Chow Bella

5 Wishes for the Metro Phoenix Food Scene in 2018

Carne asada tacos from Cahuamanta El Yaqui.
Carne asada tacos from Cahuamanta El Yaqui. Shelby Moore
Phoenix's food culture has made some giant leaps in recent years. That said, no city's gastronomic universe is perfect. There are certainly a few things Phoenix could do better, changes that would catapult the Valley to the next level of deliciousness. Here, we share five wishes for Phoenix's food scene. Here's to hoping these wishes come true in 2018, and that Phoenix's food culture continues to grow, impress, and satisfy.

1. More Love For Our Sonoran and Norteño Food Culture
Remember when cacti and succulents – totems of Arizona desert life – suddenly became popular around the country? Arguably, something similar is happening with regional Sonora-Mex cooking, with dishes like Sonoran hot dogs and Sonoran-style carne asada, enjoying popularity in cities like Los Angeles and Brooklyn. In 2018, we wish for metro Phoenix to really embrace its rich Sonoran-Arizona food culture. We wish for more local chefs and mixologists to explore the possibilities of regionally distinct ingredients like chiltepin chiles, and bacanora, a native liquor. We wish for more regional solidarity with our neighbors in northwestern Mexico – Trump’s wall be damned – and more access to the exciting new wines and craft beers coming out of Sonora. We also wish for a talented baker from Hermosillo – Phoenix’s sister city to the south – to finally bring great coyotas to metro Phoenix. The large, flat, round pastries are a deliciously chewy and uniquely Sonoran treat. (And while we’re making wishes, bring on more crazy seafood dishes from Sinaloa, too.) Patricia Escárcega

New Times illustration
2. A Downtown Phoenix Dining District
In 2017, we saw parts of metro Phoenix – especially Seventh Street in uptown Phoenix, and downtown Gilbert’s growing Heritage District – develop dense, well-defined dining districts. We raised the difficult question about whether so many new restaurants can survive in saturated and expensive commercial districts. What we didn’t talk about was downtown Phoenix, whose business district still feels more like a loose patchwork of restaurants and bars than a full-fledged food and drink destination. We wish downtown Phoenix had the kind of lively scene and culinary cachet that attracts both locals and visitors. We hope 2018 is the year it happens. Patricia Escárcega

click to enlarge Patio views at O.H.S.O. - TERESA TRAVERSE
Patio views at O.H.S.O.
Teresa Traverse
3. Hey, Local Chains: Go West
In 2018, we wish for more high-profile operators and local chains to take Square One Concepts’ lead and stop ignoring the west side. Square One planted its flag in Glendale last year with the first west side location of Cold Beers & Cheeseburgers, and we hope it’s a sign that the huge and vastly under-served West Valley is finally getting its due. There’s no obvious reason why popular local chains – perhaps an O.H.S.O., Postino's, or any number of Sam Fox-brand restaurants – should not succeed in Peoria, Surprise, or Glendale. Patricia Escárcega

click to enlarge A Little Miss BBQ pitmaster sandwiched between two offset, wood-fired smokers - CHRIS MALLOY
A Little Miss BBQ pitmaster sandwiched between two offset, wood-fired smokers
Chris Malloy
4. Barbecue Joints: Embrace 100 Percent Wood-Fired Smokers
Smokers that supplement wood fires with gas—rather than relying wholly on mesquite, pecan, and so on—are a hallmark feature of metro Phoenix barbecue. And that’s okay. It isn’t always realistic to have someone who can tend the fire overnight or maintain an open-air smoker in an indoor space, both necessary to keeping a wood-fired smoker going. Gas-assisted smokers are more hands off and predictable, leading to a more consistent product after less grueling work. The issue, though, is that you’ll never get A+ barbecue with a gas-assisted smoker. It smokes and steams, rather than merely smoking and drawing in fresh air from the outside to flow through the chamber where briskets drips, crusts, and alchemizes. If Phoenix wants to elevate its barbecue game to a level truly on that of Austin or Kansas City or Memphis, we need to embrace old-school, hard-work, 100% wood-fired smokers. Chris Malloy

5. More Producers
When one asks a chef where he or she got a particular radish or fennel bulb, one almost knows the answer before it comes. They’re likely from Maya’s Farm or McClendon Select Organic Farm, two exceptional local providers of produce. There are a few other great sources, too. But the Valley lacks the variety of growers one would except from an agriculturally rich place — the Salt River Valley, from which the colloquial Valley draws its name — that was first settled for its soil, water flow, and potential for edible bounty. We think it would be grand to see more farms pop up, some specializing in heirloom melons and other funky crops. We think it'd be really cool to see restaurants seek out a wider array of existing farms and ranches, which would enrich our food ecosystem not only in 2018 but for the long haul. Chris Malloy
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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.
Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy