Best Of :: Food & Drink
Sweet, squeaky cheese curds. We fell in love with Arizona Cheese Co. at first bite. Though there aren't many people making cheese in the Phoenix area right now, Arizona Cheese is representing well with its regular and spicy jalapeño-flecked cheese curds, as well as cheddar, Monterey jack, and pepper jack cheeses. You can find the addicting, eat-the-whole-bag-in-one-sitting jalapeño cheese curds at many local grocers and farmers markets including Whole Foods, Sprouts, Tempe Farmers Market, Old Town Farmers Market, and Downtown Phoenix Farmers Market. But be warned: You will probably find it impossible to stop scarfing cheese curds once you start.
We had some doubts about the young chef who told us he "just wanted to have fun," and yet every time we eat a meal at The Local, Chris McKinley proves he truly knows his way around the kitchen. The chef's unique style of modern American cuisine pulls influences from around the world. He's won us over with his Pig Ear Pad Thai — an offal-y dish that blends toasted peanuts, bean sprouts, pickled Fresno chiles, and XO sauce to make a crunchy starter that's big on flavor — as well as with excellent handmade pastas, grilled vegetables, and sweet desserts.
The concise menu seems to offer something for everyone, but if it doesn't, there's always the chalkboard of daily specials, which have ranged from a killer bowl of ramen to fried green tomatoes and a lobster roll. The hot new dining spot also benefits from the talents of co-owner/general manager/barman Adam Hargett, who mixes top-notch cocktails using housemade, barrel-aged, and local ingredients.
Phoenix may not set every trend, but thanks to chef Josh Hebert, we have at least one restaurant that's undeniably innovative. At Hebert's sleek Scottsdale dining spot, you can belly up to the chef's counter and have an experience unlike any other. The restaurant offers no set selections. Instead, Hebert and his staff craft tasting menus for diners based on dietary restrictions and personal preferences. It seems like a risky proposition — that is, until you've had your first taste of Hebert's cuisine. The chef navigates the fine line between using impeccable technique to craft sophisticated food and knowing full well when to let his top-quality ingredients speak for themselves. The best way to understand it for yourself is to take a seat at the counter and let him regale you with stories and facts about his craft. It's impossible to not walk away impressed.
Once a week (every Wednesday, to be exact), T. Cook's chef Paul McCabe takes a small number of fortunate diners on an unforgettable culinary journey. The multi-course dinner experience — named #PM31 after the chef and the number of the restaurant's communal chef's table, at which the dinner is likely to take place — features an improvisational menu crafted that day based on available ingredients. It's the best way to get a good sense of McCabe's style of cuisine: thoughtful, well-balanced, and quite exciting. The menu changes from week to week, but you can expect a seemingly endless lineup of picture-perfect dishes artfully plated and featuring top-quality meats, locally sourced produce, and housemade accoutrements. During our dinner, McCabe wowed with a sous vide Spanish octopus with black-eyed peas, a playful take on classic barbecue flavors.
Long before Mexican fusion food was trendy, Michael J. Brown dreamed up the Jamburrito. It's a simple but ingenious creation that offers New Orleans flavor in a novel and easy-to-eat form. The classic chicken Jamburrito features Cajun chicken etouffee, jambalaya rice, smoked Andouille sausage, cheese, and lettuce wrapped in a sturdy tortilla. And though wrapping a favorite Southern dish in a tortilla might not seem like the most innovative idea, it's enough of an alteration to turn an otherwise unwieldy dish into excellent street fare. Since starting the Jamburritos food truck in 2010, Brown has turned his signature dish into a favorite of Phoenix food truck enthusiasts, who can choose from a slew of varieties, including steak, vegetarian, and catfish Cajun burritos. Best of all, Brown has no plans to slowing. These days, he's busy getting a second truck up and running and launching a Jamburritos catering business.
On the national stage, there's really only one chef from Arizona who consistently makes a splash, and that's Kevin Binkley, a three-time James Beard Award semifinalist. Ask just about any foodie in the Valley and they'll tell you that Binkley's flagship restaurant in Cave Creek is the best restaurant in the state, on par with some of the most awarded restaurants in the whole country.
We're still trying to wrap our heads around the reason Binkley hasn't taken home the Beard Foundation's Best Chef Southwest award, but in the meantime, we know that flooding the dining room with food lovers certainly can't hurt. Go and see for yourself how Binkley transforms local and seasonal ingredients into impeccable plates of modern American cuisine.
Readers Choice: Quiessence