By Dominic Armato (Dmnkly)
“Pitchers and Catchers Report” takes on a very different meaning when you move from Chicago to Phoenix. No longer a harbinger of less frigid weather, it is instead a reminder that hot summer is about to give way to very, very, very hot summer and soon we will all be on fire. But before we combust, there’s the glorious month of March, when the skies are a brilliant blue, Phoenix is the center of the baseball universe (sorry, Florida), and those in the restaurant business are never more content to be so exhausted.
It’s been an unusually lively offseason for Chicago baseball fans, and the wisest among them will surely be visiting Phoenix for Spring Training, a time when their faith in their teams can’t be shaken by the pesky reality of the standings. Of course, we all know it’s the <REDACTED> fans who really have cause to be excited about the 2015 season, but hey, everybody’s gotta eat, right? So if you’re making the pilgrimage this year, here are some Phoenix restaurants that I’m always especially happy to share with visitors from back home.
It could be argued that the incredible diversity and depth of the Mexican scene back home makes Arizona’s unique brand of border Mex a less pressing concern for Chicago visitors, but it’s nonetheless one of the cornerstones of the local food scene, and there are some tasty and interesting standouts for those who are looking to get a sense of the local flavor.
8338 N. 7th Street
Phoenix, AZ 85020
A little Mom and Pop joint that’s been around for over thirty years, El Bravo exemplifies the modified Sonoran that typifies Arizona Mex. In addition to benchmark dishes like chimichangas and green and red chile, El Bravo does an especially good machaca burro, flecked with egg, peppers, and onions, and some mighty fine green corn tamales, brimming with the unadulterated sweetness of fresh corn.
1202 E. Mohave Street
Phoenix, AZ 85034
In Arizona, they’re burros, not burritos, and they’re the antithesis of the Mission-style monsters, stripped down, sparingly filled with very few ingredients, and all about the freshness of the tortillas. Ask Phoenix natives where to get the best flour tortillas, and nine out of ten will tell you the original Carolina’s on Mohave, though that has as much to do with the fact that they’re made to order as anything. Carolina’s is a crusty little joint that’s jam-packed at lunchtime with an impressively diverse crowd. The red or green chile burros are the most classic choices, though I’m rather fond of the Oaxaca special, made with chorizo and potatoes. It’s also home to a mean chimichanga, and is one of the few places in town that has the sense not to ruin that crispy shell by smothering it with melted cheese.
El Horseshoe Restaurant
2140 W. Buckeye Road
Phoenix, AZ 85009
A personal favorite that hasn’t gotten much in the way of local recognition, El Horseshoe is like a Sonoran lunch counter minus the counter. A dusty dive with a parking lot full of pickup trucks, it’s home to really simple food and a colorful crowd. Notably, it’s the only place I’ve found that serves a true dry machaca, served up like crispy, griddled beef jerky hash rather than the reconstituted pot roast that too many places make. I’m also a big fan of the chilaquiles, precisely because so little goes into them.
7328 E. 2nd Street
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
No matter how prepared you think you are for saucy and cheesy, you are not prepared enough. My personal interest in Los Olivos is more anthropological than culinary, but if one is looking for a shining example of the messier, more Americanized end of the Arizona Mexican spectrum, Los Olivos is it. I will, however, stand up to defend their cheese crisp, another signature Arizona Mex dish, that’s essentially a pizza-sized nacho. A huge buttery crisp flour tortilla smothered in yellow cheese, it’s long on greasy charm.
Phoenix isn’t a fine dining town. When it comes to highly refined cuisine, the chefs who are capable of producing it almost seem to outnumber the diners who are interested in eating it. But there are some outstanding joints that have managed to thrive, and would turn heads in any major city.
5594 W. Wild Horse Pass Boulevard
Chandler, AZ 85226
The draw at Kai, aside from the fact that it turns out some mighty delicious food, is that it makes a mission of working obscure local ingredients into a fine dining context. Cholla buds, mesquite flour, saguaro syrup, tepary beans, and a bunch of other ingredients that aren’t well-known outside of the region can be found here. It’s contemporary cuisine, but the Native American touches are really interesting to see.
7001 N. Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85253
Shinji Kurita is a rock star. Okay, he isn’t, but he should be, and in a lot of other cities, he would be. He puts out some absolutely stunning refined, contemporary Japanese cuisine that’s a surprisingly good value for what the restaurant charges. There’s no sense in doing anything other than the omakase, and his Tsukuri Six — a collection of six sashimi creations — is heartstopping.
7167 E. Rancho Vista Drive
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
I always feel compelled to disclose that chef/owner Josh Hebert is a good friend, and then mention in the same breath that the reason we became good friends is because I love his food so damn much. The hook here is Josh’s “improvisational cuisine,” which acts as a way to draw in folks who might ordinarily be resistant to a tasting menu-only establishment. Diners are asked to select a number of courses, and given a ballot with key ingredients that they can circle or cross out to express their preferences. Needless to say, the smart play is to send it back blank. Josh’s main influences are French and Japanese, and he plates highly-refined food that keys in on wonderfully creative pairings and eschews overcomplication. Posh is also home to the best kitchen counter in town, and when service is winding down, the crew’s an awful lot of fun to chat with.
For the “nice but not too nice” evenings, here are a few that should be on any LTHer’s radar.
7125 E. 5th Avenue
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Helmed by one of this year’s Beard semifinalists, Charleen Badman (she’d better make the final cut, and she deserves a win), FnB is one of the places I’m most proud to take visitors from out of town. It’s a warm and convivial place with some killer food and wine. Charleen’s thing is vegetables, and though she does beautiful things with meat (especially lamb), this is one of the few places where I could eat every day for a week and never miss animal protein. Her vegetable dishes tend to be bold creations, and she does enough to make them interesting (no figs on a plate, here), while ensuring that the perfect produce she acquires doesn’t lose its natural beauty. Meanwhile, her partner in crime Pavle Milic makes everybody who walks in the front door feel like a rock star, and as Arizona’s chief local wine geek, he’s the perfect pusher for anybody who would like to learn about an underrated wine producing region of the country. It’s been my great fortune to get to know these two over the years, and I can’t say enough good things about what they do here.
3603 E. Indian School Road
Phoenix, AZ 85018
Please trust that this is not a joke when I say that Cullen Campbell first launched Crudo in the lobby of a hair salon. Sadly, if not unexpectedly, that location never quite caught on. But he relocated to a beautiful, cavernous space a few years back, and Crudo is now one of the hottest tables in town, with good reason. His food is Italian-inspired, though only as a jumping-off point, with a heavy emphasis on seafood, a rarity around these parts. Of particular note are the clean, creative crudi, the killer crispy pig ears (best bar snack ever), and any cocktail made by Micah, one of the best barkeeps in town.
The Breadfruit / Rumbar
108 E. Pierce Street
Phoenix, AZ 85004
With the caveat that I’m not highly experienced when it comes to Jamaican cuisine, I’ve really fallen in love with The Breadfruit, which takes Caribbean flavors and puts them in an unusually refined context. It’s run by a husband and wife team, Danielle holding down the kitchen while Dwayne — a rum savant if ever there were one — tends the jaw-dropping collection of spirits next door. The food is delightful, the cocktails are outstanding, and last I checked this wasn’t a genre that was particularly well-represented back in Chicago.
6335 N. 16th Street
Phoenix, AZ 85016
6008 N. 16th Street
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Sister restaurants separated by less than a block and a couple levels of formality, Richardson’s and Dick’s Hideaway are the local standard-bearers for New Mexican food. The menus at the two establishments are very similar, but Richardson’s is the more refined affair, whereas Dick’s is a cozy cave of a restaurant with a lot of high tops and a big roaring fire. The food is predictably chile-obsessed, and dishes like the carne adovada and the green chile stew are standouts.
If the GNRs were to extend to Phoenix metro, these are the spots that I suspect would catch LTH’s fancy.
SW Corner of Indian School Road and Alma School Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85256
Not to be confused with the burger joint of the same name in Arcadia, The Stand is on the dusty corner of Indian School and Alma School, on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. It is, quite literally, a thatched-roof shack that serves up frybread tacos and other Mexican-influenced Native American foods to folks who drive up, park, and sit down on a tree stump to eat their lunch. It’s more about the experience than the food, but the food’s good, and it’s a truly unique experience.
7814 N. 27th Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85051
To the right, a North African grocery. To the left, a clothing store filled to the brim with multicolored silk and sequins. Crammed into the middle, six small tables served by the same remarkable woman who runs all three, usually by herself. What a find this Moroccan joint is, with rich and meaty tagines, piles of steaming couscous, and a b’stilla that makes me weak in the knees. She doesn’t like surrendering the kitchen to anybody else and the dishes are huge, so plan on lingering for a long time, bring a small army to help, and don’t skip the kunafeh when it’s time for dessert. And have a lemonade while you’re there. No, really.
New Mexican Grill
3107 S. Lindsay Road
Gilbert, AZ 85295
Though the Chandler location recently closed, the original in Gilbert is still operating, and this is the downscale counterpart to Richardson’s and Dick’s. A small counter service joint, they make straight-up New Mexican specialties, and a big bowl of green chile pork stew with a piece of frybread is a thing of beauty.
Andreoli Italian Grocer
8880 E. Via Linda
Scottsdale, AZ 85258
Before Guy Fieri anointed this place with his frosted tips, this was one of the most criminally underappreciated places in town. And while hearing that Andreoli would be featured on Triple D was kind of like finding out that your mom is dating the manager of the local strip club, there’s nobody in town more deserving of recognition than Giovanni Scorzo. Andreoli, his mother’s maiden name, is a little Italian grocery with two patios, a couple dozen tables, and a chef who makes some of the best simple, no-frills, trattoria-style Italian I’ve had stateside. Originally from Calabria and trained in the north of Italy, he bakes his own bread, cures his own meats, produces his own fresh cheeses, does his own pastry, and otherwise offers my favorite Italian food in town. Though the regular menu has some killer dishes (don’t overlook the patatine fritte like I did), the white board with the daily specials is where the action is. Bring this guy to Chicago and Andreoli is a first ballot GNR. That said, hands off. You can’t have him.
Cafe Ga Hyang
4362 W. Olive Avenue
Glendale, AZ 85302
It won’t knock the socks off people who are accustomed to L.A. Korean, but Ga Hyang is a special place to the Phoenix food nerds. In addition to being one of the few spots that’s open past 10:00 p.m. (2 a.m. on most nights), Sun and Nick make outstanding pajeon, duk boki, mul naeng myun, and some truly exceptional banchan, not to mention a number of other favorites. Some folks have a hard time getting past the fact that there are no table grills and no beer or liquor, but those who do are the smart ones. Nothing else in town touches this.
66 S. Dobson Road
Mesa, AZ 85202
Phoenix’s Asian population isn’t highly centralized, so Mekong Plaza in Mesa — a large indoor mall anchored by an Asian supermarket and filled with restaurants of various Eastern persuasions — acts as a de facto Chinatown. My favorite joint therein is a food court stall called Hue Gourmet, which is fascinating in that it focuses on the foods of central Vietnam rather than the southern that dominates most of the scene. They do an outstanding bun bo hue, unusually good banh beo, and a lot of interesting dishes like mi quang, com hen, banh canh cua, chao long, and a horde of odd central Vietnamese specialties that I’ve not seen anywhere else.
Little Miss BBQ
4301 E. University Drive
Phoenix, AZ 85034
Holy Texas brisket. Little Miss took Phoenix by storm last year, and it’s gotten to the point that hardcore ‘cue heads from Texas are driving across New Mexico just to see what’s what. Pitmaster Scott Holmes (a good friend) married into a central Texas family, and decided to bring it to Phoenix. The fatty brisket is knee-buckling. The sausage is damn good, and any of the pork products would be standouts at any other BBQ joint. Little Miss BBQ is special, and the best part is that Phoenix recognizes that. But plan on getting there early, and waiting.
623 E. Adams Street
Phoenix, AZ 85004
I know, I know, as though Chicagoans need to go to Phoenix for good pizza. But Chris Bianco is arguably the godfather of American wood-fired pizza, and couple of decades ago he set the bar so high that Phoenix now has a freakishly strong wood-fired pizza scene. March will mean waiting for a table, but the three hour waits are a thing of the past, due to the fact that he’s now serving pizza out of three locations — the original in Heritage Square, the second location in the Town & Country mall, and the meatless pizzas out of his sister restaurant, Pane Bianco (which, incidentally, is a fabulous place to get a sandwich on freshly-baked bread). Follow your instincts when choosing pizzas, but don’t skip the rosa, with meltaway threads of red onion and an abundance of toasted pistachios.
8900 E. Pinnacle Peak Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85255
For those staying at the resorts in North Scottsdale, there’s no better stop than LAMP. Matt Pilato is one of the many local wood-fired pizzaioli who have been inspired by Bianco, but his style is his own, and it’s magnificent. He has the kind of obsessive attention to detail and inability to ever be completely pleased with his work that makes for perfect pizza. Also not to be missed is the mignulata, a rolled Sicilian bread filled with cauliflower, onions, sausage, and cheese that’s sliced on the bias and toasted for an incredible combination of flavors and textures. I consider LAMP among the best pizzerias in town, and there have been times that I’ve gone and had nothing but the mignulata.
Welcome Chicken + Donuts
1535 E. Buckeye Road
Phoenix, AZ 85034
We’re a little behind on this whole chicken and donuts thing, but I like to think Welcome Chicken + Donuts is doing a bang up job of making up for lost time. The coating is impossibly crisp — heavy on the rice flour? — served with a choice of three Asian sauces (the ode to fish sauce that is the Vietnamese is my favorite), and the chicken within drips with juice when you bite into it. They also offer a score of creative donut concoctions, and it’s really hard to walk out the door without sampling at least three.
924 E. Roosevelt Street
Phoenix, AZ 85006
From the same folks as Welcome Chicken + Donuts, this is one of the best late night options in town, a charming little eight seat diner with a yard full of picnic tables. Sit outside under the lanterns, have a hurricane, pound some poutine, and get a great burger or biscuit sandwich.
In addition to Hue Gourmet, mentioned above, here are some other LTH-worthy joints near (and in) the Cubs’ ballpark.
66 S. Dobson Road
Mesa, AZ 85209
As mentioned, Mekong Plaza isn’t a restaurant, but rather a large indoor mall with a number of Asian restaurants. In addition to Hue Gourmet, some other favorites include the crispy rice dishes in searing stone pots and fish soups served at Deer Garden Signatures, the solid dim sum at Mekong Palace, and the grilled Filipino meats at Wholly Grill. Also, a new Chinese stall called Heng’s Kitchen has recently opened in the food court, and the early buzz is good.
1620 W. University Drive
Mesa, Arizona 85201
Run by a Pueblan family, Huauchinango makes some fabulous fried quesadillas, some mean enmoladas, and a dish I’m especially fond of called Pollo en Chiltepín con Cacahuate. It’s crisply fried chicken in a sauce of crunchy peanuts and spicy dried chiletpín peppers, and once you add a little salt (it always arrives undersalted), it’s a really delightful dish.
2330 W Rio Salado Pkwy
Mesa, AZ 85201
The best thing to eat in Sloan Park, bar none, is the pork tenderloin sandwich from Chuckie’s, a food truck from Iowa that parks in the outfield for the month of March.
Camelback Ranch isn’t in the most chow-friendly part of town, but here are a few good stops that aren’t too far away.
10565 W. Indian School Road
Avondale, AZ 85323
The presentation is a little slick for a torta shop (it’s been derisively, and perhaps a little unfairly, referred to as the Subway of torta shops), but Paquime is a local mini-chain that makes some tasty sandwiches and some nice chamoyadas as well.
9915 W. McDowell Road
Avondale, AZ 85392
If you’re jonesing for some vertical meat, Pita Kitchen is an unusually competent curator of the cone. The shawarma’s where it’s at, though, since that cone is actually constructed of freshly marinated slabs of meat. Neither are traditional Mediterranean bliss, but they make tasty sandwiches with care, and it’s a good option in an area that’s teeming with chain restaurants.
La Pasadita Hot Dogs
8243 W. Indian School Road
Phoenix, AZ 85303
Though it isn’t the finest specimen, those wishing to sample a Sonoran hot dog — wrapped in bacon and topped with beans, onions, chopped tomato, mustard, mayonnaise, jalapeño salsa, and a griddled guero chile — can get a pretty decent one at La Pasadita. They don’t compare to the griddled beauties you can find down in Tucson, but they’ll scratch the itch.
Excellent options all, and there are plenty more. Though Phoenix has earned a reputation as a proving ground for chain restaurants, the dining scene is deep for those who care enough to look. Of course, hardcore baseball fans know that no matter how cheap the dog, no matter how stale the bun, no matter how skimpy the condiments, the first ballpark dog of the season always ends up being the best bite of spring training. And you don’t need a Phoenix-based food nerd to help you find that one.