Best Of :: Food & Drink
by Robrt L. Pela
Chef Brett Vibber has spent the morning pickling mushrooms he gathered the day before.
"It's so great to find food in the place where nature left it for us to eat," says Vibber, who's made a name for himself here as the guy from that Cave Creek restaurant, Cartwright's Modern Cuisine — the one who forages in the wild for the food he prepares and serves.
For nearly three decades, Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot has married the bounty of Arizona with Italian-leaning techniques and flavor palettes in singular ways. Still, the skill and flavors of Rancho Pinot seem, at times, not wholly understood by the younger generations of Phoenix eaters. There's no Instagram wall. No neon signs. But there's damn good food and drink, cooking from the heart and the heart of the arid world we inhabit. Robertson plates panna cotta with local white peaches, a classic caprese-like salad hinging on the quality of top Arizona tomatoes, and a dainty-yet-vigorous roast quail accented with mostarda of fruit in season. Roberston was a 2020 James Beard Award finalist for a reason: Like a cactus wren or Gila woodpecker, her cooking sings a brilliant local song.
Almost two decades into its genre-bending, white-tablecloth gastronomic journey through the desert we call home, Kai remains a pillar of Arizona dining. Chef Ryan Swanson, who scored a James Beard Award nomination this year, has the restaurant humming like a sleek vintage car. Still, he keeps driving Kai to new places. Swanson can nimbly hit notes across the gastronomic map, often using hyperlocal ingredients in uncommon ways, such as many kinds of cactus in a "key lime" pie, or Ramona Farms corn in an earthy amuse bouche. Though classics remain (including a "sensory course" that rewires your mind late in the arc of the tasting menu), Swanson routinely decks out the menu with new dishes like bison creme brulee, octopus, smoked squash soup, and compressed lamb on ceme't. Eating at Kai gives you a powerful sense of what eating in Arizona could be: imaginative, born from the cracks, valleys, and washes of our unique land — and like nowhere else in the world.
This young, Latin-inspired Arcadia eatery already has numerous dishes that feel like Phoenix classics. There's the hiramasa ceviche, lush and creamy. There's an elote with about as many ingredients as a corn cob has kernels. There's a fried ice cream sandwiched on halved concha and impaled with a steak knife. Perhaps most of all, there's one of the most sneakily excellent chips-and-salsa plates you can find, anchored by an incendiary-but-somehow-subtle salsa loaded with butter. Chefs James Fox and Eric Stone don't take a single dish off. Cocktails, beer, and wine are just as on point. You could order at random and enjoy a stellar meal.
Last year's Best Vegetable Wizard has graduated to this year's Best Chef. Sacha Levine was born in Chicago but raised in Bullhead City, eventually relocating to the Phoenix area to cook for spots like FnB, Rancho Pinot, Ocotillo, and Singh Meadows. At Singh, Levine plated a colorful falafel sandwich, a Moroccan carrot and sweet potato pita, and an heirloom bean and ham bowl. Most recently, at the cocktail haven Century Grand, she gave the food range and history, especially with her reimagined beef Wellington, the radicchio-heavy Treviso dish, and ultra-creative dim sum options. Before Century Grand shifted to a cocktails-only operation, Levine had been focusing on creating pickup-able meal kits for the COVID era. Now that its kitchen program has been nixed, we wait for our garnish empress to reveal her next project.
A year ago, when Subash Yadav was selling momos out of a food truck, those lucky enough to snag these thick-doughed dumplings fragrant with curry sauce glimpsed something special — a doorway into a fresh, beautiful cooking style. At Sherpa Kitchen, Yadav's intimate new restaurant in Gilbert, you get a fuller sense of his singular cooking. Though he prepares Nepalese food, this isn't what makes Yadav unique — it's his approach, his flavors, and the feelings they create. Yadav uses the bounty of local farms, like Rhibafarms in Queen Creek. He goes to extravagant lengths to realize the freshest, most artful version of dishes. He spends 10 days making a $6 soup. He fries lalmohan, a syrupy Nepali doughnut, to sidekick a basic order of chai. Plates are brilliant. So is the restaurant — a place that never fully leaves your hungry mind, a place you could visit three times and still find new things to try.
Roxanne Wilson and Loren Emerson's mobile purveyor of frybread has long been one of the best meals-on-wheels situations in town. Standing before its pink facade painted with cactuses, you can get a hot, chewy, simple, elegant frybread for $3. The Jazzy, an Indian taco made with little more than carne asada on frybread, has been a satisfying choice for years. This year, though, a new favorite entered the ring: a Navajo-style mutton sandwich. Tucked into fry bread with shreds of lamb leg and shards of Hatch chile, this sandwich has brought a new wave of customers to Emerson. Wash one down with a 32-ounce jar of iced prickly pear lemonade.
The drive-thru experience is often a trade-off: You get convenience, and you don't have to leave your car's air-conditioned interior, but most of the food that's available through a window isn't particularly healthy or tasty. Not so at 32 Shea. The tiny north-central Phoenix eatery began life as a photo mat, and the building retained its drive-thru window even when it transitioned into a cafe. Before the pandemic hit, the window was only open for breakfast and lunch, which was fine with us: We could get our Nutella mocha, avocado toast, or caprese sandwich without leaving our car. Now, the drive-thru stays open until the restaurant closes, meaning that 32 Shea's fabulous dinner entrees like braised short ribs and the salmon superfood salad also can be ordered from your vehicle. If our drive-thru options are a Big Mac or lobster mac and cheese, we know which we're choosing.
The brainchild of Matt Cooley and Olivia Laux, Cloth & Flame hosts farm-to-table community dinners in scenic spots like the Sonoran Desert and the Superstitions. Attending one of its events is a true multi-sensory experience. There's the unique flavors; aromas of food mingling with those of the desert air; the sound of new friends' voices as they tell their stories; the occasional touch as someone asks you to pass the plate; and, of course, the beauty of the table and the great outdoors. "We live at a time where you get rid of fun friends for political views," Cooley says. "But we believe that if you sit across someone and share a meal with them, you forget your differences." We tend to agree, which is why we're so glad Cloth & Flame is helping bridge new connections all across the Valley.
In deep food-geek circles, Lom Wong carries cachet. The pop-up, which before the pandemic met periodically in a south Scottsdale living room, features regional Thai cuisine, most notably that of the coastal Moklen tribes. The culinary talents behind the intimate dinners are Yotaka Martin, a Chiang Rai native who has cooked at Glai Baan, and Alex Martin, a Chicago native, graduate of Chulalongkorn University, and fluent Thai speaker. The meals and beverage pairings are ethereal. Dishes like pla neung Moklen, whole fish steamed with chili and lime, braid startlingly fresh flavors. You get deeply thoughtful lessons in history and culture as you go. Often, meals end with a surprisingly nice ice cream sandwich bunned, against the odds, on simple white bread.
In the back of their Middle Eastern grocery in a Mesa strip mall, the Alimam family, two generations of refugees from Damascus, run a lunch counter. Breads are central. Their flavors lean Syrian, and they are peeled out of a gas-fired oven. You tear into them when they're just seconds old. Consider safia, canoe-shaped loaves scattered with ground meat in the hollowed middle. Or try manakeesh stretched into an oval and rained with za'atar and salty halloumi cheese. Even the simple pita is pillowy and divine, doubly so when dragged through a side of hummus or baba ghanoush. The secret charms of Shamy extend to everything from sujuk sandwiches to simple sides of fava beans.
Like a superhero, the chef of Ghost Ranch in south Tempe has another identity: distributor of phenomenal peppers to lucky Phoenix chefs and customers. These aren't your workaday jalapenos or habaneros — the chiltepin is a tiny, round chile native to the Sonoran Desert that, when picked wild, bursts with a fruity heat. Andrade, who goes by "Chito," gets the peppers from his family's ranch in Sonora, Mexico. They bring a measured fire to everything from aguachiles to eggs to cookies. One day, if there is any justice in our chile-loving corner of the world, chiltepins will supplant the comparatively insipid alternatives as local king of all peppers. If Andrade keeps on, this might just happen.
The duo behind The Breadfruit & Rum Bar, Danielle Leoni and Dwayne Allen, released their first carbonated beverage under the brand Big Marble Organics earlier this year. That first entry? A ginger beer that took many, many, many batches to get right. The final product is about as right as right can be, sizzling with an intense ginger flavor that takes off across the palate like a jet. Though long on ginger flavor, this ginger beer isn't unevenly spicy or jagged. Rather, it's beautifully round. The best part is that this is just the first product from Big Marble. Already, Leoni and Allen are dreaming up more to come. You can find Big Marble at select locations around metro Phoenix like The Gladly and Changing Hands' First Draft Book Bar; the full list is on the Big Marble website.