I have no idea. Some combination of vision, grit, skills, and magic.
In recent months, we've seen an unlikely crop of amazing new Phoenix eateries take flight. Shakespeare gave the world his best tragedy during some trying London plague years. Our new restaurants gave us some of town’s best Southwestern, Sonoran, and Italian food — which if you eat in Phoenix is saying a lot.
The pandemic has jangled our eating rhythms. And yet somehow 2021 produced some of the best restaurants to open in recent memory, a truly impressive crop of newcomers. Here are my seven favorite new brick-and-mortar restaurants of 2021.
Via Della Slice Shop
This old-school downtown pizzeria (by the slice, paper plates, glass shakers of crushed chile) is a first-rate addition to the city's pizza scene. Tanner Locust, the pizzaiolo, employs marathon fermentations of two-plus days to build a flavorful, pillowy dough that along its puffy crust lip eats like a soft, yeasty bread. Locust uses a tall deck oven to blaze, for instance, a properly saucy grandma square and a rich orange vodka slice. Wings are plump and slicked with potent sauce. Behind the counter, Locust finishes slices with grated cheese and plenty of basil. (Full pies are also available.)
His best slice? White with a faintly funky cheese blend, sesame seeds, and the sweetness of caramelized onions that melt into pizza almost like jam. This slice is already one of the most memorable pizzas in town — and Locust is yet to fully integrate his wood oven and unleash all of his pizzas.
Via Della Slice Shop is located at 222 North 5th Avenue.
I didn’t realize how much I missed mom-and-pop restaurants during the dark, late-2020 pandemic days until I stopped by Thaily’s with my family in the sunshine of summer 2021. There’s seating for roughly 10, a TV, a comfy couch, and a minimal partition between the tables and kitchen, where Thai and Lee Kambar cook Cambodian and Arab food.
Some dishes are the former, some the latter, some a bit of both. Thai cooks these yogurt-dolloped gyro bites, just like the ones Lee used to eat in Iraq. She also cooks Cambodian staples, like pahok ktis and grilled beef skewers radiant with lemongrass. Some dishes, however, like a yellowish Cambodian curry bobbing with juicy chicken thighs, crib a few spice notes from the Middle East.
Already, so many of the diners at Thaily’s seem to be regulars. The Kambars do their best to make you one — whether peeking out to make genuine conversation or throwing down a friendly exclamation point with a pistachio-loaded baklava.
Thaily's is located at 444 East Chandler Boulevard, Suite 1, in Chandler.
At Pa’La 2.0, one of our local masters of spartan cooking joins forces with former Roka Akor chef Jason Alford. The result is an ever-changing menu that spans Urciuoli’s simple breads and two-ingredient tapas dishes to plates defined by the soft collision of Italian and Japanese culinary influences.
A margarita pizza is cloud-light right on down to the summery tomato sauce. Basic Italian preparations like focaccia and fregola are a joy. The chef duo makes a classically satisfying salad from tomatoes and burrata, sourcing pristine ingredients and then staying out of their way, which is the Urciuoli philosophy.
Hybrid Italian-Japanese plates reach a more complex key. Seared scallops receive an unlikely boost from apple miso. Spiedini features steak accordioned on a skewer, using maple wafu and fish sauce to take beef about as far as it can go.
Pa'La Downtown is located at 132 East Washington Street.
BacanoraGrilled steak is grilled steak is grilled steak, you might think, having lived in a land where carne asada tacos pretty much have their own slab on the food pyramid. And yet, the distance between an average carne asada and a great carne asada is vast — and so is the gap between a great carne asada and Rene Andrade’s absolutely epic version.
At Bacanora, Andrade tends a wood grill with the finesse of a jeweler and the joy of a kid at recess. He grills steak, chicken, octopus, potatoes, pots of beans, elotes, even the raw materials for salsa, visibly having a good time, even greeting people as they enter his tiny glass-walled space. Food ripples with soulful flavor. Tunes bump. Well-made cocktails like Oaxacan Old Fashioned and bacanora margaritas flow. Crowds stroll by on Grand Avenue. Briefly, life is about as good as it can be.
Bacanora is located at 1301 Northwest Grand Avenue.
ValentineIf I didn’t eat at new restaurants all the time to cover them, I would be a regular at Valentine. This Melrose spot by Chad Price and Blaise Faber is the total package. It does everything not only well, but stunningly: cocktails, coffee, pastries, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and design. You could go there for pretty much any occasion or excuse that involves food or drink.
The tarts and croissants hold a mirror to the mulberries and peaches of the subtle Arizona microseasons. Cocktails loop in local cider and cactus vermouth; coffee pink corn and chiltepin. On the same local tenor is Valentine’s plated food, the product of chef Donald Hawk fully utilizing his creativity and extensive skills. He smokes chicken and plates crudo with a bewildering amount of flavor, sure, but what makes his latest turn great is how much he and the rest of the crew honor ingredients rooted in the hardscrabble brown land we inhabit: the red fife, the Native seeds tahini, the squash bread, the chiltepines.
These are old ingredients treated in a way that reflects a vibrant new culinary point of view, casting Southwestern cuisine in a hard, beautifully weird new light.
Valentine is located at 4130 North 7th Avenue.
Testal Mexican KitchenYup, that’s right — two best new restaurants are on the same block of Grand Avenue. At this burrito and sotol hangout, actually opened in late 2020, a kind, attentive staff scoops homestyle, stewy preparations like chile Colorado, deshebrada, and chicharrones into soft, fragrant tortillas. The move is to add beans and to order a sugary, earthy pinole or a paloma fortified with one of the many sotols Testal thoughtfully stocks, just waiting for curious drinkers to post up at its tiny corner bar. Testal serves breakfast burritos. Fernando Hernández’s kitchen serves many excellent non-breakfast burritos. It’s all done warmly, humbly, and in the style of Chihuahua, making Testal one of the great places for a burrito (or two) downtown.
Testal is located at 1325 Northwest Grand Avenue, Suite #1.
Christopher'sIn our age of popups and casual eating, Christopher's is a proud outlier: a formal French restaurant minus the white-tablecloth sleepiness and brimming with creativity, style, and charm. In the lofty Wrigley Mansion compound, Christopher Gross, who has cooked in top French restaurants and won top American cooking awards, rolls out classics from his long career: pate with house-baked bread, salmon smoked cold in the kitchen, soufflé, perfectly crispy fish fillet, truffled everything, and a duck two-ways plate that might just change the way you see the bird. On weeknights, these heavily French dishes are served in a dim, glass-walled dining room overlooking downtown Phoenix. On weekends, Gross plates a wildly innovative tasting menu so elaborate that he even incorporates Cosanti’s bronze bells.
Christopher's at the Wrigley Mansion is located at 2591 East Telawa Trail.