Best of Phoenix®

Best Of 2009

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  • + Gilbert
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Best Of :: Food & Drink

Best Thing to Ever Happen to Gilbert
Joe Johnston

Maybe it's the affordable housing prices or the constant sunshine that attracts transplants from all over the globe, but whatever the reason, Phoenix has become the melting pot of the Southwest. It's rare to find a native Phoenician and even rarer to find one like restaurateur Joe Johnston, who manages to make even the newest desert dweller feel at home in his trio of Gilbert restaurants: Joe's Real BBQ, Liberty Market, and Joe's Farm Grill.

Johnston grew up in the slump block ranch that now houses Joe's Farm Grill and never ventured far from home. In 1995, after stints as an engineer and co-founder of the original Coffee Plantation, he opened Joe's Real BBQ in a historic brick building in Gilbert's Heritage District. The restaurant became a mainstay with local families and his smoky-sweet meats have captured awards, including several New Times Best of Phoenix picks.

While Phoenix-area developers were busy demolishing older houses to build ivory towers for businessmen and yuppie couples, Johnston wanted something different for his family's original farmland. He imagined a quiet village where neighbors would get together for coffee and swap stories about their kids and grandkids — a community with heart. Builder Scott Homes shared a similar vision. Up sprang Agritopia, a master-planned community with 15 acres of working farmland and quaint bungalows with large sitting porches. How strong is his belief in the project? Johnston and his parents were among the first homebuyers at Agritopia, and Joe's Farm Grill uses fresh produce from the community's crops.

Furthering his commitment to preserving the Valley's past, Johnston and wife Cindy bought and repurposed the nearby 1935 Liberty Market grocery building into a retro-urban eatery last year, keeping the brick walls and the adorable pink and green vintage neon sign.

By now, Gilbert's "King of the Grill" could easily have retired to a tropical island, so we're glad his desert roots run deep. Johnston still eats family meals at his restaurants. He served free drinks to Liberty Market customers on the 45th anniversary of his prized antique Faema E61 espresso maker. And every spring, he hosts "Free Barbecue Day" at Joe's Real BBQ, where guests can chat with him and score a complimentary meal. Though he still has plenty of real relations here in town, Joe Johnston always manages to make the rest of us feel like family.

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

3000 E. Ray Rd., Gilbert, 85296
MAP
480-563-4745
Best New Restaurant
Posh

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.

7167 E. Rancho Vista Dr., Scottsdale, 85251
MAP
480-663-7674
Best New Eatery Along the Light Rail
Maizie's Café & Bistro

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.

4750 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 85012
MAP
602-274-2828
Best Hot Spot
The Parlor Pizzeria
Heather Hoch

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.

1916 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 85016
MAP
602-248-2480
Best Hidden Gem
Tuck Shop
Jackie Mercandetti

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.

2245 N. 12th St., Phoenix, 85006
MAP
602-354-2980
Best Old-Fashioned Charm
Joe's Real BBQ
Courtesy of Joe's Real BBQ

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.

301 N. Gilbert Rd., Gilbert, 85234
MAP
480-503-3805
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Best Thing to Ever Happen to Gilbert: Joe Johnston

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