John Conley comes full circle as Salsa Brava and Fat Olives sweep up six awards in Food & Drink

Best of Flagstaff 2022

Written by Gail G. Collins

A satisfying success in this life is to come full circle. Where one’s achievements align with the passions we set out to pursue, and while it takes a steady head, hard work and perseverance, it just might be our attitude—humble and grateful—that allows one to recognize and embrace that success.

In the beginning, any small business boasts one fired-up, know-it-all employee. Heck, he has invested heart, soul and bank account. It wasn’t any different for John Conley, owner of Salsa Brava and Fat Olives Wood Fired Pizzeria and Italian Kitchen.

Conley began cooking at 13 and has continued ever since. Coming from a large family, cooking kept him fed in more ways than one, and the loud chaos of a kitchen felt natural. After high school, Conley became a Heber Hotshot for the US Forest Service and attended NAU’s hotel and restaurant management program. Equipped with a penchant for Mexican travel and culture, a job at the original Salsa Brava was also a good fit. Then, rushing headlong, on the cusp of finishing his degree, Conley used his savings to buy Salsa Brava at age 21.

He shut down the place for three months and transformed it from counter service to a full restaurant, opening with one employee—John. “I had $200 to my name and slept in the shop,” Conley remembers. But that first week, firefighters battling a blaze needed 500 lunches each day for nearly a week—he was making money.

The new menu at Salsa Brava was unfamiliar, except in Sonora, known for its seafood, beef and produce. Shrimp and lobster enchiladas, Baja tacos and more, showcased flavors from the grill—al carbon—plus a range of salsa options. Thirty-five years later, that aim remains.

A lot of details have shaken out in the meantime, but the food is unshakable. The salsa requires 1,000 pounds of hand-cut tomatoes weekly, and with inflation and a hurricane, the price of a 20-pound case of fruit has skyrocketed six-fold. Also, COVID brought healthy changes to the salsa bar, where an enormous amount became wasted daily. Still, chips and salsa are free at Salsa Brava, and they come with a trio of scratch salsas.

“We spend four hours a day making salsa,” says Conley. “It’s the most expensive thing in our restaurant.” Best Salsa—an award well-earned.

Voted Best Tacos also, Salsa Brava’s choices range from Maui pork, carne asada, smoked chicken and carnitas to shrimp, cochinita pibil (Yucatan BBQ pork) and adovada pork, and the menu includes combination and traditional plates, enchiladas and fajitas.

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Matters of Taste:  Brekkie phenomenon Over Easy serves up protein-packed power meals

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, January 2023

Written by Gail G. Collins

Any time is the right time for breakfast. Whether it’s in the wee hours of the morning with Greek yogurt and anti-oxidizing berries or a brunchy feast with protein-packed steak and eggs, our body eagerly awaits the energy to power us forward. Eating kick-starts our metabolism from snoozy to food-fueled thermogenesis to burn the food we consume. One small bite increases rhythmic contractions and gastric juices in the digestive tract, and it all happens involuntarily. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage our brains to make the meal count. New Year, new you. Start with a wholesome breakfast.

In 2008, celebrated Chef Aaron May and Plated Project partners created a restaurant where they wanted to eat. “Nothing gimmicky,” May says. “I was craving good, old fashioned, scratch cooking.”

Over Easy opened in a repurposed Arcadia Taco Bell, and the fulfillment of breakfast-brunch fantasies took flight. The menu wowed Phoenix critics, and Food Network’s Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives soon crowded the kitchen to learn May’s secret to red-eye gravy. The rest is an expanding story of outstanding eats and added locations.

The licensed franchise is an Arizona concept with 11 sites throughout the Valley with new spots in Gilbert, Mesa and Queen Creek plus four metro stops to come. Fortunately, Flagstaff made the list four years ago.

The brekkie phenom caught the attention of Food & Wine, Condé Nast Traveler, Sunset and USA Today with stints on foodie shows, such as Cooking Channel’s “Food Paradise” and Learning Channel’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate”.

According to partner Ryan Field, “Over Easy makes a bigger splash in smaller markets.” The secret? “We endeavor to create great experiences.”

With yolk yellow and aqua contrasting colors, it’s a light, bright space. A long bar with 50s-style barstools and a wall of windows welcomes guests—Good morning, Sunshine!

The idea is a Chicago diner-driven neighborhood place. “We wanted to duplicate the old school, hand-sliced bacon, crack-every-egg, creative, lively concept,” Field says, “a place where we would want to go.”

Continue readingMatters of Taste:  Brekkie phenomenon Over Easy serves up protein-packed power meals

NiMarco’s proves itself to be a true hometown pizzeria

Story and Photos by Gail G. Collins

In 2022, NiMarco’s celebrated 42 years in business. Making good pizza wouldn’t grow the venture; making the best pizza was the only option. Fresh, not frozen, dough, cheese grated daily, scratch sauce and of course, quality, creative toppings build their premium pizzas.

Their winning objective: To provide a great product with a smile and do so in a timely fashion.

Dough is critical to a good pie, and NiMarco’s makes it “Flagstaff-style,” a term coined to describe the thickness and texture that doesn’t easily fall into Italian regional categories. Daily, dough is mixed and kneaded.

NiMarco’s is particularly picky about cheese, sourcing an aged product and grating it fresh. “I’m paying someone hours each day to grate cheese,” says co-ower Dave Ledbetter, “but it makes all the difference—creamier, melts better and tastes best.”

The sauces are house-made from quality tomato products. In fact, Ledbetter visited the Modesto, California farms to see where his tomatoes are grown and packed.

Hands down, the most popular pie is the pepperoni pizza. The Popeye, jam-packed with a garlic butter base, piled high with spinach, Roma tomatoes, red onion, bacon and mozzarella is a top seller as well. South of the Border begins with green chili sauce, topped with jack, cheddar and mozz cheeses, jalapeños, black beans and fresh tomatoes to bridge the choice between Mexican and Italian for dinner. Monster meat is billed for the carnivore, loaded with the usual suspects plus handmade Italian sausage and ham. The homage pie, Gary’s Special, shoots the works with pepperoni, sausage, olives, onions, mushrooms and bell peppers.

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Satchmo’s struts their stuff winning Best BBQ and Catering

Best of Flagstaff 2022

Written by Gail G. Collins

Everyone knows what great barbecue tastes like, but only devoted pitmasters understand the balance of fuel, fire, fastidious poking and flavor that is required to elevate it. It also takes rubs, char, smoke, method and a little madness to craft meat that melts in your mouth.

A smoker is a delicate environment, affected by variables, such as humidity and temperatures. Critically, smoke is an ingredient, not a method of cooking where spice is crucial. And pros will tell you, it’s not in the numbers on a thermometer, but in the nudge and jiggle that define when the meat is just right.

From the dedication and skill required, it’s clear, barbecue is serious stuff.

“Aside from the coals, achieving the perfect smoke ring is affected by weather, humidity and more,” says Jamie Thousand, pitmaster and owner of Satchmo’s, winner of Best BBQ and Catering. Thousand is self-taught—and education earned in a fervent, backyard relationship with meat and grill. This led to competitions, pulling a trailer on the Phoenix BBQ circuit where he honed his smoke skills before opening Satchmo’s in 2009.

There is a whole Creole side to Satchmo’s as one might guess from the name attributed to the King of the Trumpet. The décor, from instruments and paintings, mounted on Mardi Gras-colored walls in deeper shades of mustard and plum, gives more than a nod to New Orleans jazz. Recipes honor the Holy Trinity—onions, bell peppers and celery—with a personal, style-enhancing gumbo, jambalaya and catfish.

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Meat that matters: Proper Meats + Provisions serves up award-winning deli sandwiches

Best of Flagstaff 2022

Story and Photo by Gail G. Collins

From a market of butcher stalls in the 11th century to the meat-packing industry in the late 1800s to the apron-clad neighborhood butcher, armed with a cleaver and advice on supper, meat has mattered. In the past, sourcing, sustenance and sustainability were not always considered, but together, they yield superior protein and products.

Such are the aims of Proper Meats + Provisions on Route 66 in making one heck of an award-winning deli sandwich.

“The sandwiches are ridiculously big,” says owner Paul Moir, “because that’s what I want to eat.”

The fried chicken po’boy is piled high with house-made smoked andouille, slaw and spicy remoulade made with guajillo chili. It’s as good as it gets outside of New Orleans. Sweet and spicy wings on mizuna greens go Asian dressed with roasted garlic and toasted sesame.

The signature PMP cheesesteak is shaved, tender roast beef with triple peppers, onions and provolone on a hoagie. The pastrami is the best-seller for a reason. It’s an eight-day process of brining, smoking and steaming the higher fat, flavorful briskets. A peppery stack of meat with Swiss on grilled bread makes for a melty meld with fries and a pickle spear.

The sandwich list is long, including Ahi tuna salad, a daily sausage special and classics like a turkey club, Reuben and roast beef. Other options include a layered Cobb salad or loaded fries, BBQ chips or wings to nosh with a local brew.

The artful butcher offers specialty cuts of meat which can be traced back to the source and curated products not commonly found in big box stores.

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The Annex Cocktail Lounge pushes the envelope with their high-end drinks and unpretentious atmosphere

Best of Flagstaff 2022

Written by Gail G. Collins

The classic cocktail resurgence has been blooming like the floral note in Earl Gray-infused gin for the past 20 years. A stylish spirit with a dash of bitters and a twist, served in a sparkling glass is elegant and as attractive as the barkeep who suggested it.

As history repeats itself, gin is the rage again. And why not? There is no spirit with as storied a history.

Keeping it classy, James Bond drank a gin martini, while Gatsby, Bogart, FDR, WC Fields and Hemingway routinely turned to gin. Even the drinker’s rallying cry, “It’s five o’clock somewhere,” refers to gin.

Other elements add dimension to a drink, harmonizing flavors. Bitters, a blend of herbs and roots distilled in alcohol, perk up champagne cocktails, Manhattans, rum punches and more. Smoke, infusions, aging, fruit and heightened creativity all contribute to decoctions that harken back while pushing the envelope.

Looking for such “art in a glass?” Try Annex, winner of the Best Cocktail. Established in 2010, the playground has evolved into Northern Arizona’s premier cocktail lounge. Its speakeasy vibes are echoed in the smartly-attired bartender, tasking bottles from iron shelving and pouring behind a steel bar. Brick banquettes butting wood tables afford groups a place to gather. And parties can spill onto the enormous patio.

“We serve high-end cocktails in an unpretentious atmosphere.” Simply put, general manager Ryan Bailey says, “Annex is a neighborhood bar with the best cocktails in the state.”

Continue readingThe Annex Cocktail Lounge pushes the envelope with their high-end drinks and unpretentious atmosphere

Atria’s open kitchen offers a new perspective on fine dining

Best of Flagstaff 2022

Story and Photos by Gail G. Collins

Our generation was raised on the interplay between TV celebrity chefs and the home-cooking experience. These chefs would enter our homes and, each night, demonstrate their culinary skills to us and millions of other viewers around the nation, and as a result, our kitchens occupy an important space in our homes. It’s no wonder that open restaurant kitchens would magnify this appeal. The chance to sit next to a kitchen of busy cooks, to see a meal flambé, to hear the sizzle of a hot pan and feel the dynamism of a team in action. We lean in. It lures us. They are on stage, and we are the engaged audience.

It was actually this camaraderie and energy that first attracted Rochelle Daniel to cooking at age 15. The Phoenix native made her mark at Scottsdale’s Fat Ox. She was a finalist on Food Network’s Chopped Grill Masters; touted as one of the Valley’s “Top 5 Sous Chefs” by the Arizona Republic and “Best Sous Chef” by AZCentral before her induction into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame in 2017.

Daniel took her cred to L’Auberge de Sedona to revamp and rebrand the property’s restaurants. There, she fell for Northern Arizona, and a partnership with Karan and Kunal Patel plus Barry Levitan created Atria. The hyper-seasonal spot opened last December.

“I swore I would never do an open kitchen,” says Chef Daniel. “The loud intensity of the kitchen should be hidden.” And of course, Atria hosts a grand bar, Chef’s Counter, which corners its open kitchen. With a laugh, she adds, “This kitchen can give guests a show without disturbing them—our staff is on stage.”

The vicarious chef reminds staff not to hustle too much—even as they keep preparation on track—because guests pick up on the anxiety and will feel the need to move on. Her focus for them is to “embrace and enjoy the moment.”

Daniel reflects, “We offer guests a little bit of grace and inspire them with attention to detail as they celebrate important moments in their lives.”

General manager Darva Fields, with a similar resume as Daniel, aims to elevate the service at Atria. Chef Maribel Silva, who attended school with Daniel and a team player since, and Chef Anthony Suazo comprise core staff and know how Daniel needs things done.

It’s all paid off with Best of Flagstaff wins for Best Fine Dining and Best New Restaurant for Atria.

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Main Street Catering fulfills the most challenging event needs

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, December 20224

Story and Photos by Gail G. Collins

Why cater an event when so many restaurants offer meal services? Foremost, the adaptability of a full-service caterer is prepared for the inevitable challenges that arise. Their staff is experienced in the nuances of synchronizing guests’ needs as well as refilling the chafers. A comprehensive caterer also provides all that is needed for an event from the menu and the equipment to cook and serve food to all the dishes, linens, utensils and decorations. And lastly, they aren’t limited to a restaurant’s fare, but can address a variety of cuisines, settings and personal preferences.

Since 1988, Main Street Catering has been fulfilling event needs, ranging from family barbecues to whimsical weddings with gracious service and a down-to-earth take on formal dining. Their abilities extend to gourmet dinners for 20 to receptions for 300. Whether it’s buffet lines, food stations or butler-passed plates, their crew can bartend and provide the amenities that create effortless events.

On a fall day, a van arrived, loaded with storage tubs, milk crates, racks of glassware, water pitchers, coffee pumps, bread baskets, heating trays and lamps, vast groceries and much more in addition to all the elegant touches necessary for a impressive wedding day. Main Street Catering is on the scene, literally doing all the heavy lifting, set-up, cooking, serving and clean-up.

The owners are siblings with complementary skills. Partners Alexis Holle and Jyllian McIntire have worked alongside Stewart Holle to cater 100 events this year, where weddings built the bulk of business after COVID had put life on hold. In early 2021, the sisters took over the business from Dave McGraff, for whom they had worked over the years, so they were intimately familiar with the operations. In fact, it was one of Jyll’s first jobs.

“Dave gave us a great foundation to start with,” says Alexis. “We worked out the kinks and found room to grow.”

The gals enjoy the learning curve of stimulating activities, where a party is still a party, but no two are identical. At times, they stage away from kitchens and civilization, such as the Grand Canyon’s edge.

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Easy as pie: Flagstaff’s Pie Guy dishes up tips, tricks and sweet confections

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, November 2022

Story and photos by Gail G. Collins

Life is full of contradictions, but much less flush with splendid pies. Take the refrain “as American as apple pie;” it belies the pastry’s primitive, roaming roots. The Egyptians began pie craft, but it was the Romans, who penned the first recipe for rye-crusted goat cheese and honey pie.

Originally, pies were savory, often made of fowl with legs hanging over the edge for use as handles. By the 14th century, “pye” was a popular word in Europe.

Fruit tarts or pies eventually made the pages of cookbooks in England in the 1500s as Queen Elizabeth I happily tucked into an inaugural cherry pie. The English settlers then imported pie to America, but notably, these early crusts served merely as vessels. Made in rectangular forms, they were known as “coffyns”—divulging their desiccated function over flavor.

As the American Revolution cut ties with Britain, a more perfect union of states was formed alongside the desire for a more perfect crust.

Any pie worth its filling is fashioned within an alliance of a tender and flaky shell. Delicate, yet strong, the crust restrains the goodness, yet yields to the fork. Hands down today, the most popular pie is apple, so coming full circle, perhaps, the phrase rings true: As American as apple pie.

In 2019, more than 50 million Americans bought frozen pie crusts, and more than 40 million opted for the refrigerated product. The legacy of handcrafted pies is seriously at risk.

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SaltRock Southwest Kitchen Cocktail Pairing

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, October 2022

Story and Photos by Gail G. Collins

Cocktails have made a comeback in all the best ways, not serving merely as an aperatif or digestif. Today, there is no need to order wine with a meal when a classy cocktail pairs perfectly.

“Cocktails are complementary to cuisine,” agrees Ardi Dulaku, assistant director of food and beverage at SaltRock Southwest Kitchen. Cultivating locally inspired fresh ingredients, he adds, “Cocktails are a really good dance partner.”

Harmonizing flavor profiles is key with the choice to match or compliment qualities in a dish. Acidity in a drink can slice through fattiness while a beverage’s floral or herbaceous aspects can emphasize the savory or vegetal elements of food.

Also, consider crafting a cocktail around a base spirit the way a smoky mezcal embraces chocolate.

“In the Oaxacan Negroni, the mezcal is infused with cocoa nibs, which releases fat for a silky mouth feel, like mole,” Dulaku said.

Or focus on reinforcing an ingredient, such as apple. SaltRock juices a green apple over a guest’s selection of spirit with lemon oil on ice as a cool concept. “A green apple has the perfect structure of acid, sweet and fruitiness to balance any spirit,” Dulaku suggests.

Finally, stacking cuisine and cocktails ethnically also heightens the senses as a margarita echoes the generous squeeze of lime on tacos.

SaltRock Southwest Kitchen is the signature restaurant for Amara Resort and Spa in Sedona. Tucked along the banks of Oak Creek Canyon, the resort offers Southwest sophistication instilled within a modern interpretation of Sedona’s Native American heritage, embodied in its services, amenities and aesthetics. Consistently named one of the U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Hotels,” Amara offers 100 spacious guestrooms and suites that blend unique design elements with the landscape.

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