Bad dinners are a lot like bad dates – both can leave a bad taste in your mouth, and it’s probably best to erase them from your memory forever. A great meal, on the other hand, can feel a little like falling in love. Like love itself, an astonishingly good dish can inspire unhealthy amounts of daydreaming, and will test your self-control. After embarking on something like 200 dates – I mean, dinners – around metro Phoenix in 2017, here are 10 dishes that felt very much like love at first taste.
Pork stew from Original Cuisine
1853 West Broadway Road, Mesa
“Pork blood, intestine, Spam in hot chili oil” sounds like a random phrase lifted from a cookbook. Instead, though, it’s one of many delightful stews on the menu at Original Cuisine, a Sichuan Chinese restaurant in Mesa with a sweeping array of noodle dishes, pan-fried specialties, stews, and veggies. This particular pork stew is spicy, salty, sour, bitter, and smoky all at once, showcasing an impressive depth and flavor that’s a hallmark of good Sichuan cooking. This dish has it all: the lip-numbing properties of Sichuan peppercorns; neat squares of coagulated pork blood; and perhaps most ingenious of all, hunks of salty luncheon meat. It’s a pork stew that will jolt your taste receptors in new and unexpected ways. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Short rib agnolotti at Hearth ‘61
5445 East Lincoln Drive, Paradise Valley (at Mountain Shadows Resort)
The original Mountain Shadows Resort – once a glam midcentury playground tucked on the north side of Camelback Mountain – may be gone, but a sparkling rebuild has given the old property new life. With its resurrection comes a sophisticated new resort restaurant, Hearth ‘61, which boasts an impressive concentration of kitchen talent, including includes executive chef Charles Wiley (previously of Hotel Valley Ho’s Café ZuZu) and chef de cuisine Alfred Muro. On the menu: a breathtakingly rich short rib dish that stands out in the sea of short rib dishes on Valley menus. Imagine the tenderest, most delectable pot roast packed into buttery pillows of agnoletti pasta, and topped with a melty dollop of horseradish crème fraîche. It’s a dish so purely indulgent, you can almost skip dessert.
Puffy tacos at the Puffy Taco Shack
16426 North Greasewood Street, Surprise
Metro Phoenix went far too long without the puffy taco, a Tex-Mex specialty that becomes progressively harder to find the farther you stray from the San Antonio city limits. Thank goodness, then, for the Puffy Taco Shack, a Surprise-based mobile food trailer that has mastered the art of crafting the puffy taco. If you’ve never had a puffy taco, imagine saucy, well-seasoned, slow-roasted meat – green chile pork and shredded beef are highlights of the shack – wrapped up in a light and airy tortilla shell. The deep-fried puffy shell, not quite as thick as a sopapilla and less doughy than fry bread, is surprisingly light and crisp. Once you’ve had one, you will probably want more. The Puffy Taco Shack is usually stationed in the front yard of chef-owner Sylvia Rivera’s house in Surprise, a friendly and laid back setting for a memorable taco feast. The shack’s hours of operation can vary, so check before you swing by for some puffies.
Beef cheeks with burgundy sauce at Restaurant Progress
702 West Montecito Avenue
Sometimes, when I find myself mindlessly scrolling through my phone’s camera roll, I land on a photo that I took months ago: chive-flecked beef cheeks, long-braised and slicked with burgundy sauce, melting into a creamy veggie puree, an artful scattering of diced, crisped-up root vegetables filling out the plate. It’s a picture that triggers an embarrassing Pavlovian response – mouth watering, heart pumping a little faster – and which reminds me time and again of the pleasures of chef TJ Culp’s braised beef cheeks, a dish that was on the menu at Restaurant Progress this summer. There is something slightly defiant about choosing to braise hearty beef cheeks in the thick of an Arizona summer. But there is also something divine about the way the meat melts as easily as ice cream in your mouth.
Goat curry at Hot Pot
2081 North Arizona Avenue, #132, Chandler
You might be surprised by how much pleasure you can extract from a simple bowl of meat stew. The goat curry at Hot Pot, a Jamaican restaurant in Chandler, delivers layer upon layer of flavor. Onions, garlic, and maybe a flicker of curry powder are consolidated into a thick, creamy stew that’s punctuated with bony hunks of meat. The chops have been simmered and browned, so that the meat gracefully flakes off the bone. You’ll detect the pleasant earthiness and gaminess of goat meat underscoring the dish. Mostly, though, you’ll wonder why you don’t eat the goat curry at Hot Pot more often.
Kao soi at Glai Baan
2333 East Osborn
One of the great surprises in metro Phoenix dining this year was the late-year arrival of Glai Baan, a Thai restaurant that’s opened a window to the bold, lively flavors of Bangkok street food and Isan-style cooking. The dish I’ve found myself returning to is the restaurant’s take on kao soi, a chicken curry whose creamy, rich coconut base is deftly balanced with spices and aromatics. This is the Cadillac of northern Thai curries, richly layered with bright and savory notes, and fully loaded with two kinds of noodles – springy egg noodles and crispy fried noodles, which lend texture to a dish that practically convulses with flavor.
Ropa vieja at Edward’s Bakery
4344 West Indian School Road
There’s a truly unfortunate lack of Cuban restaurants in metro Phoenix, but one ray of light in the Valley is Edward’s Bakery, a tiny mom-and-pop cafe and bakery tucked inside a sprawling Maryvale shopping plaza. And more good news: the restaurant’s rendition of ropa vieja, Cuba’s most quintessential beef braise, is wonderful. The finely shredded, slow-cooked beef is tender and rich, and beautifully perfumed with garlic and peppers, with a hint of paprika smokiness. It’s the sort of soul-stirring dish that can make you feel inexplicably nostalgic and sentimental. Mostly, though, it’s delicious and unforgettable.
Cemita poblana at La Poblanita Mexican Grill
4012 North 75th Avenue
If you enjoy a challenge, you’ll love the cemita poblana at La Poblanita Mexican Grill in west Phoenix. The sandwich – arguably the king of the Mexican sandwiches – is roughly the shape and size of a kid's catcher's mitt, and it’s layered with pounded-thin sheets of fried Milanesa steak, slices of ham, avocado, then topped with ribbons of Oaxacan cheese. It doesn’t have many condiments to speak of, just a smear of chipotle salsa on one half of its sesame-seeded cemita bun, a drizzle of olive oil on the other, and a couple leaves of papalo, a seasonal Mexican herb with a distinctly floral kick, tucked into the heart of the sandwich. The tang of the Oaxacan cheese, in concert with the saltiness of the ham and steak, is wonderful. The hardest part comes in trying to fit the whole thing in your mouth.
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Kunefe at TurkDish
4929 West Ray Road, #1, Chandler
A meal at TurkDish, a small family-run spot tucked inside a Chandler shopping center, is not complete without an order of the restaurant’s fresh-baked kunefe. This is one of the most beautiful-looking renditions of kunefe around town – the cheese pastry’s glossy, syrupy membrane is coated with straw-like phyllo dough, and stippled with some crumbled pistachios. As in life, though, the real beauty of the kunefe is on the inside. Plunge your spoon into it’s golden pastry crust, and scoop out the sweet-savory clot of melted cheese lurking beneath. The cheese is savory and sweet, and so rich and soft that it seems to melt on contact.
Testosterone pizza at Forno 301
1616 North Central Avenue, #104
Forno 301 is no longer the dim, shoebox-shaped space on Roosevelt Row that it was at this time last year. The beloved neighborhood Italian restaurant and pizzeria has moved into shiny new digs on the much busier corner of Central Avenue and McDowell Road. Thankfully, not much else has changed. The restaurant’s winning menu of wood-fired pizzas has been left intact, including pizzaiolo Luca Gagliano’s marvelous testosterone pizza. This “ballsy” pizza features puddles of soft mozzarella, a lovely tomato sauce, prosciutto, and it’s topped with a couple of softly cooked eggs. Using your pizza crust to sop up the cheesy, molten yolk that inevitably drips onto your plate is highly encouraged.