Best Of :: Food & Drink
We had some doubts about the young chef who told us he "just wanted to have fun," and yet every time we eat a meal at The Local, Chris McKinley proves he truly knows his way around the kitchen. The chef's unique style of modern American cuisine pulls influences from around the world. He's won us over with his Pig Ear Pad Thai — an offal-y dish that blends toasted peanuts, bean sprouts, pickled Fresno chiles, and XO sauce to make a crunchy starter that's big on flavor — as well as with excellent handmade pastas, grilled vegetables, and sweet desserts.
The concise menu seems to offer something for everyone, but if it doesn't, there's always the chalkboard of daily specials, which have ranged from a killer bowl of ramen to fried green tomatoes and a lobster roll. The hot new dining spot also benefits from the talents of co-owner/general manager/barman Adam Hargett, who mixes top-notch cocktails using housemade, barrel-aged, and local ingredients.
Phoenix may not set every trend, but thanks to chef Josh Hebert, we have at least one restaurant that's undeniably innovative. At Hebert's sleek Scottsdale dining spot, you can belly up to the chef's counter and have an experience unlike any other. The restaurant offers no set selections. Instead, Hebert and his staff craft tasting menus for diners based on dietary restrictions and personal preferences. It seems like a risky proposition — that is, until you've had your first taste of Hebert's cuisine. The chef navigates the fine line between using impeccable technique to craft sophisticated food and knowing full well when to let his top-quality ingredients speak for themselves. The best way to understand it for yourself is to take a seat at the counter and let him regale you with stories and facts about his craft. It's impossible to not walk away impressed.
Once a week (every Wednesday, to be exact), T. Cook's chef Paul McCabe takes a small number of fortunate diners on an unforgettable culinary journey. The multi-course dinner experience — named #PM31 after the chef and the number of the restaurant's communal chef's table, at which the dinner is likely to take place — features an improvisational menu crafted that day based on available ingredients. It's the best way to get a good sense of McCabe's style of cuisine: thoughtful, well-balanced, and quite exciting. The menu changes from week to week, but you can expect a seemingly endless lineup of picture-perfect dishes artfully plated and featuring top-quality meats, locally sourced produce, and housemade accoutrements. During our dinner, McCabe wowed with a sous vide Spanish octopus with black-eyed peas, a playful take on classic barbecue flavors.
Long before Mexican fusion food was trendy, Michael J. Brown dreamed up the Jamburrito. It's a simple but ingenious creation that offers New Orleans flavor in a novel and easy-to-eat form. The classic chicken Jamburrito features Cajun chicken etouffee, jambalaya rice, smoked Andouille sausage, cheese, and lettuce wrapped in a sturdy tortilla. And though wrapping a favorite Southern dish in a tortilla might not seem like the most innovative idea, it's enough of an alteration to turn an otherwise unwieldy dish into excellent street fare. Since starting the Jamburritos food truck in 2010, Brown has turned his signature dish into a favorite of Phoenix food truck enthusiasts, who can choose from a slew of varieties, including steak, vegetarian, and catfish Cajun burritos. Best of all, Brown has no plans to slowing. These days, he's busy getting a second truck up and running and launching a Jamburritos catering business.
On the national stage, there's really only one chef from Arizona who consistently makes a splash, and that's Kevin Binkley, a three-time James Beard Award semifinalist. Ask just about any foodie in the Valley and they'll tell you that Binkley's flagship restaurant in Cave Creek is the best restaurant in the state, on par with some of the most awarded restaurants in the whole country.
We're still trying to wrap our heads around the reason Binkley hasn't taken home the Beard Foundation's Best Chef Southwest award, but in the meantime, we know that flooding the dining room with food lovers certainly can't hurt. Go and see for yourself how Binkley transforms local and seasonal ingredients into impeccable plates of modern American cuisine.
Readers Choice: Quiessence
Looking for a place to get some work done inconspicuously while still managing to see and be seen by at least three people you know? Then you'll want to head to Lux Central, the hipster-chic coffee shop/restaurant/bar located on Central Avenue north of Indian School Road. If you live in the Valley, then you know this is the best place to come and mingle with a diverse cross section of fellow Phoenicians — everyone from 20-somethings in ironic T-shirts to business-professional yuppies and, of course, a whole horde of artsy types. And if you're visiting, you can bet that your host will take you to Lux to show you that our city is capable of sustaining the kind of cool hangouts you'll so often find elsewhere. Don't worry if you feel the barista is judging you. That's part of the experience.
Whenever we have a visitor from out of town, we drag them, willing or not, to experience chef Chris Bianco's award-winning pizza. After all, what's a visit to Phoenix without tasting one of the city's most famous foods? For many years, that endeavor meant subjecting our guests to hours-long wait times at the original Pizzeria Bianco location at Heritage Square. But smart Phoenix hosts and hostesses know to skip the wait and head to the second location at Town & Country Shopping Mall at 20th Street and Camelback Road. Last year, Bianco split the restaurant into two sections with one half serving rustic Italian fare such as handmade pasta and the other offering his famous pizzas. It may be an offshoot of the flagship location, but that doesn't mean it's short on charm: Look for the artwork painted by the chef's father and handwritten dessert recipes illustrated by his mom.
If the sheer lasting power of this restaurant doesn't qualify it as a true Arizona gem, then we hardly know what else could. But decades of business aside, Rancho Pinot continues to beguile us with its rustic Western décor, which includes cowboy paintings and other Arizona-themed accents. Chef Chrysa Robertson continues to cook gourmet comfort food that pays homage to the seasons and local bounty. You'll find produce sourced from local farms complemented by perfectly grilled quail, lamb chops, and chicken. It's like getting a taste of the entire state of Arizona all on one plate. And the handful of dishes that have been on the menu for years have become classics to Valley diners, including Robertson's ricotta gnocchi appetizer and famous Nonni's Sunday Chicken.
Thick-cut peppered bacon? Check. Perfectly cooked cage-free eggs? Check. Some of the most incredible hash browns you'll ever eat? You bet. So, by our count, Matt's Big Breakfast has all the makings of a perfect breakfast. Yes, even in its bigger space you'll probably have to wait for a table. But just take that time to decide whether you're hungry enough to eat the Hog and Chick and a waffle (because you know you want one). No matter what you do or eat, just be sure you don't skip the hash browns. They're the perfect way to start the day, fried to a crispy crunch on the outside and tasting strongly of butter. Best of all, Matt's never fails to understand the efficiency required of a great breakfast. Once you've ordered, your food arrives promptly so you can inhale it all and get on with your day.
We once read that making too many decisions causes your brain to crave glucose. Though we're not sure about the science behind that supposed fact, we can tell you from firsthand experience that an especially stressful day of work always makes us crave a Carolina's tortilla. This no-frills restaurant has been a Valley institution since 1968, drawing a crowd of customers that ranges from downtown business types to college students from ASU's downtown campus. The tortillas alone are worth braving the un-air-conditioned dining room, particularly when they hold servings of red machaca or green chile. We're also big fans of the Oaxaca Special, which combines cheese, potatoes, beans, and excellent chorizo.
Sitting on the spacious outdoor patio at Bink's Midtown while you look out on the neighborhood brings a sense of community that's rare to find at restaurants in this town. We've spent more than one Sunday morning digging into chef Kevin Binkley's seasonal fare while feeling deeply appreciative of the beautiful surroundings and great company. It's a bonus that the Sunday brunch menu offers something for just about every type of diner. Classic brunchers will appreciate dishes such as the green chile braised pork served in a hot skillet with a cheddar drop biscuit and an egg cooked sunny side up. There's also a selection of cold and hot local produce, with options that include peaches with avocado, crema, sunflower seeds, and lime-tarragon vinaigrette during the summer. And the cinnamon roll — a large, freshly baked treat with butterscotch sauce and cream cheese frosting — is worth the calories.
Normally, we shy away from any situation that requires wearing a plastic bib with a crab on it, but when it comes to dining at Angry Crab Shack in Mesa, it's our pleasure. This popular East Valley restaurant offers bags of seafood by the pound — everything from giant orange and white king crab legs to plump shrimp smothered in a sauce of your choice. No matter what creatures of the sea you choose to enjoy, you'll want them boiled in the restaurant's Trifecta sauce, a finger-licking combination of garlic, lemon pepper, and Cajun seasonings. You'll also be asked to choose a desired level of heat, and when they warn you that the food tends to run spicy, know that they really mean it. If you order correctly, you'll be left with an excess of sauce at the bottom of your bag; we recommend an order of Cajun fries to sop up the rest.