Metro Phoenix is an international cornucopia for food lovers. From Peru to Vietnam, Italy to Mexico, our restaurants allow us to take a virtual tour of the world's cuisine without ever straying too far from the 101. Here are five ethnic restaurants that you may want to try real soon.
Tea Light Cafe
7000 East Mayo Boulevard #1084
The Valley has a surprisingly robust constellation of Vietnamese restaurants. One gem is Tea Light Cafe, not far from the Scottsdale Road exit off of Highway 101. This long nook of a restaurant with low light and modest tables is a small place with a lot of regulars that cooks just a few foods, and cooks them well. Cold noodles. Rice plates. Salads. Pho. Pho options are beef, chicken, vegetable, and shrimp. A bowl of shrimp pho is light, the elements thoughtful, the flavors dialed down, the low volume befitting the fragrant nature of the tiny shrimp buoyed to the clear surface of the broth. A plate of optional add-ons comes on the side. Bean sprouts. Lime wedge. Basil. Jalapenos. Tea Light also offers a saucer of peppered lemon juice. This adds some zip to the broth and jives with the standard cilantro, throwing the flavors off the shrimp into bracing relief.
1006 East Warner Road, Tempe
Ghost Ranch, the south Tempe restaurant Aaron Chamberlin opened in August, looks to bring novelty to Southwestern cuisine. Chamberlin, who masterminds four restaurants including Taco Chelo, says his newest serves food “from Baja California to Texas.” The chefs at Ghost Ranch cook enchiladas with chile Colorado. The dish speaks to how Chamberlin and his crew hope to jolt Southwestern. The tortillas are corn. The toppings are slivered. A forest of purple cabbage, onion, and radishes. Crema provides a link to the time-tested schematic of enchiladas that are all creamy, all melting. When slurping the chile, you expect a roasty haymaker. But this chile has a gentle heat that seems to respect the more elusive qualities of the rare chimayo that Chamberlin sources. This dish is just one example of the approach at Ghost Ranch, an approach geared toward airier zones of Southwestern flavor.
2605 North Seventh Street
El Chullo is an underrated Peruvian Restaurant on Seventh Street in central Phoenix. The beef heart is a $10 starter that could be a meal. An order comes with two skewers, five heart medallions per skewer, the long metal spikes projecting over their plate. Eating beef heart is tapping into dark new dimensions of flavor. The metallic undertows and low tones of funk that slumber in offal to varying degrees recast meat into something beyond what you get from skirt, plate, brisket. Eating beef heart is living. It is trying new things, leaping outside your comfort zone (or routine), pulling grilled brown sails of meat from hot skewers, leaking juice, bursting with flavor that reminds you that your food was once alive. It also provides windows: to the past, to other cultures, to things you have seen or read about in distant places. The grilled hearts at El Chullo have a rugged cattle hustler feel to them. Digging right in, despite the waitress’s cautions, is one way wake yourself up during a bland day, to look outside the window to downtown, and to see more than what is there.
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6007 North 16th Street
A Bakeshop in Phoenix specializes in Sicilian pastries. Owner Andrea Tuck does much more than Sicilian pastries, including custom cakes and macarons, but has a strong bond to the island south of mainland Italy. A Bakeshop's Sicilian sweets are ricotta cookies, cheesecake, cannoli, and cassata. Cannoli shells rest empty in the display case. This is because they are filled with cream to order. That cream is sweetened ricotta on the compact side, shot through with tiny chocolate chips, and perfumed with a cool hint of cinnamon. Tuck’s two-bite ricotta cookies, smeared with vanilla icing and sprinkled, are puffy and light from use of the cheese. The cookie is barely sweet. She typically shoots for pastries “not too sweet, so people can actually finish the whole dessert.” Tuck bakes from the recipes of her great grandmother, Lilian Marchese. Marchese was from Palermo, capital of Sicily.
TEG Torta Shop
2518 North 16th Street
TEG Torta Shop (formerly Tortas el Guero), the humble but great torta hall on 16th Street, has a menu jammed with just over a dozen tortas. This is a menu with no weak links. The tortas are based on more traditional preparations (carne asada, ham and cheese, cochinita pibil) but range to a few selections you might be a little more surprised to see in a Mexican torta shop (Hawaiian and Cuban sandwiches). There is even a turkey tail torta. But the torta ahogada is a standout. “Ahogada” means drowned. It refers to the chile sauce situation, and at TEG the chile sauce is made from chile de arbol. It is spicy even for heat-seekers. Owner and manager Gustavo Lom says that his torta ahogada is a sandwich more on the traditional end. In this age of food when the new and the visually neon are drugs to many eaters, when people tend to eat with their eyes and iPhones, we could use a few more good old fashioned artful chile hurricanes.