In our series, The Essentials, we took on the ambitious task of cataloging the most quintessential dishes, drinks and food experiences that make up the culinary personality of metro Phoenix. Although it's impossible to capture everything that's uniquely great about Phoenix food and drink on a list of this size, here are 50 dishes, drinks and experiences that we think everyone should try at least once.
50: Tequila Sunrise at the Arizona Biltmore
As the legend goes, Arizona Biltmore barman Gene Sulit created the foundation for the now-classic American cocktail, the Tequila Sunrise, in the 1930s after a guest requested a tequila-based drink that was refreshing enough to drink poolside. The original formulation consists of a blend of tequila, soda water, crème de cassis, and fresh lime.
Over the years, the drink got a '70s makeover in northern California, with bartenders at the Trident Restaurant in Sausalito popularizing a version with three primary ingredients: tequila, orange juice, and grenadine. You can still find the "Original" Biltmore Tequila Sunrise at the Arizona Biltmore (both the Wright Bar and Frank & Albert's offer several versions). It still looks like a hazy desert sunrise in a tall glass, and it still tastes crisp and refreshing.
49: "Dragon" Dumpling Burger at Bitter & Twisted
Have you tried this burger?
Courtesy of Grant Crone/Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour
There may not be a more classic, and indulgent, way to experience Bitter & Twisted in downtown Phoenix than with a late-night supper consisting of executive chef Bob Tam's "Dragon" Dumpling burger.
The heart of the dish is the seared, juicy beef-pork patty adorned with ribbons of caramelized onions, draped in melted white American cheese, and delivered in a well-buttered, griddle-crisped English muffin. The smallish burger contains a world of meaty, pork-scented flavor, and tends to disappear shortly after initial contact.
48: The Dizzy Fig Empanada at República Empanada
This probably isn't the prettiest dessert you've ever seen, but that doesn't mean it's not delicious.
There are more than 20 empanadas on the República Empanana menu, which includes a strong selection of dessert empanadas. We have a soft spot for the Dizzy Fig, though. It’s stuffed with Mesa-grown figs and mozzarella cheese, and touched with a dab of rich dulce de leche – an Arizona-inspired turnover by way of South America.
47: Linguine Carbonara at Avanti
This pasta plate is on the dinner menu at a classic Italian restaurant in Phoenix.
Avanti is a good place to rediscover classic Italian fine dining in the Valley. You probably can't get more classic than the restaurant's linguine carbonara. The recipe is as well-preserved and timeless as Avanti itself: just pancetta, egg yolk, onions, and peas, bound together to pleasing, extra-creamy effect. Not too eggy, not too salty, and not too rich, the linguine carbonara is a perennial favorite from one of the Valley's most enduring Italian restaurants.
46: The Food Court at Mercado de los Cielos
So much Mexican food.
Carne asada from La Cosinita. Pizza-shaped, Oaxacan tlayudas topped with shredded beef from Tacos y Burritos Mexico. Freshly whipped fruit licuados from La Carreta de Lily. Thick, sturdy Mexico City-style machetes sealed together with cheese and squash blossoms from Macheta Azteca.
Such are the gastronomical wonders of the food court at Mercado de los Cielos, the Latin American-inspired marketplace situated at the southern end of the Desert Sky Mall in west Phoenix.
45: Chicken Feta Salad at George’s Kitchen
This salad at George's Kitchen will make you a lunchtime regular.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
One of the lunch specials at George's Kitchen, a family-owned, modern Greek eatery in uptown Phoenix, is the Chicken Feta Salad – and if you happen to develop a taste for it, you’ll often spend lunch in the sleek dining room (though delivery and takeout service is available).
The salad consists of organic mixed greens topped with tomato, onions, Kalamata olives, pepperoncini, cucumbers, and sliced bell peppers. The greens are served under a generous amount of free-range, grilled chicken breast, and enough imported French feta to satisfy even the biggest feta fiend.
44: The Baja Spinach and Feta Cheese Chimi at Mi Patio
You're probably going to want to take half of this baby home.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
Mi Patio Mexican Restaurant is an old-school Phoenix establishment that’s known for super-fast chip-and-salsa service, house-made margaritas, and some of the best smothered chimis this side of any major waterway.
A Mi Patio Especial, the Baja Spinach & Feta Cheese Chimi is one of those good-to-the-last-bite dishes. This is a deep-fried and oven-baked chimi containing and topped with the restaurant’s baja cream cheese sauce – a creamy, seafoam-green dressing that could go with just about anything on the menu.
43: Dinner at Rustler's Rooste
"Beef and brew with a view" is the unofficial slogan at this Phoenix institution.
Rustler's Rooste is the kind of place you take out-of-towners when they’re not the Scottsdale or hip, urban Phoenix type — or even if they are. It’s a cowboy restaurant with large sides, cooked-to-order steaks, and mason drinks. But there are several features unique to the Rooste, including live country music, a big shiny slide, and an incredible view of Phoenix from the restaurant's perch on South Mountain.
42: Gyro Omelet at Mel's Diner
A hearty breakfast at one of Phoenix's most famous diners.
There are so many good plates at Mel's Diner — the Spanish Skillet is wonderful, and the Chicken Fried Steak isn't half-bad. Might we suggest the Gyro Omelet, though? There aren't that many places doing a gyro omelet. But why not? The popular and delicious mystery meat (most gyro meat that isn't on a rotating spit comes packaged as a seasoned beef and lamb loaf) was made to be enjoyed with scrambled eggs. The provenance of this specific gyro meat is unclear, but there's something fitting about the idea that it might be sliced straight from a loaf. The savory, slightly fragrant meat is chopped into short strips, fried up, and blended with lots of buttery egg, tomatoes, and onions.
41: Zipps Wings
Have you had these hot wings before?
Jacob Tyler Dunn
Some wings are too fleshy, some too petite, the hot isn’t all that hot – the list goes on and on. However, there is one place – well, one place with 12 Valley locations – providing one of the better servings of wings in town. We’re talking about Zipps Sports Grill, and we're talking about Zipps Wings.
Zipps Wings come in mild, medium, hot, extra hot, or as Golden Wings. The “golden” means there’s a touch of honey and sweet stickiness mixed in with your sauce, and the house wings are buffalo-flavored, meaning just that – the familiar buffalo hot sauce that we really don’t need to explain.
40: Pizza and Wurlitzer Tunes at Organ Stop Pizza
At this classic pizza parlor, you can enjoy pizza with a side of tunes.
Organ Stop Pizza has been a local institution in Mesa for more than 40 years, and it's no ordinary pizza parlor. It offers what might be the most surreal backdrop for an evening of feasting on pizza and beer: The airy, two-story restaurant is home to the largest Wurlitzer theater organ in the world. Every evening, one of the restaurant's resident organists performs from a vast songbook of popular hits and classic movie theme songs, to an enthusiastic crowd of families and assorted music lovers.
39: Asian Nachos at Moto
Have you tried these nachos yet?
Jacob Tyler Dunn
If you’ve ever had trouble deciding between crab puffs and chips and salsa to start off your dining experience at whatever pan-Asian place you’ve been seated at, Moto makes this part easy. Choose the Asian Nachos.
This dish consists of fried wontons topped with warm cheese sauce, sour cream, salsa, and a bright green plop of fresh soybean and avocado guacamole.
38: Olive Oil Tasting at Queen Creek Olive Oil Mill
A staple of Mediterranean culture and cuisine thrives in the Arizona desert.
There are much worse ways to spend an afternoon than sampling the olive oils at the Queen Creek Olive Oil Mill, tasting the various blends like fine wine, or simply dunking hunks of crusty white bread into small plastic cups filled with the season's latest offerings. It's crowded on the weekends, sure, and depending on where you live, getting there may involve a 40-minute drive. But it's still much easier than flying to Tuscany.
37: Barbecue Baby Back Ribs at Don & Charlie's
Have you eaten these barbecue ribs in Scottsdale?
Jacob Tyler Dunn
Barbecue ribs are not exactly a hard sell. Unless you're a vegetarian, or abstaining from meat, it's hard not to be seduced by a long rack of saucy, gently charred barbecue ribs. And it's hard to think of a more tantalizing plate of ribs in Scottsdale than the ones you'll get at Don & Charlie's, a reliable Old Town chophouse with a bit of a sports obsession.
36: Limoncello at Cibo
This delicious warm-weather sipper is ideal during all eight months of the Phoenix summer.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
Many restaurants in the Valley serve beverages that are made on-site, but the house-made limoncello at Cibo Urban Pizzeria puts the attempts of even the coolest celebrities (we’re referring to the now defunct Danny DeVito’s Premium Limoncello Original) to shame.
Chef Guido Saccone has been making limoncello at Cibo since it opened in 2005, using the same recipe from his family in Italy. The lemon rinds are removed carefully and cured in the grain alcohol for two weeks. The alcohol is then drained and filtered from the lemon, and added to a simple syrup made with sugar and water.
35: Chili Salt Chicken Wings at Asian Café Express
Make a date with these extra-crispy hot wings in Mesa.
Though the entire menu at Asian Café Express is impressive, some of us need not look beyond the appetizer section. The Chili Salt Chicken Wings come as a plate of five little drums for $4, and yes, you’ll want to get your own order.
The drumettes are cooked in canola oil, and tossed in green onions, garlic, spices, and chili oil. They arrive extra crispy, while the chicken inside remains juicy. A spoon accompanies the arriving dish, designed to dole the plate’s excess green onion, garlic, and spices into the little dell created by your first bite. It’s love.
34: Smoked Prime Rib at Texaz
Arrive hungry, as a bright pink but in no way girly plate of prime rib awaits at this Valley staple.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
Despite any personal thoughts on country music, honky-tonk décor, or the Lone Star State in general, just having a seat anywhere in Texaz Grill is an essential part of visiting or residing in the Valley. And the quintessential menu item? The Smoked Prime Rib.
Found on the dinner menu (available daily from 4 to 10 p.m.), the Texaz rib roast is smoked over pecan, and cut to order on the premises from USDA Choice aged beef.
33: Steak Salad at Feeney’s
The food will bring you to this Uptown eatery, but the staff keeps you coming back.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
Most restaurant owners don’t give their incoming diners a hug just for showing up for lunch, but the people at Feeney's Restaurant & Bar do. Part of you might come to Feeney’s for the PDA, but the main reason is probably the menu – namely, the Feeney’s Steak Salad.
The Feeney's Steak Salad comes as house salad-style greens under an abundance of julienne vegetables (thin strips of veggies like carrots and red onion), tomato, cucumber slices, and juicy, sliced beef tenderloin. The dish is topped with a generous amount of feta cheese and Greek dressing.
32: Tasting Menu at Kai
Grilled tenderloin of tribal buffalo is a dinner highlight at this fine-dining destination in metro Phoenix.
Debby Wolvos Photography
A big part of what makes a meal at Kai so memorable, apart from top-notch service, is its singular menu, which weaves elements of Pima and Maricopa culture and tradition into an uncommon offering of Native American-influenced fare.
The best overview of the menu is achieved through one of the restaurant's tasting menus. There are two available – the seven-course "Short Story," and the 13-course "The Journey."
31: Toffee Banofi Sundae at Sweet Republic
What is this wondrous treat and where can you find it?
Jacob Tyler Dunn
What is one of the most photographed ice cream sundaes in metro Phoenix? The Toffee Banofi Sundae at Sweet Republic.
The popular artisanal ice cream shop, with two locations in the Valley (plus a location at Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor), has been making this signature sundae for almost a decade. It was notably featured a few years ago on the Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Ate
, where none other than Alton Brown named it one of his favorite all-time ice cream treats.
30: Big Jim at Welcome Diner
Homemade biscuit, anyone?
Jacob Tyler Dunn
If you put together a master list of the most memorable sandwiches around town, surely the Big Jim at Welcome Diner would make the cut. It's probably the diner's standard-bearer sandwich, and one of the most breathtakingly indulgent dishes around downtown Phoenix.
It starts with a homemade biscuit, which gently flakes and melts across your palate. Squeezed inside the biscuit, there's a very tender piece of buttermilk fried chicken, topped with a thick, peppery gravy and a slice of melted cheddar cheese. A couple of strips of crisp bacon are squeezed in there, unabashedly adding another layer of texture, salt, and flavor to every bite.
29: Sonoran Hot Dog at El Caprichoso
You haven't really experienced Arizona-Sonora food until you've eaten this hot dog.
If there is a patron saint of the Sonoran dog in metro Phoenix, it would probably be Aureliano Dominguez, who is credited with being one of the first Sonoran dog vendors in metro Phoenix, and also helping organize the fight to keep mobile hot dog carts legal on the streets of Phoenix.
Dominguez is the owner of El Caprichoso, which currently has four locations around the Valley, and which sells one of the most credible and consistently well-constructed Sonoran dogs in metro Phoenix.
28: Sashimi at Nobuo at Teeter House
Every bite is a small explosion of flavor at this downtown Phoenix restaurant.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
There is much to love about dining at Nobuo at Teeter House.
For an indelible taste of chef Nobuo Fukuda's mastery of flavor, though, try some sashimi. The bite-sized servings of raw fish, which more typically feature ingredients like wasabi and soy, here become showpieces for the chef's creativity and deftness. Fukuda's sashimis often feature unconventional ingredients like vegetables, nuts, olive oil, and even cheese. They come artfully arranged on white ceramic spoons, designed to be eaten from the back, and experienced as a single, complex, and multi-sensory bite.
27: Oysters at Casey Moore’s Oyster House
Legend has it you can feast with a resident ghost at this long-time Tempe haunt.
Sometimes you’re so used to calling it simply “Casey’s” you forget the whole Moore’s Oyster House part, but probably not the oysters themselves. Though a popular drinking spot for locals, the 1983-established, estate-like spot at Ninth Street and Ash Avenue has more to offer than cocktails and conversation.
Though located in Old Town Tempe in the middle of Arizona, Casey’s has a seafood section on the menu titled “Casey’s Favorites.” Here’s where you’ll find your oysters. The selections includes oyster shooters, fried oysters, and Oysters Rockefeller, which require diners to allow 30 to 35 minutes. They’re baked in Casey Moore’s own Mornay sauce, and come topped with spinach and bacon bits. This being a college bar, don’t be surprised to see an oyster get slurped out of some gal’s bellybutton. It happens.
26: Spring Rolls at Da Vang
The spring rolls at Da Vang are hefty, shaped like fat, oversized cigars, and an order constitutes a small meal unto itself. They have a bracing herbal freshness that comes from the leaves of fresh mint hugging the large shrimp and hunks of savory pork. The rice paper wrapper is neither rubbery or slippery, and some peanut sauce on the side draws out even more flavor. All that fresh flavor encased within dewy rice paper, and accessibly priced at about $3 for an order of two — it almost seems too good to be true.