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What: The original Musashi tonkotsu

Where: Ramen Musashi, 44491 Town Center Way, Suite G, Palm Desert

How much: $14

Contact: 760-674-7299; ramenpalmdesert.com

Why: The broth is stellar.

Food trends usually arrive in the Coachella Valley about five years later than they arrive in bigger cities. Take ramen, for example: You can’t walk several blocks in any of the major West Coast cities without coming across a ramen shop or three—but here, they are few and far between.

I love a great bowl of ramen, which why I was excited when I learned several months ago about the opening of Ramen Musashi. One of the reasons for my excitement was the pedigree: It’s a sister restaurant of Musashi Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar, which has been open in Palm Desert since 1996, making it one of the valley’s oldest Asian restaurants.

I went to lunch there one recent weekday with my friend Debra. While Ramen Musashi offers vegetarian, chicken and even cold-ramen options, along with a variety of appetizers, Debra and I both ordered the original Musashi tonkotsu—featuring creamy pork bone broth and thin noodles, and topped with braised pork belly chashu, onion, marinated egg, marinated bamboo, kombu, shitake mushrooms and garlic chips.

After the fantastic server delivered the gorgeous, steaming bowls of food, we dove in … and wow: The ramen was revelatory. All of the ingredients were perfect. The pork was tender and delicious; the egg was a creamy delight. The garlic chips and onion did not overwhelm, and the noodles were just right.

But for me, ramen is all about the broth—and this tonkotsu broth was stellar. It was packed with umami, seasoned masterfully and soooooo delicious.

Thanks to the amazing ramen and the great service, Ramen Musashi is pretty special—as good as any of those major-city ramen shops.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The boom boom shrimp

Where: Kitchen 86 + Bar, 73130 El Paseo, Suite I, Palm Desert

How much: $13 at lunch

Contact: 760-890-1586; www.kitchen-86.com

Why: These are some tasty bites.

The first word that comes to mind when I think of Kitchen 86 + Bar is welcoming.

I was greeted enthusiastically as I walked in the door for lunch one recent weekday at this locally owned “modern eclectic small plate restaurant,” in the space that once housed Wolfgang Puck’s El Paseo outpost. The vibe is upscale and energetic, but not pretentious, and the lunch menu is a lot of fun: You’ll find “sharables,” some named after people (Kerry’s crispy calamari, Winston’s hummus, Abel’s salmon tacos), along with sandwiches, salads, pizza and some kids’ selections.

My lunch companion, Kevin, and I split the boom-boom shrimp to start, while I selected the agu ramen ($15) as my main course. This was one of those occasions when the starter far outshined the main: The ramen was just OK, while the boom-boom shrimp were revelatory. The bite-sized shrimp were perfectly cooked, and covered (but not drenched) in the spicy-but-not-too-hot Thai chili glaze. The accompanying organic greens, lightly dressed, were fresh and tasty.

My one complaint: We wanted more. Kevin is a mensch, so he let me have the lion’s share of the shrimp, and they were delicious enough that I felt bad about that. Some may complain about the portion size, given the $13 price tag—but I don’t mind paying a buck or two extra for something that’s well-prepared with quality ingredients.

Because this was lunch on a work day, I abstained from cocktails—which was a bummer, because Kitchen 86 + Bar’s cocktail menu looks fantastic, as does the happy hour. I also love the fact that Kitchen 86 + Bar is open until 2 a.m. every night!

I can’t wait to be welcomed back in the future to enjoy libations—and some more of that fantastic boom-boom shrimp.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The almond croissant

Where: The French Corner Café, 72423 Highway 111, Palm Desert

How much: $5.50

Contact: 760-568-5362; www.frenchcornercafe.com

Why: It’s pure decadence.

In an area of Palm Desert that has seemingly become overrun by chains, the locally owned French Corner Café continues to stand out.

Since 2007, brothers Marc and Aimeric Davy have been serving delicious French fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner (they take weekday dinners off during the summer)—crepes, quiches, omelets, sandwiches, salads and some intriguing entrées (including rack of lamb on the weekends). But as well-known as French Corner is for its savory food … it’s the baked goods that have put the restaurant on the figurative map. French Corner is a perennial finalist in the Best Desserts category of our Best of Coachella Valley readers’ poll, after all.

They offer pastries. Macarons. Petits fours. And what’s described on the desserts menu as the “best croissants ever.” That may be somewhat hyperbolic … or perhaps it isn’t.

I was in a hurry on my recent visit—rushing from a meeting in Palm Desert to a meeting in Palm Springs—so I got a few items to go, including a piece of ham quiche and an almond croissant. Between the meetings, I scarfed down the delicious piece of quiche, and intended to eat just half of the croissant. Well, somehow, I found the time to eat the whole thing: It was pure, flaky, buttery decadence. It came cut in half, with almond paste spread on the inside, and it was truly one of the best croissants I’ve ever enjoyed.

As I’ve mentioned before in this space, I’ve been trying to cut back on carbs—and the French Corner Café is not helping with this effort. This almond croissant is one of the Coachella Valley’s most delicious sweets—and is definitely worth breaking one’s diet.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The Southwest Benedict

Where: Louise’s Pantry, 73155 Highway 111, Palm Desert; also at 47150 Washington St., La Quinta

How much: $14.99

Contact: 760-837-3900 (Palm Desert); 760-771-3330 (La Quinta); louisespantry.com

Why: If you like chorizo, you’ll love this dish.

I love a good breakfast … but let’s face it: Many restaurants don’t exactly offer a lot of exciting or unusual options for the so-called most important meal of the day.

Fortunately, Louise’s Pantry—with locations in both Palm Desert and La Quinta—does a better job at this than most. Yeah, you’ll find the bacon, sausage, pancakes, waffles, French toast and omelets you’d expect—but there are also a few somewhat unusual offerings, including the entrée our server recommended on my recent visit there: the Southwest Benedict.

Really, this is a Benedict in name and geometry only. The only holdover ingredients from classic eggs Benedict are poached eggs and hollandaise sauce—and here, the hollandaise has a hint of tomatillo. In place of the English muffin is a warm pupusa (cornmeal flatbread); instead of ham/Canadian bacon, you’ll get chorizo … and a lot of it.

It all comes down to this: If you like chorizo, you’ll love the Southwest Benedict, because the chorizo dominates both the flavor and texture of the dish. That’s not to say the other ingredients don’t make their mark; the pupusa adds a nice softness to the mouth-feel, and some sweetness to the flavor, while the tomatillo hollandaise provides both creaminess and tartness. But, really, this dish is all about the chorizo.

If you aren’t a chorizo fan, you won’t want to order this—but you still have plenty of reasons to dine at Louise’s Pantry. The service is great; the décor is comfortable and homey; and the menu has a lot of options, prepared well by the talented kitchen staff. Check it out.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The chicken chiles Agave

Where: Fresh Agave Mexican Bar and Grill, 73325 Highway 111, Palm Desert

How much: $12.50

Contact: 760-836-9028; www.freshagavemexicanbarandgrill.com

Why: The sauce ties it all together.

It wasn’t supposed to be my entrée.

I was having my monthly meeting with Independent contributor Kevin Fitzgerald, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted for lunch. I hadn’t been to Fresh Agave before, and I wanted to give the place a try, given how well it does in our Best of Coachella Valley readers’ poll every year. I intended to get a couple of items to try; because of my unfamiliarity with the menu, I asked the server for advice.

She recommended the chicken chiles Agave as a starter, along with a handful of entrées. The appetizer recommendation—yellow peppers stuffed with chicken, tomatoes, cilantro and onions, with chipotle sauce on the side—sounded good to me, so we ordered it and asked for more time to decide on our entrées.

The chicken chiles Agave arrived fairly quickly … and it was a good thing I hadn’t yet ordered my main course, as it was immediately obvious that I would not need one, given the size of what was on the plate—six not-small peppers stuffed with tasty goodness.

Kevin only wanted one of the six peppers, and the remaining five were enough of a meal, even for a hearty eater like me. And what a delicious meal it was; it was a perfect example of how ingredients when combined can become more than the sum of their parts: The stuffed peppers by themselves were just OK, and the chipotle sauce on its own was unspectacular. But when the two were combined … yum. The creamy, peppery and just slightly sweet sauce brought out all sorts of fantastic favors in the moist chicken.

I’ll definitely order the chicken chiles Agave on my next visit to Fresh Agave … but I’ll need to take more dining companions with me, so we can share it—meaning I’ll have enough room for an entrée.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The cinnamon brown sugar breakfast tart

Where: Wilma and Frieda’s, 155 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; also at 73575 El Paseo Drive, Palm Desert

How much: $4.95

Contact: 760-992-5080 (Palm Springs); 760-773-2807 (Palm Desert); wilmafrieda.com

Why: They’re delicious—and very affordable.

When I heard that Wilma and Frieda’s was going to be taking over the former location of The Falls—one of the most beautiful restaurant spaces in the valley, overlooking the La Plaza area in downtown Palm Springs—I was elated.

For five years, Wilma and Frieda’s, located on El Paseo in Palm Desert, has been serving up some of the valley’s best breakfasts and lunches. Not only was I excited about the fact that one of the area’s most renowned restaurants was expanding to the west valley; I was intrigued by what the owners would do with the large, second-story space.

Well, it seems my excitement was justified: The new Wilma and Frieda’s is gorgeous, and the owners have expanded the offerings at the Palm Springs location beyond 3 p.m.: The bar is currently open until 9 p.m. most nights, and full dinner service is coming soon.

I stopped in one recent Saturday after an early-ish dinner to see the new space and try a cocktail. Since it was after dinner, I was craving dessert … and Wilma and Frieda’s (at both locations) has an amazing selection of housemade sweets, including brownies, bars, cookies, cakes and “breakfast tarts”—you know, like those store-bought frosted pastries that you pop into the toaster, but presumably a lot better.

Being a fan of all things containing brown sugar, I decided to try the cinnamon brown sugar breakfast tart. Not only did it sound delicious; it was only $4.95—and where else can you get a fresh-baked dessert for that price in this town?

The tart exceeded my expectations: It was warm, crispy out the outside and gooey on the inside—and it was yummy.

Welcome to Palm Springs, Wilma and Frieda’s. I can’t wait to see what you do next.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The black truffle pommes frites

Where: AC3 Restaurant + Bar, 45350 Larkspur Lane, Palm Desert

How much: $9 separately; $7 at happy hour; $4 upcharge with the lobster B.L.T. (as shown)

Contact: 760-340-6069; www.ac3palmdesert.com

Why: They’re crispy and delicious.

AC3 Restaurant and Bar opened with one of the best pedigrees of any new local joint in recent memory: The restaurant—inside the gorgeous Hotel Paseo—is the result of a partnership between Trio’s Tony Marchese, and Copley’s on Palm Canyon’s Juliana and Andrew Copley.

I met friend and colleague Kevin there for a recent weekday lunch to see if AC3 lived up to that distinguished pedigree. The verdict? The figurative jury is still out on AC3’s offerings as a whole, but I can enthusiastically endorse one thing we had: the black truffle fries. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say that these may be the best damn fries that I’ve had in the Coachella Valley. Really.

Being in a hotel on El Paseo, the restaurant serves all three meals—and the food isn’t exactly cheap. If you want the truffle fries on their own, an order will set you back $9, although you can get them for two bucks less during happy hour. In my case, I upgraded the fries that came with my lobster B.L.T. entrée … and was socked with a hefty $4 upcharge as a result.

While the lobster B.L.T. was good but not great—it was tasty, but the poached lobster didn’t have enough flavor to stand up to the other ingredients—the truffle fries were stellar. They were perfectly prepared, with the perfect amounts of truffle flavor, grana padano cheese and other seasonings. Oh, and they were delightfully crispy—just as french fries should be. The accompanying truffle aioli was a delight.

I’ll be returning to AC3 soon for these fries at either lunch or dinner. (Alas, they’re not available on the breakfast menu.) No matter where you are in the Coachella Valley, these fries are worth the drive.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The avocado fries

Where: Grill-a-Burger, 73091 Country Club Drive, Palm Desert

How much: $8.95

Contact: 760-346-8170; www.grill-a-burger.com

Why: The rich mix of crunch and creamy.

I love avocados. They’re delicious; they’re good for you; and they’re interesting. (For example: Did you know the avocado is technically a berry? Really!)

Plus, avocados gave the world guacamole. Enough said.

Given my love for avocados, it should come as no surprise that on a recent trip to Grill-a-Burger—the highly regarded and somewhat famous (thank you, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives) Palm Desert restaurant—with friend and colleague Kevin, I simply had to try the avocado fries.

While I have enjoyed avocado in a variety of ways, I’d never tried it fried before. Here’s how that works: The good folks at Grill-a-Burger take fresh avocado wedges, dip them in beer batter, coat them in Panko bread crumbs, deep-fry ’em, and then add a little sea salt.

The resulting “fry” is a revelation: It’s sweet, savory, crunchy, creamy and oh-so-delicious. The first bite almost overwhelms the mouth (in a good way), because of the wide variety of flavors and textures arriving all at once.

A word of caution: The avocado fries are rather filling. Our server warned Kevin and me that we’d have more than enough food after each ordering a burger and splitting the avocado fries, but we went ahead and also got an order of the 50/50—half french fries and half onion rings. We barely touched ’em.

Grill-a-Burger has earned a number of accolades during its decade-plus of existence, thanks to the restaurant’s quality (including fresh-baked buns and all-natural USDA beef sans hormones and antibiotics), the variety (30 different burgers, along with mini-burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, salads, milkshakes and malts—plus beer and wine!) and the fantastic service.

If you’ve never been to Grill-a-Burger … go. If you have been to Grill-a-Burger, but you’ve never tried the avocado fries … go. Trust me.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The fish and chips

Where: Atlantic Fish and Chips, 73850 Highway 111, Suite B, Palm Desert

How much: Mini (two pieces, as shown) is $7.99

Contact: 760-568-5066

Why: It’s a near-perfect version of the classic platter.

Atlantic Fish and Chips has been around for many years; it was fast casual before fast casual was cool, in fact.

However, I’d never managed to make it there myself—that is, until I found myself near the hole-in-the-wall restaurant at lunch time on a recent weekday. It was time for me to devour some fried food, and Atlantic indeed offers all sorts of fried goodies, including shrimp, clam strips, mushrooms, zucchini, onion rings and hush puppies. There are even fried Oreos for dessert ($3).

But I was there for the fish and chips. That’s part of the restaurant’s name, after all.

After getting some advice from the personable woman behind the counter, I decided to get the “mini” fish and chips: two pieces of breaded and fried wild Alaskan pollock, plus fries and a little cup o’ coleslaw. Despite the “mini” moniker, this was plenty of food—and I am not a light eater. If you are a light eater, one piece plus the fries and coleslaw will cost you $5.49; for more gluttonous eaters, three pieces cost $10.99, while four cost $13.75.

While the coleslaw was good, and the chips were pretty average, the fish pieces were fantastic. They were moist and perfectly cooked; the batter was flavorful and crunchy. I have eaten many versions of fish and chips that were foiled by greasiness—which makes sense, considering the stuff is immersed in oil—but Atlantic’s fish was excellent: The oil was definitely present, but it was far from being overwhelming or annoying.

Atlantic Fish and Chips has been around for a long time for a good reason: The food is excellent. If it continues to be excellent, something tells me Atlantic Fish and Chips will be around for many more years to come, too.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The build-your-own pizza

Where: Blaze Pizza, 201 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; also at 73393 Highway 111, Palm Desert

How much: $7.95

Contact: 760-318-2529 (Palm Springs); 760-895-4259 (Palm Desert); www.blazepizza.com

Why: It’s delicious, and it’s a great deal.

In the almost five years that the Independent has been around, we’ve written 116 Indy Endorsements. Only a half-dozen or so have been written about chain joints—and most of those were about smaller, California-based chains. In other words, the Indy Endorsement is a feature that almost exclusively touts locally owned restaurants.

Therefore, it really means something that we’re endorsing the make-your-own pies at Blaze Pizza.

Why are we endorsing food at a large, national chain, pretty much for the first time? For one thing, the make-your-own 11-inch pizzas at Blaze are truly make-your-own—you can have as many cheeses, sauces and toppings on your pizza as you want. There’s no limit. For example, the pizza in the picture here has mozzarella cheese, goat cheese, bacon, smoked ham, mushrooms, olives and tomatoes, with classic red sauce and just a little garlic pesto underneath. That’s two sauces, two cheeses and five toppings—for one price. If I wanted to double those numbers, the price would stay the same.

For another thing … that price is a deal: just $7.95. Where else can you get an 11-inch pizza with unlimited ingredients for less than eight bucks? Nowhere, you say?

That’s why we’re endorsing a large, national chain, pretty much for the first time.

The process is easy: You get in line, pick your crust (gluten-free and high-rise/thicker options cost a bit extra), pick your sauces, pick your cheeses and pick your toppings. You watch as the employees put the toppings on your pie—and if you want more or less of an ingredient, tell ’em, and they’ll happily make it so. You then watch as they put the pizza in the oven; a couple of minutes later, they take it out, put it on a metal plate, and call your name.

Simple. Inexpensive. Delicious. Endorsement-worthy.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

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