Asian Fusion Cafe

Growing up in Phoenix, our favorite chain Mexican restaurants always offered a hamburger on the kids' menu for unadventurous tykes. But we were shocked to see ham and cheese and bacon sandwiches on the menu of a sophisticated Chinese restaurant in Tempe. Turns out, that's part of what makes Asian Fusion Café so authentic. Diners are a thing in China, and we're thrilled, because we love this one. We rarely order from the American side of Asian Fusion's menu, but our dining companions do, and then they demand dessert — also good, since the cold case is packed with creative options and a big machine spits out the softest shaved ice you can imagine.

For a true Arabian experience, unadorned and as you would find it in the Arabian Gulf, Mandi House delivers. The no-frills restaurant is lined with booths topped with napkin dispensers, and one wall is reserved for traditional seating on floor cushions. Your soda will come in a can, not a glass, and you will notice a few kernels of rice dotting the recently occupied tables. That's because the food here is all about the rice, ideally eaten by hand and crowned with a perfectly charred piece of fish, chicken, or meat. Though they offer some pan-Arabian specialties, like the ubiquitous hummus and falafel, their specialty is Yemeni food, from a country far from the fertile valleys of Lebanon and the Mediterranean. So, it's best to stick with Arabian Gulf classics, like fassoulia, a rich fava bean, onion, garlic, and herb dish served with warm flatbread. Their namesake mandi, a saffron-rubbed baked chicken served atop flavorful broth- and spice-enriched rice along with yogurt and a tangy tomato salsa, is pure comfort food. But their chicken muthbi, a chargrilled version of the dish, is even better. Fish here is marinated in spices before being butterflied, grilled, and presented on a metal platter of rice that would easily be shareable. This is not your "Mediterranean" gyro sandwich and Greek salad joint — it is real Arabian home cooking, offering a true taste of regional Middle Eastern food in a town awash with hummus and babaganoush.

Phoenix is blessed with some seriously great Iranian food, from white tablecloth restaurants serving lavish jeweled rices and skewers of perfectly cooked filet, to small bakeries serving fresh stuffed savory pastries and breads. AZ Kabob House is the most casual of the sit-down restaurants, offering counter service in a bright, airy space in a strip mall. The interior is cheerful but not lavish, and the menu includes less traditional fare, like Greek salads and hummus, but their Persian specialties, like tender, ground beef kubideh kabobs served over saffron rice; homemade doogh, a salted mint and yogurt drink; and gormeh sabzi, a lamb and herb stew, are some of the best versions of these classic Persian dishes anywhere in town. And we believe they are the only ones in town serving dizzi, an utterly luscious mashed meat and potato stew served with a rich bone broth and warm, fresh-baked bread that could be the most satisfying of all Persian comfort foods. Affordable prices and consistently good, solid Iranian classics make it the best place in Phoenix to get your Persian fix.

Nandini Indian Cuisine
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Nandini is home to the same kind of Punjabi-inflected menu you'll find at most Indian restaurants around the Valley, where classics like tandoori chicken and chicken tikka are still the centerpiece of every menu. But at this Tempe outpost, the curries are thick and satisfying, the butter chicken melt-in-your-mouth, and the service friendly and fast. From street food appetizers called chaat to well-executed tandoori dishes and those wonderful curries, Nandini covers the basics — and even has an entire page of the menu devoted to different kids of naan bread. Come at lunch for an inexpensive buffet or relax over dinner. Don't skip the milky rice pudding for dessert.

The small Central America country of Belize has a culinary canon that reflects the influence of ancient, rustic Mayan foods, modern Mexican street fare, and trade-town-style Caribbean dishes tinged with Spanish and African touches. The staple dish of Belize, a hearty plate of coconut rice and beans served with a tangy, black pepper-heavy potato salad, fried sweet plantains, and rich, stewed chicken, is a good representation of the country's food culture. In Chandler, you can get your first taste of the real deal at Elvira's, which opened this year. Simple and homey, their star dish has nothing spicy or exotic about it. The rice and beans are topped with shredded coconut and laced with black pepper. The plantains prove to be a lovely, sweet counterpart to the subtle chicken, and the potato salad is perhaps the most flavorful element on the plate, with the potatoes and boiled egg dancing in a creamy, slightly sweet and tangy dressing along with chopped onions and small beans. Their stewed chicken is fall-off-the-bone tender, with a rich broth that begs to be poured over the rice along with a hearty dash of Marie Sharp's Habanero Pepper Sauce. On the weekends, the owners, Luis and Elvira, offer specials like Belize-style tamales and whole grilled fish, that are "pure Belizean." As the first restaurant of its kind in the Valley, it is a welcome addition.

There are an increasing number of gluten-free menus popping up at restaurants around town, but one of the only 100 percent gluten-free options in the Valley is Grabbagreen. Thankfully for GF diners, there are four branches across the city, and several more opening soon. The fast-casual shop doesn't bother subbing in gluten-free carbs; instead, they focus on offering clean, whole foods that are naturally gluten-free, with hearty grain bowls like the Patagonia, stuffed with black beans, cilantro, corn, quinoa, red onion, bell pepper, and steak, tossed in a garlicky chimichurri sauce. They also offer salads, soups, fresh juices, kale-leaf-wrapped breakfast burritos, and chia and coconut mango breakfast bowls. It's the kind of place where you can eat gluten-free without a second thought, special request, or apology, and that's pretty great.

Veggie Village
Veggie Village

Veggie Village is a pleasant north-central Phoenix restaurant that specializes in vegetarian cooking with a distinctly Chinese and southeast Asian bent. And it's uniformly wonderful. Appetizers like fried enoki mushrooms and vegetable-stuffed pot stickers are well-executed and flavorful, and there is a fine selection of hearty, beautifully seasoned soups. It's hard to miss the real stuff in faux meat-laden entrees like sweet and sour "chicken" and "mutton" curry. The dishes might not be made with real animal protein, but the use of vegetables and seasonings is so deft, you might not notice anything is missing.

Vegan House has been quietly feeding the downtown Phoenix crowd for about two years now. It took over a space on Adams Street notorious for turning over restaurants, but this unassuming vegan spot has defied the odds and become something of a mainstay. The secret to its success may very well be in its quirky and diverse menu. You'll find standard appetizers like lettuce wraps and fried tofu, but also unexpected highlights like a strong faux-seafood menu. Gems include the green curry seafood, featuring a delightfully silky curry studded with well-seasoned vegan "shrimp." Sandwiches, noodle bowls, and wraps round out the menu. The lunch menu, especially, offers both good flavors and great value, a virtuous combination that will hopefully keep Vegan House around for years to come.

Looking to take your grocery shopping to the next level? Look no further than the Uptown Farmers Market. Every week, more than 60 vendors set up shop in the North Phoenix Baptist Church parking lot selling everything from organic greens and grass-fed beef to artisan soaps and ceramics. The community pop-up also puts together live music, food trucks, and a fair amount of outdoor seating so stroller-pushing, dog-walking visitors can turn their shopping into an all-morning affair. The market is open year round on Saturday mornings and moves indoors during the summer months. It also holds morning hours on Wednesdays throughout the fall so reusable bag-toting shoppers can keep their fridges stocked throughout the week.

New Wave
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Country Velador (she's the pastry chef for Cowboy Ciao) and her super-sweet husband, Sergio, had already made a mark with Super Chunk, their adorable candy shop (featuring everything from meringues to caramels to caneles, all house-made) but now they've opened an adjacent market with house-made bagels and bread, sandwiches, salads, more baked goods, housewares, and party supplies. Pizza's coming soon. And so's a lot more. Stop by for a coffee drink and stay for any and all of the above. We can't wait to see what these two overachievers cook up next.

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