Now that 2014 has officially come and gone (and now that I've caught my breath from the holiday season), I'm ready to look back on the collection of new restaurants that joined our local scene in the last year. I ate all over the Valley in 2014, trying new restaurants and re-visiting old ones but these ten spots stand out from the pack. As a whole, I think they represent the face of Phoenix as a restaurant town right now and paint a bright picture for where we're headed in the coming year.
Little Miss BBQ
The first restaurant on this list should come as little surprise to anyone who's been paying attention to the Phoenix food scene for the last year. Since opening in spring of 2014, Little Miss BBQ has established itself as the gold standard of barbecue in the Valley -- but the truth is, owners Scott and Bekke Holmes bring more than just excellent food and passion about that food to the table. This restaurant captures the spirit of modern Southern barbecue in a way that no place else in this town does. Yes, each and every bite of 11 hour smoked brisket will transport you to somewhere far, far away. So will the hospitality and spirit of this small but remarkable spot.
SumoMaya Mexican-Asian Kitchen
If attention to detail and ambition count for anything when it comes to food, then it would be wrong to not acknowledge Scottdale's SumoMaya on this list. Though the restaurant's lengthy menu of fusion cuisine may not always hit quite the right pitch, it's undeniable that this restaurant offers something fresh for Phoenix diners. And it's not all glitz and glam at this stylishly designed spot (though that's certainly one part of the restaurant's draw), there are also expertly-executed dishes such as the sweet yet spicy salmon ceviche and simple wood-fired skewers of miso marinated sea bass.
Chez Pannise and Cafe at Chez Pannise. The Girl and the Goat and the Little Goat Diner. Tarbell's and The Tavern. The point is, there's something to be said for the more casual, cozier counterparts to upscale dining establishments. In general they have a distinct personality from their sister spots and the same can certainly be said for Mark Tarbell's The Tavern, which opened in the space adjacent to his namesake restaurant. The cuisine here is of the same, excellent, seasonal style you'll find next door, but served at a slightly more affordable price point and with an approachable level of pretense.
PHX Burrito House
In this neck of the woods it's not hard to a find simple but exceptionally good Mexican food. It's also not hard to find a nice, sit-down spot for Mexican cuisine. What is difficult to find is a fast-casual, locally-owned Mexican restaurant with some level of authentic "street cred." In early 2014 Phoenix Burrito House filled that hole. With tortillas made at the De la Cruz family's bakery and attention to using fresh ingredients, this hidden gem perfectly straddles the line between our favorite hole in the wall joints and destinations for a more involved dining experience.
If Phoenix is known for being a steak and potatoes sort of town, then the arrival of Steak 44 might just be the best evidence we have that times are finally a' changing. This sister spot to the opulent Dominick's Steakhouse in Scottsdale brings the classic chophouse into the current age of dining. Yes, there are pristine wet-aged steaks to be found, but also dishes such as fried deviled eggs, lemon butter sauteed soft shell crabs, and delicious sweet corn creme brulee. The service, as you might expect from an experienced family of restaurateurs, is always on point -- if slightly less formal, in a very good way.
Leaving a comfortable corporate job in Scottsdale to venture into the independent restaurant scene is big leap of faith -- but when your independent restaurant is located in a West Valley suburb it becomes an even more impressive feat. Nevertheless, that's exactly what chef Tom Harvey did, bringing the charming Cuff to downtown Glendale. Sensible but far from boring, this restaurant doesn't quite reach the level of being a dining destination for East Valley residents (at least, not yet). But it's undeniable that Cuff brings a new energy to the historic Glendale with dishes such as Harvey's take on posole, which features roasted pork pot stickers, hominy, and tomato-chiptole broth.
The latest of an ever-growing number of places to bring "artisan" pizza to Phoenix diners is Forge, a California-based mini chain of restaurants that set up shop in the Biltmore Fashion Park late last fall. Though there's no Italian surname-d fellow behind this sophisticated pizza shop, chef Jeffrey Amber and his staff are dedicated to the art of pizza making. They're making the dough in house daily with an all-natural levain (big points there from bread nerds) and baking every pie in the imported Valoriani wood-burning oven. Plus, the small but relatively diverse menu includes dishes such as Long Cooked Ribs and baby Octopus with mashed potatoes, Old Bay aioli, and breadcrumbs.
At The Revival chef Kelly Fletcher's eclectic take on Mexican cuisine stands out in a town where Mexican cuisine isn't hard to find. Though this spot struggled early to find a strong identity, making the change to return to a Mexican-inspired menu (a sort of throw back to the restaurant's Mucho Gustro roots) gave the chef a framework upon which he's built a fun but approachable menu that's certain to appeal to a diverse Tempe audience. The menu offers diners bold flavors combined in unexpected ways to deliver a cuisine that's likable but by no means subtle -- not unlike Fletcher himself.
If the vision for The Upton is some what unoriginal (yet another New American restaurant with a fun, casual vibe?), at least Chris Schlattman delivers cuisine that's interesting and well-executed. On the face, the menu seems to lean heavily on current dining trends but it's the details of every dish that make this very new restaurant shine. Thyme-marinated Southern fried chicken and cripsy duck confit wings served with housemade Sriracha help The Upton exceed expectations with unexpected flavor combinations that truly fit the meaning of New American cuisine.
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Welcome Chicken + Donuts
It's rare for a restaurant to open to such across the board success as Welcome Chicken + Donuts. And though it's hard to imagine that a restaurant serving these two wonderful foods could fail, it's not the trendiness of this spot that makes it such a success. No, it's the perfectly crispy pieces of fried chicken dressed in a small collection of bold but balanced Asian-inspired sauces and the impressive lineup of handmade donuts. With flavors such as blueberry cacao, spiced pear and balsamic, and chiptole limon, these sweet and savory creations could easily be putting form over substance and yet every one achieves a perfect texture.