Welcome to The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.
32: Tasting Menu at Kai
It's hard to find a grander fine-dining experience in Arizona than the one you'll find at Kai, the marquee restaurant at the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler.
One of the restaurant's major selling points is its perennial status as the only AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five Star restaurant in Arizona, accolades earned for its consistently high level of service and memorable menu.
Highly decorated and quietly elegant, Kai has become a bucket-list destination for both local gourmands and tourists. 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.
Heirloom Arizona ingredients, game, and vegetables that have been sourced locally from the Gila River Indian Community frequently make an appearance on the plate. The hyper-regional philosophy writ across the menu never feels gimmicky or clunky; courses are usually so finely tuned, artful, and delicious, a long meal here can leave you feeling pleasantly worn down by the time the dessert course rolls around.
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."
The courses come in carefully measured succession, with dishes like Mesquite Charred Hahl soup, served with buffalo brisket cooked for 32 hours, and wrapped in the softly spicy richness of I'itoi onions.
The Three Sisters, a take on the traditional squash-maize-beans trinity, features Red Supai corn pasta, Kuri squash, and a white tepary bean crackling, supplemented with mesquite-smoked caviar and wild scallops. Perhaps the most popular course is the grilled tenderloin of tribal buffalo, a gorgeously cooked lean steak skillfully paired with saguaro blossom syrup.
The tasting menu at Kai is a somewhat extravagant feast, and the bill is often extravagant, too. All that wonderful service and food does not come cheap. The restaurant's abbreviated tasting menu starts at $135, without wine pairings, and the longer tasting menu starts at $225.
Is Kai accessible to everyone? Hardly. For many of us, dining at Kai is something to aspire to, something to save for, or else something that will never quite make sense if you abide by an innate sense of thriftiness.
Will dinner at Kai deliver the sort of meal you never forget, though? Probably.
The Essentials so far:
50: Tequila Sunrise at the Arizona Biltmore.
49: "Dragon" Dumpling Burger at Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour.
48: Dizzy Fig Empanada at Republica Empanada.
47: Linguine Carbonara at Avanti.
46: The Food Court at Mercado de los Cielos.
45: Chicken Feta Salad at George’s Kitchen.
44: Spinach & Cheese Chimi Burro at Mi Patio Mexican Restaurant.
43: Dinner at Rustler's Rooste.
42: Gyro Omelet at Mel's Diner.
41: Zipps Wings at Zipps Sports Grill.
40: Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa.
39: Asian Nachos at Moto.
38: Olive Oil Tasting at Queen Creek Olive Oil Mill.
37: Baby Back Ribs at Don & Charlie's.
36: Limoncello at Cibo.
35: Chili Salt Chicken Wings at Asian Café Express.
34: Smoked Prime Rib at Texaz.
33: Steak Salad at Feeney's.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.