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

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.

Proper Meats drives to Perkinsville to pick up animals each week. “There is no place that delivers whole animals to your door,” said Paul. Processing the whole animal from nose to tail yields by-products, such as lard, tallow, soup bones and organ meat. Nothing is wasted at Proper. Still, a pig only has two bellies, which doesn’t near the numbers needed for Saturday sales of bacon. Two briskets won’t fulfill a day’s order of sandwiches either, so certain cut are supplemented.

There is an educational component to shopping a neighborhood butcher like Proper Meats. Pierre’s Prime Beef is dry-aged for 25-30 days. The grass-fed and grain finished meat is darker with a gamier, concentrated flavor. Arizona Legacy Beef’s Criollo cattle are lean. Paul advises basting the ribeye with butter before cooking it in cast iron.  “It’s about keeping expectations in line with new products and techniques,” he said. Sausages blister on the grill and flame, so poach them first, then finish them off.

“The sandwiches are ridiculously big,” said Paul, “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 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 charcuterie board varies; this day with prosciutto, fennel salami, house capicola—a Corsican cold cut—three cheeses, including barely Buzzed coffee-rubbed cheese, sourdough toasts, pickled peppers and onions, honeyed apricots and figs plus wholegrain beer mustard. Toss back a local beer or sip an Arizona wine for the perfect indulgence.

 “Keep an open mind—try new cuts and take the butcher’s advice on how to cook an imaginative recipe with specialty cuts,” said Paul. Benefit from higher quality meats or learn about value cuts that aren’t available in supermarkets. Either way, a better dinner is served with choices from Proper Meats + Provisions. NAMLM

Proper Meat + Provisions, 110 E. Route 66, is open daily 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Festive & Fresh

Arizona foods elevate the holiday table

Written by Gail Collins

As the golden light of autumn waned, the brisk afternoon warmed with the happy chatter of guests. Pecks on the cheek, lingering hugs and the joyous anticipation of time with loved ones set the stage for a holiday gathering. The cook mopped a brow with a dish towel, inhaled the stuffing’s fall fragrance and smiled. Nothing can top the celebratory combination of glorious food, home and company. In fact, it is the melding of elements, both festive and familiar, that creates the greatest happiness.

Gatherings can feel stressful, but serving specialty foods and a showcase bird is worth the planning and preparation. Even professionals, like Logan Webber, executive chef at Brix, utter colorful language when the top of the stuffing chars instead of browns, so relax, home cooks—it’s all part of the process.

Sustainable Serving

When it comes to choosing quality ingredients, local is always better. Even a massive bison creates a smaller carbon footprint when the animal is grazed, processed and eaten regionally. Sustainable farming and ranching guard future land use for all. Environmental preservation—avoiding toxic substances or depleting natural resources—builds an ongoing ecological balance. Sustainable practices consider animal welfare, protect public health and support vibrant communities. The good news is that increasing demand for sustainable living is fueling a robust market of products and producers.

The Colorado Plateau offers a wider variety of proteins and produce than might be expected for a semi- arid land. Some of the sources readily available to Northern Arizona include:  McClendon’s Select, Roots Micro Farm, Black Mesa Ranch, Two Wash Ranch, and of course, the local farmers market. Three generations at McClendon’s Select have cultivated nearly 100 acres of certified, organic farmland in Peoria and Goodyear. Roots is an urban farm in Flagstaff supplying colorful micro-greens—vegetables, herbs and flowers—to local restaurants. Black Mesa Ranch boasts the “flavor of the White Mountains” with farmstead artisan cheeses crafted from registered Nubian goats. Two Wash Ranch, a five-acre poultry farm, raises chickens, ducks, geese and pea fowl in a cage-free environment.  For the easiest downtown shopping however, visit Proper Meats + Provisions, an abundant source of regional, quality fresh and jarred items.

“There are many reasons to use sustainable ingredients,” Chef Webber said. “It’s better for the environment, but there is also the chance to talk to the people, who make the food, about their practices and upcoming farm produce. This offers the chance to change up the menu with seasonal items.” Farmers markets are ideal for this, and he also chats with other chefs, who can help with sourcing. Webber, who entice diners with the unique root vegetables in autumn, added, “Local goods taste so much better and have a longer shelf life that extends recipe opportunities.”

Continue reading “Festive & Fresh”

In Search of Great Cuts

Heritage Meats & the Downtown Butcher

Mtn Living Mag November 2014

Dish Proper Nov 2014aWe often hear the cliché: There is strength in diversity. But what does that mean? When it comes to heritage farms, it can be the difference between life and death. In 1845, the Irish potato crop suffered blight. The bulk of farmers had planted only one type of potato, and over six years, a million people starved and another million left Ireland. This is the danger of industrial agriculture, which utilizes few breeds or crops to maximize output under specific conditions. Here is the bottom line on factory farming: 60 percent of beef is Angus, Hereford and Simmental breeds; 75 percent of pork comes from three breeds; and four breeds of sheep make up 60 percent of the market with a whopping 40 percent of that number as Suffolk. In the last 15 years, 200 breeds of animals have become extinct worldwide. Genetic diversity is essential to a healthy food supply to withstand harsh conditions and unforeseen circumstances. Continue reading “In Search of Great Cuts”


Brix Casual Fine Dining & Wine Bar Bring a Grown-Up Culinary Sensibility

Mtn Living Mag August 2014

Dish Brix Aug 2014A recent guest review of Brix Casual Fine Dining & Wine Bar wrote, “Flagstaff has done a lot of growing up in the last few years.” It’s happily true. The downtown restaurant industry has been on a track to offer clients high end, sustainable, creative cuisine, while maintaining that easy-going Flagstaff attitude. At the head of this march strode Paul Moir with the opening of Brix in 2007. He later opened Criollo, a Latin-inspired kitchen in downtown and mentored fellow restaurateurs in this consistent, positive direction. It’s a national trend with hometown success. Continue reading “BUILDING ON SUCCESS”

Cooking with Fire

How Paul Moir Brought Culinary Depth to Flagstaff’s Downtown

Mtn Living Mag June 2013

June 2013Restaurateur Paul Moir has worked to bring both Brix and Criollo to the downtown scene. While these restaurants were not the first to provide haute cuisine to the Flagstaff market, they did create a deep bench of fine dining options and a sharper focus toward local and seasonal foods. Moir’s recipe for establishing a restaurant also lent a helping hand to the success of Diablo Burger. Moir is also expanding his range with three new establishments in Tucson’s downtown—including Diablo Burger’s second location.

Taking a risk is both exciting and scary. Those two words emerged consistently when Paul Moir spoke about creating a restaurant and his subsequent strides forward. The naysayers seem to have the loudest voices at those moments. And as Moir positioned himself to open a high end restaurant in Flagstaff, they said to him, “Local people don’t care.” But the owner of Brix and Criollo has since proven them wrong and will do so again with the May opening of his third restaurant, Proper, in Tucson. Continue reading “Cooking with Fire”