Best of Phoenix

The 10 Best Things Our Food Critic Ate in 2018

A platter of raw seafood from Nelson's, ceviche in back.
A platter of raw seafood from Nelson's, ceviche in back. Chris Malloy
A marinara pie from Myke's Pizza. - CHRIS MALLOY
A marinara pie from Myke's Pizza.
Chris Malloy
A long year of living and eating in the Sonoran is drawing to a close. I ate some heady meals, including a $364 feast from Binkley's that could have made for a scene in the Satyricon. But I also ate countless meals for $7 or less, in the center and on outskirts of town, and many were uplifting, eye-opening, or otherwise stellar in their own ways. Here are the 10 best things I ate in metro Phoenix this year.

A platter of raw seafood from Nelson's, ceviche in back. - CHRIS MALLOY
A platter of raw seafood from Nelson's, ceviche in back.
Chris Malloy
Ceviche from Nelson’s Meat + Fish
2415 East Indian School Road

The glass displays at Nelson’s showcase a rotating cast of marine life: swordfish, lemon sole, black-pincered stone crab claws, rapier-beaked gar looking time-warped from the Devonian Epoch. One thing that doesn’t change? There will be ceviche.

But in a way, even the ceviche changes. Chris Nelson rotates the fish he uses: maybe John Dory for a few days, maybe orange roughy. Most often, he makes ceviche from Maine halibut or U10 scallops.

Laced with red onions, flecked bits and leaves of cilantro, this ceviche is incandescent. Its runaway brightness arises from the fish, so pristine that dead eyes look alive. It arises from vibrant citrus, orange, lemon, and yuzu from McClendon Selects. It arises, too, from jalapeño and ají amarillo paste, the heat balanced, tropical. This is one of the gems of not only the Nelson's case, but seafood in Phoenix.

Key Lime Pie from Binkley’s Restaurant
2320 East Osborn Road

Ever eaten a tomato right off the vine? Or a peach from the tree? How about a chocolate croissant hot out of the oven, or bread, or pizza as soon as it won’t scorch your tongue?

There are optimal times to consume most food and drink. Kevin Binkley believes the optimal time to consume ice cream is as soon as it’s made. And that is why his “key lime pie” was so good.

This is a "pie" with its ratios jumbled, its parts mixed: a scoop of key lime sorbet, a mousse made from graham crackers, and aerated milk. As it all melds in your mouth, you taste the flavors of key lime pie. This is how the solid pies might taste if your average bakers had Binkley’s culinary talent and imagination. What elevates this dish is the sorbet — so fresh and creamy that you might feel you haven't known ice cream until this one.

click to enlarge A spinach bourek cut. Jasenko Osmic likes to dip them in the Balkan Bakery's tart yogurt. - CHRIS MALLOY
A spinach bourek cut. Jasenko Osmic likes to dip them in the Balkan Bakery's tart yogurt.
Chris Malloy
Spinach and Cheese Bourek from Balkan Bakery
1107 East Bell Road, #16

If you go to this quiet-but-excellent north Phoenix bake shop in the morning, you will see Jasenko Osmic, co-owner, pealing warm brown Frisbees of dough from his oven. These are boureks, Bosnian pastries that coil tightly like a butterfly’s tongue. Osmic’s best bourek is spinach and cheese, the soft filling bulging in its thin, spiraling phyllo dough tube.

These boureks are hot and homestyle, as rich as meat dishes. All that standard marveling over illogical sums and parts is true here. The workaday wizardry of spinach, cheese, and phyllo dough reaches its apex in this unheralded Phoenix pastry.

Marinara Pizza from Myke’s Pizza
Check the Myke's Pizza Instagram for location

I thought that Myke Olsen’s pizza with potato, bacon, and garlic cream was going to be the pie that floored me when I rolled over to his Mesa pop-up late this summer. And it did. Out there in the triple digit heat, that pizza with its well-structured, faintly tangy crust was excellent. But the simple marinara was unforgettable.

A former Proof Bread garage bakery hand, Olsen uses his knowledge of bread when fermenting dough for up to 48 hours. He somehow manages to keep it at temperature even in dripping heat. When thin discs of dough with minimal toppings enter his oven that reaches 800 degrees, magic happens.

Maybe it was that heat. Maybe it was the brilliant showcase of crust and tomato, of garlic and basil, of what pizza stripped naked, with nothing for its maker to hide behind, can truly be.

click to enlarge Torta Ahogada from TEG Torta Shop - CHRIS MALLOY
Torta Ahogada from TEG Torta Shop
Chris Malloy
Torta Ahogada from TEG Torta Shop
2518 North 16th Street

This 16th Street torta shop has never served me anything less than a torta that has made my day. Recently, I navigated the menu, with its paths that fork into so many fair directions, to Guadalajara: to torta ahogada, one of the specialties of this city with roughly the same population as Phoenix.

This torta’s bolillo bread — baked fresh daily — comes drowned in a shallow pool of chile made using chile de arbol. The sauce is spicy, brothy and deep, tongue-needling and mind-altering. It is so heady and delicious that it turns the pork filling into a peripheral player, a minor actor with some credit at the bottom of the roll. The sauce is the centerpiece of the sandwich even though it appears on the top, on the bottom, and nowhere within.

Parsley Root from Larder + Delta
200 West Portland Street, #101

This is a tough call, because I haven’t had parsley root anywhere else but Stephen Jones’ newly reopened restaurant. Yes, parsley root, the root of the plant that gives you the biting green leaf. But whether I have or haven’t, this dish was still among the best and most original I ate in 2018.

Roasted in hay, the root comes in a dense purée of lightly smoked celery root. This root-on-root dish has surprising range, with warmth and flavors like chestnut and sunflowers coming from the lean parsley root, and cool creaminess and clean vegetal flavor coming from the puree. A walnut salsa verde summons brightness, a benne seed streusel crunch. Jones knows his vegetables.

Venison Tartare from Cartwright’s Modern Cuisine
6710 East Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek
This is the dish that kicked open my mind to what the food of this city could be. Brett Vibber, chef at Cartwright’s, employs a painstakingly calculated foraging program that spans from the Sonoran to Flagstaff, covering some 200 days of the year. He dries, pickles, and otherwise preserves ingredients like palo verde berries and saguaro fruit, stashing them beyond their seasons.

He is one of the leaders of a local cuisine that I call New Arizonan. The second dish in a tasting-menu dinner I ate at Cartwright’s consisted of two dollops of purple venison tartare along a single spear of asparagus. Pickled mustard seeds, sorrel, and green strawberries brought various shades of tartness. A harsh and sweet flavor of the Sonoran came from a crimson Saguaro fruit jam studded with black Saguaro seeds. Here, it seemed, was one wildly bright future of Arizonan dining.

click to enlarge Venison medallions cooked in a cast-iron skillet are among the stars at Cotton & Copper. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
Venison medallions cooked in a cast-iron skillet are among the stars at Cotton & Copper.
Jackie Mercandetti

Cast-Iron Venison Medallions from Cotton & Copper
1006 East Warner Road #113, Tempe

In the hands of pioneering chef Tamara Stanger, venison, a meat that your aunt might find too gamey, a meat that rubberizes when cooked anything but perfectly, turns into darkly beautiful medallions. They have tenderness and just enough chew and a fleeting flavor of the wild, reminding you that you are eating an agile creature that was once alive.

At Cotton & Copper, venison isn’t a heavy, bass-note protein. Rather, it crowns a preparation of unlikely finesse, topping a bowl swimming with a circus of vegetables in a robust, light jus made from the venison and cheddar. This is another dish that opens your mind to pathways by which Arizonan food could become a great regional cuisine of our country. 

Brisket, pastrami, turkey, pork ribs, and sausage from Little Miss BBQ. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
Brisket, pastrami, turkey, pork ribs, and sausage from Little Miss BBQ.
Jackie Mercandetti
Beef Short Rib from Little Miss BBQ
4301 East University Drive

I wrote a lot about barbecue this year. The beef short rib from Little Miss BBQ, available on Fridays and Saturdays at the old location, was the best bite of smoked meat I had all year. Honestly, it wasn’t even close. Even the legendary Little Miss brisket drains of its potent magic when set beside this short rib on a heavy tray.

The experience of eating it is so far removed from the ordinary experience of meat that it's hard to fathom. The cut, much fattier than brisket, is colossal. Burnished meat sloughs off the bone. A cataclysm of wood smoke and umami awaits. Biting in, all you can do is smile.

Birria from Hola Cabrito
4835 South 16th Street

At the end of my first full year in metro Phoenix, I have the same childlike enthusiasm for exploring the Mexican food scene that I had my first day in town. Slurping my way through the birria circuit has been a lot of fun.

My favorite birria so far has come from Hola Cabrito in south Phoenix. Here, the hearty goat stew is pretty much the only thing on the menu. In a humble room, steam wisps from white bowls with a deeply dark, clear brown broth. You can order the broth with chickpeas, and they absorb some of the goat's rich, mineral flavor. Sipping the broth, you get a low-key buzz like you do sipping chicken soup. It's pure non-capsule medicine.

You can add onions, cilantro, and lime juice to the soup. Or you can use tortillas to make tacos. The vibrant salsa is brilliant with goat, bringing a heat that isn’t husky but potent and nimble enough to yin the yang of the animal, the fruity nuances of the peppers bringing out the best of the goat, the goat the best of the peppers. 
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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