For Phoenix food tips, we turned to Andre Ethier, who summers in the right corner of Dodger Stadium and winters at his ranch in Chandler, 30 minutes south of Phoenix. The Arizona native is a devoted foodie — chasing down hole-in-the-wall joints and new, trendy places whenever he gets the chance.
Raised in Phoenix's core, just two miles from where the Diamondbacks play, the 29-year-old Arizona State product has a local's knowledge of the city's food scene. The day he signed a new $11-million contract with the Dodgers, we took in dinner at his newest favorite, Latitude Eight, a little Thai place in Chandler's historic district that he said is on its own hitting streak.
"I really think this is the best Thai food in Phoenix, and it's comparable to the best of L.A.," he said. "My wife, Maggie, and I love it."
For starters, we sampled the spicy lettuce wraps with ground chicken, mint and peppers, but quickly moved on to Ethier's favorite, tom kha, a creamy soup that by itself is almost worth a trip to Phoenix.
"A little coconut milk in here," he said as he sniffed the big bowl, "a little curry .... some lemongrass.
"I crave this stuff," Ethier said with a smile. "When I'm away, I dream of this soup."
He is also hooked on the chicken yellow curry — potatoes, carrots, coconut cream and jasmine rice. And don't miss the Andaman duck, a rich blend of traditional Thai flavors with succulent slices of duck.
Generally, Latitude Eight takes traditional Thai dishes and adds a modern twist, with dinners in the $25 range, not exactly pricey by L.A. standards.
Ethier is a mystery even to many of his longtime fans, but the usually stoic Gold Glover opened up when discussing his second passion: restaurants, particularly those with an ethnic flair.
"It really began when I started playing pro ball," he said. "You'd get tired of fast-food chains.... And all I could afford at the time was ma-and-pa, hole-in-the-wall places. So I fell in love with ethnic food then.
"And then when I land in L.A., I'm living downtown and it really starts to take off. I have Koreatown two miles away and Little Tokyo and a little Peruvian area ... so I start exploring some of these areas. It gave me a chance to take my mind off some of the things on the field, to enjoy something else. It's a neat hobby to have."
Between bites of his beloved curry, he also talked about the upcoming Arizona centennial on Feb. 14 and his wonkish interest in his home state.
"I love facts and figures about it," he said. "All my family members buy me things like '101 Things About Arizona.'"
So who better to discuss the eclectic Phoenix area dining scene?
In Tempe, he recommended the House of Tricks, which has been serving contemporary American cuisine for 25 years. Dinners start at $22 (pumpkin ravioli) and run to $34 (braised lamb shanks).
"It's a little house right near the [Arizona State] campus; they do a really nice job with their dishes," he said.
For new twists on comfort food, he recommended the Tuck Shop, squeezed into a little neighborhood north of downtown Phoenix.
"It's one of those new-style places," Ethier said. "They're trying to re-invent the meatball or re-invent meatloaf. It's a real nice, modern, new age place. Has a great warm feeling; you sit at a communal table."
Phoenix has some of the nation's best Mexican food, and the slugger's favorite is Rito's, a cash-only joint downtown.
"It's in an old, little house, and they basically turned the house into a restaurant front. It has the best green and red chili burritos and the best refried beans I've ever had.... You sit on the picnic tables out front.
"There's a great pizza place downtown called Cibo," he added. "It's probably 10 blocks from the baseball stadium. They have an unbelievable patio; certain nights, they have a guy playing music."
What about Pizzeria Bianco, the famed deep-dish haven that draws crowds, particularly on weekends?
"I don't like that [it doesn't] allow takeout, [it doesn't] allow reservations," he said. "You can tell me it's the best thing in the world, and I wouldn't wait that long."
In a couple of months, Ethier will leave his ranch with his wife and two young sons, ages 1 and 3, to go back on the road. Not surprisingly, San Francisco and Chicago are on his list of favorite food cities. And one of the first things he does each season is look for days off so he can sample new places in New York.
"When the game schedule comes out, I look to see if we have a day off after a game, so that I can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner there."
By the way, my Thai dinner with Andre cost a whopping $84. That included a lot of sampling: two appetizers, three main courses, a large order of that killer soup. The Dodgers' $11-million man may have hit it big, but he remembers where he came from.
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