Health Check: Haji Baba Middle Eastern Market (Tempe, AZ)

Despite doing most of my growing up in Arizona, once I graduated from high school I pretty much immediately moved across the country for school, and haven’t lived there in almost 30 years. However, I still have a small stable of favorite restaurants from my years living there that I like to revisit on occasion. Many of those places I used to love are now gone (like Apache Junction’s The Mining Camp, which closed after a fire back in 2015), or some of even sadly morphed into poorer versions of themselves, but there’s a good number of places like The Chuck Box that manage to soldier on, even as the neighborhood around them changes (the Box, for example, is now dwarfed by high rise buildings built by ASU). Every once in a while it’s nice for me to do a followup on old favorites, revisiting them and make sure that they are staying in form. With that in mind, when I was passing through town on a recent business trip, meeting up with my friend Karla for another trip to Haji Baba was in order.

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The Famous Steak House (Colorado Springs, CO)

Colorado Springs has a lot of the old, classic “Out West” vibe going strong, and one place that really stands out is in the selection of fine dining restaurants: Colorado Springs has quite a few high-end steakhouses right in town: Saltgrass, Mckenzie’s Chop House, Peppertree, and the Famous, just to list ones easily walkable from my hotel. After several long days of work, we decided that it was worth going out and celebrating, and since I had wandered by The Famous a few times, we decided to drop in and give it a try.

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Denver Biscuit Co. (Colorado Springs, CO)

If there’s one culinary topics I’ve railed on a lot here at Offbeat Eats, it’s the basic concept of biscuits. I love a good biscuit, one that’s delicate, flaky and rich, with a nice buttermilk flavor to it, and a nice caramel browning on top. They are great with sweet or savory filling, and oh so enjoyable. Alas, with a few exceptions (like, for example, Montpelier’s Downhome), most everyplace in New England makes biscuits, that, quite frankly, suck. So when I’m traveling, particularly in the South, I like to search out good biscuits. So when I find a regional chain that’s reliably able to produce some tasty biscuits, I figure it is worth a shoutout. That takes us to the Denver Biscuit Company.

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Phantom Canyon Brewing Company (Colorado Springs, CO)

I find it a bit interesting that in my travels as an engineer that I’ll go years without traveling even close to a region, and then get several trips to that area back-to-back, even for completely different clients. In this particular case, Colorado Springs. I hadn’t been to Colorado for work for 8 years, but this year had me visiting Colorado Springs three times (so far) for business. While a bit sprawling, and being one of those cities with two distinct downtowns (“Downtown” and “Old Colorado City”, the latter originally being a distinct city that was annexed), it has some nice charms: the downtown is rather walkable, has a nice private college (Colorado College) with a nice campus and art museum, and a decent selection of dining establishments. Like much of Colorado, it actually reminds me a lot of a younger, less-sprawling, and more temperate Phoenix area. On my first trip this year, we arrived rather late in the evening, and looking for a light dinner near our hotel led us right to Phantom Canyon Brewing Company.

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Campo Enoteca (Manchester, NH)

Like many trips, upon arriving mid-day back in New Hampshire from our trip to Detroit, we used it as an opportunity to stop in Manchester on the way home for a light dinner. Depending on time of day and mood, there are a lot of good options on Manchester’s Elm Street or nearby, including some great authentic Mexican at El Rincon, funky fusion fare at Mint, or, one of my favorites, light bistro fare at Republic. However, I realized it had been a while since I had been to another bistro on Elm, Campo Enoteca.

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Atwater Detroit Tap House (Detroit, MI)

Halfway through our walk through Detroit, after Mexican Town, Cork Town, Downtown, and the River Front, we came to the halfway point of our walk in Detroit’s Rivertown neighborhood. Also known as the “Rivertown-Warehouse District”, for much of its history that part of Detroit was an industrial area situated between Downtown and the “Gold Coast” neighborhood of residences overlooking the Detroit River, with the Warehouse district anchored by the giant Parke-Davis pharmaceutical building (now “River Place”). Since the nadir of Detroit in the 1980s, that whole section of riverfront has seen a lot of development in fits and starts, including Rivard Plaza (now greatly expanded from recovered brownfields as William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor), Chene Park (now the home of the Aretha Franklin Amphitheater on the banks of the river), and, starting in the late 1990s, a surprisingly vibrant neighborhood of restaurants, clubs, breweries, and warehouses converted to lofts and condos. One of the earlier pioneers opening in this part of town was Atwater Brewing’s Detroit Tap House, and it continues to be a good destination when I’m in the city.

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El Rancho (Detroit, MI)

For this year’s “Death March” tradition of hiking approximately 20 miles through various urban areas, we chose Detroit. To start off the March, I decided we were going to rendezvous for breakfast in Detroit’s Mexican Town. Located on Bagley and Vernor Highway in western Detroit (just west of Corktown), Mexican Town has a tortilla factory, several bakeries, colorful murals, and a good dozen Mexican restaurants, and the area is one of Detroit’s ethnic neighborhoods that’s been able to maintain a solid cultural identity. Previously, I’ve had a few breakfasts at Taqueria Lupitas from 2011, but for this visit, I wanted to start a bit further west to see more of Mexican town, and also start on the early side. That lead us to El Rancho, which opens at 8am (most of the other Mexican places that offer breakfast open at 9am or 10am).

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Roast (Detroit, MI)

When we travel around with our friends for our annual “Death March” 20 mile hike, part of the tradition is going out for a big, lavish dinner the night before. In Detroit’s downtown, there are several great places to choose from for this (the automotive- and tech-industry “power dinner” is still a thing here), but I had long wanted to try Roast. I’ve always enjoyed Chef Michael Symon’s Cleveland-area ventures (Lola, Lolita, B-Spot, Mabel’s…), but I’ve wanted to visit Roast since it opened in 2008. At the time, downtown was just a little bit rougher, but starting to a pretty good resurgence, and Roast was a cornerstone of the renovated Book-Cadillac Hotel (now the “Westin Book-Cadillac”). While a bit cumbersome for our large group of 15 (why is it that most places now need contracts for large reservations? Are that many people flaking out in this modern era?), I managed to get a nice reservation of their private State Room for our gathering.

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Momo Cha (Detroit, MI)

With my yearly trips to Detroit, it’s been interesting to see that the Detroit dining scene is anything but stagnant; every trip seems to have a fresh set of new dining and drinking options opening up (and the occasional closures as well). Two relatively recently-opened venues (from different owners) have been trying variations on the “food court” model: Fort Street Galley and Detroit Shipping Company in which they construct a shared dining area with a lot of smaller kitchens and a cocktail bar, trying to appeal to the younger professional crowd while making some opportunities for new restaurateurs. In the former case, a converted Federal Reserve Bank hosts 4 restaurants. It’s been a bit shaky: in my three visits to Fort Street Galley, I’ve seen complete turnover of the food businesses, and the beer bar converted to a craft cocktail bar, but it does seem to continue to offer good food and drink. In the latter case, it’s been a bit more successful: the Detroit Shipping Company set up shop on Peterboro street, which in pre-Interstate Detroit was the center of the city’s Chinatown (there are a few subtle references to Chinatown remaining architecturally, and one restaurant, the Peterboro, is new but also recognizes the heritage). Detroit Shipping Company is named such because the venue is created from shipping containers, stacked up to make two multi-level dining areas, one inside, and one outside. “Shipping containers” sounds pretty industrial, but the overall ambiance is actually quite nice, and the dining areas nicely appointed. In the indoor food dining area, the periphery is surrounded by four dining counters (and one more upstairs); on my visit Brujo (a taco joint), Bangkok 96 (Thai), Coop Caribbean (Caribbean Fusion), -320 degrees (Coffee and pastries), and Momo Cha. While members of my party partook of all of these, I primarily focused on Momo Cha.

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Shield’s Pizza (Detroit, MI)

Well, from previous reviews of mine, I’ve covered the topic of “Detroit-Style? pizza more than a few times, most notably when talking about Brass Rail, or Via 313 (in Austin, of all places). It’s a real style, and one I rather enjoy as a variant of “deep dish”, but it has a quirk. Like I mentioned in my Brass Rail review, there actually aren’t all that many places in Detroit’s downtown or midtown to get a proper Detroit pizza. The canonical example, Buddy’s, started on 6 Mile, and is mostly a suburb chain, and Brass Rail is one of the very few places in downtown to experience it. But in Midtown, a recent change occurred: Shield’s Pizza returned to Detroit. Since I wanted to give several of my visiting friends a reasonably-authentic “Detroit Pizza”, we decided to give this new location a try.

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