Olive the Best invests in quality oils and vinegars for the health of its customers

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living Section, June 4, 2023

Story and photos by Gail G. Collins

The happiest diet discovery is something that is both delicious and nutritious. Olive oil—it’s been around for thousands of years, and with the promise of an olive tree, which lives to be 500 years old, those who consume its fruit, can also extend the quality of their lives.

Olive trees originate from the Mediterranean Basin, where some of the longest living populations reside. It’s no coincidence; their diets are abundant with healthy oils, nuts and fatty fish. Packed with potent polyphenol compounds, olive oil protects against chronic and degenerative diseases, boosting immunities while fighting inflammation. It can guard against certain cancers, strengthen bones, promote cardiovascular health and improve memory and mood. Further, olive oil can balance our blood sugar as well as the microbiome in our guts. 

Extra virgin olive oil is particularly packed with antioxidant properties. Polyphenols combat oxidative stress that resides as deep as our DNA. A Mediterranean diet consumes four-plus tablespoons of olive oil daily, but studies by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration support the claim that one-and-a-half tablespoons can improve heart health.

It was just such hope that drove Scott McPeak to reclaim his health. At 57, he had been diagnosed with weight-related diabetes, requiring critical lifestyle changes. He ate plentiful salads and vegetables with a desire to dress them in a nourishing way, finding that in first-rate olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Healthy progress spurred McPeak on to lose 80 pounds within four months.

That was three years ago, and alongside the change in health, came a change in business. Scott McPeak and son Scotty owned an H & R Block in Nebraska, but had their eyes on the West. “When the previous olive oil business went up for sale, we swooped in and bought it in 2018,” says Scotty. “We sold the tax business, looking for one with expediential growth.”

The McPeak families revamped the shop, honing the product line and focusing on superiority for Olive the Best Olive Oils & Vinegars of Flagstaff.

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The Toasted Owl expands and solidifies itself as a northern Arizona favorite

AZ Daily Sun Mountain Living Section, March 2023

Visitors Guide:  99 Things to Do in Northern Arizona

Story and photos by Gail G. Collins

We are influenced by our parents. We observed their actions, and they, generally, were our favorite humans. We admired them and often followed in their footsteps. But how does it happen?

Children hear conversations at the breakfast table, where interests, as well as their bodies, are fueled. They are exposed to career paths, especially niche ideas, through daily details. Interviews with those, who mirrored their parents, describe the shared pursuits as speaking the same language.

In fact, data show that a son is 20 times as likely to become a scientist if his mother is one, while a daughter is 49 times as likely to echo her mother’s work in food preparation. And so it was for Cecily Maniaci, who owns Toasted Owl, a cozy, quirky breakfast and sandwich shop in Flagstaff.

As a widow, her mother moved across the country, and over time, opened five restaurants in Tusayan. Of course, Maniaci learned what it takes to run an eatery successfully alongside her. As her mother aged out of the business, Maniaci took over before transitioning to Flagstaff and opening her own venture.

Toasted Owl launched in 2013 with a 395-square-foot shop, containing a sink, convection oven and three-plate burner, but in short order, lines wound out the door. The move in 2015 to the current, larger location on Mike’s Pike required renovations to start, but offered a patio. Two years later, the bustling dining room pressed the urge to expand again to feed the eastside with a second location on Cortland Street.

“Consistency is most important,” Maniaci says, and her aim has always been, “to serve good quality breakfast food with elevated offerings. We’re not Denny’s, but we are fast. Our high end products make the difference.”

She is a morning person, so breakfast and lunch made sense to get home again to family—her initial tasters for recipe twists on standard fare. 

“I enjoy unusual tastes or flavor profiles,” she says. “I eat out everywhere and have a wide palate and love to add things to the menu, whether it’s Indian or whatever tastes wonderful.”

The breakfast tamales are beef or vegetarian, topped with green chili sauce, two eggs, black beans and cheddar and served on mixed greens. Carlotta’s Kitchen, promoting a blend of traditional, yet on-trend recipes, supplies the distinctive tamales.  Or as Maniaci  describes them, “They are yum, creamy with green sauce. People just love them.”

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Asia Station brings heat to downtown’s south side

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living Section, April 16, 2023

Story and photos by Gail G. Collins

The allure of Asian cuisine is wrapped up in its exotic, sensory elements. Some are subtle while others are stimulating. Spare meat punctuated with tastes and textures create engaging and vibrant dishes.

Freshness abounds in the veg, garnishes and flash of preparation from raw to ravishing. Ingredients, such as galangal, chili oil, peanuts, coconut milk, fish sauce, lemon grass, basil and tamarind are layered with spices and sauces. These components build appeal, aroma, and often, art.

Flavors are traditionally grouped into categories such as hot, sweet, sour, spicy, salty, bitter, pungent, astringent and umami. This broad array of notes builds a delicate harmony. The term fusion was coined in an effort to describe this Asian impact on the West.

Asia Station opened in 2018 in downtown’s south side to deliver this fusion of flavors. Serving Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Thai cuisine, owners Kampy and Ladda Khonphian aim to offer a little bit of everything. In essence, park at Asia Station and savor the best of Asia.

“We have kept the menu choices to what people like and have toned the heat down a little,” Ladda says. “But for those, who love their spices, this is the place. We’re the hot spot in town.”

The hottest chili used in Ladda’s kitchen is the Thai bird’s eye. This distinctive red chili is small in size, but high in heat.

The couple is Thai, she from the rural northeast, while Kampy hails from Bangkok. Speaking of Thai people, Ladda says, “We are all about food—we cook and eat 24/7. In the country, we grew our own food—fresh chicken and eggs daily—cooking for friends and family with love and care.”

This principle guides recipes at Asia Station, where Ladda runs the kitchen with help from their son, Vincent. Asia Station makes every dish daily with no MSG, utilizing mushroom seasoning to supply a savory umami factor. Scratch sauces present unique profiles for each dish from dips to curries.

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First Friday gets a facelift:  April’s ArtWalk to breathe fresh air into the monthly event

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living, April 2, 2023

Written by Gail G. Collins

As spring’s light glows in early evening, the silhouetted San Francisco Peaks afford a dramatic backdrop. Nestled below, downtown Flagstaff generates an energy all of its own, buoying people’s spirits. Heritage Square rocks with blasts of brass, and bodies sway to the beat as little ones dance and clap. A boy tugs at his mother’s arm and points at his drawing on display. Lively lit galleries beckon. There is art to admire—paintings and photography, jewelry and glasswork, wood and ceramic, crafts and creations. Some shops offer a treat or a sweet sip, while others stage a musician on guitar. At the corner, a tourist studies a map and points out a historic hotel, neon letters glowing. A happy babble floats upward from crowded streets, and First Friday ArtWalk is in full swing.

First Friday ArtWalk is held monthly, presented by Desert Financial Credit Union in partnership with Flagstaff Downtown Business Alliance and Creative Flagstaff. The venue welcomes and hosts activities with variations of music, art and food. The next event will be held on April 7, 2023 from 5 p.m.- 9 p.m.

“We are coming into a robust year for ArtWalk, and April ends up being the big kick-off for activities,” says community engagement manager Liz Hewat. “People are ready to be out and about.”

As always, 20-30 businesses and galleries participate in ArtWalk, offering integrated venues for pop-up art exhibits, handcrafted items and entertainment. “It’s a great event, community-driven,” says Hewat. “ArtWalk has been around in some capacity since the 90s—the gallery owners established the event.”

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When Personal Chef Nicholas Di Paolo is in the kitchen, everyone is on vacation

AZ Daily Sun, Mountain Living Section, February 2023

Written by Gail G. Collins

The supper scenario can be daunting. There is more drama than drive, more demands than day, and yet, there is that overriding aim to eat well. We have good intentions, but the time it takes to plan, shop, prepare, and yes, tidy up, crowd an already busy life. Do we grab take-out again or snag a ready meal? Those options are fine on occasion, but they won’t deliver a healthy lifestyle, despite Grub Hub’s willingness to drop it at our door.

Perhaps, the solution to the problem is a personal chef. They’re not just for the famous or fabulous; they’re niche operators that cater—literally—to our needs. Aside from basic planning, prepping and putting away, they can satisfy dietary and creative preferences. They can introduce new dishes, like a fish curry stew, or put a spin on an old favorite, like smoked gouda mac ‘n cheese with ham and peas.

Having a reunion? You don’t want to spend all your time in the kitchen; you want to spend it reminiscing around the table. Dinner party? Host it with a welcoming vibe without the hassle. Family getaway? Getaway from the stove and focus on having fun.

You might think you can’t afford it. Think again. Seating a large party at a restaurant is impossible while the expenses surrounding a meal out from parking to check stack up quickly. Consider the convenience and comfort of staying put and let the restaurant come to you where your personal chef does it all. Those, who enjoy cooking, can even learn a technique or two from a pro.

Chef Nicholas Di Paolo logs 30-plus years’ experience, and now relishes the most rewarding part of his culinary journey in Northern Arizona, ensuring a client’s every desire is fulfilled. This ranges from family style events to exacting menus for tastings or formals.

“I was always gonna’ be a chef,” he says and began a career in the Bronx. “All of our menu items are made from scratch with the best ingredients—a standard that was born in Little Italy and honed over time to bring you the best experience available.”

His resume includes Raoul’s, a bustling bistro dating to the 70s with an utterly French menu. By 1997, di Paolo made executive chef, but over time, noticed an edgy turn in the industry. Her followed his family to Las Vegas, but was unfulfilled. After the 2008 crash, Nick missed the harmony of the house—front and back—when dedicated staff previously had covered for one another. The cutthroat atmosphere he felt—where knowledge was guarded, not mentored–became stifling.

“Chefs produce chefs,” he says. “We’re partners in business—that’s old school.” But he admits, “People grow out of positions. I was 40 years old and wanted to buy a home.”

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

Best of Flagstaff 2022

Written by Gail G. Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NiMarco’s proves itself to be a true hometown pizzeria

Story and Photos by Gail G. Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Satchmo’s struts their stuff winning Best BBQ and Catering

Best of Flagstaff 2022

Written by Gail G. Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of Flagstaff 2022

Story and Photo by Gail G. Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of Flagstaff 2022

Written by Gail G. Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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