SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — No matter whether you're a fan of the White Sox (who train west of here, in Glendale) or the Cubs (who tune up east of town, in Mesa), chances are you will wind up here in the middle, in Scottsdale, with others, like me, who adore watching marginal big league baseball players battle for the few remaining roster spots.
Because unless a local tour guide named Zach made this up, more than 600 restaurants exist in this famously upscale, artsy and wellnessy resort town that shares a valley with Phoenix. With a population that swells seasonally past its 220,000 base, at least a few of those restaurants figure to be something other than chain steakhouses, pizza joints or taco emporia.
What follows, in haphazard order, is a mere selection of places from among the 600 that provides a taste of what makes Scottsdale a delicious destination.
Missing from this list are direct Chicago descendants (including two from the Mia Francesca folks and a soon-to-open Portillo's), because we have those. Also missing: Oregano's, which sells our pizza all over the state.
But some on this list do have a little Chicago flavor. Read on.
The House Brasserie (6936 E. Main St., 480-634-1600, thehousebrasserie.com). Latest from the folks who created The Mission (Pan-Latin, also recommended) in Old Town, The House boasts a menu that defies category other than "whatever works." Brisket on a flaky biscuit with chili jam and a light dollop of cheddar is one of the simpler starters. Diver scallops with mustard spaetzle? Why not?
FnB (7125 E. 5th Ave., 480-284-4777, fnbrestaurant.com). The owners moved it in January to a harder-to-spot alcove nearby. Its fan base quickly spotted it, which is bad news for scoring a table. It's not vegetarian, but veggies rule: A mesquite-grilled ribeye, though nicely cooked, was made almost irrelevant by a topping of pickled — yes, pickled — green beans. Some make a meal of Brussels sprouts, enlivened with grapes and balsamic. Critics gush anyway.
Don & Charlie's (7501 E. Camelback Road, 480-990-0900, donandcharlies.com). If you're here for spring training, this is the essential stop. Walls and ceilings are covered with baseball stuff, much of it autographed. On any given night from now through March, odds are you'll see a familiar person devouring a steak (possibly a Chicago-style skirt) a table or two away. Don is Don Carson of Carson's ribs, and ribs are on the menu, but this isn't a Carson's. It's an icon.
Proof (10600 E. Crescent Moon Drive, in the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North; 480-513-5085; proofcanteen.com). All of Scottsdale's luxury spa resorts, including the Four Seasons, have fine-dining restaurants. Here it's Talavera, but what makes Proof especially worth the trip to Pinnacle Peak is a menu featuring American regional comfort food: Maine lobster rolls, ham-hock-flavored greens, grilled cheese featuring Vermont cheddar, low-country shrimp and grits, and more. Plus, you can wear shorts.
Los Sombreros (2534 N. Scottsdale Road, 480-994-1799, lossombreros.com). This being a border state (an inconvenient truth to some here), there's no shortage of Mexican restaurants. Of the two on this list, Los Sombreros, on the muffler-shop strip of Scottsdale Road, is the less spiffy, but the food is extraordinary. One starter, crepas de huitlacoche, is reason enough to find this place. The moles, not just the familiar poblano, are heavenly.
Malee's Thai Bistro ( 7131 E. Main St., 480-947-6042, maleesthaibistro.com). It's in the heart of the downtown arts district and looks it. In its 26th year, this is no ordinary noodle storefront. "I loved Thai food," founder Deirdre Pain said. "I hated Thai restaurants." The list of noodles, actually, is short; what you find here are yummies like crispy mango fish, crispy basil chicken and an uncrispy but supremely interesting tom ka gai (the soup).
The Breakfast Club (4400 N. Scottsdale Road, 480-222-2582, breakfastclub.us). It's not easy to coax tourists out of their condos or businesspeople away from their Starbucks. The BC does it with riffs off the familiar: jalapeno biscuits with Swiss-spiked sausage gravy, omelets featuring wild mushrooms, etc. Plus breakfast beverages stronger than virgin OJ.
Cowboy Ciao (7133 E. Stetson Drive, 480-946-3111, cowboyciao.com). A Scottsdale fixture (in this town, 16 years qualifies as a fixture). Novices are advised to expect the unexpected — such as chicken-fried trout and duck confit relleno — but the star here, curiously enough, may be the Stetson chopped salad, an eight-ingredient (including smoked salmon and pearl couscous) wonder.
Goldman's Deli (6929 N. Hayden Road, 480-367-9477, goldmansdeliarizona.com); and Abe's Deli-Restaurant (10050 N. Scottsdale Road, 480-699-5700, abesdeliscottsdale.com). Two worthy Jewish delis: Goldman's, the more established and more humble, is Chicago-style; Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, a regular, insists the gefilte fish "is the best I've ever tasted." Abe's, a few blocks northeast and slicker, has a Northeast vibe. (Owner Larry Abel is from Baltimore, his heart from New York.) Opened last November, it struggled early — even Abel concedes the chicken soup was a little off — but has its act together now. Love the blintzes.
ShinBay (7001 N. Scottsdale Road, 480-664-0180, shinbay.com). No California rolls here, and not much sushi. This is omakase dining: Leave it to chef Shinji Kurita to tease your senses with a series of courses, most of them unfamiliar. The bill can add up (figure $150-$200/couple, maybe more). But if you're ready to raise your Japanese dining IQ a couple of notches, this is special.
Barrio Queen (7114 E. Stetson Drive, 480-656-4197, barrioqueen.com). Silvana Salcido Esparza's original Barrio in Phoenix remains legendary; her larger, fancier sister restaurant shares some of the menu but all her joyous affection for regional flavors, from the Yucatecan cochinita pibil to the chiles en nogada justly celebrated in Mexico City.