What kind of food year was 2016? If there was an underlying theme to the calendar year, perhaps it was equal parts incertitude and anticipation. We eagerly awaited the latest efforts from some of the city's most highly regarded chefs. We wondered whether fine dining is still sustainable in the Valley. We whetted our appetites for hand-molded gorditas stuffed with deshebrada, discrete heaps of freshly-made pasta, and fragrant bowls of uncommonly good curry. In a year with more questions than answers, we took comfort in the resurgence of great neighborhood restaurants, exciting new late-season concepts, and the well-worn but timeless idea that great food and drink make all parts of being alive much better. In no particular order, here are 10 new restaurants that are making metro Phoenix a richer, more interesting place to eat.
The descriptor "charming" is so often applied to smaller restaurants, the word has nearly been picked clean of all meaning. But there's something undeniably charming about chef Branden Levine's small, quietly chic fine-dining outpost on Main Street in Old Town Scottsdale. Charming here does not mean old-fashioned or quaint, but rather denotes the quietly beguiling quality of Levine's intelligent cooking, which is rooted in French technique and nearly always achieves refinement and balance. While almost everything on the menu is available à la carte, you'll derive the most value and enjoyment out of an evening at Sel with the restaurant's signature prix-fixe four-course dinners. The menus change slightly every two weeks, but might begin with something like an intensely creamy roasted kabocha squash panisse. The second course may involve a velvety roasted Romanesco soup, followed by a gourmet salad, and then one of the chef's well-executed entrees, like an Angus filet mignon entrée dappled with gravy-thick Bordelaise sauce, or perhaps a seared Maple Leaf Farm duck breast with a Burgundy reduction. You may as well leave room for the strawberry marzipan shortcake, a light and airy concoction that has already become a house staple.
In metro Phoenix's seemingly infinite landscape of copycat 'Bertos joints, Tacos Chiwas is a breath of fresh air: an independently owned restaurant offering a fresh and personal point of view on traditional Mexican cooking. And although Tacos Chiwas has all the markings of a low-key hole-in-the-wall, it only takes a brief encounter with the menu to sense a certain amount of obsession with handicraft and time-intensive preparation. Corn tortillas are freshly pressed to order, and Chihuahuan-style gorditas and burritos are made with guisos norteños like deshebrada, a marinated, slow-cooked shredded beef available in both a flavorful green or red sauce. And there’s something particularly wonderful about a side like frijoles charros, which here is a hearty soup of whole pinto beans, simmered with salty nubs of ham and slices of hot dogs and perfumed with cilantro. The soup is so rich, hearty, and velvety, it might enlarge the potential you see in something as humble as a slow-simmering pot of beans on the stove top.
The Brickyard Downtown in Chandler is the complete package: a small neighborhood restaurant with personable service, a pleasing menu of small plates and entrees, and a 15-page drink menu designed to please both cocktail dilettantes and connoisseurs. Sure, something like tacos may not seem particularly exciting, but chef Aaron Rickel's Vietnamese-inspired pork “bahn mi” tacos erupt with flavor, and are skillfully brightened up with pickled carrot and daikon. Fried calamari are upgraded with a sweet-spicy chili garlic sauce, the grizzled bits charred and seasoned with fragrant flakes of pepperoncini and cilantro. Pork belly skewers are meltingly tender and wrapped in a honey-soy glaze, and entrees like the ahi tuna are pretty to look at, yes, but also very good, the peppery hunks of the fish lightly seared and stacked with slices of Granny Smith, then topped with puffs of gingery foam. Congenial service and late-night dining — the kitchen stays open until 1 a.m. on the weekends — make the Brickyard Downtown the kind of place you wish was always just around the corner.
2016 brought us one of the most eagerly-anticipated openings in recent memory: Tratto, a new restaurant from chef Chris Bianco and his team. The restaurant's name evokes the classic Italian trattoria, but denotes, in Italian, something more precise and intimate: a brushstroke, sketch, or line. It's a fitting name that evokes the Bianco brand of cooking, which is marked by a workmanlike consistency and a perfected-over-time quality that allows optimal ingredients to shine in thoughtfully arrayed pasta and meat dishes. Tratto is modern Italian with American accents, with a menu that's frequently revised to reflect the latest farmers market finds. It would be a mistake to skip the cocktail list, as well it would to pass on an antipasti plate like house-cured lardo, the fat softly melded onto a long, grilled slice of focaccia bread and invigorated with sweet dots of plum jelly. Farinata, a buttery, slightly crunchy pancake that sings with notes of onion and good-quality olive oil, is another mainstay. Primi courses feature a rotating roster of fresh-made pasta dishes, like a bowl of slinky trenette dripping in a white wine butter sauce, complemented with parsley-scented chicken livers. And there might be a Two Wash Ranch chicken dish, beautifully paired with a bundle of slightly shriveled, Arizona grapes full of sun-ripened, concentrated sweetness. Like much of what comes out of the Bianco kitchen, it’s a deceptively simple dish. But, it bears repeating, simple is not the same thing as easy.
Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva is the newest entry in chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's small but swelling Barrio restaurant empire, and it feels like the ideal space for showcasing her latest culinary experiments and forays into modern Mexican cooking. The restaurant has transformed the old Bragg's Factory Pie Factory space on Grand Avenue into an artfully elegant, 27-seat cafe space that feels quintessentially Phoenix, the past and present wrapped up in one liminal room. You can order à la carte — the menu includes some of Barrio Cafe's signature dishes — but the best way to experience Gran Reserva is through the restaurant's menu de degustación, which on a recent visit featured exquisite bites like a soft rectangle of queso menonita wrapped in the fragrant husk of hoja santa, and crispy pork belly accented with a fragrant and lightly sweet tomatillo salsa. Gran Reserva also boasts what might be the biggest Baja California Mexican wine list in town, along with an expanded menu of mezcal-based cocktails. Soon, the daytime menu at the restaurant is expected to transition into Barrio Nopalero, a separate daytime eatery featuring gluten-free, sugar-free, and all-natural items (in the evening, the restaurant will reconfigure as Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva). If the new daytime concept is anything like Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva, you can expect something unconventional and often delicious.
Smile Lao Thai
Smile Lao Thai is a strip mall gem in Tempe, delivering the kind of crowd-pleasing mainstream Thai fare that has made a dish like pad thai noodles a staple of the American takeout diet. But this is a Lao-Thai restaurant with a varied, sprawling menu, which means you'll also find wonderful, hard-to-find Laotian curries like Mii Kathii, a rice noodle curry dish thick with the ultra-rich tones of coconut milk, flavored with ground pork, and given delicious lashings of red curry and peanut sauce. There's also a pretty wonderful avocado curry, mint-hued, creamy, and only vaguely spicy, plus a fragrant pumpkin curry perfumed with sweet basil. These are deftly made curries, silky and nourishing, hinting at medicinal properties. But if you can resist the allure of the kitchen's curries, then you may find happiness in a stir-fry dish like Rad Na, flat noodles drenched in a savory gravy, or perhaps a fried rice noodle like the restaurant's pineapple curry fried rice, an ultra-fragrant dish sweetened slightly with cranberries and pineapple. For dessert, there is no better way to wrap up your meal than with an order of mango with purple sweet-sticky rice.
Nico Heirloom Kitchen
With Nico Heirloom Kitchen, chef Gio Osso of Old Town Scottsdale's much-lauded Virtu Honest Craft brings a good measure of culinary pedigree to downtown Gilbert. You'll find flashes of Virtu on the Nico menu — the chef's famously tender octopus dish, served with delicious lashings of calabrese chile butter, is ever present. But for the most part, Nico was designed to stand on its own, and it succeeds, thanks in large part to the Nico team's careful attention to detail, and the restaurant's pleasing, well-executed menu of dishes, collectively described as "West Coast-inspired seasonal Italian." There is no wrong way to approach the menu, which treads the line easily between high-end Italian and Sunday dinner at Nonna's. It's nearly impossible to resist a soulful, rich antipasti dish like succulent beef and pork meatballs, served with a side of ultra-fresh "Sunday" tomato sauce, or a decadent, béchamel-charged house lasagna al forno that oozes comfort and richness. Even lighter fare, like a wood-fired branzino inflected with citrus and herbs, is rich in texture and flavor. Nico's feels comfortable, casual, and self-assured, yet also sophisticated.
The newly-debuted Binkley's in midtown Phoenix has only been open about a month, but already it's become perhaps the most talked-about restaurant in metro Phoenix. It's impossible to ignore the scope and ambition of this new incarnation of chef Kevin Binkley's flagship fine-dining restaurant. By the numbers, an evening at Binkley's involves something like 22 courses for $160 (not counting beverage pairings or a service fee), which are served at a well-timed pace that can make the average dinner visit stretch beyond three hours. The setting is the intimate and historic property on Osborn Road that previously housed the former Bink's Midtown bistro. Already, an evening at Binkley's is revealing itself to be the kind of multisensory feast you thought only existed in French avant-garde films, at once intimate, communal, jovial, full of culinary playfulness and liquid nitrogen-powered haze. Dishes delight in wit (creamy, bite-sized crab cakes designed to look like tater tots), local terroir (succulent pork shoulder sourced from a locally raised pig, fattened happily on locally produced whey), and distillations of Arizona designed to fit into a votive-sized cup (a delicious and decadent date soup embellished with pecan crumbles). Binkley's is the kind of place any local foodist would want to put on their must-eat bucket list.
Chengdu Delight Chinese Cuisine
Chengdu Delight Chinese Cuisine is a Sichuan-focused restaurant that debuted in the southeast Valley at the top of the year. It lacks the name recognition or deep pockets of some of the newer, glitzier gastropubs and fine-dining restaurants that opened in metro Phoenix in 2016. But it offers the timeless virtues of a friendly, welcoming neighborhood restaurant, from which you can extract roughly the same reliably good flavors and convivial atmosphere across multiple visits. Probably the best way to enjoy a meal at Chengdu Delight is to come with a small group, so that you can make a dent in its sprawling menu, which contains about 80 or so various dishes. The essential dish might be the spicy hot pot, a Sichuan staple that revolves around a bubbling, scarlet-hued chile broth that bubbles like liquid magma from inside its chafing dish. The default version features chicken, shrimp, and tofu simmering in the broth, the meat extra-spongy and garlicky, the shrimp buttery and rich, and even normally bland tofu sluiced with the peppercorn-kissed broth. A hot pot pairs nicely with many of the restaurant's “cold appetizer” dishes, including a very good and refreshing garlic cucumber salad, or perhaps a dish of thinly-sliced, spicy pig ears, which are about as easy to devour as a bowl of freshly made pasta.
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Sonata's may be a late-season entry to the Scottsdale dining scene, but the restaurant's focused, high-toned take on Eastern European staples like borscht and cabbage rolls are already making it one of the most interesting and singular dining experiences in this part of the Valley. The restaurant has a slick, even glitzy dining room, but underneath its glossy sheen, it offers the virtues of well-worn family recipes produced with finesse and a modern touch. Menu items have been culled in part from Lithuanian-born owner Sonata Molocajeviene Tuft's private inventory of Old World family recipes, which are here re-interpreted by executive chef Josh Bracher, previously of Second Story Liquor Bar and Tanzy. Essential starters include kepta duona, slices of rye bread tossed in duck fat and draped in Havarti cheese, along with entrees like crab-stuffed cod, or a smoked beef short rib stroganoff served with wild mushrooms and a dappling of smetana cheese, a dish both deliciously hearty and elegant.