So Phoenix may not quite be a culinary destination, like New York or Chicago, but that doesn't mean we don't have plenty to offer the wandering food lover. In fact, there's so much to eat and drink in this town, we'd argue that there's simply no way you could get to it all without simply putting down roots here and deciding to stay.
But we do want you to make the most of your time here in the Valley of the Sun, so to ensure you have the most fulfilling dining and drinking experience while you're here, don't miss these essential dishes, drinks, restaurants, and chefs while you're visiting Phoenix.
Eat Chris Bianco's Pizza
Back in the day, the only way to get a bite of Chris Bianco's world-famous pizza was to wait up to four hours sometimes at Pizzeria Bianco in downtown Phoenix. Thanks to the fact that the restaurant now serves lunch and that there's a second location in Central Phoenix, at Town and Country Shopping Center, you shouldn't have to wait nearly that long. At the original Pizzeria Bianco location, you can have your choice of six signature pies (we like the Wiseguy and the Biancoverde) as well as a few small plates and salads. But at the second location, you also can order sandwiches, pasta, and (during dinner) dishes like braised lamb and chicken. If you're there, be sure to save room for dessert, which are made by Francesco Bianco — that's Chris' mom. There's also Pane Bianco, the sandwich shop where you can catch Chris' brother, Marco, baking the bread used at all the Bianco restaurants.
Dine at Barrio Cafe
Since 2002, chef Silvana Salcido Esparza has been serving some of the best modern Mexican cuisine in the country at this cozy Central Phoenix restaurant. The food at Barrio Cafe blends the traditional flavors of southern Mexico with Esparza's own creative flair. She's known in particular for her cochinita de pibil, a dish of tender pork marinated in achiote and orange, then wrapped in banana leaves and cooked overnight. The chiles en nogada is another of the chef's signature dishes — a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with chicken and topped with an almond cream sauce. But whatever you order, don't skip the guacamole. It's made tableside and features diced tomato, red onion, jalapeño, lime juice, cilantro, and pomegranate seeds — which might sound like an overly complicated take on an otherwise simple dish, but in this case, more is more. While you're in the neighborhood, be sure to take in the Calle 16 mural project, Esparza's program to turn the neighborhood around the restaurant into a center of pride and culture for Mexicans living in Arizona.
Experience Kevin Binkley's Cuisine
Kevin Binkley is about as big a name as you'll find in the Phoenix food scene. The chef has been a semifinalist for Best Chef Southwest award by the James Beard Award foundation each of the past three years (unfortunately, he hasn't won yet) and is credited with making "molecular gastronomy" a familiar phrase for Phoenix food lovers. You can head up to Cave Creek to dine at his original namesake restaurant, Binkley's Restaurant, where the chef serves exceptional four-, five-, and six-course tasting menus on par with the food at Thomas Keller's French Laundry, where Binkley once worked. But for a more casual dining experience that won't break the bank, Binkley has a collection of other dining establishments to choose from. There's Cafe Bink in Cave Creek, an accessible eatery serving French-inspired fare, and the sister restaurants Bink's Midtown and Bink's Scottsdale, where you'll find a veggie-heavy menu of bistro fare.
Feel the Heat at Los Dos Molinos
If you're looking to experience the kind of Arizona heat that has nothing to do with weather, then Los Dos Molinos is the place you'll want to be. The family-owned restaurant has made its spicy New Mexican-style food a Valley legend. Now there are several locations around the Valley, but the only one you need to worry about is the original location, housed in an old adobe building in South Phoenix. Just about every signature dish on the menu features either red or hatch green chiles, which means you're in for a real tongue-tingling experience.
Drink at Four Peaks
If you're looking for a taste of Arizona beer, then you won't want to miss Tempe's Four Peaks Brewery, where you can wash down elevated pub fare with one of the brewery's many award-winning beers. At the original location, on Eighth Street in Tempe, you'll be able to check out the 1892 Mission-style warehouse where the brewery has been located since 1996 while sipping a Hop Knot American IPA or a Sunbru Kölsch-Style Ale. There's also a nearby location on Wilson, just a few miles from the main brewery. The Taproom on Wilson offers a 60-barrel system of Four Peaks beer, with food trucks parked out front every day to offer eats. There's also a North Scottsdale location and — if you're truly pressed for time — a Four Peaks Brewery at Sky Harbor International Airport.
Try a Sonoran Hot Dog
Every region has its own way of enjoying a hot dog. In the Valley, we take ours Sonoran-style. Never heard of it? A Sonoran hot dog comes wrapped in bacon and is covered in mayonnaise, tomatoes, beans, and onions (and often a variety of other sauces). Typically, it's served with a roasted pepper on the side. We've got a whole list of places where you can find them, but some of our favorites include Nogales Hot Dogs in Phoenix. As with most of the very good Sonoran hot dog joints, it's not a restaurant really, but rather a makeshift setup you'll find only at night in a parking lot on the southwest corner of Indian School Road and 20th Street. Another favorite spot is on the west side of town, El Exquisito. You'll find the setup on Indian School Road near 39th Avenue. (Beware, it's not there all the time.)
Have Dinner at FnB
For an intimate dining experience of extraordinary quality, FnB Restaurant in Scottsdale is a must-consider. Chef Charleen Badman, who has been recognized by national media outlets including Food + Wine and New York Magazine and recently was named a semifinalist for the James Beard Award foundation's Best Chef Southwest award, is known for her talent for turning ordinary vegetables into culinary masterpieces. She opened FnB with her business partner Pavle Milic in 2009, and together the duo have become poster children for the state's local food and wine movements. FnB sources many of its ingredients from local food producers and only serves Arizona-made wine, making this restaurant a special experience for locals and tourists alike. The menu changes seasonally, but a few don't-miss dishes include the braised leeks, roasted chicken and spatezel, and butterscotch pudding.
Dine at Crudo
We're not sure what we're bigger fans of at Crudo, the food or the drinks. When we sit down for dinner and taste chef Cullen Campbell's take on Italian cuisine, we lean toward the food. But one sip of mixologist Micah Olson's inventive cocktails and we're back at square one. The restaurant takes its name from the Italian word for raw fish, which Campbell features prominently on the menu. There also are pastas, housemade cheeses, and a section of grilled dishes. Don't skip the crispy pig ears though. They're served with Fresno chiles and EVOO and make for a perfect bar snack if you're not sitting down for a full meal. And speaking of the bar, it's where you'll find some of the best drinks in town, often made with artisan spirits and Arizona-made ingredients like AZ Bitters Lab Mas Mole Bitters and AZ Distilling Co. Copper City Bourbon.
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Have a Drink at Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour
If you're still skeptical about whether or not big city mixology exists in Phoenix, look no further than downtown Phoenix's Bitter & Twisted for proof. Housed inside the stunning and historical Lhurs building on the southeast corner of Central Avenue and Jefferson Street, Bitter & Twisted is more than just a cocktail bar — it's a temple for all those who worship nano-filtered ice, frigidly cold martinis, and concoctions that get carbonated right before your eyes. Owner and head barman Ross Simon offers a 24-page menu he calls the Book o' Cocktails that's filled with riffs on classic cocktails, original creations, and even a section of drinks influenced by bars and bartenders all over the country and world. Some of the don't-miss options include the L.I.T. Up, a Long Island ice tea-type drink made with Averna and port, and The B&T Flawless Martini that's made with a perfect ratio of spirit to vermouth and served at an impressive 10 degrees Fahrenheit. While you're imbibing be sure to save some room for chef Bob Tam's quirky culinary fare. The Ramen "Momo" Burger has a cult following and the Hurricane Popcorn is one of the Valley's favorite bar snacks.
Get Yourself Some Sweet Republic Ice Cream
Right here in the Valley of the Sun, you'll find one of the country's best spots for gourmet ice cream. Sweet Republic serves unexpected, off-the-wall, but always delicious flavors of ice cream such as I Heart Bacon, Sichuan Orange Chocolate, and Honey Blue Cheese. If you want more traditional offerings, they have those, too, just order up a scoop or two of bananas foster, rocky road, brownie swirl, or salted butter caramel (our personal fave). And we're not the only ones who love Sweet Republic; other fans of this ice creamery include Bon Appetit, Time, and U.S. News and World Report. Soon you'll also be able find Sweet Republic treats at a second location in Central Phoenix, as well as at Sky Harbor Airport.