Tasty Travels Through Greater Phoenix

I had never considered Phoenix a culinary Mecca so I wasn’t exactly turning somersaults when I was invited by Visit Phoenix to join a handful of other food writers on what I had thought would be a complete oxymoron: A Culinary Tour of Greater Phoenix. Wow, was I ever proved wrong!

This place has it going on when it comes to all things edible: fantastic Farm-to-Fork restaurants are sprouting up everywhere, James Beard award-winning/notable chefs are starting to outnumber the cacti, a rich heritage of family farms are staying alive and well by breaking new ground with not only agritourism but agritainment offerings, a burgeoning food truck scene offers some highly imaginative food choices on the cheap, and some crazy-good local wines are starting to appear along the Verde Valley Wine Trail.

Fave Food Bytes

Joe’s Farm Grill, Gilbert, Az.- It’s hard to believe that this Deco-hipster burger bar was once the home of the Johnston family back in the 60’s. Before lunch we met Joe Johnston, a remarkable “visionary” (no kidding, his business card title reads: Joseph E. Johnston, Visionary) and his farming brother, Paul, for a tour of their brave new Agritopia -where preservation of agriculture is the underlying principle. They have created what can best be described as a foodie “Our Town”, a super friendly, like-minded community consisting of 452 homes, urban agriculture and commercial enterprises.

At Joe’s Farm Grill (the Johnston’s also own Joe’s Real BBQ and Liberty Market) they do “common food uncommonly well.”  When is the last time you’ve seen Thai Ahi tuna served on a colorful bed of freshly chopped organic veggies at a burger joint? Fast, tasty and healthy, I wish this was available in my town, although it would be hard to pass up the Grill’s  juicy BBQ Bacon Blue Burger, which simply cries out for a side of Sweet Potato Fries with Pineapple-Serrano dipping sauce washed  down with a thick, luscious Date Milkshake, made from the Farm’s own Medjool dates.

Cupcakes, Whoopie pies and delish espresso drinks

Zip across the grounds to The Coffee Shop, another Agritopia family affair run by Jessica Cuff, a winner of Food Network’s Cupcake Wars, her sister and mom.  Jessica decided to open the shop because as she succinctly explains, “Every time I went to Starbucks I was shocked by their baked goods, which really suck, and I just wanted to flip them the bird.

Tip: this might be your only chance to try a “Coffee and Cigarette” cupcake, with real tobacco and coffee added to the batter. Jessica created this flavor for a friend who recently joined A.A.

Queen Creek

These next two picks, found in the farming community of Queen Creek, will provide a full day of fun and “agritainment”.

The family owned Queen Creek Olive Mill, is Arizona’s only working olive farm & mill. We were shocked  to find such high quality EVOO ( Extra Virgin Olive Oil) in Arizona, until we learned that the hot, sunny days combined with chilly desert nights not only provide superb olive growing conditions, but, due to the extreme heat, there are no olive flies, hence no preservatives are needed.

Take the fun, informative, 30-minute “Olive Oil 101″ tour, then gather up your picnic selections from del Piero’s, the mill’s Tuscan-inspired eatery and head out to one of the wood tables scattered throughout the 2,000 olive trees. I highly recommend the “you-pick-the-mix” Bruschetta Board-as long as you include the “Burnt Mozzarella and Pesto” and “Carmelized Red Onion and Fig Tapenade” varieties. You won’t want to pass up their amazing Kalamata Sandwich (“Pork Shop” Italian and kalamata salami, capicola, herb roasted tomatoes, leafy greens, provolone, red onion and White Balsamic & Herb Crema on a grilled baugette) which was featured on the Food Channel’s, “Best Thing I Ever Ate”.

Dessert choices include “That’s S’more Bruschetta” which is a made by drizzling nutella over honey marscarpone cheese, or some light and airy EVOO cupcakes.

Save time for shopping (and sampling) at the gourmet marketplace and gift store where one wall is lined with tasting bottles of all their oils, balsamic vinegars, stuffed olives, tapenades, salad dressings, etc.

Tip: The classic Tuscan Estate EVOO is their money shot, but the decadent Chocolate EVOO is so mind-blowing that I’m thinking of ordering a case for X-mas prezzies. The wildly enthusiastic owner, Perry Rea, suggested serving it over some vanilla ice cream with a little sea-salt for a sophisticated sundae or use to sauté chilies when making a mole.

A short drive brings you to the Schnepf Farms, family owned and operated for 70 years. In a similar story to Joe Johnston’s, owner Mark Schnepf was born and raised on the farm, which back in the 60’s was just one of many large farms in the area. Mark watched in dismay as one neighbor after another sold their farms to commercial developers for housing projects…until his was the only farm left.

“We were constantly asked to sell our land, but our goal is to leave a legacy and preserve a little of Queen Creek’s agricultural history,” says Mark Schnepf. He and his wife, Carrie, decided 15 years ago that the best way to do this was to transition from commercial farming to “entertainment” farming, so over the next few years they kept adding new attractions to keep guests busy. Although the Schnepf’s are the largest organic peach growers in the state and still farm vegetables, they also offer an endless array of fun activities including a: petting barn, narrow gauge train, Parker 1912 carousel (the oldest operating in the state), 100-year-old farmhouse museum, country store and bakery, amusement rides, hay rides, an “a-mazing” 4 acre celebrity corn maze, Hillbilly Bob’s Pig Races, hay rides, u-pick organic garden & orchards, bon fires, marshmallow roasting, live music and spectacular fireworks.

“Seeing families make memories and preserving my family farm makes it worth all the hard work,” says Mark Schnepf.

Today the farm is visited by almost a quarter of a million people per year, with almost 100,000 showing up for their famous Pumpkin and chili festival.

Tip: You’ll need reservations for their hugely popular “Dinners Down the Orchard”, offered several times a year. Each dinner features a notable chef (Iron Chef, Beau MacMillan and James Beard Regional Award winner, Chef Vincent Guerithault have both cooked here) who prepares a multi-course meal using farm-fresh food, matched with superb wines, and served to you under the moonlight in the peach orchard

This writer was a guest of Visit Phoenix.

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