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Posts Tagged ‘phoenix’

As you’ve probably all figured out by now, I love nature. The “I wonder” part of iwonderandiwander has as much to do with my frequent awe of the world around me as it does with the questions that run through my head.  When I travel, I really enjoy visiting parks, gardens, and natural landscapes and marveling at the beauty and variety of the natural world.  In Phoenix, I got to hike in the Sonoran Desert Preserve, which was a short walk from our rental house, go geocaching in an undeveloped area neighboring the subdivision, and visit the spectacular Desert Botanical Garden, so I really got to experience the desert flora. (The desert fauna made appearances, too – in addition to the javelinas I mentioned in my restaurant post, we saw rabbits, lizards, ground squirrels, and lots of quail.)

The Desert Botanical Garden was gorgeous, fun, and informative.  There are, of course, scads of cacti, in every imaginable shape and size, and some we never could have envisioned.  Fishhook cactus, strawberry hedgehog cactus, enormous saguaros, teddy bear chollas, prickly pear, cacti that undulated across the ground like tentacles, cacti in bloom.  I even managed to pick up a barbed cactus spine in my leg.  It was tenacious, but thankfully painless.  My friend, M, and I also learned that cacti have wood inside.  I suppose I always assumed that cacti were fleshy all the way through, until we saw the woody remains of dead cacti at the garden.  The wood of some cacti even has a beautiful honeycombed look.

There was plenty to see beyond cacti, though.  The garden has thousands of other plants, too, mostly succulents like agave and aloe.  We were amazed by the wide variety of agave plants.  Some had flower stems up to 26 feet tall that looked like something from a Dr. Seuss book.  We also really liked the type with delicate, white, spiraling tendrils among the spiky leaves, and a variety called Queen Victoria’s agave, which had striking, almost geometric, white veining on the dark green leaves.

We seemed to be catching the tail end of the desert spring, so there were some cacti and other succulents blooming, and the garden has a number of other types of flowering plants, too.  The creosote bushes had pretty yellow flowers and fuzzy, white globes of seeds.  I was quite surprised to find lupins growing in the desert, since I associate them with Maine (though it turns out there are species of lupins all over, and they are the state flower of Texas.)   The garden also had a tiny, gorgeous variety of iris that I had never seen before. We kept seeing signs for a mimosa-like flower with the adorable name baja fairy duster, so we were excited when we finally found one with the unique magenta blossoms.

Beyond plants, we checked out the ethnobotany section of the garden, where there are traditional Native American structures and interactive exhibits on how those early desert residents used the native plants.  We got to pound mesquite seeds and see fencing made of spiky ocotillo branches.  We also visited the butterfly pavilion, which was pretty much chock full of colorful beauties in both insect and flower form.

M and I both took tons of photos during our visit, and you can see the best of mine in the slideshow below.  The garden is more beautiful in person, though, so visit it if you are ever in the Phoenix area.

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I just got back from several days of vacation in Phoenix with friends.  In addition to enjoying baseball, Rock Band, and board games, this group loves to eat.   We ate a lot of ballpark food over the week, but we also got the chance to try some interesting area restaurants.

Chino Bandito This place is really hard to describe, so if you find yourself in Phoenix, you should just go check it out. Their menu combines Mexican and Chinese flavors, which sounds odd, but really works. You can get a bowl with a combination of two meats (from their list of 14), beans, and rice, like I did.

(clockwise from top) Carnitas, Cuban Black Beans, Jerk Fried Rice, Jade Red Chicken

Or try a quesadilla with a meat like Emerald Chicken. Or a Machaca or Teriyaki burrito. If you’ve never been to the restaurant before, they let you try a sample of pretty much everything before you order. And every meal comes with a wonderfully chewy and delicious Snickerdoodle. I love how wonderfully wacky Chino Bandito is! The original location (which is the only one I have visited) is totally no frills, but there is a giant, granite statue of Pancho Panda, the mustachioed, bandoliered, sombreroed panda, who is the face of Chino Bandito. Very wacky, very affordable, and very worth a trip.

Culinary Dropout There was a lot to enjoy at this restaurant in Scottsdale, right around the corner from the Phoenix campus of Le Cordon Bleu. The space has an eclectic, modern, hipster vibe, with rustic wood and iron tables, oversized chairs in graphic velvet and paisley, textural wall panels, and huge chandeliers with green crystals. If you don’t care about decor, the food and drinks will draw you in, though. For drinks, our party had the elderberry wine spritzer (a refreshing take on sangria), the Dirty Schoolgirl, Smashed Irishman, and Eric’s “Blue Ribbon” Rhubarb.  I tasted all of them except the Dirty Schoolgirl, and can vouch that they were tasty.  We had so many appetizers that I am surprised we had room for anything else.  The house made potato chips with onion dip and cheese fries were both yummy, but the soft pretzels with provolone fondue?  Whoah, were those good!  Deep brown, chewy, salty pretzel nuggets and a velvety cheese sauce – mmmmm.    We also had a sampling of the antipasti: the cheeses were nice, but not particularly special, the roasted beets were lovely, and the jamon iberico and prosciutto melted in the mouth.  I think we were getting a little overwhelmed at this point, so there wasn’t as much passing and tasting of entrees, but everyone seemed to enjoy their main dish.  I ordered the gnocchi with sausage and mushrooms, which was very good: pillowy and flavorful.  But we still weren’t done!  We just couldn’t pass up the apple monkey bread and salted caramel custard for dessert.  The monkey bread was like a lovely cross between bread pudding and cinnamon rolls, and the custard was so smooth and creamy with a nice hint of salt and crunchy caramel corn on top.  We could barely shove ourselves away from the table by the end of the meal.  The service was excellent, as well: attentive, informative, with a bit of humor.  So, Culinary Dropout gets two thumbs up, too.

Tonto Bar & Grill So, let me get the non-gastronomic item out of the way first. We saw javelinas as we were coming out of the restaurant after dinner, a whole group of maybe 8 of them! Javelinas are a wild, boar-like animal in the peccary family, and they are big. I was definitely intrigued by them, but also a little intimidated. I definitely didn’t want one of them charging at me. Sadly, I couldn’t get a good photo. Anyway, Tonto had yet another eclectic menu, largely Southwestern and Native American inspired. For an appetizer we got a couple orders of the three sister salsas and guacamole, served with both corn and flour tortilla chips and Indian fry bread. I was feeling a little under the weather that night, so I only tried the guacamole, which was great with all three types of chip, and judging by the noshing that went on around the table, the other dips were delicious, too. My companions reported that the Tontorita and prickly pear margarita were both satisfying, as well.

Tontorita and Prickly Pear Margarita

When it came to entrees, several of us opted for the compressed arugula salad with cherries, manchego, apples, and pecans, which can be topped with your choice of meat or seafood. It was a huge salad and pretty tasty, though I found the ratio of greens to other ingredients to be a little high. The big entree hits at the table seemed to be the onion crusted walleye and the pork chicharrones. The menu also has a cool “Vegetarian Nosh” section, that allows one to choose from a number of vegetable and starch dishes along with a sauce. The service was pretty good, and the interior of the restaurant, while a little overdone for my taste, suited the menu and style of the place. Also, the drive to Cave Creek, where Tonto is located, is pretty, especially if you arrive just at sunset, like we did.

Sonoran sunset

That’s it for restaurant reporting, unless you want a rundown on spring training ballpark hot dogs or my first experience of In-N-Out Burger.  Honestly, though, we ate so much at the three eateries above that our appetites were surprisingly subdued later in the week.

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