Best of Phoenix

Best of Phoenix 2018: Where to Find Our Best Specialty Dishes

Do you know where to find the best pizza in the Valley?  Who makes the best horchatas?  The best burger or the best grilled cheese?  We don't have any problem with telling you where to go to find any of them.  Here are the best specialty dishes that we rated in metro Phoenix.

Best Chocolate: Zak's Chocolate
6990 E. Shea Blvd., #116, Scottsdale
It's not an overstatement to say that the arrival of Zak's Chocolate changed the local food scene. The small-batch chocolatier's products have found their way into AZ Wilderness Brewery beer and Iconic Cocktail Co. There's plenty to choose from at the Scottsdale store, from gleaming truffles in unique flavors like Earl Grey lavender and ginger lime, to brownie flights showcasing chocolate sourced from different countries. But if you're really a purist, just grab a handful of Zak's single-origin chocolate bars; the bars are made with cocoa beans from Haiti, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea, Peru, and other nations.

click to enlarge Raining flour onto sourdough dough at Proof Bread. - CHRIS MALLOY
Raining flour onto sourdough dough at Proof Bread.
Chris Malloy
Best Bread: Proof Bread
Farmers Markets, Mesa
About a year ago, founder Jared Allen sold Proof Bread to loyal customers Jon Przybyl and Amanda Abou-Eid. The husband-and-wife team have done their sensei proud, emerging as baking masters in their own right. The journey from starter to finished loaf of Proof sourdough lasts some 30 hours. That journey takes place in a Mesa garage filled with work stations, dusty light, and cooling racks. This sourdough has a crisp but chewy structure and the style's trademark mild tang. Long fermentation and great care give each loaf the spirit of grain fields — deeply complex, deeply comforting. You can find Proof products at several local farmers markets.

Best Focaccia: Luna Gelateria
8977 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
When you think of focaccia, you probably think of puffy, airy bread mountainous with crags and bubbles from baking. Well, think again. Stefano Fabbri has been crafting a thinner focaccia which he says is in the style of Recco, a small coastal town in Liguria, Italy. The dough that becomes Fabbri's Focaccia di Recco has no yeast. What results is a crackly wafer, one in which each fissure leaks molten Stracchino cheese. There is snap, shatter, and some of the lightness of a Neapolitan pizza. And if you really want to tickle your senses, order this focaccia with truffle honey.

click to enlarge Eat at Ollie Vaughn's. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Eat at Ollie Vaughn's.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
Best Lox Bagel: Ollie Vaughn's
1526 East McDowell Road
When it comes to breakfast at Ollie Vaughn's, we love the avocado toast, the ricotta pancakes, and the pork chile verde. Sometimes we even order them. But usually we cave and order the lox bagel, because, well, if we don't, we spend the rest of the day wishing we had. Ollie's chewy, fresh-baked everything bagel is heaped with herb cream cheese and dotted with tangy capers. Crunchy red onions are a perfect accompaniment to a giant pile of thinly shaved lox so fresh we wonder if there isn't a salmon farm somewhere in the building. What we're saying here is that are lox bagels, and then there is the lox bagel at Ollie Vaughn's.

Best Pasta: Mora Italian
5651 North Seventh Street
A relative newcomer makes the best pasta in Phoenix. The pasta at Scott Conant's Mora is actually made in the Gainey Ranch location of Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana, where curls of noodles emerge from extruders during the day. (Pomo's Stefano Fabbri has been involved with Mora.) The pasta at Mora has the right balance of chew, softness, mild grainy flavor, absorbency, and style. Black campanelle look sexy as hell and are perfect for clams and Fresno chiles. A sausage and porcini ragu flirts closely with being too heavy, but is saved by expert torchio, pasta twists with chew and swagger to match the sauce.

Best Pizza: Pizzeria Bianco
623 East Adams Street
4743 North 20th Street
It would be cool and rogue to pick a top pizza other than those crafted by Chris Bianco's crew. It would also be about as true as saying the earth is flat. Bianco's pizza is one of the few mouthfuls of food in town that can reduce the pizza lover or Italophile to stunned silence, to something close to tears. Bianco is constantly testing new flour blends, the grain milled at Pane Bianco for each trial. He has upped his tomato game with his own line. He tirelessly works to cultivate relationships with farmers. As a result, all he has to do when blazing pies is apply time-honed methods to pristine ingredients and let our West Coast bounty shine.

click to enlarge A slice of Crisp Premium Pizza's classic grandma pie. - CHRIS MALLOY
A slice of Crisp Premium Pizza's classic grandma pie.
Chris Malloy
Best Grandma: Crisp Premium Pizza
7111 East Fifth Avenue, Suite F, Scottsdale
Grandma pizza, that is. Adrian Langu bakes trays of grandma-style (square) pizzas all by himself in Old Town Scottsdale. Langu shapes the dough himself. He oils the pan. He ladles the sauce and spreads the toppings. He opens the hinged mouth to the gas oven, slides in red and white sheets, and delivers them steaming hot to customers. Langu's pizza has a radical lightness. Sluiced with sauce blended from some tomatoes he mills and some he crushes with his hands, then topped with torn basil and kissed with grassy olive oil, a slice of standard grandma pie at Crisp is so airy and beautiful that you may see pizza in a new way.

Myke Olsen slings gorgeous Neapolitan pies every weekend outside Mezona Market in downtown Mesa. - STEPHANIE FUNK
Myke Olsen slings gorgeous Neapolitan pies every weekend outside Mezona Market in downtown Mesa.
Stephanie Funk
Best Rising-Star Pizza-Maker: Myke Olsen
21 West Main Street, Mesa
Not long ago, Myke Olsen worked as an accountant. Today, he bakes pizza on the sidewalk of Main Street in Mesa three nights a week, somehow managing to keep his long-fermented dough at the right temperature even in the arid heat. Olsen uses a pair of portable gas-fired grills that range from 700 to 800 degrees. His Thursday, Friday, and Saturday pop-ups sell a mere 20 to 60 pizzas a night. Crust puffs to airy edges on the rim, brown, black, and cratered. His crust has nuance and swagger, the complexity of great bread. Don't miss Olsen's marinara pie, or his potato pie with bacon and garlic cream.

Best Sandwich Shop: Worth Takeaway
218 West Main Street, Mesa
Sandwiches seem like a simple food: bread and fillings, right? But sandwiches are layered, intricately structured pieces of edible architecture, and one wrong part can sink the whole show. Worth gets as close as anyone to perfecting the sandwich. Ingredients come from local farms and hit a blazing fast gear: Steadfast Farm greens, local heirloom cauliflower in giardiniera. Staples, like an otherworldly crispy chicken, are reliably ethereal. But keep an eye on the rotating specials, where, with creations like chile tuna melts and Little Miss BBQ brisket with habanero-peach marmalade on a potato bun, the evolving talents of this shop are on full display.

click to enlarge The avocado toast at Noble Eatery is still a favorite. - EVIE CARPENTER
The avocado toast at Noble Eatery is still a favorite.
Evie Carpenter
Best Avocado Toast: Noble Eatery
4525 North 24th Street
A while back, an Australian millionaire famously declared that if millennials don't stop spending so much money on avocado toast, they'll never be able to afford to buy houses. Noble Eatery, a casual lunchtime spot in midtown Phoenix, is where we like to go to fritter away our financial futures.There are no bells and whistles on the avocado toast here, just rich, chunky avocado with tomatoes and chimayo chile powder piled high on thick slabs of hearty, chewy Noble Bread. It's filling without being heavy, which is also how you can describe the rest of the menu; it includes salads, sandwiches, pizzas, and other things on toast, all of it utterly satisfying. Who needs home equity, anyway?

click to enlarge Aioli Gourmet Burgers had a beautiful display. - JORDYN CARIAS
Aioli Gourmet Burgers had a beautiful display.
Jordyn Carias
Best Burger: Aioli Gourmet Burgers
10652 North 32nd Street
A burger is an easy thing to find in metro Phoenix, but a great burger? That's a little harder. Aioli Gourmet Burgers, which has both a food truck and a brick-and-mortar location in north Phoenix, is our pick when we've got a burger craving. Aioli's offerings start with a Kobe beef patty, and it just gets better from there. Our favorite is the California burger, which tops the meat with avocado, pickled red onions, pepper jack cheese, an over-medium egg, and chipotle aioli.

Best Grilled Cheese: Ingo's Tasty Food
4502 North 40th Street
In the beginning, the best grilled cheese sandwich in town was an off-menu item at tiny neighborhood eatery Ingo's Tasty Food, available only to in-the-know regulars who were clued in to ask for it. Then, for a while, this sister restaurant of La Grande Orange made the sandwich a permanent part of the menu. Now, it's back to being a secret, but it's definitely worth asking for. Why should you get a Grown-Up's Secret Grilled Cheese instead of one of Ingo's award-winning burgers? Between two toasted slices of Noble bread are melted cheddar, gourmet For Epi cheese, and sweet Mad River Farm jam.

Best Hot Dog: Simon's Hot Dogs
4280 North Drinkwater Boulevard, #200, Scottsdale
Located just steps away from the heart of Old Town Scottsdale, Simon's is the rare hot-dog shop that manages to please everyone — herbivores included. Everything on the menu can be made vegetarian or vegan, from the classic Sonoran Dog to the seaweed-topped Tokyo Dog. The restaurant's owners hail from Colombia, and the true standout on the menu is the salty-sweet Colombian Dog, featuring mozzarella cheese, crushed potato chips, and diced pineapple. Not a fan of hot dogs? Try the fried plantains or the salcipapas, french fries topped with sliced sausage and Simon's special sauce.

click to enlarge Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe
Jacob Tyler Dunn
Best Fried Chicken: Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe
808 East Jefferson Street
A lot of promising soul-food restaurants have opened in recent memory. A lot of Southern-style chefs are sizzling impressive takes on everybody's favorite battered bird to come out of Dixie. A lot of professional cooks are gussying up the tried-and-true basics of fried chicken: frying only strips of dark meat, serving chicken drowned in honey. A lot of chefs who channel the magic of poultry, buttermilk, and spitting oil are making fried chicken's trendy cousin out of Nashville: hot chicken. And none are as good as Mrs. White's shatter-jacketed, juicy classic, the best fried chicken in town.

click to enlarge The Laundry List features two large servings of fries, deliciously glued together with melted cheese, ground beef, barbecue pork, and grilled onions, and topped with scallions and the restaurant's homemade Stand sauce. - PATRICIA ESCARCEGA
The Laundry List features two large servings of fries, deliciously glued together with melted cheese, ground beef, barbecue pork, and grilled onions, and topped with scallions and the restaurant's homemade Stand sauce.
Patricia Escarcega
Best Fries: The Stand
3538 East Indian School Road
7366 East Shea Boulevard, #112, Scottsdale
What's so special about the french fries at The Stand? They're hand-cut, for one, which means they taste like honest-to-goodness potatoes. Then there's the matter of their texture and seasoning: The fries are sliced into thin, skinny strips that are fried to a light golden crisp, and zapped with a delightfully salty and pungent spice blend. They're served with the restaurant's signature Stand sauce, which gives them just the right spicy kick. Wash it all down with one of The Stand's banana shakes for a quintessentially Phoenix fast-food meal that's worth every single calorie.

Best Wings: ATL Wings
3923 East Thomas Road, Suite B-2
70 West Warner Road, Chandler
At ATL Wings, each piece, drum or wing, is hefty and evenly coated. You hardly get the gross runt wings, or the dry pieces that the sauce somehow missed. And the flavor options are plentiful, categorized by dry rub, barbecue, and red hot. The recommended dry rub is ATL Style — a heavy and oily blend of herbs and spices that is just this side of addictive. Other unique flavors include the Extreme Honey Habanero, Lucky's Sweet Red, and Chef's Special. The best part is that the barbecue and red hot sauces may be taken to go.

Best Barbecue: Little Miss BBQ
4301 East University Drive, Tempe
The restaurant that launched 1,000 effusive Yelp reviews, the jalapeño grits that turn seasoned diners into smiling kids, and the brisket that cradles your soul and makes everything right in our broken universe can all be found at Phoenix's holiest barbecue restaurant. Little Miss may be opening a second location, and who knows what will happen from there. But we'll always have the first location's rich burnt ends that melt in your mouth like orange sherbet. We'll always have that chewy, sticky, faintly smoky pecan pie. And hell yes, we'll always have mammoth beef short ribs on Fridays and Saturdays: the best bite of 'cue in town.

click to enlarge A mixed meat platter and armada of sides from JL Smokehouse. - CHRIS MALLOY
A mixed meat platter and armada of sides from JL Smokehouse.
Chris Malloy
Best Barbecue Sandwich: JL Smokehouse
1712 East Broadway Road
James Lewis of JL Smokehouse, a big man with big dreams and a tiny south Phoenix restaurant, makes the best barbecue sammie in town. And there's not a fold of brisket to be seen. The sandwich, called the Alene, casts a harsh, smoky spotlight on sausage. Lewis barbecues links in his smoker custom-made in Arkansas, laying on a thunderous smoke. As you eat this sausage modeled after a Chicago-style dog, with its soft bun and soft cabbage, celery, and peppers, the umami and smoke pummel your senses with pure glory. Chile flakes lend heat, upping the ante even more. Barbecue doesn't get much better.

Best Seafood: Chula Seafood
8015 East Roosevelt Street, Scottsdale
Stopping into this low-key Scottsdale fish emporium feels like an event, and not just because the easy tunes flow and the crew is ultra chill. The prepared food here is one of a kind: bowls, sandwiches, sashimi, and smoked fish platters. Chula sources beautifully fresh seafood, some even caught from the owners' San Diego boat. What distinguishes this spot is product quality, yes, and then, on top of this, the rocket fuel of what happens next. Pickling. Smoking. Hypnotic ingredient combos like confit tuna and green chile, smoked trout and pickled enoki mushrooms. Chula is a place where, if you had beers and time, you could linger forever.

Best Old-School Seafood: The Salt Cellar
550 North Hayden Road, Scottsdale
The thought of seafood in the middle of Arizona gives some transplants pause, but those of us who have been around awhile realize that despite not being known for fresh seafood, the Valley can still deliver. The Salt Cellar — a classic upscale Scottsdale restaurant open since 1971 — has its seafood flown in daily. It's also just fun to go, as the front door opens to nothing more than a wood-paneled room with a set of downward stairs. The lobby, dining room, and bar are all three stories underground, making the dining experience more of a desert escape. We recommend the mussels in butter sauce to start, and then, you really can't go wrong from there.

Best Poke: Koi Poke
18221 North Pima Road, #100 and #105, Scottsdale
The number of poke options can be a bit bewildering, but we're here to help: Go to Koi Poke. This Scottsdale-born chain already has four locations in the Valley, with several more in the works. Koi pulls ahead of the poke pack for the superb quality and selection of its fish; we're partial to the Hawaiian tuna, which has a rich flavor and texture we can't get enough of. We also love the great selection of bases, sauces, and toppings, which guarantees that we never have to eat the same combination twice.

Best Sushi: Sushi Nakano
4025 East Chandler Boulevard
Sushi Nakano is the debut effort of Leo Nakano, whose father, Hirofumi Nakano, is the owner and head sushi chef at north Scottsdale's venerable Hiro Sushi. Leo Nakano shares his father's talent for crafting traditional sushi with an artful and contemporary twist. Highlights include creative rolls like the Rising Sun, which features creamy, flash-fried tuna wrapped around burdock root. If you can swing it, though, opt for the chef's-choice omakase tasting menu, which delivers a parade of pristine, elegantly prepared sushi, nigiri, and sashimi.

Best Ramen: Hot Noodles Cold Sake
15689 North Hayden Road, Scottsdale
Josh Hebert started making ramen at Posh, his now-defunct improvisational temple to fine dining. The ramen he bowls at his tiny north Scottsdale noodle shop has an incredible umami depth, paling just about every other ramen bowl in the Valley. Hebert is a white dude, sure. But he has cooked in Tokyo, and here we're judging purely on flavor. His are nuanced and soulful. His are traditional, spurning some of the crazier ramen trends and sticking to the classics, like miso and shoyu. A bowl where he innovates is sisig ramen, the piping hot heap of noodles crowned with sizzling pig face.

Shumai dumplings are a highlight of the all-day dim sum menu at Mesa's Dim Sum Cafe. - PATRICIA ESCARCEGA
Shumai dumplings are a highlight of the all-day dim sum menu at Mesa's Dim Sum Cafe.
Patricia Escarcega
Best Dim Sum: Dim Sum Cafe
2711 South Alma School Road, #2, Mesa
All-day dim sum options are still few and far between around metro Phoenix, which is why Dim Sum Cafe is such a treat. This friendly strip-mall restaurant offers top-notch dim sum specialties like shumai pork dumplings, steamed barbecue pork buns, hand-rolled scallion pancakes, braised chicken feet, and juicy, made-to-order xiao long bao, or Shanghainese soup dumplings. If you want to augment your meal with something more than dim sum dishes, the restaurant also offers a wide-ranging menu of traditional Chinese dishes, with an emphasis on Shanghainese and Sichuan specialties.

Best Boba: Milk Run Premium Ice Cream & Boba
1702 West Camelback Road
Adjacent to midtown Phoenix's beloved Pho Thanh, Milk Run specializes in Insta-friendly East Asian-style boba tea drinks. The menu is huge and includes iced-milk teas, milk-tea floats, sparklers, iced teas, slushies, smoothies, and Vietnamese coffee. Pretty much every drink in the house can be topped with your pick of specialty boba tapioca balls, including flavors like honey boba, aloe vera boba, citrusy crystal boba, and fruit-flavored popping boba. The drinks are handcrafted from scratch and feature fresh fruit, organic teas, and house-made ice cream.

Best Horchata: La Santisima Gourmet Taco Shop
1919 North 16th Street
5932 West Glendale Avenue, Glendale

There are a lot of mediocre horchatas in metro Phoenix — chalky and cloyingly sweet concoctions that are usually made using store-bought powder mixes. If you want to savor what a fresh, thirst-quenching horchata should taste like, head over to one of La Santisima Gourmet Taco Shop's two Valley locations. La Santisima's horchata is cool, frothy, and lightly sweet, with fragrant notes of cinnamon. It's topped with fresh fruit and chopped pecans. It's a perfect palate cleanser between tacos, or simply as a light, sweet finish to your meal.

Best Ice Cream: Sweet Republic
9160 East Shea Boulevard, Scottsdale
6045 North 16th Street
Sweet Republic has been a source of Phoenix pride and joy for a decade now. Sweet Republic, which adds culinary ingenuity to top-quality ingredients to create out-of-the-box flavors like blue cheese and date, sweet corn, and coconut cashew curry, while elevating traditional flavors like salted butter caramel swirl, Belgian chocolate, real mint chip, and sweet berry cobbler. Sweet Republic, which Bon Appetit named one of the top 10 ice cream stores in the United States. Sweet Republic, which we return to over and over again, day or night, summer or winter, whenever we crave a taste of the sublime.

Best Doughnut: Welcome Chicken + Donuts
1535 East Buckeye Road
The humble doughnut becomes something special, something elevated in the hands of Welcome Chicken + Donuts. There's no guessing at a typical doughnut joint; the offerings are predictable and familiar. This isn't the case at Welcome, where every visit brings new flavors and new questions: Will I like a chipotle limon doughnut? (Yes.) How does a chocolate rose pistachio doughnut taste? (Surprising and delicious.) We doubt we'll get tired of the Welcome crew's innovative spirit, but if we do feel a desire for the classics, they do mainstays like apple fritters and plain with "sprankles" just as well as the unique ones.