Best Outdoors Feast 2020 | Cloth & Flame | Food & Drink | Phoenix

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.

A Renaissance man of urban agriculture, Greg Peterson's list of roles goes on for about as long as the morning cry of a backyard chicken. Peterson, a founder of GrowPHX and teacher of permaculture-focused farming methods through the Urban Farm, wants folks to "embrace their own greenness." He instructs on subjects as varied as seed-saving, fruit trees, compost, and water-harvesting. Urban agriculture, he believes, is our future. His north Phoenix property, also called the Urban Farm, contains dozens of fruit trees festooned with juicy loquats, plums, elderberries, citrus, and just about every fruit that grows in Arizona.

It's a scientific fact: Like every carbon-based life form, geeks need to eat, too. Good thing Sarah and Matthew Stubbs are here to help satisfy the hunger pangs of nerds seeking sustenance. Over the past few years, the Scottsdale couple have served up food and drink recipes with a pop culture bent on their website, Geeks Who Eat. Several times monthly, the Stubbses post fantastic creations based off of movies, gaming, comics, and other subject matter. One day, it's directions on how to whip up a cocktail in the spirit of cult slasher flick Pumpkinhead. The next, it's a recipe for Hårgan Meat Pies inspired by Midsommar. Scroll through the archives and discover fare like Eleven's Eggo Sliders, Hulk Smash Potatoes, or the Frozen-themed Arendelle Spice Cake. They also offer culinary tips and tricks for those who aren't as adept in the kitchen as Remy the Rat and dining guides for events like Phoenix Fan Fusion. Now, if they could only conjure up a decent Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.

Thanks to Harold and Kumar, White Castle hamburgers are now better known as a feast for stoners than comfort food for Midwesterners. But both camps — transplants from the middle of the country and native Arizonans curious about what would make the cinematic duo ride a cheetah in the middle of the night in New Jersey — stood in line together for hours on a warm October morning last year, eager to sample sliders from the first White Castle to open in Arizona. Those who camped out for days to storm the castle ordered hundreds of the tiny burgers at once, causing the 24-hour restaurant to close early on its opening day in order to restock. Some sad latecomers left tired, frustrated, and empty-handed. It would be weeks before the rush of cravers ticked down to something like normal fast-food restaurant levels, but for many, it was worth all the wait.

Debby Wolvos

You needn't travel to New York or Chicago for the ultimate foodie experience. Just bring a generous appetite to Binkley's, where you can marvel at Kevin Binkley's creations — from his tamarind barbecue octopus to smoked Copper River salmon to sweet corn. When you dine here, you can't help but feel you are part of something special and, yes, exclusive. There are only 20 spots available for dinner (reservations should be made well ahead of time), the menu is seasonally driven and never stagnant, and patrons get to watch as Binkley and his staff prepare and unveil each small plate. Whether you're a tourist or a native Phoenician, you're missing out on magic (and that isn't an exaggeration) if you don't have Binkley's on your bucket list.

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.

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