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.
For more than a decade, Lori Hashimoto and her family have run a no-frills Japanese restaurant with uncommon range. The sushi at Hana is first-rate, especially some of the higher-end options. Uni quivers under a quail egg and vanishes in your mouth with the same briny glory of smelling a salt wind off the sea, only far creamier. Toro is so gloriously marbled that it looks more like pork cheek than tuna. Hana can finesse traditional dishes like monkfish liver and many kinds of tempura. The kitchen has all the goodness of the sushi bar, plating bang-up fried oysters, katsu breaded with panko, and even teriyaki that, yes, is well worth ordering.
A surefire way to banish all memories of sticky Americanized Chinese food is to step into this Tempe stalwart and embrace the depth of Sunny and Lulu Zhao's northeastern Chinese menu. To begin, don't overlook the drinks. Why settle for water when you can sip plum juice or fresh papaya milk? At Chou's, noodles and clay pots are just the iceberg's small tip. The main event is the world of dumplings, most famously pan-fried meat pies whose doughy sheaths give way to hot ground beef. Dumplings contain squash and egg, pork and pickled vegetables. You can go with classic potstickers or tuck into steamed mackerel enrobed in dough. Chou's has the kind of menu that you could order from 10 times and still have 20 more things to try.
You never know when you're going to stumble on a gem. One night, we were in the mood for Indian food and wanted to get takeout from a place nearby. The Tasty Touch came up on the Google search, and the rest is history. We've been back plenty of times to this strip-mall eatery, where the service is uncommonly friendly and the food is always spot-on. The lamb biryani with caramelized onions and saffron rice is a frequent go-to, as is the chicken saag, chunks of dark meat chicken swimming in a puree of spinach, onion, ginger, and garlic. We love to dip Tasty Touch's incredible garlic naan into the liquid of the saag, too. There's so much to explore on Tasty Touch's menu that we know we'll be making trips there for a long time to come.
How to make a lifelong Haji-Baba fan: Bring them to the restaurant one time. That's what happened to us, and decades later, there aren't many eateries in Phoenix we prefer to this unassuming strip mall restaurant/market. It's hard for us to order anything other than the chicken shawarma plate, which comes with spiced meat, pillowy basmati rice, hummus, tabbouleh, and Haji's legendary garlic sauce. But we've been known to opt for the gyros, big chunks of meat lounging in a tangy tzatziki sauce. The appetizers are fantastic, particularly the baba ghanoush, which is perfectly smokey and accompanied by a few slim pickle slices. Leave time at the end of your meal to browse the aisles of the market that shares space with the eatery; the flavors you just enjoyed will undoubtedly act as culinary inspiration for your home cooking.
We get it: African cuisine can be a little intimidating to the uninitiated. That's why it's such a comfort that the staff at Authentic Ethio African Spices are more than willing to weigh in on your order. This is our go-to, budget-friendly place for Ethiopian food. It's cozy, affordable, and absolutely delicious. Go with the meat or vegetarian sampler platters. The portion sizes are pretty large, so two people can comfortably share a large entree without going hungry. Sometimes, though, we just make a meal out of the appetizers, like the sambusas (veggie or beef) or the spicy wings in berbere sauce. Authentic Ethio African Spices is currently closed for renovation (you can see the cool new signage when you drive past on McDowell Road), but it's scheduled to reopen in October. We can't wait to get back in there.