Restaurant Progress
Lauren Cusimano

As fine dining in metro Phoenix becomes increasingly dominated by corporate resorts and super-charged restaurant groups, it's exciting to witness a young, talented chef strike out on his own. That's precisely what TJ Culp did this past year with Restaurant Progress, a 37-seat upscale neighborhood restaurant that opened in the Melrose District early in 2017. Culp is a young veteran chef who cut his teeth as a corporate opener for Fox Restaurant Concepts, and went on to launch the popular Pop-Up PHX dinner series. At Restaurant Progress, the chef-owner is the brains behind an increasingly rare local specimen: a strong, independent neighborhood restaurant that stays open past 10 p.m. and offers a refined American menu that changes regularly and shifts with the seasons. Restaurant Progress showcases the chef's talent for playing with disparate flavors and textures, and proves that culinary savvy and hard work can still amount to great things in this town.

Tratto
Jacob Tyler Dunn

At any given Italian restaurant, often a decent-to-good Aperol spritz or Negroni and a handful of apertifs and digestifs on the bar shelf are all that's required of the barmen. But bartenders are raising the status quo for cocktail programs at emerging restaurants. This all is no more apparent than in Phoenix, where, more and more often, great craft cocktails arrive for the public in the context of an exciting restaurant rather than in a standalone bar. Still, Tratto barman Blaise Faber could have mailed it in with some simple twists on Italian classics, maybe stocked a few esoteric Italian liqueurs, and called it a very good craft cocktail program at Phoenix's most exciting new restaurant. But, evidently, Faber was shooting for more. Whatever the case, it's clear that Faber has far exceeded any expectations except for perhaps those he holds for himself. It's apparent that he has been studious, crafting obscure, Old World-sounding Italian liqueurs from scratch (in addition to stocking the Valley's most exotic collection of Italian amari — again, going beyond expectations). He has a passion for whipping up truly inventive cocktails that feel genuinely Italian and, often, very Arizonan as well, incorporating the local flora and creating the feeling of time and place that has always been the modus operandi for Tratto's Chris Bianco himself. Hats off to Faber. He's the right man for the job.

Binkley's Restaurant
Debby Wolvos

Chef Kevin Binkley's retooled fine-dining flagship is often discussed in terms of numbers: 22 courses served over a leisurely three-hour-long meal, for about $160 per person (not counting optional beverage pairings and a service fee). True, metro Phoenix doesn't have a reputation for indulging or rewarding this kind of extravagant culinary endeavor, but maybe we can make an exception for Binkley's, which last fall moved into the historic home that formerly housed Bink's Midtown. Dinner starts on the patio, where someone hands you a cocktail featuring herbs grown on the premises. Several amuse-bouches later — perhaps a wonderful foie gras slider, or freshly picked baby radishes wrapped in green goddess dressing foam — you find yourself sitting in the intimate bar area, lost in a plate of thinly sliced black-foot jamón ibérico. The final courses are served in the dining room, where Binkley and his team fuss over you in a room so intimate and relaxed, it feels a little like having dinner at a friend's house — a friend who happens to have a mastery of French and modernist technique. In spite of its laidback airs, Binkley's is certainly not for everyone; the cost of admission will automatically price out many diners. If you can swing it, though, a night here can feel like several fine dinners condensed into a single evening.

Chris Bianco's cookbook isn't really a cookbook. It's more like spending the day with the James Beard-winning, Oprah-hailed, Jimmy Kimmel's fellow fly-fisherman chef who has stopped what he is doing to teach you how to cook something astounding in 15 minutes. There are recipes for pizza, for meatballs, for focaccia, for Sunday gravy, beets roasted with fig leaves, custard, and lemon cookies. There's also Chris in every recipe: a story, an inspiration, a family tale. The book is more than a book: It's a Chris Bianco omnibus, taking a willing participant through the Candy Land of his restaurants, creations, and motivations. And most of all, for us, it's a reminder of how lucky we are that the mastermind behind Pizzeria Bianco and many other local enterprises chose to come to Phoenix — and, ultimately, to stay.

Fusion cuisine is a popular concept in today's food scene, but we think Soundbite brings the idea to a whole new level. Part food truck, part mobile radio station, it brings together two longtime Valley favorites: Short Leash Hot Dogs and National Public Radio member station KJZZ-FM. Short Leash's gourmet creations get served near the front of the bright blue truck, while the back boasts a fully functional radio studio plus a pull-out stage area for live performances. You can find Soundbite set up at community happenings such as Short Leash's Wurst Festival Ever and Mesa Arts Center's Spark! After Dark festival, or try to catch them at one of their early-morning Coffee Brakes events, when they serve Press Coffee to the masses. It all sounds delicious to us.

Like all things indie and cool, we first discovered Olivia Girard's Le Dinersaur through Instagram. The self-taught baker began getting attention for her small-batch sandwich-making, delivering individual lunches around town via email and text ordering. Then, she upped her game with the sweet stuff: geometric pastries that carried as much appeal in front of the camera as they did on the palate. Among some of the more photographed and favorite are her hybrid churover (a churro popover) and her diamond-shaped, herb-infused shortbread. In keeping with the hipster vibe, Le Dinersaur pastries can only be found through pop-up parties at uber-trendy locations like Camelback Flowershop and The Darkroom or in the display cases of Instagram-minded cafes like Berdena's.

The number of food trucks on the streets of Phoenix these days means that it's pretty easy to find one when you want. The size of the gatherings can range from a single vehicle to dozens, like at the annual Street Eats festival. But our favorite place to be handed food through a side window is Food Truck Fridays, put on by Rad Food Trucks. Each week from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., a rotating assortment of trucks lines up in front of the Arizona Department of Corrections at 16th Avenue and Jefferson Street (insert prison-food joke here). There are about five to seven trucks each week, and choices often include Adam Allison's Left Coast Burrito Co., perennial favorite Q Up! Barbeque, Korean fusion eatery Hibachibot, and build-your-own-bowl joint The Wandering Donkey. If you're not within walking distance, there's plenty of free parking near the State Capitol, and there are a number of picnic tables for lunching al fresco. Check out Rad Food Trucks on their Instagram, @radfoodtrucks, for the weekly schedule.

Truly, we are living in the golden age of metro Phoenix food trucks. All around town at weekly events, workday stops, and annual festivals, aficionados of nearly every kind of cuisine can find a restaurant on wheels to suit their tastes. But there's no other food we'd rather eat out of a truck than the South American dishes served by husband-and-wife team Fabian and Julie Ocampo of Que Sazon. Fabian hails from Colombia, but the couple arrived in the Valley in 2014 via St. Louis, bringing their culinary prowess with them. There's nothing on the Que Sazon menu we don't love, from the arepas (think a South American cornmeal cake resting on a bed of hearty fare like chicken and mango or pork and chorizo) to the savory chicken empanadas. But our favorite dish is the El Duro bowl, a mouthwatering tangle of slow-roasted pork, black beans, and rice topped with spicy barbecue sauce, crispy plantain chips, and cotija cheese, which invariably comes with a warm smile and sincere thank you from Julie.

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Jackie+Mercandetti
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It would take an iron will to resist the surplus of delicious foods awaiting you at Mekong Plaza, the shopping and dining complex in Mesa that's home to the Mekong Supermarket and more than a dozen restaurants. You can easily make a day out of exploring the Asian snack bars, boba tea joints, noodle bars, and well-stocked Asian grocers at Mekong. You'll find everything from fragrant pho at unPhogettable, sous vide bowls at Kingo Bowl, dim sum brunch at Mekong Restaurant, delicious Chinese pastries at AA Ozzy Bakery, and boba tea in every flavor imaginable at Tea, Snow & Coffee. Bring your food-obsessed friend and prepare to stay awhile.

Best Authentic Arizona Restaurant

Kai

Kai
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Kai, the marquee restaurant at the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass Resort, is one of the most highly decorated restaurants in Arizona. It's currently the only AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five Star restaurant in the state, accolades it's earned for consistently high levels of service. But what really makes Kai an Arizona original is its menu, which weaves elements of Pima and Maricopa culture and tradition into an uncommon offering of Native American-influenced fare. Heirloom Arizona ingredients, game, and vegetables, sourced locally from the Gila River Indian Community, frequently make an appearance on the plate. The best overview is achieved through one of the restaurant's tasting menus, which feature dishes like mesquite-charred hahl soup, served with buffalo brisket cooked for 32 hours, and then wrapped in the softly spicy richness of I'itoi onions.

dos gringos

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