It's a familiar scene: You're in your main food hang-out in town and it's dead. Why is it dead? You know it's great but for one reason or another your favorite joint just doesn't get the cred it deserves. We have a few of those places and we're sure you have many more. Here's our list of the most underrated dining spots in town, but if you think we missed any, pipe up in the comments section and let us know.
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Rita's Kitchen Swing a dead cat in this town and you'll hit a hotel restaurant. Some are better than others, and most are overrated and overpriced. For our money, we'll take a table at Rita's Kitchen, the casual dining spot at the Camelback Inn. Adjacent to the swankier BLT, Rita's has a serviceable indoor dining room. But you will want to reserve a table outside on the patio, to take full advantage of the Camelback Inn's lovely grounds and live music in the evenings. On winter nights, they build big fires and you can sit in a ring and warm your toes. Any time of year, start with a glass of the hotel's signature red sangria (the not-so-secret ingredient is vanilla) and a bowl of yellow gazpacho. The tableside guacamole is excellent. We recommend the fajitas and the Marriott burger -- and another glass of sangria.
Otto Pizza and Pastry How Phoenix became a mecca for pizza snobs, we'll never know. But it did. That doesn't mean there isn't room for a few no-frills pizza joints, right? Otto Pizza and Pastry is one of those Tempe mainstays that doesn't get the love it should. With freshly made, crispy thin crust pizzas and even pizza by the slice, college kids in the know flock to the joint for a quick lunch between classes. However, their tasty desserts, gigantic calzones, pasta, and French and Italian sandwiches, there's a lot more to this small spot off Ash Avenue and University Drive than just the pies. Plus, the cheap prices and friendly, family-run vibe make it a nice place to relax without breaking the bank.
Melt Other ice cream places with more stylish digs around town tend to get the attention but insiders know Melt on Roosevelt Row has some of the best flavors in town. Located in a cute historic home, this little spot comes courtesy of Jobot owner John Sagasta but serves 20 flavors of Gilbert's Udder Delights (Superstition Farms) ice cream. Our favorites include Fruity Pebbles and Cinnamon but no matter what you order you'll want to get it in one of the housemade waffle cones. The smell is irresistible.
Lenny's Burger Shop Burger don't get cheaper or better than at Lenny's Burgers, a Valley institution that's been serving up classic food in retro style for more than two decades. There are plenty of other fast-casual burger spots that have popped up over the years, but there's a reason Lenny's has such staying power. We love the grilled-to-order patties that you can load up with jalapenos, chili, bacon, and more. And of course no experience is complete without a sweet dessert like one of Lenny's strawberry or banana shakes.
Khai Hoan We're going to say it: we're sick of hearing about Pho Thanh. That doesn't mean we don't love it there, but maybe it's time to broaden your pho horizons and stop into Khai Hoan. Located right near Haji Baba in Tempe, the Vietnamese joint offers everything from the staples to Americanized Chinese fare for sissy diners. If you take anything away from this, please let it be that you should get the veggie pho at Khai Hoan and add the thinly sliced rare beef to it that typically comes in pho tai. It's everything you love about pho tai with way more veggies and fried tofu. And if you should spice your pho up too much, the servers will be standing by, ready to crack open a fresh coconut to cool you off.
Desert Jade Until recently the Asian decor had hints of a former German restaurant, and even now there's nothing fancy about the place or the menu, but if you want a solid, classic Chinese restaurant (hold the frills and the fusion), Desert Jade is for you. Good luck finding a parking spot -- or a table -- on most weeknights, as this place is an Arcadia neighborhood favorite. From the egg drop soup to the fried rice to the moo shu pork, you can't go wrong. Best of all, the kind servers have no problem customizing your order to suit your desires and will remember it the next time you come in, even if it's been three months and your tastes run toward steamed chicken and eggplant. On your birthday they'll bring extra fortune cookies and even toss in some of those pre-wrapped almond cookies -- and a candle.
Shine Coffee While the battle for best coffee house usually degrades in some sort of hipster shouting match between Lux loyalists and the cult of Cartel, there's way more going on in the Valley coffee scene than just those two places. Using Press-roasted beans and a culinary flare, Shine crafts coffee drinks with flavor that aren't completely ridiculous and childlike. Drinks like the spicy mokaya, cardamom cold brew, and roasted cognac latte all infuse adult flavors without a lot of syrupy mess. The adjacent living room space is a great quiet spot to get a truckload of work done without all of the crowds distracting you and its vintage furnishings and generous natural light are a great backdrop for mid-morning Instagram posts.
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Orange Table Other spots come and go but Orange Table is our go-to place for a casual brunch in Old Town Scottsdale. The menu is simple enough to have mass appeal but also unique enough that we're never bored. We could eat Orange Table's flannels just about any day, though the pancakes and waffles can also be hard to resist. We may not live in the neighborhood but sitting on the patio with a boozy drink overlooking the Civic Center Plaza makes us feel like we do.
Texas BBQ House Before barbecue was cool there was Texas BBQ House. It doesn't get much love -- we think it's because of the weird location south of the airport amid industrial buildings, and sadly, an Old Town Scottsdale location didn't make it -- but this restaurant does solid Texas-style 'cue. The brisket is always moist and flavorful and the service friendly. The ribs are also remarkably good, with a near-perfect smoky and peppery rub that will have you gnawing at every last bone.
Yume Sushi Grill There are bigger, fancier, and certainly more expensive sushi restaurant in Scottsdale, which is probably why little Yume always gets overlooked. But the truth is this strip mall restaurant does solid sushi at an affordable price and without all those unnecessary frills. Sit at the sushi bar and chat up the chefs, who will be happy to show off the fresh fish they've got on special. The best part? Yume is open until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and offers happy hour all day.