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What: The Slider Sampler

Where: Woody’s Burgers, 317 N. Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs

How much: $10.50

Contact: 760-230-0188; woodysburgersps.com

Why: Variety is the spice of life.

Sometimes, you don’t want to make a choice—and when it comes to burgers, Woody’s makes life a little easier on indecisive diners with the restaurant’s slider sampler.

Now, that does not mean said diners are absolved of all choices; after all, Woody’s offers more than a half-dozen burger offerings, and the sampler includes just three sliders (miniature versions of the restaurant’s burgers). Sorry ’bout that.

On our recent visit to the renowned downtown Palm Springs burger joint, we skipped the basic hamburger and cheeseburger, as well as the Hawaiian burger and the mushroom burger, in favor of the three sliders pictured above: the jalapeño burger, the bleu burger, and the Western burger.

Speaking of not wanting to make a choice: We’re glad nobody’s making us pick a favorite, because all three of these li’l burgers were damn tasty.

The three sliders had a lot of great things in common: The deliciously seasoned patties were cooked perfectly (medium, just as requested). The buns were delightfully toasted. And they were each cute as heck.

They also had a lot of fantastic differences as well: The jalapeño slider had a nice kick—from the fresh pepper slices, yes, but from the pepperjack cheese, too. The bleu burger had a lot of high-quality crumbled blue cheese, but not so much that the rest of the other flavors were overwhelmed. And the Western burger featured sweet, tangy barbecue sauce, as well as a firm, thick beer-battered onion ring.

Yummy.

While Woody’s is best known for the burgers, the restaurant is also known for friendly service, a great vibe and fantastic jazz music every single night. (Oh, and the restaurant has a full bar, too!) All of these factors make Woody’s Burgers an easy choice for burger-lovers and music-lovers alike.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The Zin Bites

Where: Zin American Bistro, 198 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs

How much: $9

Contact: 760-322-6300; pszin.com

Why: The zin in the sauce.

This is a story of second chances.

Several months back, we took a friend who was visiting Palm Springs out to dinner at Zin American Bistro. While the service and the ambiance were top-notch, the food was decidedly unremarkable. I’d tell you what we had … but I can’t remember what we had. It was not a terrible meal, but it was a meal that left us underwhelmed and not exactly rushing to return.

Shortly after that experience, I had a conversation with a fellow foodie; our lackluster Zin experience came up.

“Well, did you try the Zin Bites?” the foodie inquired?

We hadn’t.

“Well, you have to at least go back for those,” he said, before adding, “Really,” and explaining that the Bites were, essentially, miniature beef Wellingtons.

It sounded yummy. I made a mental note.

Flash forward to a couple of weeks ago, when I was studying the various menus for Palm Springs Desert Resorts Restaurant Ten Days Week. I noticed that these Zin Bites (usually available for $9) were one of the first-course offerings on Zin American Bistro’s $26 prix-fixe menu; second courses included impressive offerings like a ribeye.

$26 for mini beef Wellingtons, a steak and dessert? Yes. It was time to give Zin a second chance.

Boy, are we glad we did.

The ribeye was nice (and a great deal)—but without a doubt, the best part of my meal was that plate of four Bites. The Zin Bites themselves—each including a tiny piece of filet mignon surrounded by goat cheese and wrapped lovingly in pastry—were great. However, the maroon zinfandel-reduction/shallot sauce took the Bites from great to oh my gosh, we need to order another plate of these.

However, we held off on ordering another round. Instead, we returned to Zin for another Restaurant Week meal several days later—making it the only restaurant we visited twice over that 10-day period.

Zin American Bistro is now on our list of regular restaurants. Thank goodness for second chances—and thank goodness for those fantastic Zin Bites.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The Chicago-Style House Special Pizza

Where: Giuseppe’s Pizza and Pasta, 1775 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs

How much: $26.50 large; $22 medium; $15 small

Contact: 760-537-1890; www.giuseppesps.com

Why: Oodles and oodles of yummy sauce.

When one picks up a large Chicago-style pizza from Giuseppe’s, the sheer weight of the pie is vaguely startling: It’s heavy.

For most folks, a slice of “normal” thin-crust pizza is a nice snack; add on another slice or three, and you have a meal. However, one slice of the Chicago-style house special pizza here can be a meal in and of itself—and what a meal it is.

A thickish, spongy-on-the-edge, tasty crust. Huge chunks of a savory sausage. Pepperoni, mushrooms, tomatoes, onions and—smothered on the top of it all—a delicious, tangy tomato sauce.

Yum.

It’s that tomato sauce that brings this brick of a pizza (and we mean “brick” in a really, really good way) all together, and the fact that the sauce is placed on top of the pie makes each bite an adventure: Who knows what ingredients lie underneath?

Giuseppe’s offers more than just Chicago-style pizza; thin-crust pies are also available, as are a large variety of delicious pastas and Italian-style entrées, as well as salads, appetizers and desserts. The restaurant also offers a killer Sunday brunch—and every brunch entrée comes with a side of bacon! (On the booze side, whisky/bourbon aficionados, take note: Giuseppe’s selection is pretty spectacular.)

However, whenever we find ourselves at Giuseppe’s, we are consistently drawn to the Chicago-style pizza. It’s just too good.

Just remember: If you have leftovers, or if you’re getting the pizza to go, lift with your knees, and not your back. You don’t want to injure yourself, do you?

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The Bill’s Favorite (with several sides of Bill’s Sauce)

Where: Bill’s Pizza, 119 S. Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs

How much: $24.50 for an 18-inch pizza; personal size (10 inches also available)

Contact: 760-325-5571; www.billspizzapalmsprings.com

Why: Because of the extra Bill’s Sauce.

On busy Palm Springs nights, danger lurks near La Plaza and Palm Canyon Drive.

Caloric danger, that is.

Is this case, danger takes the form of a pleasant person handing out pizza samples—more specifically, Bill’s Pizza samples. Consider yourself warned: These samples are good. Very good, in fact, and they often succeed at their intended purpose: luring people, some of whom have already eaten dinner, one short block to La Plaza and Indian Canyon Drive, where Bill’s Pizza can be found.

Once at Bill’s, diners have a variety of choices of thin-crust pizza options (including by-the-slice choices for the less hungry, i.e. the aforementioned diet-busting souls who have already eaten dinner) in terms of both toppings and sauces. However, when it comes to sauce, those in the know always get what’s simply called Bill’s Sauce.

Simple, it is: It’s a mixture of the red (i.e. tomato) sauce, and the pesto sauce. As for flavor, simple, it isn’t: There’s something about the mixture of the hearty tomato, the fresh basil, the oil and the spices that makes this sauce splendid.

Pictured above is the Bill’s Favorite, a perfectly delightful pie with—of course—Bill’s Sauce, as well as pepperoni, salami, Sicilian sausage and tomatoes. (We held the onions.) However, the keys to making this great pizza into a mouthgazm-inducing experience can be found in three of the pizza-box corners: extra Bill’s Sauce.

Put that extra sauce on top of the pizza. Dip the crusts in it. Hell, dip a finger into it and enjoy it by itself. It’s caloric danger that’s worth a few extra minutes at the gym.

Always ask for extra Bill’s Sauce. Trust us.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The Crab Enchiladas

Where: Ruben and Ozzy’s Oyster Bar and Grill, 241 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs

How much: $14.95; $13.95 after 9 p.m.

Contact: 760-325-8800; www.rubenandozzysoysterbar.com

Why: It’s a delicious dish made with love.

On most nights, you’ll find either Ruben or Ozzy Lopez, if not both of them, hard at work behind the counter at the brothers’ eponymous Tahquitz Canyon Way restaurant.

It’s nothing new for the brothers to be hard at work behind a restaurant counter; they started out working together at the late, lamented Beach House before moving to Palm Springs' Shanghai Reds—the back-bar part of Fisherman’s Market and Grill—for a nine-year stint. In 2012, the two left Shanghai Reds and ventured out on their own, opening Ruben and Ozzy’s Oyster Bar and Grill.

The menu at Ruben and Ozzy’s is rather reminiscent of the menu at Shanghai Reds (as is, in some ways, the décor—they both have a large bar area, nice patio area, TVs tuned to sports, etc.). But most important: The food on that menu at Ruben and Ozzy’s is pretty gosh-darned spectacular.

Our personal fave is the crab enchiladas. This casserole-style treat has a lot going on. A real-crab concoction is wrapped inside tortillas, which are topped with goodies including a slightly spicy salsa verde, cheese and a creamy sauce. Adjacent to all of this warm, gooey deliciousness is a heap of cool, fresh pico de gallo, as well as some cabbage pieces, for texture, flavor and temperature variety. Finally, there is a scoop of Mexican-style rice—a perfect foil for any salsa and sauce that happen to be left over.

Yeah, the weather is getting increasingly warm as the march toward summer continues, but trust me: This hot little dish is fantastic even when temps are in the triple-digits, in part because the entrée includes cool contrasts (the cabbage and pico de gallo), and in part because it’s so freaking delicious.

So, go and support these two local restaurant icons who have been making food—tasty food—with love around these parts for decades, will ya?

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The Nutty Chi Chi

Where: Tonga Hut Palm Springs, 254 N. Palm Canyon Drive

How Much: $11

Contact: 760-322-4449; www.tongahut.com

Why: Nutty and creamy is a dreamy combination.

Tiki bars—drinking establishments that serve tropical, island-themed cocktails, often with an emphasis on fruit juices and rum—used to be a big freaking deal.

After World War II, these bars slung mai tais and scorpion bowls to a thirsty, eager public. In fact, Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley were the home to a number of tiki bars before the craze subsided and largely died off in the 1970s.

However, to some, like Tonga Hut co-owner Amy Boylan, the craze never died. The original Tonga Hut has been a mainstay in North Hollywood since 1958, and when her crew opened the second Tonga Hut here in downtown Palm Springs in February, it reintroduced tiki-bar culture to the Coachella Valley—and in a big way. (Sorry, but Toucan’s doesn’t count.)

Ask, if you can, for a tour of the Palm Springs Tonga Hut; the detail will amaze you. One of my favorite details: photos, menus and other memorabilia from some of those late, lamented Palm Springs tiki joints, framed within each of the booths. Very cool.

Unlike the original Tonga Hut, the Palm Springs spot has a full kitchen and serves food; they’re working out a few kinks in that area, as one would expect. But thanks to 56 years of experience, the folks at Tonga Hut have the drinks down pat—and one of our favorites is the Nutty Chi Chi.

The drink is not all that complicated—it’s got some creamy piña-colada fixings, vodka and macadamia-nut liqueur—but the result is a smooth, sweet, refreshing and nuanced glass of fun. This drink will be even more refreshing as the temperatures rise, too.

Our recommendation: Head to Tonga Hut; get a seat on the awesome balcony, if one is open; order a Nutty Chi Chi; and raise your glass in a toast to the fact that the valley’s cocktail and bar scene is improving—thanks in part to the return of tiki to the desert.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: Nonna’s Meatballs

Where: Birba Palm Springs, 622 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs

How Much: $10

Contact: 760-327-5678; www.birbaps.com

Why: The tomato sauce and the high-quality meat.

Birba Palm Springs is one of the most difficult restaurants in downtown Palm Springs at which to get a table on a busy night. No joke: If you walk in without a reservation and try to get a table on an in-season Friday night, be prepared to wait for an hour, or perhaps even longer.

So how did this outdoor restaurant that almost exclusively uses a wood oven to cook its food—the little kitchen does not even include a stove, a server told us during a recent meal there—become one of the west valley’s most-popular joints?

For one thing, the outdoor vibe is lovely. Tall bushes keep the hubbub from Palm Canyon Drive to a minimum; strings of lights add ambiance; and seating is offered in a variety of options—tables and bar space are supplemented with club-style couches.

For another, the menu is fairly simple, yet packed with delicious options: Eight appetizers/salads are joined by pizzas and a handful of other options, listed under the heading “Wood Oven.”

One of those “Wood Oven” options has left us coming back for more: Nonna’s meatballs. Four medium-size meatballs—made with both Berkshire pork and grass-fed beef—come covered with a delicious, perfectly seasoned tomato sauce and some large hard-cheese shavings. The fact that Birba’s chefs don’t just use any old ground meat in these meatballs is evident: The flavor is fantastic. After the meatballs were all gone, we had some of that savory tomato sauce left over—so, of course, we had to ask for bread with which to sop it up. However, this being Birba, we received pizza-crust triangles to use—and they did the trick.

The vibe, the friendly service and those meatballs have us so enchanted that we’re almost willing to wait an hour or more for a table. Almost.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: Felipe’s huachinango (whole red snapper)

Where: Maracas Mexican Cantina and Grill, 155 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; also at 72775 Dinah Shore, Rancho Mirage

How much: $20.95

Contact: 322-9654 (Palm Springs); 321-1001 (Rancho Mirage); www.maracas-restaurant.com (warning: prices and other info woefully outdated)

Why: It’s primal and delicious.

One of the best lines from A Christmas Story (yeah, I know it’s almost February; please bear with me) comes when the family—their Christmas turkey destroyed by the Bumpus hounds—heads to dinner at Chop Suey Palace, and the enthusiastic staff delivers a whole goose to the table.

“It’s … smiling at me!” says Mr. Parker, played by the late, great Darren McGavin—just before one of the waiters helpfully chops off the head.

I don’t know where in the Coachella Valley one can get a whole goose for dinner, but I do know where one can enjoy a meal that’s smiling at you—a very good meal, in fact.

Maracas Mexican Cantina and Grill serves up all of the fare you’d expect from a restaurant with the words “Mexican Grill and Cantina” in its name—and some dishes you may not expect, too. One of those possibly unexpected dishes that we here at Independent headquarters absolutely love is the whole red snapper—which, as you can see from the accompanying photo, arrives at the table with a big, toothy smile.

This is not a meal for the faint of heart, nor is it a meal for people who mind getting messy when they eat: This whole fish is coated in “New Mexico flour,” fried and then served in all its primal glory. The cooks helpfully slice the flesh in a grid pattern before frying, but otherwise, when it comes to picking this fish apart into edible chunks, you’re on your own.

However, all your effort is worth it: The fried fish is moist, texturally satisfying (with a nice mix of soft meat and crispy skin) and, most importantly, delicious.

Trust me: When you’re at Maracas eating Felipe’s huachinango, the snapper won’t be the only one at the table who’s smiling.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The cordoniz estilo Ernesto (quail, Ernesto style)

Where: Rio Azul Mexican Bar and Grill, 350 S. Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs

How much: $24.95

Contact: 760-992-5641; rioazulpalmsprings.com

Why: It’s one of the tastiest plates of food in the entire valley.

I grew up on a cattle ranch outside of Reno, Nev., where quail are ubiquitous.

Thus, I know a little bit about these birds. Quail are cute. Quail are fast. Quail don’t seem all that bright. And I’d never thought of quail as all that delicious, either. I’d eaten quail a couple of times, and those meals were rather unremarkable. The little birds struck me as stringy and insubstantial—a lot of work for not a lot of reward.

Flash forward to a month or two ago, when my partner and I were having dinner at downtown Palm Springs’ Rio Azul. We ordered the parrilladas for two ($38.95), the restaurant’s entrée combination plate. It included a couple of different shrimp preparations, grilled steak, grilled chicken, the usual Mexican sides … and “succulent quail grilled to perfection.”

If you’d have told me ahead of time that the quail would be the hit of the plate (over bacon-wrapped shrimp?!), I’d have told you to lay off of whatever substance was leaving you outside of your right mind. But lo and behold: The quail was amazing.

Now, flash forward to my next (and most recent) meal at Rio Azul: Of course I had to get the cordiniz estilo Ernesto (aka the quail Ernesto style; Ernesto Gastelum is Rio Azul’s executive chef).

The plate, pictured above, does not offer the prettiest presentation—and, yes, you’re gonna have to get your hands a bit messy to eat this. Well, roll up your sleeves, because it’s worth it: This combination of potatoes, onions, peppers, garlic with the moist quail parts is fantastic.

It’s fantastic even without that little cup o’ sauce off to the side—but it’s even better when the quail is dipped in that “famous diablo cream salsa.” Don’t let the words “diablo” or “salsa” confuse you: It’s a liquid that’s not all that spicy; instead, it’s rich and luxurious.

I don’t know how Chef Ernesto makes these quail so succulent, so juicy, so packed with flavor—but he does. And the result is one of the best meals I’ve had in the Coachella Valley.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The croque madame

Where: L’Atelier Deli, 129 La Plaza, Palm Springs

How much: $9

Contact: 760-778-7895; www.latelier-deli.com

Why: Lots of flavor in a small package.

As the story goes: Raphael and Charlotte Farsy, a young French couple from Paris, came to Palm Springs in March 2012 on their honeymoon. As often happens when people visit here, they became smitten with the desert, and decided to stay. Raphael is a pastry chef—and so L’Atelier Deli was born.

We should all be happy about Raphael and Charlotte’s decision to stay, because as a result, we get the benefit of this small, utterly charming French café tucked into a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot in downtown Palm Springs’ La Plaza. You’ll find Raphael behind the counter, most likely, with Charlotte handling the bulk of the serving.

The menu includes breakfasts, salads, sandwiches, quiches and a variety of French pastries and desserts. The dish that has our mouths watering the most comes from the breakfast menu: the croque madame.

It’s a simple treat: a ham-and-cheese sandwich between two toasted slices of white bread, with béchamel sauce and, on top, a fried egg. Individually, these ingredients, while of high quality, aren’t anything to write home to Paris about: In this case, ham is just ham; béchamel sauce is just butter, flour, salt and milk; etc. But put them all together, and the result is yummy. The salt in the ham and the béchamel are muted by the bread; the richness of the egg and cheese add a ton of taste; and so on. It’s all pretty basic, really, yet the flavors that result are far from basic.

While pretty much everything we’ve enjoyed at L’Atelier has ranged from good to outstanding (especially the quiches; always check the specials board to see what’s available), be warned: The food here is not cheap. A tall but otherwise normal-sized slice of quiche will set you back $6 or $7, for example, and that delightful fruit salad accompanying my sandwich in the picture above was a whopping $4. The small, artfully presented round of apple, strawberry, banana and kiwi was refreshing and delightful, yes, but I wouldn’t pay $4 for it again.

But thanks to the charm of Raphael and Charlotte’s little café, as well as all of that flavor, I will happily pay $9 for that croque madame again. It’s fantastic.

Published in The Indy Endorsement