As author of Chow Bella's "Dessert First" column, I tasted my share of sweet in this city. (To say photographer Dayvid LeMmon and I enjoyed the research is an understatement.) What follows is the absolute best of the best.
Restaurants change their dessert menus on a regular basis -- seasonally or even weekly -- so it's nearly impossible to round up a list of current favorites guaranteed to be on the menu. If these exact dishes aren't available when you stop by, we bet you'll get your pick of exciting new offerings that our favorite sugar wizards are whipping up in the kitchen.
This Ahwatukee eatery's menu is full of fresh, locally produced ingredients, so it's always a good idea to get a salad, wrap, or daily special. What you might not expect from such a health-focused establishment is that the desserts are some of the best in the Valley -- and they're vegan, too. The raw, cheese-less cheesecakes are creamy and packed with fresh fruit flavor, and the handmade candy bars are delicious. But our fave is the signature layer cake made from spelt flour and organic cocoa. There's just enough tart pomegranate flavor without overpowering the chocolate. Stop in for a slice, or pre-order a whole cake for your special occasion.
Erase all previous memories of boring, flavorless flourless chocolate cakes and sink your teeth into this version by Mama Bianco. It's extremely fudgy without being too dense, and it's soft and moist, almost mousse-like but heavier. The rich and sophisticated flavor is thanks to 80 percent dark Valrhona chocolate, which pairs perfectly with the slightly tangy, mostly sweet Meyer lemon marmalade. This cake is regularly available at Pizzeria Bianco, Pane Bianco, and Trattoria Bianco.
You could think of Churn as a separate establishment run by super-restaurateurs Upward Projects (Postino, Federal Pizza). Or, you could say that the desserts at Windsor are so addictively delicious that they warrant their own storefront. Either way, if you manage to drive past this unstoppable duo without stopping for a cocktail and a bowl of ice cream, you have a monk's sense of willpower. There's not a bad flavor in this ice cream case, but the most popular is rightfully butter pecan -- so rich it's like licking melted butter off your fingers, with the added bonus of candied pecans. To really wow your palate, mix it with Vietnamese coffee ice cream and top with toffee pieces.
Childhood-inspired desserts will always be a hit, with recent trends including Pop-Tart-like pastries and Hostess-style cakes. Kevin Binkley and the culinary team at Bink's Midtown has their own throwback on the menu: Push-Pops. The flavors are changed up pretty frequently, but the concept remains the same: ice cream layered with sweet sauces and packaged in a plastic tube, with something like granola for your dipping pleasure. Don't expect flavors like bubblegum and cherry. Instead, you'll find butternut squash with chocolate and tamarind, or chai tea with pineapple chutney and carrot cake crumble. This is one playful sweet treat that grownups will enjoy just as much as the little munchkins.
What's so impressive about this sweet buttermilk pie? Balance. The slice sits on top of a generous amount of no-nonsense caramel sauce, neither thick nor thin, and the buttery filling is rich without being as heavy as crème brûlée. The flavors may appear plain, but this pie is far from boring and fits into any holiday: Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Tuesday. Luckily, this pie can also be ordered directly from Shelley's Specialty Desserts in Old Towne Glendale, where pastry chef Shelley Au also bakes treats like Kentucky bourbon cheesecake, mocha fudge cake, and pumpkin bars.
James Beard Award winner Nobuo Fukuda is a master of flavors, technique, and presentation, and his expertise isn't limited to savory fare. Diners usually flock to this downtown Phoenix restaurant for pork buns, but the desserts are just as crave-worthy. It's a safe bet that nothing on the menu at Nobuo Teeter House will disappoint, but if you see almond fritters with azuki bean syrup, definitely order two. The soft, doughnut-like fritters are served warm and have a hint of orange blossom. Then they're drizzled with red bean syrup, which adds a similar note as maple syrup, and served with a palate-cleansing jasmine tea ice cream. It bears repeating: Order two (if not three).
There was a lot to enjoy about last year's Pie Social, but the most memorable of the bunch is definitely the Pink Diablo Pie from Virginia Senior, available at her cafe-slash-wine-bar. This wildly inventive creation starts with a savory walnut crust and is topped with lime curd, meringue, mint, and agave habanero sauce. But the real star is the filling, a just-sweet-enough prickly pear cheesecake. Desserts do not get more Southwestern than this -- and they don't get much more delicious either. The crazy flavor combo isn't for everyone, but if you have an adventurous sweet tooth, this is an absolute must-taste.
Enough good things cannot be said about this dessert, created by the ever-inspired pastry chef Country Velador (Super Chunk Sweets & Treats). The cobbler itself is rather traditional, with plenty of spice and a brown sugar streusel. But then tradition is thrown out the window by replacing simple vanilla ice cream with luscious duck fat. And while that might make diners a little wary, there's no carnivorous cause for alarm. Duck is known for its gamey flavor, but that doesn't translate at all to this dish. The ice cream is incredibly rich, buttery, and has a soft nuttiness akin to the savory goat milk flavor in cajeta. Apple cobbler is usually a fall favorite, but thankfully this unique spin on the all-American classic is available at Cowboy Ciao year-round.
This dessert hits all of the right notes: velvety smooth ganache, rich mousse, plenty of chocolate. It's insanely luxurious and decadent, but it also manages to be comforting and familiar, like the best possible gourmet version of Sara Lee's frozen chocolate mousse cake. Not only is this dish delicious enough to remember for life, but it also features a flavor profile that's easy to love. Three types of mousse -- hazelnut, praline, and coffee - are layered evenly, separated by a wafer-thin almond meringue. It has everything you love about Nutella and so much more.