La Fonda Two bests for legacy eatery with 60 years

Best of Flagstaff 2018

Written by Gail G. Collins

Motivation can come from many sources, even frustration. With hard work, the Garcia family turned frustration and a desire for entrepreneurship into a legacy business model for three generations of continued success. In 1957, three brothers—Sylvester, Frank Sr. and Albert Garcia—borrowed against everything they owned, including a beloved piano, to found the first La Fonda restaurant in Frank’s Sunnyside home on Center Street. It seated 30 guests, and their reputation for delicious meals soon outgrew their capacity. A warehouse on the corner of Second Street and Second Avenue was renovated and tables filled up with customers ordering homemade tamales and enchiladas cooked by the wives on Center Street. Their children raced to the restaurant with the food.

It’s always been a family affair at La Fonda, and several members went on to found six restaurants in Flagstaff, Kingman and the Phoenix area. Sylvester and his son, Marty, consistently pushed La Fonda in Flagstaff forward, and in 2018, celebrated 60 years in business. At 93 years old now, Sylvester was always humble, but grandson and general manager Brandon, said, “He comes in, he cooks and makes every big decision. My father, Marty, is the president—el jefe—and sister, Stephanie, and cousin, Ruben, are managers.”

The team believes showing up is 90 percent of it. Four generations have proven it. “Every Garcia born to us has worked, cooking on the line, washing dishes, whatever—it’s expected,” said Brandon.

The low, stucco building with arches is quintessential Mom and Pop Mexican, standing the test of time and tacos. The menu also has changed little by design and guest demands. Memorabilia menus confirm only slight alterations. Fajitas were added 20 years ago, and carnitas made an appearance a decade later. The most popular request remains the #2 Combination:  cheese enchilada, tamale, shredded beef taco, tostado, rice and beans.

“It’s not fancy, just good, old fashioned Mexican food.” The house margarita sells by the gallons—60 to 70 gallons on average each weekend. Local drafts and Mexican beers fill the gap.

La Fonda supports the community, and the athletic programs of Coconino, Flagstaff, Chinle, Tuba City and more high schools regularly unload busses of hungry athletes to refuel. “We clear the tables to feed everyone and help anyone that calls,” said Brandon.

Long-term commitment goes both ways at La Fonda. Juan has cooked for 30 years, and his assistants, Pedro and Fausto, have logged nearly 20 each. Employees have met and married there. Customers span generations, celebrations are commonplace, and cherished souls have ordered last meals from La Fonda to be delivered to hospice.

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Delhi Palace Cuisine of India A hidden gem in Hilltop Shops

Best of Flagstaff 2018

Written by Gail G. Collins

One of the seven wonders of the world stands in brilliant marble in Agra, India. The Taj Mahal is an UNESCO world heritage site, which took more than two decades to build. It hosts several million visitors annually, and a practicing mosque onsite is closed on Fridays.

Delhi Palace Cuisine of India, on the other hand, has been described as a “hidden gem” and is open seven days a week. The restaurant, tucked in its new, roomier location in the Hilltop Shops at Woodlands Village, closed for only a few days to make its move. The back wall boasts a spectacular painting of the Taj Mahal with linear perspective beckoning diners to enter. That is, if the scent of spices hadn’t drawn you in first. Either way, guests will explore a heady feast at Delhi Palace.

Northern Indian food is on the menu. A plethora of vegetables, fruits, grains and spices makes the cuisine vibrant and flavorful. Relative to southern dishes, the recipes are richer, with gravies made with ghee (clarified butter) or steeped in cream. Many dishes take hours to prepare. The spices used to create the staple garam masala, meaning warm mixture, are robust and earthy. Crushing and blending cumin, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns and more create pungent plates of curry begging to be mopped up with warm naan bread. 

Classic curries are popular. Lamb korma features marinated, boneless lamb, cooked in yogurt with cashews and delicate herbs and spices. Chicken tikka masala smothers boneless tandoori chicken in tomato and butter sauce. The tandoori is a clay vessel, heated with mesquite charcoal to 360 to 400 degrees for cooking anything from shrimp to mixed grill and even paneer, a fresh cheese. Think of it as ancient, aromatic barbecue.

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Your Pie: Good eats and a place to linger made your way

Best of Flagstaff 2018

Written by Gail G. Collins

When Lisa Muscarella traveled with her children to Atlanta for a chess tournament, starting a new business was not on her to-do list. The wife and mother of four already met specialized needs at home alongside a demanding job. Eating out is a necessary luxury at times, but value drove Lisa to research meal options before that trip. She found a company catering to families first and serving delicious, nutritious food at affordable prices. Your Pie hand-tossed pizza, customized with the freshest ingredients fit the bill.

“It’s hard to eat out as a family today; everything is pricey, or it’s junk,” said Lisa. “I wanted to build a restaurant where we would eat.”

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The 25-year Flagstaff resident had no business or food industry background, but her enthusiasm carried the idea forward. Husband Peter provided expertise as a longtime commercial contractor, who has built restaurants around the city and the country. Their planning utilized as many local attributes as possible, so Your Pie would be Flagstaff’s pie.

The one-of-a-kind ponderosa pine bar was felled by pine bark beetles, yet stands up to a throng of diners. The wall menu—a checkerboard of painted chalk slates—was designed for the space. Blonde wood fixtures and tables, matched with chairs and booths, plus long banquettes, provide tons of seating. The soaring space with steel and stone accents, sleek lighting and stacked ruddy brick generates an updated Brooklyn pizza presence.

Peak Produce delivers high quality, fresh, native produce, but what makes the pizza your pie? “You can build your own handcrafted pizza with endless toppings,” said Lisa. “Create any masterpiece you want and all for the same price!”

Diners with dietary restrictions can enjoy vegan choices with dairy-free cheese or a gluten-free crust made with cauliflower. “We go the extra mile for our guests,” assured Lisa.

The Millers, regulars at Your Pie, like the consistency and clean concept. Usually Mrs. Miller orders the turkey pesto panini, but this night sampled the cauliflower pizza crust because they have found everything is good.

Your Pie serves root beer, handcrafted in Arizona with honey from local bees, on draft. “We are the only ones in town to offer natural soda choices on our fountain drink dispenser,” said Lisa. No artificial coloring and sweetened with cane sugar. Kombucha on tap offers another healthy alternative. As for tipples, 18 more taps with plenty of Arizona brews, like Historic Brewery’s Pie Hole Porter, and wine are available.

Community is integral at Your Pie. The company pledges aid to end childhood hunger. From the day ground was broken for Your Pie, Lisa gathered community, building both a restaurant and a family of followers. A free pie donation party on Opening Day in June sealed a happy bond with pizza lovers. When it came time to vote for Flagstaff’s best, Lisa neglected to request support. Your Pie’s loyal fans voted it Best New Restaurant anyway.

Stopping by for a quick meal is no problem. Your Pie’s wood-fired custom oven cooks pizzas in about four minutes. As proof, two Guardian ambulance crews clustered around tables on a weeknight for a fast, wholesome supper.

Still, you’re invited to linger at Your Pie. Televisions catch up diners on the sports scores or serve presentation purposes. That night, folks played board games, and an impromptu birthday celebration arrived, balloons and gifts in tow. Those seated around the fire pit called out for another round of drinks.  

“Good food and the good community of family and friends is the ultimate combo,” said Lisa with a smile. AZDailySun

2619 S. Woodlands Village Blvd.

Bona fide Butchery: Proper Meats + Provisions

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, January 2019

Written by Gail G. Collins

The Shambles is the oldest street in York. Its name descends from an archaic word meaning slaughterhouse. The market of butcher stalls is mentioned in The Domesday Book of William the Conqueror, an 11th-century grand survey of England. Soon after, the Butchers Guild, a professional organization, who held sway in matters of hygiene, weights and measures and so on, formed to oversee the trade.

Fast forward in history to 1865, when Chicago’s meatpacking industry utilized a vast network of railways, and few decades later, the advent of reliable refrigeration generated potential. In the 50s, neighborhood butchers promoted their offerings with recipe booklets, such as A Medley of Meat Recipes. In those days, a shopper popped into the green grocer for fresh produce and the fish monger for today’s catch, but the butcher often suggested supper. Cleaver in hand, he would point out specialty cuts and how to prepare them.

This golden period—captured in ambience and action—still exists at Proper Meats + Provisions, newly relocated on Route 66. Chunky, custom, butcher block tables meet leather benches with their backs fastened by leather pulls against rough paneled wainscoting. Chalkboards advertise the menu choices. Iron shelving contains practical goods for dining plus items for sale—olive oils, fresh pasta, cutting boards or cast iron pans. Kim Duncan Design fashioned the vintage air.

Behind a long glass case, filled with sausages, steaks and unique offerings, Joe Fiandach stands ready to provide advice on locally-sourced animals with a sure pedigree.

“The goal is to buy meat, like wine, from single farms,” said owner Paul Moir. “We have three sources in the case today:  Arizona Legacy from Humboldt, Pierre’s Prime from Rimrock and Creekstone Farms out of Kansas.”

Award-winning restaurateurs Paul and Laura Moir also founded Brix and Criollo Latin Kitchen in Flagstaff, and originally opened Proper Meats in Southside in 2014. Now occupying the former Grand Canyon Café space, the new location expanded the shop in multiple ways.

“It gave us opportunities to spread out the kitchen space for production and preparation and include a new seafood case with wider selections,” said Paul. “It also provided more space for retail and expanded hours.” Meal options, like a bucket of fried chicken, homemade stock or Bolognese, sausages or charcuterie and more, are prepackaged in a case for easy access. Even Fido can benefit from homemade dog food.

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The Tortilla Lady & Rising Hy

Scratch made favorites with heat and flavor

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, December 2018

Written by Gail G. Collins

Brenda Ramirez stands at the stainless steel counter, her deft hands scooping, spreading, filling and folding. A huge bowl of moist masa sits within reach—the base ingredient for creating dozens of tamales—and stacks of corn husks bundle the completed package. Turning the sticky hominy dough into handfuls of this holiday staple is a series of tasks best shared by extended family, each taking on a physical role in the assembly line, but also fulfilling the role of happy company. It’s a time for chatter about the year just gone and what lies ahead. Hands and hearts are busy, and the tamalada, or preparation party, is a festive glimpse of the celebration at which the tamales will be the highpoint.

Spanish history professors believe that tamales have been filling growling bellies since Pre-Columbian times. Aztec women prepared them and toted the portable handholds into battle to keep the army fed. The tamales were easily heated by burying them in ashes. By the 1550s, tamales were served to Spanish conquistadores, and steaming was introduced as the cooking method. Tamales vary in size, flavor, filling and wrapper, depending on the resources available, but the laborious process remains one reason they are dedicated to special occasions.

One shortcut is to buy ready-made scratch masa from authentic tamale crafters, like The Tortilla Lady, where Ramirez makes tamales year round. “Why tamales?” asked co-owner Mike Konefal, “Because people love them. Stock your freezer with our tamales. They’re always available.”

Konefal’s first business venture, Rising Hy Specialty Sauces, began in 2005 in his final year at Northern Arizona University. As a joke, a childhood friend gave him a hot sauce kit, and his first fiery efforts yielded a habanero sauce. He was hooked. Now, a shelf of handcrafted choices are offered, still made in small batches. Unlike most recipes, Konefal doesn’t use vinegar. “Vinegar overpowers, and we want people to enjoy the chili with the food.”

In 2009, Konefal partnered with Dawn Graham, and a couple of years later, they bought The Tortilla Lady, keeping the genuine product, the employees and the business rolling.

“Mike had the passion and heart, and I brought skills and initiative for the combined company to grow with our goals,” said Graham. “It’s been a hot mess and a good outcome.”

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Che Ah Chi: Indigenous ingredients cultivate a distinctive seasonal menu

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, November 2018

Written by Gail G. Collins

When people talk of local sourcing and sustainable farming, the discussion usually centers on modern methods. What about the indigenous produce of Arizona? Foods, such as prickly pear, have been found in the wild and utilized for their abundance for more than 1,000 years before conventional agriculture became an important industry in the state. Native American tribes of the Southwest established traditional dry farming techniques, growing corn in an arid setting with minimal water.

Native cuisine focuses on foods yielded from what, at first glance, often seems an unforgiving landscape. Beans, corn and squash are considered the “three sisters” and used in numerous flavorful dishes. The list also includes cholla buds; mesquite pods, which can be milled into flour; chiltepin peppers to fire up salsa, and more. The high desert landscape boasts a nutritious and distinct terrain that can’t be replicated.

Executive chef Jose Martinez at Enchantment Resort in Sedona agreed, “Che Ah Chi is our signature restaurant as far as food and service, but our use of Native American ingredients sets it apart. The history of the canyon and use of tribal, locally grown and wild produce contributes to the majority of our seasonal menus.” An example is the golden gazpacho, which incorporates amaranth, an ancient grain that pops when exposed to heat.

Che Ah Chi is the Apache name for Boynton Canyon, where the ruddy, adobe resort nestles among the red rocks. The 70-acre terraced property hosts 218 guest rooms with private decks providing panoramic views. Outdoor pursuits are as boundless as the renowned backdrop, while world class spa Mii Amo—meaning “the path forward”—offers life affirming recovery and healthy indulgence. Three dining options are located in the central clubhouse. View 180offers drinks and light fare, Tii Gavo serves casual Southwest recipes, and Che Ah Chi delivers sophisticated dining for breakfast and dinner with an award-wining wine list of uncommon options.

Natural and native elements pervade the clubhouse in rustic planking, stone, plastered walls and brick. A wall of windows invites a timeless and seamless experience with the outdoors.

Chef Jose evolved from a food-centered family, whether it was catering cakes or working in his father’s celebrated Crab House, in his native Puerto Rico. He completed education at two culinary schools, landing in Florida. Martinez gained invaluable experience in his decade at PGA National Resort and Spa, mentoring the executive chef, whom he followed to the Arizona Biltmore.

“That’s where my love for Arizona developed and the job broadened my managerial experience.”

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Haunted History

Connecting with Jerome’s Rowdy Past

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, October 2018

Written by Gail G. Collins

As I climbed the steep, narrow, winding staircase of abandoned Mingus Union High School, a cool, but gentle, hand languidly brushed across my forehead. The hairs on my neck prickled, and my brows rose in wonder. I was not physically alone on the staircase, but neither was anyone within reach of me. The stairs brought me from the teachers’ dormitory to the main floor of the gymnasium where I stopped to consider what had just happened. The people ahead of me and behind continued upward without a care. Gooseflesh rose on my arms, as I recounted my ghostly encounter to the guide from Ghost Town Tours. Deadpan, he pointed out that the boys do love a pretty lady.

In the 1920s, the building was constructed to serve as Jerome’s new hospital, but it became the center for education for mining families. Today, the deserted property registers electromagnetic energy instead of students with activity spikes recorded in the boys’ shower and the whiff of cigarette smoke present in the girls’ area. My mind was open to things that defied explanation, but I wasn’t a ghost hunter.

A glance around present-day Jerome easily inspires imagination of the town it was during the mining boom of the early 20th century. Its history leaps from original buildings like the Jerome Grand Hotel, derelict mining sites or a worn, painted sign that reads House of Joy, reminiscent of a rampant prostitution business. With the season of spooks upon us, it’s easy to be carried off by ghostly tales. Still, there is a rich and ribald past, which is recorded or waiting to be explored on the zig-zagging streets of this precariously perched town. Does a residual of characters remain?

Mining History

Originally, the Verde Valley was farmed by the Hohokam people, but Jerome has long been a place of mining. Whether it was those early tribes in search of ore for pigments, the Spanish conquistadors seeking gold or the two veins of copper that earned Arizona its nickname, the Copper State, the site suggested shiny value.

In 1876, the first mining claims were staked on two mounds that later would be called Cleopatra Hill and Woodchute Mountain. The result of tectonic plates pushing an ancient, undersea volcanic caldera upwards revealed two of the wealthiest ore deposits ever found, worth more than $1 billion. The stakes were purchased a few years later and organized as the United Verde Copper Company and bankrolled by Eastern financiers, including Eugene Jerome. A small mining camp began on Cleopatra Hill and was dubbed Jerome to honor him. Eugene Jerome was a relative of Jennie Jerome, mother of Sir Winston Churchill.

A few years later, the mine closed and was purchased by William A. Clark, whose successes in Montana mining carried over to assemble a profitable business venture in Jerome. He enlarged the smelter and built a narrow gauge railway. The company expanded to become the leading copper producer in the Arizona Territory, extricating nearly 33 million tons of copper along with zinc, lead, silver and gold.

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Bandera Craft Tacos

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, October 2018

Written by Gail G. Collins

As drinkers down tequila, Mexico’s raises production, which is expected to reach 290 million liters this year. Agave syrup and a newfound embrace of mescal—on par with world-class scotch or cognac—have upped the demand for agave overall. This is a boon, but it is at odds with an artisanal product that takes long years to cultivate.

The demand is global and labor intensive legacy farming strains to respond. Outside corporate agronomics enters the market, disrupting village practices. Fast cash tempts farmers, too. Some harvest plants early and others overharvest and risk ongoing pollination by the long-nosed bat, while cloned plant farms are susceptible to disease. All of these unsustainable practices threaten a fragile ecosystem and the trade itself.

Is there an agave crisis? Organizations, like the Tequila Interchange Project, believe so and advocate the preservation of ecological, traditional and quality practices in the agave distilled spirits industry.

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Coppa Café

European flavor and flair meld with ingredients from home

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, September 2018

Written by Gail G. Collins

As we travel, we taste and retain sensations that are activated by similar smells, sounds or sights. The scent of orange blossoms transports us to a stroll on the labyrinth streets of Seville’s Barrio Santa Cruz, or the delicate crunch of a macaron spread with pistachio ganache places us in Paris at Ladurée once more.

Culinary culture is an intricate and integrated part of travel, but marking the miles isn’t necessary to gather such sensual awareness. Leading chefs build a practiced foundation of globally seasoned skills to appeal to the hungering traveler in all of us.

Basic flavor profiles include Mediterranean, Latin American and Asian. Within these regions, sub-profiles exist, driven by climate, agriculture and lifestyle. For example, the Mediterranean pantries of Spain, France, Greece, Egypt and more consist of similar products, but the cooking methods can differ. Further, the fundamental flavor combination of olive oil and garlic ranges from French aioli to Italian pesto and Tunisian harissa. Oh, the range of recipes they reap.

Brian Konefal, owner and chef of Coppa Cafe in Flagstaff, has built an engaged following by introducing guests to global menus. “The idea is to visit a restaurant and taste dishes from abroad without having to travel.”

That said, Konefal has traveled to gather practical knowledge, history and culture with a hands-on year in Barcelona. “The moments of food in a place—freshly plucked or locally cured—the nostalgia of terroir is important, and then, the practice of craft steps up.”

The chef employs European techniques and care, offering such standards as steak frites, while changing up most dishes routinely. Wife Paola Fioravanti advised him, “Remember the first time you ate something. Introduce foods that way and educate others.” Previously the pastry chef, she handles the financial aspects and menu modifications at Coppa.

Coppa Cafe presents as a Euro-bistro and pastry case in colors of ochre and cream with mismatched tables and chairs under a coffered ceiling. Art with whimsical touches complete the airy esthetics.

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Sweet Joy! Cone Company Turns 100

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, August 2018

Written by Gail G. Collins

In a recent drive from Texas to Arizona, billboards along Interstate 10 West beckoned my husband and I to explore “The Thing?” roadside curiosity. As it turned out, the best part of our stop at the travel center was ordering ice cream from Dairy Queen.

The creamy treat in an edible handhold is quintessential summer. One can lick, lick, lick away, and then, consume what remains. The simple cone is easily taken for granted, but after touring the Joy Cone factory in Flagstaff, I knew exactly from where the flaky cup in my hand had been shaped, baked, packaged and shipped.

Joy Cone began as a family business in 1918. Lebanese immigrant George Albert and some of his relatives bought cone-making equipment to found the George & Thomas Cone Company. The George family, along with Joy Cone employees, continues to own and operate the business under an employee stock ownership plan.

History of the Cone

Although ice cream cones were sold by street vendors in New York in the 1890s, they achieved popularity in 1904 with its introduction at the World’s Fair in St. Louis. The stories are many, but the according to the International Dairy Foods Association, Syrian immigrant Ernest A. Hamwi, is the inventor of the conventional ice cream cone. Hamwi, a pastry vendor, was selling “zalabia,” a crisp, sugary waffle, near the many rows of ice cream hawkers at the fair. He rolled the waffle into a cone, handed it to be filled with ice cream, and the rest is sweet history.

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