Best Of :: Food & Drink
For more than 25 years, Rito's owners have been telling folks to get out of their house. It hasn't worked. Even with no sign, limited operating hours, and an inconsistent list of daily menu offerings, people continue to flood the tiny converted dwelling for topnotch burritos, tacos, chimis and tostadas. The Salinas family doesn't even go out of its way to make us feel too welcome. We shout out our orders at the counter, after waiting in line for way too long; they shout back at us when it's ready to pick up. There's no seating, save for a few plastic tables on a patio. Law officials are always swarming around -- Phoenix police are good customers. And choice? There is none. There's red chile and green chile, plus beans and rice. Sometimes there are enchiladas. Whatever we get, it's hot. Hot as in painful. Hot as in the Salinas family might be subtly telling us: "Get the hell out of here." But it's all to no effect. On any given day, at any given lunch hour, you know where you can find us: standing in line at the Salinases' house, begging for another meal from Rito's.
It seems so obvious. Arizona's indigenous foods -- delicacies like fresh local fish, wheat, melons, pistachios, olives, chiles, citrus and squash. Yet amazingly, no chef has really tried it here, until this year, with James Beard Award-winning chef Janos Wilder. Wilder, already famous for his innovative French-Southwestern Janos restaurant in Tucson, has brought us fine dining drawn from our state's Native American heritage. How authentic is it? The chef works with Pima/Maricopa Indian farmers to harvest the finest of their 35,000 acres of land and aqua farms on their reservation surrounding Kai.
Dishes come looking like earth and sky, and tasting of heaven. They're inspired all on their own, but made even more magical with Mexican, Pacific Rim and European touches. The olive oil that starts our meal is grown and pressed on-site, and dotted with sesame and pumpkin seeds. We slather it over superb crusty bread, crunchy and sweet-tart with apricots and pumpkin seed, or cranberries and hazelnuts. Rack of lamb comes rubbed in chunky pecan-crust mushroom-infused cornbread pudding, and a mole sauce fashioned from ingredients supplied by Native Seeds SEARCH (a Tucson-based nonprofit that protects and cultivates ancient indigenous agricultural methods). Lobster fry bread is lavish, the thin dough capped with an entire four-ounce Maine lobster tail, roasted corn, avocado and garlic butter.
Beautiful food, straight from Arizona -- that's A-O-Kai with us.
The cooks at Pho Bang continue to craft the most outrageously decadent Vietnamese dishes in town. This long-standing restaurant doesn't get hung up on pretense -- dishes come rapid-fire out of the kitchen, sometimes sloppy on their plates, sometimes with nary a smile from our server. But the prices are so low, and the food so cunning, we never quibble. Besides our favorite pho (15 varieties), there's an impressive array of exotica like canh chua ca (catfish soup with pineapple and vegetables in a spicy lemon sauce), or tom va bo nuong vi.
How cool is it to sit down at our own tabletop grill, and be presented with a large plate circled with whisper-thin slices of lightly oiled raw beef, whole shrimp, sliced onion, chopped scallion and peanuts? On the side is xalach dia, an array of sliced carrot, cucumber, pickled radish, whole scallion heads, mint, cilantro and lettuce, alongside plates of rice paper sheets and butter. In fact, everything at this cozy hole-in-the-wall is remarkable.
Chef Mahmmud Jaafari knows his Persian cuisine. He also knows his Mediterranean, Italian, American, Mexican, Cajun and vegetarian foods, and even a smattering of Oriental influences. The result is one of the most exciting restaurants in this town, with cooking that is defined most simply as Middle Eastern. This is knock-your-socks-off caliber, with appetizers like pourani (parboiled spinach blended with yogurt and deeply perfumed with garlic, onion and olive oil, spooned with homemade whole-wheat pita bread triangles). You'll crave every bit of his from-scratch cooking (even pita is homemade), like the oil-free minestrone dusted with Parmesan, and a salad of angel hair pasta and romaine tossed with feta, Parmesan, scallions, tomatoes, avocado paste and mountains of garlic. There are complex stews, tender lamb gyros and elegant salmon with grilled eggplant-wrapped asparagus topped with dill cream on saffron rice. This is a place you must find for yourself: Persian Garden truly is a magical culinary carpet ride.
Readers' Choice for Best Mediterranean Restaurant: Pita Jungle
We're all for eating healthfully. We just don't want to think about it -- all that balancing of nutrients and calories, and then, does the stuff even taste good? Happily, Soma has done the work for us. Everything on the extensive breakfast, lunch and dinner menu is broken down by protein, carbs, fat, fiber and calories. Everything is fashioned from lean meats and monounsaturated fats, with virtually no oil and lots of good-for-us grains and veggies.
But even better, the chef who created the menu is nationally acclaimed James McDevitt, so all the Asian-American treats taste terrific. This is real food, like a charred filet of soy-garlic marinated top sirloin (just 350 calories), or center cut pork chops with Chinese mustard applesauce, sweet potatoes, spinach and caramelized onions (798 calories for two meaty chops). For breakfast, we can feast on crepes stuffed with apple-cranberry tart, or a pita bulging with apple-sage sausage and scrambled eggs (50 percent egg whites). Lunch might be mahi-mahi tacos with ginger-carrot vinaigrette, or lettuce wraps, with three bundles of moist chicken chunk breast, sliced toasted almonds, string-thin carrots and bean sprouts. For dinner, we can choose thrills like sake glazed chicken with jasmine rice and spinach, or pork tenderloin with ginger-plum barbecue sauce.
With gourmet food like this, in such an upscale, bistro-style setting, we sure don't feel like hippies. And with such body positive food, we sure don't look it, either -- hippy, that is.
Readers' Choice: Pita Jungle
This is the first place to which we direct diners when turning them on to the distinctive cuisine that is Southwestern. Many people think our Southwestern signature is standard Mexican stuff. Some think it's, gasp, Tex-Mex. Many think it's cowboy cookouts. Too many think we're all just sitting out in the desert here munching on cactus and lizards. One taste of the items on Windows' stunning menu, though, and they understand: Southwestern is all about elegance, high style, and dramatic pairings of regional ingredients. Real Southwestern cooking is as intricate, artistic and stunning as the colors of a mountain mesa at sunset.
Start with cornbread-crusted crab cakes spiked with mango, avocado and citrus, or a sweet onion and lobster tamale with roasted corn salsa. Move on to Arizona mixed greens tossed with toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and tangy-sweet prickly pear vinaigrette. Indulge in entrees like grilled veal chop with ham hock hominy cake, vegetable salad and chipotle demi-glacé, or pan-seared trout with yellow corn grits, artichokes, roasted corn and garlic cream sauce. Splurge, finally, with citrus and pine nut cake filled with goat cheese, orange caramel and cajeta ice cream.
Windows wows us with its wine list, including selections from Mexico, Chile and Argentina, and with its specialty margaritas fashioned from boutique mescals and fine tequilas. The decor is as delicious as the food, too, lush in sand-colored furnishings, regional pottery and paintings, panoramic golf course views and the warmth of a carved travertine fireplace.
Food this fine doesn't come cheap, but for something as special as this Southwestern sensation, it's worth every precious penny.
Readers' Choice: Z'Tejas Grill