baked fresh and hand cut because, as stated in Triple D, the owner "doesn't like conformity in his bread." 

The secret to eating breakfast at Matt's is the specials. While we were 
enjoying our 45 minute wait in the hot sun (which just made me anticipate it more), I started to breakfast watch through the windows. Yup, that's right, I blatantly stared at their food as they ate and was obviously trying to match it up with the menu to decide what to order. We discovered the daily specials while I was craning my neck and squawking about how 3 of the 4 breakfasts I could see had steak and eggs, but I don't see that on the menu. Once we got inside and I could really look around, I realized that again, 75% of the tables had one of the two specials on them! 

I had eggs scrambled with spinach, canadian bacon and cheese, and it was a phenomenal blend that I'd absolutely recommend! My girl friend and I order with sharing in mind, and between hash browns  or home fries, I'd go with the home fries. The hash browns, while good, are made crispy outside, soft center, while the home fries are cooked with white onions and rosemary, and have great flavor. They were cooked perfectly with a tender center, and crisp outside. The  toast they offer is cut in thick, delicious slices and tastes homemade. They serve it with a homemade preserve in a ramekin that serves as a great dipping side. We tried both the sourdough and wheat, and both were amazing. 
Even the beverages were made with love - the orange juice was thick and seemed fresh squeezed, and the wild berry honey lemonade was delightful. The owner's wife and daughter were working in the counter area and were great for recommendations and had a cute little ruffly apron that said "I kiss better than I cook." Well if she was doing some of the cooking for this little 30 seat breakfast joint (that usually has a wait 15 people deep) her husband is a lucky man - cause I'll be back for more!