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What: The Veal Marsala

Where: Lord Fletcher’s, 70385 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage

How much: $28

Contact: 760-328-1161; www.lordfletcher.com

Why: It’s a classic dish at a classic venue.

I recently celebrated a friend’s birthday at Lord Fletcher’s. Turns out Lord Fletcher’s is celebrating a birthday of its own.

Ron Fletcher opened the restaurant, offering “a touch of Olde England on Restaurant Row” in Rancho Mirage, back in 1966. That means Lord Fletcher’s—now owned and managed by Ron’s son, Michael Fletcher—this year is turning the big 5-0.

Given that most restaurants don’t even last one year, the fact that Lord Fletcher’s has been open for 50 years is an accomplishment that should be heartily applauded. Also worthy of applause: Lord Fletcher’s still offers a top-notch dining experience featuring classics including pot roast, prime rib and other hearty fare.

During that aforementioned birthday dinner, I ordered another classic: the veal marsala. It was prepared perfectly: The mushroom sauce was savory yet not too salty; the meat was tender enough to cut with a fork, yet still substantial enough to offer a pleasant mouth-feel. The accompanying vegetables and garlic mashed potatoes were also on the mark (although there could have been more potatoes, in my book). I’d also be remiss if I didn’t give a hearty shout-out to the house salad with palace dressing, which was simple yet fantastic. (The house salad or the soup of the day is included with the meal. Don’t shell out the extra $8 for the wedge; it doesn’t even include bacon, for Pete’s sake.)

It was a lovely meal with great friends in a unique yet classic setting. (All of the English knickknacks and works of art are a hoot.) Here’s to another 50 years, Lord Fletcher’s.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

What: Aspirins

Where: Burgers and Beer, 72773 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; also located at 79815 Highway 111, No. 101, La Quinta

How much: $7

Contact: 760-202-4522 (Rancho Mirage); 760-775-6494 (La Quinta); www.burgersandbeer.com

Why: They’re a delightful, unexpected find.

One expects a place called Burgers and Beer to offer a nice selection of, well, burgers and beer. One could also make an educated guess that a place that offers burgers and beer probably also offers a TV screen, or two, or 16, showing sports.

However, one may not expect a place called Burgers and Beer to offer a pretty darned decent menu of Mexican fare. Yet all of this can indeed be found at our valley’s two Burgers and Beer restaurants.

I’m particularly smitten with one Mexican-ish item on offer at Burgers and Beer: The Aspirins. No, this appetizer has nothing to do with the famous pain medication; instead, these Aspirins are miniature sopes (a thick corn-based cake; imagine a really thick tortilla) topped with beans, lettuce, tomato, sour cream and, joy of joys, chorizo; salsa is served on the side.

Boy, are they tasty. The mouth-feel is interesting as well: The chorizo, sopes and beans are warm, while the other ingredients are nice and cool. The corn cakes are fantastic and add a lot of flavor (although some may find them to be a little thick, and therefore on the verge of overtaking the rest of the ingredients). Seven bucks will get you six of these Aspirins; they’re perfect to share, or can be a semi-light meal for one.

They can be had at either of the Coachella Valley Burgers and Beer locations, as well as the four non-Coachella Valley locations (two in El Centro, and one each in Temecula and Yuma). Try ’em; you’ll like ’em—even if you’re watching your favorite sports team getting creamed.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

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

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