Best Of :: Food & Drink
Every time we go to Essence Bakery, we swear we're not going to go crazy with the pastries — and then we do. It's not that we have no self-control; it's just that the buttery French croissants and delicate macarons are seriously impossible to resist. Chef and owner Eugenia Theodosopolous trained at the Ecole Lenotre in Paris and even was inducted into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame as Pastry Chef Extraordinaire, so, really, it's no big shock that she knows how to make some of the very best French pastries anywhere in town. In addition to the near-perfect croissants and the rainbow of macarons (try the pumpkin spice and salted caramel), there also are almond croissants, cheese croissants, and delicately layered mille feuille.
Italian-born owners Roberto Dadone and Luca Dagliano and Cuban native Mili Fernandez make up the trio behind Forno 301 Pizzeria, a lively restaurant that's brought European flair to downtown Phoenix. Both Dadone and Dagliano bring decades of restaurant experience from Italy — but it's the pair's dedication to doing things the traditional way that makes the restaurant stand out. Forno 301's wood-fired pizzas are made with fresh mozzarella and flour from Naples, but they're by no means the only things on the menu worth trying. The bruschetta and salads showcase beautiful, fresh ingredients and want nothing more than to be washed down by a cold Italian beer or glass of $6 house wine. Still, what seals the deal is the owners' over-the-top hospitality. Welcoming but not fussy, casual but not indifferent, Dadone and Dagliano more than live up to the Italian reputation for gracious hospitality.
Readers Choice: Union Barrelhouse
From humble beginnings in central California, chef Silvana Salcido Esparza has risen to become the reigning queen of Mexican food in metro Phoenix. Her original restaurant, Barrio Cafe, is nothing short of a local landmark and has drastically transformed the popular perception of Mexican food since opening in 2002 and these days counts restaurants at Sky Harbor International Airport and The Yard in Phoenix as sibling spots. But Esparza's not just about giving Phoenix diners excellent and affordable food. She's a chef in the true sense of the word, which means "leader" or "chief" in French. Esparza manages to run four restaurants and still finds time to mentor up-and-coming chefs, to give back to the community, and to grab the attention of national critics — including the James Beard Foundation, which has nominated her for awards on four occasions.
Readers Choice: Kevin Binkley
Last fall, Crudo launched a mystery dinner series that tested the creativity of some of the Valley's best chefs — and the trust of Valley diners. Called Blank Space, the monthly series featured big-name talent, including Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant, Gio Osso of Virtù Honest Craft, and Josh Hebert of Posh Improvisational Cuisine. Each chef collaborated with Crudo's Cullen Campbell on dinner menus with no restrictions or rules. Here's the catch: Diners didn't get to know the menu until they showed up to the event. The good news is that putting faith in local chefs paid off. Throughout the series, chef after chef put on one-night events that aren't likely to be forgotten by attendees. From Jeff Kraus' visually stunning plates and coffee-infused dessert to Binkley's signature series of "snacks," Blank Space highlighted some of the Valley's very best.
Considering that Luncha Libre is one of the Valley's longest-running food trucks, we wondered why owners Tim and Kim Cobb hadn't opened a regular restaurant. After all, their Lucha Libre-themed Mexican food truck has been featured on Food Network's Eat Street show and serves some of the best mobile food in town. Well, this year, they did open a brick-and-mortar spot, called the Taco and Dilla Parlor. But the truck is still where you'll find the newest Luncha Libre specials. The ever-changing menu draws inspiration from Thai, Mexican, and American cuisines, and you can always count on the signature bebidas (freshly made juices) and teas served in quart-size Mason jars.
Readers Choice: Short Leash
Claudio Urciuoli has been one of the most popular Italian chefs in town for years, but at Noble Eatery, he's offering rustic and unforgettable food that's unlike anything he's done before. Simplicity is the name of the game, and Urciuoli has dedicated himself to sourcing the very best ingredients and letting them shine. Of course, housemade Noble Bread serves as the foundation for most of the food, but there's also pristine produce, locally grown grains, and imported meats on the restaurant's ever-changing menu. We've enjoyed everything from a seasonal salad featuring grapefruit and marinated celery to a bowl of creamy wheat berries, farro, tomato, and corn in the cozy dining room of this lunch-only spot. Food lovers will appreciate the level of authenticity on every plate — and won't mind braving the extremely undersize parking lot in order to experience the cuisine.