Best Of :: Food & Drink
There are two top contenders for bean-to-bar chocolate producers based in Arizona: Stone Grindz, a Scottsdale maker that offers unique flavors like Moroccan Mint and Cashew, and Nutwhats, whose signature confections are clusters of sticky, crunchy goodness in flavors like jalapeño beer brittle, cinna walnut oat, and bacon pecan scribble. But as of late 2012, Nutwhats' most impressive offering is the 92 percent Cacao Bar. Yes, 92 percent — and it's meant to be savored all on its own, not sweetened by being baked into a cake. The beans used to make this incredible bar are sourced from Ocumare, Venezuela, and they lend a subtle note of ripe plums to the über-bold dark chocolate. Given the high cacao content, the bar's not as smooth or fast-melting as most chocolate, yet it's not chalky. The biggest and best surprise of all is the lack of bitterness. The 92 percent is still for serious chocoholics only, but Nutwhats also makes six 75 percent chocolate bars, each featuring the distinctive flavor profile of a different locale's cacao beans. You can find chocolate bars including Peru (banana-cherry tasting notes), the Dominican Republic (coffee with soft raspberry), and Bali (berry and papaya) at Dos Cabezas WineWorks, Smeeks, Downtown Phoenix Public Market, and Bodega Market at FnB.
Chef Kevin Binkley's first restaurant in Phoenix is a place where vegetables and fruits meet the future. Decidedly different from the upscale Binkley's Restaurant in Cave Creek and the more contemporary Cafe Bink in Carefree, the James Beard Award finalist's newest spot specializes in small plates of local produce re-imagined by a culinary powerhouse who just as easily could be pictured in a lab coat as an apron. From a menu that changes with the seasons, there might be roasted cauliflower with almonds, dried currants, and curry foam; juicy melon lit up with pepitas, chile piquin, ricotta salatta, and sangria granité; or sharp and peppery I'itoi onion and black-eyed peas interspersed with barbecued octopus. Fresh fruits find their way into inventive desserts like layered push-up pops and sorbet "soup" frozen with liquid nitrogen, and a well-crafted cocktail list reads like a kind of liquid science farmers market. The setting, a cozy neighborhood spot of wood floors, wainscoting, and white linen, makes Binkley's modernist take on cuisine feel right at home. (And good news: A second branch of Bink's Midtown is planned to open in Scottsdale by the end of the year.)
Thanks to Charleen Badman, there's never been a better time to eat our vegetables. At FnB, the venerated Scottsdale restaurant she co-owns with partner Pavle Milic, Badman celebrates produce like cellist Yo-Yo Ma celebrates classical music: with a reverence for the classics but with an eclectic repertoire. Turning what were once considered side dishes into centerpieces, you might find her rustic, seasonal, and locally focused creations in the form of grilled butternut squash with yogurt, marinated beluga lentils, and spiced seeds; heirloom tomatoes with crispy polenta croutons and oregano from Badman's own garden; or as her Food & Wine award-winning braised leeks topped with mozzarella, a fried egg, and mustardy bread crumbs. No matter which you choose, you'll never look at an eggplant or a broccoli floret the same way again.
Are you a diner of the adventurous sort? If so, you may want to remember the words "Chef's Special" when visiting this tidy home of satisfying Cantonese cooking in Glendale. More or less an off-the-cuff version of omakase (the Japanese term that leaves your meal up to the chef) and invented by Lucky's owners, Kitty and Kwok Pat, the Chef's Special is not so much a menu item as it is a passionate parade of very good dishes the Pats will pick for you. There may be crispy Shanghai chicken, ginger-spiked lamb and bean curd stew, or, for intrepid diners of the offal sort, pig's stomach mixed with crunchy, sour vegetables. The fun's in the not knowing. The flavors speak for themselves.
We should thank our lucky stars that James Beard Award nominee chef Shinji Kurita is in the Valley and not some other major city, where he certainly could hold his own in the area of foodie fanaticism. At his refined restaurant in Scottsdale, which accepts only a few reservations per night, Kurita prepares exquisite Japanese cuisine with a fervent dedication to top-notch ingredients. His omakase, or chef's choice dinners, are nothing short of spectacular. Then there's the luscious bluefin tuna tartare, a giant Madagascar prawn in black bean sauce, and a stellar carpaccio of seared halibut drizzled with ponzu. Nearly impressive as the fare is the selection of wines, sakes, and Japanese craft beers.
Leave it to Hong Kong-born chef Johnny Chu (Lucky Dragon, Fate, Sens) to bring flavor, fashion, and a house-party vibe to the heart of the Central Avenue business corridor. You'll find his fans, the city's young and chic, regularly dropping by to sip on sake-based martinis and nibble on small plates of Chu's top-notch Asian fusion fare, including five-spice quail, BLT spring rolls, and spicy basil tofu. The spacious white room, alive with purple lights and thumping beats, makes it easy to play it low-key while still staying "seen."
Spared the shortness of breath felt by Phoenicians when it burned down in 2009 and again when it re-emerged two and a half years later a few blocks up the street, your out-of-town guest need only to eat at this stellar spot of New Mexican-style Mexican cuisine to understand its place in our hearts. You might recommend one of your favorites: the chorizo-stuffed pork chop, spicy carne adovada, or green chile enchiladas. But given the occasion, perhaps a blackboard special is in order. Will your guest truly appreciate that Richardson's snug, nearly dark room of adobe half walls, rustic rugs and pillows, and copper-topped bar has been nearly re-created from the original? Probably not. But there are margaritas to toast it all the same.
A good neighborhood restaurant, like a good friend, is a place to which many of us turn to lift our spirits and give us comfort. The one we've been visiting the most, at the moment, is Cibo, the charming little pizza parlor in downtown Phoenix. Set in a restored 1913 bungalow complete with squeaky floors and cozy, low-lit rooms, it's the kind of place where we feel at home. And chef Guido Saccone's wood-fired pies — drizzled in olive oil, topped with fresh, Italian ingredients, and sporting thin, crispy crusts — are the kind we can always count on to be delicious. Whatever alchemy has gone into making Cibo a welcoming hangout for consistently good food for nearly 10 years is working in spades.
Chef Darryl King, owner of Riteway Catering in Phoenix, makes sure no one walks away from his food truck unhappy — or hungry — and he does it with solid, served-fast po'boys priced to please. You'll want the Blazing Pig, made with pulled pork, half a hot link sausage, and slaw packed into a soft but sturdy roll slathered with a spicy sauce. At eight bucks, it's a steal. And with no-charge sides like garlicky tater tots or green chile mac and cheese and addictive "Koolickles" (slices of dill pickles soaked in Kool-Aid), King's food truck reigns supreme.
Tongue-numbing. Tingling. Fizzy. To the uninitiated, the taste of Sichuan peppercorns might be likened to a trip to the dentist more than the dinner table. But for fans of the Asian spice, there's not a more unique and complex taste to be found. We like to get our hua jiao fix at Miu's Cuisine, Tempe's youthful gem of Sichuan cooking hidden away in a former Eagles Hall. Here, dishes like cold slices of beef tripe, water-boiled fish, and a cauldron-like Chongqing-style hot pot are smacked with enough Sichuan peppercorns to immobilize our tongues for the rest of the day — or a least until we're ready to come back for more of the Sichuan sensation.
After it suffered a fire in 2011, fans of this cheeky rock 'n' roll-themed Chinese restaurant in North Scottsdale thought they'd never see the day they could be sucking down a cold one with a plate of crab puffs again. But this year, the decades-old "gourmet Oriental wok star bar" resurrected itself just steps away from its former location. And the bigger space, decked out in rock 'n' roll and punk rock memorabilia, means more room to enjoy the live music, Americanized Chinese grub, and a selection from Chop and Wok's "31 flavors" of beer.
When Hanna Gabrielsson set up her quirky Swedish, Polish, and Canadian restaurant with the giggle-inducing name in Tempe three years ago, she hardly could have imagined that by 2013, folks would be lining up outside the door for a taste of "The Beaver." Needing a bigger home for her adoring fans, Gabrielsson and her family closed up shop in February and opened a new Beaver Choice in Mesa three months later. Now with a sleek dining room three times the size of the original, a patio, and (bonus) a bar stocked with wine as well as Swedish, Polish, and Canadian beers, Beaver Choice is bigger and Beav-ier than ever — and its loaded plates of schnitzels, cured fish, and desserts with names like Beaver Supreme just as wonderful.