In early March, during a feast at Sherpa Kitchen, I said to food editor Lauren Cusimano something like, “Damn, this place is definitely going to make our year-end best restaurants list.” Fate intervened. Sherpa Kitchen, like so many other restaurants in 2020, has closed. Late in the meal, inhaled when Arizona's total case numbers had yet to reach double digits, I said, “Hey, do you think we should cover the coronavirus?”
This year will go down in infamy for many reasons. One: It was the hardest year for American restaurants in memory.
Still, some great places opened across the Valley. Somehow, a group of restaurant operators took the detritus that 2020 rained on them, rolled with their visions anyway, and produced gems. They are in the east and west Valley, in Phoenix proper and Scottsdale, and cooking traditional and tradition-as-launchpad food from across the globe.
Here are seven of my favorites from 2020. Yes, they all do takeout.
Que Chevere142 West Main Street, Mesa
Downtown Mesa saw huge food openings in 2020, Que Chevere headlining. The Venezuelan eatery by Orvid Cutler and Maria Fernanda, who have run a food truck for the past few years, offers a tight menu with lapidary focus. Arepas shaped in-house and kissed on the griddle are immensely satisfying. Tequeños, cheese sticks made by hand every morning, are everything warm and toasty and melty that you wish them to be. Deeper menu cuts impress even more. Built on smashed plantains fried into paddles, a tall patacon sandwich gapes with melted cheddar and shredded beef — and just dissolves. My favorite, though, is the cachapa, a thick corn pancake that showcases humble maize in beautiful ways.
Eric’s Family Barbecue12345 West Indian School Road, Avondale
With Eric's, the west Valley gained a top-notch American barbecue joint, one with methods nodding to central Texas (offset smokers, white bread, minimally rubbed brisket papered late in smoking) with a slight Mexican bent (elote, tortillas, smoking with mesquite). The brisket here ranks among the town’s best. Slabs are thick and heavily barked, imbued with an immodest smoke, and utterly melting on the tongue despite their steaky heft. Other meats are strong, too. Pork ribs retain chew and get a sizzling rub. Turkey fortified with a butter au jus pack juiciness. Like many pitmasters, Eric Tanori began in his backyard — and plenty of languid buzzed carefree cookout vibes flow through his practiced barbecue.
Ramen Kagawa111 West Monroe Street
When you dip into your bowl of ramen at this downtown Rivendell of noodles, the ramen dips into you. The Tonkotsu is something, its every last drop seemingly permeated with a maximum of flavor. Slurps bring a rising tide of bone-warming, soul-uplifting, pork-rich goodness, broth a shade velvety. A bowl of paitan is enjoyable, more muted and toned down than the tonkatsu, satisfying though not as flagrantly excellent. Noodles have kink and chew. Eggs are eased to that ideal zone of molten yolkiness. Beyond ramen, Japanese-style curry is a solid order. And don’t sleep on the well-made takoyaki, big and crisp-fried with lush creamy cores flecked with tender bits of octopus.
Pizzeria Virtù6952 East Main Street, Scottsdale
The odyssey Gio Osso took to the pizza oven of Pizzeria Virtù began when he was 13, working in a New Jersey pizzeria. It continued when he landed in the Valley, managing the wood oven weeknights at Grazie. Osso went on to win much acclaim for his progressive Italian restaurant Virtù Honest Craft but then, once Grazie closed, he took over its space. There, he now slings pies after training with the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. This is the group from Naples that certifies Neapolitan pizza, the style at Pizzeria Virtù. Thin crust. Puffy rim. Soupy center. Blazed at high heat. Floppy and sparely topped. In addition to pealing quality pizza, Osso has a mind for toppings: minimalistic unions of 'nduja and soppressata, taleggio and trumpet mushrooms, vibrant pesto and stracchino cheese.
Francine4710 North Goldwater Boulevard, Scottsdale
In a Scottsdale Fashion District jammed with loud-yet-sleepy restaurants, Francine brings vibrant cooking with its sunny heart in France’s south and extremities in places like Spain and Italy. The formal restaurant fuses memories owner Laurent Halasz has of his mom cooking in the culinarily progressive 1970s with the erudite, modern touches of Valley resort-restaurant veteran chef Brian Archibald. Francine can go old-school French: fragrant lengths of panisse, vivacious branzino baked in a salt crust. Archibald can also glide into more imaginative lanes. A silky crab ravioli tightropes all kinds of unlikely herby, rooty flavors. Octopus is cooked two ways and embellished with romesco and chorizo. A central bar is brassy, blond-wooded, and stunning — a surefire spot to post up post-pandemic.
Chantico Mexican Restaurant1051 East Camelback Road
Walter Sterling and the Ocotillo crew’s latest restaurant channels Mexican influences as far north as Sonora (a Sonoran rib-eye) and as far south as Yucatan (cochinita pibil). That cochinita sears the brain, and not just with chiles. An order brings a pile of richly spiced pork that retains the animal's full charm, roasted in a banana leaf. The kicker: an arsenal of expertly pickled vegetables, including nopales, micro-thin onions, and offbeat carrots. Chantico’s al pastor is a strong, pineapple-forward rendition. Though tacos come loaded, tortillas could use a bit of work. This early discordant note is more than offset by dishes like duck leg drenched in black mole — which sees a skinless trapezoid of grilled orange to create stunning depth — a plate with flavors of alarming contrast and harmony.
Belly Kitchen and Bar4971 North 7th Avenue
One of the many ways that Belly rocks is by making simple food sing. A lemongrass-scented horchata — sugar so muted that the fragrant rice and the great perfume of the lemongrass can tango — is a drink destined to be slurped down on your drive home from scoring takeout. Consider, why not, a simple side of sautéed seasonal vegetables rippling with umami bass notes, even the meaty fist of cauliflower tender at the core. Or take the claypot-cooked chicken, dark thigh chunks and sinewy-looking strips uncommonly succulent, touched by the warmth of turmeric and a measured zap of fish sauce. The quartet behind Instrumental Hospitality, Michael Babcock, Wayne Coats, Paul Waxman, and Robert Cissell, already has their restaurant humming. And that’s without even writing about A-sides and cocktails.
Author's note: Only restaurants that opened before Thanksgiving have been considered for this piece. The rest will be in the mix next year. This year, I’ve been trying to give new restaurants extra time before eating.
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