The ubiquitous hamburger can be found on menus all around the Valley, and at nearly every price point. Out of all these options, Zinburger is our first choice. We usually go with the titular burger: The Zinburger, a thick, juicy, perfectly cooked Angus beef patty topped with Manchego cheese, zinfandel-braised onions, lettuce, and mayo. But you can't go wrong with the El Diablo burger with jalapenos and pepper jack cheese, and if you want to get fancy, there's always the wagyu burger with cheese, mushrooms, and onions. Sides come a la carte, and you definitely should order the zucchini fries to accompany your entree (ask your server for a side of the truffle aioli to go with them). Still have room? Split the cookies and cream milkshake with your companion, capping off a truly excellent Phoenix dining experience.
Best SandwichesWorth Takeaway
218 West Main Street, Mesa
In an increasingly buzzing downtown Mesa, new classic Worth Takeaway continues to bun sandwiches on a whole other level. The old favorites still impress, from a roast beef on focaccia to a shattering, crisp-yet-juicy chicken embellished with honey-sweet Sriracha. All touches are well considered. None feel needless. And the reason they click so well, other than putting sandwich ratios into perfect alignment, is that the produce comes from top local sources like Steadfast Farms and is treated with exceptional care. Weekly specials cover ample turf: a chicken cordon bleu sammy, a caprese with heirloom tomatoes and burrata, and even a Philly cheesesteak with house-made wiz.
Best Fried ChickenMonroe's Hot Chicken
45 West Jefferson Street
What would the fried chicken situation in Phoenix be without the White family? Matriarch Elizabeth White opened Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe back in 1964. Her grandson, Larry White, gave us the popular chain LoLo's Chicken and Waffles years ago, and just last year, he opened Phoenix's first hot chicken restaurant, Monroe's Hot Chicken downtown. (And if you don't feel like navigating the one-way streets of downtown Phoenix, hold tight: A Tempe location is scheduled to open in October. ) At Monroe's, juicy, succulent meat comes wrapped in a crispy breading, spiced to your liking. You choose the level of heat from none (Southern) to "call the fire department" (What the Cluck). Get it in a bucket with fries and pickles; in a triple-decker Belgian waffle sandwich with butter and syrup; or on a bed of greens so you can pretend you're eating healthy. We love Monroe's chicken best in a sandwich — served inside a pillowy brioche bun, every bite is a balance of texture and flavors. The crunch of the chicken plays off the softness of the brioche. The slaw and pickles add acidity, while the sauce and bread give a hint of sweet against the spice of the chicken. It's finger-lickin' good, but don't lick your fingers. It's not polite.
Best WingsATL Wings
Free idea: ATL Wings should offer a sampler platter so we don't have to pick which variety to order. It's too hard to choose every time we visit one of the Arizona chain's locations. Do we opt for a dry rub, like the rich garlic Parmesan? Or do we keep it saucy with the sweet heat of the honey habanero or the classic burn of the hot wings? (We stay away from the ultra-spicy Toxic wings, but maybe you're braver than we are.) Whichever flavor we're in the mood for, we know the wings will always be served fresh and crispy by the helpful staff. We particularly enjoy hitting up an ATL location on Tuesday or Wednesday, when wings are less than a buck each, allowing us to experience all the flavors we crave on the cheap.
Best BarbecueLittle Miss BBQ
We've argued for years that Phoenix is a first-rate barbecue town, and our conviction comes from solid spots like JL Smokehouse, newcomers like Eric's Family Barbecue, and especially the Arizona-famous Little Miss BBQ. Even "soul food scholar" Adrian Miller — a former lawyer and special assistant to President Clinton, a food historian, and a certified barbecue judge — has heard of Little Miss BBQ. So has everyone else in town. Little Miss is the kind of barbecue joint where you fold waiting in line into the allotted time and experience. (And while you wait, a piece of tape may get slapped over the very item you planned to order on the large, displayed menu; like we said, the place is popular.) The double location barbecue restaurant was started by a competitive barbecue team inspired by the meat joints of Texas Hill Country, all to the benefit of hungry Phoenicians. This fanaticism is mostly because of the fatty brisket, pulled pork, and like-butter beef ribs weekend specials. But sides hold their own here, too. In fact, any bite of the smoked turkey or housemade sausage should be followed with swallows of the jalapeno grits and creamy mac and cheese. And don't even get us started on the barbecue sauce. We're glad we can buy bottles to take with us so we can have a bit of Little Miss BBQ at home.
Best New 'CueEric's Family Barbecue
12345 West Indian School Road, Avondale
Barbecue in greater Phoenix? Widespread. Stellar brisket? A rare find. And especially rare in the west Valley, where Eric Tanori has been smoking top-notch brisket using nothing but mesquite wood, fire, a late papering, and a salt-and-pepper rub. His style emulates central Texas with a few nods to Mexico and the Southwest. Slabs of dark-barked, thickly carved brisket are his best meat. Plenty of others are strong, notably a flavorful turkey jolted at the 11th hour with butter au jus. Eric's low-key smokery is still growing (on deck at some point: house-shaped tortillas), but it's already a barbecue joint deepening and rounding out our greater scene.
Best PizzaMyke's Pizza
31 South Robson, #103, Mesa
Myke Olsen, now long settled into his brick-and-mortar spot within Cider Corps, is making the most inspired pizza in the Valley. Not only are all components thoughtfully pondered, they are executed with a flair that gives Olsen a style that bears his own signature. He uses lots of Gouda cheese and cooks a crust that carries the flavor and warmth of great bread. He can nail a classic sauce-only marinara, one of the true tests of any pizzaiolo. Toppings on specialty pizzas track the seasons: cherries, squash, peaches, and pistachios. Olsen is growing and innovating at a rate far beyond that of any other pizza artisan in the Valley, making Myke's Pizza 2020's best.
Best Neapolitan PizzaLAMP Pizzeria
8900 East Pinnacle Peak Road, Scottsdale
LAMP Pizzeria is serious about Neapolitan-style pizzas. The centerpiece of the dining space is a red brick oven, where owner Matt Pilato — who prepares his dough and cheese in-house — slides all his pies, cooking them at some optimal temperature that produces ideal levels of crunchiness once they are finally removed from the heat. LAMP offers 20 pizzas, and this is not the place to go with your tried-and-true order. Pick one of the pies that lists ingredients you've maybe never considered combining. A few of our favorites: The Scientist, which has three types of thinly sliced salami and juicy green olives; The Simple, a margherita pizza topped with arugula and Parmigiano-Reggiano; and The Kavorka, a pie with Sicilian sausage, wood-roasted red onions, and piquante peppers. Despite the experimentation in the kitchen, there's a comforting atmosphere at LAMP. When he's not distracted at the oven, Pilato roams around and chats with diners. Everybody needs a go-to pizza spot, and it's easy to see why so many people have chosen LAMP as theirs.
3720 North Scottsdale Road, #201, Scottsdale
By the time you swallow your last entropic morsel of nigiri, perhaps brushed with soy, perhaps deepened a shade with the blue fire of a torch, your meal's beginning feels like a distant memory. Many orders of rare Japanese beer and sake ago, you sat down for omakase at ShinBay, Shinji Kurita's high-end sushi counter in Old Town Scottsdale. He may have started you off with a trio of bites highlighting Japanese eggplant and mountain yam. By the end of the early creative courses, the sea comes into full focus via a plate decked with novel preparations like an artist's palette has paints. Jellyfish on ice. Creamy lobster reduction on shrimp. Ponzu jelly on a fat oyster. From there, Kurita whisks you to an ethereal finish in a long flight of nigiri, cutting, brushing, and plating, turning dinner into a dream.
Best Dim SumMekong Palace
66 South Dobson Road, Mesa
Not all restaurant takeout is equal, and the pandemic has left a hole in the dim sum lover's heart the size of a tiny-wheeled cart rumbling around laden with chicken feet and shumai. Sure, you can get dim sum to go, but great dim sum is the sum of many parts, just one of them being food. Others: community, the first sip of hot tea in an energetic room, and just piling on the dishes whimsically as the cart wanders by. Weekend dim sum at Mekong Palace crackles with energy and provides the best experience in town. Spare ribs gluey with bean sauce are rich. Barbecue pork buns are the same, only puffy, fragrant and sweet. Coconut buns are pillowy and sweet in a different way, touched with coconut cream. Empty plates gather on your table, and as you eat, every hungry soul in the room seems to fill with joy.
Best PastriesJL Patisserie and JL Patisserie Café
As of press time, Americans still aren't allowed to travel to France (thanks, coronavirus). But you can get a little taste of the country when you visit either of Chef Jenna Leurquin's shops. Depending on the season, you might find eclairs; colorful tartlets; a rainbow of macarons; or her famous gluten-free square carrot cake, topped with vanilla cream cheese frosting. Leurquin uses seasonal and local ingredients when possible, and butter imported from France for its higher fat content. We fantasize often about her chocolate pistachio cake, a glorious, round creation with a shiny chocolate mirror glaze and a crumbled pistachio skirt. There are simpler treats as well: cookies, croissants, quiche, and bread. We recommend almost all of it. We may not always have Paris, but at least we've got JL Patisserie.
Best Desert BreadMesquite Roll
4725 East Mayo Boulevard
Is there a food more sleep-inducing than the 20th-century dinner roll, wan and milquetoast, sent out in a basket on a clothed restaurant table? Forget that crusty fossil. Chris Lenza, executive chef at Café Allegro at the world-class Musical Instrument Museum, has souped up the dinner roll with three local flours — white Sonora wheat and red fife from Hayden Flour Mills, both freshly ground, and then the kicker: mesquite flour. There is shatter to the outer shell, and softness, intrigue, and dusky caramel notes within. This hot-and-chewy roll is the stodgy old staple dragged through the thunderbolts, deluge, and aromas of a Sonoran monsoon. There's a reason the recipe took Lenza 10 years to perfect.
Best BagelsBongiorno Bagels
3107 South Gilbert Road, #101, Gilbert
Who do you want making your bagels? At 3-year-old Bongiorno, you get a Culinary Institute of America grad and a former FDNY lieutenant and firehouse chef, both New York natives adhering to New York style. It's as good a bagel pedigree as you'll find in Arizona. Using a system that emulates the enigmatic H20 of the Big Apple, John Bongiorno and Ed Cancro kettle-boil bagels and then finish them in an old-school deck oven. All the right touches are there: chew, a whisper of fluff, seeds not only on the tops of sesame and everything, but on their undersides. As in New York, these bagels, when freshly made, are good enough that they should never see the inside of a toaster.
Best CookiesUrban Cookies
2325 North Seventh Street
We're proud to say we make pretty decent cookies. So if we're abandoning our oven to go buy cookies somewhere, they must be incredible. The offerings at Urban Cookies meet this standard. They're big. They manage to be soft all over without being underdone in the middle. These are cookies that will have you closing your eyes and saying "mmm" like you're in a cookie commercial. Our favorites are the snickerdoodle and the dark chocolate with sea salt, but there's only good stuff here, like the oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, and pineapple coconut. We can also say from experience that the other baked goods at Urban Cookies are just as crave-worthy, from the cupcakes to the doughnuts. The shop has a coffee and tea menu too; if you haven't had enough sweetness yet, the birthday cake latte is quite tasty. As of press time, Urban Cookies is doing curbside pickup only, so you can get your sugar rush that much faster.
Best DoughnutsAlien Donuts
7111 East Fifth Avenue, Suite D, Scottsdale
There's a special part of Old Town Scottsdale where a gourmet doughnut shop has more or less invaded. Alien Donuts, a.k.a. the Mothership, landed on Fifth Avenue in 2018 and keeps its display case loaded with delicious space-themed treats. Divided into specialty and classic doughnuts, the menu lists fun orders like the Chocolate Spacecake, Red Planet, Cinnamon Vortex, and Alien Ice. Some treats get extra cheeky, like the Moon Rocks doughnut holes, the Alien Probe bar-shaped doughnut, and the Space Jam doughnut — which is just a traditional jelly doughnut with chocolate and sprinkles and has nothing to do with Michael Jordan or Bugs Bunny. The alien chefs here get crazy with Savory Sundays, topping their doughnuts with sausage and gravy, chicken and waffles, and pulled pork and spicy barbecue. Alien Donuts also offers coffee, ice cream, something called a Rocket Shake, and vegan options. They deliver, too.
Best Ice CreamSweet Republic
In this sweltering desert, it's always a good time for ice cream, and Sweet Republic is a constant, tempting, reminder of that fact. Don't let the unexpected flavors here intimidate you. Dive into cold delights like the kulfi, a traditional Indian ice cream that Sweet Republic blends with hints of saffron, pistachio, and cream. Or stick with the Belgian chocolate, a straightforward crowd favorite that comes with no preservatives, artificial sweeteners, or additives. Owners Jan Wichayanuparp and Helen Yung make everything in-house, including the marshmallows, waffle cones, and other toppings; it's one of the reasons why Sweet Republic keeps appearing on national and local lists as one of the best ice cream parlors in the state. This ice cream is the opposite of manufactured. It's the real deal. (Note: A third location of Sweet Republic, located at 410 North Scottsdale Road in Tempe, was not open at press time but is scheduled to open in late September.)
Best GelatoCool Gelato Italiano
7373 East Scottsdale Mall, Scottsdale
You needn't cross the pond to indulge in a bit of Italian splendor. There's a lovely, wildly talented couple from Italy who make gelato for their cozy shop near Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, and spend their days welcoming people who make time to enjoy it. Alberto Della Casa and Letizia de Lucia arrived in Arizona eager to share their passion for artisanal gelato after two decades at food-related desk jobs in Italy. Trained by a gelato master in Chieti, they've finessed the fine art of gelato, creating rich varieties with primarily organic and locally sourced ingredients. The selection changes from day to day, so you'll find a fresh flavor to explore each time you visit. The pistachio is a revelation: Cool Gelato Italiano is one of the few places in town that makes it with real Sicilian nuts. We suggest you return often to try the rich Italian custard, the sweet stracciatella, or one of the shop's vegan flavors like guava or pomegranate.
Best DessertBurnt Cheesecake
3990 South Alma School Road, Chandler
You've heard of burnt ends in the world of barbecue. But what if you took that same approach and applied it to dessert? You'd get something like the burnt cheesecake at St. Amand Kitchen & Cocktails, which opened last spring in Chandler's Ocotillo neighborhood. It's the type of dish that would have all four Golden Girls gabbing till sunrise. This is a thick and heavy, crustless cheesecake — each bite is all cake. Its shiny black surface is topped with mandarins, a sweet goo for extra moisture, and a mint garnish. It also comes with a fun story: Its creator misread a recipe, creating a seemingly seared cheesecake sans the usual grainy (though usually delicious) crust, resulting in what turned out to be a literally perfect dessert. Pair it with the house-selected sherry and you'll have trouble deciding when to — or if you even should — leave. One catch: It's not on the permanent menu at St. Amand. It's on the list of specials, so if you spot it, be sure to flag down one of the extremely friendly servers and get that order in.
Best HoneyAbsolutely Delightful Honey
Absolutely Delightful, owned by Eleanor Dziuk and operated by Dziuk and her family, buys raw honey from Arizona's beekeepers and sells this sweetness on its website and at farmers' markets around town. A wide range of honeys are available — desert wildflower, mesquite, orange blossom — as well as beeswax candles, bee pollen, and even flavored whipped honey. Our favorite by far, though, is camelthorn honey. It's typically harvested from camelthorn plants in Winslow, Arizona, around July. In Arizona, it's classified as a noxious weed. But its honey is light and thick with a bright, floral scent that's irresistible.
Best Bowl of BugsDrunken Tiger
1954 South Dobson Road, Mesa
To be fair, this is the only insect-based entree we've been able to find in the Valley, so technically it's the best by default. But it's a culinary experience not to be missed. Silkworms are a delicacy in Korean cuisine, but they don't make it onto the menus of most Korean restaurants, which ... isn't really surprising. If you decide to take the plunge at Drunken Tiger, you'll get a medium-sized bowl of soup. The broth is earthy and a little pungent, with just enough spice to make the mouth tingle. Bobbing around in the broth are shredded carrots, mushrooms, onions — and a lot of silkworm pupae. They have a gentle crunch that gives way to a smooth, creamy texture like a bean. If we're being honest, the next time we're at Drunken Tiger, we'll probably order one of our perennial favorites, like the galbi or the yang nyum chicken (popcorn chicken tossed in Korean red sauce). But we'll always be glad we sampled this one-of-a-kind metro Phoenix dish.
Best Stinky PizzaFired Pie
When you bite into the Steak and Blue Pizza at Fired Pie, it bites back. That would be the gorgonzola, a pungent Italian cheese made from unskimmed cow's milk that has salty sass running through its blue veins. The way the cheese interacts with the rest of the Steak and Blue's ingredients — garlic, oil, mozzarella, mushrooms, peppers, onion, and thin-sliced steak — doesn't change much about its dirty-foot aroma. Against these odds, though, this Fired Pie pie tastes amazing. We recommend it for a solo outing, though. Maybe not great for date night.