Little Saigon

Historic Downtown Glendale and the Catlin Court Historic District are known for cozy house eateries. And while they're all delightful, a favorite is Little Saigon Restaurant. This cozy cottage restaurant surrounded by antique stores and small businesses seems fitting for its offerings of Vietnamese comfort food. The family-owned Little Saigon first opened in Christown Mall in 1998 before relocating to downtown Glendale in 2005. Here, power lunchers feast on more than seven choices of pho, including the classic pho tai (aromatic broth with sliced pieces of tender beef). Regulars also go for the crispy rice-flour crepes packed with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts, and combo plates like the grilled shrimp and pork with steamed white rice under a sunny-side-up egg. Little Saigon is also vegetarian-friendly, thanks to dishes like bun chay tofu (tofu rice vermicelli salad bowl), dau hu sot ca chua (stir-fried tofu with tomato and onions), and canh cai xanh (bok-choy soup with ginger and onions).

Filled with classic Thai dishes, as well as signature creations, Chanpen is a hidden gem in South Phoenix.
Jackie Mercandetti
Filled with classic Thai dishes, as well as signature creations, Chanpen is a hidden gem in South Phoenix.

The two locations of Chanpen Thai Cuisine aren't too far apart geographically, but they look quite different. The Broadway location is a cozy building that has seen better days; the Baseline restaurant is fancier, with yellow walls, Buddhist art, and a kind of set-apart area reminiscent of a temple. What's exactly the same at both outposts is the food: well-crafted versions of Thai classics like pad see ew and panang curry. Our favorites are the spicy, savory drunken noodles with peppers and broccoli, and the creamy, slightly sweet massamun curry with potatoes, carrots, and peanuts. The other commonality between the two Chanpen locations? Service that goes above and beyond. The welcoming staff members often offer us water or soup or ice cream while we wait for our takeout. That's the type of thing you don't forget, and it's part of what makes Chanpen the first place we think of when we're in the mood for Thai.

A bevy of Korean barbecue options have cropped up in the Valley in the past few years. Some are sleek and fancy. Others are low-key. Manna, which has another location in San Diego, falls more in the latter camp. Its food comes all-you-can-eat for $25 at dinner and $18 at lunch. Meals begin with an armada of banchan and then shift to the gas grill plate, where you cook galbi and diaphanous brisket slices yourself. You can go as hard as you want: veal intestine, baby octopus, or pork chops. Your tong and scissor hands will get a workout. At meal's end — after somehow making space for a mochi — you'll see that Manna can hang with any Korean barbecue joint in town.

Hana Japanese Eatery
Lauren Saria

So much stands out about this tried-and-true Japanese restaurant, where Lori Hashimoto has earned and maintained the respect of Valley eaters. The key to it all might be range. She's a master of simple Japanese preparations expertly done. We recommend delicate fried oysters breaded in panko, or osuimono, a lightly flavored soup that's pretty much all consomme, both satisfying with quiet flavors. The massive, complex dishes shine as well, like a tempura sampler of seasonal fish and vegetables, or the Hana Pride Roll, which, with touches like pickled burdock and togarashi, feels like a completely new sushi creation.

Old Town Taste
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

The second most interesting part about Old Town Taste is that it's not actually in Old Town Scottsdale. It's in a strip mall in Tempe, easily spotted by its bright-red sign. The most interesting part, obviously, is the food. The family-owned Chinese restaurant has a lengthy menu with a Sichuan bent, promising dishes like braised eggplant, mapo tofu, and Szechuan-style blood curd. But what brings us back again and again is the Chongqing-style platter. This house special is offered as chicken or fish, and both options are fantastic, thanks to chunks of meat coated in that thin, crunchy batter and topped with string beans and chile. It's never a bad time to slide into one of Old Town Taste's bright turquoise booths and dig into a meal of authentic Chinese cuisine.

Chennai Chettinaad Palace
Jackie Mercandetti

A hallmark of a great Indian restaurant is great naan, and at Chennai Chettinaad Palace, it's warm, fluffy, and buttery soft — a perfect companion to the chicken tikka masala or daal makhani. Entrees carry the richness of traditional spices like cumin, garam masala, and coriander, without overpowering with a pants-on-fire spiciness. Don't leave without tasting the biryani; the rice is loose and tender, with a blend of vegetables or a meat of your choosing. It rivals biryani you might find in a restaurant in India. The menu is vast, with almost 200 items to choose from. Start your meal with a cold glass of mango lassi, sample some of the hot pakoras as an appetizer, and move on to entrees from virtually every region of India. Finish off with desserts like gulab jamun or milky rice kheer.

Haji Baba Middle Eastern Food
Patricia Escarcega

Set in a nondescript strip mall just east of the Arizona State University campus, Haji-Baba doesn't look like much from the outside. But the restaurant-market has been feeding students — and everyone else who likes great Middle Eastern food at a ridiculously low price point — for decades. The chicken shawarma platter, crammed with spiced meat, basmati rice, hummus, tabbouleh, and a pungent, addictive garlic sauce, is one of our favorite dishes in the entire city. But anything on the menu is a good pick, from the gyro sandwich to the creamy baba ghanoush to the Greek salad studded with huge chunks of tangy feta cheese. Leave enough time to roam the market half of the space, where you can pick up fragrant spices, exotic coffee, and other Middle Eastern groceries.

Waamo
Chris Malloy

Officially a Somali restaurant, WaaMo also exhibits strong influences from other east African countries, like Ethiopia and Eritrea, not to mention Mediterranean flavors. Braised goat is one of its core Somali specialties. Owner and dining room fixture Basheir Elmi heartily recommends this to diners who aren't regulars. Sambusas, deep-fried pastries, are another Somali favorite. But you can also grab Greek salad and kebab sandwiches here if you want. The vibe in WaaMo is unlike anywhere else in town, generated by the warmth of spiced coffee and that of Elmi meeting and greeting the diners, of watermelon juice and deep-fried chicken leg. WaaMo is a true unsung gem.

Cafe Chenar
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Our greatest kosher restaurant happens to be a north Phoenix establishment you could eat in without even knowing it's kosher. But young Bukharian stalwart Café Chenar obeys the laws of kashrut through and through. Tashkent native and chef Mazel Uvaydov makes tweaks to keep kosher, some so deft they slide under the radar. For one, manti, a kind of dumpling, are often dipped in sour cream. At Café Chenar, they come with tomato sauce. The restaurant's wide-ranging menu contains plenty of treasures to discover, including the Uzbek plov (a meat and rice dish), kebabs, hanum (a steamed pasta roll filled with potato and onion), and roasted Cornish hen. They even unveil specials for Jewish holidays, like sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) for Hanukkah.

Here, the mien is friendly, reading the deep menu is like falling into a wormhole, and the portions are grand — and it all adds up to make this New York-style Jewish deli a worthy stop for breakfast, lunch, or a gargantuan cinnamon roll for the road. JJ's boils more than 20 kinds of bagels every morning. They're of the giant, fluffy variety, and they do best under a mountain of whitefish salad or lox. Hot sandwiches on rye with stacks of pastrami or corned beef are also top-notch. An underrated nook on the menu is the robust knish selection, which includes a glorious doughy knob perfumed with bacon. And if you're ever feeling under the weather, we suggest picking up a bowl of Jewish penicillin, a.k.a. a hearty, comforting bowl of JJ's matzah ball soup.

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