Matters of Taste:  Agassiz Lodge proves Snowbowl sports more than just skiing

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living Section, June 2024

Written by Gail G. Collins

In winter, all eyes are on the snow report. It wasn’t always like that. When a record winter delivered abundant snow in January 1915, Norwegian brothers Ole and Pete Solberg introduced the wild notion of skiing. They had grown up on skis before immigrating to Flagstaff, so the brothers carried their homemade equipment up Observatory Hill and skied down. The next day, the entire town turned out to watch the men. It caught on quickly.

Cross country skiing evolved as the norm for years for utilitarian reasons, but in 1933, Arizona Teachers College, now Northern Arizona University, advertised snowmen and skiing to appeal to students by holding the first winter carnival. A couple of years later, someone finally looked up at the San Francisco Peaks and linked skiing and the mountain. In 1938, Arizona Snowbowl invited the public to embrace recreational skiing.

Naturally, food followed, and early on, Agassiz Lodge fed hungry skiers, according to Snowbowl’s marketing director Angelina Grubb. Over time, the mountain lured nature lovers for hiking and cooler climes, but in the last several years, Snowbowl evolved as a playground destination with multiple distractions.  Foremost is the enclosed seating of the gondola, which premiered in 2021.

“For longest time, we had only the three-seater chair lift, but the Scenic Gondola offers a good experience despite the weather circumstances,” Grubb said. Other entertainment includes the longstanding tubing hill, bungee trampoline jump and rock climbing, which can be bought as a package of activities, plus gem and fossil painting. There are also free activities, such as a tumble wheel, and 18-hole disc golf course. “It is elevated play.”

Forest Service approvals are necessary for any expansion use, and rangers educate guests, pointing out geology, landmarks and areas from the peak view. A short overlook trail kicks off from there.

Read more: Matters of Taste:  Agassiz Lodge proves Snowbowl sports more than just skiing

“We are a winter through summer destination. Stop by Snowbowl on your way to the Grand Canyon, ride the gondola and play,” Grubb suggested.

The Sunset Meal package creates dynamic pricing. For $29, guests can ride the gondola as the sky turns fiery, and for $39, they can enjoy fine dining beforehand.  Book a day ahead. The choices include a steak or pork chop dinner or vegan pasta.

Kitchen manager Javier Garcia creates such meals to encourage lingering. In general, he has developed more variety in menu items to move beyond burgers and chicken tenders to include wraps, rice bowls, fresh salads and soups. He said, “I stepped back—thinking of myself as a customer—and offered variety and quality to provide a great experience. Every plate is good from meats to produce with attention to detail.”

Garcia engages local connections as it’s possible and practices sustainability despite a quick pick-up style. “We use biodegradable service items that won’t affect the wellbeing of our mountain,” he said. “It’s sacred land, and we should love it and take care of it.”

The charcuterie board carries the bounty of fresh strawberries and blueberries, dried fruit and nuts, cured meat, three cheeses, marinated artichoke hearts, jam and fresh honeycomb, tempting guests to dawdle with a glass of something wonderful from 9,500’ Bar.

Michael Tolleson, hospitality operations manager, curates a wide range of local and national brands of brews, wines and spirits. Four Peaks, San Tan Brewing and Tower Station, of course, feature. Top selling cocktails include Hotachada, Sunset Mai Tai and the Draft Margarita, fashioned with 3 Amigos tequila in a choice of flavors.

The signature Sunset Meals are generously portioned. The steak showcases a 16-ounce New York strip with a side of garlic butter, mashed potatoes with brown gravy and grilled asparagus. It is enough to share. Two pork chops topped with house made bacon jam stacked on a smash of red potatoes with roasted brussel sprouts also make up a meaty plate. The vegan linguine is melded in a carefully crafted deep tomato vodka sauce, mixed with zucchini quarters and olives. Add parmesan, salmon or chicken to up the ante.

Events are fully handled in-house from bartending to catering and are expanding again since the pandemic. Tolleson and Grubb collaborate with businesses for promotion and charity padding the weekends with live music and DJs. Brews and Views is upcoming, while regular activities, like yoga or Paint and Pint by Creative Spirits offers a drink and gondola ride.  For the kids, there are Power Days for Season Pass holders, which include free activities in summer. Coming soon are a seasonal cocktail program, and in August, Astronomy on Tap, in partnership with Lowell Observatory, which will present a talk and trivia.

Much has changed in more than 85 years of Arizona Snowbowl history, but the mountain has gathered momentum as a year round destination in just the past few. Grubb welcomed guests, “We are a whole new thing on the mountain. It’s happening, we’re open. Come join us.” AZDSUN

Matters of   Taste:   Biff’s Bagels toasts the competition

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living Section, May 2024

Written by Gail G. Collins

So, you want the hole story on bagels? It’s a confluence of melting pot and boiling pot. Bagels originated in Poland in the 1600s and Jewish Eastern Europeans, who settled in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1800s, brought the recipe with them. Popularity in New York surged, and for 50 years, the bakers union regulated bagel-making down to their size. In the 1970s, machine production introduced bagels to the masses, albeit as a softer “roll with a hole” version. But machine-made bagels can’t compare to those crafted by hand. The contrast of crunchy crust with dense chew is the mark of an artisan bagel. It’s the real deal that seeds and smears highlight, not hide.

Such attention to production is why Biff’s Bagels “toasts the competition.”  Located in a historic building in downtown Flagstaff, the line stretches down Beaver Street as the doors open on a Sunday. Yet, they can get you in and out within 30 minutes. In fact, on those busy summer weekends, the shop turns out 76 dozen bagels. This does not include commercial accounts, like White Dove Coffee and Bookmans, or the 80 breakfast bagels bound for Woody Mountain Campground.

This blitz of bagels comes in a dozen sweet and savory profiles covering salt or sesame to blueberry or cinnamon raisin to asiago or green chile cheddar. Monthly specials also expand a seasonal line-up with pumpkin, rainbow or heart-shaped chocolate raspberry.

It’s local love that sustains Biff’s. “A solid number of our customers are regulars,” said longtime employee Kristina Macfarlane. “When they walk in, we start putting their breakfast bagel together. It’s fun to get to know them and be part of their daily routine, like Eugene, who wants his blueberry bagel toasted.”

Read more: Matters of   Taste:   Biff’s Bagels toasts the competition

 All products are handcrafted, including the specialty smears or custom-blended cream cheeses. General manager Mae Brown perfects the recipes, like caramel apple—a blend of burnt brown sugar and fresh fruit in a moist muffin. It is big enough to share. Other scratch pastries and a daily cookie fill the display case, while custom, packaged dog treats, bagel chips and granola are grab and go. Signature soups are also available, and organic, full-roasted Firecreek Coffee is on hand to sip.

Biff’s Bagels was the natural outgrowth of a generous spirit, as bagel making for friends outgrew the home kitchen. Turney and Keri Postlewait couldn’t keep up with demand and thought, “I guess Prescott needs a bagel shop.” The couple opened their first location there in 1995 and expanded to Flagstaff in 2000. A few years later to bring the best to both places, they focused only on Flagstaff.

The shop is named in honor of their beloved dog, Biff, who passed away as they began their venture. According to the Postlewaits, he is the soul of their aims and a glamour shot of the handsome canine hangs in the shop. This spurred similar devotion from customers, who brought framed photos of their dogs. Over the years, the walls became covered, and a streamlined means emerged with rotating images on a screen serving as a digital memorial for all. Today, fanciful art of dogs enjoying the good life, and a casual, upbeat energy permeates the place.

Biff’s is not just dog-centric, but dog considerate. Logo sticker sales, averaging $500 monthly, is donated to a rota of rescue-related charities in turn. Biff’s also sponsors the Boy Scouts and contributes day-old bagels to the food bank.

A bagel is versatile—it’s bread, it’s breakfast, it’s lunch—which covers Biff’s menu in short order. “Hands down, the most popular item is the build your own sandwich—a full 50-percent of our business,” said Macfarlane. Pick your bagel, meat, cheese and eggs as you like them to custom build your favorite sandwich.

The turkey melt is spicy with southwest flavors, layered with roasted turkey, avocado, jalapeño, tomato, onion and a choice of cheese for toasty, hefty handhold.  All meats are roasted in house. “We keep it simple and fresh. First and foremost, we serve quality—sourcing the best meats and serving fresh products—with community involvement.”

Another standard is the lox and capers sandwich, loaded with wild caught sockeye salmon, fresh tomato, onion and cream cheese—the classic option.

The good news is Biff’s has wheels, and now, includes a food truck to service events. In short, Biff’s Bagels is a family-run shop and a healthy choice, offering good vibes and excellent customer service while supporting rescue operations. As they suggest, Biff’s is a conscious nosh. AZDSun

Matters of Taste: Elote Café in Sedona showcases Mexican street food

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living Section, April 2024

Written by Gail G. Collins

Corn—Mexico’s diet was built upon it. Cultivated as a staple crop by the Mayans and Aztec, they bred early, inedible ears into the delicious vegetable we relish today. As masa for tortillas, it undergirds a mainstay menu from tacos to enchiladas and tamales. Corn has been cooked by various means, but grilling cobs over an open fire predominated, and since then, a few condiments were added, and elote evolved as Mexico City’s favorite street food.

Elote Café finds its roots a bit farther south on the map. Chef-owner Jeff Smedstad polished his professional skills at Scottsdale Culinary Institute and with Susana Trilling at Seasons of my Heart Cooking School in Oaxaca. There, the chef spent time cooking on ranches with locals. To hone his craft, Smedstad spent 20 years traveling the back roads of Mexico, Veracruz, Puebla and his native Arizona shopping markets, sampling restaurant cuisine and engaging families.

With some preliminary insight gained at Los Sombreros in Scottsdale, Smedstad found his new home in Sedona, opening Elote Café in 2007. “The experience translates in a dish as it pops, reinterpreted as me,” Chef said. “I consider the dishes edible postcards.”

Read more: Matters of Taste: Elote Café in Sedona showcases Mexican street food

The most popular items include lamb adobo—braised Superior Farms lamb shank served with a robust ancho chile sauce; and smoked pork cheeks—braised all natural pork cheeks served with cascabel chile sauce, grandma’s corn cake and buttermilk cumin drizzle. The richness of the pork contrasts with the coffee-colored cascabel or rattle chile and sharpness of the tomatillo.

The tomato and nopales salad features the cactus paddle tossed with house-crafted Oaxaca cheese and apple cider vinaigrette for a textured sensation.

Ingredients are as locally sourced as possible, but the focus is on quality, sustainable products. Niman Ranch livestock, a coop collective, raises traditional, humanely processed animals for the best, all-natural meats. Visiting the hog farmer in Iowa and the cheese monger for a Point Reyes blue assures that food is responsibly traced. “We look into it. Meeting them—it matters,” Smedstad assured.

The chef grew up with corn, and the restaurant, like the cuisine, reflects that relationship. Elote or street corn, the café’s signature showstopper, is cut from the cob, fire-roasted corn and slathered with a compound, spicy mayo and scattered with cotija cheese for fresh, fiery flavor.

Elote Café moved to its present location in 2020 to create a dedicated space, where everything has meaning. The keepsake art represents beautiful food, shared in a beautiful setting, such as Diego Rivera’s thoughts about food, Eileen Roberts’ landscape painting Elote over the Red Rocks and more. Walls of rusty red, and seating in leather banquettes and booths surrounding copper tabletops provide the gallery backdrop. A long pub table of inlayed, hammered copper parallels the rough-hewn bar to welcome guests.

“We put on a show every night with an equally great experience for all,” Chef said. Consistency is always the battle, and dishes must be as true a decade ago as they are today, but there is joy and fun is in the specials, like a wild mushroom quesadilla.

Inspiration comes from across the board, such as the family corncake recipe to influences, like wild jicama and chilies, from an Arizona motorcycle trip.

Alongside the meal, a margarita is a must.  Jeff’s margarita was born of efficiency and habit, made with Siete Leguas Reposado, Cointreau and fresh lime juice.  Bala De Plata mixes Herradura Blanco, Cointreau, lime and a lively mix. Cocktail choices feature a smoked old fashioned or roasted pineapple mezcal. Or chill with local ales or Mexican beers.

“Everything behind the bar, we drink—it’s upscale taste,” Smedstad assured, noting all waitstaff are educated by their tequila “sommelier” with every factoid about agave. Bartending takes months of training where only fresh juices, purees, and mixes are blended in house.

Staff are long term at Elote, logging ten years easily, like general manager Juan Rojas. “110-percent is the people within these walls, who make the difference. They come in and execute every day—that’s the key to success.”

Awards and reporting on Elote has ranged locally from the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Magazine to national outlets, like Fox News, Boston Globe, Sunset Magazine and more.

Elote contributes to community via major fundraising efforts for Imagination Library and is active with local food banks.

But due to its longtime success, it’s hard to get a table. No, the app Open Table is not broken; Elote Café is simply booked two months out. Smedstad explained, “I don’t believe in Mexican restaurants, just great restaurants.” AZDSun

Matters of Taste: Sono Kitchen & Boba serves up scratch-made meals and memories

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living Section, March 2024

Written by Gail G. Collins

Street food is a happy way of life in Asia. Each country has its favorite flavors and dishes, which double as comfort food and takeaway. It is fresh and homemade, delivering instant gratification. The history of street food is long and diverse, originating in ancient Greece and traveling to China, where, as charity, it was offered to the poor, but over time, street food emerged as a culture all of its own.

Although food is often available in rural roadside locations throughout Asia, it was within urban settings that markets first blossomed, and then, thrived as food centers with little overhead. Guests may be served in makeshift restaurant stalls, where cramped seating and a sense of community abounds, or eaten on the go. Whether it is nasi goreng in Indonesia or popcorn chicken and boba in Taiwan, one has heaven in hand.

And so it was for Jerry Tseng, who grew up in Taiwan with popcorn chicken in one hand and boba tea in the other. Partnering with Chuan Lu and Frank Yang, they recreated those youthful memories through Sono Kitchen & Boba with two locations in Sedona and Flagstaff.

The partners met at Northern Arizona University, studying for their masters in business. They went their separate ways to some extent, though Tseng and Lu both worked for Panda Express as an area manager over 15 stores and vice president of operations, respectively. After more than 15 years, they circled back to Flagstaff in 2018 to consider entrepreneurship. It was meant to be a reunion, but the meeting netted more, as they yearned for a more relaxed lifestyle and the camaraderie they once knew.

Tseng’s father, Jason Tseng, was an executive chef, and the family owned China Gardens for decades. He gave sage advice to the trio on products, recipes and local business savvy.

 “We are good friends, who share the same dream, same knowledge and decided to do business together. We were cautious, but after thoughtful research, we said, ‘Let’s do this,’” said Lu. “The idea was to create a fast, casual concept, combining Japanese and Taiwanese cultures, serving great drinks and great food.”

Read more: Matters of Taste: Sono Kitchen & Boba serves up scratch-made meals and memories

The partners hold vast corporate experience between them, but still, their timing was tricky. While looking to locate in Flagstaff, they found space in uptown Sedona, launching in June 2020 during the pandemic. Early success spurred efforts to make Flagstaff a reality, and as Tseng’s parents retired, the partners secured the inside track to their second location on Milton Road in October 2022.

The associates are active operators of Sono Kitchen, which borrowed its name from Tseng’s wife. “Sono is Japanese—it is short, clean sounding, easy to pronounce, and keeps it family-oriented,” Lu said.

Sono’s boba teas focus on quality with ingredients imported from Taiwan. Real fruits, not syrups, and purveyor-selected teas, using no powders or shortcuts, keep it simple and good, according to Lu. “Our boba has intense flavor to create that aha, whoa feeling.”

Popular drinks include Thai milk tea, strawberry Snow White, Sono boba milk tea and taro yama. But what is a boba? Tapioca pearls, made of cassava root, swirl milk, fruit and beautiful tea into a marbled effect, as they gently glide up a straw. Students love the drinks, shooting pics and sharing sips.

Most boba shops serve food as an afterthought, but Sono makes authentic street food, showcasing Pop ‘n Bo. “We want to introduce this combination to everybody! It’s fun and good,” enthused Lu. The salt and pepper popcorn chicken is hand-cut, marinated, batter-dipped and served with a medium boba drink. The chicken bucket reads, “Unforgettable flavors from childhood.”

The Japanese donburi bowls feature house noodles created by Jason Teng.  Topped with teriyaki chicken and ground pork, marinated cucumbers and egg, the dish offers three-dimensional flavor and texture.  Gyu don layers shaved beef with egg plus green and yellow onions over rice. All dishes are scratch-made, servings are generous and protein-packed.

The afternoons are busy at Sono, serving drinks from 18 standard and seasonal selections, while lunch and dinner bustle with serious food in one hand and boba in the other, recreating Jerry Tseng’s childhood.

“The partnership is a good marriage, contributing and combining knowledge,” Lu said. “We are flexible and quick to learn and change. Staying close to business is vital, and we are on the front line to raise this baby well.” The proof is Sono’s continued expansion as the partners search for space to open a Phoenix location. AZDSun

Matters of Taste: Petit Marché brings the charm of France to Flag

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living Section, February 2024

Written by Gail G. Collins

Despite the convenience of one-stop shopping in French hyper grocers, locals have turned back to neighborhood markets. Such markets revitalize areas, and 100 new ones are born each year. In fact, when last surveyed in 2020, half of the French population remains loyal to their community market.

Traditional markets are not a rural phenomenon; they are just as common in urban settings across districts and regions. They are places to catch up with friends or socialize over a cup of coffee. That little market is a local link in the supply chain from produce grower or artisan baker to consumer, who prefers homegrown goods. Small, neighborhood markets provide the vital opportunity to eat wholesome foods, boost the area’s economy and control our diets with some happy chat thrown in.

This was the vision of Sam Greenhalgh with his business partner and mother, Natasha, who created Petit Marche. But what is the French connection? Sam is a chef, classically trained in French cuisine.

“I am enamored by it—the simplicity and cleanliness of it,” he enthused. “It’s the best way to eat, using quality ingredients and letting them shine.”

Petit Marche is an outgrowth of their earlier French venture Forêt FLG, for which Sam has been nominated for a James Beard Award as Best Chef, Southwest. The awards will be presented in Chicago in June.

Read more: Matters of Taste: Petit Marché brings the charm of France to Flag

“Fortunately, we have been very busy at Forêt—at capacity—looking for an outlet to make things quicker, easier,” Sam said. “We understand people don’t have the time to wait 20-25 minutes to grab a cup of coffee.” Petit Marche was the answer. “We are a great addition for hotel and B & B guests to come in and grab a couple of things.” Industry service staff also relies on the shop’s flexibility to offer grab-and-go fresh meals.

Adjacent to the heart of downtown on Aspen Avenue, stairs enter Petit Marche centrally with coffee and meal service to one side and a grocery to the other. The snug coffee space proffers bakery items, like baguettes, bagels, croissants and other pastries, as well as quick pick-ups, like house made lemon-honey ricotta, pimento cheese and daily soups. The grocery side trades in frozen ready meal goods—pasta, soups, ice cream and bacon—plus produce and provisions, like Northern California Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes, local honey and Cutino sauces from Phoenix. The shop carries a variety of drinks and focuses on natural Arizona wines, like Cactus Cru, the state’s first organic, sustainably-produced wine made from native vineyards, and Los Milics in Elgin. As for staples, try Hayden Mills flours, devoted to stone-milling heritage and ancient grains for their improved taste.

“The sky is the limit, even though the space is tiny,” Sam said. “The baguettes and Montreal-style bagels are made daily and consistently sell out.” According to Sam, this style bagel is thinner, airier and crispier. Get there early or pay ahead by phone to reserve your fresh bread.

The shop opened in August and quickly lined up holiday pre-orders of scratch recipes, which featured bourbon pecan pie, beef Bourgogne pie and gift baskets of niche goodies.

“Sam has a never-ending, creative drive,” Natasha said. “All the bread is naturally leavened.” To accompany that, fresh butter is churned from a locally-sourced cream and kefir culture.

Pastry options also include chocolate croissants, gluten-free brownies, ham and butter sandwiches that sell out early. There are three other popular choices. The brekkie is stuffed with sausage, eggs, salsa and cream cheese. The loaded lox holds cold, smoked Norwegian salmon, shaved red onion, dill, capers, Graza olive oil and whipped cream cheese. The deli stacks turkey with heirloom tomatoes, English cukes, spinach, red onion, herbs, oil and vinegar.

The coffee program is powered by an enormous La Marzocco espresso machine, handmade in Florence, Italy, and serving beans from Portland’s Rose Line in a full line of espresso drinks. A complementary tea and matcha line is on offer as well.

It’s lovely to have another bit of France in our town, where we can make a quick stop to shop for the day’s needs, grab a nourishing sandwich on the way to work or enjoy a coffee and pastry with a friend. As many customers have noted as they walk out of Petit Marche, fresh baguette in hand slathered in house made butter, “It feels like I’m in Paris.” And that’s just the point. AZDSun

Matters of Taste: Steep Leaf Lounge makes tea drinking a communal and cultural experience

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living, January 2024

Written by Gail G. Collins

Baby, it’s cold outside! To counter the chill, there is nothing like a wrapping your fingers around a warm cup of tea, an earthy richness rising and prepping your senses for that first sip.

The complexities of tea are boundless. The leaves, the liquor, the aroma and the flavor create an experience that can range from bright to floral to malty to vegetal. Fragrance, or the nose, introduces the tea. Its taste lends astringency, and body offers weight and substance in the mouth. Is the tea lively and refreshing, like orange pekoe; flowery or malty sweet, like Assam; reminiscent of grapes, like Darjeeling; or grassy green? It may be round, lush, full or clean, and signature attributes will correspond strongly with its origin, whether country or type. These impressions remain on the tongue, providing a lasting finish.

To taste tea is to travel. Close your eyes, inhale its fragrance, delight in its nuance, and let all else fall away. Breathe deeply and connect with the leaves, which have come a great distance to enrich this moment.

Jean Liptay, owner of Steep Leaf Lounge encourages this practiced habit. “Tea is different from coffee, and the shop is busier in the afternoons. People come to relax and associate tea with stepping back,” she said. “Some fancy us as a sober bar. Clients’ health is a big concern, and tea is a wonderful alternative for those looking for a place to hang out, people-watch and enjoy a convivial atmosphere.”

A common compliment is Steep’s hominess and cozy, casual vibe. Tables and chairs gather groups, while couches and elevated platforms with cushions invite lounging. White subway tile contrasts with alpaca and terracotta paint, warmed with hardwood flooring. Animated chatter, busy bar service and windows on the world complete the scene.

“Tea is a communal experience across cultures,” reminded Liptay. “There is a ritualistic element in the preparation of tea—the moment of reflection and the physical act focusing attention on one thing. It is an intentional act to savor the color, aroma and appreciate the moment.”

Read more: Matters of Taste: Steep Leaf Lounge makes tea drinking a communal and cultural experience

That said, for the novice, the choice of teas can be overwhelming. Steep carries 80 teas plus a secret stash, all sourced from quality, small farmers via purveyors mainly in Japan and China. They develop relationships with producers and offer advice with an eye for what Americans would enjoy.

“Not my cup of tea,” indicates personal preference, according to Liptay, while following one’s nose and predilections will hone choices. “Do you prefer vanilla, mint or fruity profiles? Smell the teas; if you like the smell, you will like the flavor.”

Initially, it might be difficult to discern between grassy or buttery notes, but staff can educate to broaden tasting opportunities. They also can offer instruction on tea’s proper preparation. Understanding the process, timing, temperature and correct infusion personalizes each cup.

The best temperature for brewing tea leaves is 180 – 190 degrees, according to Liptay. Let the heat come off the open kettle for a few minutes and pour from a height, which further cools the water. The steep time varies by tea, taste and whether it is the first, second or even third steep of leaves. A lighter tea needs less time and heat. Too much heat flushes tannins for a dry mouth and can disintegrate leaves versus enveloping them. Too much tea is intense; nuance is nicer.

Of course, one needs vessels from which to pour, brew, strain and sip. Stoneware tea sets at Steep vary from kitsch to fine pottery. Tea balls, a mate gourd or the recommended Magic II infuser and much more are available for purchase.

Liptay’s preferred teas range across the board:  black to get going in the morning, chai on the weekend, Early Grey for high-end moments and a double bergamot to celebrate citrus.

Opening Steep Leaf Lounge 10 years ago was the comingling of her interests in tea and food. Popular specialty drinks include matcha, chai and tea lemonades. Pastries and sandwiches are made in-house or sourced to cover the bases, including dietary desires. Sweets include gluten-free strawberry shortcake, macarons, lemon bars, carrot cake and more while heartier bites, served on English muffins, croissants or bagels are piled with egg, bacon, ham or vegan sausage or made to order. Spinach and feta is a favorite.

Shipping is free on loose tea orders of $25, so reach for your favorite cup, gaze out the window, heat the water and infuse some tea leaves. Liptay implores us to cultivate appreciation for the art of slowing down. AZDSun

Matters of Taste: Tamales USA offers made-from-scratch tamales all season long

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living Section:  December 2023

Written by Gail G. Collins

When it comes to the holidays, they are wrapped up in family and tradition. The gifts are extra. Families decide how and when they celebrate, like when to put up the tree. Other customs are part of our heritage. Then, there the adopted joys of where we find ourselves.

With Arizona’s proximity to Mexico, tamales have become a seasonal tradition, whether we enjoy Hispanic heritage or not. The delightful masa handfuls, filled with meat, veg and spice wrapped up in cornhusks are gifts themselves. 

The pre-Christian history of tamales stretches back to Mesoamerica—the Aztecs, Mayans and more—where corn was a revered staple extending from the belief that the gods created humans from corn. As such, corn parcels became a significant sacrifice for special events. This naturally translated to holy days or rights of passage, such as baptisms, communions and Christmas, as Mexicans converted to Christianity.

Tamales require a great deal of effort to create. Grinding the corn for masa or dough, slow-cooking the meats, crafting fillings and hand-rolling the bundles is time intensive. Naturally, it lends itself to communal preparation, a tamale-making party or a tamalada. The involved process deems it a special occasion dish, so combining holidays with tamales was fated.

As fall arrives, Eddie Aguilar sells 600 tamales in less than three hours on a Sunday. His labor-heavy process takes days to produce such numbers. It takes 100 pounds of chicken, beef and pork weekly to fulfill the orders plus a bonus 20 dozen. These are sold three days a week alongside his other menu offerings from his food truck, Tamales USA.

Sales are seasonal, and ramp up in the fall. “I love the fall and put my set-up outside. People smell the steaming tamale pots and turn their cars around to buy them,” said Aguilar.

“The authenticity of the items are not found routinely, like pork belly tacos, carne asada and enchiladas,” said Aguilar. “It’s crazy busy. I will have 20 customers in 10 minutes when everyone comes at once to eat.”

Read more: Matters of Taste: Tamales USA offers made-from-scratch tamales all season long

After 35 years in Arizona with a career in the food industry, more than two decades were spent at Coco’s, and later, managing 7-8,000 meals a day for school children with Southwest Food Excellence plus years of part-time cheffing at Pine Canyon. Most often, he worked hard at two jobs, but he wanted something of his own. Four years ago, Aguilar settled on selling tamales with his 14-year-old son, Samuel.

“I realized I had missed time with my two older children when they were young,” he said. “Samuel was shy, and I asked if he wanted to do something together with me.” Aguilar traded his car for a van, and Tamales USA was born. A year later, he added the food truck.

Transitioning took some time, but soon, Aguilar let his salary job go. “My personal business was flourishing—I had to do one or the other,” he said, “Now, I can’t keep up, but it’s not about the money, it’s about the commitment and family structure.” 

Aguilar can prioritize what matters most and control the process. He cooks one day, sautés veg and makes 100 quarts of salsa on another, preps masa and marinades, and then, rolls tamales on the final day. With commercial fridges, freezers and blenders, it all moves through in three days. Nothing is store bought, and meat stock is strained for lard to keep the ingredient list natural.

Routinely, tamale flavors include red chili pork and beef, green chili chicken, pork and veggie, bean and cheese plus specialty offerings, like chicken mole. Recipes are authentic to Mexico City, where Aguilar grew up, learning from his father the merchant business of buying produce in bulk to resell. Legacy and his long experience in administrating kitchens aid him in balancing groceries to sales.

For holiday orders, Aguilar limits it to 100 dozen tamales, but on Christmas Eve, he offers an extra 500 that sell out in two hours.

Aguilar’s son graduated high school last year, and at his father’s suggestion, is taking a gap year to consider his future studies.

“I happen to like what I do,” Aguilar said. “I’m very happy, and I accomplished what I set out to do. Samuel is a great kid—he listened, learned, and now, he is on salary.”

Through Tamales USA, Aguilar passed on the tradition of work, discipline and skills, while putting family first—all by unwrapping the simple gift of a tamale. And his tip for family kitchen success?  Be happy, make it fun. AZDSun

Matters of Taste: Family and sweet science make Mozelle’s Downtown Bakery a must-try

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living Section, November 2023

Written by Gail G. Collins

The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.

Surely, those children had delighted in a day spent baking holiday treats. Whether, they are stock standards, like snickerdoodles, or boozy bars, like maple bourbon squares, or shortbread cutouts, iced and sprinkled, a festive plate of cookies ensures smiles at any age.

Whether you gather as family or friends to bake, follow this recipe for measuring and mixing fun. First, pick a day to spend entirely devoted to bowls of butter, sugar, eggs and flour. Mess up the kitchen once, washing and reusing equipment, keeping the oven fired up, letting many hands lighten the load and blasting holiday tunes to energize you.

Choose your recipes beforehand, earmarking doughs that need refrigeration to be whipped up first. Make a detailed grocery list and have all ingredients on hand. Gather containers for treat storage. If baking early in the season, clear freezer space to tuck away labeled goods. Lastly, if time allows, host a bakers’ extravaganza day followed by a decorating day. Celebrate your baking efforts then with coffee or mimosas while the kids create works of edible art.

Andrea Knott, owner of Mozelle’s Downtown Bakery knows a thing or thirty about seasonal goodies.  The specialty, scratch bakery opened on Heritage Square in 2016. Their everyday cookies range from chocolate chip, oatmeal walnut and peanut butter to elaborate red velvet, spicy molasses ginger and triple chocolate. Custom cookies can be cut from sugar, shortbread and gingerbread doughs. Pie flavors tempt with bourbon pecan, caramel apple, triple berry, bananas Foster cream, coconut, buttermilk and more.

“We’re an old-fashioned bakery with a little bit of everything,” Knott said. “It’s a baker’s bakery with tons of different pastries and custom cakes—an all-around sweet shop.”

Read more: Matters of Taste: Family and sweet science make Mozelle’s Downtown Bakery a must-try

The cakes are best sellers for events, but when customers reach for the cookie jar, brownies and lemon bars top sales.

While bakeries often buy frozen dough to thaw and bake off as fresh goods, Knott stressed, “Everything at Mozelle’s is baked from scratch—every filling, every topping—including homemade croissants. All ingredients are natural, no preservatives—just butter, sugars, eggs and not much else—made in small batches for freshness.”

Knott played in the kitchen from Elementary School on. Then, she added pastry skills at Los Angeles Trade Technical College before joining the military. “That teaches you to put the work in,” said Knott of the disciplined, early mornings required to run a bakery.

Throughout the holidays, Mozelle’s bakes voluminous pies and sprightly cookies. Pumpkin and pecan headline, of course, but vegan and gluten-free options are available upon request.

As far as making mornings merry, nothing beats a hot pastry eaten in candy cane jammies. Knott recommended, “Our take and bake cinnamon rolls are huge sellers and let you shine in your own kitchen.”

Are you invited to a party this season? Surprise your host by picking up a gift box of pastries, cookies or designer favorites, like eclairs, strudel, sticky buns and bear claws.

Mozelle’s Downtown Bakery is a family business, following the happy tradition of too many good cooks in the kitchen and employing three of Knott’s daughters and her mother. Pooling all of the family talent keeps Flagstaff fresh with bakery goods.

Their family kitchen also has a few tips to share. They use only butter, not shortening, for better crumb cookies. For cut-outs, shortbread dough, which calls for more sugar and butter, rolls out better than sugar cookie dough. Roll dough to one-quarter inch or thicker to avoid burned edges or broken cut-outs. As far as high altitude baking, start with wetter batter and add more flour as you go to keep doughs in proper wet-dry proportion. As you bake those tasty goods, the best gift is treasured time together. AZDSun

Matters of Taste: Teatro Italian Food & Wine celebrates one year of style and synergy

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living Section, October 2023

Written by Gail G. Collins

Synergy—the idea that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts—was pondered by Aristotle, but for some ambitious restaurateurs, the method has been forged as hospitality. More specifically, wait staff, called “hospitalians” by Bobby Stuckey of Frasca Food and Wine, act as vital, interventionists conveying more than Italian food and wine. As the first Colorado restaurant to earn a Michelin star, his advice is worth considering.

According to Stuckey, who has ties to NAU, a perfect meal is about more than checking the boxes; it hinges on engaging guests, raising the bar and delivering more. Basically, he reasoning goes:  Why can’t the care and attention we show to family on Thanksgiving continue throughout the year? He believes if such a notion was employed broadly across industries, it could change the world.

Frasca Hospitality Group also oversees Tavernetta, where Nick Williams, chief operations officer for THAT Place Projects, dined a few years ago. “It made such an impression on us,” he said. “Stuckey is a behemoth in the industry, trying something different. Their front of the house experience says, ‘Let me take care of you—it enriches my life.’”

This was the inspiration for Teatro Italian Food & Wine, located in the former Criollo space. A demographic survey pointed to Italian, and a desire to emulate Frasca’s curated affair drove the details. The building’s history, as Flagstaff’s first desegregated theater, prompted the name and some dramatic presentation.

Teatro concentrates on quality and an enhanced connection between guests and server. “We’re known for quality with our flagship, Tinderbox, and focused on an upscale experience,” Williams said. “The menu is Northern Italian-centric, but not tied to that with lamb, seafood, heavy aspects and hearty dishes.”

Read more: Matters of Taste: Teatro Italian Food & Wine celebrates one year of style and synergy

The chef is Russian-born and globally seasoned. As a Ukrainian veteran, Art Bugdasaryan attended an Italian cooking school and worked under French-born Alain Ducasse before moving his family to Flagstaff to showcase his cuisine. The dishes are designed to evoke nostalgia, warmth and comfort when shared at the table.

Popular dishes begin with a salad comprised of creamy, imported burratina cheese, speck, fresh melon, arugula, sundried tomato and pesto. The gnocchi, a potato dumpling, is mixed with grana padano, gorgonzola perfumato and stracchino cream, and tableside, fried sage is crumbled and stirred in.

Order Filetto alla Griglia, and a 9.5-ounce, house-butchered filet mignon, served with purple potato pureé, caramelized onion and thick gravy of thyme demi arrives under a cloche. It is staged, smoke wafting forth. At Teatro, they imply, it’s showtime.

Tiramisu blends tradition and creativity, arriving in a caviar tin, dotted with dark chocolate espresso pearls. “It’s over the top—a trickery of the senses—and a great cap at the end of the night,” said Williams.

Wine is forefront, and a rack of choices greet guests at the door in a categorized collection,which cruises across Italy by region. “It’s huge, unique and food-friendly,” he said. “It goes over incredibly, and in this high-end restaurant, you’re going to love the wine.” Indeed, Teatro earned a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence in 2023.

There is no cocktail menu, but anything goes. Order a classic or a twist on one. “We make it a conversation with guests, and often, it becomes personal, but we nail it,” Williams said. He suggests the coffee and cigarettes cocktail, made with cognac, coffee liquor and chocolate espresso beans, served smoking, like vanilla pipe tobacco.

Teatro shines for events and catering for weddings and more. Italian food is conducive to travel, reheating and melding flavors. Lunches are easy-going with a full-service, business angle.

Every detail is beautifully thoughtful. Teatro’s ambience intimates al fresco glamor in trellis and greenery accents; glittering chandeliers and white, twinkling trees; cream marble and charcoal tile; pale wood and a coffered ceiling. The table is set with Riedel wine glasses, Villeroy & Boch china, gold flatware and a domed central light to cloak diners.

Williams finds the synergistic effect, “encourages sharing between guests to bring back memories of travel, of experiences—sparkling stories.”

How does Teatro pull it off? “Warm and welcoming conversations—connecting on so many levels and guiding them through an amazing experience—is paramount,” said Williams. “It’s curated theater with no peeking behind the curtain.”

That requires elite staffing. Teatro sees their young staff as a breath of fresh air. Approaching work with pride in spic and span, starched uniforms adds to the overall performance.

Join Teatro in celebrating their first anniversary on October 28 with a prix fixe menu featuring butter-aged ribeye and bubbly prosecco. AZDSun

Matters of Taste: Glamping resort in Bellemont rolls out new amenities

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living Section, September 2023

Written by Gail G. Collins

Nature supports wellness in the mind, body and community, according to the National Forest Service, who know a great deal about being outside. An active outdoor lifestyle contributes to longevity, physical conditioning, enhanced nourishment and sleep, plus it wards off disease. Green spaces also feed our psyche in positive ways, strengthening our mental acuity, focusing our attention and restoring peace. Importantly, whole communities benefit from access to the outdoors through decreased environmental stressors, such as pollution, while caretaking tendencies increase, reflected in a respect for nature and one’s neighbors.  In a nutshell, getting outside is the ideal means  for getting healthy.

A love of the outdoors and adventure, where people could revel in a camp setting, drove Scott Roberts to envision a novel and upmarket RV park. As the son of R. C. Roberts, who founded Roberts Resorts, Scott learned from his father to construct and manage a portfolio of destination resorts and communities with premiere living standards. Roberts Resorts has spent 55-plus years inviting guests to “live the good life.” With resort-style amenities, luxe RV sites and affordable homes in award-winning communities across Alabama, Arizona, California, Utah, Colorado and Texas, the properties are the gold standard with well-appointed grounds and 5-star features.

“My father was a pioneer, an inspiration,” says Scott, “who believed in creating a sense of community, and he always over-delivered on the amenities with plenty of facilities and programming. He fostered that in me.”

Scott is an avid adventure seeker—a heli-skier and mountain biker—and the kind of guy, who loads his family into a truck and drives to Sedona’s secret end of the world trail. Inspired by adventure break hotels, he continued his father’s pioneering efforts. Industry RV parks hadn’t changed in decades, and Scott saw potential.  “I wanted to break out of the mold, be different, and attract a new generation of adventure seekers. I have a passion to create a sense of community that attracts that adventure-minded person.”

He threw the idea of the traditional RV park out the window. The architecture was stodgy standard. Instead he saw mountain contemporary design elements to rival a master planned community, providing a means for the average family to own a holiday home. The result is Village Camp, a luxury outdoor resort in Bellemont, just beyond Flagstaff, with upscale RV camping plus adventure cabins for rent and sale.

The aim is glamping. Three tiers of RV sites with paved parking and stacked stone barbecues or fire pits and gravel pull-throughs provide happy stays. There are also adventure cabins for added comfort and facilities. Bridging the two, safari tents are in the works.

Read more: Matters of Taste: Glamping resort in Bellemont rolls out new amenities

Current amenities include a heated pool and spa with a bathhouse, while an amphitheater with bar and dancefloor, a naturescape playground with a ropes course, pickleball courts and dog park are underway.

The sleek clubhouse boasts a bar and bistro of steel construction and cedar with granite countertops and three walls of glass and a view of the San Francisco Peaks.

“The menu reflects the building,” says general manager Cody Fishel. “It’s simple, quality, upscale campground food with flatbreads, pizzas and paninis.”

He designed the efficient menu to incorporate 55 ingredients, which overlap, yet offer different flavor profiles. Sourcing is local to keep it fresh.

“Many folks have been on the road for eight or nine hours, and they don’t want to cook,” he says. “They’re glad for great food options and a chance to relax here.”

The biggest family sellers are the pizzas, and the everything pizza delivers on the billing with plenty of meat and veg. The barbecue flatbread on artisan dough is a hit with chicken, red onion, mozzarella, spinach and drizzly zing of BBQ sauce. The Cuban panini goes fowl with turkey, Swiss, mustard, pickles and spinach on a ciabatta. For veggie patrons, there is a black bean patty. A popular, shareable plate is loaded with waffle fries, mozzarella, red onion, buffalo sauce and ranch dressing. Wash the good stuff down with local craft beers or sip an Arizona wine.

To start the day, a burrito wrapped in a spinach tortilla and layered with sausage, egg, jack cheese and hash browns satisfies or bite into a ciabatta-built sammie with a similar stack of stuff.

The adventure cabins are built to RV-code, so each model is 399-square feet with creative use of space to bed four to nine people with built-in bunks, loft spaces, pull-out couches and private masters. The tiny homes are complete with gleaming, full kitchens, bathrooms, fireplaces and creature comforts. Four models and a hotel suite are available to rent for $250 to $300 per night, and models Cypress, Ponderosa and Juniper can be purchased. Resident cabins may then be pooled for supplemental rental income, according to owners availability, and advertised via typical websites, such as VRBO. All services are managed for owners for a monthly fee, so they can spend time exploring, not on upkeep.

“We didn’t cut corners,” Scott says. “The adventure cabins are bullet-proof for rentals—no drywall, solid wood, with quartz countertops, commercial vinyl flooring, sufficient AC and heat, stainless steel appliances, stackable washers and dryers, walk-in showers and fire-wise Hardie board siding.” He added, “The units are turnkey with mattresses, linens, dishes, even toilet paper. Just drop your suitcase and get exploring.”

Scott and wife Ren, a former collegiate athlete slated to be inducted in the ASU Hall of Fame, live in Phoenix with their four young children. Streets in camp are named for Skylar, Sunny, Brighton and Charlie. And like anyone else, beating the heat with access to a million acres of Coconino National Forest, right at the camp’s edge, is appealing. AZDSun