Best Of :: Food & Drink
Phoenix is not a serendipitous city. We're stuck in our cars most of the time, deliberately driving from point A to point B in our strip-malled, paved-over landscape. How in the world does anyone make a new acquaintance here? You just have to be more proactive, and places like Welcome Diner go a long way in creating an intimate, neighborhood feel. Of course, if you don't care to banter with the cook or acknowledge the person sitting next to you, don't bother with this postage-stamp-size vintage diner, where a compact, nine-seat counter faces a short-order kitchen (complete with antique potato slicer for the French fries). Privacy is nil, and the bohemian crew of downtown regulars are friendly indeed. Stop by for a burger, and you might leave with a new pal.
To the uninitiated, chef Joshua Hebert's contemporary American restaurant concept may take some getting used to. He calls it "improvisational cuisine," and in the same way that a jazz musician gets in a groove and spins off an impromptu melody, Hebert plays around with ingredients in unexpected, unpredictable ways. And while some of the Valley's top chefs are constantly tweaking their menus based on what's in season, Hebert eschews a menu altogether. Instead, guests guide their dining experience with a checklist indicating how many courses they'd like, which featured meat and seafood appeals (or doesn't appeal) to them, whether they'll eat raw foods, and any other preferences. (If it's reminiscent of omakase dining at a sushi bar, where you trust the chef to feed you well, that's because Hebert did a stint at Tokyo's Miyako Hotel several years back.) Beyond that, dinner is a series of tasty surprises — scallop carpaccio with radish, pickled grapes, and squash blossom pesto; foie gras with citrus coulis and spun sugar; mushroom-braised veal with morels, peas and fresh mint. Seafood is Hebert's forte, but he's also fond of the exotic, like roasted kangaroo. To be sure, the Posh kitchen can handle the most finicky diners, but the customers who'll have the most fun will simply leave their meal in Hebert's capable hands.
Now this is what we call progress. After years of light-rail construction — when the streets were torn up, local businesses took a hit, and most of us avoided the area altogether — the Central Corridor has bounced back in a big way. Our favorite sign is the emergence of new restaurants along the rail path, exemplified by a charming neighborhood spot called Maizie's Café & Bistro.
Just steps from the station at Camelback and Central, it's hip, affordable, and friendly, thanks to the hospitality of the Miller family, who opened this place last year. And the menu at Maizie's has personality, from the "not your average quesadilla" (Brie, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, and pine nuts in a spinach tortilla), to the bacon- and blue cheese-stuffed "inside out" burger, to the breakfast pizza (served on weekends). If Maizie's is a sign of good things to come along the light rail, it's a bright future, indeed.
In the midst of a gloomy summer that saw the demise of too many favorite Valley restaurants, the debut of The Parlor was undoubtedly a bright spot. To stop by on a weeknight in July (when many places in town were scraping by) you would've been fooled into thinking you were here on a weekend during tourist season, in a much better economy. What is everyone lining up for? A recession-proof menu of pizzas from the wood-fired oven (we love the one with Schreiner's sausage), handmade pastas, sandwiches, and killer craft cocktails like the basil gimlet, made with fresh herbs from the restaurant's own garden.
The atmosphere's great, too, thanks to an eco-friendly renovation of the 53-year-old building, which used to house Salon de Venus. That's right, father-and-son owners Dan and Aric Mei (who own Nello's in Ahwatukee) have tranformed a beauty parlor into a pizza parlor — and it's every bit the hit we'd hoped for.
The historic Coronado District's restaurant row, stretching along Seventh Street between McDowell and Thomas, is full of great restaurants, but to get to one of our favorite spots in the area, you'll have to take a small detour. Nestled in the residential heart of the neighborhood, Tuck Shop does have an unlikely location (before its opening, some locals pitched a fit, and the city had to limit its business hours to dinner). Still, it's worth seeking out for its cozy mid-century atmosphere and its Southern-influenced comfort food.
Fried chicken, red beans and rice with sausage and Creole shrimp, and juicy skirt steak with mashed Yukon potatoes are just a few highlights. Tuck Shop also has a reasonably priced wine list and excellent cocktails. As you can probably tell, Tuck Shop is quite a find.
To walk into Joe's Real BBQ, right in the middle of downtown Gilbert, you'd think you'd stepped right back in time to the 1940s. The building itself, all gorgeous red brick, was constructed in 1929 as a Safeway Pay'n'Takit (ah, they just don't make 'em like they used to), while the restored John Deere tractor in the middle of the dining room is an authentic '40s relic. And just like an old-fashioned cafeteria, you grab a tray and get in line to order up plates of slow-cooked meats smoked over pecan wood — beef brisket, luscious pulled pork, and pork ribs so tender you'll gnaw them down to the bones. Homemade root beer and retro sodas in glass bottles only add to the vintage vibe. Amazingly, Joe's Real BBQ has been in business since only the late '90s, but it's still a total blast from the past.