Best Chinese Food: Golden Dragon

Best of Flag, December 2021

Written by Gail G. Collins

Diners voted Golden Dragon as the Best Chinese Restaurant, so you can trust the reviews:  “This is what Chinese food is supposed to taste like;” “pure taste, comfortable environment;” and the capper, “generous as well as delicious,” from a mother with seven boys who dined there and will be back.

The raves are constant for the hot and sour and egg drop soups, so you know where to begin when ordering. But other bestselling appetizers include the crab puffs, which according to general manager Kinson Li are, “crisp, full of goodies and cream cheese,” in a mouth-popping size.

Three partners share in the ownership of Golden Dragon:  Jimmy Liang, Randy Lee and Winnie Cheng. Liang is from Toisan in the Guangdong region, while chef Sun Chung is Cantonese with an extensive cooking background.

As Li puts it regarding the recipes, “They each have their own ways and focus on fresh food made with quality ingredients to stay on point. The heart of it is in return customers, so we work for that ‘wow factor.’”

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Best Tacos: Tacos Los Altos

Best of FLAG, December 2021

Written by Gail G. Collins

When a business treats its customer as king, the effects are positive. That claim propelled Tacos Los Altos de Jalisco to uphold its status as Best Tacos in Flagstaff for the second year running.

“We appreciate our loyal customers,” said Jose Flores. “A couple of them stop by daily, and by the time they park and come in, their order is ready.”

Flores is the son of one partner with the same name, who is better known as Chepe. Alongside partners Jose Rodriquez, or Pepe, and Saul Rodriquez, they work together in the family-owned shop serving traditional recipes adapted from their hometown in Villahildago, Mexico. In fact, no less than 15 family members support the thriving enterprise.

The family hails from Jalisco, where they owned a restaurant, forming their foundation in the food industry. In the 90s, they moved to the U.S. and further honed their culinary skills. The big opportunity came in 2006, when the partners took over the former Tacos los Altos on Route 66.

“We have worked hard to maintain the previous business’ customer base,” says Flores, “but we moved around about 65-percent of the menu.”

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Matters of Taste:  Cornish Pasty Co.

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, December 2021

Photos and Story by Gail G. Collins

Mining is a risky and challenging occupation. It also becomes the lifeblood of towns or regions creating legacy employment. In the 1200s, Cornwall England’s men mined tin, and their wives and mothers fed them well. They packed lunchboxes with a meat and vegetable pastry — called a pasty (pah-stee) — crimping the edges to seal it. The nourishing handholds contained a savory and sweet filling on either end with an initial to mark the difference. The miners were covered in arsenic, so the crimped edge provided a safe handle and was discarded afterward, but not wasted. Those edges kept the “knockers” or ghosts of the mines away.

Growing up in Saltash Cornwall, Dean Thomas consumed pasties five days a week, and on Fridays, his Nan (grandmother) indulged him. Pasties are filling and portable, so have retained their appeal. That said, some things can be improved upon, and Thomas set about doing so in 2005.

With formal culinary training and a decade of U.S. experience, he opened the Cornish Pasty Co. in 2005. Showcasing the classic pasty, the Oggie, he found success from the start. Thomas grew the menu for choice-loving Americans, expanding the brand with five Phoenix-area locations along with restaurants in Flagstaff, Las Vegas and Boston.

The brand champions consistent, superior ingredients and employee-to-partnership careers. Ryan Hays is the Flagstaff example. With an industry background, he began working for Thomas 11 years ago, advancing from server to manager to owner. Workers learn the ropes, respect the brand and are rewarded with company investment.

“Longtime employees keep up the pride and values in prepping the food, and that quality translates to customers,” said Hays of the Flagstaff shop, which opened in 2017.

Word-of-mouth advertising garners local trust and regulars, who Hays credits with keeping the lights on. Name recognition aids the tourist trade and a good measure of hospitality industry referrals.

The scratch kitchen makes dressings, soups, gravies, pastry and bread daily. Meats are roasted in-house.

“The only things in our freezer are ice cream and peas,” Hays joked.

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Matter of Taste: Forêt FLG brings easy French to Flagstaff

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, November 2021

Written by Gail G. Collins

Consider French cuisine — rich butter and cream seduces us. 

Yet, one can’t help but admire the trim figures of the fashionable French, who dine on it. It might seem contradictory until we examine their habits.

First, there is the lack of snacks. Grazing like un lapin (a rabbit) is discouraged, even for children, and eating while moving — grabbing a burger at a drive-through and the theatrics to pull off the consumption — is strictly non non. Also, though flaky croissants beckon, they are not a daily indulgence.

The larger meal is lunch, enjoyed at a leisurely pace, balanced with a light, late supper. Occasional fine dining is savored in courses with companionable lingering, and portions are half of America’s platters. Desserts contain has less sugar — perhaps even yogurt or cheese — but fats fulfill the satiation factor and flavor. So, while the French invented culinary techniques, such as poaching, flambéing, and braising, their appreciative habits are as understated and tailored as the Dior label.

Such are the aims of Forêt FLG’s owner-chef, Sam Greenhalgh. Free-range eggs, European butter and 18-month-cured jambon are the French framework of his recipes.

“There is room in this town to offer a healthy, fresh, bright breakfast,” he said, adding, “Diners can finish their portion and feel satisfied, not need a nap.”

His business partner and mother, Natasha Greenhalgh, always knew they would open something together. Located in the former Stronghold Coffee Café just off Beaver Street, the space caters to breakfast and lunch. Greenhalgh was welcomed by the neighborly competition, who appreciate another choice for eggs and coffee.

Refreshing the café in the historic Anderson Feed Building was a family affair. Greenhalgh’s uncle and father contributed long days, muscle and woodshop skills for a soft opening in early August. Preserving the character with painted concrete flooring, butcher block counters, art and greenery provide a pared back, light-filled locale. Smooth, upbeat vocals welcome guests.

“We don’t compromise on quality, but we won’t outprice locals,” Greenhalgh said. “A college student can come in a get a burrito and coffee without breaking the bank.”

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Matters of Taste: Aspen Deli a casual downtown favorite

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, October 2021

Photos and Story by Gail G. Collins

A sandwich — it’s a simple, portable handhold with all the necessary ingredients for a meal buttressed by bread. In other words, it’s the perfect luncheon invention. In fact, it was the brainchild of John Montagu, the 4th Ear of Sandwich, who crafted the phenomenon in order to eat and remain at the gaming table. The splendid creation bears his title.

There is an art to assembling this veritable feast between crusts. Bread is the canvas. It is also where art becomes architecture. Whether one prefers rustic ciabatta or a granary slice, the bread should be substantial, not sloppy — a foundation upon which to build. Spreading a condiment provides a barrier to mushiness or adds moisture. Next, cheese imparts strength as well as sharp, nutty or velvety appeal. Meat often showcases, and greens cap it off. The British Sandwich Association — now, there’s an organization worth its salt and pepper — actually crowns champion sandwich makers annually at the Sammies Awards.

Premium ingredients differentiate and drive customers to their favorite deli for the real deal. Aspen Deli utilizes Boar’s Head meats and cheeses to handcraft sandwiches on Village Baker breads, kitted out with homemade sides. Situated across from city hall in downtown Flagstaff, they draw a steady fan base with a casual approach and novel options.

“We mix it up to keep regulars coming in,” said co-owner Carlos Turrieta. His goals are, “Making people happy—their smiles—and exceeding their expectations.”

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Matters of Taste:  Red Curry Vegan Kitchen

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, September 2021

Story and photos by Gail G. Collins

In Thai culture, meals are a social occasion, and dishes are enjoyed family style — the more, the merrier. There aren’t courses, but choices from many categories served together. These include a variety of colorful stir-fries and fragrant curries, plus soup and pineapple or mango for dessert. A mix of sweet, salty, sour and spicy elements creates a satisfying supper.

Each October in Thailand, a vegetarian festival takes place over 10 days in tribute to Taoist belief barring meat consumption or harming animals in order to refine minds and bodies. The event fosters rich traditions and spiritual practices, but also challenges celebrants, clad in white for purity, to free the soul of wrong and cleanse the body as acts of devotion.

Memory of this joyful celebration pushed Chada Tirakul to fulfill her dream and open Red Curry Vegan Kitchen, her second Thai restaurant in Flagstaff.

“This was a beautiful time in Phuket, and personally, I eat vegan two to three times a week, but in September and October, I am a solid vegan,” she said.

The earnest business graduate grew up cooking with her father for family gatherings and worked as a student in a Thai restaurant, knowing down deep that one day she would open a restaurant of her own.

Tirakul ran herself ragged in the early years to make a success of Dara Thai before she trained up the next generation to take over the reins. After ventures in Taos and Santa Fe, her committed partner, Sasiya Stoneburger, joined her in launching Red Curry in early 2014, the first vegan eatery in Flagstaff. The aim of bringing authentic Thai food as vibrant, vegan fare “… whisk(s) you away to the streets and markets of Phuket,” just as Tirakul hoped.

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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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