Final Meditations on the Phoenix Food Scene from Michele Laudig
The one thing about my job that I've been asked more than anything else is how I landed it in the first place. I've come up with many answers, but now I realize it's something that still keeps me going.
Five years ago, when I became the New Times restaurant critic, I gleefully found myself Googling words like burrata or guanciale. I eagerly ditched my predictable diet of sandwiches, sushi, and spaghetti to consume a vast repertoire of exotic foods — chicken feet in chile sauce, fermented soybeans, Kobe beef tartare, and headcheese. It was a good excuse (paired with an actual budget) to geek out on the flavors of the world, and the timing couldn't have been better.
It turns out popular culture was on the same wild ride, turning chefs into TV hosts, bestselling authors, and full-blown celebrities. Cooking caught new cachet. Farmers markets blossomed, and heirloom vegetables became precious commodities. The public embraced a steep learning curve about food and, nowadays, people chat effortlessly about sophisticated food. And doesn't everyone know what burrata is by now?
Since 2005, local chef legends like Vincent Guerithault, Christopher Gross, Michael DeMaria, Nobuo Fukuda, and Chris Bianco have been joined by the next wave of talent, including Greg LaPrad, Matt Carter, Chris Curtiss, Charleen Badman, and others.
It's been exhilarating to grow up along with the Phoenix dining scene these past several years, to watch the evolving parade of Thai restaurants and wine bars and gelato shops, to track the migration of certain chefs from one kitchen to the next. At times, it's also been shocking to see landmarks like Mary Elaine's fall victim to changing times.
Now, as I leave the paper for the next phase of my career, there are a bunch of new eateries on the scene (or about to open), hinting at things bouncing back from a couple of really tough years. I smell the optimism of springtime.
Downtown, The Arrogant Butcher is perhaps single-handedly raking in hordes of people to the still-unproven, still somewhat empty CityScape complex, and it's encouraging to hear so much buzz about it. (In fact, I'm masochistically glad that there's a wait for a seat.) A soon-to-open pop-up restaurant, Cycle, will temporarily revive the Lexington Hotel before it gets a full-on redux later this year.
Postino's Craig DeMarco, who's planning another wine bar outpost in Gilbert, is getting ready to unveil two new side-by-side CenPho concepts, The Windsor and Churn. And in Old Town Scottsdale, chefs are driving interesting new developments, including Citizen Public House (Bernie Kantak), Big Earl's BBQ (James Porter), and Bonfire Grill (Matt Carter).
There's a lot to look forward to, but why not hope for even more?
I'd love to see a boom in brewpubs (especially downtown) and a better selection of brewskis at local restaurants. The impressive debut of the recent Arizona Beer Week demonstrated that beer's not just for barflies anymore — people want good suds to go with dinner, and they're more open-minded about supporting local microbrews and trying different styles.
There's also a blatant need for more vegetarian options, even for meat lovers. Sure, we could stand more dedicated meat-free establishments, but how about starting with an improved selection of vegetarian dishes on regular menus? This is one area that's wide-open for creative experimentation — not to mention as a means of supporting local agriculture. I'm an unabashed carnivore and I still find it depressing that it's so hard to satisfy my cravings for seasonal vegetables unless I'm cooking at home.
Mexican food is everywhere, and yet it doesn't feel like Arizonans really celebrate south-of-the-border grub like they could. Is it politics or just insecurity? I've been dreaming about underrepresented regional Mexican food, pastries and gourmet paletas, and seasonal aguas frescas replacing boring old soda pop at little neighborhood joints. Come on — we should own this. Texas has its famed Tex-Mex, and New Mexico has a distinctive chile-tinged spin on the cuisine. Why can't Arizona take pride in its diversity and put it on a plate?
For that matter, I'm craving all kinds of ethnic food, and as much as I'm happy to drive to the west side or the East Valley for intriguing foreign flavors, it's the city center that really should offer me a taste of the world. I know I'm not alone here.
Yes, there's finally a Vietnamese joint in downtown (Viet Kitchen); now I'm aiming for Korean food. It's spicy, it's all about barbecue, and it's great with a group. (Some of my fondest memories of working in Asia 15 years ago involve after-work BS-ing over sizzling bulgogi and cold beer.) Likewise, I'd be thrilled to see a Puerto Rican spot serving killer mofongo (garlicky mashed plantains with bacon), or a well-done Indian restaurant. And let's hope that Sens chef-owner Johnny Chu takes a leap of faith and brings his Tien Wong hot pot concept (already up and running in Chandler) to the heart of the city as well.
Actually, food trucks can deliver the goods on a lot of this stuff, with minimal overhead. Many of the existing food trucks that show up at farmers markets and the Phoenix Public Market's Friday mobile food court are big on American comfort food, so there's room for somebody to serve up Russian piroshkis (buns stuffed with sweet or savory fillings), Salvadoran pupusas (thick, griddled rounds of masa dough filled with cheese, beans, pork, and more), cool Peruvian ceviche (citrus-cured seafood), or perhaps Hong Kong-style dim sum bites. Please?
It's not only up to entrepreneurs to scribble all over this blank canvas. It's up to public officials to think about how a change in food truck regulations could boost the local economy. These trucks are basically small business incubators on wheels — why not figure out how to help them?
Today's successful food truck could be tomorrow's successful brick-and-mortar restaurant. The city of Phoenix needs to loosen up its stringent street-vending requirements, and Maricopa County should clear up gray areas in inspection and licensing of mobile food units. I've talked to a lot of frustrated entrepreneurs who long for straightforward rules and more leeway in where and when they can set up shop.
There's still more to be done with late-night dining. Old Town Scottsdale has the most options on that front, with a handful of high-end eateries offering creative, affordable eats for folks in the hospitality industry and night owls alike. Central Phoenix, on the other hand, is discombobulated. Maybe support for food trucks could spark an after-hours street-food scene.
Looking at the bigger picture, there's been a tangible evolution in our food-loving community over the past few years, especially as virtual relationships through social media have spawned real-world partnerships, fund-raisers, food trends, and social events. The dining public is becoming more informed by the minute, and chefs are noticeably more responsive to customers. Many change their menus weekly or daily, and some even have their own blogs. It's easier to interact than it was in 2005.
Yeah, I do think that culinary festivals have jumped the shark (do we really need so many? It's exhausting and redundant). But other than that, I'm rooting for anything that brings people together and creates compelling dialogue. The next big things in Phoenix dining — the things that really put us on the map as an important U.S. market — won't be created in a vacuum, but will be sparked by unconventional collaborations and unexpected conversations.
Got your own ideas about what Phoenix needs to achieve culinary greatness? Make it happen.
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