Thanks to all of the strip malls and undercover pockets of cool, the Valley harbors plenty of covert, about-to-happen eateries. Sure, Welcome Diner and Dick’s Hideaway are already out of the bag. But we thought it was time to expose the next round of restaurants on the verge of becoming household names.
Dig in and brag to all your friends that you found them.
The fact that Taqueria El Fundador has a bad-ass bandido painted larger than life on the side of its Van Buren Street building should tell you this family-owned taqueria is unapologetic about its big, bold flavors. We’re talking busting-at-the-seams burritos, tacos piled with spit-roasted meats, and fiery salsas that layer on the flavor. Heck, even the monster slices of marinated carrots and cucumbers that come on the side seem defiant. Granted, this place doesn't have everything right — the lights are too bright, the TVs too loud, the tables too crowded, and the cash-only counter service arrives on paper plates piled on cafeteria trays — but who cares about any of that when the food tastes this good.
A pizza joint found next to a Circle K just off the I-17 isn’t getting any points for location, but locale isn’t everything when it comes to restaurants, and Pizza A Metro proves it. Let’s start with the 'za: The wood-fired behemoths come in large, larger, and, if you order the meter-long pie, gargantuan. And yes, fancy toppers like broccoli and arugula are available, but it’s the classics, including margherita and meat lovers' that steal the show. Not that it’s all pizza. Homemade gnocchi, mussels and calamari in spicy tomato sauce, and cocoa-dusted tiramisu will also have you swooning.
Everyone knows La Grande Orange in Arcadia, but — surprise — it’s not the only sandwich standout in the 'hood. Located in a strip mall on the northwest corner of 32nd Street and Indian School Road, Bertha’s is a cozy corner eatery that has an LGO-ish menu without the lengthy lines or parking hassles. The restaurant's waffles piled high with bananas, candied almonds, and whipped cream will whip you into a frenzy (ditto for the cheesecakes), but the standout sandwiches are this spot's bread and butter. The turkey and chicken are roasted in house, dressing and sauces are made from scratch, produce comes from local farms, and it’s all sandwiched between MJ Breads, some of the best in town. Even if you manage to pass the pastry case without caving, every sandwich comes with a cookie, a perfect morsel of chocolaty fudgey goodness to finish your meal.
Café Lalibela in Tempe gets a lot of attention, but it’s far from the only authentic Ethiopian restaurant in the Valley. Enter Authentic Ethioafrican, a narrow slice of a restaurant on McDowell Road that serves up platters of springy injera, a traditional Ethiopian flatbread made of teff and polka dotted with wats, thick stews infused with fragrant spices. The meaty options are many, including cubed beef simmered to buttery perfection and marinated chicken stewed in red-pepper sauce, but it’s the vegetarian offerings, such as herbed split peas, spicy lentils, and collard greens with kick that’ll have you coming back for more.
The Prime hides in plain sight in a strip mall on Camelback Road just west of Central Avenue. But don’t let the slat blind windows and paper-covered doors fool you. Inside, you’ll find polished cement floors, vinyl-covered chairs, metal-topped tables, and some of the best Chinese food in town. Not to be confused with the preheated stuff served at chain Asian eateries, portions here may be smaller and service a tad slower, but you can bet your food will come out piping hot and packed with flavor. Regulars rave about the moo shu pork, Kung Pao chicken, Mongolian beef, and pot stickers, so it's best to go with a group so you can chopstick-dip into them all.
Papago Brewery in South Scottsdale has a frat-house feel. There are darts and stacks of board games and neon drink signs and draft pulls popping out everywhere, but this place is a legit pub with perhaps the best beer selection this side of the Colorado River. There are 500 cold ones in the cooler plus 30 on tap, including the brewery's well-loved Orange Blossom Ale. Great brews deserve great food, and Papago doesn’t disappoint. The menu is heavy with salty, cheese-topped selections, most of which can be eaten without cutlery, but the hand-stretched pizzas, stacked sandwiches, wraps, and apps mean you’ll definitely want to come back for more.
Cha Da Thai is located in a quiet strip mall in North Scottsdale, but inside you'll find loud purple walls, folded napkins, gold slip-covered chairs, and a seven-page Thai menu as colorful and garish as the décor (and we mean that in the best way possible). Dive into a bowl of Thai boat noodle soup, or kuay teow rhua, a kissing cousin of Vietnamese pho that’s just as fragrant and comforting, or dig into the Cha Da Twister, a symphony of fried prawns wrapped in egg noodles in a bath of green curry. Even the avocado tempura, an off-menu item that’s a staff fave, will have you erupting in sighs of delight. This place is the real deal.
To say chef-owner Yasu Hashino "makes sushi" is like saying Michael Jordan "plays basketball" or the Beatles "play music." At Yasu Sushi Bistro in north Phoenix, the Japan native elevates sushi to an art form using orangey uni, pink salmon, red-hued trout, and burnt-sienna unagi as his brushstrokes. But it’s not just the best-kept sushi secret in the Valley with seafood so fresh it practically dissolves in your mouth. Regulars also rave about the delicately flavored salads; the sumibiyaki skewers of chicken, cod, and beef tongue; asparagus cooked to smoky perfection over binchotan charcoal; and the izakaya-like vibe.
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The crowds haven’t yet caught on to Tea & Toast Co., one of the food stalls at downtown’s DeSoto Central Market, which means you can have your tea and your toast and your choice of seating, too. And by tea and toast, we’re not talking the kind your mom makes. Order a red tea latte and you’ll get a frothy sip with earthy, smoky undertones and an Instagram-worthy design on top. The toast follows with the same elevated appeal: smashed avocado and expertly sliced eggs over bread from Noble Bread, or smoked pork belly, coffee jam, watercress, and a sunny side up egg on top. They have the requisite coffee concoctions and pastries, too, and free Wi-Fi. Enjoy the elbow room while it lasts.
Phoenix's Coronado neighborhood is one of the city's favorite foodie hubs — with Green, Tuck Shop, Rice Paper, and The Main Ingredient all in the area. Now, you can add El Chullo to the must-eat lineup, an unassuming restaurant on Seventh Street that serves piping hot plates of Peruvian food, a melting pot of Spanish, Asian, and African influences that’s big on portions and potatoes. The Aguadito soup, a combo of chicken, rice, carrots, corn, cilantro, and potato, requires a knife and fork it’s so robust, and the Carapulcra, a sun-dried potato stew with pork, comes with fat yucca fries and a pyramid of rice. For an extra dose of authentic, the potatoes, corn, and chilies are imported from the homeland, plus imbibing the Peruvian way is easy thanks to bona-fide beverages including Pisco Sour, the country's national drink.