These fluffy bao steamed in a Chandler restaurant and at events all over the Valley often are more than bao. They are bao with cute, hilarious, amazing faces. Hello Kitty. Baby Yoda. An Angry Bird with arched eyebrows, all but challenging you to eat him. Mr. Bird, you are doomed, because even the tofu bao here is stellar. Indonesian immigrant Anna Heinback is behind the bao. Though they look new-school, they are steamed in bamboo containers the old-school way. Her char siu (Cantonese-style barbecue pork) and chicken teriyaki make for great munching when walking around a farmers' market or festival.
What if we told you that one of the greatest grilled meats in our carne asada wonderland is an Armenian kabob? Believe it. Kabob Grill N Go owners Tony and Hasmik Chilingaryan grill flank steak, pork ribs, chicken wings, and the sausage-shaped minced-meat skewer known as koobideh. You can order a skewer. You can throw down and get a whole platter with rice and more. Much of what the Chilingaryans cook is displayed in a glass case. Just one look and a quick soulful smell of the grill, and you'll be a new regular.
We used to have a friend named Dino, but we stopped speaking to him when he said he didn't like the gingerbread men at Barb's Bakery, which has been serving Phoenix for decades. We don't need negativity like that in our life. What we do need is one of those spicy, warm cookies from Barb's, and we need one every week. Also a half-dozen of Barb's butter cookies, iced just so and perfect with a glass of cold milk. Barb's Orange Dreamsicle cupcake is the best thing we've ever tasted, next to her made-from-scratch cinnamon roll, sticky with sweet icing and nearly big enough for two. Except we don't like to share our stash from Barb's. Get your own.
A lot of people seem to think "You can't even tell it's gluten-free!" is the highest compliment you can pay a gluten-free baked good. We're here to tell you: It's not enough for us that our gluten-free goodies pass as "regular" treats. They had better be delicious, too. Sweet Dee's never fails to live up to our standards; each day, its lineup of pastries includes a number of outstanding gluten-free options. We've tried the butterscotch chip brownie, moist and rich; a tart, smooth lemon bar; and exquisite macarons in flavors like matcha and dark chocolate pomegranate. Also gluten-free are Dee's Nuts (LOL), the bakery's mini doughnuts. Sweet Dee's food menu, which offers light fare like quiche, avocado toast, sandwiches, and salads, also notes that any menu item can be made sans gluten. All in all, Sweet Dee's is where we go for pastries with none of the gluten and all of the flavor.
If you're lucky enough to get to Essence Bakery just as the pastries have come out of the oven, you'll smell the chocolate croissant before you taste it. The first bite will stop you in your tracks. Although we're talking about a pastry made with butter and stuffed with chocolate, Chef Eugenia Theodosopoulos' pastry is exceptionally airy and flaky. You may have to take a couple of bites to uncover the rich, dark chocolate nestled within the pastry, but your teeth, and soon your fingers, will eventually discover the utter softness within. Before too long, you'll have devoured the whole thing, leaving only pastry flakes on your shirt and butter and chocolate smeared on your fingertips. You may as well order another — this little bit of pastry heaven only costs $4.
It's not unusual for a bakery to make an excellent kalamata olive loaf, which Arizona Bread Company certainly does, all chewy and stuffed with olives and sprinkled with cheeses. And there are several local bakeries that offer a really good round raisin challah, too (though none half so dense and tasty as Arizona Bread's). But can someone please help us find a tastier, more perfect loaf of Italian rosemary bread than the one baked at this longtime Valley favorite? No, never mind. You can't do it; we've tried and failed to find one we like more. Don't take our word for it — try this aromatic, crusty loaf yourself. And while you're there, don't miss an opportunity to take home a hunk of Arizona Bread's dark honey wheat bread, or to try their Paris-perfect baguette, with its hard, crisp outside and chewy, soft inside.
Step aside, Bonne Maman. Cotton Country Jams is in the house. Amanda Hawkins' grandmother started this business in 2000; at the time, the only product was wild Maine blueberry jam. Hawkins took over in 2008, and today, she offers jams, jellies, pickled products, and syrups, using mostly local ingredients and Grandma's recipes. We keep our kitchen stocked with the prickly pear jelly and the bread-and-butter pickles by snapping them up when we spy them at local farmers' markets. But the crown jewel of the lineup is the fig jam. Made with figs, lemons juice, sugar, citric acid, and pectin, it's got just the right texture (not too thick, not too thin), flow, and sweetness. You can also find Cotton Country Jam products locally at Woods & Whites, Sphinx Date Co., Noble Eatery, and Pane Bianco.
There is a tragic dearth of good bagels in Phoenix. Luckily, we've got Bagelfelds, whose bagels, which are marketed as Brooklyn-style bagels, are phenomenal. Biting into one of these fresh, chewy everything bagels smothered in a garlic pepper smear is a borderline New York experience; it's even better when you know you have more bagels in your paper bag since you splurged on a dozen. The menu includes flavors like fennel seed and golden raisin, and sea salt, and you've also got cream cheese options like lemon herb and honey brown butter. They don't have a formal storefront, but you can get your Bagelfelds fix at stands at Uptown Farmers' Market, Downtown Phoenix Public Market, Stoop Kid at The Churchill, and Nelson's Meat + Fish.
It's true that acai bowls can be similar, with basic ingredients that are hard to get wrong. They can also be masterpieces of acai goodness topped with the freshest fruit and granola, like those you'll find at Berry Divine Acai Bowls. A small Arizona chain started by Sedona resident Todd Shreve, Berry Divine has five locations, including our favorite on 16th Street near Barrio Café. Our obsession began on a long, late work night when a colleague introduced us to the idea of an acai bowl for dinner. Berry Divine does the classic bowl that we like just right: photogenic strawberry slices, blueberries, and bananas topped with granola and honey, a dash of protein powder, and drips of honey. They've got a full menu of fancier bowls and will customize them however you want. The 16th Street location is more urban-style, with limited seating inside and an outdoor patio adjacent to a tiny parking lot. Whenever we eat here, we have the same thought: Health food shouldn't be this tasty. At Berry Divine, though, it somehow is.
We admit it: Mary Coyle isn't the only place in town we eat ice cream. But that's only because we keep trying to find an ice cream we like better. And we keep failing. It might be that no one else in town has mastered maple walnut, or that no other confectioner has even bothered to attempt salted caramel cashew (a life-changing ice cream flavor in case you're looking for a new you). Or maybe it's just that the late Mrs. Coyle's ice cream recipes are the very best (exactly how much butterfat is in this stuff, anyway?). Every spoonful of Mary Coyle is made in-house, and made as if butter pecan, pistachio, rocky road, and mint chocolate chip are the only things that really matter in life. Which, at least at Mary Coyle's place, they kind of are.