Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Payton Curry called his pop-up restaurant at The Welcome Diner a therapy project. His therapy became culinary-inspired healing for the 2,800-plus diners who showed up between April 1 and a cosmic final cleanup on July 5 — fittingly, the day of the now-famous haboob. Curry created his daily menu based on what was fresh and available each morning from local purveyors. Scoring a spot inside the nine-seat diner ensured a dream eating experience: watching the chef and his dessert-creating wife, Shantal, prep, cook, and banter with guests. At the outdoor picnic tables, the collegial atmosphere was extended by an attentive, knowledgeable staff, something often missing from a pop-up. The FB&J sandwich is now legendary — lightly seared foie gras with a hint of rosemary and strawberry jam on toasted brioche. Handmade fettuccini appeared one night with lamb, sheep's milk cheese, chickpeas, and golden raisins. It appeared on another as the foundation for a vegetarian dish topped with tomatoes, sweet corn, squash, and sorrel.Bacon-wrapped rabbit on a bed of pickled zucchini, radish, cherry tomatoes, and golden raisins, and squab with morel ravioli, greens, and pecans were one-night stands, savored for the moment and longed for until Payton pops up again we hear you can catch him these days at FnB in Scottsdale.
Phoenix went food-truck-crazy in 2011, with no fewer than half a dozen of them tooling around town at any given moment. The granddaddy of them all is still Short Leash, the "mobile hot dog" eatery that appears at such disparate locations/events as the Downtown Phoenix Public Market, Stinkweeds, First Fridays, and various gallery openings and private functions. In other words, Short Leash is in high demand. The hot dogs (provided by local fave Schreiner's) are uniformly excellent, and the creations that Short Leash has come up with (all named after the owners' favorite dogs) are clever and delicious (our favorite: Moki — with green chiles, pinto beans, cheese, and mayo). To boot, Short Leash lets customers submit pictures of their dogs, who may just get a special named after them. Be sure to follow these guys on Twitter and Facebook to find where they are at all times, because that is where Short Leash also excels: its expert utilization of social media. While your lame friends are clogging up Facebook and Twitter with superfluous information about how they're hungover or how they just cleaned their refrigerator or how they cried during the last Harry Potter film, Short Leash is updating its status with the kind of info we really need, like where can we get a hot dog — now! We're glad to have Short Leash on the prowl.
Some of the best chefs in town popped up this summer in downtown Phoenix — thanks to Cycle. With the worn-out Lexington Hotel in flux (not quite ready for renovations, but also not ready to shut its doors entirely), a nothing-fancy old bar and restaurant was sitting empty. 'Til Cycle. Every weekend (and sometimes during the week, at its peak), local chefs and a mixologist or two set up shop and wowed us with everything from Andrea White's South African cooking to Josh Hebert's take on ramen. The New Times editorial staff (full disclosure here) even took over for a night or two, finding it the perfect spot to scarf La Tolteca's caramel churros and brainstorm ideas for the Best Of issue you're reading right now. In a city where thinking outside the box is far too rare, it's nice to see a creative concept in play. And even nicer to hear that the Lexington's put its renovations on hold a little longer — meaning Cycle will now run through at least December.
Growing produce in Phoenix has become a hot topic of late — this summer, Twitter was, well, atwitter with local farmers and foodies battling over the relative merits of trying to grow anything here in the dog days. Meanwhile, the Valley of the Sun is lapping up the idea of eating local, and every week, it seems, a new farmers market emerges.

So just how tough is it to get your garden to grow here in Phoenix? We asked the kind folks at the Roosevelt Growhouse to explain. Three years ago, local artists Kenny Barrett and Kelly Placke were living in a large but shabby house on the corner of Garfield and Sixth streets, in the Roosevelt Row neighborhood. For years, the home had been run down by previous owners, and the yard that surrounded it was used as a parking lot.

Barrett and Placke had other plans for the barren corner lot. "We just started digging," Barrett recalls. "We came out here every Sunday, we picked a day and it was Sunday, 10 to 2, to come out here, friends started joining us, volunteers started joining us and we just started working the ground little by little."

"The great thing about Phoenix soil, desert soil, is that this soil in particular holds water really well," Barrett says. "However, it lacks any type of organic matter which you need — you need that nitrogen to feed your plants."

The Roosevelt farmers combined the absorbent desert dirt with composted manure and — voilá — it was time to plant.

Since 2008, the Growhouse has experimented with growing different varieties of lettuce, beets, chard, kale, cauliflower, arugula, carrots, spinach, broccoli, corn, watermelon, and wheat. While the operation started out small at the front of the house, it's taken over the entire front, back, and side yards in subsequent years — even the patches of earth nestled between the sidewalk and the road.

The growing cycle usually begins in August, when the volunteers come together to fertilize the soil, then use a ditch planting method for the seeds.

Harvesting begins as early as mid-October and continues throughout the winter, especially with leafy plants like lettuce and chard that will keep sprouting new shoots.

As the year wears on and temperatures climb, the gardening begins to wind down. The last crop to be planted to grow through the summer is corn, which adds some much- appreciated greenery to the Roosevelt Row landscape and fares well even in the heat. The soil has to be watered continuously even through the summer months and covered with mulch to maintain its moisture and protect the delicate microorganisms that begin to flourish from the fertilizer.

The garden has grown — and spread, as Barrett and Co. are working with Roosevelt Row to encourage others in the area to plant community gardens. As for the Growhouse, they've bought a tiller — and they know what to do with it. Another plan in the works: vermicomposting, a big bag full of compost and worms through which a watering tube is fed and which can then be thrown anywhere; seeds are planted right into the bag and need no contact with external soil to grow.

Look for Growhouse produce at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market.

Have you been to a secret supper club? And we don't mean one of those quasi-secret-but-everyone-on-Twitter-knows-about-it events that keep popping up like, well, pop-ups. We mean really secret. Like, don't-tell-the-health-department secret.

If not, you might want to try to hook up with Chef Woody (a.k.a. Forrest Rosh), who's been throwing dinner parties in his mother's North Phoenix backyard since last November.

Rosh, 22, is a graduate of Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale. He's worked at the Wrigley Mansion and the House at Secret Garden. He knows his way around a professional kitchen. But one day he decided to go basic. He made a web site and put up some flyers. No specifics about the menu were given. Through word of mouth, 25 people made a "suggested donation" of $40 on PayPal, BYOB'd it, and found their way to a seven-course meal in Eduarda's backyard. The place settings came from Goodwill, but no one skimped on the food. That first menu included cold and hot soup shooters, pork belly cilantro salad, a cheese board, warm butternut squash and arugula salad, sorbet intermezzo, salmon cakes, hanger steak with mac 'n' cheese and Brussels sprouts, and finally a semifreddo for dessert. The meal went on for three hours.

Since Woody's Underground is not a restaurant, Rosh cannot charge money, tax, or tip for the experience, and he and his family do not have any relationships with health inspectors, fire marshals, or PR agencies. Think of it as a dinner party for strangers. At the end of the first evening, the family broke even. They considered it a smashing success.

Preparation and service is a family affair. Rosh uses nothing more than the standard fridge and sink, a four-burner stove, and a lot of organization to pull it all off. His sister helps with the management, and a slew of teenage cousins are brought in to bus, plate, and clean. While space is a challenge at times, careful planning has made everything work so far.

The second event was a brunch, which attracted more guests, followed by an all-you-can-eat pasta supper designed to reach a broader demographic. But with space for just 40 in Mom's backyard, Chef Woody's going to have to get creative.

He's been thinking ahead. For his meals, Rosh relies on local farms and retailers as much as possible and presents a list of his suppliers to the guests in hopes of promoting their businesses. He also is hoping to start a vegan line of baked goods to sell at local small business and farmers markets — Woody's Goodies.

As fall approaches and the temperature cools, Rosh is beginning to plan the next backyard events, and considering hosting events at other private homes. Instead of planning bigger parties, the goal for the moment is to keep things small. You know, underground.

Choosing among the many, many world-class steak houses in the Valley is a darn-near impossible task (yeah, we know — cue the pity party). So this year, we're giving the Best Of to the one upscale steak joint that made us feel we were actually somebody — and this in a roomful of real somebodies. In other words, a trip to Donovan's is a glimpse into the world of high-rolling lawyers, doctors, CEOs, athletes, and, yes, the occasional celebrity. You can almost feel the deals going down as you look around while cutting into your exquisitely prepared, prime-grade $42 cut of beef. The windowless restaurant is dimly lit, beyond tastefully appointed, quiet, comfortable, and exudes class all the way. The servers (and their seemingly endless parade of assistants) are simply pros — helpful, courteous, and attentive. If you're like us, you probably can't afford to eat at a place like this more than once every year or two. So, save up for that special occasion (if you do it right, we estimate you'll drop about $100 per person) and, when it arrives, treat yourself to a night at Donovan's. For at least one day, you'll feel like somebody, too.

Perched atop a mountain ridge hundreds of feet above the Valley, Rustler's Rooste is hardly underground. But follow the winding road up to this cowboy-themed chophouse, wave at "Horny" the live bull standing in his outdoor pen, and ease open the massive wooden door. Suddenly, you'll find yourself inside a cramped, rock-lined mineshaft literally hacked into the side of South Mountain. Wrapping around the corner, guests emerge into a massive two-story dining space brimming with kitschy-cute charm, including a waterfall streaming down one entire rock wall and a metal slide leading down to the second floor. Yes, a slide. No wonder this 30-year-old landmark has hosted everyone from Clint Eastwood and former President George H.W. Bush, to, um, Ice-T and Coco. Sadly, only two of those people rode the slide, and it wasn't Dirty Harry or the commander in chief.

Ask a Mormon family to see their pantry and you might get a tour of the kitchen, but ask to see their "year's supply" and given the house's floor plan, you'll probably end up in the basement.

A year's supply is an LDS tradition, heavily encouraged by church leaders, in which individuals and families carefully plan, can, jar, and store basic items (water, flour, rice, salt) in ratios per person in the house and per month of expected storage.

Church members say a year's supply is never something purchased at once or backed into the garage with a truck. The collection (of what could easily be mistaken for a quick fix for 2012 or total wipeout) is a stash of long term storage with a rotating "three month's" supply of more perishable food items in case of community disaster, a sanitation issue — hell, even a crappy economy.

It's all about preparedness, church documents, and food preparation pamphlets, and it's often hard to do (especially in the desert and in houses without pantries — or basements). But individuals and families have adapted and thank modern-day solutions (read: The Container Store) for tubs easily disguised as hallway benches and false shelves that rotate to reveal hand-jarred preserves and tightly packed grains.

When you think of old Arizona charm, the first thing that comes to mind is likely the Wild West and the kitschy cowboy aesthetic. Fair enough. But in its ninth decade of existence, the Biltmore resort — and its Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architecture — is inextricably linked to old Phoenix, too. It truly is a jewel in this desert city, one worth visiting every now and then to appreciate the beauty and history of the Biltmore's environs. For excellent food without sky-high prices, Frank & Albert's is a worthy addition to the fine Biltmore tradition. Wright's understanding of design and lighting carry over in this comfortable restaurant, where diners can enjoy the Biltmore's longstanding tortilla soup, Mexican grouper, dry-rubbed pork spare ribs, and such comfort foods as grass-fed burgers, steak and potatoes, meatloaf, barbecued pork, and a couple of different pizzas. The meats and produce are locally grown and cooked with an attention to detail that one would come to expect from a restaurant with Wright's legacy attached to it. We recommend saving enough room for dessert, specifically the Tableside S'Mores, billed as "a Biltmore tradition." You'll receive a plate full of graham crackers, marshmallows, and two Hershey bars, along with a miniature grill, complete with open flame and two skewers. Go ahead, roast your own marshmallows, build your s'more, and just try not to have a smile on your face as you eat it. You'll remember what makes the Biltmore still one of the all-around coolest places to go in the Valley.
Enough with the Mad Men stuff, already. When it comes to real retro style dining — big booths, red velvet wallpaper, and lavish décor — Arizonans in the know go to Durant's (through the back door, thank you). Servin' up slabs of perfectly prepared New York strip steaks and a hell of a good martini or two, this Phoenix landmark and classic chophouse — alive and well for more than half a century — has likely served your dad, or even your dad's dad, on more than one occasion. Go vintage-vogue in the lounge area with fresh oysters on the half shell or booth it up with friends and family for a feast of broiled steaks, chops, or Durant's famous liver specials. Old school? Yup. Old hat? Not a chance.

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