To say that 2016 was a newsworthy year would be an understatement. In terms of local food and drink, it was a year of some notable losses – but also a year energized by new talent and new concepts that are already shaping metro Phoenix into a more interesting place to eat and drink.
From a legendary Windy City pizzeria taking root in the desert to the debut of some highly anticipated new chef-driven restaurants, here are some of the biggest and most notable stories from New Times' food and drink coverage in 2016.
Thanks to a healthy influx of Midwestern transplants to metro Phoenix, the nostalgia for classic Chicago food around town is palpable. It's no wonder, then, that so many diners were counting the days until the opening of the Phoenix location of Lou Malnati's Pizzeria, the legendary Chicago-based deep-dish pizzeria with more than 40 locations around the Windy City. The Phoenix location, situated at the fashionable-again Uptown Plaza Shopping Center in central Phoenix, is the first Lou Malnati's restaurant outside of metro Chicago.
Mexican sushi might be the biggest food trend imported from northern Mexico since the Sonoran dog become part of the Arizona-Sonora Mexican food canon. This deep-fried, Mexican-Japanese fusion concept has taken root on Phoenix's west side – and has begun to spread into the East Valley.
The appeal of melted cheese on softly buttered, griddled Texas toast is pretty timeless, so it probably shouldn't be too surprising that one of the most-read stories this year concerned a new "grilled cheese gastropub." Toasted, which opened this August in Phoenix's Melrose District, deals in lush, artery-clogging delicacies like fried cheese curds, and specialty grilled cheese sandwiches like the Trailer Park, a grilled cheese that involves Fritos corn chips and a deep-fryer. There are 11 grilled cheese sandwiches on the menu altogether, plus a smattering of dessert sandwiches, and judging from the high level of interest in this story, it's fair to say the concept has been a runaway hit.
Fine dining in metro Phoenix took a major hit this year when Scottsdale's ShinBay closed permanently back in July. The restaurant offered a singular dining experience: refined, creative, and impeccably prepared omakase-style multicourse meals, designed and prepared by chef Shinji Kurita. Kurita, whose restaurant was a James Beard Award semifinalist in the "Best New Restaurant" category back in 2012, cited financial issues as the reason for the restaurant's closure.
Scott Conant – New Yorker, chef-restaurateur, cookbook author, frequent judge on Food Network's Chopped, and avowed hater of raw, red onions – raised a few eyebrows this summer when he announced that he would be launching his next project in Phoenix. Conant has partnered with Pomo Pizzeria's chef-owner Stefano Fabbri for the new venture, Mora Italian, which is described as a "modern Italian osteria." The restaurant, which was originally scheduled to open by the end of this year, is now scheduled to launch some time in early 2017, according to the restaurant's website.
Thai-style ice cream rolls are kind of a big deal across Thailand's night markets, and they started trending pretty hard in New York City last summer, so we were happy to find the unique ice cream treat being made right here in the Valley. Nino McCurley, owner of the Nomadic Ice Cream Rolls ice cream cart in El Mirage, is the first to bring the dessert to Arizona. If you've never had one of his rolls, prepare yourself for the fun of watching him chop and smash together ingredients on a frozen round metal plate, transforming sheets of ice cream into artful little scrolls embellished with creative toppings.
In August, the Valley's burgeoning tiki cocktail scene seemed to reach a crescendo with the opening of Under Tow, the city's first underground tiki bar. The small bar, the latest concept from Barter & Shake, is situated underneath Sip Coffee & Beer Garage on 36th Street and Indian School Road.
8. Tres Leches Café in Phoenix is Like the Mexican Starbucks of Your Dreams
This year, metro Phoenix got its own homegrown, Mexican-themed coffee shop. Tres Leches Café, which recently relocated to a new standalone location near Roosevelt Street and 15th Avenue, offers a creative menu of coffee drinks inspired by Latin American sweet treats like churros, arroz con leche, dulce de leche, and tres leches cake. Owner ET Rivera is always playing around with new recipes, including putting a caffeine-laced spin on classic drinks like horchata and cafe de olla.
Even though it's been nearly a decade since an Arizona chef or restaurant brought home a James Beard Award, it still came as something of a shock when we learned back in March that no Arizona chef or restaurant made the short list of Beard finalists. Could chef Kevin Binkley's ambitious new outing, the eponymous Binkley's restaurant, which debuts this month in the space formerly known as Bink's Midtown, finally turn the tide and earn him the national recognition that many feel he deserves? We'll find out soon enough.
Imagine our surprise, and excitement, when we learned that El Celler de Can Roca – a three-Michelin-starred Spanish restaurant that was named the best restaurant in the world by Restaurant Magazine in 2013 and 2015 – was in town for a series of invite-only pop-up dinners. The visit was part of a whirlwind five-city cooking tour that took the restaurant – including a staff of more than 40 chefs and servers – to three continents in five weeks. As part of the tour, which was sponsored by BBVA Compass bank, the restaurant hosted three large-scale, multicourse dinners at the Four Seasons Resort at Troon North in Scottsdale. Much of the private guest list was made up of BBVA Compass clientele, so if you weren't able to snag an invite, here is an inside look at one of the El Celler de Can Roca dinners.
The Garfield historic district is poised to become the epicenter of downtown Phoenix cool next year, thanks to two classic Phoenix restaurants that will be setting up shop at the intersection of 10th and Pierce streets. Chef Michael Babcock and Sloane McFarland are planning a second location of Welcome Diner, which will be on the southwest corner of the intersection. Chef Doug Robson, meanwhile, will be bringing back his much-loved Gallo Blanco concept to the northwest corner of the same intersection. Both restaurants are expected to open some time in Spring 2017.
It was hard to contain our excitement as we watched chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's newest restaurant, Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva, come to life on the corner of Grand Avenue and McKinley Street. We were fortunate to get a peek at the restaurant's artful interior weeks before the restaurant opened to the public. We were further intrigued to learn her latest restaurant would offer a tasting menu – the first tasting menu in the Barrio family of restaurants – and also by the chef's impressive list of all-Mexican wines.
3. Carolina's Mexican Food to Open Fourth Valley Location in Mesa
The love for Carolina's Mexican Food, the no-frills Mexican restaurant with three locations currently around the Valley, runs deep in this town. In July, we told you that Carolina's would be opening its first East Valley location in Mesa, and it quickly become one of the most widely read and shared food stories of the year. The new location will be located at 1450 South Country Club Drive and, according to the Carolina's Mexican Food Facebook page, it's currently projected to open in February 2017.
After months of anticipation, Tratto – Chris Bianco's take on the classic Italian trattoria, with modern American accents – opened in May at the Town & Country Plaza. It's the only Bianco restaurant that doesn’t serve pizza, and the first to veer into fine-dining territory. Its small menu, highlighting local ingredients, changes several times a week, and features the simple yet refined, perfected-over-time quality that has become the Bianco brand of cooking. Tratto is the total package, and if you miss the pizza, well, it's right next door at Pizzeria Bianco.
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So, what was the most-read food and drink story of 2016? It may have had something to do with a new speakeasy that opened in downtown Phoenix back in January. This was, hands-down, the most widely read story of the year. In case you still haven't found the speakeasy, known as Melinda's Alley, look for the single red light-bulb, which signals the way to this obscure downtown watering hole. Don't tell anyone we told you about it.