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.
It might not matter to you that Cafe Chenar in north Phoenix is certified kosher under the supervision of a local rabbi, but it means that thousands of observant Jews have a restaurant they can safely patronize in a city that doesn't have many kosher options. What definitely should matter to you is that Cafe Chenar is the only place in town to sample Bukharian cuisine (the food of Jews from Uzbekistan). If it sounds daunting, it shouldn't. This is hearty comfort food that wouldn't be out of place in a Midwestern kitchen. We love the dumplings selection here, which includes pelemi (meat dumplings in clear broth) and fried potato piroshkis. The Cornish game hen with garlic fries isn't particularly exotic, but it's remarkably satisfying. Nothing is too expensive, either, so we suggest showing up with a group and ordering family-style in order to try the full range of what Cafe Chenar has to offer.
Chompie's is the kind of story we love: A family moves here from New York, opens a deli, and more than 40 years later, they're beloved a local chain with outposts around metro Phoenix and generations of fans. We don't even try to make it through one of their "mile-high" sandwiches — the enormous pile of meat is too much for smaller appetites. But we happily chow down on classic Jewish dishes like potato knishes, cabbage rolls, and matzah ball soup (the first thing we run for when we're feeling under the weather). Chompie's pays special attention to Jewish holidays, and always has takeout and dine-in specials for Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, and the like. The Paradise Valley Mall location closed earlier this year when the mall closed for good, but we can't wait for its new storefront to open near 32nd Street and Cactus Road.
Sapiens Paleo Kitchen is something of a hidden gem. The restaurant is housed in a plaza near McDowell Mountain Regional Park, an incredibly scenic part of northeast Scottsdale. It serves French cuisine on a 100-percent paleo menu — cool on its own — but also from a completely gluten-free menu, from a completely gluten-free kitchen. Here, you can order the Paleo Bread Platter for starters, the Sapiens Burger, Paleo Meatloaf, and the Sapiens Crème Brûlée — all dishes normally avoided by gluten-free diners. The entire menu is built differently (we're looking at you, hot pink Paleo Dip), because the food here caters to those with specific dietary restrictions — by choice or otherwise. You won't have to endure the annoying ordering process of special requests and substitutions here. The staff gets it.
Not being vegans ourselves, we were skeptical the first time we accompanied a vegan friend to Verdura for lunch. We left believers. It's a cliche, but you barely miss the meat when chowing down on menu items like the hearty Rainbow Connection (a veggie sandwich with pesto "mayo" on Noble Bread) or the spicy General Pow Cauliflower with jasmine rice and Korean broccoli. Just make sure you save some room to split the Goth Waffle with your dining companion; we've written about this black waffle topped with berries, compote, and shaved coconut before, and we still rave about it every chance we get. And since we enjoy style and substance, we feel compelled to mention that the rock 'n' roll-themed decor is just one more thing we love about Verdura.