Spring Training is almost upon us, which means winter is officially over and it's time to break out the shorts. This right here is the weather we Phoenicians live for, the reason we endure five hellish months of summer and severe cases of cabin fever . . . just for the few all-too-brief months of balmy, orange blossom-perfumed weather perfection we're now approaching.
But you can't play golf and watch baseball every minute, can you? Well, can you? I mean, you have to stop and eat some time. But eating can be a pleasant form of recreation too. With food-as-fun in mind, we offer 15 great metro Phoenix that prove we're more than golf and baseball and hiking and other PE-related stuff, 15 restaurants that put us on the culinary map. Dig in.
Decorated with Mexican kitsch and the edgy work of local artists, this regional Mexican restaurant in the heart of the barrio doesn't serve complimentary chips and salsa because that's not how meals begin in Mexico. It's a Mexican-American custom chef-owner Silvana Salcido Esparza can't relate to and refuses to offer, but never mind. Just order her legendary guacamole, prepared tableside with cranberries or pomegranate seeds (depending on the season), and you'll be over it in seconds. Then move on to signature specialties such as slow-roasted cochinita pibil, chiles en nogada and mole enchiladas, augmented by an impressive list of Mexican wines and 250 tequilas. Teetotalers make do nicely with bottled Mexican Coke and some of the city's best house-made horchata. Meanwhile, cajeta churros (Mexican fritters filled with goat's milk caramel) make a rich, sweet finish. $-$$$
Cowboy-centric Cave Creek seems an unlikely location for Binkley's: Kevin and Amy Binkley's intimate boite drawing fanatical food-lovers far and wide. But there it sits, a classically-driven but wonderfully eclectic New American beloved for its impeccable service, broad and deep wine list, inventive cocktails and mind-bending amuse bouche, a series of clever, complimentary bites that very nearly fill you up before dinner has even started. The seasonally focused menu, built upon superb ingredients (locally sourced whenever they represent the very best) changes frequently, so the best way to get a taste of what Binkley and his super-talented chef de cuisine Brandon Gauthier can do is to order a four-, five- or six-course tasting menu, giving you smaller selections and more variety. When you're dithering among chilled seared foie gras, pig trotters, skate, lobster, elk and partridge, it's the only way to go. Yes, dinner will be expensive, but think of the bragging rights when you get home! $$$-$$$$
Except for the intoxicating smell of smoke, which hits your nose the instant you open the door, there's not much about this family-friendly, cowboy-themed BBQ joint in Cave Creek that feels 'cue typical. For starters, the place is neat and clean and in perfect repair, not much of a "joint" at all. But you won't need ramshackle atmosphere to tell you that chef-owner Bryan Dooley has mastered the art and science of barbecue. His sliced brisket could be a benchmark for brisket anywhere (Texas, I'm looking at you), and his ribs require a bit of gnawing instead of falling off the bone -- as great ribs never do. Nothing on his menu is an afterthought either, which means the baked potato salad and green olive-studded cole slaw are first-rate, and the house-made ice cream sandwich is not to be missed, no matter how stuffed you feel (and trust me, you will). Dooley also offers a great selection of craft beers and fantastic seasonal specialties such as summer's heirloom tomato sandwich (flecked with sea salt Dooley smokes himself) and fresh watermelon wedges sprinkled with diced jalapeño and drizzled with honey. $-$$
If you're a whiz at languages, you'll probably surmise that Eugenia Theodosopoulos isn't French. But never mind her mouthful of a Greek surname. The woman trained at Ecole Lenôtre and ran her own catering company in Paris for five years. She's got the whole pastry thing down cold, and her super-flaky croissants, elegant macarons and sinful bostock are the delicious proof. A small pastry case near the entrance to her casual, green-designed café holds these and other irresistible sweets, but first, you should probably order a French-inspired breakfast or lunch built around locally sourced ingredients and bolstered with Greek specialties from Thedosopoulos's childhood. Breakfast might be Croque Madame or brioche French toast, while lunch could be Quiche Lorraine, lemon and basil free-range chicken salad, spanakopita or a grass-fed beef burger, topped with tomato, arugula and balsamic mayonnaise. Her daily lunch specials are so good they often sell out by noon, so plan accordingly. $-$$
Charming FnB -- restaurant industry shorthand for "food and beverage" -- does a superb job with both, specializing in an Arizona wine list and eclectic, sophisticated food (almost all locally sourced) that manages to be comforting no matter what the provenance: crisp-edged socca from Nice, fattoush from Lebanon, dukka from Egypt or good old fried green tomatoes from the U.S. of A. Chef-owner Charleen Badman didn't earn the nickname "veggie whisperer" for nothing. Her constantly changing menu is rife with them, some exotic, others familiar, all approachable. Meanwhile, her partner Pavle Milic is the front-of-the-house wine wonk who welcomes guests and makes recommendations, his courtly Latino-inflected patter putting everyone under his spell. The place is usually packed, so make reservations early. Two other words of advice: butterscotch pudding. $-$$ (lunch); $$-$$$ (dinner)
From the outside, Hana looks like thousands of neighborhood Japanese restaurants and sushi bars. But this unpretentious family-run BYO, parked at one end of a nothing-fancy strip mall, turns fantastically fresh fish into the city's best traditional sushi. No Philly rolls here; no sake bombers either -- although chef-owner Lori Hashimoto, her brother Rick and step-dad Kaz-san are not above sending out something modern and playful, say, an uni shooter or ankimo slider. Meanwhile, cooked dishes (both traditional and interpretive) are just as mesmerizing. Is it any wonder Japanese-born chef Nobuo Fukuda (see below) is a regular? He and the other local chefs who keep Hana in their rotation know that traditional dishes such as tonkatsu, tempura and chawanmushi are prepared with elaborate care (Lori's mom sings to the rice) and it shows. Pay close attention to the board that lists daily specials and be sure to ask for translations and recommendations because this is where things get really interesting. $-$$ (lunch); $$-$$$ (dinner)
Got a Phoenix restaurant bucket list? If so, famous Pizzeria Bianco is surely on it. And while visiting this shrine to pizza in its pluperfect form is never a bad idea, you might want to consider chef-owner Chris Bianco's newest baby. Get past its generic name (which has a story behind it) and you'll find a charming, light-filled space filled with old photos, hand-written recipes and memorabilia, a tribute to family and the traditions of simple Italian and Italian-American home-cooking. Bianco and his chef John Hall source nearly everything locally, including flour from Hayden Flour Mill for the extraordinary wood oven-baked bread (courtesy of brother Marco) and hand-made pastas. Meats are slow-roasted, salads are edible works of art and desserts are often culled from the recipe file of Bianco's mother Francesca. Grab a seat at the rustic bar for local beer, wine and espresso or a table on the patio for an al fresco lunch or dinner. $-$$ (lunch); $$-$$$ (dinner)
When you're dressing up and going all out, you head to elegant, over-the-top Kai at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa. It's the only restaurant in the state to earn five stars from Forbes Travel Guide for five years running and five diamonds from AAA for seven years in a row. But honestly, the ratings probably won't impress you half as much as the panoramic desert views, flawless service and chef de cuisine Joshua Johnson's breathtaking Native American-inspired food, so beautifully presented you may hesitate (just for a second) to eat it. As is true at Binkley's, tasting menus are a good way to go here, so opt for the seven-course Short Story (including amuse, $120 or $195 with wine) or the blowout 13-course Journey (including amuse, $200 or $300 with wine). If life's a journey, isn't this the one you want to be on? $$$-$$$$
For a delicious piece of local history, you can't beat this old-school Mexican restaurant, still owned and operated by the Corral family, who came to Scottsdale in 1917. A piece of the original 20's-era adobe building (once a pool hall, later a place for church meetings) is still intact, but the creaky, dim old building has grown considerably over the years to accommodate locals and tourists who can't get enough of the straightforward, Sonoran-style food served here. If you're smart, you'll start with a gooey, bubbling hot cheese crisp, made on a fabulous house-made flour tortilla and best eaten with the spicy bright red salsa (not the milder one) brought to the table with chips. Mariachis on the weekends keep the atmosphere lively, but there's really no need for entertainment when you're focused on excellent green corn tamales, rich enchiladas and spicy steak picado that will leave your mouth aglow. Get there early for happy hour in the bar, when cheese crisps, flautas and mini tacos are dirt-cheap. $-$$
Yes, it was featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, but don't visit this insanely popular, perpetually crowded neighborhood favorite on Guy Fieri's say-so. Go because owners Matt and Erenia Pool, who recently moved the operation to larger digs on the same block, turn out some of the best breakfasts in town -- served all day long, using cage-free eggs and locally roasted coffee. Rosemary-flecked home fries are one delicious reason breakfast gets all the glory, but lunch's Big Butter Burger (fried in butter), classic Reuben (made with house-roasted corned beef) and Midwest-style chili are just as praiseworthy. $-$$
From a wood-floored, turn-of-the-century bungalow in Heritage Square, James Beard award winning chef-owner Nobuo Fukuda brings East and West together, offering rustic izakaya classics given a modern American spin. Lunch's warm duck salad, pork belly buns, okonomiyaki and panko-fried soft shell crab sandwich are so off-the-charts good you'll be pinching yourself at the prices (hovering around $10). And while dinner selections of grapefruit and hamachi (with avocado and white truffle ponzu oil) or Washugyu short rib (with local asparagus and local fried egg) are more expensive, they're still do-able, given the small plates format. Fukuda features premium Japanese beer, sake, shochu, wine and teas you won't find anywhere else, all adding up to the sort of experience you really can't find anywhere else. Best bargain going: $50 Omakase Sunday brunch (call three days ahead). $-$$$
When it's serenity and a touch of romance you require, nothing beats hard-to-pronounce, easy-to-love Quiessence, ensconced in a cozy converted farmhouse on the bucolic Farm at South Mountain. Drive down a pecan tree-lined lane and walk through a garden gate to get to this sweet hideaway, which seems a world away from business as usual. Chef-owner Greg LaPrad and his right hand man Tony Andiario bake bread in the outdoor hearth and turn out hand-made pasta each day, creating an Italian-inspired, New American menu predicated upon local ingredients and seasonality. Can't swing a pricy (but well worth it) dinner? Go for breakfast at LaPrad's adorable, al fresco café next door, where you'll eat challah bread French toast, huevos rancheros, and cowboy breakfast chili and eggs under the trees. Quiessence -- $$$; Morning Glory -- $-$$
Chef-owner Chrysa Robertson modestly demurs when loyalists call her "the Alice Waters of Arizona," but the truth is, this feisty, BS-free chef was raising her own chickens for eggs, buying veggies from AZ farmers and meats from AZ herdsmen long before everyone else jumped on the local-seasonal bandwagon. Her Italian-inflected New American menu (always sophisticated but homey at once) changes often, but you'll always find a handful of gorgeous salads (Tuscan kale being one of many favorites), grilled quail (with creamy polenta, mustard greens and grilled plum mostarda) and Nonni's Sunday Chicken, a comfort food dish that comes straight from her grandma. Robertson's wine list shows breadth and depth, and her desserts -- many incorporating fruits of the season -- are outstanding. Insiders eat supper at the bar, where they can people-watch and chat with Chrysa, who sometimes offers regulars a complimentary sip of house-made limoncello. $$$
Named for its Central Phoenix neighborhood, this brick-walled, Mid-Century space is packed night and day for a slew of great reasons including its hip, loft-like good looks and fresh, oven-baked bread. What's more, both happy hour and brunch are among the best in town, value-priced and chock full of simple but sophisticated selections, including a seasonal veggie fritatta, a wonderfully smoky burger and herb-flecked, Parmesan-sprinkled fingerling potatoes so irresistible you'll hate yourself later for cleaning the plate. Chef-owner Aaron Chamberlin set out to create a neighborhood go-to, and with help from his chef de cuisine Chris Barch, he's pulled it off nicely, giving discerning local-inclined regulars a comfy little hangout with a pretty patio and cool indoor-outdoor bar. For best results, come during off hours or make a reservation. $$-$$$
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It's not surprising that Shinbay chef-owner Shinji Kurita and Nobuo Fukuda once worked together. The two are similar in their modern approach to classic Japanese cuisine. But Kurita, whom I once would've called the more traditional of the two, has been pushing the envelope since opening his tranquil new version of ShinBay in Scottsdale, turning out stunning sashimi, sushi and hot dishes that, while rooted in tradition, feel out there on the edge. Made with impeccably sourced (wild-caught and often rare) fish and other exotica, Kurita's artful, seasonal food doesn't come cheap, but if you're a bona-fide food-lover, you absolutely shouldn't miss it. You can dabble around on the a la carte menu or just jump in for a six-course ($125 + tax and tip) or seven-course ($150+ tax and tip) extravaganza. Just do it.