Cafe Reviews

The 10 Best Things I Ate in 2012

Escolar with salsa verde, tomatoes, and honey from Crudo: This year, Cullen Campbell moved his modern Italian restaurant to the back of a shopping center. Although it's tricky to find, the payoff is worth a few go-arounds in the parking lot — especially when it comes to the grilled escolar. Firm, remarkably rich, and deftly prepared, the thick chunk of fish is coated in a superb salsa verde made with carrot greens, basil, and lemon and rests atop tomatoes and honey for a stunning array of flavors Campbell orchestrates effortlessly. (3603 E. Indian School Road, 602-358-8666,

First Time Crepe from Crêpe Bar: If everyone's first time were as memorable as the First Time Crepe at Jeff Kraus' top-notch creperie in Tempe, our lives might all be a bit sweeter. A brûléed banana gets tucked inside a griddled, slightly sweetened crepe smeared with Nutella. The crepe is then sliced, brûléed, placed atop a smear of more Nutella, and artfully surrounded by more torched banana, sliced strawberries, and spiced walnuts. For a first time, this one's pretty much perfect. (7520 S. Rural Road, Tempe, 480-247-8012,

Com Hen from Hue Gourmet: If you're going to take the time to indulge in the cuisine of the ancient citadel of Vietnam, you'll want to start with this one-of-a-kind dish at this counter-service eatery in Mesa's Mekong Plaza. Clam broth poured over a textural potpourri of ingredients — rice, peanuts, taro stems, pork belly, minced banana flowers, Vietnamese sesame rice crackers, and slices of green apple — makes for a complex medley of flavors with a taste as addictively peculiar as it is intense. (66 S. Dobson Road, Mesa, 480-251-7429)

Chorizo Meatloaf Buttermilk Biscuit Sandwich from Old Dixie's Southern Kitchen: When the Southern food trend finally arrives in the Valley, this food truck most likely will be leading the way. The buttermilk biscuit sandwiches — in particular, the chorizo meatloaf — are especially noteworthy. The lusciously smoky and mildly spicy chorizo sauce is kissed with a touch of wine and slathered over a chunk of perfectly seasoned meat. It's all nestled inside a thick biscuit with a moist, rich crumb. This unique sandwich is true Southern comfort. (602-614-2783,

Focaccia di Recco from Davanti Enoteca: Worth every penny of its $18 price, this dish by Peter DeRuvo is just one of the standouts at this Italian restaurant owned by Chicago-based Francesca's Restaurants Group. A wooden board holding a thin and crispy baked bread, golden brown, bubbly, and filled with lusciously soft cow cheese, arrives with an accompanying melting honeycomb. The sweet spread on the savory amplifies the flavor, making this dish one to remember. (6316 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-659-1800,

Berkshire Pork Country Ribs from The House: When it comes to the unification of meat and fire, Matt Carter is a master. At his new restaurant in Scottsdale, our most primitive desire for cooked flesh can be satisfied in these grilled porky delights, seasoned beautifully and complemented by an apple fennel glaze. Lightly sweet with a scrumptious licorice flavor, they're served up with pieces of fennel and comforting popcorn grits for a dish meat lovers are sure to devour with relish. (6936 E. Main St., Scottsdale, 480-634-1600)

Pork Stomach and Black Pepper Pot from New Hong Kong Restaurant: Don't be fooled by its appearance. Hidden away in the kitchen at this weathered restaurant in Central Phoenix is Jian Yu, an accomplished chef with over 30 years of experience in Cantonese cuisine. Most adept at clay pot cooking, Yu's pork stomach and black pepper selection is Chinese comfort food with an offal edge. Featuring chewy spirals of pork stomach with scallions and peppercorns, the presentation, a trembling, steaming clay pot nearly blowing off its lid, is almost as enjoyable as the flavorful broth within. (2328 E. Indian School Road, 602-954-9118)

Haemul Soon Du Bu at Café Ga Hyang: Fantastic Korean food that stays up late makes this gem in Glendale an anomaly. But no matter what time of day, the haemul soon du bu, a hot and spicy Korean stew made with seafood, vegetables, and silky pieces of tofu, is always a pleaser. It is an angry dish at first — arriving at the table steaming, boiling, and cooking the jiggling raw egg cracked on top of it. However, after it cools and the rice is added (the rice, like the tofu, soaks up the broth and cuts the heat), it's a deeply flavorful dish that makes its eater very happy, indeed. (4362 W. Olive Ave., Glendale, 623-937-8550)

Ravioli from Dolce Vita Italian Grocer: Given Walter and Marti Bergamaschi's penchant for top-notch ingredients and turning the simple into the sublime, it's no wonder the ravioli from this new Italian grocery and deli so exceptional. The scratch-made ravioli is lusciously soft and filled with anything from ricotta and spinach drizzled in a silky butter and sage sauce to heady garlic and butter to seasonal butternut squash. Delicious. (5251 E. Brown Road, Mesa, 480-641-8482,

Sushi from ShinBay: Once you've dined at this 2012 James Beard Award semifinalist in Scottsdale, helmed by chef Shinji Kurita, you've reached the top of the mountain of Valley Japanese restaurants. Kurita's omakase, or chef's choice dinners, are nothing short of elegant works of art, meticulously prepared and made with fresh, seasonal delicacies. And the final selection before dessert, the sushi, is especially impressive. The wild-caught fish mostly from Japan features the most delicate flavor. It's an indulgence worth every cent. (7001 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-664-0180,

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld