I deserted Phoenix 12 years ago in search of a life without dehydration and insane traffic, looking for a horizon that didn't include a fat, gray cloud of pollution sitting proudly on top of it. I moved to Eugene, Oregon, where the grass is always green, the air is so clean that lichen grows on almost every tree, the "rush hour" is only 15 minutes, and there are seven good places to eat.
I've been to all seven places. Again and again and again. Don't ask me how the Mexican food is up here; what I have to say will make you cry. I was in Phoenix for the last three weeks for what I call the "holidays," but is just an excuse to hit as many restaurants as possible. In the years that I've been away, Phoenix has come into its own and built itself into not only a food city, but a strong food city. I'm amazed at the growth and progress of the culinary scene here; every time I visit, friends demand to take me to the "new, great" place.
So on my last day in Phoenix, I was surprised to see the New Times cover story deflating Phoenix's food balloon. With eight pounds of tortillas packed in my luggage along with cheeses and meats I can't get where I live, I have to say I was stunned. I thought Phoenix, which is still my hometown, had come so far. And a moment later, I shook off my dismay and realized that, in fact, it had come that far — and maybe it takes a visit from a hometown girl to appreciate how developed and exciting the food scene here is.
If you really want to chalk up the culinary success of town by its James Beard winners, be my guest. But what does that really mean? Does it mean that only the top percent of people who can afford $160 for a 22-course meal are able to enjoy the best food in the city? Nothing against Binkley's; I just can't do it. It's not even reachable for me, but I loved Binkley's when I could afford it (which was only at lunch time). What exactly does the title "a top food city" mean — that only the wealthiest can attain a supreme meal, or that great food is accessible to everyone across the board?
I can tell you what has happened in Portland, Oregon, the Great Food City. People are eating pigeons and fried sunflower seeds, shrimp oil and something called scallop powder. You can have that last ingredient on a ravioli appetizer for $23. I'm all for experimenting and creating a broad base of flavors — but when something on a menu makes me laugh out loud, I'm a little done. That's not really great food but a serving of pretension, and frankly, when was that a chapter in Mastering the Art of French Cooking?
Julia Child would have blown that scallop powder far across the table.
And this is also what you get in Portland: exorbitant prices, an attitude from someone handing you a plate or directing you to a table as if they were conducting the Mars shuttle landing, and lines. Long, long, long lines. And if the lines to get into the place of the moment aren't long enough, there's a strategy to make them longer. Shut down a cash register or make the wait time for the next available table ... extended. Doesn't that make you feel superior? To wait two hours for a table in a place that serves fried catfish and pimento cheese? Does it make the licks on your garlic ice cream that much more heavenly?
All I know if that it doesn't make my food taste any better, it's guaranteed to detract from my food "experience" rather than enhance it. If I want attitude, I'll go to the shoe department at Barney's, where a person making minimum wage gets to tell me that my credit card has been declined. I don't need it when I'm hungry. It doesn't make a fried sunflower any more daring.
This is what we have in Phoenix: tried and true. Dependable. Accessible. Mom and Pop. Generations of restaurants families still thriving, operating the same place for decades. I'm just going to say it: We have the best damned Mexican food in the country. THE BEST. Tex-Mex can suck it. LA's beans need more friggin' lard. San Fran has awesome tortillas, but seriously, what's the deal with the enchiladas? New Mexico — do not get me started. I don't even know what that's about. Your chiles are hot. Good for you. No one can eat them.
But here in Phoenix, where it was still Mexico until 1912, we have it all. Bring on the mole, bring on the chimis. Bring on the red chile and green chile and the machaca. No one can touch us.
And as far as culinary heights go — really, do you want your town to be known for pigeons and shrimp oil? Do you? Or would you rather know that you have a variety of solid restaurants in every part of the city, basically within a 10-minute drive from anyone's house. (Okay, for Glendale, let's make that 20.) Downtown has incredible scents wafting from corner to corner; new places are popping up every day. Even in the suburbs you'll find an Al Hamra for Indian food, or a POMO for a wood-fired pizza, or a hot dog at Simon's. A good food city will have solid food for everyone, not just the people who want to eat the bird that is a rat with wings.
A good food city means that for every meal, you have a dozen awesome choices and that making a decision is difficult. A good food city means that if you have $160 to burn and want to spend four hours eating it, you can. A good food city means that if you have 10 bucks, you can get the best burrito you've ever had. A good food city means that you have new, you have old, you have choices, and you have standards.
In other words, a good food city is only as strong as its foundation.
If you have more than seven decent restaurants to choose from, that is nothing to complain about. And if you still insist, if you must complain, I'll be forced to tell you how they make a burrito where I live.