It feels good to be back in the saddle again. Not that one needs a formal title and a printed byline to ruminate on all things delicious, but this year feels a little extra special.
It's been nearly a year since I joined Phoenix New Times as the dining critic
, and this is the first time I've written a year-end summary of my favorite dishes within these pages. For me, this is a tradition that stretches back nearly two decades. Through blogs, professional publications and personal journals, this is now the nineteenth time I’ve sat down to take stock of the year in food.
I don’t like to think of this as a list of the “best”
things I ate this year. I prefer to think of them as the bites that made an indelible mark on my brain for one reason or another. Perhaps they were brilliantly conceived. Perhaps they were stunningly executed. Perhaps they were novel and exciting. Or perhaps they were just stupid good.
For whatever reason, these are the dishes I remember most fondly when I think back on what the Phoenix restaurant scene has shown us in 2023. Here they are, in random order:
Quesabirria Tacos at Tacos Veganos
3301 E. Indian School Road
I’m as surprised as you. Not because this dish is vegan. Whatever, good food is good food. Let’s just say that jackfruit birria tacos were not on my bingo card. But these tacos from Tacos Veganos
give quesabirria a new lease on life. Not gonna lie, the over-the-top, bucket of oil, eight pounds of cheese quesabirria craze is starting to wear a little thin for me, and then these fellas come prancing in. They hit a lot of the same notes — there’s plenty of spicy oil, it’s still a satisfying umami bomb and man, do these tortillas have a gorgeous, shattering crisp. But the jackfruit is so delightfully nimble and light. It’s like all of the flavor without the weight. To be clear, this isn’t a 1:1 replacement for beefy quesabirria. It’s entirely its own thing. But it’s stinkin’ delicious.
At Source, something as simple as a chopped salad is elevated with premium ingredients, careful knife work and the seasoning acumen of a master chef.
Chopped Salad at Source
3150 E. Ray Road, Gilbert
Few dishes stopped me dead in my tracks this year like chef Claudio Urciuoli’s chopped salad at Source
. Part of the appeal is that a simple
little chopped salad has no business being this good. And there are plenty of sexier dishes at Source that I enjoy just as much. But you couldn’t ask for stronger evidence that Urciuoli is some kind of kitchen warlock with the power to transform ordinary foods into something special. There’s nothing mystical about the ingredient list — some greens and diced vegetables, fregola and chickpeas, minced ham and Manchego cheese and some toasted pistachios and breadcrumbs for texture. And it’s dressed with a plain ol’ red wine vinaigrette. But oh, how this salad sings! The magic is in selecting simple ingredients of the very best quality, how precisely everything is chopped and how carefully the flavors are balanced. As with any great magic trick, I understand how the trick works. But that doesn’t make it any less impressive.
Devan Cunningham's fully loaded wings are crisp, juicy and coated in a seasoning mix that's tart, spicy and wild.
Fully Loaded Wings at CC’s on Central
2800 N. Central Ave.
Here, on the other hand, is a trick that I can’t deconstruct. To be blunt, I have absolutely no idea what’s going on in Devan Cunningham’s fully loaded wings at CC's on Central
. They start with some perfect fried chicken — gorgeous crisp, still tender and juicy with plenty of meat and a nice skin-to-meat ratio. And then those beautiful specimens go into a seasoning blend that’s largely a mystery. I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of vinegar powder and a healthy dose of cayenne, but once you get past that, I’m stymied. They’re so wild and explosive and there are so many flavors coming at once that I can’t separate them, and honestly, I’m not sure I care to. I’d rather just enjoy them.
The Apollo fish at City of Spice boasts a thickly spiced, fiery sauce coating piping-hot slices of crispy fried fish.
Apollo Fish at City of Spice
2945 E. Bell Road
Ask me tomorrow and I’ll name another dish from City of Spice
. But today, if I force myself to pick one favorite, I’m going with the Apollo fish. This is another big flavor dish,
though it’s seafood-focused, mixing crispy fried strips of fish with a sauce that’s slick and buttery, heavy with spice and incendiary without melting your face. That rich, intense sauce is contrasted with slivers of sweet onion and the bright, citrusy flavor of fresh curry leaves. And underneath it all, that fish — piping hot, sizzling and crisp with little bits of chew here and there, is just delightful. That texture doesn’t last for long. Eat this dish quickly.
The house-made pastrami at Little Pickle is a revelation, and owner Rick Phillips plans to reopen the restaurant soon.
Hand Carved Hot Pastrami on Rye at Little Pickle
Closed, reopening soon What a tease. Rick Phillips swoops in, serves up world-class pastrami
in a town where that’s impossible to find, then closes his doors and says he’ll reopen... eventually. So now we’re left hanging, waiting for that pastrami — silky smooth, dripping with succulent beef fat, warm and tender and crusted with an intense, heady blend of spices. Yeah, Little Pickle
’s Reuben was great, too, but a slice of rye bread and a smear of mustard was the best way to show off that killer pastrami — no fuss, no muss. I can confirm that Little Pickle v2.0 is, indeed, in the works and that we’ll all be able to wrap our faces around that beautiful pastrami sandwich again soon. But however “soon” that is, it isn’t soon enough. Hurry back, please.
At Bacanora, smoked oxtail is mixed with hazelnuts and sweet potatoes roasted right in the grill's coals.
Smoked Oxtail at Bacanora
1301 Grand Ave. Bacanora
is all about smoke and fire, and you expect dishes like pollo asado and thick meaty steaks layered with char. But part of the beauty of the restaurant is the variety of ways chef Rene Andrade works the grill. In this case, the result is almost more of a stew. Smoked oxtails are broken down into an intense, succulent, meaty morass loaded with chunks of sweet potato roasted right in the coals, perked up with toasted hazelnuts and a nutty salsa macha built with dark, smoky morita chiles and a whiff of fragrant rosemary. This dish was so deep, intense and gorgeously balanced and so far away from the kind of food you expect to see coming off a wood-fired grill. There is zero dropoff here. Bacanora continues to smoke and sizzle.
The chuletero at Pa'La is a premium cut of Iberico pork shipped in from Spain, wood-roasted and topped with chimichurri.
Chuletero at Pa’La (24th Street Location)
2107 N. 24th St.
Urciuoli may have moved on, but Jason Alford and Nick Bennett — Alford’s man in charge of the 24th Street location — have taken up the mantle at Pa'La
with aplomb. Stellar sourcing and simple preparations still rule the day at Pa’La
, and no dish makes that more clear than the chuletero. A $60 pork steak might be the antithesis of Urciuoli’s everyman pricing, but let us be clear — the chuletero is worth every penny of that and more. It’s shipped in from Spain, where pigs are practically different animals from the ones we raise in the States. This ribeye more closely resembles red meat, and the kitchen treats it that way — cooking it with wood fire until it sizzles, but maintaining a deep ruby red at the core. It is robust and tender and juicy and completely reframes your notion of what pork can be. The presentation varies, but the one I got was simply dressed with a bright chimichurri — a perfect, simple complement for a stunning piece of meat.
Ae Kan Khlak Ti is a creamy and intensely spiced seabass curry from the Moklen people of Southern Thailand, faithfully recreated by the folks at Lom Wong.
Ae Kan Khlak Ti at Lom Wong
218 E. Portland St.
The year may come when I don’t have some dish from Lom Wong
on my list, but 2023 is not yet that year. The one I fell hard for this time is a seafood curry that’s a beautiful contrast of smooth sweetness and stinging spice. You can literally see hand-pounded curry paste swirling together with cool, sweet coconut cream — bright orange eddies of turmeric, fresh chiles and Makrut lime leaves, drowning a beautiful piece of fish. In typical Lom Wong fashion, it’s a hyper-regional dish that owners Yotaka and Alex Martin learned from the Moklen community of Baan Taptawan in Southern Thailand. It's hard to find places that faithfully prepare regional Thai specialties in the country, much less in Phoenix. And man, what a gift to have food like this at our fingertips.
Dom Ruggiero's riff on a muffuletta sandwich plays like upscale fried cheese.
Muffuletta Croquettes at Bar Cena
14202 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale Bar Cena
just hit the scene in late October and expanded their menu in December,
but I’m sure enjoying everything I've seen so far. My only complaint about this dish is that I had to share it. Chef and owner Dom Ruggiero — along with his chef de cuisine Zack Myers — is slinging some bangers, and the man has a talent for bringing wit and technique together. Here, he's taken the spirit of the classic New Orleans sandwich and turned it into a fancypants riff on fried cheese that's equal parts playful and delicious.
Provolone croquettes are studded with sesame and fried to a crisp, then topped with a bright olive and fennel relish. The flavors are as fabulous as they are familiar, but what makes the dish is the texture. The croquettes are surprisingly light, and when you bite, provolone comes oozing out almost more like a fonduta. Next time I’m getting my own.
Donald Hawk's grilled oysters with spinach-epazote butter, squash breadcrumbs and chiltepin are a brilliant modern Southwestern take on Oysters Rockefeller.
Grilled Chula Oysters at Valentine
4130 N. Seventh Ave.
Speaking of riffs on classic New Orleans dishes, these grilled Chula oysters were so freaking brilliant. At first glance, this array of oysters is
a typical Valentine
dish — some beautiful bivalves punctuated by ingredients native to the Southwest,
like squash and chiltepin. But the moment you slurp one down, you realize that they’re chef Donald Hawk’s modern Southwestern play on classic Oysters Rockefeller — not the goopy, cheesy, bacon-laden gut bombs most places serve these days, but rather the light, herbaceous original. Hawk’s spinach-epazote butter is bright and verdant, and those Southwestern accents give the oysters just a little zip. In a year when I had both this version and traditional Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s in New Orleans proper, as wonderful as both were, I prefer Hawk’s.