Best Of :: Food & Drink
When your Big Apple buddies finally venture away from the Center of the Universe for an overdue visit to the boondocks of Phoenix, they're bound to experience culture shock. For one thing, they'll be expecting tumbleweeds, not a sprawling city. They might scorn the necessity of cars, but they'll quickly adjust to sunny days and towering palm trees set against a big blue sky. And when it comes to food, they won't be expecting much. After all, they're used to the world-class glamour of Manhattan's culinary scene, where top chefs duke it out for prestigious honors like the James Beard Award. So when you have to break the news that, yes, this bustling downtown restaurant leaves New York pizzerias in the dust (chef-owner Chris Bianco has the Beard Award and countless other accolades to prove it), here's some advice: Go easy on them. Put your name on the waiting list at Pizzeria Bianco, wander next door to cozy, candlelit Bar Bianco, and console your friends with a cheese plate. Seduce them with a bottle of Sangiovese. And maybe concede that Bianco was born and raised in the Bronx. When your table's finally ready, your job is done, because the quality of the food speaks for itself. And what's the most tactful way to handle that last, fleeting bit of New York attitude? Order up the pizza covered in onions, fennel sausage, and homemade smoked mozzarella. It's called the Wiseguy, and its name couldn't be more appropriate.
When we decided to do a Garden of Eden theme for this year's Best of Phoenix, we knew we'd have to tell you where to find the best apple pie, the best place to make your garden grow, the best place to rent a snake. And, of course, we figured we needed to tell you where to find the best spareribs apologies to Adam. Turns out, the term "sparerib" doesn't refer to an extra rib at all. It originates from the German word rippenspeer, which means "spear ribs" apparently, the cut was traditionally speared and roasted. We Americans bastardized the term 'til it became sparerib also so-named because the cut, from the bottom section of the ribs and breastbone of the pig, doesn't have much meat. So we're confused. We want to tell you where to get the best spareribs, but frankly, we're not 100 percent sure of the cut of the ribs at Golden Eggroll, one of our favorite little Chinese joints, just around the corner from REI in Tempe. No matter, really. These are the best ribs in town an order comes with four juicy, tasty ribs, covered in a light sweet sauce and sprinkled with scallions. We often make a meal of them alone, so perhaps therein lies our answer there's nothing spare about them. One thing we know for sure: Eve would have chosen these ribs over that apple any day of the week. And she wouldn't have had to leave the garden: Golden Eggroll delivers.
In our opinion, it's always worth a trek out to east Mesa, to this homey and charming shrine to the land where corn grows freely, and it's all because of our favorite part of the day: dessert. More than 20 types of homemade pie are baked daily using passed-down family recipes, and the offerings will overwhelm your taste buds. There are straight-ahead varieties like the cherry and peach pies, as well as more unusual offerings like the decadent chocolate peanut butter and the sweet sour cream raisin. But what keeps us coming back to fill our greedy guts is the award-winning apple pie, a thick and sweet creation with a flaky butter crust available by the slice at $2.59 a pop or as a whole delight for $10.99 (with a $2 refundable on each pie tin). We guarantee that you won't leave hungry or dissatisfied, you hear, now?
We can't help but sigh when we think about Hermosa Inn and its beloved restaurant, Lon's. With its view of Camelback Mountain, its cozy patio fireplace, and trees and cactuses everywhere, the place oozes so much desert charm that we wish we could live there. (Yeah, only in our dreams . . . ) Of course, painter Lon Megargee did live there in the 1930s, and these days, the old-fashioned Arizona adobe ranch house that used to be his residence is home to one of the Valley's most memorable dining destinations. From the dining rooms to the intimate bar to the candlelit stone wine cellar, the ambiance is rustic and romantic, with antique Navajo rugs, wood-beamed ceilings, and Southwestern art throughout. And true to Megargee's artistic spirit, Lon's not only serves Friday night drink specials in Megargee's former art studio (a.k.a. "the Studio Lounge"), but also hosts its own artist-in-residence series, a four-course wine dinner and reception with a different talent every month. As for executive chef Michael Rusconi's creative menu, many of the ingredients are organic, locally grown, or even plucked straight out of the inn's own gardens. For a taste of the Southwest, try the moist cactus pear lacquered breast of duck, or the smoky, pepper-crusted pork tenderloin with prickly pear braised red cabbage. Mmm. We might not be able to move in, but on the bright side, we can't wear out our welcome at the dinner table, either.
Fifty years ago, former circus trapeze artist Bill Johnson threw open the doors on what would become one of the best-known and longest-running restaurants in the Valley, and the place that bears his name has been dishing out chops and barbecue ever since. The rustic interior of Bill Johnson's Big Apple is still hung with Western memorabilia, its servers still dress in cowboy drag, and it's still run by the Johnson family (Bill died in 1966, after which his kids took over). All these things add up to a place perfect for the sentimentalist in us. Because Phoenix's first theme restaurant has changed so little over the years, we can head to the Big Apple and relive favorite memories of a late-night post-prom dinner date; a brother's long-ago "just divorced" party; or merely the memory of an exceptional slice of deep-dish apple pie, a specialty of the house. The sign out front features a giant steer's head and the legend "Let's Eat!" But we visit Bill Johnson's for more than grub; we go there to remember our and Phoenix's past.
"In vino veritas," as the Romans were fond of saying when they weren't having orgies or out conquering the ancient world: That is, "In wine, there's truth." But the truth we've discovered through our own oenophilia is that it's often too damned expensive to drink the blood of the vine while dining out at a fine restaurant, assuming you want something better than the cheapest swill on hand. Then along comes cork dork Jock Wulffson, who had the nutty idea of combining a wine store and storage facility with a French-influenced restaurant where the eclectic art and decor are all for sale. And voil! Backstreet Wine Salon was born. Wulffson knows how to score deals on various vintages, passing along the savings to the customer. And should you spy a bottle you crave from the retail side of the aisle, you can consume it on the premises for a corkage fee, instead of doling out two or three times the bottle's worth. To this setup, Wulffson adds the culinary know-how of chef Patrice Barry, who cranks out scrumptious, small plates, such as veal empanadas, roasted head of garlic, frisee aux lardons, sorrel bisque, pork-fig roulade, petite osso buco, and so on. As a result, Wulffson's got a winning recipe on his hands a funky-cool ambiance with a very knowledgeable wait staff, a kick-ass chef producing value-laden, Frenchified eats, and a collection of affordable, palate-tickling wines. Best new restaurant? You betcha. If only all newbies gave you this much for your hard-earned greenback.
Expat Dean Thomas of Gunnislake, Cornwall, has single-handedly turned Tempe into Arizona's capital of Cornish pasty. See, pasties (pronounced pass-tee) are a Cornish specialty, the type of hearty fare tin miners in that section of England traditionally took with them to the mines. To the uninitiated, they might resemble a jumbo Hot Pocket or the Brit version of a calzone. The shape of a half-deflated football, the flaky, pot-pie crust is pinched in the middle so that it forms a distinctive, squiggly seam. Inside could be a whole lot of things, depending on your order. They come stuffed with lamb and mint, bangers and mash, chicken tikka masala, meatballs, chicken Alfredo, and so on. But the classic pasty is the oggie, filled with steak, potato, onion and rutabaga, accompanied by a side of red wine gravy. Served piping hot, the pasties go great with a pint of Newcastle or Kronenbourg, both on tap here along with other brews. It would not surprise us in the least to see Cornish Pasty Co.'s springing up all over Arizona one day, and even beyond, as both the concept and execution in Thomas' hands have been so cool, and so universally acclaimed.
How can you not love a pizza joint where the menu describes the Chicago-style thin-crust pie as "custom cut into tiny squares, like finger-jello"? This is a place that does not take itself seriously except when it comes to the quality of the food, which is always high, even as Oregano's prepares to take over the world or, at least, Arizona. There are now five Oregano's in metro Phoenix (Mesa, Phoenix, Tempe, and two in Scottsdale), one in Tucson, and another in Flagstaff. Really, even though the place doesn't deliver, you can pretty much reach up from the couch and grab a slice there are that many outposts, that close. Or pick up the phone and call; we've found the counter service to be as friendly as the table service. Once you're there to pick up your pie or salad or wings or garlic bread you'll likely want to stay, and soak up Oregano's retro-with-a-flair surroundings, along with the strong scent of garlic. It's all good.
Cave Creek: home of javelinas, biker bars, speed traps and fine dining? Hell, where'd you think all those folks in their million-dollar pads go to graze? To Binkley's Restaurant, of course, a little patch of genteel Napa Valley amidst the giant rocks and saguaros. Chef Kevin Binkley, who once worked side-by-side with Thomas Keller at Keller's much-ballyhooed French Laundry in Napa, commands the kitchen, while Binkley's wife and matre d' Amy works the front. The combination of flawless service and nonpareil grub keeps the small, elegant eatery booked reservation-wise most nights of the week. As the menu changes, the latter might include such French-inspired American cuisine as poached pear stuffed with duck liver mousse or monkfish medallions, with pattypan squash, polenta, and one sublime sliver of monkfish liver. Service, on the other hand, boasts Riedel stemware, serviettes tied with red ribbons, and periodic palate-cleansers to amuse your bouche. Only bad thing about Binkley's is that you have to hoof it all the way to Cave Creek to get there. Is it worth the drive? Well, what do you think?
Welcome Diner is the heart of Roosevelt Row we have friends who swear by the place, not as a good spot to grab lunch but as a mood elevator. Located just east of the gallery action, the diner has quickly become the weekday afternoon hangout for developers, artists and shopkeepers, who gather to eat the hamburgers and fries and catch up on neighborhood gossip. The joint is small the diner is a Valentine original, manufactured in Kansas and the A/C has to work hard to keep up with the hustle on the counter stools as well as behind the counter. Don't miss one of the house specialties, chocolate chip oatmeal cookies baked two at a time in a toaster oven. You'll blow your diet, but we promise you'll leave Welcome Diner in a good mood.
Here's how the conversation went, over the menus at Pink Taco: "Hey," said our dining companion, a Pink Taco fan (actually, Jason Rose, the restaurant's local PR guy), "you've gotta order the Pink Taco." "Oh, no," we replied. "We'll pass. We really don't like fish." That cracked Rose up. Whoops. Our bad. Turns out, the Pink Taco (a.k.a. panuchos) doesn't have any fish in it at all. C'mon, Jason. Who can blame us for assuming? Still, we turned the same rosy shade as the pink pickled onions in the restaurant's signature dish, and after all that, we had to order one. And we've gotta say: It was damn good. A small corn tortilla is filled with beans, grilled chicken, salsa roja, pickled onions and avocado. The chicken is tender and tasty, the tortilla's fresh and the onions are a nice complement. The only problem with the Pink Taco? It was a little messy. We know, we know . . . T.M.I. . . .
Like many longtime Valleyites, we have fond memories of the original Trader Vic's. It was located in downtown Scottsdale, and by the time we made it there, the blush was off the rose, the blowfish draped with cobwebs and dust. Still, for us, this was as glamorous as it got. (This was before the Drinkwaters brought liquor and clubs to town, and before we could order a cocktail ourselves, for that matter even with a fake ID.) We're not sure the contents are exactly the same, but one thing from the old Trader Vic's that seems resurrected with some authenticity at the new version swank and stark, tacked onto the edge of the Hotel Valley Ho is the pupu platter. Still aflame, still featuring enough pork and fried items to ensure you won't make it to the next resurrection of Trader Vic's, we love it, particularly alongside several cocktails we're now more than old enough to order.