Best Of :: Food & Drink
Things took a strange turn this past year for Phoenix's most famous chef, Chris Bianco. Seemingly an eternal fixture at the wood-burning oven that's the centerpiece of his Heritage Square eatery — where locals line up along with pizza pilgrims from across the country — he had to stop making pizzas when his asthma worsened and his doctor told him that he couldn't be exposed to the wood smoke any longer. So nowadays, you'll see Bianco at the front of the house or, perhaps, at Bar Bianco next door, keeping an eye on things while his loyal staff continues to make pies exactly the way he taught them. The wait for a table is just as long as ever and, yes, the pizza's just as craveable.
This is the little restaurant that could.Amid a sour economy — and even in the middle of the summer slowdown — this is the place that had locals buzzing on Twitter, Facebook, and good old-fashioned word of mouth in 2010.The excitement started with a trifecta: rustic, comforting American eats by chef-owner Charleen Badman; cozy, bustling atmosphere; and rock star treatment for regulars and newbies alike, courtesy of co-owners Pavle Milic and his wife Emily Pullen. Soon, the Stetson Drive gin joint became the Valley's go-to place for top-notch Arizona wines (still a rarity — but not for long, we predict, thanks to Milic's pioneering efforts) and affordable late-night eats as well. Comforting dishes like braised leeks with mozzarella and fried egg, and perfectly crispy jidori chicken have come and gone with the seasons, but Badman has only continued to delight us with new dishes along the way. Cheers to a new classic in the middle of Old Town.
It's hard to imagine that the area near this stretch of East Phoenix used to be the country's biggest cattle feedlot, but a visit to The Stockyards — situated in what was once the Tovrea Land and Cattle Company's administrative offices — can take you back in time to an era when ranching was still a big part of the local culture, and the city's movers and shakers did business over hefty steaks and stiff cocktails. Meat and potatoes is still the name of the game here, with exotica like elk and demurely named "calf fries" supplementing steaks, burgers, salads, and seafood dishes. Settle into a big booth, ogle the cowboy-themed paintings and branding iron chandelier, and enjoy a reminder of when the West was still Western.
Sometimes, you just need a little steak. Other times, you just need a lot of steak. When heaps of beef are what you're after — and you've got the cash — there's no better meal than Durant's 48-ounce porterhouse. Plain on the outside, fancy-pants on the inside, Durant's is a Phoenix institution that's hosted powerful politicos, celebrities, and mobsters alike. Nestled menacingly amidst the sparse yet solid menu of savory steaks and classic cocktails, this massive meal waits to take on all challengers. A slab of meat that would be appropriate to serve your pet velociraptor, this steak's part filet mignon, part New York strip, and all delicious. Order the steak however you want — from blue to well done — and the kitchen magicians will cook it to perfection. That's no small task with a cut that's a good three inches thick. Finish it and you'll be inducted into the illustrious Porterhouse Club, your name engraved on a brass plate affixed to one of several polished wooden plaques that adorn the restaurant's walls. The storied restaurant began offering the 48-ounce Porterhouse Challenge in 1996 and has since racked up a pantheon of more than 1,200 victorious eaters. At $83.25, the 48-ounce Porterhouse isn't for the faint-hearted. But if you've got the money — and the stomach — Durant's won't disappoint.
San Felipe's Cantina is known for many things: decent guacamole, dangerously cheap shots of liquor and draft beer, obnoxious clientele. What it should be known for, however, is the El Gordito Burrito. Also known as "the Fat One," the El Gordito is a big-ass taco de harina made with chicken or steak, rice, beans, and cheese, all wrapped in a tortilla the size of a manhole cover and covered with spicy sauce and melted cheese. If you eat it all in one sitting, San Felipe's will throw you a party and give you a T-shirt — size XXL, of course.Tipping the scales at close to seven pounds, this burrito's a scary bastard. But at only $19.95, you can't afford not to buy it — that's less than $3 per pound! Whether you attempt to eat it all at once or take it home and feed yourself for a week, there's no place around where you're going to find a burrito that gives you more bang for your buck.
When Matt and Courtney Diamond opened their bangin' little "ale house" in a Seventh Street bungalow, it wasn't enough to have a great list of regional craft beers and quaffable, affordable wines. They came up with some scrumptious eats, too, the most beer-friendly of them all being the Coronado Coney, named after the historic district where the restaurant is situated. This is one top dog, a plump, juicy all-beef frank from Schreiner's Sausage, a local institution right up the street. It's tucked into a soft, dense sourdough bun that's lightly toasted, slathered with Humboldt Brown Ale mustard, and sprinkled with red onion. Which really makes the dish — the wiener or the bun? Who knows. It's a good conundrum to ponder over another pint of IPA.
You gotta love a place where the hot wings come with an "order at your own risk" warning. It's no joke, either. Teakwoods' "hot" is truly that, while the "suicide" sauce takes some culinary masochism to enjoy. (We know, this is just what wings fanatics are obsessed with.) Even done up with more mild-mannered sauces (mild, honey BBQ, etc.), these golden fried beauties are so craveable — crispy, perfectly seasoned, and juicy on the inside. Like variety? It's worth the extra buck an order for two special flavors: the Jess Jess, medium sauce embellished with garlic and blue cheese, and El Heffe, mild sauce with cilantro, garlic, and a dab of "suicide." Dee-lish.
This laid-back, classy Irish pub is one of our favorite drinking destinations, but we've learned the hard way not to show up without an appetite. Why? Because even though a Guinness is a meal in a glass, it can't compare to a plate of Rúla Búla's fabulous fish 'n' chips. We can't watch someone else devour this pub classic without some serious food envy. We have to have it. So nowadays, we just plan on making a night out of it so we can get our fill of thick cod fillets dipped in beer batter and fried until crispy, golden, and light. Can fish be juicy? Amazingly, it can when it gets this rock star treatment. Teamed with homemade tartar sauce and chips that are crisp but still fluffy and potatoey inside, this amounts to some of the finest comfort food around.
Executive chef Matthew McLinn has fine dining and an upscale steakhouse on his résumé, and now he's doing burgers that are just as sophisticated — like steak on a bun. Recently, even Bon Appetit gave a nod to his juicy creations. What makes the difference? Using premium, hormone-free meat and organic ingredients, sizzling the burgers in a special coal-fired oven that sears the meat with 1,000-degree temps, and dressing them up with delicious, creative toppings. Housemade steak sauce on the Steak House BLT makes that burger as good as any you'll find at this city's top chop houses, while candied jalapeños, fried ratatouille, and watercress make the Sweet and Spicy burger another stellar choice. These burgers are pure, carnivorous bliss.
We didn't set out to become French fry addicts at an actual French restaurant — it happened somewhat unexpectedly. One night, we craved mussels, so we tried the moules frites, with mussels in thyme-scented white wine broth and a small bucket of pommes frites. Before long, we surprised ourselves at how quickly we gobbled up those perfectly crispy slivers of tater. Another time, it was hanger steak that sounded good and, sure enough, the meat was accompanied by another bucket o' frites. Yeah, it was a tasty steak, but the fries were the star of the table. So we get it — this side is as good as any main dish at Metro. We order them with just about anything now (even a salad — so much for being healthy!). They go well with wine, with a cocktail, with good friends, or just all by themselves, for no reason in particular. It's all about the simple pleasures, you know?
One word of advice: Go before you're ravenous.The thing about dim sum is that you have to show up when everybody else in town does if you want to get the best, freshest selection of dishes.That means weekends are prime time at Phoenix Palace, when Asian families mob the place to gather at big tables and fill their lazy Susans with plate after plate of Cantonese specialties. Don't be surprised if servers pushing carts of food stop by your table before you've hardly sat down — they'll keep the food coming until you're aching for mercy. There's pork galore (steamed char siu bao filled with barbecue pork, dumplings filled with pork, and plenty of other treats), spicy chicken feet flecked with chile, turnip cake, shrimp-filled siu mai, translucent rice noodles wrapped around strips of golden pastry, spare ribs, and congee. That's just a tiny sample, but you get the picture. Go early, go hungry, and leave happy.
The chef here really is a magician, transforming a hunk of dough into made-to-order, hand-pulled noodles with a series of dramatic spins and stretches. Before long, his fingers are laced with fine strands that end up in any number of soups, pan-fried dishes, and other entrées. And the best part (aside from eating them)? It's watching him work his craft from the comfort of the dining room, where a big glass window lets you look right into the kitchen.Prepared in the style of northwestern China's Langzhou region, these noodles come in several varieties, including thin, thick, wide, vegetable, and shaved. We're fond of the spicy beef noodles with XO sauce, but China Magic's lamb noodle soup comes in a close second. Every bite is tender and toothsome — and since eating handmade noodles here, we've become pretty spoiled. Luckily, we have no shortage of hungry friends who'll join us out of sheer curiosity.