Located just southeast of Phoenix, the town of Mesa, Arizona and its surrounding communities teem with passion – passion for community, passion for locally produced food and, yes, passion for beer. The CompostMaster and I recently had the opportunity to explore the Mesa area in search of diabetic-friendly food (uh, maybe not the beer) and interesting personalities. We found both.
Joe’s Farm Grill and Agritopia
If you’re a fan of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives on Food Network (aka “Triple D”), you’ve probably heard of Joe’s Farm Grill. It was featured in an episode called “Real Deal Fast Food” (check out the video). The CompostMaster and I enjoyed breakfast at Joe’s and then Joe’s son, William, treated us to a tour of Agritopia, the surrounding residential community and commercial farm.
The timing of our visit to Agritopia was perfect. Fans of CBS Sunday Morning, we had recently watched an episode about agricultural communities, where people live in neighborhoods that include a farm. Think about a golf course subdivision, but with a working farm and community gardens instead. Produce from the farm is available 24 hours a day to residents of the community. We fell in love with the concept and were thrilled that we had the opportunity to tour one. If they ever build a neighborhood like this near Richmond, Virginia, we’re in!
So, what did we eat at Joe’s? Well, we heard it was usually a zoo at lunchtime, so we went for breakfast. They are known for breakfast burgers, so that’s what the CompostMaster ordered. He was a little confused, thinking “breakfast burger” meant a sandwich involving eggs, bacon or sausage, and cheese, so he was surprised when a cheeseburger with an egg on top showed up. That didn’t stop him from devouring every bite, however.
I decided to try Huevos de Farm Grill: scrambled eggs with pulled pork, cheese, and salsa verde on corn tortillas with side of farm beans. This isn’t something I typically eat for breakfast, but I should! It was full of protein, flavor, and fiber. Honestly, my favorite part was the beans. I don’t know how Joe cooks them, but I need to find out. Beans for breakfast – let’s make it a thing.
Hayden Flour Mills
We left Agritopia in the town of Gilbert and headed southeast to Queen Creek to visit Hayden Flour Mills at Sossaman Farms. We pulled in at a dusty building in the middle of nowhere, not sure we were in the right place, and were warmly greeted by fedora-wearing Jeff Zimmerman, the enthusiastic “idea guy” behind the company. “Hey, glad you made it. Turn around and park outside the fence by the old Jag,” he said. Immediately, I knew that Jeff and the CompostMaster would become fast friends.
We entered the building to find a giant camera rig with microphone and handlebar cage belonging to a man who made a documentary called The Grain Divide. Jeff introduced us to the topic of native seeds and growing heirloom wheat by showing us the film’s trailer. (Release of the documentary is currently being held up by legal red tape, but look for it in 2016.)
We spied a shelf containing grains in labeled mason jars with names like White Sonora Wheat, Durum Iraq, and Tibetan Purple Barley. Having read Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis, the CompostMaster was fascinated by the ancient grains Jeff and his team have tried growing in Arizona. Some worked well, some didn’t. At Hayden Flour Mills, they plant by injecting the seeds into the soil rather than turning the soil over. Apparently, plowing kills soil. Who knew?
Jeff offered us samples of crackers made from different flours ground at the mill. He got into the cracker business after Martha Stewart named his flour one of her favorite things and Chef Mario Batali was frustrated that the crackers he kept importing from Italy arrived stale. “Can you make crackers?” Batali asked Jeff. Now Hayden Flour Mills offers heritage crackers made from White Sonora Wheat (pair with soft cheeses and spreads), Red Fife Wheat (pair with aged cheddar), Blue Beard Semolina (pair with semi-hard cheeses), and Emmer Farro (pair with strong blue cheeses).
The close-knit, family-oriented team at Hayden Flour Mills produces minimally-processed grains and heirloom wheat that would be perfect, in moderation, for a diabetic-friendly diet. Just don’t tell the CompostMaster that “ancient” grains are those that were around prior to 1950. It might make him feel old.
Queen Creek Olive Mill
Just east of Mesa we found Queen Creek Olive Mill, Arizona’s only family-owned and operated working olive mill and farm. Queen Creek produces extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) that is blended and tested by owner Perry Rea, an olive oil sommelier.
Perry taught us how to taste and evaluate olive oil while sharing the story of how he and his wife relocated their family from Detroit to Arizona after his auto parts business got bought out by a British firm. We tried the Balanced EVOO first. Perry first instructed us to cup the container in the palm of our hand to warm up the oil. As he explained what to do next, his whole persona changed. He transformed from a tough Italian family guy to a sensualist. Cradling the oil sample in his hand, he said to breathe in the smell of the oil, exhale, and then breathe it in again. He seemed to be somewhere else, only vaguely aware that we were there. “Now taste the oil and let it slide across your tongue,” Perry said. “Notice the peppery sensation after you swallow.” I never knew olive oil could be so luxurious.
We also tried olive oils flavored with roasted garlic and Meyer lemon plus a strawberry infused balsamic vinegar. I could have sucked down an entire bottle of the vinegar. Don’t ask me how many bottles of it I purchased.
After the tasting, we got a tour of the mill. Healthy, fresh olives are washed and crushed into a paste which is then sent to a decanter of sorts. The solids are separated from the water and then the oil goes into special stainless steel tanks that are light- and oxygen-free where it is stored prior to bottling.
Lunch was next. The CompostMaster had an Italian BLT featuring balsamic-cured bacon that he can’t stop talking about. I went for the Roasted Red Pepper Soup and the Super Greens and Quinoa Salad dressed with a lemony vinaigrette. You could taste the freshness of each and every ingredient.
If you are ever in the Mesa area, I highly recommend a stop at Queen Creek Olive Mill. Bring your appetite and your wallet because you’ll definitely end up buying oil, vinegar, tapenades, bath and body products, and more. Don’t worry about hauling stuff back on the plane – they’ll ship it home for you.
Beer Research Institute
Our final stop in the Mesa area was to visit Matt Trethewey at the Beer Research Institute. Tucked away in a strip mall near a movie theater, BRI is a small craft brewery formed by two friends who started out making beer at home for their friends.
“We made a lot of really bad beer,” Matt said. “Then once we started to understand the science, we figured it out.”
I’m not a beer drinker, but I was fascinated by Matt’s knowledge and enthusiasm. Plus I learned a few things during our tour of the operation to share with my stepdaughter and her husband who have started to dabble in home brewing.
While maintaining a beer focus, BRI also prides itself on having a “scratch kitchen” rather than serving predictable bar food. Meat candy, anyone? (That would be candied bacon with sriracha.) BRI is a local gathering place where people can share a pint, enjoy home cooking, and engage in conversation.
We sampled four beers during our visit, served in a brass knuckle type configuration. My favorite was the creamy stout featuring roasted coffee. Yes, the CompostMaster and I had Morning Sex in the afternoon.
I have never met such a focused and passionate group of people in one day in my life. Joe and William at Joe’s Farm Grill and Agritopia, Jeff and his team at Hayden Flour Mills, Perry at Queen Creek Olive Mill, and Matt at BRI all inspired the CompostMaster and me to pursue our dreams. Of course, we first need to figure out what they are.
Disclosure: My Arizona trip was hosted by Visit Phoenix and Visit Mesa. Lodging was provided by the Sheraton Grand Phoenix. Several meals and tours were discounted or provided free of charge. All opinions are my own.