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.
Green's "vegan comfort food for the masses" includes delicious and deceptively meaty plant-based versions of carnivorous classics like burgers, Buffalo wings, cheesesteaks, chili, and barbecue sandwiches — all so good most people can hardly believe they're vegan. That's the whole point. Green New American Vegetarian owner Damon Brasch wants to offer American classics that every family member can enjoy, including kids (there are faux chicken nuggets, a kids' burger, and a mini "cheese" quesadilla on the menu). Samosas, smothered fries, and crab puffs are among the savory sides. Herbivores can get their food fixes, too, with Green's variety of specialty salads and garden burritos. To satisfy a sweet tooth, pop over next door to the Phoenix location and peruse Nami's menu of soy-based ice cream treats and vegan baked goods.
Nepalese dumplings. Filipino chicken skewers. Cold brew and soursop frozen ice pops. The Uptown Farmers' Market, held on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the parking lot of North Phoenix Baptist Church, is back, with prepared food vendors firing up the grills and the other stands selling, between them, just about anything you might want from an Arizona farmers' market. There's grass-fed beef, heirloom tomatoes, rye bread, hand-pounded salsa. As the seasons change, so too does the glorious rainbow bounty of farm-fresh ingredients. The fruits and vegetables shine at stands like Wong Family Farms and McClendon's Select. Whether you come by for lobster rolls, pickles, or duck eggs, the community and wonderful vibe at this market managed by Bo Mostow will be a highlight of your week or weekend.
It was big news when Korean-American supermarket chain H-Mart opened its first Arizona location in Mesa last summer, and we're happy to report that the store lives up to the hype. H-Mart has it all: a dizzying variety of Asian groceries, a not-to-be-missed food court, and killer K-pop playing on the speakers. Sure, it's no mom-and-pop shop, but it also sells everything you need and everything you didn't think you needed until you stumbled across it. Stock up on frozen dumplings, chili sauce, rambutan, fresh seafood, outstanding chilled sake, a new rice cooker, and much, much more. On your way out, you can stop by the food court and chow down on Korean, Japanese, and Chinese takeout — including a to-die-for Korean fried chicken vendor.
One of these days, we're going to head to Lee Lee, fill up a cart with products whose labels we can't understand, and take our purchases home for some global culinary exploration. But until we conduct that grand experiment, you can just catch us at Lee Lee for our usual purchases, like frozen shumai, Filipino lumpia, containers of fried garlic that go great on everything, Bulgarian red pepper spread, central European meats, Korean ramen, and so much more. We make sure we have extra time to shop when we get to one of Lee Lee's two Valley locations; we like to stroll the wide aisles at leisure, looking at the unusual products and appreciating the gastronomic diversity of the world we live in.