Best of Phoenix

Best of Phoenix 2019: The Valley's Top Dishes

Aioli Gourmet Burgers is one of our big winners.
Aioli Gourmet Burgers is one of our big winners. Patricia Escarcega
Best fries, pizza, chocolate? Honey, we know them all. But if you’re unconvinced on our choices, we definitely did some explaining. And we might have gotten a little poetic on a couple descriptions. Here are our Best of Phoenix 2019 winners.

Best Burger

Aioli Gourmet Burgers
10652 North 32nd Street

It's true that a good burger starts with fresh, high-quality beef. But for us, what makes or breaks the burger are the toppings, the extras that turn that simplest of handheld foods into a memorable dining experience. Aioli Gourmet Burgers never disappoints on that score; its lineup of options includes the New Mexico (cheddar cheese, Hatch green chile, and green chile aioli), the Fresh Prince (provolone, shaved rib-eye, pepperoncini, caramelized onion, tomato, and garlic aioli), and a rotating monthly special. We love pretty much everything else on Aioli's menu, too, from the pretzel bites with cheese sauce to the Caprese salad to the meal-capping milkshakes. Add in the bright, cheerful dining room and friendly service, and you've got a neighborhood eatery we come back to again and again.

click to enlarge Pane Bianco has some next-level sandwiches, including this chicken arrabiata sandwich. - CHRIS MALLOY
Pane Bianco has some next-level sandwiches, including this chicken arrabiata sandwich.
Chris Malloy

Best Sandwiches

Pane Bianco
Multiple Locations

"Perfect" is not a word we throw around often, so believe us when we say that Pane Bianco's mozzarella, tomato, and basil sandwich is pretty much perfect. From the freshly baked bread and the thick slab of mozzarella to the crisp tomato slice and fragrant basil, this is a sandwich we can't help but order over and over again, despite the fact that every sandwich on Pane Bianco's menu is consistently good. In the event you feel like exploring more of the options, Francesca's meatball sandwich is filling without being heavy, and we love the albacore tuna salad sandwich with red onion, celery, raisins, olives, and arugula for being a lighter, but still delicious, option.

click to enlarge Try The Lady at Short Leash Hotdogs. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Try The Lady at Short Leash Hotdogs.
Lauren Cusimano

Best Hot Dog

Short Leash Hotdogs + Rollover Doughnuts
4221 North Seventh Avenue

The Seventh Avenue home of Short Leash Hotdogs & Rollover Doughnuts is housed in a building that was an Italian joint, grilled cheese shop, and well-known hamburger spot. But hopefully, now, the Melrose District address will long be home to a hot dog restaurant. And not just hot dogs, but also doughnuts, beer, and some pretty fantastic cheese curds. Why are we so crazy about hot dogs? Short Leash offers upscale dogs, if we may, ranging from special-occasion orders like The Bear to an everyday lunch dish like The Lady. Start by choosing your meat — bratwurst, regular hot dog, all-beef, spicy beer hot, chicken, or vegetarian. Then, your dog is topped with chipotle cream cheese, sautéed onion, and fried pickle, and wrapped in naan. You'll get a savory, textured, irresistible result.

click to enlarge The Root and Soul has the best fried chicken. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The Root and Soul has the best fried chicken.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Best Fried Chicken

The Root and Soul
801 North Third Street

Brined for 24 hours and sizzled in cast iron, the fried chicken at Christian Buze's soul-food restaurant can hang with the most famous version of the dish in town — that of his grandmother, Elizabeth White of Golden Rule Cafe fame. The breast is hot and juicy. Darker cuts ripple with a robust, Thanksgiving-conjuring depth. Breading has the texture and detail of a landscape, though all of its grooves and intricacies fall swiftly to your big, eager bites. The meat, too, is uncommonly well seasoned. Buze deploys an 11-spice blend, embellishing the flavor of the bird but not enough to drown out its goodness. Not long after getting your plate, you'll be staring down at gnawed-clean bones and red-checked paper smudged with grease, thinking about your next visit to The Root and Soul.

click to enlarge Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.'s famous duck fat fries. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.'s famous duck fat fries.
Lauren Cusimano

Best Fries

Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.
Multiple Locations

When you see a restaurant with duck fat fries on the menu, you're probably going to take out your smartphone to Google if Guy Fieri has ever visited the establishment. To our knowledge, the Food Network star has yet to claim Arizona Wilderness as a province of his Flavortown empire, which means he's missing out on the best fried potatoes in the state. Flavored with rosemary, thyme, and garlic aioli, this zesty side dish almost overshadows the burgers and brews that put this pub on the map. (Rumor has it duck fat is a little healthier for you, too, but we're not nutritionists.) In fact, you can get the fries covered with pulled pork, cheese, or bacon, and forget the entree altogether. Let's hope Fieri never discovers the brewery, so there are more fries for the locals.

Best Wings

Trapp Haus BBQ
511East Roosevelt Street

Roosevelt Row is known for cocktails, galleries, and craft beer, which is what makes Trapp Haus BBQ all the more worth a visit. The inside is welcoming, with a bar and a narrow dining room, complete with murals and painted-on barbecue lingo. Proprietor Phil "the Grill" Johnson is a seasoned barbecue master, offering a tight menu of food, beer, and cocktails. The must-try order is the Jumbo Philly Crack Wings. They can come naked or with sauce, but we recommend the sauced version. You get about half a dozen, but these are meaty, smoked wings, fringed with a little bit of crisp and crunch on the edge. These are the ultimate barbecued wings, and you're going to appreciate that roll of paper towels on the table.

Best Barbecue

Little Miss BBQ
Multiple Locations

Though Scott Holmes' Sunnyslope location may be a half-step behind his OG spot, this pound-for-pound barbecue champ reigns supreme. Sure, his fatty brisket is legendary, but other meats speak just as truly to his Jedi skills. Holmes smokes turkey. It is some of the juiciest poultry you'll ever eat. Holmes brines and smokes pastrami for a Thursday special. One bite in, and your smile will meet behind your hair at the back of your head. Holmes cups sides of jalapeño grits. Good luck finding better grits in town. Holmes changes woods frequently, mixes a hypnotic mustard sauce, and just made a risky but triumphant foray into burritos — and still, the man lights up like a kid on his birthday whenever he talks about smoked meat. Forget the pyramids and the Great Wall, Little Miss BBQ is a wonder of the world.

click to enlarge The original Pizzeria Bianco is famously found in Heritage Square. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
The original Pizzeria Bianco is famously found in Heritage Square.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Best Pizza

Pizzeria Bianco
Multiple Locations

Bianco? Again? Yep, until somebody catches him. In 2019, Chris Bianco, who won his James Beard Award in 2003, is at the top of his game. How is this possible? The pope of pizza is continually drilling down into all the nuances of his processes: evaluating, re-evaluating, and making them better. He and his brother Marco are continually testing new flour compositions. Chris is always sourcing from new farmers, always going the extra mile to capture the most true and beautiful flavors he can. His cheeseless marinara pie ripples with tomato flavor — swirled from tomatoes he cans. But as is the case with his pistachio-and-Parm-powered Rosa, many of Chris's best pies don't even use them. Instead, many cede even more spotlight to blistered house-made mozzarella, simple but orchestral ingredient unions, and the chewy, shattering mastery of his crust.

click to enlarge The Neapolitan pizza at Pomo. - CHRIS MALLOY
The Neapolitan pizza at Pomo.
Chris Malloy

Best Neapolitan Pizza

POMO Pizzeria
Multiple Locations

True Neapolitan pizza can be a thing of beauty, and Pomo's version is as close as you'll get to the truth in this town. Stefano Fabbri's pizzerias are certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the Naples-based organization that decides which pies are truly authentic. Earning this certification isn't easy. Crust must be a certain height. Dough must be of specific proportions. Pizza must cook in 90 seconds. Fabbri checks all these boxes. The personal-size pies that emerge from his gold-tiled oven have the fantastically puffy crust ("cornicione") and slightly soupy centers of the real deal. Toppings are spare but smart. Whether rich with porcini or heady with anchovy and Sicilian oregano, these pizzas stand out in a pizza town. And being so true to Neapolitan standards, the pizzas at Pomo are so light you might even be able to scarf two.

Pizza al taglio from Piazza Romana in Avondale (left to right: caprese, arrabiata, amatriciana) - CHRIS MALLOY
Pizza al taglio from Piazza Romana in Avondale (left to right: caprese, arrabiata, amatriciana)
Chris Malloy

Best Square Pizza

Piazza Romana
10210 West McDowell Road, #120, Avondale

Are the days of the round pie in metro Phoenix numbered? Probably not, but Valley pizza veteran Justin Piazza is turning out some damn good Roman-style pies anyway. Using high-hydration dough that rises for a whopping 96 hours, Piazza blazes shelves of square pie at 650 to 700 degrees — cooler than the ovens at his Neapolitan joints around town. As in Rome, the most underrated pizza city the boot has to offer, Piazza cuts slices to order with a scissors. The thick, baked dough stays surprisingly light — delicate and airy — yet flavorful enough to stand up to toppings that Piazza rains: rich guanciale and tomato sauce; mozzarella and basil and tiny whole tomatoes; prosciutto and mushrooms. When the toppings are right, the crust stays moist but tears in your mouth like a wicker basket smashing. Here are square pies to round out our magnifico pizza scene.

click to enlarge Saint Pasta cooks swaggering versions of classic pastas. - CHRIS MALLOY
Saint Pasta cooks swaggering versions of classic pastas.
Chris Malloy

Best Jersey Import

Saint Pasta
6522 North 16th Street, #6 (Linger Longer Lounge)

This isn't a "best of" because the two Jersey kids behind it can cook Italian noodles. This isn't a "best of" because Racan Alhoch and Joe Cetrulo live up to their motto, "al dente or die," plating spaghetti with bounce and rigatoni with chew. This isn't a "best of" because the duo elevate breadcrumbs with lemon rind, carefully skim off "acids" to create a luscious pomodoro sauce, or say "fuck it" and add butter to aglio e olio. This isn't even a "best of" because the Saint Pasta kids simmer a glorious vodka sauce and have the best food Instagram in town. This is a "best of" because, in a city where looking for truly great pasta can feel like tracking a snow leopard, Alhoch and Cetrulo are finessing flawless noodles. Find them in the kitchen at Linger Longer Lounge.

Best Falafel

1024 East Buckeye Road

You have the right to be skeptical of a falafel sandwich from so freewheeling an establishment as WTFExp, which also offers burgers, fish and chips, Philly cheesesteaks, and sushi. Which means you'll be pleasantly surprised to find that the spiced balls of ground chickpeas at this no-frills, down-to-earth zone are perfectly browned and lightly crisp, with just the right hint of caraway seed, balanced by a drizzle of white sauce and nestled among strips of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. The bread is not the kind of pita that, being rough along the underside, quickly absorbs sauces or liquids and immediately becomes mushy. Rather, it is a thinner and stretchier version of naan, which keeps the sauce in and around the falafel and vegetables, and has a sturdy, structured feel to it. The portions are beyond generous, especially given the $5 price tag. Meanwhile, WTFExp lives up to its name. Unlike other falafel venues in the area, it whips up this classic Mediterranean sandwich in five minutes, making it one of the best bangs for your falafel buck close to downtown.

Monkfish liver with snapper, Spanish mackerel, and yellowtail from Sushi Nakano. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
Monkfish liver with snapper, Spanish mackerel, and yellowtail from Sushi Nakano.
Jackie Mercandetti

Best Sushi

Sushi Nakano
4025 East Chandler Boulevard

The more popular sushi becomes, the more perfectly serviceable sushi joints we see popping up around town. But in the hands of passionate experts, sashimi, nigiri, and the rest are elevated from a simple meal to a dining experience. Sushi Nakano's small Ahwatukee strip-mall location is our favorite place for raw fish and other Japanese dishes; Chef Leo Nakano, who learned the art under the tutelage of his father, Hiro Nakano, of Hiro Sushi, has created a spot reminiscent of small, quiet restaurants we've visited in Tokyo. The food is consistently wonderful, whether it's a gyoza appetizer; simple, gorgeous nigiri; or one of the spot's popular rolls, like the Mt. Fuji, which brings together shrimp tempura, cucumber, avocado, and spicy tuna.

Best Ramen

3223 South McClintock Drive, Tempe

This authentic Japanese ramen spot offers top-notch ramen, rice, and starters in a strip-mall setting — right by the Ross Dress for Less. When you're ready for the good stuff, choose between ramen options like the ultra-spicy, curry, miso, soymilk, and seafood. All steaming bowls start with the Tampopo original tonkotsu ramen. Toppings include scallions, bamboo shoots, and Tampopo original spicy paste, as well as proteins like roasted pork, squid, scallops, and fried chicken. You can also add rich soup, which is extra-concentrated and flavored, as well as extra noodles, for $1. Everything is easily enjoyed in the simple and modern dining room, complete with a lengthy community table where you may unabashedly slurp.

Best Poke

Koi Poke
18221 North Pima Road, #100 and #105, Scottsdale

Call us particular, but we like it when meals are crafted to our exact specifications. Poke, the popular bowl-of-fish concept, gives us a custom dining experience every time. Our favorite place to have it our way is Koi Poke, an expanding local chain. Start with white rice, brown rice, or mixed greens, then choose from a wide selection of fresh seafood, such as spicy tuna, yellowtail, salmon, octopus, and our favorite, the marinated Hawaiian tuna. Add one of Koi's tasty sauces, and pile on toppings like cucumber, edamame, red onion, and kale, and you've got a healthy, delicious meal exactly the way you want it.

Best Dim Sum

Great Wall Cuisine
3446 West Camelback Road

Forgive us, Lord, but there may be no better place in the Valley to be at 11 a.m. on a Sunday than Great Wall Cuisine, the best among a woefully small selection of dim sum spots in town. Inside this expansive west Phoenix establishment, servers cart around a seemingly endless supply of dumplings, steamed meat, and other Cantonese favorites. Steam rising from bamboo baskets and a cacophony of clanking dishes and Chinese chatter let you know you're in for the real deal. Expect to wait for a table, depending on the size of your party, but rest assured it'll be worth it.

click to enlarge The scorching hot mentaiko pasta at Katsu. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The scorching hot mentaiko pasta at Katsu.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Best East-West Mashup

1135 South Dobson Road, #102-B, Mesa

"Fusion" is like a four-letter word these days, but not at Katsu in Mesa's Asiana Market. Chef Danny Jeong spent time cooking in Italy and Los Angeles' Koreatown; he loops the two together in some astounding pastas. Creamy, velvety, dense, and edged with bacon's smoke and chile heat, kimchi pasta is a bowl of carbonara on vacation in Seoul. He also plates a wildly buttery and saline mentaiko pasta, a dish born in Japan, pollock roe clinging to every last strand of Italian spaghetti. Jeong plates a fine panko-sheathed katsu cutlet, a solid but mild rendition of the rice cake tteokbokki, and even a bursting bulgogi burrito. But the pasta dishes are what really kick open the door to your mind.

click to enlarge Best bread? La Belle Vie. - CHRIS MALLOY
Best bread? La Belle Vie.
Chris Malloy

Best Bread

La Belle Vie
Multiple Locations

Nathas Kraus, a baker without a bakery, sells a dazzling array of classically French pastries a few days a week at farmers markets such as Gilbert and Uptown. Though his cream-flavored "rhino" croissants and butter-saturated kouign-amann are showstopping, his simple breads are quietly excellent. If you get to his stand, La Belle Vie, before everything sells out (hint: get there early and prepare to wait in line even then), be sure to walk away with La Parisienne. This long, lancing loaf is naturally leavened. It cuts into rounds or larger swaths (perfect for cheese) with a compact, crackly, almost hard shell and a light interior. This is Old World bread baked with skill and sweat, the kind of loaf that inspires trans-Atlantic trips.

click to enlarge The perfect plain bagel from The Bagel Man. - DILLON ROSENBLATT
The perfect plain bagel from The Bagel Man.
Dillon Rosenblatt

Best Bagel

The Bagel Man
5035 East Elliot Road

Look hard enough, and a good bagel will turn up — even in Arizona, the land of bad water. Bagel-making is an art form and a really good spot comes along rarely, but The Bagel Man is that spot. Found in the center of Ahwatukee near the Warner-Elliot circle, Bagel Man truly must have something in the water for its dough to turn out as tasty as it does. Plain, everything, salt — Bagel Man has it all. Order with cream cheese, and it's generously spread edge to edge. Order with nova lox, and each bite will taste of fresh smoked salmon on a pillowy piece of dough that doesn't need to be toasted; it's always ready to eat. Be prepared to wait in line on the weekends and maybe even on a random morning midweek, but you won't find anything better for miles and miles.

What a crêperie. - ZAIDA DEDOLPH
What a crêperie.
Zaida Dedolph

Best Crepe

The Village Coffee and Crêperie
7100 East Cave Creek Road, #138, Cave Creek

Almost good as this place itself was discovering it. What began as a Sunday lark for a short road trip in the northern reaches of the Valley turned into a treasure hunt we didn't realize we were on. There we were, a carful of hungry travelers, cruising through the boulders and nice homes of Carefree and Cave Creek, when we pulled into a town square-style shopping center off Cave Creek Road for an early lunch and found The Village Coffee and Crêperie. We could tell the place was special right off from the large menu of crepes written on a blackboard. We ordered the pesto crepe, a fruit bowl, the "original" breakfast crepe (scrambled eggs, red peppers, and other good stuff), and a Bumble Bee crepe with bananas and Nutella to share, plus a couple of espresso drinks. Russian immigrant Marina Matatov runs the place, and her grandmother shared some of the crepe recipes now served at the shop. We may not try all of them, but sampling more of these crepes is well worth the travel time.

Best Doughnut

The Local Donut
3213 North Hayden Road, Scottsdale

Doughnut shops are, by definition, a simple place for a simple food. That's why it's so exciting when a doughnut-specializing spot turns up the dial and delivers something upscale. Cue the fanciful options from The Local Donut in Scottsdale. For instance, the creme brulee doughnut: Take deep-fried dough and add a pudding-like filling, then glop on the glaze and give the whole thing a little bit of heat. The scorched top layer of this creation is dotted gently with a burnt-pink raspberry. The Local Donut also offers Nutella-flavored croissant doughnuts on the weekends, other fancy doughnuts like the peach pie or s'mores, and straight-up sprinkles.

click to enlarge Best ice cream? Sweet Republic. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Best ice cream? Sweet Republic.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Best Ice Cream

Sweet Republic
Multiple Locations

Ice cream is the perfect respite for Arizona's relentless summer heat, and there's no better place to cool off than Sweet Republic, owned by Helen Yung and Jan Wichayanuparp. Sweet Republic's rotating array of unique ice cream flavors will keep you coming back to try as many as you can. There are top-quality takes on classic flavors, like Madagascar vanilla, salted butter caramel, and apple pie, but the menu has also featured more exotic choices, like blue-cheese ice cream with Medjool dates. There are even vegan and gluten-free options for those who really can't resist the siren call of sweet ice cream, even when your diet would rather you did.

click to enlarge Tempering at DNA Chocolate. - CHRIS MALLOY
Tempering at DNA Chocolate.
Chris Malloy

Best Chocolate

DNA Chocolate
Multiple Locations

You can (and should) find Denae Hostetler's bean-to-bar chocolates at places like Moon Dust Farms in Mesa and Highland Yard Vintage in Chandler. Hostetler sources only Criollo beans for the arduous process of turning them to high-end chocolate. She winnows using a machine that her dad built, grinds using stone, and roasts in a common kitchen oven. The love and intention are there, rippling through a final product that makes big-name chocolate taste like birthday candle wax. Hostetler sells truffles and cacao discs for mixing and forming into the Mexican chocolate drink with ancient Aztec roots. If you consider yourself a more-than-casual chocolate fan, tracking down these bars from DNA Chocolate is a must.
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