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Featured Food, Restaurants & Dining Travel, Shopping & Leisure Fara Illich September 8, 2009

Crazy Good Phoenix Food
This blog is about Phoenix history and lore told with a twist—through fascinating conversations and glimpses into Arizona’s past from the unique perspective of a group of my native Phoenician in-laws, specifically three formidable women affectionately called the “Crazies” in our family (more on that later).
These Crazies eat out a lot. Over lunching and dining with them I have become privy to some really great stories about Phoenix—stories of coming-of-age in a different era, anecdotes of scandal, and “scoops” of gossip.
I didn’t realize that dining with the “Crazies” would become a unique and welcome perk of my married life, but it has. These women meld a “what-on-earth-did-she-just-say” conversation style with insightful banter on Phoenix history.
From discussions on places the Crazies used to haunt for hang-over food in their teen years, to their memories of where their parents dined, to their uncanny and dead-on dissection of food service and quality–eating with them is just plain delicious and addictive.
So, that is the twist: great insight into Phoenix history and some gossip along the way, all served up over critiques of yummy restaurant tables in Phoenix.
The namesake of this blog, Crazy Good Phoenix Food, is Ann, one of the cast, who is affectionately called “Crazy” by everyone in the family. By default, the trio of my in-laws has been collectively dubbed the “Crazies,” and they all love food.
No one in the family would discount that Crazy Ann is over-the-moon in love with food. I wonder if any of her paramours in her younger days ever received the unadulterated attention she pays these days to good food. She takes a cooler in the car whenever she dines out so she can take leftovers home (and she takes everyone’s leftovers)!
Anyway, wherever the Crazies go to eat, the food is usually crazy good because they all love food so much. Just every once in a while when we dine, however, the food or service isn’t what we might expect and there can be a “crazy” mood! (Ann also is interchangeably called “Moody” by her family.)
In this initial entry, I offer a quick overview of the Crazies and our first dining experience for this blog. This is all in fun–we are not food critics by a long shot. No great generalizations or dissections of chefs and their origins and pedigrees are offered here–just our personal thoughts about our experiences.
An introduction to the Crazies….
The Crazies are an eclectic group of three amazing women in my husband’s family: my mother-in-law, Helen; her sister, Ann (“Crazy”); and Ann’s daughter, Debbi.
The Crazies hail from an old Phoenix family that settled in Phoenix in the late 1890’s. Helen and Ann’s father and uncle were prosperous insurance men in Phoenix and started a firm that exists to this day. Their mother was a homemaker, but she more than moonlighted as a staunch Republican and hostess/socialite in town.
Helen is my mother-in-law, and the true matriarch of the Crazies. She is the organizer of our eating-out experiences, and she is a “foodie” bar-none. Dining at her home is better than eating out.
To imagine Helen in her coming-of-age years in Phoenix is simple. Think taffeta dresses, tiny waist, perfect porcelain skin, impeccable manners, country club dances with her father, and there you have her as a young girl in early Phoenix.
Helen married my father-in-law, Joe, a mover-and-shaker in his own right in Phoenix, and raised two sons, my husband, an ASU marketing professional, and his brother Greg, a savvy business owner in Scottsdale. Unfortunately, Joe passed away a few years ago. He was a great man in Phoenix, known and loved by so many, and Helen was his devoted wife of 45 years.
Far as I can tell, Ann is not certifiably crazy. I think “closet eccentric” describes her a bit better. She was dubbed “crazy” by my husband and his brother when they were young, and from there she let her “crazy” flag fly with pride.
Ann raised three children, for the most part as a single mom–no small job, for sure. But literally thousands of Phoenix-area children, some now grown with children of their own, know Ann as the grand-dame of Junior Assembly.
A nearly 70-year institution in Phoenix, with Ann at its helm for over 40 of those years, Junior Assembly is a dance and etiquette program for sixth graders.
Ann shepards these awkward ‘tweens in dance instruction, from fox trot and waltz, to disco and rock. She teaches them proper manners along the way—manners befit, no less, of a 1950’s debutante dance. The girls in the program are required to wear white gloves and dresses, and the boys wear coats and ties.
I’m pretty sure Ann knows every top 10 hit since she was born, and can keep up with the ‘tweens and their “speak” better than most parents dropping their kids off at the program. She is practically a cultural icon in Phoenix.
Ann is a “foodie” too. Though she used to serve legendary surf-turf-and-cocktail dinners to make comers to her table beg for more, these days, she mostly enjoys dining out…a lot. Just about every restaurant in town has enjoyed real estate in her refrigerator since she “doggie-bags” it from every establishment she visits.
Debbi is charming, warm and generally fabulous all the way around. She retired from school teaching soon after marrying her husband, now a retired firefighter, and became a full-time homemaker and then mother to their son. Now, Debbi and her husband are at the cusp of a new era in their lives—their son is starting college.
To imagine Debbi is to conjure Stevie Nicks of the rock group Fleetwood Mac. Debbi donned a Stevie persona early on in the Fleetwood Mac heyday, which were her coming-of-age years. Flowing and ethereal dresses, long blonde hair and a tan to make any 70’s-era Phoenician green with envy–Debbi took it all in and put it out there with pride. A consummate homemaker and mother, she has been and remains a respectable and conservative “hippie” at heart.
In describing Debbi, it has to be noted that she has probably scoured every lawn and estate sale ever had in Phoenix since her early married days for “treasures” to trove in her home. This, however, is an eternal point of consternation between her and her betrothed as every inch of their home is adorned with her “junk-turned-treasure” decorating style. (He wants less, she wants more.)
The bottom line, however, is that her house is one of the most fabulous and inviting homes I’ve visited. Though a bit dizzying, the home drips and is drenched in personality, saturated with pictures of family from floor to ceiling. I think it is a museum of family love, and I have still yet to take it all in.
Ann may upstage Debbi in the “found treasure” decorating style–her home is a masterpiece of dozens of unique collections as well. Suffice to say, Ann and Debbi should share a Wikipedia entry under “Top 10 Crazy Home Decorating Styles You Can’t Live Without.” The entry could start with Ann’s “Hall of Fame” wall in which she has framed pictures of her most fave movie stars (most of whom are now dead) that glimmer under a glittering disco ball that sheds new life to their still-life pictures.
First Food Review – Gallo Blanco
For this first blog entry, our destination is Gallo Blanco at the Clarendon Hotel. The Clarendon has been around, we think, since the 60’s and was a swanky hotel and food destination in its day. These days, the hotel is a great mid-town boutique hotel that is popular with a younger crowd for its hip pool and late bar scene.
For those who may not know, a tragic part of Arizona history took place at this hotel. It was at the Clarendon Hotel that a reporter for The Arizona Republic, Don Bolles, was assassinated in 1976. Bolles went to the hotel to meet an “informant” who promised information for a story involving land deals, top politicians, and possibly the mob. The informant was a no-show, and Bolles returned to his car in the hotel parking lot to leave. Moments after he started his car, a bomb was detonated. He lost his life a few days later.
I meet the Crazies at the hotel, and we find our way into the restaurant, which is just off the hotel lobby. It is not crowded this day, and we are allowed to find our own table. We pick one that is next to a picture window—a window that overlooks the parking lot where Bolles stepped into his fate many years ago.
It is a solemn feeling to look at that parking lot.
Bolle's CarBefore eating, I excuse myself to go wash my hands in the restroom. I hate this restroom for the daytime–it is way too dark for lunch during the day, but I guess it might be great for the later bar crowd. What I do notice coming out of the restroom is the hallway of oversized photos documenting the murder of Bolles. It is harrowing.
I mention this to the Crazies. They remember the Bolles murder very well. Crazy Ann excuses herself to view the photos of Bolles in the adjacent hallway. On her return, the Crazies have quite the discussion on their memory of the Bolles murder.
“You have to understand that Phoenix was still a small enough town in those days that just about everyone knew someone connected to the Bolles case,” Helen offers. “But all these years later, I still feel sensitive talking about it.”
While they share plenty of stories of who they knew and side stories about the case, they are adamant their conversations remain private. Darn–it is really juicy stuff. Oh well, on to lunch.
Wow, wow and wow!
First, there is nothing pretentious about Gallo Blanco. Second, it is truly comfortable. How nice it is to be able to walk into a really great restaurant in town without a reservation and not have to wait for a table.
The restaurant has a relaxing vibe, and the menu offers great food and flavors of Central Mexico. It is uncomplicated, supports local agriculture and is truly affordable. Trifecta!
Our waitress is well-informed about the menu and answers our myriad of questions with ease.
We start with Ensalada Cortada ($7)–a mix of kale, red and white cabbage, corn nuts, egg, avocado, Manchego cheese and a house ranch dressing.
It should be noted that dining with the Crazies means sharing every plate of food–not a tradition I warmed up to in my early days of dining with them. But these days, trying to watch the waistline, it seems like a great way to taste lots of food without feeling all the guilt. I’m in!
Everyone at the table tastes this salad and the decision is unanimous: perfect. It is satisfying and the corn nuts add a texture that is at first peculiar but soon addictive. The salad could be a meal by itself for someone looking for a lighter meal.
We also order the house French fries ($2), served with an Aji Aoili dipping sauce. Made fresh, they are irresistible!
Between our starter and main courses, Ann and Helen recount how their parents used to dine at the Clarendon’s signature restaurant during the 60’s, which was then the El Jardin and occupied the same space of Gallo Blanco, with a big picture window in the front of the restaurant.
“It was real fancy and upscale in those days,” says Helen. “It was a special occasion place and Mother and Daddy would get real dressed up to go to El Jardin.”
Neither Ann or Helen remember dining there. “I really wanted to go because it was so glamorous,” Ann says. “I really wanted to go too, but I was married with little kids and it wasn’t in the budget.”
Our entrees arrive.
Between us we share a cheeseburger ($8) and a platter of tacos (appx. $2 each)–the Cochinita (locally procured pork with Achiote, garlic, orange and Guajillo), and the Carne Asada Beef (grilled rib-eye with charred tomato salsa). I am in love with the Carne Asada tacos. They have a spicy and smokey flavor that I crave. I want to have a great dinner party at my house with this smell in the background–everyone would think I was the best cook in town!
The Crazies, however, are hanging their hats on the Cochinita’s, which have a citrus spell that is magical and offers a little bit of sweetness to the savory flavor.
Meanwhile, the conversation meanders to other great hotel destinations in the “Crazies’” day and talk turns to the Westward Ho.
Westward HoA legendary Valley landmark, the Westward Ho has hosted Hollywood royalty, presidential icons and was made even more famous as the exterior shot for the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock thriller, “Psycho.” These days, it is home for low-income elderly.
“Mother and Daddy would often visit with a reporter friend of theirs–I think Sally was her name, a national correspondent of some sort,” recalled Helen.
“She was so right-wing,” offers Ann, with a nod that is hard to interpret–does she approve or not?
With a return nod of affirmation, Helen continues, “Sally always stayed at the Westward Ho when she was in town, and once mentioned to Mother that the elevator boy thought I was cute, so she set us up for a date.”
I asked her where they went on dates. “To church, mostly,” Helen said, “but then we made out a lot in Encanto Park!!” Scandalous!
Elevator boy’s name was Bob. When I asked Helen what became of Bob, just before our dessert arrived, she shared this. “He was leaving for college in Georgia,” she said. “Mother and Daddy had rented a house in Coronado (CA) for the summer, and I didn’t want to go because I wanted to visit with Bob.”
She went to Coronado, of course, but thought often of Bob.
“He wrote me all the time, and I thought of him kindly,” Helen reflected with sentiment, “but my friends teased me about it.”
I asked why they would tease her about a possible love-match, the stuff girls’ dream of in their teenage years. “They were jealous, I guess,” she offered. “I never wrote back.”
Our dessert arrives – an orange cake the chef has concocted without placing it on the menu. We are lucky to get the last piece. Fanfare ensues. The cake breaks up the solace around the languished love discussion and the Crazies are in Heaven again. I find out a few days later that the Crazies went back to Gallo Blanco the very day after our lunch to get a few more slices of orange cake to keep at home for their cravings.
“That orange cake was so damn good,” Ann shares.
Helen did give me the last name of Bob, the elevator boy, but a moderate computer search of his name did not yield results.
Bob – are you out there?
The Crazies say Gallo Blanco is beyond crazy good.  Crazy great food, crazy great service, crazy great atmosphere, and crazy love for a restaurant that has a “profound” vibe in Arizona history. A must destination…
We dine at the Parlor in central Phoenix, formerly the space of Salon de Venus. We discuss Debbi’s architecturally perfect hairdo concocted at the salon for her eighth grade graduation in the 70’s, and her commencement speech, “Be Somebody.”