Best Of :: Food & Drink
I have never been a terribly superstitious person, save for getting a trite charge when the cult flick Drugstore Cowboy circulated the old Western myth about hats on the bed being an ominous sign, and some unexplained anxiety at the sight of coins in the face-down position. I’ve always been hyper-aware of the weirdness and misery that life deals out daily, so that’s kept my overactive mind busy enough to not let superstitions add to the clutter.
Turns out, I didn’t need to anyway. I’ve had plenty of people in my life who have taken up that slack. Good and bad, three of the most important relationships I’ve had in my life have been with my sister, my grandfather on my mom’s side, and my recently deceased life partner. Each one of these folks had an involvement in a food-oriented superstition that sticks with me to this day, sometimes causing an eye roll, sometimes a laugh, and lots of times some tears — often, all three at once. Though they have all passed away, these are some of the ways they still stick to my ribs.
I rarely cook a meal without thinking of my sister Nancy. She was 13 years older than me, so by the time I could start to understand what was going on in the kitchen, she was married and cooking for her own family. I’d sit at the table with her as she ground garlic and herbs with a mortar and pestle, making a garlicky spread for bistec (steak), which would get cooked under a huge slathering of onions for delicious results. It was like there was nothing she couldn’t do in the kitchen. Our family was a merge of Puerto Ricans and Jews, and she mastered it all, from pasteles to paprikash.
You know what we look for in a coffee shop? A bar. Which is why we can never resist Lux, the (sometimes tragically) hip coffee bar hidden in plain sight off Central Avenue in the heart of Phoenix. From dawn past dusk, you can plug in your laptop, gather your friends, or both. There's art on the walls (our favorite pieces are by painter Randy Slack, a regular contributor) and music on the speakers (everything from classical to indie to Motown). Most of the chairs are comfy. No one will nudge you away, but you might feel compelled to order breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a few between-meal pastries. And did we mention there's a full bar?
Born in 1997, Bar Bianco came out of a need to occupy would-be Pizzeria Bianco diners during Disneyland-level wait times. They managed to do it all these years with beer and wine alone, but recently, staff stepped in to make the bar a destination in its own right, with updated snacks and a cocktail program that would change with the seasons and reflect Chris Bianco's knack for sourcing the state's best produce. Cider is made from Willcox wine country apples, spritzers from fresh hibiscus, Bloody Marys from Bianco-brand tomatoes. Cocktails are sweetened with nutty orgeat syrup made from Arizona pistachios — and the list goes on.
It all starts with a comfortable, air-conditioned van ride that whisks you into the wide-open spaces of the Sonoran Desert. Or a fruit orchard, where a rustically elegant dining table has already been set. No matter where your fancy outdoor fête happens, you can count on the presence of a local chef, who will prepare a four- or five-course meal on-site. If enjoying a gourmet meal in a scenic outdoor setting sounds like your kind of culinary adventure, you may already be familiar with Cloth & Flame. The Valley-based outdoor dining and retreat company specializes in throwing "wilderness dinners" in beautiful outdoor spots around Arizona and a handful of other Western states. The company just launched last year, but it's already inspiring lots of Instagram envy among local foodists.
If you've ever attempted to purchase tickets to the Devour Culinary Classic, only to learn that it's already sold out, you're not alone. There's a reason that this mega-popular event, organized by Local First Arizona, has become one of the most highly anticipated spring events in metro Phoenix. The two-day food and drink smorgasbord — the culmination of a whole week of Devour food events — brings together a who's-who of local and regional culinary talent. Here's the place to rub elbows with many of the region's top chefs, restaurateurs, mixologists, makers, brewers, and vintners. If you manage to score tickets, you can rely on a heady mix of high-quality food and drink, gorgeous spring weather, and big crowds. The Devour Culinary Classic seems poised to get even bigger and better next year — to accommodate its growth, the festival is moving from the Phoenix Art Museum to the far more spacious Desert Botanical Garden in 2018.
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.
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.
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.