Cover Story

The Best New Metro Phoenix Restaurants of 2016 — So Far

More than half of 2016 has come and gone, and with it, we’ve seen the openings of some excellent new restaurants. From an intimate new dining experience from the Valley’s most famous chef to a neighborhood Thai restaurant that’s worth a trip from anywhere in town, these seven restaurants represent some of the best new places to dine in metro Phoenix right now.

Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva
1301 Grand Avenue

Since 2002, Valley diners have known and pretty much universally loved chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s Barrio Cafe. The small, art-filled restaurant was one of the first places where, on crisp white tablecloths, metro Phoenix diners could find southern-central Mexican cuisine done expertly and with style. Some of the chef’s signature dishes have become nothing short of iconic, including her 12-hour slow-roasted cochinita pibil and chiles en nogada, a smoky roasted pepper filled with chicken, apple, apricot, and pears, then smothered in a delicate almond cream sauce.

Which is all to say that it almost goes without saying that the chef’s newest venture — an intimate fine-dining restaurant located on the outskirts of downtown Phoenix in the quirky Grand Avenue arts district — was highly anticipated. And with good cause. Esparza has opened various restaurants since the debut of the original Barrio Cafe, but none have quite reached the ambition of Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva. In fact, none have been worthy of shouldering the “Barrio Cafe” name.

But Gran Reserva certainly is. Beyond a stage for Esparza to showcase her talent for translating authentic Mexican cuisine into sophisticated works of culinary art, the restaurant offers an experience unlike anything else in town.

It starts with the building. Housed in the original Bragg’s Pie Factory, Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva perches on a corner on Grand Avenue. From the tiny, glass-encased dining room, there’s no bad vantage point from which to take in Phoenix’s handful of business towers lit up against the dark desert sky. For a second, you might forget you’re not in the next up-and-coming neighborhood in New York or Chicago.

The food is also worthy of appreciation. Though you may be familiar with Esparza’s elevated but rustic plates, Gran Reserva offers fare that’s distinctly more polished — a matchbox-sized block of queso memonita with a single, fried leaf of hoja Santa perched on top, perhaps, or fried pork belly surrounded by a perfectly circular pool of tomatillo and chile de arbol salsa.

The best value can probably be had via the restaurant’s Menu de Degustacion, a $42 tasting menu that included five courses plus an amuse bouche and dessert on our visit. From the first bite — delicate cubes of pepino melon with contrasting but complementary accents of cucumber and chile de arbol, to the last, a rich chocolate mousse with mescal-soaked berries — each plate related Mexican ingredients in fine-dining style. The highlight was a perfectly-cooked lamb chop paired with earthy huitlacoche, truffles, and demi glace that was both decadent and delicate all at once.

At the very least, if there’s not time or budget for a full meal at this gem, Gran Reserva’s entirely Mexican wine list and mezcal-focused cocktails are worth seeking out. With a smoky mezcal-and-basil Fenix cocktail in hand, there’s almost no better way to spend a summer night.

Tacos Chiwas
1923 East McDowell Road

There’s certainly no shortage of worthy classic Mexican restaurants in metro Phoenix, particularly in the neighborhood around 16th Street and McDowell Road, where taquerias outnumber just about every other kind of business. Which means there must be something special about a small, counter-service eatery that’s taken the neighborhood by storm, drawing customers from all over the Valley to try homemade gorditas and tacos stuffed with crispy pieces of tripas.

This magical little taco spot is Tacos Chiwas — and don’t let the name fool you, this is the place for seriously good Mexican food. The eatery specializes in fare from the northern border state of Chihuahua, from which the restaurant takes its name, offering excellent tacos, burritos, and more at a price point that means you can make the indulgence a regular occurrence.

The restaurant comes courtesy of husband-and-wife team Armando Hernandez and Nadia Holguin, who bring plenty of experience to their first foray in restaurant ownership. Hernandez previously worked as a manager at Chris Bianco’s Pane Bianco, and Holguin is a classically trained chef. With their talents both in the kitchen and out, they’ve turned a former Dairy Queen into a haven for those who appreciate good food served in an unfussy setting.

Tacos are a good place to start, and on most days, the restaurant offers seven varieties. All are worth a try, but the best of the bunch include the lengua, which is reliably juicy and never chewy, and the tripas. Unlike many restaurants, Tacos Chiwas cuts its tripe into small, manageable pieces that are lightly fried to a golden-brown crisp. The pieces give a delicate crunch that makes every bite a mouthful of fat and flavor.

The best taco, however, is the namesake Taco Chiwas. Here, a hand-pressed corn tortilla comes stuffed with beef, ham, and melted white cheese, along with Hatch chiles and jalapenos. This is not the minimalistic street taco with which you might be familiar, but rather a gooey, cheesy affair that’s rich with big meaty flavor and just the right amount of spice.

The restaurant’s gorditas are also excellent, if somewhat nontraditional. Instead of using masa, Taco Chiwas serves flour-based pockets of dough that can be stuffed with your choice of four fillings. The deshebrada roja is a good choice. Shredded beef gets slow-cooked and steeped in spices including guajillos, onion, and garlic until it sings with smoky, spicy flavor. The raja is a simpler, meat-free option, featuring strips of chile interwoven with generous amounts of cheese.

And if you’re lucky, you’ll get to end your meal on a sweet note. There will often, but not always, be desserts at the Taco Chiwas counter, sometimes dulces de tamarindo and sometimes jamoncillo de leche. Hernandez says he remembers selling these miniature ice cream cones filled with a creamy dulce de leche as a kid. They’re just as sweet today as we imagine they were back then.

Worth Takeaway
218 West Main Street, Mesa

As they say, good things often come in small packages, and for proof, look no further than downtown Mesa’s Worth Takeaway. This pocket-sized sandwich shop is so small it’s barely visible from the street, but step inside and you’ll find yourself in a clean, minimalistic space that looks straight out of the pages of a hip design magazine.

From the tiny succulents that beautify each wooden table to photo-worthy floral arrangements perched in the corner, everything about this eatery demonstrates excessive attention to detail. The same holds true when it comes to the menu, which emphasizes sourcing top ingredients from local producers and combining them in approachable but somewhat unexpected ways.

The heart of the menu is a selection of sandwiches, each priced at $9 and served on locally made bread. The job of bread baking is outsourced to Proof Bakery, well-known locally as the passion project of baker Jared Allen. The menu includes nontraditional takes on Reuben and Cuban sandwiches — best avoided by purists who might balk at the thought of a Cuban made with havarti and dijonnaise — but other options have mass appeal.

The best among them includes the shop’s crispy chicken sandwich, a meaty lunch that’s made with three strips of crisp, battered covered chicken along with lettuce and a layer of housemade pickles. After being lathered up with spicy-sweet Sriracha honey spread and mayonnaise, the chicken has a habit of wanting to jump out from between the pieces of chewy ciabatta bread. But the price of sticky fingers seems fair enough to pay for such a well-made meal.

Vegetarians will be happy to hear the restaurant’s veggie sandwich is far from an afterthought. With thick slices of roasted sweet potato as the star, this sandwich is surprisingly hearty for a meatless meal. Along with the earthy sweet potatoes, there’s also a bright pickled cabbage slaw, dried cranberries, and an herbed ricotta spread.

From the restaurant’s small breakfast menu, you could do much worse than the Worth’s version of the croque madame. Again, the shop takes the nontraditional route, taking two hearty slices of bread and placing thick slices of pastrami in between. The whole thing gets covered with a layer of melted cheese and then topped with a fried egg to make a breakfast that will stick to your bones and keep you running all day.

No matter which sandwich you settle on, order it with a side of Worth’s housemade chips. These thick-cut, deep-fried beauties come sprinkled with sea salt to make for a side that pairs perfectly with an icy cold-brew coffee. Worth makes its own cold brew and offers the caffeinated drink from a nitro tap. Each cup also comes with a black-and-white sticker asking, “Did we just become best friends?”

It’s hard not to smile while you sip on your drink, and though you may not have found a new best friend, you probably did find a new favorite lunch spot.

Smile Lao Thai
2107 South Rural Road, Tempe

Chinese takeout may be the go-to delivery cuisine of choice for most Americans, but these days you don’t have to look hard to find a Thai restaurant serving peanut-studded pad Thai and deep fried wontons stuffed with imitation crab and cream cheese. These approachable, Americanized Thai eateries make it easy to get your fix of Thai fried rice and coconut curry, but also make it hard to identify the truly good stuff when you find it.

Tempe residents have hit the Thai restaurant jackpot with the opening of Smile Lao Thai, a neat neighborhood eatery that serves authentic Lao-Thai cuisine. On the restaurant’s lengthy menu you’ll find standards like veggie egg rolls and pad-see-ew, but also plenty of dishes including delicate curries and sizzling barbecue plates that go far beyond the usual Thai restaurant offerings.

For a popular Laotian starter, try the nam or lettuce wraps. The dish includes a flavorful mix of seasoned chicken and coconut rice that can be scooped up and wrapped in green lettuce leaves. An order makes a light meal for one or an appetizer than can easily satisfy the table. And though spring rolls may seem like a mundane option, this version comes in soft, stretchy wrappers and stuffed with crisp slices of cucumber, bean sprouts, and tender shrimp.

From the stir-fried section, you’ll have plenty of noodle and protein-based dishes to choose from, including pad pet, another Laotian offering. The spicy red curry delivers a nice amount of heat, but the crunch of the fresh vegetables including bamboo shoots, eggplant, and green beans gives variety.

Among the restaurant’s specialties is an excellent creamy avocado curry that’s only subtly spicy after being sweetened with coconut milk and cooled with fresh avocado. Chunky pieces of zucchini, bell peppers, and green beans add heft to a dish that still remains surprisingly light. As at most restaurants, you can opt to add a protein of your choosing. Either chicken or tofu make nice options with this dish, as their mild taste doesn’t overpower the curry’s somewhat delicate flavor.

Smile Lao Thai even offers a small selection of desserts, including, of course, glutinous or sticky rice, a Laotian specialty. Even more indulgent than that, however, is the restaurant’s Thai iced coffee. Your tall, frosty glass comes filled with strong black coffee and a thick coconut cream. The cream and coffee complement each other well, for a drink that’s both cool and balanced, perfect for a summer day.

Nico Heirloom Kitchen
366 North Gilbert Road, Gilbert

In the last year or so, downtown Gilbert has exploded from a small strip of charming restaurants and shops into several blocks of multi-story, mixed-use developments, the future homes of bars, restaurants, and retail stores. Most of the eateries represent second or even third locations of concepts with outlets elsewhere in the Valley, making the downtown strip a hotbed of culinary options, if not culinary creativity.

Breaking that mold is Nico Heirloom Kitchen, one of the only newly opened restaurants that exists just in the southeast Valley suburb. The man behind the restaurant brings plenty of credibility to the project; chef Gio Osso’s Old Town Scottsdale restaurant, Virtu Honest Craft, has won local and national attention, including a nomination for the 2014 Best New Restaurant award from the James Beard Foundation.

Yes, Nico includes greatest hits from the Virtu menu, but with even a single meal at the chef’s sophomore effort, it’s clear Osso’s second restaurant is far from a duplicate of the first.

Self-described as “West Coast-inspired Italian,” Nico’s menus offer everything from a Niman Ranch all-beef hot dog to smoked duck and handmade pasta. The restaurant’s brunch menu, offered seven days a week from opening until 2 p.m., is particularly diverse and composed mostly of moderately sized plates that lend themselves to being either smaller entrees or a sharable dishes.

For a traditional breakfast, the Nico Benedict, is a successful play on the classic dish, made with a thick slab of mortadella and gently wilted spinach on focaccia bread. The whole stack is then topped with a spoonful of calabrese hollandaise that’s a flavorful, lighter alternative to the usual sauce. Even better are the lemon ricotta pancakes, a duo of fluffy cakes topped with rosemary grape confettura, crushed pistachios, and whipped cream. The citrus keeps the dish from being tooth-achingly sweet, though it still feels like a slightly sinful way to start the day.

And if greens are more up your alley, the restaurant’s crispy kale salad shouldn’t be skipped. Here, Osso manages to turn the superfood into something seriously delicious — albeit, probably not so healthy. Each strip of the cruciferous green is fried to a perfect, delicate crisp before it’s tossed with tender chickpeas, roasted chicken, and mission figs. Admittedly, the chamomile yogurt dressing could use a flavor boost, but the salty, savory pieces of kale are good enough to stand alone, in any case.

At the center of the restaurant’s kitchen is a handsome, tiled wood-fired oven, so of course you’ll want to order something that sees the inside and its flames. Osso’s porchetta is an excellent choice. You’ve never tasted such a fatty, moist piece of pork loin, and after being kissed with wood smoke and rosemary, it’s got complex, subtle layers of flavor. Served over butter beans and salsa verde, it’s also one of the most hearty items on the dinner menu.

For Osso’s fans, the Nico menu includes the chef’s signature Virtu octopus, a plate of buttery tendrils served with arugula, lemon chickpeas, and calabrese chile butter. But even if the dish is the same, enjoying it is a different experience at each restaurant. If Virtu feels like a dining destination, worth seeking out for a special occasion, then Nico feels like coming home for comfort and exceptional cuisine.

Asian Fusion Cafe
725 South Rural Road, Tempe

If your experience with Chinese food begins with egg drop soup and ends with a fortune cookie, then you’re likely to be surprised when you see the menu at Tempe’s Asian Fusion Cafe. The restaurant, located in the corner of a strip mall on the northeast corner of Rural Road and University Drive, specializes in a type of Hong Kong-style cooking that’s rare in metro Phoenix. The menu includes everything from toast smothered in sweetened condensed milk to breaded pork chops buried under layers of melted cheese and tomato sauce.

The restaurant’s specialty is “Hong Kong diner fare,” a type of cuisine born as a result of the intermingling of Chinese and Western cultures. In Hong Kong, these fast, cheap restaurants are called ha chan teng, or “tea restaurants,” so named because they offer a Chinese version of English tea service.

It makes sense, then, to start your meal at Asian Fusion Cafe with some tea. The restaurant’s Hong Kong-style milk tea can be ordered either hot or cold. The hot version means a cup of strong, black tea that’s sweetened with a nice pour of thick condensed milk. For something even stronger, there’s also milk tea spiked with coffee for a boost of caffeination.

The most authentically diner-type dishes will be the ones under the heading “Rice/Spaghetti.” One of the classic offerings is the fried pork chop with rice, a juicy breaded cutlet buried under layers of cheese and sweet tomato sauce. Served over a bed of white rice, it’s a dish that’s heavy and comforting no matter what the occasion. Baked chicken and cheese makes another good option. The chicken swims in a creamy sauce that’s punctuated with pieces of bell peppers and onion.

But Asian Fusion Cafe’s good for more than just Western-inspired Chinese fare. The restaurant also offers popular dishes from areas outside of Hong Kong. Those offerings include the restaurant’s Hainanese chicken, a specialty from the island of Hianan. The dish features poached chicken that’s served with a trio of condiments, including a chili and garlic sauce, ginger sauce, and a dark soy sauce. The highlight, however, is the accompanying mound of rice, which is cooked in the skimmed-off stock, giving it deep, meaty flavor.

Also excellent, assuming you don’t mind a good bit of heat, is the chung qi-style spicy chicken. The order includes a pile of bone-in chunks of chicken, each one coated in a thin, crispy batter. The whole dish comes tossed in a spicy sauce and is buried underneath a thick bed of fiery red peppers.

And to end your meal, the restaurant offers a decent selection of dessert soups. These come in a variety of flavors ranging from walnut to mango. With a texture similar to melted ice cream, but a bit lighter, these make a nice ending that won’t leave you feeling too heavy.

4743 North 20th Street

It’s been almost three decades since chef Chris Bianco started his humble pizzeria in the back of a central Phoenix grocery store. In the passing years, the chef’s earned a spot for himself in the pantheon of pizza chefs, even becoming the first pizzaiolo to win the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2003.

Needless to say, a lot has changed since then — perhaps, most notably, Bianco himself. For years the chef wanted nothing more than to focus on crafting the world’s best pizzas with simple ingredients and endless amounts of care. Now, he’s ready to offer something new: a place for him to bring more than just excellent food to the table.

Enter Tratto. Located next door to the second location of Pizzeria Bianco in the Town and Country shopping center, this 35-seat restaurant is a nearly flawless representation of Bianco today. Compared to the straightforward menu at the pizzeria, Tratto’s lineup of antipasti, primi, secondi, and contorni seems downright complex — while still very much in keeping with the chef’s unfussy style of Italian cuisine. Service is smooth; the drink menu, thoughtful; and even the decor shows the chef’s dedication to the smallest details. Overall, Tratto and its white tablecloths feels more mature than its sibling restaurants.

For more on Tratto, see this week's Cafe review.
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Lauren Saria
Contact: Lauren Saria