This was an adventurous year in the Phoenix food and drink world. We sat down with some major figures and chefs, met many ambitious and brave business owners, and followed along on countless adventures into the Sonoran Desert, from major beer projects to a traditional gloscho hunt.
There were many stories we reported and told in this calendar year, but here are 10 of our favorites.
'Lightning in the Hand: A Western Apache Hunts for the Past to Nourish the Present'
In the late 19th century, American troops herded Apaches onto a new reservation. In the 1960s, the U.S. federal government sprayed powerful dioxins along one of the expanded reservation’s chief waterways, poisoning traditional food sources: jerky, gardens, wild food along the river. One lasting effect of these grave, quiet injustices is that, today, Western Apache foodways have all but vanished.
Twila Cassadore, 52, works to revive them. She interviews tribal elders to learn about the foods of the past, journeys into the wild to find them, and reintroduces these ancient foods to modern Apache society. So far, Cassadore has learned of some 200 all-but-lost Apache foods. She has located and helped revive all but about 40.
Over the course of a traditional gloscho hunt — the kind of timeless practice Cassadore revives — her story unfolds. It is the story of a grandmother and a survivor who leads olden hunts once led only by men. It’s the story of a person who has faced obstacle after obstacle, who has braved herculean adversity time and again. It’s also a story of looking back but ahead, of using the past to better the present. Chris Malloy
'Sasha Raj of 24 Carrots on Female Leaders in the PHX Food World'
On June 25, Radio Cherry Bombe, the biannual magazine’s weekly podcast all about the female leaders of food, did a live episode at FnB Restaurant. Many women spoke from and of the Phoenix food world, including four panelists — FnB chef and James Beard Award winner Charleen Badman, Talavera chef de cuisine Samantha Sanz, and Sasha Raj, owner and chef of the south Tempe’s vegan staple, 24 Carrots Natural Café & Urban Juicery.
Later in August, writer Stephanie Funk chatted with Raj about what the night meant to her, and what the future of food in Phoenix may be.
“I think part of what the nation as a whole doesn’t understand is that as Phoenix’s population has increased, and as its community densities have increased, we’ve developed our pockets, and our niches, and our hole-in-the-walls, and our not-so-hole-in-the-walls. We found our Arizona voice,” says Raj. “The face of Phoenix as well has become culturally diverse, and with that comes really interesting food.” Lauren Cusimano
'Demos to Dining: Phoenix Musicians Are Opening Bars and Restaurants'
In this feature, Phoenix New Times’ food editor covers two of her worlds at once: food and music. The story spans more than a decade, beginning in the late aughts, when she was a journalism student and regular attendee on the concert circuit, and then flashes to the present. Cusimano shifts from personal recollections to sections trained on musicians turned food-and-beverage leaders.
What sticks with you isn’t that the folks behind Gracie’s Tax Bar and (until recently) Welcome Diner used to play in local bands.
It isn’t that present-day shakers in food, back in their younger days, used to play at venues like Yucca Tap Room — one spot Cusimano once caught their shows.
It’s that, as these stories come to light, so do the overlaps between food and music. Much of that overlap comes from community. In food and drinks and music, you’re sharing something joyful with other people — whether a song, burrito, or a greater scene. There’s a reason someone like Charlie Levy can pull off a compelling food program at Crescent Ballroom, and there’s a reason Cusimano can rock out a gig as food editor. At the end of the story, you can’t help but share her sense of euphoria and epiphany, can’t stop the rush you get when she proclaims both local food and music to be in a state of “renaissance.” — CM
'How Honey Bear’s BBQ Was Excellent to the Crew of Bill & Ted'
In the wake of Benjamin Leatherman’s amazing feature, “The 30th Anniversary: How Phoenix Played a Role in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” the Valley had some B&T fever. Among the many fascinating anecdotes told by Rick Rothen, a location manager on the film, was about Honey Bear’s BBQ. The cast and crew apparently loved the place while shooting scenes at the now-demolished East High. So we talked to Smith, too.
Owner Mark Smith remembers the first time this group of highly energetic and friendly young people walked into his barbecue restaurant, Honey Bear's BBQ, on Van Buren Street. It was 1988, and his new patrons explained they were working on a movie nearby. “I thought they were just a bunch of wild kids,” Smith says.
The next three months would be filled with some excellent adventures. — LC
'Area Mexican Restaurants Were Braced for the Trump Tariffs That Didn’t Happen'
Though still a student at ASU, Jose Ignacio Castaneda shows some real storytelling savvy, opening this piece by dropping the reader into a brief but deep scene. You can almost hear the grill sizzling, almost smell the trays of food flying out to their tables. He then pivots to his subject: how tariffs would have been felt at local Mexican restaurants.
Across much of the country, President Trump’s tariffs have damaged our food system. For instance, soybean farmers have been crippled as Chinese buyers have turned away. In this story, Castaneda brings this topic home, conveying some ways the President’s threatened Mexican tariffs would have jostled our food scene.
Castaneda is on the ground — out in the wide world talking to people, rather than calling them from some office — and you get a sense of that. You get a sense of people who hurt and feel just like you do: the shrimp buyer, the liquor store owner, the chef. And as you hear from them about how potential tariffs would have complicated their livelihoods, you can more keenly feel for them. They feel much closer than the soybean farmers of the Midwest — though, by unspoken extension, you can feel for them, too. — CM
Sonoran Arcana Series
Each installment of the Chris Malloy-penned series Sonoran Arcana was like a wild adventure. It started with a hyper-local activity — foraging for wild foods in Old Town Scottsdale with Mark Lewis. But before we knew it, Malloy was taking us on monthly treks through deserts and kitchens to see what kind of New Arizonan cuisine was being scavenged, prepared, and plated.
As Malloy himself put it, we’ve seen an urban forager and a miso dreamer, date hobbyists and winemakers. We’ve tasted one of the world’s most electric chiles (right at home!), brewed a beer in the wilderness (still brewing!), and toured one of the Southwest's most inspirational farms, where, as in many of our cultivated and wild dryland spaces, amazing plants emerge from the pressure cooker of intense weather conditions.
Sonoran Arcana is 13 beautifully told stories about our ever-giving surroundings. — LC
'Table Scraps: Taking on Food Waste in Greater Phoenix'
In this series, New Times’ food editor takes a lane that many food journalists never would: that of a novice who freely admits to not knowing something, and so starts a journey to learn.
Early on in the Table Scraps series, Cusimano cites the EPA, noting that some 30 percent of the food we trash can be composted. She cycles through many topics within the greater series focus of foods waste — all gathered like so many orange peels and coffee grounds into a deeply nutritious feature that dropped in mid-November.
Here, you can learn about how idling in drive-thru lines is, in many ways, like giving the earth a little slap in the face. You can learn about innovators developing more ecologically intelligent packaging. You can dip into Smithsonian Magazine archives for details on the doggy bag, and surface with new wisdom that might change how you view leftovers.
Ultimately, the series is valuable for its substance: for how it simplifies complex issues, for how it gives readers the tools to change, for how it works to combat a pervasive issue that taints how cook and eat in this country. The key is her approach. It’s open-minded and inclusive, with tons of voice, all melding to warmly invite readers along for the ride. — CM
'Spotlight: How Charley's Sports Grill Owner Is Reinventing Herself at 60'
Charley’s Sports Grill is tucked away in the back of a plaza on the west side of Loop 101 and Union Hills Drive, near Arrowhead Towne Center in the northwest Valley. It serves as a local bar, lunch counter, and, for some, a go-to spot for off-track betting. But it’s a bar that almost wasn’t; a series of events in Clemens’ life led her to open Charley’s not even a year ago.
The Glendale sports pub was established in November 2018, just over a year after Clemens had a stroke. At the time, she was a global director at Avnet Inc. After hospital and rehab, Clemens says she decided what she really likes is people. “I like talking to them, I like going to happy hour, I like to go to friendly places,” she says. “I had this great idea: I need to be in the hospitality business. So, that’s what I did.” Now, Clemens runs what she calls a little neighborhood pub, where she already knows most of her customers by name.
“There is life after a stroke, there is life after 60,” she says. “Maybe not the life you knew, but there is life.” — LC
'The Smell of Hickman’s Chicken Poop Is Killing This Rural Arizona Community'
If you live in metro Phoenix and eat eggs, you’ve probably eaten Hickman’s eggs. And that means that you’ve probably contributed to a local and national problem, one born from the common American CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation). In this piece, Elizabeth Whitman tells the story of how one west Valley CAFO, a massive Hickman’s Eggs facility, is disrupting the lives of people in the nearby town of Tonopah.
“The stench differs from day to day, and it can appear in an instant,” she writes, citing the coffee talk of one resident family.
Locals have struggled with worse than pungent smells. They’ve documented what they’ve seen as a result of the egg operation, including, for instance, “chicken guts spilled from the rumbling semis traveling too fast on local roads.” Whitman also includes the vignette of an employee at an RV park a mile away from the Hickman’s plant, a worker who spends “an hour every morning skimming the film of feathers and dander from the community pool.”
This story is valuable in what it says, both locally and on a larger scale. But it’s also valuable because it’s beautifully told, with people and landscapes that you can see before you. — CM
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'Spotlight: Barrio Café Gran Reserva Sous Chef Brianna Arzaga'
Frequent contributor Rudri Patel set out for the Grand Avenue Arts District to meet her source at the unique entrance of Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva. The interviewee? Sous chef Brianna Arzaga — the right-hand woman to James Beard Foundation Award-nominated chef Silvana Salcido Esparza.
Patel goes on to tell Arzaga’s story. How she is the oldest of eight siblings. How she grew up in Tucson and Phoenix caring for her younger brothers and sisters, making them her first dish, over-easy eggs. How after working in multiple kitchens, she found herself as “the only girl in a line full of men,” and even spent time in a shelter with her daughter.
Later, Arzaga started as a dishwasher at Barrio Café Gran Reserva. Within a year, became sous chef in a wildly popular restaurant without any formal culinary training. “I come from struggle, but I know I can overcome,” she says. “I am here to show I am good enough and I enjoy every single day when I am learning in the kitchen.” — LC