The Final Essential: A Classic Restaurant That Channels the Southwest's Seasons

Fried squash blossoms with tomatoes
Fried squash blossoms with tomatoes Chris Malloy

click to enlarge Fried squash blossoms with tomatoes - CHRIS MALLOY
Fried squash blossoms with tomatoes
Chris Malloy
Welcome to the final installment of the 2018 edition of The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. We've shared 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.

1: Seasonal Dinner at Rancho Pinot

One of the great tragedies of food in the 21st century stems from the speed of the news cycle. What you read yesterday feels old today, and we're always on the lookout for where to eat tomorrow. In the quest for the new, for the next shave ice or matcha, classic but good eating can go unsung.

Rancho Pinot is one such epicenter of classic eating, and one of our greats. For 25 years, Chrysa Robertson's restaurant has been churning out food that masterfully harnesses the desert seasons. Her eatery is ruthlessly itself. Old-school lighting vexes all your attempts at iPhone photography. You won't find avocado toast or any evidence of compromising food so it'll be on-trend. Robertson doesn't stoop to the bar. She sets it.

Earlier in her career, Robertson learned from some big names in American food. One of those is Los Angeles's Nancy Silverton, who was then cooking at Campanile and has since appeared on Chef's Table. In turn, Robertson has mentored some of her own impressive talents. The stoves at Rancho Pinot were a formative stop for Charleen Badman, chef at FnB. 

click to enlarge The interior of Rancho Pinot is throwback - CHRIS MALLOY
The interior of Rancho Pinot is throwback
Chris Malloy
Rancho Pinot cooks food anchored in our seasons. The food is simple but not simplistic. A strong Italian streak runs through the menu, but not an Adriatic milieu or northern Italian vibe or simple southern rasp. It's a bent more elusive, a cooking style untethered to any specific Mediterranean geography and fixed, rather, here in the Valley.

What the hell am I talking about? Let me explain.

If you check out Rancho Pinot in spring, you may have the option to order fried squash blossoms. These are one of Italy's great dishes, and they are eaten widely. In Italy, often, they are delicately breaded and lightly fried, with the dainty spirit of the flower preserved.

Robertson flies at a different altitude. She stuffs blossoms with goat cheese and house ricotta. She puts a heavy fry on them. Bends and ridges of crisp-fried breading are edged with a dark brown.

Fork into them, and there's crunch ... and then molten velvet ooze. Robertson cuts through the cheese's fat and the oil's heft with acid from small tomatoes that have been halved, and with greens that have some vinegar. Just about every flavor and textural element lives in the dish.

Pushing the framework of the more traditionally common versions of the dish, Robertson creates her very own, a memorable take better suited to her huge personality. The dish has finesse, power, charm.

Some union of these three attributes is what distinguishes a meal at Rancho Pinot. There is refinement, sure, but there's this added layer of deliberate rusticity that gives the place its character. This character oozes from the clean wooden bar and the open kitchen, the waitstaff and the hokey Western picture wall.

click to enlarge The last second this whole quail existed. - CHRIS MALLOY
The last second this whole quail existed.
Chris Malloy
From the start, you're aware that you're in the hands of a capable chef. But this chef isn't going to whisper a few seasonal flavors to your palate. Nope, her flavors are going to call to you in eye-widening tones through a harsh desert landscape, and they're going to call with whiskey on their breath.

Eating at Rancho Pinot, you know you're in the heart of the Southwest.

Grilled quail with polenta at Rancho Pinot is a stupefying plate. You feel like the Hound from Game of Thrones ripping into compactly flavorful meat and slurping a leg bone the size of a toothpick. But the flavors, of course, eclipse those of a simply roasted game bird. Polenta is soft. Greens bring some herbal tones. Peach mostarda layers on acidity, fruit, and funk.

click to enlarge Rancho Pinot is a metro Phoenix essential - CHRIS MALLOY
Rancho Pinot is a metro Phoenix essential
Chris Malloy
But eating Robertson's food, you aren't a fantastic character in a real or vanished world. You're a lucky diner experiencing how the flavors of central Arizona can be when filtered through the rare mind and heart of a local dining legend.

Rancho Pinot. 6208 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale; 480-367-8030.
Monday to Saturday 5:30 to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday.

50: Soul food platter at Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles
49: The Bear at Short Leash Hot Dogs + Rollover Doughnuts
48: Grilled squid and other specialties at Andreoli Italian Grocer
47: I-10 Nachos at Cocina 10
46: Coffee made from ROC2 beans
45: The Haturo Sub Sandwich at Cheese 'n Stuff
44: Zookz at Zookz
43: Jade Red Chicken at Chino Bandido
42: Tasting menu at Quiessence at The Farm
41: Single-origin Papua New Guinea Bar at Zak's Chocolate
40: Green chile at Casa Reynoso
39: Brûlée burger from Paradise Valley Burger Company
38: Hand-pulled noodles from China Magic Noodle House
37: Carne adovada sliders at Dick's Hideaway
36: Crispy Pig Ear and Amaro cocktails from Crudo
35: Chile-laced specialties from Cafe Ga Hyang
34: Martinis at AZ88
33: Nooner at Duck & Decanter
32: Eggs Maximilian at Harlow's Cafe
31: Beef Tacos from Asadero Norte De Sonora
30: Orange Blossom from Huss Brewing Company
29: Rye bread from Yasha From Russia
28: Scotch Beef and Mashed Potatoes from Tarbell's
27: Griddled Corn Cakes and Ramona Farms Super Food Salad at Phoenix City Grille
26: Soup from Reathrey Sekong
25: Lamb tongue sandwich at Haji Baba
24: The Special at Grand Avenue Pizza Company
23: Red chile at Elmer's Tacos
22: Marranitos at La Purisima Bakery
21: Kronuts from Karl's Bakery
20: Beef pies at Chou's Kitchen
19: Bavarian pretzels & schnitzel at Haus Murphy's
18: Red chili burro and sopapillas from Los Dos Molinos
17: Camelback Soda at The Sugar Bowl
16: Brisket Sandwich at Chelsea's Kitchen
15: Taco Hazz from Ta'Carbon
14: Barnone at Agritopia
13: The Jazzy from Emerson Fry Bread
12: Flour Tortillas from La Sonorense Tortilla Factory
11: Peach picking at Schnepf Farms
10: The Purple Fusion at Snoh Shaved Ice
9: Sours from Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company
8: Umi No Sachi at Hana Japanese Eatery
7: Carne Asada Tacos from Taquería Los Yaquis
6: Tasting Menu from Different Pointe of View
5: Sausage from Schreiner's Fine Sausage
4: The Chop & Chick from Matt's Big Breakfast
3: Sonoran enchiladas and machaca from Poncho's Mexican Food
2: Market sandwich from Pane Bianco
1: Seasonal dinner at Rancho Pinot 
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy