A lot of strong restaurants started up this year. More than anything, the best restaurants that opened in the Valley were marked by off-the-beaten-path character. They were and are different, the kinds of places that bring not more of the same, but new forms and flavors to our food scene. This year, I kept our best new restaurants list tight. That's because if I expand beyond the seven here, I feel like I'd have to expand to 17. Anyway, keep this list close. Here, in no special order, are our top restaurants of 2019.
Vecina3433 North 56th Street
The habanero salsa sultry and hypnotic with butter. The ceviche you could eat six times in a row. The 40-ingredient elote that thunders across your palate like a deafening flyover of military jets. The treasure-chest-smoked cocktail, the hard, mesquite-born char on the bone-in pork chop, the visually arresting concha ice cream sandwich. Vecina’s first menu already tastes like a greatest hits album. Chefs James Fox and Eric Stone have been fully dialed in from the first days their pan-Latin Arcadia kitchen quietly opened. And tasting just how their culinary intensity and careful global touches carry their food to wondrous new places is a treat: fish sauce and ginger in leche de tigre, Aleppo pepper in coarse and beautiful Romanesco. Before nightly service, head barman Miguel Mora blesses the restaurant with palo santo smoke. Damn, does that stuff work.
Old Town Taste1845 East Broadway Road, Tempe
This cult-favorite Tempe newcomer is cooking impressive Chinese food, with a heavy emphasis on the food of Sichuan. Bubbling hot pots. Blood curd soup. Jiggling bowls of mapo tofu steaming and vegetal and soul-churning with heat. At Old Town Taste, chefs Qifu Chen and Jie Yu nail just about everything that comes from the kitchen, from mounds of Chongqing chicken crisp with breading and electric with chiles and Sichuan peppercorns, to simple sides of melting violet-skinned eggplant that are just as impressive. Twice-cooked pork uses the belly and is fragrant with leeks, the two flavors perfectly married. In this dish, chiles burn low on the edges. But in others, they take center stage. The kitchen deftly taps the pedal or mashes it when it suits a plate. A fleet of them covering your table is a beautiful thing.
ShinBay3720 North Scottsdale Road, #201, Scottsdale
Meals can be great for many different reasons. Dinner at ShinBay is great because of its operatic, cinematic, dazzling quality, the kind of meal that is less dinner and more of an event, one that will forever dance through your memory. Chef Shinji Kurita has been lovingly slicing fish since he worked in his parents’ restaurants in Japan. The James Beard Award nominee’s 13-seat sushi omakase extravaganza is overpoweringly joyful from start to finish. It’s not just the parade of fresh fish flown in from Japan, brushed with sauce, and draped atop fragrant short-grain rice. It’s the modern, beat-driven Eastern music. It’s his careful movements. It’s the early creative dishes spotlighting unbelievable shrimp, scallops, and hamachi. It’s the flawless service, taste of snow-leopard-rare imported craft lager, and the feeling you get — one hard to find elsewhere in town.
Hush Public House14202 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
I feel like I’ve written about Dom Ruggiero’s oxtail Italian beef five times this year. But maybe I’ve under-covered the dish. It’s that good. Eating and drinking at Hush is seeing the best side of our contemporary dining culture. Ruggiero culls from many of the best local providers, like Chula Seafood and Sonoran Pasta Co., and executes a highly original lineup of meat, fish, and vegetable dishes, all brimming with character. His cauliflower steak with harissa is one of the best takes on the vegetable in town. And his nightmare-dark chicken liver mousse is also one of the top versions. His food is, somehow, homey while smart and inventive. Co-owner Charles Barber rocks out a solid cocktail program and makes a smooth manager, ushering in the north Scottsdale crowds for some of the best meals in their reach of the Valley.
Myke’s Pizza21 West Main Street, Mesa (inside Cider Corps)
If you want to see where pizza is going, grab a table inside Cider Corps and a few pies of Myke’s Pizza. Head pizzaiolo and former Proof Bread baker Myke Olsen is pealing arresting neo-Neapolitan pizza from his wood-fired oven, together with help from Manoly Kladovasilakis. A marinara pie. A red-sauce pizza with salami. But Olsen also bakes some of the most high-flying creative pizzas in town: potato and garlic cream, pineapple and New Jersey-style pork roll. Olsen has both a textbook and a more feel-based, soulful understanding of pizza's processes, right on down to sourcing flour blends and tomatoes. His pizzas strategically detour from tradition, and not all of the departures are small. See his finisher, freshly shaved aged Gouda. Or the peaches and lemon-slick cherries he has used in summertime. For everything right on down to his friendly banter and chocolate chip cookie, Olsen is a pizza-maker who deserves recognition here, yes, and on the national stage.
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Persepshen4700 North Central Avenue
Husband-and-wife team Jason and Katherine Dwight have sprung their food from the farmers market to a deliciously rustic, high-ceilinged space on Central Avenue. Arizona meat and plants are the spotlight. So, too, are Arizona spirits: rum, whiskey, vodka, gin. Persepshen's seasonally shifting menu is largely composed of small-ish, glorious plates, like bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with intense chorizo and slender lengths of fried okra. Jason has chops as a butcher. He breaks down whole steers, and ages them for months. This leads to a menu that may show some sold out items, such as a flat iron steak on one visit, but that’s because one cow only has so many. The Dwights’ food harmonizes with older cycles, with what nature can provide. Highlights also include oversized swordfish tacos, a platter of lacquered orange duck, and knockout eggnog gelato.
Saint Pasta6522 North 16th Street, #6 (inside Linger Longer Lounge)
Two swaggering gents from New Jersey recently started slinging some of the best pasta in the Valley. Joe Cetrulo, one half of the duo, cooks up to 18 at once in the Linger Longer Lounge kitchen, tossing rigatoni in chile-lifted vodka sauce, spaghetti in a deeply luscious pomodoro. Racan Alhoch cooks the rest of the food, meaning cutlets, cutlet sandwiches, bar-style pizza, and garlic knots. This is pasta cooked with skill, noodles with an iota of softness but mostly a voracious chew. Standouts include an aggressively peppered carbonara perfumed with guanciale and, porco dio, a Bolognese simmered with merguez sausage and crowned with a dollop of mascarpone. Fried "pizza" is made to sidekick beer. Even garlic knots are way better than they have reason to be. On nights Saint is baptizing noodles in boiling water, carbohydrate nirvana is never far away.