If you haven't been to Tempe in a minute, you might be surprised by how the food options have grown. Many of your best are still going to be the neighborhood staples for the likes of barbacoa and shawarma. But some of the new classics? We're talking modern Southwestern, a brave new voice in the food of Arizona, and even some of the best Sichuan eating in the Valley.
When you're hungry in or near Tempe, consider one of these spots: the best 10 restaurants in town.
Old Town Taste
1845 East Broadway Road, Tempe
Though this strip mall Chinese restaurant offers food from a few regions of the country, most of its greatest hits are Sichuan. These boast a twice-cooked pork spotlighting strips of belly that melt in delicate puffs of meat, carried into fragrant, beautiful territory by ample leeks. Another absolute instant classic is the Chongqing-style fish, a pile of white fish crisp-fried and charged with mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn. Here, you'll find standout hot pot, thoughtful soups, and a 10/10 mapo tofu brimming with soul and spice.
1513 East Apache Road, Tempe
Forget the casual intimacy of the dining area opposite the grocery racks heavy with za'atar and specialty beans, forget the blocks of feta, forget that your food comes at lightning speed or even the prices, the casual Middle Eastern food in itself is more than enough to stop by this decades-old neighborhood gem. At Haji-Baba, the chicken shawarma packs tenderness and surprising juiciness for a meal wrapped in a pita in less than a minute. Whether you opt for Arizona pecan or another flaky, fragrant baklava, the flavor will trail you throughout the day. And the lamb tongue sandwich is one of the true wonders of Tempe eating.
777 South College Avenue, Tempe
When it comes to breakfast in Tempe, Nocawich simply can't be beat. Local restaurateur Eliot Wexler opened this casual spot on the edge of the Arizona State University after a run in high-end dining, importing New York's Russ & Daughters lox and H&H Bagels to the Valley of the Sun. Wexler combines these classic offerings with house-made pastrami, bechamel, Benton's bacon, and more to skillfully craft dishes such as a breakfast burrito stuffed with eggs, cheese, chimichurri, and crispy fries. For lunch, Nocawich offers soups, salads, and most of all stellar sandwiches like a wagyu patty melt and a mustardy-sweet fried chicken.
1006 East Warner Road, Tempe
Since it opened a year ago Ghost Ranch has been one of the most vibrant and interesting restaurants in South Tempe. And that is because of the premise — starting from regional staples like enchiladas, ceviche, and mesquite-grilled fish — and upgrading the classics. Crispy on the outside, enchiladas swim in a chile Colorado with uncommon lightness. Ceviche is made using Mexican shrimp, a lot of lime, and crumbles of wild chiltepin. Swordfish is harpoon-caught from Chula. Chef Rene Andrade's thoughtful food always seems to brighten your day. And even the interior feels sleek and up-to-the-minute, orchestrated by the artist Gennaro Garcia.
7520 South Rural Road, Tempe
At Crepe Bar, you'll find playful breakfast and lunch dishes such as crepes made with coffee-infused batter and candied bacon on a menu that's as energetic and creative as the restaurant's chef, Jeff Kraus. Kraus prioritizes using locally sourced ingredients, such as Noble Bread and ham from The Meat shop. Crepes here cover more turf than any newcomer would expect: a heritage duck breast crepe, a Jamaican jerk crepe, a maple butter or vanilla bean custard crepe. This restaurant has also become a coffee destination of sorts, serving Presta Coffee from Tucson and offering drinks like a molasses spiced latte with Arizona pecans.
Cotton & Copper
1006 East Warner Road, Tempe
Below the cold stare of the jackalope mounted atop the antique bar, Cotton & Copper is a warm place to be, because that means you're about to enjoy intricate, thoughtful cocktails mixed by Sean Traynor and some food from chef Tamara Stanger. From elegant ribbons of zucchini pickles to using acorn flour in pie crust, Stanger's cooking steals your attention like a good book or movie. She brushes syrup made from foraged mesquite on roasted chicken, finished steak in smoked squash gravy, has a way with rabbit, and rolls out some of the wildest and tastiest specials in Tempe.
2535 East University Drive, Tempe
Late Saturday mornings, the best place to be in Tempe might be El Tlacoyo, which focuses on the dishes of central Mexico. The star: sheep barbacoa, long twisting strips of melting meat side-kicked by a salsa that cuts the heft of the smoke and game beautifully. And that's just the beginning. The El Tlacoyo menu is beyond vast, and you can find all kinds of Mexican staples that could be more present elsewhere in the Valley. Here, the nopales burst in a bright rush. Here, quesadillas are best with the careful funk of huitlacoche. A low-key but intimate family atmosphere and the occasional mariachi appearance only add seasoning.
849 West University Drive, Tempe
There is a strong argument to be made that Cafe Lalibela, open for two decades, cooks the best African food in all of Metro Phoenix. An injera with a moon-like landscape of pores has measured tang that doesn't blot out the fragrance of the teff, plus a pleasant sponge, ideal for sopping up stews and vegetables. Whether tender lamb fragrant with turmeric or beef deepened with berbere, the beauty of Ethiopian food is on full display here. And really, no more than in vegetable. It's marvelous with Cafe Lalibela can do with lentils and split peas.
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House of Tricks
114 East 7th Street, Tempe
Is there any better place for an al fresco lunch or a romantic dinner than House of Tricks? Probably not in this part of town. Housed in a converted 1920s cottage, this longstanding restaurant continues to offer inventive New American cuisine and offers a wine list that never fails to satisfy. For a classy lunch that doesn't take you far from ASU's campus, hit the patio and order from a menu that includes dishes like house-smoked salmon and pork tenderloin banh mi. Dinner includes heartier options like guajillo-charged game hen and bison meatloaf with purple potatoes.
1701 East Guadalupe Road, Tempe
Though Sasha Raj has been open for more than a decade now, her plant-heavy eatery and juicery hasn't lost a single step. You can feel good about eating at 24 Carrots, and not just because this is the spot to sip an ice-cold mango juice spiked with pea protein and turmeric. Raj is a culinary thought leader. Her menu considers food systems and the environment, right on down to 100% compostable cups. Mushrooms she forages with her own hand find their way into her soups. She also gathers blackberries, guava, and more. The flavors she uses range from Southwestern to South Asian to East Asian, from a Sonoran dog with seitan to Nori rolls with ginger-shoyu sauce and almond cheese.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on January 6, 2015. It was updated on September 9, 2019. Chris Malloy and Lauren Saria contributed to this article.