Where to eat like a Flagstaffian

FlagLIVE!/AZ Daily Sun, August 12, 2021

Written by Gail G. Collins

When it comes to our small town, the flavors are huge. Independent restaurants make the most of familiar foods or regional cuisine by dishing up imaginative and innovative items that earn a loyal following. It’s all part of local love.

COFFEE or BREAKFAST

Firecreek Coffee 

22 W. Historic Rte. 66

Text Box:  Coffee supercharges us for the day ahead. In fact, two-thirds of American adults begin the day with a cup of joe. Firecreek roasts beans in small batches and supplies many retail outlets in town, such as Brandy’s, Brix, Tourist Home and more. Everything, from the syrups, in flavors like ponderosa vanilla or salted cardamom, to the chai and the pastries, are made from scratch—ranging from graham-dusted s’more macarons to muffins and light-as-air strawberry cream puffs. While Firecreek may be priced slightly higher than some of the bigger shops in town, owner Mike Funk said. “We value quality over quantity and spend a lot on our groceries. If we can make it taste better, we spend the money.”

Macy’s European Coffeehouse and Bakery  

14. S Beaver St.

Veteran coffee house, Macy’s celebrated 40 years in 2020 living up to its claim as “the ultimate cup.” Tim Macy was among the first roasters in Arizona, tempting drinkers with a traditional Italian darker style, and sources small farmers to pay above fair-trade prices. “Staff is family and our locals are our lifeblood,” he said. The Macy’s Special is the top drink, made with espresso, hot chocolate, whipped cream and sprinkles, served hot or iced. Alongside a full vegetarian breakfast menu, the pastries have been baked from scratch daily since 1980 with no preservatives, dough conditioners or stabilizers.

Brandy’s Café 

1500 E. Cedar Ave., #40 & 18 S. Beaver St.

After 27 years in business and a transfer of ownership to Kelsey and Jamie Drayton in 2014, Brandy’s has not merely remained strong, but grown their landmark breakfast business. It consistently wins awards for its food and service, where customers have become supportive friends. Kelsey Drayton, who had worked for original owners Ed and Brandy Wojciak since age 15, constantly seeks feedback to keep things fresh, yet consistent, like their biscuits and gravy. The most popular offerings are the Eggs Benedict choices, especially the Eggs Brandy with two poached eggs on a handcrafted bagel, topped with house-made hollandaise sauce and a buttermilk pancake plus their signature country potatoes. And for brunch, a mimosa is a must.

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Agee’s Barbecue Market

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, August 8, 2021

Story and Photos by Gail G. Collins

Some of the best ideas are born of necessity.

Matt and Kim Agee were hungry one day, and with only one eatery serving the small community of Munds Park, they did something Matt swore he would never do—open a restaurant.

It was Kim’s suggestion, and it gained traction. After 20 years raising children, the workload didn’t frighten her, and the timing was right.

“Once we decided to do it,” said Matt Agee, “it came together quickly before we could talk ourselves out of it.”

They opened Agee’s Barbecue Market in August 2017 in a 900-square-foot building, where Munds’ only coffee shop now operates. Family and some neighbors pitched in, and the community embraced the barbecue joint. Agee’s outgrew the space in short order, moving to the current building nearby, tucked behind a gas station. That fall, the family’s youngest son, Mitch, entered kindergarten, and the couple’s days were filled with meat and smoke.

The new space gave the business room to develop, expanding the bar and patio areas. There was also plenty of room to house the enormous smoker or “22 feet of oak-smokin’ love,” as general manager Kass Kral calls it.  The handyman met Agee at a poker game and became a regular. They quickly employed him to even out the competition on Trivia Night, which Kral had won every week, joked Agee. Kral proved a quick study and, “they adopted me,” he said, tearing up. “We’re all a barbecue family now.”

Apparently, barbecue sauce is thicker than blood.

That family attitude has carried the business forward to include their adult daughters. Madison works as assistant manager while MacKenzie handles the front line and more. Even volunteers participate for the joy of it, saying things like, “I always wanted to work at a barbecue place.” One retiree also contributed to the Carolina gold sauce recipe. Depending on the season or event, all hands are on deck with supportive friends, who have obtained food handler cards.

The idea for barbecue came about when Agee was a youngster. His father built post offices, and one summer, he worked in Dale. The central Texas location was renowned for it dry, slow-smoked meat. Think Black’s Barbecue of Lockhart founded in 1932, the oldest family-run place. (Full confession:  When our daughter married in 2013, my husband drove from the Austin wedding site to pick up Black’s catering for the reception.  Driving back without sampling any was the hardest part.) Phoenix area’s Little Miss Barbecue, who is in the top 10 according to Kral, also provided huge influence and equipment. Little Miss builds smokers and distributes them nationally.

Agee’s, pronounced like the letters A and G, smokes central Texas-styled beef brisket and ribs, seasoning it with simple salt and pepper. The secret is in the smoke, the choice Black Angus meat and the lengthy process, which keeps the smoker in operation nearly around the clock. The brisket is Agee’s baby, and he maintains a constant temperature manually.  The pulled pork and pork belly are slathered with scratch sauce, while turkey and handcrafted sausage round out the meats sold by the pound.

In typical barbecue fashion, guests line up, order, pay and take their heaving trays to tables to indulge in the messy meal. Sandwiches and plates are available with six sides, which are both classic—like  coleslaw—and creative, such as potato macaroni salad. Beans are enhanced with brisket or pork trimmings, cheesy potatoes, smoked macaroni and cheese and elote complete the choices. The Mexican corn is crafted with chipotle, cotija and spices. Nothing artificial is added, and demand is great, so the groceries turn over briskly in a week.

“We serve a big, lunchtime crowd,” said Kral, “because the smoker starts chumming the waters.”

Great demand means destination barbecue spots sell out fast. Agee’s is open Thursday through Sunday only, and it’s important to get in before 2 p.m. The line can be long, but patience is tastily rewarded.

Agee’s sells 600 pounds of meat a day and serves 2,000 finger-lickin’ customers each weekend. The local population has learned to pre-order and pre-pay to assure their favorite choices are ready to take home, but seasonal tourism is harder to manage. Munds Park bumper stickers joke:  Population varies. In fact, it rises exponentially from a base of 1,200 in winter to 15,000 in summer, including the woods.

“Campers come covered in mud on their ATVs and bring food back to their tents,” said Agee.

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Flagstaff’s Pizzicletta team revives Oak Creek’s iconic Indian Gardens

Owner Caleb Schiff

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, July 24, 2021

Story and Photos by Gail G. Collins

Indian Gardens is an icon in Oak Creek. It is beloved for its garden setting, combination café and market ease, neighborly appeal and tourist trade. Passing on that heyday to a new owner is always the rub. But with earnest care and measured ambition, there is the happy possibility that it could be better than ever.

Nearly a decade ago, Daniel and Monica Garland embarked on a journey to revitalize the property as a gathering place to nourish neighbors and make Sedona a better place in their small way. And as they moved on to found FreeForm Coffee Roasters, they validated the next team, Caleb Schiff and James Worden, owners of Pizzicletta. The connection remains strong, and their coffee is served in the café.

“They had respect for how we’ve run our business,” said Schiff. “So many memories were made here. Unique experiences are always our goal, and we can deliver on that.”

Worden and Schiff are avid runners and cyclists and began their pizza venture as the Garlands relaunched Indian Gardens. It had been a deli, a gas station and more over the years — a constant in the community. The pizza duo loved the place, but never imagined they would go from regulars to operators.

Still, it was not an easy task. They expanded the gardens, built two water features, invested in a kitchen prep area to accommodate two trained pastry chefs, added merchandise and will rebrand the logo and expand the tight menu coming out of COVID.

Indian Gardens reopened in early February, producing the store standards guests had loved without any of the original kitchen team. And there were things beyond their control, such as a tree falling on a power line, which Worden said “typified the challenges,” snowstorms closing the road and fire danger barring access, all of which affected revenue.

They built a foundational team of competent, passionate people and celebrate those who can do things better than themselves.

“The key is stewardship, maintaining a strong sense of place and intentionality,” Worden said, “keeping the name and experience in the sense of the garden and menu offerings, but as elevated, healthy options. It’s not a choice between good and delicious.”

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The County Seat brings fast-casual dining to downtown Prescott

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, July 7, 2021

Story and Photos by Gail G. Collins

When most people see a gap in the landscape, they shrug. Serious few would decide to fill it with a wholesome gathering place overlooking bustling Prescott’s Courthouse Plaza.

Skyler Reeves, owner of The County Seat, is that inspired kind of fellow.

“Prescott is usually thought of as this small Old Western town, but in recent years there’s been an influx of young families and professionals who have moved to the area looking for a new, hip hangout spot with a comfortable, yet contemporary, vibe to dine and socialize,” Reeves said.

The County Seat, an expansive 6,500-square foot coffeehouse with healthy karma, held a soft opening last November. It is situated on the upper floor of the historic Burmister Building. A wall of windows floods the room with light and provides a view of Yavapai County Courthouse, a striking Classical Revival granite structure built in 1916. Pragmatically, it also provides the eatery’s namesake.

With an aim of sustaining locals with good food and good health, Reeves crafted a menu of hearty sandwiches, robust salads and grab-and-go items combined with a full coffee bar, fresh-pressed juices and low-ABV cocktail menu. Reliable, consistent, familiar and delicious dishes are foremost. Support comes from scratch kitchen manager Chris Osante, emphasizing quality ingredients, local resources — like FreeForm Coffee Roasters in Sedona — and attention to dietary needs. A hybrid of kiosk to full-service ordering options fills the bill.

Here are the top hits: the Madras curry chicken sandwich loads toasted focaccia with baked, diced meat in curry mayo, apples, golden raisins, red onion and lettuce served with kale or sweet potato salad. Tony’s Rueben stacks shaved corned beef, sauerkraut, caramelized onion, bacon and Swiss with a slather of secret sauce on toasted marbled rye for a messy, marvelous mouthful.

The turkey Cobb salad mixes Romaine and fresh greens with avocado, cherry tomatoes, cucumber plus pickled onion and fortifies it with turkey roulades, bacon and generous blue cheese crumbles. An herbal green goddess dresses it all for a lunch punch to hunger.

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Flag restaurants still fighting way back after pandemic

Arizona Daily Sun, July 6, 2021

Written by Gail G. Collins

In the course of more than a year spent flattening the curve, the pandemic delivered a flattening blow to small business, too.

The bounce back of the restaurant industry is marked with concerns, but also, optimism. Issues with staffing, supply chains, inflation, wage increases and countless other obstacles plague owners, but loyal support has strengthened the bonds of community.

The biggest trial has been staffing. For all the good intentions, supplemental checks delayed a return to the demanding occupation of preparing and serving food. Altitudes Bar and Grill dropped from 29 employees to 14 and owner-chef Tony Cosentino of Josephine’s Modern American Bistro called the task, “A nightmare of epic proportion.”

And, for many, it still feels next to impossible.

“We’re still feeling the aftermath of the pandemic . . . the odds are still stacked against us,” Cedar House Coffee Shop owner Wendy Kuek, owner of Cedar House Coffee Shop said while listing the challenges.

Many competent workers left the industry during the course of pandemic. Now, restaurant owners are left facing a competition for capable people, training of new staff, retention and scheduled rise in the minimum wage.

John Conley, owner of Salsa Brava and Fat Olives with 33 years in business, explained the labor issue and the challenges it presents.

“As an operator, I’m proactive, so planning doesn’t happen on a shift or daily basis, but on the week, month and quarter,” Conley said.

Managing expectations in a pandemic-stricken industry

Beyond that is managing the public’s expectations while understaffed.  People are thrilled to be out again, meeting up and sharing life, so shops are busy. Days and hours of operation have been reduced as well as menus, and getting up to speed will take time.

“I’m not sure how to help people understand the magnitude of our situation,” Altitudes owner Lynda Fleischer said.

Fleischer added that streamlining has been key and food offerings were halved, concentrating on serving what they do best in a quality manner.

Cedar House trimmed the specialties and focused on artisanal bakes, providing the same quality, attention and care in their coffees. The shop is a reunion of regulars discusses online school or remote working, and mothers introducing babies born during pandemic.

Customers returned in full force to Colt Grill in Cottonwood and Prescott Valley. Before that, like others, owner Brenda Clouston strategized, and then, did not miss a beat falling back on a strong take-out business with “homey hospitality,” curbside pick-up and other innovative services. Continuing to advertise in print, radio and social media maintained ties.

“We showed up, worked very hard and smiled through it,” she said.

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Alejandro’s Mexican Food settles into new brick-and-mortar location

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, June 20, 2021

Written by Gail G. Collins

Georgette Quintero has consistently looked for creative solutions. When opportunities arose—like her daughter attending Northern Arizona University, finding space to store supplies for her food truck business or securing a commercial space during the pandemic while other businesses struggled—Quintero found a way forward.

“I go the extra mile, think outside the box and always ask the question, ‘What is the next step?’” she said.

As owner of Alejandro’s Mexican Food, the newest eatery on Heritage Square in Flagstaff, Quintero thrives on change. And as a family, they are in it together. College initiated their move from Phoenix to Flagstaff; everyone came with her daughter, Quintero said simply. Her children, Alejandro and Ariana, are adults now and work in the business, while high-schooler Joey helps out.

Alejandro’s Mexican Food opened softly in April with much maneuvering behind the scenes. COVID-19 made it complicated, but was not an excuse. Quintero had been searching for retail space for months, hoping to buy, and lease negotiations took time. With situations strained in 2020, landlords gave breaks to current tenants to hang on, but there were no concessions for new ventures coming in behind them.

The shift from Italian restaurant to Mexican cantina was straightforward and practical with a full kitchen and stylish seating in place from the previous tenant.

“It was already turn-key down to the colors,” Quintero said. “Green, white and red—the Italian flag has the same color blocks as the Mexican flag.”

Alejandro’s, named for her oldest son, began as a food truck in the fall of 2017. Reputation increased the reach to two trucks, based on a solid selection of burritos and street tacos with handcrafted fillings. Nachos, quesadillas and carne asada, which continues to earn raves, rounded out her recipe for a successful business model.

Running a food truck is much harder than operating in a fixed location, according to Quintero.

“There is only so much electricity, water and sufficient space to store food,” she said. “We needed to expand and grow.”

Gaining the café at Coconino Community College gave her a dedicated kitchen for the first time. Still, from the start, the plan was always to open a brick and mortar restaurant. What sets Alejandro’s apart is the striving for continuous improvement, making menu upgrades regularly.

“The recipes evolve because I’m tweaking them over time at 9 or 10 at night after we close—it’s hard on my weight,” she said with a laugh.

Each night, Quintero plays food critic, sampling a dish as it is presented to customers with a beverage. Then, the brainstorming on ingredients or garnish or… Recently, fried ice cream was the project. It begins with a taste goal, a list of ingredients and decisions—cornflake or bread shell? Such assessments stimulate Quintero.

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Eat ‘n Run Café satisfies with a fresh and convenient menu

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, May 2021

Photos and Story by Gail G. Collins

Sometimes, we take the happy things in our midst for granted. That has been the frequent refrain from new customers to a li’l Flagstaff café on the corner of Route 66 and Fourth Street.

The welcoming homey building in grey with sunny accents offers patio seating and a cheery interior. Slate and rustic wood with a fireplace, denim and yellow paint throughout and plenty of table or counter seating offers a view of the iconic Mother Road. A mural of the shop and San Francisco Peaks shows a heart in the community. Its slick clock logo with fork and knife hands reminds guests of the fast and fresh food found at Eat ‘n Run Café.

Mounted on the wall, a bicycle acts as a connection point for owners Wes and Sarah Neal, who also manage Bright Angel Bicycles and Café at Mather Point. That grab and go coffee shop with pre-made products provisions their tour operations and canyon visitors.

The Neals began their original venture as a wholesale outfit with catering services. Retail took a backseat, but in 2014, their location in Sunnyside pushed them to meet the needs of convenience store customers. The couple renovated and moved into their current location in 2018.

“Sarah designed everything,” Wes said with admiration, “the look and feel and pops with color.”

Hailing from South Africa, Sarah’s background influenced the cafe recipes. With an avocado tree in her yard, she enjoyed nutritious avocado toast long before it trended on American menus. Fresh avocado slices on crostini are topped with garlic infused olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, fresh dill, red pepper flakes and sea salt. Or go West Coast with chili cream cheese, bacon and ceviche onions.

All dressings, sauces and soups are house made with quality products.

“People like convenience, but not the usual upscale price tag,” Sarah said. “We are better value for money and high on flavor.”

Local vendors include Village Bakery, Tender Heart Cookies in Sedona for vegan, gluten-free enticing sweets and Firecreek Coffee Company.

At Eat ‘n Run Café, there is no need to special order from the espresso bar, as many drinks are named for frequent customers. Try the fragrant, soothing Neta Bee. This lavender latte blends espresso, honey, lavender syrup and milk.

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Health: Telehealth here to stay

Written by Gail G. Collins

Until recently, a virtual visit with a physician via computer screen to discuss or assess a medical condition had the whiff of sci-fi, but the future arrived quickly.

“If there has been a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been the positive impact and growth of Virtual Care (Telehealth) … which allowed NAH (Northern Arizona Healthcare) and other health systems across the nation to fully embrace virtual care delivery,” director Travis Boren said.

Prior to the pandemic, telehealth had limited, but growing, application and acceptance. A host of barriers blocked broader usage of telehealth, such as insurance coverage, patient comfort, technology access, privacy and so on. As businesses shut down or migrated to home-based work, the overall need for health access increased. Policymakers, insurers and health systems searched for methods to deliver care to patients in their homes to limit transmission of the virus.

NAH had been working to expand telehealth for a decade, beginning with remote patient monitoring. After rapid expansion of virtual care programs, the focus is stabilizing the ecosystem.

“Key investments will continue to be made in the coming six-to-12 months to support our virtual visit, remote patient monitoring and acute telehealth capabilities,” Boren added.

When regulations were lifted after the first quarter in 2020, North Country Healthcare grew its site-to-site telehealth program to in-home visits using Zoom by leveraging the FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth grants. This summer, the Patient Portal will transition to an integrated platform for smooth access without an app to enhance the workflow.  

North Country offered refills, medication changes, lab follow-ups and review, general questions as well as chronic patient care.

“Should there be any need for a physical exam or in-person tests, labs or imaging, we can then schedule curbside, in-office or referrals,” said chief medical officer April Alvarez-Corona, MD.

The pandemic created more than a physical health crisis. According to Pew Research Center, by May, one-third of Americans had already experienced high levels of psychological distress related to the outbreak.

Cultivate Counseling made a big pivot in March, moving its services solely to telehealth to provide a smooth transition of care. The rate of cancellations fell as access to therapy sessions rose. Patients can open a laptop, log in and receive therapy.

“People can pop in during lunch, from work or at home with the kids,” said clinical director and owner Melissa Dohse. “There are more benefits than drawbacks, and most (clients) prefer telehealth.”

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Amangiri Executive Chef Anthony Marazita

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, April 2021

Photos and Story by Gail G. Collins

Framed by the dunes and ridges of the Colorado Plateau, Amangiri blends into the wildscape. Located 25 miles from Page, the secluded resort offsets the raw aesthetic with streamlined elegance. The poured concrete structure of neutral tones and textures takes full advantage of the panorama while affording pared back serenity.

Amangiri opened in 2009 after a six-year building process. Two wings contain 34 suites, many with desert or mesa views, private plunge pools and fireplaces. Its central pool hugs a 65 million-year-old rock outcrop, a setting reminiscent of Horseshoe Bend. Sister property Camp Sarika, Sanskrit for “open sky,” enables wilderness encounters without compromising comfort.

Located on 600 acres in Utah, the resort is within reach of five national parks. Day tripping includes the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon or Monument Valley’s buttes or a splash in Lake Powell. Property adventures offer hiking trails to explore with resident guides, horseback riding and a sunset hot air balloon launch.

An intimate personal journey begins in the spa with the full complement of massages and outdoor treatment terraces, plus flotation and water pavilions with steam, sauna and cold plunge invigoration. Then, indulge the body with nourishing meals that combine Indigenous ingredients with global accents.

Amangiri’s adventurous cuisine is executive chef Anthony Marazita’s signature. 

“The over-tweezed 12-course meal is a thing of the past,” he said. “Simple, but elegant, dishes with high-end quality ingredients—paying homage to a classic meatloaf, for example—that satisfies people.”

The southwest is familiar as the chef grew up in a family restaurant in Reno, Nevada, where he said he fell in love with taking care of people.  

Most kids collected Ninja turtles; Marazita collected cookbooks. The contrasting styles of Charlie Trotter, whose chic presentation established Chicago as a serious dining destination, versus Lyon’s Paul Bocuse with a profound respect for local products and meticulous cooking processes, fascinated him.

The homegrown chef learned from the dishwasher to the line cook on up. From fine dining apprenticeships in Napa and San Francisco in his teens with exposure to international fare through the galleys of lavish hotels on the West Coast to indulging premiere guests at Starwood Hotel and Resort’s St. Regis in Kauai and Sheraton Grand in Scottsdale, Marazita earned his kitchen credentials.

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Turquoise Room’s ongoing success builds on its Southwest strengths

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, February 2021

Story by Gail G. Collins

Grandeur never fades. In the case of the landmark La Posada Hotel, it has endured some humbling moments, but its prominence continues, true to its original vision.

Fred Harvey Company completed the building of La Posada Hotel in 1930 to serve as the “Resting Place,” as its Spanish name imparts. Purposefully situated as a resort for northern Arizona, the hotel proffered the luxury of linens, china, crystal and, importantly, the flawless service synonymous with Harvey, who “civilized the West.” The hospitality tycoon developed and ran the hotels along the Santa Fe Railroad, marking La Posada as the finest in the Southwest.

Grand Canyon artist and architect Mary Colter worked for Fred Harvey Company, designing everything from La Posada’s functional layout to its maids’ costumes and niche tableware. A fantasy backstory projected the property as a Spanish landowner’s grand hacienda, and attention to detail in art and artifice enhanced that image. Colter also fashioned the railroad dining car for the Super Chief, which ran from Chicago to Los Angeles, dubbing it the Turquoise Room. Starlets and icons, such as Shirley Temple, Amelia Earhart, President Harry Truman and Albert Einstein, embraced the chic transportation.

La Posada closed in 1957, then was gutted and turned into offices for the railroad. A few times, it was slated for demolition, before it was rescued by in 1997 by Allen Affeldt and wife Tina Mion and restoration began.

In 2000, Affeldt invited John and Patricia Sharpe to explore the renovation of the historic property. It needed a restaurant comparable to its celebrated caliber. Sharpe left four acclaimed restaurants and a 25-year culinary career in Orange County and moved to Winslow.

The location was as appealing to Sharpe as it had been to Harvey. An interstate highway, the romance of Route 66, Grand Canyon National Park and other international tourist sites drew millions of annual visitors and lay within a comfortable reach. Still, no destination dining existed between Flagstaff and Albuquerque.

As chef-owner, Sharpe executed the vision for the Turquoise Room’s stylish features, from exposed beams, stained glass, pressed tin and tile to carved chairs. Patricia added imaginative influence with leather-topped tables and painted vintage placemats.

Staffing from a small pool was difficult. The team was trained from the ground up, and a strong crew endures.

“People thought we wouldn’t make it,” Sharpe said of when the Turquoise Room opened on Oct. 10, 2000. With a wry smiled, he added, “It was all we could do to keep up with the people coming through the door.”

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