This has been a year in the making but finally I’ve constructed a tournament where there are no losers. The Places I Eat Tournament; a munch madness if you will. Below are some of my favorite places to eat seeded and placed into four different regions: International, Italian, Mexican and American. Now these aren’t your on the run, just pop in for something quick, stored under a heat lamp kind of joints. No, these are the sit down pull up a chair I’m gonna be a while, for people who love food joints. While there can be only one Places I Eat Tournament Champion you can’t go wrong with any of these delectable destinations.
Now there is no other criteria other than because I said so. I seeded these based on my first reaction and advanced them based on further reflection. If you want to play along at home below is a blank bracket that you can fill out before reading further just for the fun of it.
No. 1 YC’s Mongolian Grill vs. No. 8 Moki’s
Unfortunately there was little competition in this first matchup. While I love Moki’s, and not just because it’s close, YC’s was just too tough a matchup for the little family owned and operated Hawaiian restaurant. If you stop into Moki’s though I recommend the Kalua Pork with Hawaiian Salad. YC’s is a 1 seed for a reason. At YC’s you can build your own bowl choosing from a variety of meats (chicken, beef, turkey and pork) and vegetables mixed in with awesome noodles and sauces. It’s all masterfully combined and cooked with only water on a flat metal grill. My go to combo is chicken, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, green onions and noodles with my own sauce mixture 4 scoops YC’s sauce, 3 scoops Orange, ½ scoop ginger, 1 scoop garlic, 1 scoop sesame oil and ½ vinegar. You’re welcome.
No. 2 Lin’s vs. No. 7 China Chili
This is a classic old verses new matchup. A new Lin’s Grand Buffet opened close to work and was quickly added to our rotation. Lin’s offers a wide variety of delicious Chinese food but also mixes in some untraditional choices like ribs, hot buttery rolls and enchiladas. They throw in a Mongolian grill and sushi for good measure. A must try is the honey chicken. China Chili on the other hand has been in downtown PHX for years and is a place I used to frequent when I worked nearby but now hardly ever go because of the distance. I would regularly find Jerry Colangelo sitting at a table in the corner and if a coworker brought some back to the office just the smell alone was enough to have you chuck your lunch in the frig and go running across the street for a bite. To this day I use China Chili as the measuring stick for all orange chicken and have yet to find it’s equal. I’m salivating just thinking about it. Oh heck, this one’s over folks. Down goes Lin’s, down goes Lin’s!
Winner: China Chili
No. 3 Hot Pot vs. No. 6 Chino Bandido
Jamaica and Jamaican food will always be near and dear to my heart. After several Jamaica restaurants in my area have come and gone Hot Pot is the last good one standing. Their rice and peas are excellent as is their jerk chicken, but come early because once it’s gone they are out. I’ve yet to go back for their stew peas and spinner dumpling but I will. Chino Bandido is a unique Chinese Mexican fusion place in Chandler. As you walk in you’ll be greeted by a plump Panda bear in a sombrero and a helpful attendant who’ll walk you through the choices and even provide samples. My personal favorite is the Jade Red Chicken and Jen Red Pork with pork fried rice (but the Carnitas are awesome too). Oh and to top it all off you get the most scrumptious snickerdoodle ever! When I put this together I thought Hot Pot would win its matchup easily and go deep in the tourney but here’s another stunning upset in the International region.
Winner: Chino Bandido
No. 4 Ono’s Hawaiian BBQ vs. No. 5 Crazy Buffet
Like Moki’s, Ono’s offers up all the traditional Hawaiian BBQ grill choices served with a delicious side of rice, macaroni and cabbage. Their Hawaiian BBQ beef is probably the best I’ve ever had. If you are real hungry I suggest the BBQ beef, Chicken Katzu combo plate; you won’t be disappointed. Crazy’s was recently replaced in the rotation by Lin’s being that they offer complimentary choices and prices but Lin’s is newer and closer. Still Crazy’s made the list because of their amazing peanut chicken that I think of probably more than I should and their hand scooped Breyers ice cream to top it off, also their sushi rolls are superior to Lin’s. This one is a coin toss really. Either is worthy of advancing. It comes down to BBQ beef or peanut chicken. I’m going with my peanut chicken.
No. 1 Oregano’s vs. No. 8 Red Devil
I’ll make a confession. I’ve never actually eaten at Red Devil. I’ve only had their pizza which was delivered to the office. While their pizza is good it’s not my favorite pizza on the list and that’s probably why they are an 8 seed. Oregano’s however, I’ve eaten at plenty. The funny thing is I usually get the same thing (Stuffed oven baked turkey sandwich with waffle fries). Although I love pizza, Italian food isn’t really my favorite but Oregano’s endless angel hair pasta gets it done. But the reason Oregano’s sits atop the Italian region isn’t because of their delicious entrees it’s because of THE Original Pizza Cookie.
No. 2 Spinato’s vs. No. 7 Nello’s
Now I like Nello’s pizza. They offer a variety of different ingredients to put on your pizza and even some healthy choices for those so inclined. I have to say, thanks to a friend of mine, I had one of the more interesting pizzas I’ve ever had in my life at Nello’s; an artichoke hearts and chicken pizza with goat cheese. It was actually quite good. Still this one wasn’t even close. Spinato’s is another family owned and operated establishment. They offer mouth watering Chicago style thin crust pizza. You can smell it from the parking lot and it just makes you happy inside. I recommend getting a half Chicago, half pepperoni and sausage pizza and ask them to prepare it extra crispy. They also provide gluten free options.
No. 3 Venezia’s vs. No. 6 LJ’s
These two places contrast in style, taste and quantity but both are great at what they do. Venezia’s is a New York style pizza by the slice place that offers everyday classic choices with delicious daily specials. LJ’s is a downtown Mesa institution. A one of a kind pizza buffet that offers unique choices like sauerkraut pizza and potato pizza; I only recommend one of those but I’ll let you decide which it is. To top off your meal LJ’s brings you a tasty soft served ice cream cone right to your table. My mind says Venezia’s but my heart says LJ’s. What can I say, I love an underdog.
No. 4 Old Chicago vs. No 5 Picazzo’s
Picazzo’s is a hoity toity upscale place that I usually would avoid all together. Really any place with the word organic in the title is a turn off for me but we went there with some very good friends and low and behold I liked it. I recommend the Vortex which was really good. However, Old Chicago hits right in my wheelhouse with cheesy garlic bread and deep dish pizza. I dare you to get the deep dish meat lovers and not enjoy it. You can’t.
Winner: Old Chicago
No. 1 Carolina’s vs. No. 8 La Canasta
Besides having the best (THE BEST) tortillas in the valley, Carolina’s has super good food and is really affordable. Sure the neighborhood and the décor are a little rough but in my experience that just means the food is good. My list of recommendations is long indeed being that I’ve never tried anything there that I haven’t loved. My go to choices are the chorizo potato burrito, beef tacos, cheese tortilla or the chicken chimichanga with guacamole. La Canasta is more of a family dining experience and they have what is essential for any good Mexican restaurant, great chips and salsa. Still this one was no contest.
No. 2 El Comedor vs. No. 7 Taco Nazo
When I first had the idea of throwing this together it was suggested to me that not only should I try El Comedor but that once I did they’d beat out Carolina’s for the No. 1 seed. I was skeptical, that is until I sat down to eat. Just looking at the menu made my mouth water and the food did not disappoint; one word, Guadalajara. Comedor means something like dining room or table or dining room table, it doesn’t really matter because as far as I’m concerned El Comedor means The Delicious. Go with the Carne Asada taco plate and thank me later. Taco Nazo is a little place with not a lot of fan fair, but it gets it done offering up traditional favorites at a good price. Don’t get me wrong their food is good but it’s not in the same league as El Comedor.
Winner: El Comedor
No. 3 Moreno’s vs. No. 6 Mucho Gusto
Moreno’s is an unassuming little place that won’t wow you coming in the front door, probably because it’s what’s going on out back that is really special. You might not think of a hot dog as being synonymous with Mexican food but that’s only if you’ve never had a Sonoran style dog. This dog has it all; bacon, beans, tomatoes, onions, cheese, mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard and even jalapenos for those with a fiery pallet; all stuffed in a soft Mexican roll. Think of it as a Mexican chili dog that will fill your stomach and your soul. Also their tacos are delightful. They’re small street style tacos with two corn tortillas filled with marinated chicken or beef. Yummy. Mucho Gusto I like very much (pun intended). Whether you get their Big A burrito or their Half A burrito, from the Ten Dollar Nachos to the Twenty Dollar Burrito you’ll be please and full when you leave. But not half as pleased as you’ll be with that savory Sonoran treat.
No. 4 Los Reyes de la Torta vs. No. 5 Rosa’s
Los Reyes de la Torta is the only place ever that I’ve returned to in the same day to get the exact same thing I’d just eaten because I had to share it with someone I love. The Del Rey is the greatest sandwich ever invented, EVER. This mammoth torta is stuffed with fried beef, ham, breaded chicken, chorizo, carne asada, eggs, hot dog, cheese and avocado (and I’m pretty sure I missed some stuff too). It is, in a word, perfection. If you ever find yourself in North Phoenix you must try this sandwich. Rosa’s is much closer to home and nestled in a cozy little run down strip mall. Its family owned and operated and has what any good Mexican restaurant must have, that’s right kids great chips and salsa (I recommend the green salsa). I like Rosa’s, I do, but against Del Rey I’m afraid it doesn’t stand a chance.
Winner: Los Reyes de la Torta
No. 1 Peppersauce Café vs. No. 8 Joe’s Farm Grill
I feel terrible making Joe’s Farm Grill an eight seed. In any other region they might win the whole deal. Their burgers are outstanding and their shakes are off the chain. I for the life of me I don’t know why they are an eight seed facing such a formidable opponent. There is no way they shouldn’t be able to get out of the first round. But Peppersauce, oh Peppersauce, how I love thee. I won’t even get into their breakfast choices which are out of this world. I won’t even talk about the time they let me create a Chicken Fried Chicken sandwich that wasn’t even on the menu just because I was in the mood for fried chicken. I’ve liked virtually everything I’ve tried there from clam chowder to cob salad, from their fish fry Friday’s to their Wednesday Chef Special but what keeps me coming back is the best tuna melt I’ve ever had. Toasted on parmesan bread and topped with cheese, pickles and crunchy strips of bacon it has been described as, and I’m not kidding about this, [Warning: this description is not suitable for children…and some adults] “sex in your mouth”. Oh and they have tater tots too.
Winner: Peppersauce Café
No. 2 Famous Dave’s vs. No. 7 Fry Bread House
Let me just say I’m a big fan of anything fried so Indian Fry bread is right up my alley. The Fry Bread House gives you plenty of choices when you are assembling your Navajo taco and all of them are good. I don’t have a recommendation as you can’t go wrong with any of them. This was a tough match to call because they are so different and the chain versus local establishment created a David and Goliath situation. In this case though, Goliath just squashes little old David. Famous Dave’s is flat out good. Get the burger, get the tri tip, try a combo plate with ribs and catfish; doesn’t matter you’ll be happy with your choice. What really brings it all home is their corn bread muffins; fluffy, buttery, de-freak’n-licious.
Winner: Famous Dave’s
No. 3 The Chuckbox vs. No. 6 Culver’s
Again this 3 v 6 matchup is a clash of local business versus big chain. I always try and give the edge to local business but this one is so close. The Chuckbox just does it right. The menu is small but the choices are mighty. Cooked on an open flame with a grill seasoned by years of yummy. Get the Big Juan with cheese and a side of onion rings and just enjoy the ride. Culver’s I first discovered while traveling in Wisconsin and nearly did a back flip when they opened one near me. While they offer wonderfully soft and smooth custard and their own root beer that is so creamy it tastes like a root beer float, what really tantalizes the taste buds are their burgers. Specifically, the double butter burger with cheese. If you like burgers you can’t go wrong with either of these choices. This is the closest one yet. When I’m faced with a match up so even I generally go with which one I could frequent most often without getting sick of it. With the sincerest of apologizes to the Big Juan I’ll take a double butter burger please.
No. 4 BBQ Company vs. No.5 Lo-Lo’s Chicken and Waffles
The BBQ Company is one of those places that you won’t find unless you know where it is. Buried in an industrial complex they use word of mouth as their main advertising source and you know the food is good because this place is always packed. I’ll gloss over their first Wednesday of every month all you can eat buffet, a glutton’s paradise, to get to the good stuff. BBQ Company has sweet juicy ribs, tasty sandwiches and my favorite a southern fried chicken salad with all the fixings, bacon, egg, avocado, tomato, cheese and honey mustard dressing. It’s really a salad in name only but there is a good amount of lettuce. Lo-Lo’s on the other hand nearly everyone knows where this downtown dive is located and there’s not a shred of lettuce to be found. If you haven’t had fried chicken and waffles then you are missing out. It sounds different, and it is, but trust me. This is the place for soul food. It’s close but I’ll always side with the place that disrespects the lettuce.
Winner: Lo-Lo’s Chicken and Waffles
The Sweet, and in some cases spicy, Sixteen
No. 1 YC’s Mongolian Grill vs. No. 5 Crazy Buffet
This was over before it started. Sorry peanut chicken, you know I love you.
No. 6 Chino Bandido vs. No. 7 China Chili
Chinese fusion versus a Chinese favorite. This one hurts a little but the snickerdoodle put them over the top.
Winner: Chino Bandido
No. 1 Oregano’s vs. No. 4 Old Chicago
How can I pick against the pizza cookie? I can’t, right? Oh deep dish pizza how I love you. Technically there’s nothing Italian about a cookie. Maybe I’ll have to do a separate dessert bracket.
Winner: Old Chicago
No. 2 Spinato’s vs. No. 6 LJ’s
This is good pizza in great quantities versus great pizza in good quantities. I can’t believe I’m saying this but great quantity is taking a back seat.
No. 1 Carolina’s vs. No. 4 Los Reyes de la Torta
Why did I do this?! Having to pick between my favorite Mexican place and my all time favorite sandwich is inhumane. I’m starting to tear up a bit. Please forgive me Del Rey, FORGIVE ME!
No. 2 El Comedor vs. No 3. Moreno’s
Taking a second look at these two they are more comparable than I first thought in terms of taste. While I’m a big fan of the Sonoran dog I’ve got to go with the higher seed here.
Winner: El Comedor
No. 1 Peppersauce Café vs. No. 5 Lo-Lo’s Chicken and Waffles
Both these places have great food and great customer service. Both offer comfort food to warm, and long term probably stop, your heart. Both deserve to advance but there can be only one.
Winner: Peppersauce Café
No. 2 Famous Dave’s vs. No. 6 Culver’s
The battle of the franchise chains. Really this will come down to repeatability…and the custard doesn’t hurt either. Although I’ll miss my corn bread muffin.
The Great Ate…I mean Eight
The International Region
No. 1 YC’s Mongolian Grill vs. No. 6 Chino Bandido
That snickerdoodle won’t save you this time. I love building my own bowl and I’ve got my business down to a science.
No. 2 Spinato’s vs. No. 4 Old Chicago
This is the age old argument, thin crust or deep dish. Boys and girls for this man’s gullet deep dish will always triumph over thin crust.
Winner: Old Chicago
No. 1 Carolina’s vs. No. 2 El Comedor
In our only 1 v 2 matchup of the tourney this one is impossible to call. If you factor in service and ambiance then El Comedor is clearly the victor. Still Carolina’s food is ridiculous and you can’t beat the prices so they win on repeatability. I literally just flipped a coin. Heads Carolina’s, tails Comedor. It was tails. Screw it! This is my bracket!
No. 1 Peppersauce Café vs. No. 6 Culver’s
If I let dessert have a bigger sway in this Culver’s would just edge out Peppersauce here. This is no knock on Culver’s who’s customer service is outstanding but Peppersauce has that Cheers feel where you are remembered and they know your name. Plus they have tater tots.
Winner: Peppersauce Café
The Final Four
No. 1 YC’s Mongolian Grill vs. No. 4 Old Chicago
I’d like to emphasize that these remaining picks are not an indictment against a specific country or culture it is simply about what I like to eat. That being said, EAT IT Italy I’m going with the Mongols!
No. 1 Carolina’s vs. No. 1 Peppersauce Café
Really the choice here is down home cook’n and comida de casa. What an impossible choice. I’d go with a coin flip again but we all know what a farce that is. Lo siento mi amor.
Winner: Peppersauce Café
No. 1 YC’s Mongolian Grill vs. No. 1 Peppersauce Café
I predetermined that no matter which two it came down to in the end, and believe it or not I really had no idea, that I’d base my final decision on which one I’d pick if I could only eat there from now on. With that being said I’m going with variety, customer service and the cozy comforts of home.
Champion: Peppersauce Café
Honorable mention to Golden Gate, Vincitori’s, LuLu’s and Lucille’s who lost in the play in matches to Moki’s, Red Devil, La Canasta and Joe’s Farm Grill respectively. And apologizes to Native New Yorker, Honey Bear’s and The Farmhouse Restaurant (awesome breakfast, amazing cinnamon rolls), I just didn’t have enough spots.
Let’s hear it. What did I miss? What did I get wrong?