The Phoenix Food Scene Has a Long Way to Go
Hillstone is good, but can't Phoenix do better?
Welcome to "Schaefer," in which Eric Schaefer -- a local guy with a big (but discerning) appetite and a sense of humor to match -- takes on the Phoenix food scene.
As much as I hate to admit it, U.S. Representative Michelle Bachmann is right: The end times are upon us.
Although she made that statement (with joy, I might add) in reference to President Obama's foreign policy, the same inference could be made from the dismal and declining state of restaurant offerings in Arizona.
See also: Steak 'N Shake in Tempe Disappoints
While other similar-size metro areas are seeing a renaissance of diverse culinary offerings, we've got sub sandwich concepts multiplying faster than a pair of horny rabbits in heat. Entrepreneurs are launching new burger restaurants as if it's a novel idea. There's even a rash of olive oil stores (really, they specialize only in olive oil) opening in shopping malls. I know of four, and that's just in Scottsdale. I can't find a decent banh mi in this city of over 4 million residents, but my options for olive oil are nearly infinite.
Have we run out of ideas?
I don't particularly mind that within a one-mile radius of my house is a Subway, two Jimmy Johns, Which Wich, Schlotsky's, and Jersey Mike's. Nor do I care that some kid won't go to college because his parents invested his college fund to open a store dedicated to olive oil, but I am feeling decidedly unexcited about food in Phoenix these days. It has become downright depressing, and I'm afraid that it's getting worse.
It isn't just that we've run out of ideas, it's that some of the restaurants that do open are head-scratchers.
Case in point: Call me a cynic, but I have a hard time comprehending how Naya, a new Mediterranean restaurant in 6,500 square feet of pricey Scottsdale real estate, is going to survive long term. I'd love to be proved wrong, but it just doesn't seem like what this town needs right now, and it's hard to comprehend the economic calculus. How many tables do they need to turn a night -- every night -- to cover that kind of overhead? If the population of Phoenix can't even keep Nobuo at Teeter House full, are they going to rally behind high-end Mediterranean? I hope I'm wrong, and that Naya turns into our version of Philadelphia's Zahav. To further my case: The same shopping center where Naya debuts is also welcoming the opening of -- get this -- a high-end burger place. Surely, they jest.
No, we can't have decent Peruvian food, more than just one option for ramen (which has taken most major metros by storm), Cambodian food, or the communal support needed to sustain more than just a handful of truly ingredient-driven joints, but we've got so many steakhouses that we really ought to convert Metrocenter into a working cattle ranch to feed our habit for beef.
Frankly, I'm bored. And that's not to say that great places with exciting food at various price points don't exist. They do, and there are many die-hards who are diligent about finding and supporting them. But for every Crudo, there are 50 places still serving salmon on a cedar plank. I've been to cemeteries that have more life than many of this city's best restaurants on a weeknight, and if that trend continues, we might as well wave the white flag and surrender to Hillstone, which runs on at least a 45-minute wait every night of the week, despite serving decidedly unexciting fare, albeit well prepared and in a pretty setting.
It seems to me that, as far as food in concerned, Phoenix has always had something of an inferiority complex. Read the mainstream food chat boards (Chowhound, for example), and you'll frequently notice that contributors often refer to well-liked restaurants as "making them feel like they were in New York or San Francisco" -- you know, real restaurant cities. Maybe that inferiority complex is well deserved; if we're not going to support the great restaurants that we do have, then we might as well be stuck with 50 shades of hamburgers and steak.
I'm excited about the opening of Clever Koi, which sounds promising. And I love that Chou's Kitchen, Hana Sushi, and Pho Thanh have developed cult-like followings. Rancho Pinot, one of my favorite restaurants, just celebrated 20 years in the Valley. Cork is a gem that should be drawing from all over town, not just Chandler. Teleport Posh to New York City and the counter would be packed every night of the week; it's that great. Otro Café is ridiculously good. And I'm dying to find out who will be the next chef at Noca, although its owner (and friend of mine) Eliot Wexler won't tell me. I haven't even mentioned the hundreds of undiscovered and underpublicized but deserving holes in the wall. We have James Beard Award winners like Christopher Gross, but I wonder how long our culinary talent will stay motivated if we can't return the favor. Ask almost any restaurant owner in Phoenix and they'll tell you the same thing: This summer was particularly brutal, with many restaurants barely hanging on.
I've always been a strong advocate for Phoenix and have defended it against the critics. "But we've come so far," I often say, referring to the great strides we've made in the past 10 years.
We've also got so far to go, and I hope that doesn't mean traveling to Los Angeles for a great meal.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.