As another year of eating and drinking in the Valley of the Sun comes to a close, I have the pleasure of looking back and appreciating some truly wonderful dining experiences. In the past 12 months, the Valley has welcomed new restaurants that are sure to change the way we think about food in Phoenix, and several dishes from those game-changing restaurants are on this list. Other plates come from longstanding restaurants that have proved to be reliable sources of excellent food, while still others count as seasonal offerings I hope to see again. In any and all cases, these are some of the very best bites in metro Phoenix this year.
Sheng jian bao from DingHao Shanghai: In recent years, enthusiasm for Asian food of all kinds has taken Chinese xiao long bao, or "soup dumplings," to cult status with food lovers in the know. But 2015 saw the rise of a new Chinese dumpling, sheng jian bao, thanks in part to a strong endorsement by celebrity chef David Chang. I hunted down the less common dumpling-bun hybrid for the first time at DingHao Shanghai in Mesa, where you can order a plate of four "fried steam buns" (as written on the English menu) for under $6. Though they look like oversize XLB, these dumplings are actually made out of bun-like yeasted dough that's filled with pork and hot soup broth. Each bite rewards with a mix of starchy, fatty, and meaty flavors that are elevated thanks to the caramelized layer of sesame seeds on the bottom of each bun. (2711 S. Alma School Road, Mesa, 480-897-9458, www.dinghaoshanghai.com)
Ocotillo chicken from Ocotillo: When chef Walter Sterling first told me he was planning on offering five types of roasted chicken at Ocotillo, I had my doubts. But with one taste of the restaurant's namesake Ocotillo chicken I immediately understood the decision. From the moment this dish arrives at your table, it's impressive; a half of a roasted chicken that glistens from a honey and chile glaze and sits perched atop some of the best potato salad I've ever tried. The meat not only is moist, but it's also saturated with subtle notes of mesquite smoke. (243 N. 3rd St., 602-687-9080, www.ocotillophx.com)
Hummus at Princess Market: These days, hummus is everywhere. But none of the modern versions I've tasted have come close to rivaling the classic housemade variety at Princess Market in Mesa. I don't want to oversell what is an utterly simple dish, but the freshness of this hummus and the impeccably light texture make it a don't-miss part of any visit to the family-owned restaurant and Middle Eastern market. Combining garbanzo beans, tahini, garlic, and lemon, this hummus fluctuates between low notes of sesame and garlic, rising when cut with a kick of lemon. Drizzled with a layer of olive oil, it's a near-perfect way to start a meal, shoveling up heavy scoops with thin pita bread. (2620 W. Broadway Road, Mesa, 480-894-1499, www.princessmarket.com)
Country ham, pimento cheese aioli, and hoe cakes from Okra: I've swooned about the polenta hoe cakes on the brunch menu at chef Cullen Campbell's Crudo before, so when I saw a small plate with ham, cheese, and hoe cakes on the menu at the newly opened Okra, I jumped. Of course, there's nothing complicated about the combination of ham and cheese, but with thin slices of super-salty country ham playing against a smooth, smoky pimento cheese aioli, this sharable plate is like your favorite childhood snack evolved for more sophisticated tastes. Now, I don't know how Campbell intended for it to be eaten, but I give in to my juvenile whims and build miniature ham and cheese sandwiches with a layer of cheese and a few shavings of ham between two of the silver dollar hoe cakes. (5813 N. 7th St., 602-296-4147, www.okraaz.com)
Beef roll from Taiwan Food Express: Located inside Mekong Plaza (an Asian food lovers' paradise where you can find everything from groceries to pho to a Thai foot massage), Taiwan Food Express is an ideal place for a food adventure on a budget. The only problem might be that once you've tried the beef roll, you're unlikely to want to order anything else. Here, the sum is greater than the parts: just a traditional scallion pancake wrapped around stewed beef and hoisin sauce. With doughy, beefy, salty, sweet, and tangy flavors in every bite, this may be one of the best ways to spend $4 anywhere in town. (66 S. Dobson Road, Mesa, 480-668-9888, www.taiwanfoodmesa.com)
Sparkling Pink from Dos Cabezas WineWorks: I'm happy to say I was there when Dos Cabezas celebrated the release of its rosé at FnB several years ago, and again when the winery debuted its sparkling rosé at Devoured last year. The best part about the sparkling rosé was that it came in 16-ounce cans — cans illustrated with a painting by Leonard Bianco (father of local chef Chris Bianco) that was given to his wife, Francesca, on their wedding day in 1959. The wine itself was excellent for a summer day, crisp and lightly sweet with notes of strawberry, and in high demand almost as soon as it appeared on restaurant menus. By April you could find the precious cans of bubbly bliss only at a few local restaurants, but it should be back next year. And this time, we'll all be ready to pounce.
Grits and eggs from The Gladly: It's easy to go overboard with brunch. From heavy sauces to punched-up cocktails, sometimes this leisurely weekend meal turns into an all-out assault on your senses. Not so, however, at The Gladly in Phoenix, where you'll find live music during Sunday brunch from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., as well as some of my favorite Bloody Marys anywhere in town. My go-to dish is always the grits and eggs, a luxurious plate that's never trying too hard. The grits star. Creamy, but still light and flavored with just a whisper of truffle, these are grits that beg to be savored slowly not gulped in haste. A thick slice of buckboard bacon (made with less-fatty pork butt, not belly) provides heft, while over easy eggs and toast make up the backbone of the dish. (2201 E. Camelback Road, 602-759-8132, www.thegladly.com)
Paneer Butter Masala from Woodlands: Consider yourself warned: Once you've had the paneer butter masala at Woodlands South Indian Vegetarian Kitchen in Chandler, you're probably going to be unsatisfied by the dish anywhere else. This thick, vibrantly colored gravy is both creamy and subtly spiced, offering a medley of flavors so well-balanced that it's nearly impossible to pick out individual notes. Amid the onion, ginger, garlic, spices, cream, and butter, you'll uncover cubes of firm, fresh paneer (Indian farmer cheese) that clears the palate just enough to get you ready for more. (4980 W. Ray Road, Chandler, 480-820-2249, www.woodlandsaz.com)
Sweet corn sorbet at Bink's Midtown: Anyone who's eaten at Binkley's Restaurant in Cave Creek knows chef Kevin Binkley is a culinary magician — perhaps the better word would be scientist. In either case, it's a lesson I learned firsthand this year when I went into the kitchen with the chef at his Central Phoenix restaurant, Bink's Midtown, to make a seasonal special, sweet corn sorbet. Using no dairy, Binkley produced a golden yellow dessert utterly bursting with corn flavor. It was so smooth and luxe on the tongue that you'd swear it was coating your mouth with genuine fat. The secret to the texture has to do with the natural starch in the corn, but I'm still convinced the chef used a little bit of magic. (2320 E. Osborn Road, 602-388-4874, www.binkleysrestaurantgroup.com/restaurants/binks-midtown)
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Hoppin' John at The Larder + The Delta: Fans rave about chef Stephen Jones' buffalo wing-flavored cauliflower and Cheetos-covered pig ears, but I'm not ashamed to say my favorite dish on the menu at his new restaurant is also one of the simplest: Hoppin' John. Combining Carolina Gold rice and Sea Island peas, this dish transports you to a different time and place — namely, the antebellum South — while also offering a dizzying array of flavors and textures in every bite. You'll get notes of cumin and celery and chive against a backdrop of the delicate rice and sweet, creamy peas. (915 N. Central Ave., 909-379-4816, www.facebook.com/The-larder-the-delta-504565443044776)