Final Meditations on the Phoenix Food Scene from Michele Laudig

The one thing about my job that I've been asked more than anything else is how I landed it in the first place. I've come up with many answers, but now I realize it's something that still keeps me going.

Curiosity.

Five years ago, when I became the New Times restaurant critic, I gleefully found myself Googling words like burrata or guanciale. I eagerly ditched my predictable diet of sandwiches, sushi, and spaghetti to consume a vast repertoire of exotic foods — chicken feet in chile sauce, fermented soybeans, Kobe beef tartare, and headcheese. It was a good excuse (paired with an actual budget) to geek out on the flavors of the world, and the timing couldn't have been better.

Pop goes the restaurant: Cycle will change it up.
claire lawton
Pop goes the restaurant: Cycle will change it up.

Location Info

Map

The Arrogant Butcher

2 E. Jefferson
Phoenix, AZ 85004

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Central Phoenix

Details

The Arrogant Butcher
2 E. Jefferson St., #150
602-324-8502
foxrc.com

Cycle
1100 N. Central Ave.
602-252-2100
cyclephoenix.com

Citizen Public House
7111 E. 5th Ave Ste. E, Scottsdale
480-398-4208

Big Earl's BBQ
7213 E. 1st Ave., Scottsdale
947-6800
bigearlsbbq.com

Bonfire Grill & Bar
7210 E. 2nd St., Scottsdale
480-945-6600
thebonfireaz.com

Viet Kitchen
114 W. Adams St
602-262-5535
vietkitchenaz.com

Tien Wong
2330 N. Alma School Rd., Chandler
480-802-2525
www.thehotpots.com

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It turns out popular culture was on the same wild ride, turning chefs into TV hosts, bestselling authors, and full-blown celebrities. Cooking caught new cachet. Farmers markets blossomed, and heirloom vegetables became precious commodities. The public embraced a steep learning curve about food and, nowadays, people chat effortlessly about sophisticated food. And doesn't everyone know what burrata is by now?

Since 2005, local chef legends like Vincent Guerithault, Christopher Gross, Michael DeMaria, Nobuo Fukuda, and Chris Bianco have been joined by the next wave of talent, including Greg LaPrad, Matt Carter, Chris Curtiss, Charleen Badman, and others.

It's been exhilarating to grow up along with the Phoenix dining scene these past several years, to watch the evolving parade of Thai restaurants and wine bars and gelato shops, to track the migration of certain chefs from one kitchen to the next. At times, it's also been shocking to see landmarks like Mary Elaine's fall victim to changing times.

Now, as I leave the paper for the next phase of my career, there are a bunch of new eateries on the scene (or about to open), hinting at things bouncing back from a couple of really tough years. I smell the optimism of springtime.

Downtown, The Arrogant Butcher is perhaps single-handedly raking in hordes of people to the still-unproven, still somewhat empty CityScape complex, and it's encouraging to hear so much buzz about it. (In fact, I'm masochistically glad that there's a wait for a seat.) A soon-to-open pop-up restaurant, Cycle, will temporarily revive the Lexington Hotel before it gets a full-on redux later this year.

Postino's Craig DeMarco, who's planning another wine bar outpost in Gilbert, is getting ready to unveil two new side-by-side CenPho concepts, The Windsor and Churn. And in Old Town Scottsdale, chefs are driving interesting new developments, including Citizen Public House (Bernie Kantak), Big Earl's BBQ (James Porter), and Bonfire Grill (Matt Carter).

There's a lot to look forward to, but why not hope for even more?

I'd love to see a boom in brewpubs (especially downtown) and a better selection of brewskis at local restaurants. The impressive debut of the recent Arizona Beer Week demonstrated that beer's not just for barflies anymore — people want good suds to go with dinner, and they're more open-minded about supporting local microbrews and trying different styles.

There's also a blatant need for more vegetarian options, even for meat lovers. Sure, we could stand more dedicated meat-free establishments, but how about starting with an improved selection of vegetarian dishes on regular menus? This is one area that's wide-open for creative experimentation — not to mention as a means of supporting local agriculture. I'm an unabashed carnivore and I still find it depressing that it's so hard to satisfy my cravings for seasonal vegetables unless I'm cooking at home.

Mexican food is everywhere, and yet it doesn't feel like Arizonans really celebrate south-of-the-border grub like they could. Is it politics or just insecurity? I've been dreaming about underrepresented regional Mexican food, pastries and gourmet paletas, and seasonal aguas frescas replacing boring old soda pop at little neighborhood joints. Come on — we should own this. Texas has its famed Tex-Mex, and New Mexico has a distinctive chile-tinged spin on the cuisine. Why can't Arizona take pride in its diversity and put it on a plate?

For that matter, I'm craving all kinds of ethnic food, and as much as I'm happy to drive to the west side or the East Valley for intriguing foreign flavors, it's the city center that really should offer me a taste of the world. I know I'm not alone here.

Yes, there's finally a Vietnamese joint in downtown (Viet Kitchen); now I'm aiming for Korean food. It's spicy, it's all about barbecue, and it's great with a group. (Some of my fondest memories of working in Asia 15 years ago involve after-work BS-ing over sizzling bulgogi and cold beer.) Likewise, I'd be thrilled to see a Puerto Rican spot serving killer mofongo (garlicky mashed plantains with bacon), or a well-done Indian restaurant. And let's hope that Sens chef-owner Johnny Chu takes a leap of faith and brings his Tien Wong hot pot concept (already up and running in Chandler) to the heart of the city as well.

Actually, food trucks can deliver the goods on a lot of this stuff, with minimal overhead. Many of the existing food trucks that show up at farmers markets and the Phoenix Public Market's Friday mobile food court are big on American comfort food, so there's room for somebody to serve up Russian piroshkis (buns stuffed with sweet or savory fillings), Salvadoran pupusas (thick, griddled rounds of masa dough filled with cheese, beans, pork, and more), cool Peruvian ceviche (citrus-cured seafood), or perhaps Hong Kong-style dim sum bites. Please?

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9 comments
Azfooddudes
Azfooddudes

Hello if you enjoyed this review come take a look at our new review site on facebook. AZFoodDudes. We've just started up and would love your support so take a look and give us a like. We review new restaurants every monday.

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NOLA
NOLA

Thanks for your contribution over the years Michele - you have become a trusted source of information in my household. After living in a place where celebrating food is a way of life and food festivals occur weekly (New Orleans), I have to say that while yes, the lineup at some of the food festivals here is bit redundant, that isn't what keeps me from most of them... it is the price of attendance. After having "made it happen" for the last 5 years as a Special Events Coordinator for two different events, I now know why... the cost of permitting and the associated overhead of booth setup. Public safety aside (all for it!), the County is no more consistent in this area than they are in general restaurant inspections or requirements for food trucks. No one wants to put a product out there that puts the general public in harm's way, just give us one set of rules to follow, and make damned sure that when I attend another event as a ticketholder that I see the same rules and regs being enforced... nothing worse than seeing "for profit" events seemingly "getting away" with things that we "non profit" events pay thru the nose to abide by...

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Public
Public

Thanks, Michele. Missing you already!

But tell me: why does the "incubator" concept have to be mobile? Restrictions exist to protect public health, not to squash entrepreneurial enthusiasm. I WANT health inspectors to certify an operation is sanitary and in compliance before it opens it doors, and to periodically re-inspect to maintain those standards. How does one hit a moving/mobile target in order to provide those safeguards? Not as easily, I think.

Let's take a different approach entirely. Local municipalities, in conjunction with mall managers, could set up a system that gives priority to applications from newbies to take over recently vacated stalls in food courts. Sadly, in this economy, there are probably dozens of available spaces county-wide. I for one would welcome the opportunity to have new dining alternatives, instead of the same old, re-hashed franchisee outposts that doom our collective palates to mediocrity.

We're so quick to offer monetary incentives in an effort to draw big business to this state; how about the little guy? Give him free rent for six months, and the opportunity to try out his concept where foot traffic is guaranteed. If at the end of that period of time, he is not sufficiently profitable to pay rent, his space goes to the next person on the waiting list.

In that scenario, you've eliminated the start-up costs of vehicle and insurance, fluctuating fuel prices, and the logistics of keeping food temperatures safe in a mobile environment. There are, after all, good reasons why the term "roach coach" came into being.

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Jack Meyhoffer
Jack Meyhoffer

Great article, thanks so much. Thank you for all your great work over the years- you will be missed.

yo
yo

Indonesian and Afghan restaurants needed!

 
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