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The Judges’ Verdict on Every Dish at Devour Culinary Classic 2020

Gallo Blanco Cafe with some double gold tacos.EXPAND
Gallo Blanco Cafe with some double gold tacos.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Devour Culinary Classic's goal is to highlight Arizona's culinary talent and work to elevate chefs and restaurants to the national stage. To do this, Local First Arizona assembles a judging panel consisting of food critics and writers from around the country each year. This year's judges included writers from the San Francisco Chronicle, TripSavvy, The James Beard Foundation, Thrive Global, Phoenix Magazine, and the former restaurant critic from the Arizona Republic.

After a weekend sifting through evidence — some 100 dishes from 55 restaurants — the Devour Culinary Classic 2020 judges have rendered their decisions.

Of course, there was lots of debate. But for the most part — with a few notable exceptions — all five of us were mostly on the same page. We judges were Howard Seftel (Phoenix), Astrid Taran (New York), Jillian Dara (Boston), Carey Sweet (San Francisco), Christina Barrueta (Phoenix, judging Saturday), and Craig Outhier (Phoenix, judging Sunday).

We originally divided the medalists into four categories: gold, silver, bronze, and no medal. But then we added a fifth, double gold, for those restaurants receiving a unanimous gold medal ranking from all the judges.

A few thoughts on the 2020 festival:

First, the Arizona restaurant scene is ramping up. A flock of talented newcomers have started pushing their way into the culinary conversation. While we have always had a formidable shortlist of world-class dining destinations and James Beard Award-winning chefs, the newcomers at the 2020 Devour festival suggest we’re on our way to having the kind of deep restaurant bench that could someday turn us into a top-tier restaurant town.

Valley restaurants are also more globalized than ever. This year’s Devour showcased an astonishing array of ingredients from every corner of the planet, imaginatively brought together. A Cajun-Vietnamese spring roll? Indo-Mexican tacos? You saw these one-of-a-kind dishes here.

Finally, desserts really pushed their way to the forefront this year. In other years, I didn’t waste my belly room filling up on them. This year, though, there was no resisting the sweet temptations. They beat the judges into glorious submission.

One of the many options from Hana Japanese Eatery.EXPAND
One of the many options from Hana Japanese Eatery.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Double Gold Medal Winners

Che Ah Chi at the Enchantment Resort (Sedona)

A symphony of harmonized flavor: pork belly with corn custard, a touch of cherry agave and a crunchy sprinkle of chicharrones. Also, a first-rate chocolate-covered carrot cake pop.

Flint by Baltaire

Meltingly tender and flavorful short rib nestled on hummus, with a zesty dab of harissa.

Hana Japanese Eatery

A five-way powerhouse from Chef Lori Hashimoto: sake-marinated mackerel; an astonishing miso-marinated radish slotted with Camembert; a lotus root “sandwich” filled with shrimp and shiitake; a brilliant, baseball-sized, charcoal-grilled tsukune surrounding an oozy soft-boiled egg; and a doughnut topped with lemon-zested red bean glaze.

Gallo Blanco/Otro Cafe

Chef Doug Robson brings his “A” game every year. This year, it was a mouthwatering goat taco with slivered cabbage and a pungently complex salsa on a homemade blue corn tortilla.

Wigwam Resort

This is what the Southwest is all about: pork belly with creamed corn, pickled corn, and crunchy, chile-seasoned dried corn.

Gold Medal Winners

Across the Pond

It may have sounded simple — coffee-cured salmon on sushi rice. But it was also simply perfect.

Clever Koi

It takes imagination to dream up, and courage to serve clam tartare with a dollop of butternut squash. The imagination and courage handsomely paid off.

Cotton & Copper

An irresistible root vegetable and oyster chowder followed by a brilliant apricot vinegar pie that left the judges gasping.

Cress on Oak Creek (Sedona)

Which did the judges prefer: the mango almond bar with toasted coconut, or the clever “parfait” with a berry beetroot core flecked with honey nut granola? Who cares? They were both fabulous.

Fellow Osteria

Sardinian gnocchi in a ravishingly flavorful sauce, brightened with ground octopus and pancetta, took us where pasta seldom goes.

Lincoln Steakhouse at Camelback Inn

Jack Strong, who helped turn Kai into a national powerhouse, unleashed his skills with a surf and turf duo: lobster inside an escargot shell and a magnificent beef tongue popover goosed up with cholla buds.

Loews Ventana Canyon (Tucson)

Smoked pork belly slider on a foie-lined biscuit, with green chile and slaw, pressed every taste button.

Proof at Four Seasons

Grilled strawberry corncake with candied jalapenos and honey cream? Yup, it was every bit as good as it sounds.

Sweet Republic

The Valley’s premier ice cream shop never phones it in. This year: vanilla ice cream in krumkake cones, chicory coffee ice cream in a craquelin choux, and a killer gin-and-tonic Popsicle.

T. Cook’s at Royal Palms Resort

Yet another dessert triumph, called the Arcadia Orange Bombe, a ball of hazelnut dacquoise and white chocolate ganache infused with a jolly amount of Grand Marnier.

Vecina

The “Taco Arabe” was a thickish tortilla creatively filled with short rib smoothed in curry leaf cream. Weird Indo-Mexican fusion? Maybe. But it worked.

Beckett's Table served the VIPs of Devour Culinary Classic.EXPAND
Beckett's Table served the VIPs of Devour Culinary Classic.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Silver Medal Winners

Aioli Gourmet Burgers

Nothing was more polarizing for the judges than the hamburger offerings. Some judges loved this two-handed burger lashed with peanut sauce, candied bacon, and a hearty helping of berry jam. Some judges didn’t. A silver medal reflects the division.

Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company

Devour’s other hamburger entry created more judicial conflict. This burger also had a peanut butter component, albeit more restrained than Aioli’s, along with jalapeno bacon jam. For the record, I loved it.

Beckett’s Table and Southern Rail

Served in the VIP area, the big spenders didn’t get shortchanged by the fragrant chicken and sausage jambalaya and piping-hot beignets. The nearby cocktail lounge with French 75s, sazeracs, and hurricanes added to the fun.

Café Lalibela

The two Ethiopian dishes, tikil gomen and doro wat, served atop injera, delivered an authentic taste of the homeland.

Citizen Public House/The Gladly

A battery of chef talent supplied plenty of bang for the buck with four dishes. The judges all loved both the refreshing crab salad zipped with a bit of chile, and the porky Cuban nachos with outstanding house-made pickles. Some of us (like me) were more enthusiastic about the somewhat quirky pasta amatriciana than others; the duck breast with Brussels sprouts slaw didn’t make quite as much of an impression.

The Dressing Room

A very pleasant little mouthful: creamy chicken liver pate topped with jam and pickle mustard on a piece of sourdough. A nice idea for a canape at your next dinner party.

Dust Cutter at Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel

There was no shortage of pork belly at Devour 2020, but no one could have any issues with the lovely morsel here, teamed with masa and touch of chorizo.

Fuego Bistro

A two-way delight: green chile cornbread flanked by pernil asado and cola-braised short rib.

Gertrude’s

Only the underwhelming tortilla held back this otherwise wonderful braised lamb taco festively topped with quark, pickled onion, and cabbage. Plus, there was a terrific lime tart dessert.

Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa

Give the Hyatt points for bravely bringing a meat-free “impossible” meatball here. But only vegetarians would appreciate the taste. However, the Hyatt’s other dish — diver scallop over squid-ink fideo — was everything you could hope for.

Josephine.

Isn’t America great? A Cajun-Vietnamese spring roll filled with crawfish, shrimp, and Chinese sausage. Fusion? Confusion? Hey, it worked for us.

Joyride Taco House

The well-crafted combo of lamb barbacoa with punchy poblano grits put the “joy” in Joyride.

JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa

The cooks got the tender, red-wine braised octopus exactly right, and potato salad and smoked cauliflower puree kicked it up a notch.

the Larder + the Delta

Saturday’s muffaletta sandwich, gilded with a fermented cayenne pepper olive spread, was a handsome mouthful. (Note: Sunday’s whole roasted pig etouffee was so popular that it was devoured before the judges arrived.)

Marigold Maison Indian Café

Indian standards like chicken tikka masala and dahl puri weren’t going to wow anyone with their originality. But they were undeniably tasty.

Meritage Urban Bistro (JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge)

Short rib was a featured ingredient at lots of booths. And it got pampered treatment here, braised in red wine and paired with a sweet corn puree.

Merkin Vineyards Osteria

This booth pretty much had us at “wild boar.” And the creamy polenta and crunchy corn nuts only added to the pleasure.

Piazza Romana

You thought pizza couldn’t get better? Roman-style pizza — it’s the new big pizza trend — may change your mind. The key is the dough: lighter, fluffier than regular pizza crust, but still with a bit of crunch and chew. It’s expertly done here and, when topped with the likes of sopressata and honey, is an instant mood-enhancer.

Roka Akor

Watching octopus grilling over mesquite got us primed. And Roka Akor pulled it off the flames at just the right moment, then lightly ornamented it with chile crema.

Sel's clam ceviche did its part.EXPAND
Sel's clam ceviche did its part.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Sel

It was more clam cocktail than clam ceviche, but it doesn’t really matter. To my mind, the clams plus the prickly pear, apple cider jus, trout roe, and yuzu-prosecco gelee added up to more than the sum of its parts.

Shift (Flagstaff)

The judges were all over the map, from raves to shrugs, over the rabbit and pea pasta pouches. So, we settled on silver.

Stock & Stable

A wagyu meatball, seasoned with fish sauce, on a stick? In its own way, it made all the judges happy.

Sushi Roku

It was a bit of Japanese minimalism — chile-flecked shrimp atop sushi rice. But there was nothing minimal about the tasty result.

WILD Arizona Cuisine

This soon-to-open restaurant from the folks at recently closed Cartwright’s put together a one-of-a-kind morsel fashioned out of goats’ milk bread topped with smoked trout, tepary bean, and nopales. Keep your eye on this place.

Worth Takeaway

Buffalo-fried chicken sliders at a fancy food festival? The judges didn’t care. Crisp, crunchy, and topped with a snappy blue cheese sauce, this hefty sandwich got us all longing for a beer and the time to enjoy the experience.

ZuZu at Hotel Valley Ho

People-pleasin’ (and judge pleasin’) empanadas stuffed with beef cheek, green chile pork, and white bean puree. Good stuff.

Samplings from J&G Steakhouse.EXPAND
Samplings from J&G Steakhouse.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Bronze Medal Winners

Artizen at the Camby Hotel

In an event with plenty of standout short ribs, the chile-braised short rib here just didn’t seem to pack enough oomph.

Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour

The base of duck fat fried rice was fine, but the judges were a bit put off by the texture of egg custard tofu and the somewhat harsh mapo sauce.

Frites Street

Sometimes it doesn’t pay to over-complicate things. The beef and truffle shavings sort of got in the way of the basic French fry goodness.

J&G Steakhouse at The Phoenician

Yes, the steaks and seafood at this restaurant are top-notch. But it’s really hard to create a memorable, wow-inducing moment from a bite-size taste.

Los Sombreros

This restaurant is capable of doing more than pedestrian carnitas next to a mound of pedestrian guacamole.

Mi Catering

A pair of burritos, one filled with chile Colorado pork, the other a vegetarian model, didn’t make a bad impression. The problem was they hardly made an impression at all.

Modern Tortilla

Rotisserie-spun pork al pastor should be crisp, juicy, and packed with flavor. This pork didn’t measure up.

The Parlor Pizzeria

A surprisingly wan effort from a restaurant that usually knocks it out of the park. The pasta pouches filled with chicken piccata didn’t have much energy.

Prep & Pastry

It’s hard for breakfast fare to stand out at an event like Devour. And the duck hash didn’t.

Sandfish Sushi & Whiskey

Opening later this year in central Phoenix, this place missed the mark with a yellowfin tuna tostada. The culprit? A misguided feta cheese sprinkle that clashed more than it helped.

No Medal

Welcome Diner

This otherwise appealing restaurant seemed to be phoning it in with its energy-free pulled pork with red cabbage.

Loews Ventana Canyon Resort from Tucson sources responsibly.EXPAND
Loews Ventana Canyon Resort from Tucson sources responsibly.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Bonus — Most Sustainable Restaurants

In addition, Local First worked with executive chef and co-owner of The Breadfruit & Rum Bar, Danielle Leoni, an advocate for sustainable seafood, to critique chefs on their sustainability practices and food sourcing.

Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company Co.

Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. brought us a grass-fed burger using Arizona beef and works closely with ranchers to support best practices. The team also sources from the non-GMO and organic Noble Bread. These sustainability practices are seen throughout both restaurants and are certified by city of Phoenix Green Business Leader Program.

Gallo Blanco / Otro Café

Chef Doug Robson offered cabrito tacos using Crow's Dairy goat that is local, meets organic standards, and takes great care while raising its herd. For Chef Doug Robson, bringing us the best tortilla means handmade from organic blue corn.

JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa

Starr Pass Resort as a rule checks with Seafood Watch to make sure the seafood served is green-rated — meaning it has the smallest impact on our oceans and fisheries. The restaurant collaborates with organic farmers from the Tohono O’odham nation to grow, feed, and produce sustainable items.

Loews Ventana Canyon Resort

Loews Ventana Canyon Resort not only sources responsibly, but also works directly with pork ranchers to improve sustainable practices and uses heritage grain sourced from Hayden Flour Mills in Queen Creek.

WILD Arizona Cuisine

Chef Brett Vibber brought us green-rated Riverence trout raised by a family-owned Idaho inland farm — the team members behind which are known as environmental stewards. Vibber forages, uses local ingredients, and presents creative uses of Native ingredients.

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Local First Arizona offers online tools like Good Food Finder and Green Business Certification programs to highlight Arizona's culinary scene and sustainability efforts during the rest of the year. For more information, visit the Local First Arizona and Local First Arizona Foundation websites.

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