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What: The BBQ Free Range Chicken Pizza

Where: BB’s at The River, 71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage

How Much: $13.95 (or $9 at the bar during all-day happy hour, Monday through Friday)

Contact: 760-862-9800; www.bbsattheriver.com

Why: This pizza backs up the brag.

The sign in front of the restaurant said multiple things. It promoted a $19.99 prix fixe menu. It touted tasty burgers. And it said the restaurant served the best barbecue chicken pizza in town.

Game on, BB’s at The River. I’ll take one BBQ free range chicken pizza, please.

Inside, BB’s doesn’t look all that different than its predecessor, Acqua Pazza: It has a clean, contemporary vibe, with a great bar. The menu features California/American fare. The server said the pot roast was particularly popular.

Fair enough. But I was here to see if the pizza backed up the sign’s brag.

The verdict: While I won’t go so far as to say the BBQ free range chicken pizza is the best such pie in town, I will say it’s good. Really good.

First and foremost: The folks in the kitchen don’t skimp on the chicken, which is juicy and delicious: Every bite of the pizza (save maybe one or two near the crust) included chicken. Second: The sauce is indeed sweet and spicy, as promised on the menu—and it’s balanced. In other words, it’s neither too sweet nor too spicy; as Goldilocks would say, it’s just right. Third. There are just enough red onions on the pizza to make their presence known; any more, and they’d dominate the flavor. Fourth: The smoked mozzarella was gooey and delightful. Fifth, but not least: The crust was tasty. I would have preferred it to be a little thinner, maybe, but there was nothing wrong with what was on my plate.

How excellent was this pizza? I intended to eat only half of it, and take the rest home. But before I knew it, I’d devoured three-quarters of it—and I had to restrain myself from finishing it off. Good stuff, indeed.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The Falafel Pita

Where: Francesco’s Café, 72047 Dinah Shore Drive, No. C1, Rancho Mirage

How much: $9.95

Contact: 760-202-4425

Why: The falafel is perfect—and it’s enhanced by the yummy accompaniments.

So Francesco’s Café specializes in Italian and Persian cuisine.

Wait, what? Last I checked, Italy and Persia (or, as it’s called today, Iran) are about 2,000 miles away—making this cuisine combo somewhat suspect.

But you know what? This mix works quite well, as fans of this little strip-mall hole-in-the-wall will tell you. Here at Independent world headquarters, we’re particularly smitten with the stuff on the Persian side of the menu—specifically, the falafel pita.

Our mouths begin to water when we think of those balls o’ falafel—the crispy exterior, the moist interior, the perfect blend of herbs and spices (including garlic, coriander, cilantro and parsley), and so on. Mmmm.

But the tastiness doesn’t stop there: This falafel comes with all sorts of sauces and accompaniments to take the flavors and textures to a whole other level. The hummus enhances the garlicky earthiness of the falafel. The tzatziki adds a yogurt-y coolness. The tabbouleh contributes herb-y goodness. The tomatoes add a crisp freshness. Mix and match however you’d like; put whatever you mix up in some delicious pita bread; and enjoy!

If falafel isn’t your thing (and it really should be your thing when it’s this good), Francesco’s Café offers all sorts of other delicious fare, including kabobs and other pita dishes on the Persian side; and pastas, seafood entrées, sub sandwiches, pizzas and calzones on the Italian side. The décor is quaint; the service is good; and the prices are pretty gosh-darned decent.

So get thee to Francesco’s, and enjoy a bit of Italy and Iran in Rancho Mirage!

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The Black Spaghetti and Clams

Where: Catalan Mediterranean Cuisine, 70026 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage

How Much: $25

Contact: 760-770-9508; catalanrestaurant.com

Why: It tastes great—and looks amazing.

New Orleans is one of the best food cities I’ve ever visited. We were last there in 2011, and it seemed like every meal we enjoyed (well, make that every meal we had when we escaped from the tourist trap that is Bourbon Street) was simply fantastic.

One of the best meals we had—OK, two of the best meals we had, because we simply had to go back a second time—was at Domenica, a restaurant owned by celebrity chef John Besh. The entrée that was so good it practically forced us to return was the squid ink tagliolini with crab and herbs. Amazing.

Well, the good news is that I’ve found a dish here in the Coachella Valley that reminds me a lot of the squid ink tagliolini: the black spaghetti and clams, at Rancho Mirage’s Catalan Mediterranean Cuisine.

This delicious and beautiful plate of food combines perfectly prepared pasta, briny clams, fruity Calabrian peppers and a healthy portion of garlic into a dish that will make you want to return to Catalan a second time to get more of it. And a third.

There are downsides to this dish: It’s messy as all hell (you have to fish the clams out of the broth), and your breath will be … um, fragrant after you eat it. However, that’s why they make soap, laundry detergent and mouthwash, right?

As an added bonus, the setting at Catalan is gorgeous as well. We recommend a seat in the courtyard, where you can enjoy Spanish acoustic guitar Thursday through Saturday nights.

You may not be in New Orleans, but thanks to Catalan, you can sure eat like you are.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The “Washu” (American Waygu) Shabu Shabu

Where: Shabu Shabu Zen, 71680 Highway 111 No. F, Rancho Mirage

How much: $25

Contact: 760-779-5000; shabu-shabu-zen.com

Why: It’s just so much damn fun—and delicious, too.

It was fun. It was active. It was a little messy. And it was delicious.

It was one of the best meals we’ve ever had in the Coachella Valley.

The meal we had at Shabu Shabu Zen on a June Wednesday night was not my first experience with shabu shabu, a form of dining which, grossly oversimplified, can be called Japanese fondue. I became smitten with the food form when I reviewed an excellent shabu shabu place in Tucson, Ariz., eight-plus years ago. Sadly, that place didn’t last long, and I hadn’t enjoyed shabu shabu since.

That’s why I was really excited when I saw a sign for Shabu Shabu Zen as I zoomed down Highway 111 several months back. Finally, on the aforementioned June Wednesday night, we had a chance to visit the new restaurant.

After enjoying some delicious chicken “shio-koji” karaage ($8; the folks at Shabu Shabu Zen refer to it as Japanese-style fried chicken) and a sake flight ($13), we split an order of the Kobe-style beef shabu shabu.

Here’s how it works: You a pick a protein—anything from tofu ($15) on up to a seafood assortment ($36) or even premium waygu ribeye ($48). Then you pick one of three broths: the mild, lightly seasoned traditional shabu shabu; a strong soy-sauce/mirin-based broth; or an in-the-middle miso-style broth. You get rice, two dipping sauces (a sesame sauce in which you grind your own sesame seeds, and a ponzu sauce), three condiments (ground garlic, ground daikon and scallions) and a bowl of vegetables, tofu and udon noodles.

After everything is delivered, and the broth comes to a boil on the burner at your table, you get to work—mixing condiments and sauces, and cooking the meats, tofu, noodles and veggies in the broth. In the case of the thinly sliced waygu, you only want to swish the meat around for several seconds. (In fact, “shabu shabu” roughly means “swish swish.”)

Then, when all of the goodies are cooked and devoured, you can ladle the broth into a bowl, doctor it up, and enjoy it as a delicious soup.

This all-too-brief description does not properly convey how freaking fun shabu shabu can be. It’s an absolute blast to play with the condiments and the sauces and the cooked ingredients, mixing and matching and finding out which flavor combinations work the best. (The waygu works great with the ponzu, as well as a bit of garlic and daikon, by the way.)

I’ve also neglected to properly discuss how charming the service and decor at Shabu Shabu Zen are. The elegantly dressed, all-female (on the night we were there, at least) service staff knows their stuff—and is passionate about both the food and the drink. The Shabu Shabu Zen website says the restaurant is family-owned; that may help explain the passion.

Shabu Shabu Zen is not only one of the valley’s most unique restaurants; it’s one of the best, period. Go there.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: The Goat Cheese Sweet Corn Tamale

Where: Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse, 71800 Highway 111, No. A176, Rancho Mirage

How much: $11

Contact: 760-346-8738; www.babesbbque.com

Why: It’s a veritable flavor bomb.

If you’re looking for a traditional Mexican tamale, then Babe’s is not the place for you. (Unless you also like great beer and tasty barbecue, but that’s a story for another time.)

However, if you’re looking for a twist (and a serious size upgrade) on the traditional tamale, then get thee to this mainstay at The River, pronto.

There is a lot going on in this far-from-traditional dish. There’s sweetness from the corn meal, as well as a subtler sweetness from the goat cheese. There’s a whole lot of savory from the tortilla soup in which the huge tamale is swimming. There’s a delightful bit of floral freshness from the microgreens lovingly placed atop the concoction. And the variety of textures—soft (the goat cheese), creamy (the soup), crisp (the greens)—will keep your mouth entertained with each and every bite.

The sum of these parts: a veritable flavor bomb. We’ve praised the delightful subtlety of some dishes in this space before. Well, this tamale offers just the opposite: Your taste buds will be overloaded—in a good way—by all of the different flavors hitting them.

Take note: The tamale—a recipe from the founder of Babe’s, the late Don Callender—is not always available; sometimes, Babe’s may have pork or chicken tamales instead. As the menu says, “Check availability with your server. As (Don Callender) would say, ‘Here today, gone tamale!’”

I am sure the pork and chicken tamales are quite yummy, too. But I’d keep your fingers crossed for the goat cheese.

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 Banana Walnut Pancakes

Where: The Palms Café, 69930 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; also at 44150 Town Center Way, Palm Desert

How much: $9.75; also available as an add-on with other entrées

Contact: 760-770-1614 (Rancho Mirage), 760-779-1617 (Palm Desert); thepalmscaferm.com

Why: Big chunks of banana.

I like pancakes—but I rarely order them for breakfast.

Here’s why: When it comes to a choice between pork (sausage … bacon … mmm!) and what’s basically bread covered with some sort of sweet sauce, I am going to go with the pork 99.43 percent of the time. Because, y’know, pork.

However, the banana walnut pancakes at the Palms Café in Rancho Mirage came highly recommended, so I ordered one. Boy, am I glad I did.

(OK, confession time: I got bacon and eggs, too. No judgment, please.)

The buttermilk pancake (a wheat variety made with Splenda is also available) part of the not-too-sweet pancake was tasty in and of itself; the menu touts the fact it’s made with real buttermilk (the words are even underlined), and you can indeed taste that buttermilk. However, the addition of big slices of banana, and just enough walnut pieces, took these pancakes from tasty to oooh I think I’d like another.

However, all was not perfect in Pancake Land: The Palms Café gets a slap on the wrist for apparently not offering customers real maple syrup. The pancake, as you can see, came with a little plastic container of syrup that, unless my taste buds (and those of my father in law, who was dining with me) were deeply confused, was not real maple syrup; instead, it was apparently one of those corn-syrup atrocities that’s foisted on unwitting Americans way too frequently. According to my server, Smucker’s Sugar Free Breakfast Syrup was the only other available alternative, which was a shame; I’d gladly have paid an extra buck or two for the real deal.

No worries; the next time I head to the Palms Café for one of these heavenly breakfast pancakes, I’ll skip the bacon and eggs—and I’ll bring my own syrup.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

Friday, May 31, may seem like a long way away, but the organizers of Palm Springs Desert Resorts Restaurant Week say it never hurts to get an early start on planning.

“Every year, my husband and I make it a staycation,” said Kim Crandal, the executive director of Restaurant Week, during which a bevy of local restaurants will be offering special three-course prix-fixe menus for either $26 or $38 per person.

Given that this year’s Restaurant Week is bigger than ever, perhaps planning is a good idea. For one thing, the week is much longer than a week—it runs for 17 days, in fact, from Friday, May 31, through Sunday, June 16.

Why the expansion?

“We took a look at the history of requests from some of the restaurants,” Crandal said. “… So many people were experiencing success.”

As of now, 79 restaurants throughout the valley—including local favorites, big chains and eateries that are new to the scene—are signed up to participate.

But the week goes beyond food; the tag line for the event is “Eat. See. Stay.” Crandal said numerous hotels and resorts (that would be the “stay” part) are participating, as are various attractions and spas (that would be the “see” part).

“We are focusing more on crafting the ‘see’ and ‘stay’ components so people understand it’s more than a restaurant week,” she said. What do you do during the day?”

About a dozen hotels are currently signed on, and the 20 or so “see” partners include everything from the Palm Springs Art Museum to Knott’s Soak City to the Desert Springs Spa to Desert Adventures Eco-Tours and Events.

Restaurant Week also has something of a special relationship with “Forever Marilyn,” the 26-foot-tall sculpture of Marilyn Monroe that currently graces downtown Palm Springs. She was installed just before last year’s Restaurant Week, and she’ll be taken down and moved (temporarily, many hope) during this year’s Restaurant Week. While plans are not yet finalized, an idea is being batted around to create a more life-sized Marilyn Monroe representation—a statue, perhaps, or a cut-out—and have her pop up at the various restaurants during the 2 1/2 weeks of Restaurant Week.

Crandal noted that some folks are indeed already making Restaurant Week plans. For example, she cited a group of about 90 golfers from Santa Barbara who have made Restaurant Week an annual trip.

“It’s really building a nice following,” Crandal said.

Palm Springs Desert Resorts Restaurant Week takes place from Friday, May 31, through Sunday, June 16. For a complete list of participants and updates, visit www.palmspringsrestaurantweek.com.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

At a time when locally owned coffee houses across the world are closing due to ever-expanding chains (like Starbucks and McDonald's), here’s some refreshing news: Palm Springs’ Koffi recently announced plans to open a third location in Rancho Mirage.

However, a quick look at the spot slated to house the new location, at 71390 Highway 111, reveals that any opening is likely months away.

Koffi’s original spot, at 515 N. Palm Canyon Drive, was opened by owners John Abner and John Strohm in August 2002. They doubled the size of the place in 2005, and opened the second location, at 1700 S. Camino Real (at Palm Canyon Drive, across Camino Real from the Ace Hotel), in 2008.

At the Camino Real location, a large “Road Map to Koffi” poster has for weeks announced that the Rancho Mirage location—in the building that was formerly home to Amici Italian Trattoria, just a bit east of the Rancho Mirage Public Library—is “coming soon.”

Abner and Strohm, through Koffi general manager Troy Neifert, declined to comment for this story.

Therefore, I swung by 71390 Highway 111 today to peek in the windows. The space—which features a cute outdoor patio area to the west—was vacant and largely stripped out, save for some construction materials, including some orange cones.

We’ll keep our eye on the announced new Koffi location, and will post updates when available.

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Published in Restaurant & Food News

Awards and medals for Babe’s brewing excellence adorn the dining room at Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse, in Rancho Mirage, like golf courses adorn the Coachella Valley.

Decades ago, Don Callender started a Southern California chain of American-style restaurants that was known for its pies, its fully stocked saloon and its salad bar. As the years passed, and the restaurant chain was sold and merged with other restaurants, Don had a slightly different vision of barbecue and beer.

It’s not as well known that Don was fascinated with craft beer. In the late ’90s, when the craft-beer revolution took hold, Don’s passion for these new styles led him to taste what Southern California brewers had to offer.

Don knew excellence when he tasted it. Strawberry blondes, pumpkin ales and fruit beers from upstarts like Belmont Brewing Company satisfied Don’s sweet tooth and culinary prowess. Don was also one of the first Californians to enjoy the Pasadena based Craftsman Brewing. The Marie Callender’s founder and craft beer aficionado drank their Heavenly Hefe and Orange Grove Ale, while brewing a legacy all his own.

Don opened two small breweries in 1998 and 1999. The first, P.H. Woods, was a popular BBQ and brewhouse with beer brewed by Hans Johnson. Johnson later came up with the award-winning craft beers for Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse, which opened in April 2002.

In 2001, as Don prepared to unfold his ultimate beer-and-barbecue concept, he and his manager, Arthur Vasquez, couldn’t foresee the volatile socioeconomic climate they were about to face. Just a few months before opening, the Sept. 11 attacks shook the core of America. Spending was down, and the slower, warmer months of the desert didn’t promise a hugely successful launch.

The most-pressing problem with opening a barbecue and craft-beer brewhouse in an area known for its spa resorts, art galleries, 60-something golfers and Rat Pack heritage was introducing the relatively new culinary art of craft beer. While nearby San Diego and Orange County were quick to catch on to the craft-beer calling, the gin-and-tonic crowd of the Coachella Valley was a little slower to heed the call.

“There were no hop heads out here,” Vasquez said—not smiling.

For several years, they pushed their light-to-medium beers. Vasquez carefully crafted the menus and tap offerings in order to please the Coachella customer.

The Honey Blonde Ale and Blackfin Lager caught on. But the passion to offer a bigger variety of microbrews smoldered inside Vasquez.

After all, Babe's Brewhouse has a beautiful, custom JV Northwest brew system with a hand-hammered, aged copper exterior, four fermenters and five serving tanks. Its massive functioning malt silo stands tall next to the restaurant's entrance and holds 15,000 pounds of malt. Coming in at a cost of just more than a half-million dollars, who wouldn’t want to show off what this thing can really do?

Hans Johnson (now with Blackstone Brewery in Nashville, Tenn., developed the recipes for the Honey Blonde Ale, Blackfin Lager and 29 Palms Pale Ale. Still served today and brewed by Scot Grabbe, the Honey Blonde Ale comes in at 5 percent alcohol by volume and has won bronze, silver and gold in the 2010, 2011 and 2012 medals in the Los Angeles International Commercial Beer Competition. Golden in color, light- to medium-bodied, this is a smooth beer with a subtle finish from the orange blossom honey.

Named in honor of the brave 29 Palms Marines, the pale ale is a deep, copper color with cascade hop floral aroma and sweet caramel malt notes. The Blackfin Lager has the most accolades, winning a bronze medal in the 2003 Australian International Beer Awards. Taking the gold in the 2009 and 2012 L.A. International Commercial Beer Competition, the dark German style beer has a hint of roasted barley and toffee sweetness.

Vasquez credited an assistant manager for giving him a nudge to expand Babe’s beer offerings.

“My assistant manager, Josh (Levish, who has a beer podcast at beermepodcast.com), he kind of brought it to my attention and said, ‘Art, there’s a lot more going on here with craft beer; we should start paying more attention,’” Vasquez said. “And I was kind of in this funk, and I said, ‘No, no, we gotta keep the product medium bodied.' That’s what’s selling.

“Y’know, I lost that spark from the ’90s. Then Stone (Brewing Co.) started doing their own distribution and so we started to bring in a few more things. … And by summer 2011, I said, ‘You know what? Eff this. We’re going to go big.’”

As the years passed, and the American craft-beer industry continued to grow, Vasquez and co. bumped Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse up to six taps. They featured two seasonals and made smaller four-to-five-barrel batches, so they could rotate the beers more often. They phased out Southern beers and offered more bombers and the likes of Flying Dog and Dogfish Head. Every seasonal was higher than 8 percent alcohol by volume, and they started wood-aging some of their beers.

In other words, Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse was getting real with their beer. And it took off.

While the quality of their beef short ribs can’t be overstated, Vasquez has shown that he is serious about not just the quality of craft beer offered, but the quantity. Because of his passion and due diligence, Babe’s is now on the allocation list for Southern California-based Firestone Walker Brewing Company and Stone Brewing Co., so all of those breweries’ new and interesting releases are automatically sent to the brewhouse. Babe’s BBQ and Brewhouse is one of only three places in the Coachella Valley to be on this special beer list.

Callender passed away in 2009, and while the restaurant pioneer and innovator may no longer be with us, it’s apparent that Vasquez, Babe's chief operating officer and executive chef, is committed to making sure that Don's spirit stays alive.

Budget-conscious beer-lovers will be pleased to find craft beer at half-price from 3 p.m. to closing on Monday. Even the growlers are half-off: Refill a 32-ounce growler for $7, or the 64-ounce growler for $9. Happy hour is Monday through Friday, from 3 to 6 p.m., and 9 to 11 p.m.

“The Cicerone” flight consists of four smaller beer tasters. Currently, you can enjoy the 58 Palms Imperial Pale Ale (7.2 percent alcohol), the Babe’s 10th Anniversary Ale (seasonal), guest Belgian draft Delirium Nocturnum (8.5 percent) and guest American draft Stone Brewing Co. 12.12.12. Vertical Epic (9.4 percent).

I’ve become a fan of the 10th Anniversary Ale. With eight malts, 50 pounds of Belgian rock candy, California cherries, blackberries, cinnamon sticks, allspice, and cherry-and-cinnamon bourbon-aged American oak, this beer is the perfect complement to slightly spicy barbecue during the chilly, winter months. The guest drafts were also impressive, proving that Art and the rest of the Babe’s team know more than your average restaurant about good beer.

Babe’s just renewed its 10-year lease and is starting to market the beer outside the brewhouse.

“I just want outside accounts in the Coachella Valley,” Vasquez said. … “I want people to know, when they’re coming here, if they don’t see our beers on tap, I want them to ask for it.”

And the gospel of Babe’s is spreading. LQ Wine has all of their bottled products. Grill-A-Burger in Palm Desert also carries their pale ale.

Love barbecue? Love beer? Love Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse.

Call to schedule a free tour of the brewery 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., December through June (excluding Wednesdays and Thursdays) or July through November (excluding Sundays and Mondays). Babe’s is located at 71800 Highway 111, in The River in Rancho Mirage. For more information, call (760) 346-8738, or visit www.babesbbque.com.

About the author: Erin Peters has been enticing beer drinkers since before beer blogging was really cool. (It’s cool, right?) She started down the carbonated path of intoxicating reviews and articles about craft breweries and the people behind the beer in 2008 and hasn’t turned back since. Erin studied journalism at San Diego State University. Rearrange the letters in SDSU, and you get SUDS. Coincidence—or, divine inspiration?

Below, from left to right: Erin Peters (the article's author), Arthur Vasquez and Scot Grabbe. Photo by Sean Planck.

Published in Features & Profiles

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