Another year of eating and drinking has sluiced into the past, a year that ended with a bang. A spate of strong second-half restaurant openings made 2019 a good year for dining in the Valley. We have some momentum and fresh growth in a few exciting directions. What are some of those directions? Where can you expect our food and beverage scene to veer in 2020 and beyond? Find out below.
Continued Ceviche Surge
You may have noticed that ceviche dishes are starting to become now what the slider was: ubiquitous, a little different in each iteration, always pretty satisfying. I think we can attribute this to a few factors. One is the root culture of mariscos we have. Another is how refreshing raw-fish preparations are in the desert heat. But most importantly, we’ve seen a rise of stellar seafood purveyors in the past few years, most notably Chula Seafood and Nelson’s Meat + Fish. Not only can you grab a bracing order of ceviche from old standbys like El Chullo, Gallo Blanco, and Mariscos Playa Hermosa, leading new restaurants like Hush Public House and Vecina are plating epic versions.
The Gradual Rise of Multiuse Spaces
Phoenix proper is 519 square miles. Often to go eat somewhere, we have to drive 20 minutes or longer. Multiuse spaces, those that unite food and nonfood concepts, not only make these drives more worthwhile, they can bring accents and layers that enhance the eating and drinking components. Take Barnone in Gilbert. There, you can score pours and bottles of the 12 West sour series, eat pizza from Fire & Brimstone, grab laser-cut wood from Lettercraft, and even take a farm tour. At Palabra in downtown Phoenix, you can score tamales, a haircut, and browse contemporary art. MonOrchid offers a related art-anchored, shape-shifting space. Expect to see more of these progressive destinations.
Expanded Focus on Zero-Waste and Sustainability
As our country veers further off course in failing to address climate change, local food professionals have been going to bat for Mother Earth, as food editor Lauren Cusimano has shown her series Table Scraps. I'm thinking of Ivan Jacobo, executive chef at Anhelo in Heritage Square, who is at the dawn of his career but has shown veteran savvy in composting waste. I’m thinking about familiar names on the food circuit, like Sacha Levine, who recently took the stove at Century Grand. There, she does things like use fish bones leftover from crudo to simmer dashi that becomes the foundation of another dish — a building block salvaged from what other chefs might trash. I’m thinking of Stephen Jones of the Larder + the Delta turning vegetable scraps to ash for seasoning, of Charleen Badman’s composting efforts and earth-driven approach, and all of the long-view sustainability projects championed by Danielle Leoni of The Breadfruit.
Rise of the Non-Restaurant Chef/Cook
The food truck craze has long since blossomed and withered. That said, an intriguing new crop of mobile chefs has taken to the streets. Not all are on wheels. Some cook at event and farmers market stands. The Nepali-style dumplings served out of the truck Everest Momo, momo being the name for this subset of the expansive dumpling world, are wolfed down by big-name restaurant chefs and average marketgoers alike. Bao Bar — a stand rather than a truck — has been preparing some wild bao buns. Think crispy chicken with spicy honey. Or soft-shell crab, the breaded legs spiraling out from the bun like the blades of a saw. There is also Toduken, home of Filipino skewers and specials like a lechon baboy riff. Sure, many of these folks will move on to restaurants (like Myke Olsen of Myke’s Pizza), but it’s nice to have a growing, ever-changing scene of street food artisans.
An Expanding Interest in Desert Ingredients
Right now, culinary use of the edible plants of the Sonoran Desert is something happening on the margins of our food culture. But these local ingredients, the tepary beans and amaranth and cactus barrel fruit and so on, have the capacity to give the Valley’s food scene rich, place-specific levels of definition beyond what can be dreamed in the coastal cities and the culinary hotbeds between them. I’ve been tracking the culture of these ingredients and desert foodways in my 2019 column, Sonoran Arcana. I expect them to steadily trickle into an increasing number of capable hands, inching from the margins closer to the mainstream. Zak’s Chocolate studs a bar with cactus seeds. Welcome Diner makes a soup with nopales. Even Café Allegro at MIM, the Musical Instrument Museum, has been harnessing local blue corn, mesquite flour, and tepary beans.
More National Recognition for Arizona Food
Things are quietly shaking in our nook of the country. We had a bevy of truly exciting restaurant openings this year, places like Hush, Vecina, ShinBay, and Myke’s Pizza now pealing pies alongside the sideways ciders of Cider Corps. Places that would be a hit anywhere. Our beverage culture is highly underrated, something underscored by the openings of Little Rituals and Century Grand this year, not to mention the ever-stranger, ever-more-brilliant brews and environmentalism of Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company. We also have amazing food artisans and activists working on the margins of our food scene: cider-making scientists who comb lost orchards for apples, gonzo miso makers, and indigenous-food activists doing big things. There is a lot happening under the radar, and I think that this, coupled with some awards redistricting, should bring more props our way.
Starting to Spearhead Water Conservation Efforts
Long term, one of the most important things our food system will have to address is water consumption. We narrowly missed water rationing this year — thanks to last winter’s heavy snows and a precipitous increase in precipitation — but that doesn’t mean we will again in 2020. Maricopa County is the fastest-growing county in the United States. We get most of our water from afar, from the Colorado River and the northern Arizona waterways funneling into SRP’s system. We have groundwater, but those supplies are finite, and recent studies have suggested that tapping groundwater can affect above-ground streamflow. Agriculture is the primary consumer of water in Arizona. And so the food system will have to evolve as the population mounts and temperatures rise. Farms will have to move to drip irrigation and more efficient methods. Chefs can do their part. Danielle Leoni, for instance, recently switched to a new nozzle in The Breadfruit’s dish pits. It saves tens of thousands of gallons of water per year. And we can only assume more efforts are underway.
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