Ever since the pandemic made it much more of an ordeal to travel, we've found ourselves frequently thinking about journeys past. When we crave the cheerful din of an English tavern, we head to George & Dragon in central Phoenix. You don't need to eat anything here to have a satisfying time; a pint of Smithwick's, some football (meaning soccer) on the TV, and a friendly chat with the chap on the next barstool is a fine way to while away an afternoon or evening. But we recommend sampling the menu: The chicken and vegetable curries are celebrated for a reason, and traditional British fare like shepherd's pie and bangers and mash pair well with the ciders and beers on tap. Until we can hop the pond again, George & Dragon gives us that British pub experience, right in the heart of Phoenix.
Sure, you got your McCaffrey's, your Dubliners, your suburban corner pubs. But in downtown Cave Creek's crowded food-and-drink scene, look for the giant Guinness banner and head toward Mountain View Pub. It has the usual Irish bar traits: imported beers, appetizers, an assortment of antique furniture, an internet jukebox. But there's also a stage framed by exposed cobblestone, some natural sunlight, and a massive back patio with absolutely breathtaking views of a river valley and the north Valley mountains. To drink, order a margarita, a house favorite that's served in a Guinness pint glass. To eat? Stay on the ol' Emerald Isle; we like the Irish breakfast platter, Irish pub nachos, and the Reuben, which is made with corned beef cooked daily in Guinness.
Okay, maybe German isn't the trendiest cuisine at the moment, but there's no denying its effectiveness as comfort food. The menu at Haus Murphy's in Historic Downtown Glendale is stocked with hearty, stick-to-your-ribs fare. We like to start with the giant Bavarian soft pretzel, which comes with butter, mustard, and (for an extra fee) cheese sauce. The schnitzels are the best in town; if you order the sampler plate, you'll get to try the chicken, paprika, and steak schnitzels, all of which are perfectly fried without being too heavy. Our final bit of advice? Come to Haus Murphy's on a mostly empty stomach — not just to enjoy the large portions, but also so you can sample the restaurant's impressive beer selection (and maybe a Black Forest torte).
Inside this lofty temple of breezy, white-painted woods, exposed rafters, and brassy accents, an elegant modern French restaurant hums. It's not elegant just because of the postcard bar with its smooth hewn-rock top and plant leaves jutting from atop the brass back bar. Francine unites coastal French cooking with strong influences from Spain and southern Italy, the dishes ranging from old to new. Brian Archibald cooks them with a true hand. Some of his highlights are a citrus-touched crab ravioli and a whole branzino baked in a salt crust. Archibald prepares textbook panisse, the classic French chickpea cake, but also mixes it up with dishes such as wood-roasted octopus with chorizo. In 2021, lots of French dining can feel sleepy, but Francine delivers a pleasant, galvanizing shock.
Chef Gio Osso's restaurant serves funky amari flights. Gnocchi rolled with mesquite flour. Mains like duck breast in black garlic soubise. His skill and point of view in the Italian food arena would be unique for anywhere, and they certainly bring something to greater Phoenix's somewhat staid Italian food scene. Diners enjoy his fare at an intimate courtyard flanking a boutique inn, white tablecloths under string lights. The menu changes all the time. At any given moment, there are usually just a few pastas. He'll never cook, say, a classic like amatriciana. As with his take on grilled octopus, one highlighting fennel, chickpeas, and Calabrese chile butter, there's always some nice modern wrinkle.
Who eats in this Cuban cafeteria in far west Phoenix? Cab drivers. Quiet regulars. People who know the proprietor and watch TV while they wolf down pork steak and flan. The food awaits in warming tins. It is ladled in its fully saucy glory onto your plate, juices running to the rim. The ropa vieja is excellent, the tender braided strings of long-stewed beef sopping with peppery juices. Oxtails are wildly decadent and so slide-apart that they cave under your fork with the most minimal pressure. Even the black beans are fire. This is the kind of Cuban cafeteria you'd expect in New York or Miami, so we're thrilled Fe La Cubana calls Arizona home.
It sounds like a tree breaking in half — ripping down the middle with a deafening crack. But it's just Brian Webb hacking the head off a full mahogany-lacquered pig with a cleaver. Webb's lechon baboy is serious business. He turns the pig for hours over live charcoal, as he learned to from his wife Margita Webb's family in Lapu Lapu City, in the Philippines. Lemongrass and garlic perfume the meat, tender but for the pieces with crackly bits of skin. At PHX Lechon Roasters, the Webbs also cook to-go meals (on some occasions), including whole kamayan dinners with edible gems like lumpia rich with pork and fried spareribs. Their ube pandesal, soft purple dinner rolls oozing molten cheese, are among the most comforting bites around.
Quality Asian restaurants are no easy find north of the 101, but 3 Regions Vietnamese Kitchen is a glaring exception. Chef Jenna Dao, a native of Hue, Vietnam, prepares dishes from the country's three primary regions: north, south, and center. Her specialty is a yawning bowl of bun bo hue, a rice noodle soup fragrant with lemongrass and bobbing with tender sails of beef, slivered onion, and deep red chile oil. Her pho is also very good, if, when craving soup, you can turn from bun bo hue. Her banh xeo crepes are crisp, lacy, and crammed with decadent pork. Even her simple bun — rice noodles dipped in fish sauce, garlic, and citrus — feels pleasantly funky and extra refreshing.
Glai Baan, which serves the street food of northern Thailand, isn't your average Thai restaurant. The menu is fairly small — there aren't expansive lists of curries and noodles and rice dishes. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in authenticity and out-of-this-world flavor. Soup isn't usually a showstopper, but the kao tom moon — a large bowl of rice, chicken broth, ground pork, shrimp, and crispy garlic oil — nearly made us shout with joy the first time we tried it. The kanom jeeb, little pork dumplings with scallion and ginger soy, is another standout dish. The drink menu gets switched up every so often, but it's filled with creative cocktails with region-appropriate ingredients like lemongrass and Asian spirits. We highly recommend making a reservation and/or calling in your takeout order well in advance; Glai Baan is hugely popular with diners who come from all over the Valley to experience this tiny gem.
What's on the menu at Justin Park's rollicking, black-walled eatery in a Mesa strip mall where the East Asian brews and soju cocktails flow? Korean street food, drunken munchies, classics, hybrids, and whatever the hell he feels like cooking. This place is so freeform and YOLO that Park has been known to hook up watermelon with soju and Pop Rocks. The young chef can cook up a storm. Classics like thin, flavor-bursting bulgogi and chewy tteokbokki bathed in fiery chile sauce tend to be right on target. So, too, are his remixes, like a Korean take on elote and a KFC (Korean fried chicken) that sees buttermilk-brined dark meat fried to perfect crispness and juiciness — ideal for sidekicking one or many drinks.