Editor's note: This story was originally published on May 19, 2018. It was updated on March 23, 2019.
Phoenix is a city of hidden-gem eateries. You see them as you drive, but only if you're looking: modest, stout spots with peeling to paint and nothing to betray what they are but a sign and, maybe, a smell. One of the great things in life is discovering a new one, the kind of place that isn't all over social media, where you can eat damn good, and quietly. Here are six our our favorites to taste ASAP.
906 North 15th Avenue
At Irma's Kitchen, a nook on 15th Avenue, you can get a sizable Mexican meal for a good price. Things start with chips and salsa. They progress to the main event: chilaquiles, burros, huevos rancheros, taquitos, and so on. Menudo is offered daily. The soup has mellow flavors and a thin, restorative broth that, together with steaming tortillas, will launch you feeling good into your day. Huevos rancheros provide a hearty start to your day. Two eggs smothered in red or green salsa and draped with avocado slices steam on corn tortillas. A mudslide of refried beans slops in one corner of the plate, warm and silky. When you're hankering for a simple meal, want to pop in and get out, and have zero trendy ambiance requirements, look to Irma's.
1712 East Broadway Road
“I got the best pulled pork in the country,” says James Lewis. Lewis runs JL Smokehouse, a year-old barbecue joint in south Phoenix. Meats include pulled pork, brisket, ribs, rib tips, links, chicken, and smoked bologna. The pulled pork is succulent and well-flavored. Lewis’ brisket, too, is very good. It has an endearing abrasiveness, the punch of mesquite and ample black pepper, aggressive flavors where less brash joints might try to pull back and showcase the complexity of the meat. Ribs are another of Lewis’s standouts. His rib tips are delicious, and by far the most rustic menu item. The workmanlike past of American barbecue is present in Lewis’s style – the bold flavors, the robust smoke, the style oozing from a man happy to be cooking good food.
1107 East Bell Road
Balkan Bakery, a family spot in north Phoenix, bakes dark rye bread, crescent-shaped pretzels, baklava, and, best of all, a hypnotically comforting bourek — a filled pastry shaped like a butterfly’s tongue. Jasenko Osmic, co-owner of the bakery, grew up eating bourek in his native Bosnia. He has run the bakery with his father, Bakir, and sister Aldijana for 10 years. Balkan Bakery offers three kinds of bourek: cheese, beef, and spinach. The pale bottom is soft and moist where its cheese has leaked during baking. The burnished brown of a soft pretzel colors the top. As you eat toward the middle, each bite varies in texture. Soft. Hard. Bits in between. A simple but rich filling bursts from flaky, coiled tubes of phyllo dough. “This is one of the staple foods of Bosnia,” Jasenko says. “You eat it breakfast, lunch. It’s an all-day food.”
Authentic Ethio African
1740 East McDowell Road
Despite an awning striped with the green, yellow, and red of Ethiopia's flag, Authentic Ethio African, a really tasty Ethiopian restaurant, is hiding in plain sight on 18th and McDowell streets. The restaurant is virtually a "ghost restaurant," an eatery that does strictly takeout and delivery. Many of the to-go orders are for clear bags stacked with thin, chestnut-colored pancakes. These are the ubiquitous Ethiopian flatbread known as injera, and they are the heartbeat of Ethiopian cuisine. Authentic Ethio offers numerous combo platters that feature preparations served atop injera. Vegetable options include split peas, lentils, collards, and cabbage and carrots yellow with turmeric. Animal options include chicken, beef, and fish (the chicken is dynamite). Authentic Ethio also sells uncooked Ethiopian specialties to go, coffee beans, lentils, flax seeds, turmeric, and other spices. You shouldn't expect full-service comforts, but there is great food to be found under the striped awning.
6746 East Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek
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You could easily visit Indian Village and not realize there's a small restaurant in the back of the shop. Head to the small corner in the back is where you'll find a booth with someone waiting to take your order from a handwritten paper menu. Your options are Native American, Mexican, or a combination of both. Think freshly fried, very crunchy taco shells stuffed with your choice of chicken or beef, topped with lettuce and tomatoes.There are a variety of enchiladas, and the "big fat homemade" tamales are just as advertised. But be sure to leave room for some Indian fry bread, the flagship order of Indian Village. Order it plain or with a combination of honey, powdered sugar, and cinnamon.
The Many Terrific Mexican Restaurants on South Central Avenue
A three-mile stretch between Broadway Road and South Mountain Park
Central Avenue, especially the three-mile stretch between Broadway Road and South Mountain Park in south-central Phoenix, is home to a dense concentration of top-notch Mexican restaurants. This under-appreciated dining corridor is filled with roadside taquerias, homestyle mom-and-pop luncheonettes, marisquerias, sweet shops, and even an excellent neighborhood coffee shop with Mexican-inspired drinks (Azukar Coffee). Whether you’re new to the neighborhood or a longtime local, here are five hidden gems that cement south-central Phoenix’s reputation as a haven for satisfying, homestyle Mexican cooking. Extra-crispy tacos dorados, spicy shrimp platters, Sunday morning micheladas: It’s all here, and it’s worth the drive from anywhere in town.