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Best Of 2010

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Best Of :: Food & Drink

Hero Worship
Nobuo Fukuda

See: a video interview with Nobuo Fukuda.

Four years ago — fresh out of college — I left the United States and landed on a small island south of Osaka, Japan, where I spent the better part of a year teaching English to children who will grow up to be fishermen, hanging out at way too many Japanese rock shows and eating fabulously good sushi. It was the best time of my life, but it left me with some lingering questions. Questions like what element in human nature drives us to leave behind everything we've ever known, to trade in the comfortable for whatever else is out there, to adventure in foreign lands? Sometimes, you just have to take that journey.

If there is an answer to be had, it may lie within the heart and mind of Phoenix's own Chef Nobuo Fukuda. He took the opposite journey, falling in love with Phoenix four years before I was even born. He found here a place with wide-open spaces full of potential and the chance to build his life the way he wanted it. He left Japan and set up shop here. How can you help respecting the hell out of a person like that?

First, there was Sea Saw restaurant, where Fukuda revolutionized the way Phoenicians thought about and ate high-end sashimi. These days, he's still pushing the envelope of Japanese cuisine at his new restaurant, Nobuo at Teeter House, in downtown's Heritage Square. In a tiny and cramped kitchen, he summons gigantic flavors in his fried soft-shell crab sandwich, his aiolis infused with Japanese chili sauces, and his signature take on sashimi. He regularly exposes Phoenix to something priceless: a taste of another culture. Something I believe we could all use a lot more of. Jonathan McNamara

New Times web editor Jonathan McNamara would gladly start his life over in Tokyo should the opportunity present itself. He interviewed Fukuda on August 11 at the chef's new restaurant, Nobuo at Teeter House.

When I was a kid, I went to see the World Fair in Osaka. It blew my mind to see so many different kinds of people. They had Asian. They had European invites. In Japan, there is only one kind of people. They had a rock from the moon. They had lines for two hours to see this rock from the moon. I think I already knew I wanted to move out from that small country.

When I'm driving, I listen to the radio. Talk radio. Sometimes music. On the way to work I'm thinking about what else I have to do. When I'm coming back from work, it's usually how dinner was. There's a lot of work, work, work in my mind right now. Maybe some day, I won't have to think like that.

My favorite thing to eat in Phoenix is Vietnamese rice noodle soup — pho. From Da Vang. Between rice noodle soup, pho with beef, and duck soup with egg noodle or seafood with egg noodle.

To me, Japanese cuisine is different in the United States because Japanese food in Japan . . . there are so many different kinds everywhere from high-end to street food to home-cooked to country-style. However, in the U.S., there is usually only one kind — like sushi, tempura, teriyaki, something like this. Very limited. I think in the near future, there will be more variety of Japanese cooking. In New York, different styles of ramen are popular now.

I don't like eating anything I have high expectations for and it doesn't live up. It's that I have such a small stomach. It could be anything, but it should be good enough to use up my time and stomach.

My challenge is it's very hard to get ingredients; especially seafood. Fortunately with vegetables, a lot of local farms are starting to get in more and more and work with us.

If I weren't cooking I'd probably go back to the mountain. I was on a ski patrol for 10 or 12 years.

Without my hands I'd be devastated.

My hero is Bruce Lee? At the age I was watching his movies, I was like, "He is a god."

Before bed I always drink.

622 E. Adams St., Phoenix, 85004
MAP
602-254-0600
Best New Restaurant
FnB
Lauren Saria

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.

7125 E. 5th Ave., Scottsdale, 85251
MAP
480-284-4777
Best Old Arizona Charm
The Stockyards Restaurant

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.

5009 E. Washington St., Phoenix, 85034
MAP
602-273-7378
Best Competitive Eating Splurge
Durant's

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.

2611 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 85004
MAP
602-264-5967
Best Competitive Eating Bargain
San Felipe's Cantina

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.

2000 E. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe, 85281
MAP
480-736-8226
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21001 N. Tatum Blvd., Phoenix, 85050
MAP
480-515
Best Hot Dog
The Main Ingredient
Evie Carpenter

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.

2337 N. 7th St., Phoenix, 85006
MAP
602-843-6246
Best Wings
Teakwoods

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.

5965 W. Ray Rd., Chandler, 85226
MAP
480-961-0945
Best Fish 'n' Chips
Rúla Búla

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.

401 S. Mill Ave., Tempe, 85281
MAP
480-929-9500
Best Burger
The Grind
Diana Martinez

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.

3961 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 85018
MAP
602-954-7463
Best Fries
Metro Brasserie

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?

7114 E. Stetson Dr., Scottsdale, 85251
MAP
480-994-3663
Best Dim Sum
Phoenix Palace

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.

2075 N. Dobson Rd., Chandler, 85224
MAP
480-855-4047
Best Noodles
China Magic Noodle House
Jackie Mercandetti

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.

2015 N. Dobson Rd., Chandler, 85224
MAP
480-786-8002
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Hero Worship: Nobuo Fukuda

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