This writer and pasta eater had a series of expectations upon moving to metro Phoenix in mid-July. But as the days slipped toward winter, the gap between what I thought I would taste and what I had tasted was becoming increasingly clear. One comes to a desert city with certain ideas. Metro Phoenix's dozens of towns and millions of people from all over the world are bound to change those notions. As my idea of what Phoenix is has conformed more with what Phoenix actually is, the city has surprised me. It has surprised my in many ways, from pizza and pasta (at the right spots), right on down to the glory of a pluperfect $1.50 taco.
Here are five other things that have surprised me about the Valley's food scene in 2017.
Beer That Speaks to Place
Metro Phoenix is loaded with breweries, and newcomers seem to be firing up their boil kettles just about every month. One of the coolest things about these breweries — other than the sheer variety — is that most cultivate a strong connection to place.
I tracked the creation of a wheat wine made to taste like pecan pie, a joint effort of Wren House and Little Miss BBQ. Crosstown collaborations between breweries and other Phoenician artisans, whether growers or eateries or coffee shops, have become commonplace. Arizona Wilderness Brewing recently rolled out a sour ale made from 2,400 pounds of peaches from Schnepf Farms in Queen Creek. Collaborations aside, Phoenix breweries channel the spirit of the region. A prime example is McFate's line of beers that use Hatch chiles. Hatch Chile Golden Ale is the famous late-summer peppers remixed into liquid amber form, mellow vegetal notes and chile heat leaving no doubt as to where you're drinking.
The Emphasis on Local Grain
A lot of the world's greatest foods and drinks depend on grain. Pasta is grain and water and maybe egg. Beer is grain, water, yeast, and maybe hops. These foods are simple, and, as simple foods, every component must be badass for the union of them to be. Cuisines, too, are built on this logic.
“Crap in, crap out,” Chris Bianco says, compacting the line of thinking.
Having amazing grain is a game-changer. Spots like Hayden Flour Mill allow for the elevation of pizza and pasta to a level you can’t touch using generic grain or flour shipped across the country. That said, grain grown in these parts is so great it’s shipped across oceans. Italy even makes pasta using Arizona durum.
Local grain’s quality and role in the food ecosystem may be the thing that most distinguishes Phoenix as a food city. There isn't this kind of grain culture in the Northeast. Bianco famously sources and mills local grains. Tacos Chiwas now makes a flour tortilla using White Sonora Wheat milled shortly before tortillas are made. Breweries like Arizona Wilderness have made saison and other styles using grain from right here in the Valley.
Phoenix Has a Legit Cambodian Restaurant
A tranquil, quiet Cambodian restaurant overlooking Indian School Road may be my favorite place in Phoenix for lunch. Reathery Sekong simmers some eye-opening soups. The flavor combinations are downright strange and racy to the uninitiated. They diverge and loop and tie together in unexpected, satisfying ways.
A pineapple soup with royal basil, tamarind, jalapeno, and catfish veers into scattered zones of flavor: sweet, spicy, herbaceous, perfumey, and marine. Hunks of catfish lurk in the light broth under the cover of soft fruits and vegetables. The fish is perfectly cooked, soft and a little flaky. A lemongrass soup velvety and luxuriant thanks to ample coconut milk is similarly delectable. The menu is rife with finds, ranging from pork chops to Cambodian sandwiches. And this makes the size of that menu is promising rather than daunting. If I eat 40 lunches here, they will all be different.
Mexican Food Can Be As Finessed as French or Japanese
Misconceptions plague the American view of Mexican food. One is that Mexican food is all power, hammering your taste buds with huge flavor after huge flavor. Mexican food isn't all charred steak, fiery salsa, lime juice, and cheese blizzards. It can be as subtle as French or Japanese.
The doyenne of refined Mexican food is Silvana Salcido Esparza. The chef at Barrio Cafe and Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva is deservedly renowned for her groundbreaking culinary style. She'll use French techniques with shrimp enchiladas, improvise barbecue dishes that bridge Mexican and American traditions, and serve a tasting menu of vegan riffs on regional Mexican standbys.
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More traditional Mexican preparations can be just as sophisticated. The cabeza (beef head) tacos at Asadero Norte De Sonora bring a low current of mild flavor, lightly sharpened with lime juice, herbs, and onions. A burrito with beef prepared deshebrada style from Tacos Chiwas brings the same kind of low-toned satisfaction, a quiet, harmonious meal rather than one that cranks the volume as high as possible. I look forward to eating my share of thoughtful Mexican food in 2018.
Anyone who follows this section knows that I have really liked eating my way though metro Phoenix's robust barbecue scene. As I've covered the Valley's barbecued meats and the people who smoke them, I have been pleased to encounter a few unexpected creations. There's the Little Miss smoked pecan pie, which I probably don't have to tell you about. Things can be just as interesting on the scene's fringes.
Over in San Tan Valley, I bit into a pork chop finished in an offset smoker within sight of the White Mountains that furnished the oak fueling the smoker's fire. That barbecue spot, Homer's Smokehouse BBQ, had what may have been the best barbecue side I've tried yet in a squash casserole out of the Alabama mountains. In Gilbert, newcomer Arizona BBQ Company reached its peak with smoked brisket over chicharrones. The mustard-based sauce and various sauces of Jalapeno Bucks in Mesa brought new dimensions to pulled pork. And we need to stop here before I dive into Esparza's barbecue experiment and all of the cool Mexican-style barbecue the good people of Phoenix are smoking. I know more surprises are awaiting both readers and writers in 2018.