The Valley is lucky to be home to such talent, and we'd like to highlight a few of them living in the culinary world, bar scene, and beer division. From best chef to best bartender to made-up accolades like Best Vegetable Wizard, here are a few of our Best of Phoenix 2019 winners in the Phoenix food world.
Best ChefCharleen Badman
7125 East Fifth Avenue, Scottsdale
Turkey. France. Mexico. Morocco. Italy. List of vacation destinations? Nope. These are just a few of the countries whose culinary traditions Charleen Badman skillfully plucks from her vast mental Rolodex of flavor combinations and techniques, creating some of the best and most elegant food in the country. Badman, who won a James Beard Award earlier this year, knows that cooking begins with the sun, rain, and soil. She tirelessly seeks out the best and most arcane of what Arizona's premier farmers and ranchers have to offer. She then gives our state's top-notch produce her royal, global treatment, plating the likes of Mexican pickled shrimp with fennel, and lamb loin with purple peas chermoula at FnB Restaurant. Badman sources local date varietals for simple salads, seeming to extract the maximum flavor from every ingredient. She uses chiltepin and soft tofu, celtuce and tepary beans. She's at the apex of her culinary superpowers, and she glorifies the bounty of Arizona like no other chef behind a stove today.
Best Vegetable WizardSacha Levine
1490 East Weber Drive, Tempe
For a few seasons now, Sacha Levine has been translating the earth's bounty into some unforgettable food at Singh Meadows. She has used an orange blossom gastrique to sweeten a deconstructed Napoleon, teetering with layers of peak-season strawberries and whipped goat cheese. She fries herbaceous falafel for sandwiches, fritters charged with jalapeño, leeks, and green garlic. She imbues nuanced tang into a bowl of Anasazi, cranberry, and runner beans, the fine zap coming from pickled fennel and escabeche. Her menu rotates with the seasons like an out-of-control airport door. And that's a good thing, because if you've eaten at Singh Meadows even once since Levine took over, you know that you'll have to be back again in a few weeks, when half the menu has morphed into a new set of enchanting creations.
Best BartenderChanel Godwin-McMaken
132 South Central Avenue, Fourth Floor
Chanel Godwin-McMaken will forever be among the first wave of mixologists behind the bar at the 2019-established Little Rituals. As we've stated, the cocktail bar on the fourth floor of downtown's Residence Inn/Courtyard by Marriott is a step forward for cocktails in Phoenix, and that's in no small part because of Godwin-McMaken's talents. Need proof? She also got first place at the 2019 Last Slinger Standing competition in February. But if you need real-world evidence, walk through the beaded curtains of Little Rituals' entrance and see if she's hustling behind the bar. A drink from Godwin-McMaken, especially off the imaginative custom menu, will make your eyes reflexively close. You'll almost need to make sure you're sitting down. And after a few more sips, you'll need to be.
Best Veteran BrewerBrian Helton
Helton Brewing Company
2144 East Indian School Road
The Phoenix beer scene is so young that breweries with a few years of experience feel like sagacious veterans. Brian Helton of Helton Brewing Company, on the other hand, has brewed beer for a few decades. Sitting at the bar in his taproom on Indian School, you can glimpse him working through a window to the capacious brew room. Helton's range as a brewer is vast. He crafts a luscious, malty Scotch ale that keeps things traditional. One of his signatures is pilsner, an ancient style with modest, restrained flavor. But Helton also loves to brew on the other end: huge, forward-looking beers with explosive flavor. Think rye IPA with whole-leaf hops. Think extra-brut IPA. And think his cult-classic boysenberry sour, with refreshing tartness rounded by the smooth flavor of fruit brought in from Oregon — one of the best fruited sours in town.
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Best Family Food LoreJulio César Morales
You'd balk if your grandma told you she invented the apple pie or your cousin said he came up with the first bite of sushi. But Julio César Morales, curator of the Arizona State University Art Museum, takes his grandfather's accounts of helping to make the first Caesar salad, along with notorious gangster Al Capone and a chef at the Caesar's Hotel in Tijuana, Mexico, to heart. Family lore says the trio put the salad together one night during Prohibition, using what was left in a hotel restaurant kitchen after an onslaught of tourists practically wiped them out. He's visited the hotel, shared his family's oral history through art, and still makes the salad today for friends and family. Morales knows food lore can be tricky, but credits his grandfather's stories with helping to fuel his shared passion for art and culinary creations. Every family tale should be so inspiring.
Best Second ActNino McCurley
5754 West Glendale Avenue, Glendale
Everyone loves a good comeback story, and Nino McCurley's tale is as good as it gets. In 2010, the Valley resident broke his back while working as a local firefighter and lost his job. Four years later, a distracted driver plowed into his motorcycle, landing him in a wheelchair for 28 weeks and requiring him to learn how to walk again. Frustrated and destitute, McCurley started hustling to survive, first by selling his paintings at local art shows. Then, his cousin showed him "crazy-ass YouTube videos" of rolled ice cream being made by street-food carts in Thailand, which inspired McCurley. "I was like, 'I don't know what the fuck that is, but I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna be the best at it and bring it to Phoenix,'" McCurley says. He did just that. He bought the equipment, taught himself how to make the Thai-style frozen dessert, and debuted his food cart, Nomadic Ice Cream Rolls, in 2015. It was a big hit, leading McCurley to open a brick-and-mortar location in downtown Glendale in 2017. In July 2018, he transformed the spot next door into Lemoncade, a combination lemonade stand, art space, and retro arcade. Because that's just how he rolls.