Strange things happen when you get a first taste of a stupendously rich or otherwise delicious dish. Time, briefly, seems to stop. Your face sort of melts with pleasure. Maybe you produce some very weird, guttural sounds, swoon in public, or unwittingly use profane language in front of the children. If there is a common theme binding together this highly idiosyncratic list of the best dishes and bites I ate in 2016, it is that they all set off the kind of gustatory alarm bells that make a dish unforgettably good.
Kepta Duona from Sonata’s Restaurant
10050 North Scottsdale Road #127, Scottsdale
Sonata's Restaurant is a new high-toned modern European restaurant in Scottsdale, and the kitchen’s dressed-up version of the classic Lithuanian bar snack kepta duona is marvelous. Slices of dark rye bread are rubbed with garlic and salt, tossed and crisped up in duck fat, then draped in creamy layers of Havarti cheese. An order comes stacked up neatly in a small cast-iron pan, resembling something like Lincoln Logs, and the extra-crisp, crunchy, buttery strips of rye bread are essentially like culinary Kryptonite for your health-minded diet.
Chiwas Taco at Tacos Chiwas
1923 East McDowell Road
Everyone seems to agree that Taco Chiwas is wonderful, and the kitchen’s devotion to well-crafted, soulful northern Mexican cooking is a breath of fresh air in ’Bertos-Land. And while pretty much every gordita, montado, taco, burrito, and quesadilla offers its own particular set of virtues, let us today sing the praises of the signature Taco Chiwas. The eponymous taco is a harmonious marriage of beef, ham, and stretchy queso asadero; roasted Hatch chiles and jalapeños, lurking beneath the gloss of melted cheese, add an earthy, deep richness that is both surprising and delicious.
Falafel from Shawarma King
4312 West Cactus Road, Glendale
Falafel is probably not high on your list of hot new foods to eat, but the standard mezze of the Middle Eastern table really shines at Shawarma King. A standard falafel order yields about six of the vaguely craggy, very crispy golden-brown balls, crunchy on the outside, with a spongy-soft middle. The insides sort of explode with the mint-hued, bracing flavors of herbs and spice, and the pleasing contrast in texture is remarkable.
Trenette with chicken livers at Tratto
4743 North 20th Street
It might not be on the menu the next time you go, but if you happen to come across pasta and chicken livers on the Tratto menu, it may well be a sign that the food gods are shining on you. In late summer, the ever-changing Tratto menu was serving parsley-scented chicken livers, cooked to a kind of melting, fuzzy softness, with a plate of slinky, flat trenette pasta dripping in white wine butter sauce. Months later, the dish resonates as a fondly-remembered food memory.
Flip Taco at Kiss Pollos Estilo Sinaloa
306 West Yavapai Street
You know the Taco Bell Double Decker? The crack-brained fast-food taco has become a go-to order of the high school and late-night drive-thru set. But the Double Decker has nothing on the Flip Taco, one of the kitchen creations at Kiss Pollos Estilo Sinaloa, a bare-bones Mexican café with plenty of raw, south-central charm. The Flip is a tiny taco. Its foundation is a dried-out, crunchy corn tortilla, which is layered with refried beans, fire-roasted salsa, melted cheese, and a few sprinkles of grilled pork and chicken. A soft, pliable corn tortilla is draped over the toppings, sort of like a lid. In the end, it looks kind of like a slim, wafer-taco sandwich, and its unremarkable looks belie the delicious accumulation of layer upon layer of cheesy, salty, crunchy, and savory, intense flavor.
Hoja Santa con Queso at Barrio Café Gran Reserva
1301 Grand Avenue
The best way to experience chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s latest outing, Barrio Café Gran Reserva, is through the six-course menú de gustación. And while there are many memorable bites in the sequence of dishes, the hoja santa with queso menonita stands out for its ability to compress so much flavor into a single bite. The soft slab of queso is neatly encased in a peppery, nutty, lightly fried leaf of hoja santa, an aromatic herb that grows wild in the Americas. A drizzle of chile and peanut oil makes the whole thing pulsate with even more flavor. The small dish is gone in an instant, but it lingers in your memory.
Merguez Sausage at Habbouz Tunisian Cuisine
7816 North 27th Avenue
The homemade merguez sausage at Habbouz Tunisian Cuisine in Phoenix is pretty great: shiny, juicy, well-molded links with notes of toasted cumin and chile. They are most often served in a mildly spicy harissa sauce, with two eggs baked right into the sauce. Altogether, the plate is sort of a savory, rich breakfast plate. But it’s suitable for any time of the day when you want a delicious dish that resonates with flashes of spice and savory, intense flavor.
Mii Kathii at Smile Lao Thai
2107 South Rural Road, Tempe
At Smile Lao Thai, a newish strip mall café in Tempe, Laotian food has found safe passage into the Valley inside the Trojan horse that is crowd-pleasing, mainstream Thai fare. But put aside the pad thai and pad see ew for a sec, if you can. The Mii Kathii soup, from the Lao side of the café’s menu, is thick with the soothing, ultra-rich tones of coconut milk. Rice noodles, ground pork, and a measured squirt of red curry and peanut sauce make for a bowl of coconut- and pork-scented noodles that is deeply rich and near medicinal in its powers.
Mole Espresso Ribs at Ocotillo
3243 North Third Street
Sure, the Ocotillo Chicken at Ocotillo is marvelous. But the wood-fired beef ribs, basted in a dark mole espresso sauce, are also worthy of your adoration. The oversize ribs come stacked upright on a pan, kind of a meat tepee, exuding the essence of wood and smoke. The meat sort of flakes right off the bone, but it’s the ambitious depth of the sauce that makes this dish most memorable. The rich mole barbecue sauce is complex, at once softly sweet, bearing the intangibly deep flavors of a good dark roast that hints at chocolate.
Date Soup at Binkley’s
2320 East Osborn Road
Chef Kevin Binkley’s new midtown restaurant offers the most ambitious and leisurely-paced tasting menu in recent local food memory: something like 22 dishes, each one its own singular universe of flavor and construction. You know a dish is almost unspeakably good when it stands out from a uniformly strong 22-course line-up, and Binkley’s date soup manages to do exactly that. It’s an ultra-rich, creamy, nearly viscous soup, concentrated with an abundance of natural sweetness and nuttiness, served recently in a small cup that might be mistaken for a votive candle holder. Vaguely sweet, crushed crumbles of pecan embellish the rim of your cup, in the same way that thick grains of kosher salt cling to the rim of a margarita glass, and the total effect of drinking your soup, in tandem with savoring the buttery, crunchy crumbles of pecan, is wonderful. It may remind you of an extraordinarily good bread pudding, melted right into a small cup, bursting with the deep, sun-ripened flavors of Arizona.