A wise chef once told us that there are as many types of ramen as there are chefs who make the dish. In short, it's a highly personal food and everyone has a favorite style. We're confident in saying the bowl of tonkotsu ramen at Hana Japanese Eatery has to be one of the best anywhere. It's a simple but elegant take on the dish, made with a pork-based broth that's thick, opaque, and full of rich, meaty flavor. The toppings, too, are basic in the best way. You'll get just a couple of slices of fish cake and some housemade char siu along with scallions, memma, and sheets of broth-soaked seaweed. When it comes to the art of doing simple food well, it doesn't get any better than this.
There's escargot and there's escargot, and then there's Petite Maison's escargot with bone marrow and white anchovy, a delectable treat for those of us who like eating snails. Braised in burgundy and seafood broth and dished up with boquerones in butter, garlic, and crème, the slugs are plated alongside tasty wagyu beef bone marrow. The salty anchovies provide a tart zing that offsets the rich marrow perfectly — so perfectly that you'll want to ask for more bread for sopping, because you won't want to miss a drop.
Octopus is having its moment right now. You'll see it popping up on many menus around town, but if you want to try the cephalopod in the best possible conditions, you have to eat it at Virtù. Though Chef Gio Osso's menu changes all the time, you can always find the wood-grilled octopus somewhere on it, and that's because it quickly became his signature dish. The charred chunks of buttery, soft octopus have an addictingly smoky quality balanced by the acidity, spice, and saltiness of whatever other components Osso decides to pair with the meat. The texture of the octopus itself isn't rubbery, as you might expect, rather it's more like a cross between a rare steak and a lightly seared tuna. Fifteen dollars is a small price to pay for perfection.
Sure, Yasu Sushi Bistro is no new kid on the block. This tiny North Phoenix spot has been around for more than five years. And though time has passed and trends have changed, we continue to love what chef-owner Yasu Hashino does behind the restaurant's sushi counter. Yes, the nigiri, sashimi, and maki rolls are all delicious. But what really keeps us coming back are the chef's specials.
Hashino does an excellent job of letting his fresh ingredients shine, whether it be by serving fresh-off-the-boat oysters simply on the half shell or by taking delicate blue crab meat and creating a perfectly spicy handroll made with just the right amount of fresh wasabi. Our favorite bite is almost always the nigiri salmon served Yasu-style or lightly seared with a touch of ponzu and a sprinkle of green onion. We also love that the restaurant truly is a neighborhood spot, where families and couples crowd the cozy dining room just about every night of the week.
No one does crepes like Jeff Kraus. At Crepe Bar, the chef constantly looks for ways to break down the traditional notions about this classic French dish and make it something uniquely his own. It started simply enough with dishes like the Breakfast Burro, a breakfast burrito by way of France, but since has evolved into creations like the elaborate Grand Prix. The deconstructed dish features a coffee crepe made by mixing cold-brewed coffee into the crepe batter, which is then complemented with pieces of maple-glazed pork jowl and crisp pork belly.
Other unexpected ingredients found on the Crepe Bar menu include pimento cheese, candied mustard seeds, and pork chorizo, which Kraus uses to create savory crepes like you've never had before. On the sweet side, there's plenty to enjoy as well. Including the Pick Me Up, which offers a coffee crepe with espresso mascarpone and hazelnut streusel.
They don't call her "the veggie whisperer" for nothing. Chef Charleen Badman really does have the magic touch. In fact, we once took a tomato-hating friend to her restaurant, FnB, and watched in awe as our dining companion devoured a whole roasted beef steak. "I've decided, if Charleen cooks it, I'll eat anything," she declared. And we agree. From tender eggplant and foraged mushrooms to her famous braised leeks, we have faith that Badman can turn even the most hated of vegetables into something remarkable. This year, we discovered that her vegetable thumb doesn't just work in the kitchen. At her home garden, the chef coaxes a stunning array of vegetables and spices out of the ground. We promise, you've never seen such a lush planter box in your life.
For some of us, life is all about the pursuit of three things: innovative vegetarian food, quirky yet cozy design, and well-crafted puns. Fortunately, all of these things can be found at Bragg's Factory Diner. Bragg's is pure Arizona goodness, from the vintage maps, knickknacks, and state postcards that adorn the walls to the subtle Southwestern influence on the food. The diner features unpretentious (but delicious) food that even the carnivores in your crowd will adore. The service is every bit as sunny as the space, and the cafe truly has something for everyone. Gluten-free? Vegan? Not a problem. Our favorite dish is the perfectly punny Nopales Like Home (jackfruit marinated in barbacoa sauce and topped with smoky grilled cactus on a freshly toasted bun) and the Beet on the Brat burger (a creative, beet-based spin on the ever-ambiguous veggie burger). Don't forget dessert — Bragg's vegan pies are made fresh in-house daily.
Damon Brasch is a genius, and if you don't believe us, consider the Taco Bell bean burrito. Both Brasch and the Taco Bell people had the same idea a long time ago: vegan comfort food. For years, Brasch has been frying tofu and potatoes and blending soy "ice cream" and candy into treats that may not make you skinny but do satisfy the requirements of a vegan diet. Yes, yes, you can also get a salad at Green, but why would you when samosas, curry, and a barbecue bacon burger beckon?
If "fast casual" and "gluten-free" are the culinary buzzwords of 2014, then Grabbagreen is the perfect love child of this year's biggest trends. The restaurant offers a menu of all-natural and gluten-free eats in a bright, clean, fast-casual setting. Diners can choose from a menu of juices, salads, smoothies, and grain-based bowls, all of which feature consciously sourced ingredients — think free-range chicken raised without antibiotics and hormones, organic tofu, and locally sourced produce wherever possible. On top of all the good-for-you goodness, the restaurant offers online ordering and makes nutritional information available on the website. See? Eating well doesn't have to be hard.