Story | Nikki Buchanan
Photography | Mark Lipczynski
Summer isn’t officially here yet, but it’s a silly distinction to us Phoenicians, who know that blistering-hot steering wheels, 20-minute sunburns and copious head sweat mark the season better than any calendar.
By mid-June, many of us have escaped to Flagstaff at least two or three times already. And while this charming mountain town still possesses the relaxed rusticity I fell in love with a long time ago, it’s begun to boast a bona fide food scene in recent years.
Is it San Francisco? No. Is it a place to find creative food and drink that far surpasses anything a college town is required to offer? Emphatically yes. Here are a few of my favorite places to eat and drink.
I couldn’t count how many times I’ve eaten at this sweet, crowded café since I discovered it three years ago. It’s my favorite restaurant in Flagstaff for a slew of reasons, not the least of them being husband-and-wife chef-owners Brian Konefal (he’s savory) and Paola Fioravanti (she’s sweet), who bring serious street cred to this adventurous-for-Flagstaff venture.
The two attended culinary school in Italy, then worked at such august places as Robuchon, Aqua, Campton Place and 11 Madison Park before striking out on their own. But you can’t eat a resume. What you can eat—if you drop by for brunch, anyway—is a shamelessly rich open-faced croissant sandwich, layered with poached egg, applewood-smoked bacon and a dollop of Hollandaise, or fancy-enough-for-supper red wine-poached eggs nestled on a creamy bed of potato puree with crispy bacon and red wine emulsion.
The toasted Reuben sandwich—a dripping hunk of decadence stuffed with braised pastrami, house-made sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing—is another brunch standout, so come with friends, (preferably lumberjacks) to get a taste of everything.
Meanwhile, Coppa’s beef tartare, composed of locally raised, pasture-fed beef, olive tapenade, egg emulsion and Parmigiano, ranks among the best I’ve ever had, and it’s available both noon and night. Don’t miss it.
If you really want the Coppa experience, however, you should visit the restaurant for dinner, when offerings get a bit more sophisticated and considerably more edgy. For starters (take me literally there), think luscious seared foie gras with sour cherry, chestnut and mesquite chip; elegant lobster and scallop crudo with Arizona citrus, baby potato and anise hyssop; or the signature coppa di testa, a pork terrine with Arizona pistachio, local lemon puree and coriander mustard. I could eat nothing but appetizers and leave perfectly happy.
Entrees change frequently, so just see what sounds good and go with it. Konefal’s house-made pastas are outstanding, so look for them. And if one such offering comes with smoked and cured egg yolk, grated like cheese over your pasta, order it. It’s mind-blowing.
But honestly, you can’t go wrong here, and that assurance extends to Fioravanti’s European-inspired desserts—fruit tarts, bouchon, cannales—all small, all delicious, all just right for a final sweet bite. What do you say to pale rose-flavored sorbet? “Yes, please.”
Recently, Konefal made the decision to drop lunch, keep brunch, add happy hour offerings (small versions of day- and night-time selections at lower prices) as well as introduce a terrific eight-course tasting menu, which is an absolute steal at $85 per person. When it’s running at capacity, as it will this summer, Coppa can get a bit cramped, so know that going in. But Konefal plans to re-decorate the interior and upgrade the patio very soon. Hopefully, he’ll give the room a better flow in the process. My best advice to you is: get past the strip-mall environs and concentrate on the spectacularly good food. You won’t believe you’re in Flagstaff.
Tiny Sosoba bills itself as the “nonstop noodle shop,” presumably because it stays open until midnight, a godsend for the hard-partying NAU crowd.
However, the most important thing about this full-service restaurant, which offers craft beers and cool cocktails (at least for those of us who haven’t cracked a college book in decades) is chef-owner Josh Riesner’s imaginative and unorthodox approach to noodle traditions.
Case in point: The Mic Drop, a bowl of thick, slippery udon noodles afloat in an ultra-rich, 15-hour tonkatsu broth loaded with pork belly, carnitas, ham fries, bacon, hard-cooked egg, kim chi, sprouts and scallions, the whole crazy-luscious thing topped with a crispy disk of chicharron. It’s heaven in a bowl for any pork-lover.
About half of Sosoba’s noodle dishes are soups served in bowls, while the other half are sauced noodles served on plates, like the Massaman Duck Curry, a delicious spin on the Muslim-style curries of Southern Thailand, composed of udon noodles, duck confit, peas, potatoes, pork-braised carrots, scallions, roasted pearl onions, peanuts, cilantro and Thai basil glazed in curry broth.
Nearly every dish here is crammed with heady ingredient combinations except for the strikingly simple Balls of Fire, deep-fried spheres of gooey house-made mac and cheese meant to be dunked in Sriracha. Go easy on these addictive and not-so-little nuggets or you’ll be too full for noodles. Bottom line: there is nothing so-so about Sosoba.
Chef-owner Caleb Schiff opened this adorably petite pizza place—housed in an historic, wedge-shaped building in Flagstaff’s Southside District—after a self-guided bicycle tour through Italy five years ago. It was a trip that left him obsessed with Italian-style pizza.
From Schiff’s domed, white-tiled oven built by a third-generation craftsman from Naples, emerge puffy, smoky wood-fired pies made from naturally leavened dough, fermented for three days to enhance texture and flavor. Although they’re excellent every one, I favor the two Bianca pizzas (cheese-based, no tomato sauce), and I especially love the amore oi mari, generously topped with mascarpone, prosciutto di Parma, arugula, Queen Creek Meyer lemon oil and pecorino.
All of the starters are first-rate, as well, including house-roasted olives jazzed up with lemon, Calabrian chiles and garlic; and tre formaggi, a three-cheese plate that involves creamy house-made burrata, marinated figs and focaccia. End with a luscious scoop (or two) of made-from-scratch gelato, based on a recipe from one of Schiff’s Italian friends.
Brix Restaurant & Wine Bar
I visited Paul and Laura Moir’s Brix for the first time in early 2007, and it was that altogether memorable experience that led me (a self-avowed snob) to a new and far more favorable way of thinking about Flagstaff’s food scene.
I liked everything about this casual fine-dining spot, including its cozy, but elegant interior (part of a brick-walled, circa 1910 carriage house); its global, but also AZ-centric wine list; its focus on local, sustainable ingredients; and its food, which managed to be sophisticated and unfussy at once.
These days, the menu changes seasonally, but you can never go wrong with one of the charcuterie-cheese boards as a starter. If you find the coffee-and chile-roasted duck breast (a menu mainstay and one of my favorites), try it. Ditto for old-school coq au vin given a new-school twist with accompaniments of grilled polenta, braised turnips and pickled cipollini onion.
Make sure to call early for reservations because you really, really want to snag a table on the romantically lit patio, fragrant with flowers and herbs. It’s the absolute best outdoor dining in Flagstaff.
It’s not entirely clear what to call this funky Mexican food joint, famous for its generously portioned, all-day breakfasts and infamous for its long waits. But to my mind, it really is a “breakfast palace,” decked out with gaudily painted walls, gleaming tuck-and-roll banquettes and quirky Day of the Dead-inspired artwork—a cheery wake-up call for the tired, the hungry and the hung-over.
MartAnne’s motto, “The House that Chilaquiles built,” is an apt one given that chilaquiles—fried corn tortillas layered with scrambled eggs, cheese, onions and your choice of red chile or green tomatillo sauce—is the signature dish. Although the food here isn’t particularly spicy, it exudes a hearty Tex-Mex vibe plus a hint at possible New Mexican roots, engendered by the classic chilaquiles question: Do you want yours with red sauce, green sauce or Christmas (New Mexico’s lingo for a combination of the two)?
Although I’ve wandered around a bit on the menu and liked virtually everything I’ve tried, I invariably come back to JB’s Volcano: chilaquiles topped with pork green chile, chorizo and sour cream, served with an over-easy egg. That’s my comfort-food go-to, a nap-inducing plate laden with rice, beans and hash browns, all washed down with a bottled Mexican Coke.
Pizzicletta: Photo courtesy of Pizzicletta