Criollo Latin Kitchen stands out with happy hour menu, fresh ingredients

Written by Gail G. Collins

On a trip to Uruguay, I strolled the streets of Montevideo and followed my nose to a late dinner. Through the glass of a classy restaurant, their parrilla tempted other passers-by. Flames licked up the oven’s sides, with wood piled nearby to feed a bank of glowing coals. Racks of ribs, chorizo, chicken, and of course, beef slowly cooked on the enormous grill. The server suggested a local bottle of Tanat to accompany a sample platter of meats. Grass-fed beef, never touched by fire, is uniquely flavorful. Even in this fine setting, barbecue, or asado, is the choice of discerning diners.

Latin America stretches from Mexico’s northern border to Argentina, where the gaucho grill originated. Hospitality and warmth are the peoples’ hallmark and extend to their sensual dancing and zesty cuisine. Drawing on European influences from Spain and Portugal, and infused with wider inspiration, diverse and colorful recipes emerged. Bright, bold tastes result from fresh ingredients, like cilantro, lime, poblano peppers, and sazón, a traditional seasoning of annatto, garlic, cumin, coriander, black pepper and oregano. In 2017, Technomic’s Flavor report found that 68 percent of American diners rate Mexican food as their second favorite cuisine. The versatility of flavors satisfies the adventurous with empanadas, ceviche and tamales.

Such experiences drove owners Paul and Laura Moir to open Criollo in 2009. “We loved Latin food,” he said. “Laura had broadly traveled Latin America, and our family regularly went to Guadalajara. Criollo was unique for Flagstaff at the time.”

The menu began with tapas, but evolved following customer tastes. The dishes change seasonally, but items, like bacon nachos and taco plates, are firmly fixed per customer feedback. The couple even courted over nachos, confessed Moir, making them a staple in which the owners enjoy seeing other people indulge.

The Happy Hour menu has expanded to 15-20 choices, offering quality food at bargain prices. Six street tacos top the list. The fish taco—beer-battered catfish with a zippy ancho crema and cabbage— leads, but order a sampler to include the al pastor—slow-cooked pork shoulder with pineapple guajillo, clove and cinnamon, plus cilantro crema—and a chorizo cauliflower taco with pickled red onion, aioli and guacamole. Queso? Of courso. Especially delicious is the fundido with Oaxacan and jack cheeses layered with caramelized onion and poblano pepper, garlic confit and black beans. The hour is happier with a classic margarita or a choice of revolving flavors, like prickly pear or guava. Think tropical with a Pineapple Express, mixing mescal with juice, green chartreuse, lime, blood orange bitters and agave—summertime, anytime.

To reassess their aims, Moir and staff recently explored anew what “criollo” means. Literally, it refers to a person of true Spanish descent from Central America. For Moir, it extends to the pride and far reach of influences, such as the Caribbean or Peru’s Asian impacts, through migration.

Executive chef Jay Felton increased the vegetable dishes on the menu—for example, snap peas and soy flavors are pulled from Peru. He runs a scratch kitchen of sauces, dressings, chorizo and more. Tortillas are local as is the produce from McClendon Farms. The protein is supplied via Moir’s butchery, Proper Meats + Provisions, which aims to act as a wholesale supplier, giving diners all the more reason to try the steak plate.

The skirt steak is charred and tender atop smoked potatoes with a chimichurri sauce of garlic, oregano and cilantro, plus roasted corn salad and blistered shishito peppers for hearty plate of tastes. No less indulgent is the barbacoa flauta, stuffed with chuck beef braised with onion, oregano and apple cider vinegar with potato, fresh aioli coleslaw and smashed avocado.

Close out the meal with a Basque-style churro, sandwiching horchata ice cream and rolled in cocoa nibs for a creamy, passionate, Latin nibble.

Keeping things lively for chefs and clients this year, Moir introduced the Burger Battle. For eight Sundays, two chefs went head-to-head, crafting their best burgers. Guests voted for their favorite and raised money for a charity of the winner’s choosing.

“Everyone in the industry is so busy running around with their hair on fire,” said Moir. “This presented a great opportunity and a good cause for them.”

In the end, diner loyalty builds successes, like Criollo.

“We are downtown, urban, local and casual fun in the center of it all,” said Moir. “We’re 10 years in, and we keep getting better.” NAMLM

Stay Awhile for Breakfast, Barbecue and Bourbon at Colt 804 Grill

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, September 2019

Written by Gail G. Collins

In the last dozen years, Old Town Cottonwood has moved in a pointed direction with economic development. Branding itself as the Heart of Arizona Wine Country in 2014, a revitalized Main Street boasts tasting rooms, supporting nearly 25 wineries along the Verde Valley Wine Trail. The riparian environment and climate of mild winters, low humidity and limited annual rainfall provide the perfect place for grape growing. But one cannot survive on wine alone—even award-winning bottles. Ancillary business boomed alongside this to provide hotel rooms, gift shops, tours, and of course, eateries.

In January 2017, amidst a rare snowstorm, Colt 804 Grill warmly opened its doors and welcomed guests with Southern hospitality and platters of smoked meats, guaranteed to melt any reticence of desire for lip-smacking barbecue on Main Street.

 “We moved to Cottonwood to be near family and created a restaurant that treats clients like friends in a homey atmosphere,” explained owner Brenda Clouston. “We kept it casual with a walk-up concept to offer better pricing on a quality meal.”

Colt is a family affair with staff that builds relationships, working as a team with minimal turnover. The ambience is cowboy chic, borrowing from Brenda’s professional interior design skills. She created the spotted cattle hide pub stools and husband Bob with son Carson, a welder by trade, built the double-wide smoker. Bob’s father crafted the bar, with inlays of walnut, alder and rosewood.

Large portions of good food at affordable prices spurred steady growth for Colt over the years. Additionally, the smokehouse caters three or four events a week. Simply choose from the a la carte menu.

“Everything can be customized and beautifully packaged for pick-up or delivery for groups,” said Carson, who manages Colt. He added with a wink, “They’re large portions—we tend to overcook.”

It’s definitely a custom kitchen, too. “Everything, except the onion rings, sweet potato fries and buns, are scratch made—the rubs, the sauces, you name it.”

Nothing is ever frozen, and the beef is ground fresh daily, mixed with pork belly for a juicy burger.

“It’s a taste explosion,” said Brenda. The price for an 8-ounce single patty is $5.95, which is served on an eggy Brioche bun with salad toppings, a fat, homemade pickle and a slather of zippy Colt sauce.

The turkey sandwich features a thick, smoked slice of breast with hearty Applewood bacon, lettuce, tomato, pickle and a swipe of fresh mayo. Tacos of smoked chicken are served on fresh, double corn tortillas with cheese, avocado, Baja sauce and fresh pico de gallo—messy goodness.

All meats are slow-smoked over white oak for a clean taste. The enormous smoker, which weighs nearly 3,000 pounds, turns out 200 pounds of brisket, 12 racks of ribs, 20 chickens and six turkey breasts daily. That, in addition to 10 trays of bacon and four gallons of beans, while smoking enormous pans of cornbread plus macaroni and cheese alongside any bar additives, such as oranges.

After more than 10 hours, the brisket is fork tender. An order of baby-back ribs counts a full dozen, and the turkey sausage is lean and crumbly with the bite of fennel. Can’t decide on what to try first? Order the platter with a sampling of ribs, pulled pork, brisket, smoked turkey and brat sausage. Douse the meats in any of seven house-made sauces available. They range from subtly sweet Kansas City to Desert Heat with jalapeno and molasses to Maui Wowie with sweet onion, tequila and bacon.

Sometimes, customers proffer advice. A customer passed on his grandmother’s handwritten list of 14 ingredients for the mac ‘n cheese. The kitchen added further magic to hone a mature, complex, smoky pasta dish. It exudes a richness that might add a notch to your belt. For the final frontier, enjoy a simple cookie, big enough to share, bulging with goodies like oats and chocolate chips.

Stop in for a hearty start to your day. The eggs Benedict come in various forms, including the Black Angus with a slab of brisket and spicy Santa Fe sauce. The Vaquero omelet is stuffed with brisket and grilled poblano and red peppers, onions and pepper jack cheese. Both come with a steer-load of brisket hash.

Still, what’s a grill without a bar? Colt serves a bevy of bourbons, educational whiskey flights and craft cocktails to a host of regulars.

“It’ a wonderful element, pulling world-renowned bottles plus new and interesting small-batch products,” said Carson.

Pull up a stool and stay awhile. NAMLM

Located:  804 N. Main St., Cottonwood. Hours: Breakfast Thursday-Mondays from 8 -10. 30 a.m. and daily for dining from 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

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.

Continue reading “La Fonda Two bests for legacy eatery with 60 years”

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.

Continue reading “Delhi Palace Cuisine of India A hidden gem in Hilltop Shops”

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.

A Literary Legacy on Bark

Illiterate Basque sheepherders told of their lonely, dangerous work with carvings on Inner Basin aspens.

1470191_10152041717170169_939949830_nSpecial to the Daily Sun
Monday, August 25, 2008

When Santiago Parra carved his name and the date, 1970, into an aspen tree on the Inner Basin Trail, he marked the end of an era. Parra made his lines thin and neat. As the tree grew and stretched, his marker would remain attractive, legible and a witness to his having herded sheep near Lockett Meadow. Continue reading “A Literary Legacy on Bark”

4,000-Strong Walk for a Cancer Cure

Ann Eagan is an inspirational co-chair for Saturday’s Climb to Conquer Cancer, but she didn’t do it alone.

1470191_10152041717170169_939949830_nSpecial to the Daily Sun
Sunday, August 17, 2008

The American Cancer Society reminds us in its ads that cancer touches everyone.

Even me. We all saw the commercial. A woman trudges uphill to the narration, “I can do this, I can do this …”

I’d seen the ad 50 times and wondered — something was familiar about her.

The woman is Ann Eagan. She was also co-chair for Saturday’s 20th anniversary Climb to Conquer Cancer, a cancer survivor and — come to find out — an old college friend.

“Until 2007, I climbed simply for friends, family and co-workers,” Eagan said. “Then, I was diagnosed with intravascular lymphoma.” Continue reading “4,000-Strong Walk for a Cancer Cure”

Working wonders: Senior citizens contribute to workforce

Seniors provide an experienced, flexible labor source

1470191_10152041717170169_939949830_nSpecial to the Sun
Monday, August 11, 2008

Sandy Abbajay, at 70 years young, helped set up and establish Linens ‘n Things at the Flagstaff Mall Marketplace last October. It took 10 days and untold truckloads of goods, but fortunately, she had the dedicated assistance of another senior, Verna Johnson.

“I just can’t sit,” said Abbajay. “And besides, you can never retire from life,” she added, laughing. A few years ago, Abbajay made the decision to move across the country. The fact that her children objected to her driving off to explore future options just steeled her resolve. She put her life in storage and her retirement from 20 years as a manager on hold. Continue reading “Working wonders: Senior citizens contribute to workforce”

Pick a Card, any Card

At training camp in Flagstaff, the players compare jerseys with the fans, who show solidarity by booing the refs

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Special Reporter to the Daily Sun

A man in wrap-around sunglasses and a Cardinals’ jersey stood on the sidelines of the practice field. He was close enough to hear the pro players pant as they executed a drill.

Brett Anderson collected 15 autographs from the Arizona Cardinals players during a signing event before Saturday's practice. Hoping to get a total of 30, Anderson said he fell short of his goal because he arrived late after a three-hour drive. (Dana Felthauser/Arizona Daily Sun)
Brett Anderson collected 15 autographs from the Arizona Cardinals players during a signing event before Saturday’s practice. Hoping to get a total of 30, Anderson said he fell short of his goal because he arrived late after a three-hour drive. (Dana Felthauser/Arizona Daily Sun)

Suddenly, a kicker walked up and asked, “Hey, where’d you get that jersey, man? T.J. Maxx?” Caught off guard, the fan said, “No, I got it for Christmas.”

Both men wore No. 1 and grinned at each other.
Continue reading “Pick a Card, any Card”

Botanist buzzing with excitement over wildflowers

The Arboretum’s wildflower walk becomes a talk about ‘the birds and the bees’ for the plant kingdom.

1470191_10152041717170169_939949830_nSpecial to the Sun
Monday, July 28, 2008

They ranged from novice earth-diggers to experienced gardeners and they studiously scribbled notes on steno pads and raised their hands to ask questions.

“It’s a matter of stewardship,” botanist Gwen Waring said to the 25 enthusiasts gathered for the annual Wildflower Walk at the Flagstaff Arboretum on Saturday. “As our ecosystems are disturbed and changed, we need to provide a refuge for our native plants that also welcomes animals into our garden. “I take an evolutionary approach,” Waring said. “There are 110 conifers, and they are ancient creatures. But flowering plants are so much more diverse. They developed strategies for pollination as they evolved. These exploded in the Cretaceous Period, evidenced by fossils from that time.” Continue reading “Botanist buzzing with excitement over wildflowers”