Best of Phoenix 2021: The Valley's Most Unique Dining Experiences | Phoenix New Times

Best of Phoenix 2021: The Valley's Most Memorable Dining Experiences

From the best beer garden to the best spot to take a foodie, these Valley restaurants offer something a little different.
Belly up to the bar ... at Belly.
Belly up to the bar ... at Belly. Belly Kitchen & Bar
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The Valley offers eaters some distinct dining experiences. There are countless food trucks, neighborhood restaurants, hotel restaurants and authentic Arizona restaurants that cultivate the many wonderful tastes of our beloved state. Along with the basics, we added some completely unique experiences around the Valley that you won't want to miss. Here are the awesome bars and restaurants that received a Best of Phoenix 2021 award

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Pa'La Downtown's wood-fired oven.
JM Photo

Best Place to Take a Foodie

Pa'La Downtown
132 East Washington Street

We live in an age when so many restaurants just pretend to offer tapas. Pa'La Downtown is the real thing — a creative, Italian-leaning, Japanese-accented, unbelievably interesting restaurant where the only move is to roll up with friends, order a host of small dishes, and split them all. Sure, you could come for an excellent Neapolitan-esque pizza whose crust Claudio Urciuoli has laboriously blended from many kinds of flour and blazed in a tiled, wood-fired oven. Sure, you could come for a sandwich, maybe impeccably sourced tuna on the headiest, airiest focaccia in the Valley. But to experience the full Italy-meets-Japan project of Pa'La 2.0, go small or go home. Jason Alford and Urciuoli plate inventive crudi, beef tataki, scallops with apple miso, anchovy-funked New York strip spiedini, squid and fregola, octopus and yuzu, burrata and tomatoes ... the list goes forever on, changing with the seasons, high-end imports, and chefs' imaginations.

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The busy kitchen at Belly.
Charles Barth

Best Place to Eat at the Bar

Belly Kitchen & Bar
4971 North Seventh Avenue

Instrumental Hospitality's Southeast Asian-inspired restaurant in Melrose hits best when you're planted at the dark bar and a drink is plunked before you. The food at Belly can sing. Crab banh xeo has all the sea-sweet notes of the crustacean and the crisp goodness of the rice-flour crepe. Braised pork belly in a clay pot is richer than a pharaoh. Riffs on Southeast Asian tradition tend to be solid. Still, drinks kick up the experience several notches. Cocktails lean strongly tropical and bright: mezcal and rhum agricole, citrus, makrut lime leaf, intense aromatics. Try the Spicy Hydra, a margarita relative with pineapple and a tamarind salt rim, or the Because I Got High, which goes huge with mezcal, green chartreuse, matcha syrup, and coconut.

Inside Durant's steakhouse.
Tom Carlson

Best Place to Eat in the Dark

2611 North Central Avenue

The photos on Durant's website are misleading: Durant's is dark. Really dark, like you need to wait for your eyes to adjust a bit dark. It adds a certain amount of flair and intrigue to your dining experience, as does the way you enter the restaurant through the back door. Once you're inside, you can sit down and squint at the menu, which is composed of pricey-but-worth-it steakhouse classics like filet mignon, strip steak, and grilled scallops in herb cream sauce. Whatever you choose, don't rush your meal; the food and the atmosphere invite you to linger in a subtle, classy dining room where you don't have to see clearly to enjoy what's on your plate.

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Low-key ... and amazing at Hillstone.
Jackie Mercandetti

Best Low-Key Kinda Great Restaurant

2650 East Camelback Road

You laugh. Isn't Hillstone a chain? Yes, it's a chain. And yes, if you glance at the menu, you'll find a lot of straightforward dishes: wood-fired rotisserie, a French dip, a cheeseburger, some sushi rolls. If you like restaurants where you are afraid to pronounce a menu item, perhaps move along. But if you're in the mood for the classics done exceptionally well, Hillstone is the spot. We have some recommendations for the (mildly) more adventurous eater, too. The Thai Tuna Roll, which contains macadamia nuts, is one of our favorite things to eat in all of Phoenix. The Thai Noodle Salad, served cold with mango, mint, chopped peanuts, and basil (we swap out the chicken for steak), is an absolute explosion of flavor — the perfect thing to eat on a hot day. The margs, heavy on the Cointreau, are $15 but somehow worth it. And, though we can't usually afford to hang at Hillstone, we often see people who seem vaguely famous when we do. Like a local CEO, or a guitarist from a famous '80s band who retired to Scottsdale, or a woman so beautiful she must be a model or the owner of a 500,000-follower Instagram influencer account. Maybe not the crowd you run with. But if you ain't been to Hillstone, they know something you don't.

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Hush Public House's ridiculously delicious Italian beef remix.
Jackie Mercandetti

Best Neighborhood Restaurant

Hush Public House
14202 North Scottsdale Road, #167, Scottsdale

Dom Ruggiero has one of the most diverse skill sets of any chef in the Valley. Beyond being a supremely gifted cook, he has grade-A chops in butchery, smoking food, and curing meat, yet also can rock out inspired vegetable cookery. Ruggiero is an underappreciated, quiet master of pasta, too. At Hush, he can usually be seen in the open kitchen or out in the restaurant delivering plates and chewing the fat with friends and regulars. There is a warmth to Hush that's as pleasant as the food. It's a place you want to return to again and again — and yes, it helps that Ruggiero's oxtail Italian beef, chicken liver pâté, and date cake are already stone-cold Valley classics just a few years in.

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FnB takes heirloom carrots to new heights.
Allison Young

Best Authentic Arizona Restaurant

FnB Restaurant
7125 East Fifth Avenue, Scottsdale

FnB could win this category on Charleen Badman's imaginative modern Arizonan food alone. It also could win on nothing but Pavle Milic's next-level drink program, highlighted by potable finds from up and down our varied state. Put the two together and you get some black magic. Somehow, Badman seems to get better year after year, turning out stellar dishes like chilled melon soup, lamb ribs over fregola, and Peruvian spring rolls, melding the top, most unusual local produce with her array of global techniques. Milic is a library of knowledge on drinks reaching to the far corners of our state. He sources small-batch ciders from cooler heights where apples grow and even bottles from, yes, Los Milics, his very own Sonoita vineyard.

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Pemberton — the outdoor food court, art collective, and cocktail party anchored by the 1920-built Pemberton House.
Lauren Cusimano

Best Hub

The Pemberton PHX
1121 North Second Street

What do you want? The Pemberton probably has it. This Roosevelt Row entertainment hub, which debuted during the pandemic inside and on the grounds of a renovated 1920 mansion, features a rotating cast of tenants selling everything from craft cocktails served out of a camper (Baby Boy) to vegan pistachio almond ice cream (Melt) to vintage clothes and furniture (Vamp Rodeo, Clubhouse). The Pemberton holds yoga classes on the lawn, hosts live music, and is constantly signing up enticing new tenants, such as NamPik (Thai street food) and Moiselle (a "wine trailer" from sommelier Kristin Humphrey and Grace Perry, of Gracie's Tax Bar). It is also a scene on the weekends — an excellent spot to people-watch or, who knows, maybe even talk to a stranger when you're not Instagramming the food.

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The Smokey Chocolate Mint Mousse by Lovecraft.

Best Happy Hour

3128 East Cactus Road

Lovecraft's previous happy hour setup, in which prices rose as the hours wore on, used to be like a little devil on our shoulder: It encouraged us to bounce out of work as early as possible to get the best specials. (Not that we would ever do that.) They've switched it up, though, so now whatever time you get there between 3 and 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, you're going to get the same delicious eats at the same price as everyone else. The food specials are selections from Lovecraft's New Mexico-inspired menu; the broken chip queso dip (we add brisket) and the green chile stew with a tortilla are favorites. Drink specials cover craft beers, wine, and cocktails. We've often gotten started at Lovecraft before 6 p.m. and lingered into the night to enjoy the elegant interior, friendly staff, and jovial atmosphere.

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Laap Muang by Lom Wong.
Lom Wong

Best Pop-Up

Lom Wong

They mince the pork and pound the curry paste at Lom Wong. They add the other aromatic ingredients: makrut lime leaf, lemongrass, cilantro, turmeric. They shape the sausage, a northern Thai staple known as sai ua. At last, they grill links over hot charcoal and slice them on a bias. Alex and Yotaka Martin's sai ua is explosively flavorful. No surprise there. This is no different from the curries, noodle dishes, soups, laabs, and the rest of the regional Thai deep cuts they lovingly prepare at intimate popup dinners and for preorder takeout. Food geeks have been high on Lom Wong for a year or two now. This is Thai food from the heart, and the stories behind it are on another level.

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Hearth '61 at Mountain Shadows.
Mountain Shadows

Best Hotel Restaurant

Hearth '61
5445 East Lincoln Drive, Paradise Valley

We could go on for days praising Hearth '61 at Mountain Shadows. The pedigree of the chefs — a culinary trio that includes luminaries Charles Wiley, one of the great fixtures and masters of resort cooking in Arizona — is part of it. Then there's the kitchen's centerpiece, an impressive, wood stone hearth oven that imparts a rustic charm and nuanced smoky flavor to signature dishes like tender short ribs with crispy Brussels sprouts and pork chops dressed up with spicy peaches and beer mustard. Finally, the ambiance: The tight, U-shaped counter is paneled with sleek wood and edged by blue-upholstered chairs. And this being an Arizona resort restaurant, there is Midcentury Modern decor and floor-to-ceiling windows offering scenic views of Camelback Mountain.

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The beer garden at Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.
Lauren Cusimano

Best Beer Garden

Arizona Wilderness DTPHX
201 East Roosevelt Street

True statement: Everyone goes to Wilderness. The Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.'s second location, the downtown Phoenix beer garden, turned out to be more successful than its first (which is saying something). Upon opening in spring 2019, it became instantly Phoenix-famous thanks to its biggest draw — the patio. This outdoor beer garden is massive, covered with a thick sunshade, and bird-friendly. (During the pandemic, the team installed native plants to attract native birds and bugs, embracing the brewery's name.) Inside, you'll find cold pints of Refuge, the "flagship IPA incepted in our founder's garage," the DON'T F#%K IT UP Blonde Ale, the water-conserving, Belgian-style witbier Sonora White, and many more signature brews (as well as cocktails and above-average bar food, heavy on Arizona ingredients).

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The Shop Beer Co. in Tempe.
Chris Malloy

Best Brewery for Day-Drinking

The Shop Beer Co.
922 West First Street, Tempe

One of the great things about The Shop is how excellent the patio is for kicking it with a brew or many, the hours draining away like the first-rate IPA and blonde lager. The patio's casual, high-energy atmosphere is made for session drinking: long picnic tables, fun murals, trees wavering in the breeze. It's all illuminated by hard desert sunlight by day and string lights by night. You couldn't ask for a better place to attend church — crush a few cans of Church Music, that is — or sip the latest can in the brewery's Neonic series, a line of fruited sours. Post-COVID, this patio is going to be a blast.

Best Food Truck

Red Feather Café
Indian Route 24, Sacaton

If you catch Red Feather Café on one of the few glorious days it's open beneath the soaring water tower in Sacaton, you can grab homestyle chile on frybread or the O'odham tortilla known as c'emet. Sun beams, wind scours, arid mountains loom on the horizon: The setting is a strong seasoning, giving vitality to the traditional Native foods prepared from scratch by Geri and Jerry Leos. Simple frybread and beans? Divine. On Fridays, you can get bowls of soul-filling menudo with hot, fresh-baked bread. Some food trucks have murals and loud music. Red Feather Café has what your soul needs.

Best Neon-Lighted Drive

Gilbert Heritage District

Once upon a time, the highways, roadways, and thoroughfares of metro Phoenix were aglow with neon lights. The popularity of the art form faded over the ensuing decades, but has experienced a resurgence in recent years. The historic Gilbert Heritage District embraced the idea with gusto, as more than 20 of the eateries and drinkeries that have debuted in the area since 2014 are adorned with neon elements. Take a spin down Gilbert Road south of Juniper Avenue, and you'll encounter examples that are fun (Joe's Real BBQ features animated letters flickering like wafting smoke), funky (the muscular rooster at Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles), or just plain gorgeous (Barrio Queen's neon-accentuated Catrina). And don't miss the handful of OG signs that are still around, like the one at Liberty Market dating back to 1958. Cruising this district is an illuminating experience.

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Drive-thru grub at Slice Eat in Scottsdale.
Slice Eat

Best Drive-Thru

Slice Eat
7111 East Thomas Road, Scottsdale

We're not the biggest fans of drive-thrus under normal circumstances. Does this ozone-plagued town need more cars idling and releasing emissions? But COVID has made the drive-thru a little more acceptable. And we could probably stand to get off our climate-change high horse every now and then. Anyway, having spent more time at drive-thrus this past year or so, we can confidently report that the best one happens to be the newish Slice Eat, which comes to us from the owner of the upscale Italian eatery Forno 301. Menu items range from a single, footlong slice of margherita wood-fired pizza to a takeout bowl of fettuccine al burro e Parmigiano to — look out, Dairy Queen Blizzards — fresh pistachio gelato, all of which can be handed over through the window of your Subaru Impreza. Other quick, drive-thru-appropriate orders include cold brew coffee, chocolate shakes, and a Caesar salad.
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