Best Of :: Food & Drink
Not news: Al fresco dining in the Valley October through May is sublime; al fresco dining in the Valley June through September is hell. Until now, thanks to this Camelback Corridor restaurant (formerly Houston's in the Esplanade complex until it moved down the street and changed its name in 2011). Grab a cushy seat on the spacious patio (no misters, thank goodness), a cold libation, and let the cooling begin with air-conditioners built into the tables. Give it a couple of minutes, but you'll be chilling soon enough. The system uses no CFC refrigerants, adds no moisture to air, and uses 90 percent less energy than standard air conditioners. So how does it work? Beats us, but it certainly makes patio dining a viable option during a season when most of us can't stand to be outdoors for any more time than is absolutely necessary.
Sure, chef Shinji Kurita's exquisite Japanese restaurant may have opened last June, but its discreet location, low-profile stance, and a nod as a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in the 2012 James Beard Awards makes it seem as recent as ever. Kurita's omakase, or chef's choice dinners, are nothing short of spectacular, elegant works of art, meticulously prepared, and made with fresh, seasonal delicacies. The offerings may include a luscious whole blue crab, delectable pieces of wagyu beef you grill yourself, or several small gems of seafood — like kumamoto oyster topped with sea urchin, seared scallops drizzled with truffle oil, and Santa Barbara prawn with dots of caviar. Kurita's sushi selection is especially impressive, with wild-caught fish hailing mostly from Japan and ranging from the most delicate flavor to the breathtakingly decadent bluefin otoro. The small yet sophisticated space, a tranquil setting of wood, stone, and classical music, along with exceptional service and an equally impressive list of sakes and Japanese craft beers (like the sweet-potato brew, Coedo Beniaka) add to the indulgence. It all makes ShinBay a restaurant that could hold its own in any major city, but one the Valley is lucky enough to call its own.
Fry bread and finally. For those in the know about this tiny, bustling spot nearly tucked away on North Seventh Avenue near Indian School Road, this year's James Beard Foundation award was a long time coming. As one of five winners of its 2012 America's Classics award, which honors legendary family-owned restaurants across the country, the restaurant, which got its start in 1992 courtesy of Cecelia Miller of the Tohono O'odham Nation, serves up its specialty in golden pillowy goodness the size of a dinner plate. Topped with a variety of flavorful ingredients such as chorizo, chiles, and, in its dessert version, butter and chocolate, it's satisfying in nearly any variation. In fact, we'd say we couldn't agree with the award more — if our mouths weren't so full of fry bread.
At the recently rehabbed Saguaro Hotel, celebrity chef Jose Garces, a former Iron Chef America contestant and James Beard Award winner, has created a vibrant, colorful, and tasty paean to Mexico City street food that has caught not only the attention of local diners but the national media, including Food + Wine magazine. Despite a few misses, the "modern Mexican" small plates at Garces' restaurant are spectacular. Start with the rich gourmet version of green pozole, featuring pieces of crispy pork belly, smoky chorizo, and littleneck clams, or the citrusy yellowtail tuna ceviche, a sashimi-like twist on the beloved Mexican seafood cocktail. For a main course, dig into outstanding mahi mahi and pulled pork tacos or a tender piece of rotisserie chicken topped with a tantalizingly complex brown mole. It's nearly as good as just about anything on the barbacoa portion of the menu, especially the slow-roasted pork dish cochinita a la pibil, served in a small pool of achiote and pineapple barbecue sauce. There certainly is no shortage of local star power and top-notch culinary geniuses in Scottsdale, which makes it all the more special that someone of Jose Garces' stature chooses to bring his distinct vision to this thriving culinary scene.
This coffeehouse/bar long has been popular with the see-and-be-seen crowd, and why not? The place is consistently hoppin' with MacBook-wielding, dressed-to-impress, urbane 20-somethings. Whether you're there for a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a craft cocktail, a bite from the ever-changing menu (we love the mac 'n' cheese), or just to chat with friends, you'll be rubbing shoulders with a clientele that is the very definition of "cool." Among the vintage typewriters, artfully placed burlap sacks, mismatched reclaimed furniture, and electronica music playing overhead, you'll find a crowd of young professionals, boho types, downtown students, and people who dig the joint's ability to be upscale without seeming nouveaux riche, esoteric without being pretentious, and tasteful without being bland. In other words, it's our kind of place. And, apparently, yours as well.
Lots of restaurants boast star and diamond ratings, but only one in Arizona has five of each. This fact, in addition to its unique Native American cuisine, makes this one-of-a-kind restaurant located in the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Chandler, the perfect go-to when you've got out-of-town guests in tow. From its beautiful interior and outdoor patio overlooking a dreamy, desert landscape, to exceptional service, to executive chef Michael O'Dowd's stunning fare mixing indigenous ingredients like heirloom squash, saguaro seeds, and nopalitos with gourmet components such as chanterelles, truffles, and foie gras, Kai is an indulgence worth the price. Plus (bonus!), your guests give you the credit for taking them there.
As the food-truck scene in the Valley evolves at a rapid pace, this mobile eatery continues to be one of the best. Joe Webb, a Scottsdale Culinary Institute graduate, and his wife, Margita, a native of the Philippines, cook up Filipino street food on a near-daily basis at various locations around the Valley, including Food Truck Fridays at the Phoenix Public Market and Luhrs Lunch, also in downtown Phoenix. They specialize in lumpia, the delicious fried spring rolls popular on the Southeast Asian islands. Also spectacular is the lechon kawali, or four pieces of pork belly braised for 15 hours and then deep-fried, and pancit, a stir-fried dish consisting of juicy chicken, vegetables, and rice noodles. Much of the meat is cooked on a Filipino-style robata grill and served to you with a mound of rice and sweet-and-sour sauce. The Webbs have a good thing going with their truck, already a mainstay of the Valley's burgeoning food-truck scene.
Steak dinner and a sunset? Yes, please. Celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's stylish steakhouse at The Phoenician resort serves up spectacular views of the Valley as well as a selection of premium meats. In an atmosphere more pleasant than posh, diners can enjoy a range of exceptional grilled beefy fare from juicy 18-ounce rib eyes to perfectly prepared 10-ounce, peppercorn-crusted New York steaks to surprisingly tender and wallet-friendly hanger steaks. The cocktails are as remarkable as the meat, so it's best to order both while kicking back and taking in the views from the dining area with its wall-to-ceiling windows or outside on the inviting patio. Okay, you can cue the sunset now.
"Above all, you have to honor the Pony," says Tim Smith, owner of the landmark restaurant in Scottsdale. How so? By keeping what's had folks coming to the baseball-themed-meets-renovated-cosmopolitan restaurant for more than 60 years: slabs of juicy steaks. There's the popular Pink Pony special — a top sirloin with a choice of soup or salad — but the traditional prime rib is still the restaurant's shining star. Available in three cuts, crusted with a pastrami-spice rub, and perfectly pink in the middle, it's a meat lover's dream. And the beef's side of creamy mashed potatoes is just as delectable.
Don't blame us if this historical, Spanish-style South Mountain mansion built in 1929 is one you never want to leave. Outside, the tucked-away gem surrounded by stately trees and lush vegetation boasts a barn turned wine bar, perfect for al fresco dining by a roaring fireplace under a star-studded sky. Inside, the cozy, wood-floored dining area, with a stately wooden bar, coved ceiling, and subdued lighting, is sit-back-and-relax perfect. And thankfully, its contemporary American cuisine, made with local and organic ingredients courtesy of chef Dustin Christofolo (who owns the restaurant with mom Pat, who operates the Farm at South Mountain), is impressive enough to justify frequent visits.
From former Cowboy Ciao chef Bernie Kantak, this stylish yet relaxed Scottsdale establishment serving classic American fare — with a twist of the unexpected — is pure culinary bliss. From standout starters like the luscious pork belly pastrami and the Original Chopped Salad (so popular it has its own Facebook page) to perfectly plated entrees like pan-seared scallops and coffee-rubbed short ribs in cherry barbecue sauce to dreamy desserts courtesy of Tracy Dempsey, few dishes fall short of exceptional. And with its late-night hours, pairing dinners, and the new Citizen R&D (the restaurant's upstairs speakeasy, where partner and mixologist Richie Moe carries on his reputation of making some of the most inventive and supremely satisfying cocktails in the Valley), there are even more reasons to make Citizen Public House one of your favorite go-tos.
If you'd rather bite into a hunk of raw meat than pick away at another dish of tofu pudding, perhaps it's time to beat the vegetarian blues with a spicy little trip to this quick-serve and crazy-cheap vegetarian South Indian eatery in Chandler. If the fact that the clientele is mostly Indian doesn't sell you on the place, the dishes will. From the familiar to the give-it-a-whirl strange, choose from a selection of items like vadas (deep-fried patties), curries, dosas (gigantic rice and lentil crepes), rice specialties, and uthappam (rice and lentil pancakes) — or go sample-style with a combo special at lunchtime. There's even a chutney bar to have a little fun with. Most everything's got heat to it, but not so much that the flavors are sacrificed — or that a few sips from a glass of the yogurt-based drink mango lassi won't extinguish. Ahh, now isn't that better?