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A cinnamon- and sugar-dusted bastilla from Alzohour Market

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When Did Phoenix Become a Great American Food City?

The fifth-largest city in the U.S. is more than just a one-pizzeria town

What makes a great modern food city in America? Over the nearly five years I roamed the country as Eater’s national critic, this question almost involuntarily rumbled through my brain. Some standout criteria are obvious: A city’s dining culture needs baselines of excellence and eclecticism in every tier of restaurant. It needs first-rate grocers, farmers markets, and single-focus shops (coffee, ice cream, wine, bread, and pastries). Restaurant-goers should support culinary traditions but, at the same time, encourage creative momentum. And the “sense of place” about which food writers love to crow must include an innate respect for a city’s collective communities, both rooted and new.

But at some point during my wanderings, I realized greatness might boil down to the Long Weekend Theory. The core hypothesis is this: In most every American city with a sizable population and sufficient degree of cultural density, you can eat (and drink) with consistent pleasure throughout three leisure-filled days.

Almost anywhere, for example, you could kick off Friday at the irreverent cocktail bar; fill the major meal slots with the buzziest restaurant in town, the big-ticket splurge, and the indie marvels serving regional dishes from, say, Mexico, or Thailand, or Syria; go crazy at the do-what-we-want sandwich shop serving delicious monstrosities; moon over the soulful pie counter or the ice cream parlor concocting mind-jangling flavor combinations; and wrap it all up with one final blowout at the coolest breakfast hangout in town.

So the real test of a superior food city is, what would happen if you kept eating past the dreamy Monday-morning breakfast?

In a merely standard city for dining, a steep drop in quality and enticement becomes evident. Other hyped restaurants wobble in execution; places serving similar cuisines seem to duplicate one another’s menus. A great food city surpasses the long-weekend itinerary. It is replete with restaurants that deliver their own unique versions of the special something that can make dining out one of life’s sincerest joys.

Of course it’s unrealistic to expect that every meal at every restaurant will be near-mystical in any place. But an exceptional dining town has enough restaurants delivering abundant individuality and constant attention to detail that the choices don’t feel limited to a dozen or fewer true standouts.

Our most immense and our most richly aesthetic metropolises (New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, San Francisco, and New Orleans) can pass this test easily, as do the expected smaller urban centers whose food scenes draw plenty of notice, like Austin, Charleston, and Portland, Maine.

Downtown Phoenix’s Pizzeria Bianco

But what about a place like Phoenix? It’s the fifth-largest city in the United States by population, and, including adjacent cities such as Scottsdale and Chandler, the country’s 11th-largest metropolitan area. Despite its magnitude, Phoenix’s restaurant scene largely goes overlooked in the national media. There’s a vague perception of the city as an indistinguishable, sprawling flatland full of middle-of-the-road dining options, many of them chains. Local publications are acutely aware of its reputation as a culinary dead zone.

Scattered national acclaim does materialize. Veteran local chefs like Kevin Binkley (chef-owner of the tasting menu restaurant Binkley’s) and Silvana Salcido Esparza (lauded for her Barrio Café and sublime chiles en nogada) receive steady nods as James Beard semifinalists. Chris Bianco, whose game-changing Pizzeria Bianco has made him the country’s most famous pizzaiolo, is Phoenix’s most recognizable food ambassador. On a countrywide level, that’s about it.

I’ll admit to largely ignoring Phoenix on my Eater beat. I went once during those five years, and even then sped through only a polite survey of the town — I was really there to research a story about Bianco and how his dominion had grown since I’d first tasted his pizza in the 1990s. This past September, the Association of Food Journalists held their annual conference in Phoenix. I didn’t go, but the few attendees I informally polled about their dining experiences didn’t seem overly impressed.

Still, I wondered if treasures had gone unnoticed. Latino residents comprise 41 percent of the population: Surely they were paragons serving specialties from the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora? Ranching and agriculture is a $23.3 billion business in Arizona, and the intense heat equates to unique growing cycles: Asparagus was in high season during the February when I blitzed through Bianco’s restaurants. What other chefs were plugged into the rhythms of the Arizona seasons, and how were they expressing them? Dominic Armato, dining critic for the Arizona Republic, ate hard to compile a recent list of his 100 favorite metro-area restaurants. His roster of curries, tacos, tasting menus, biscuit sandwiches, and dishes that defy easy labeling makes a compelling case for the scope of local dining.

So in October I returned to Phoenix to see if the Valley (as its metro area calls itself) could pass — or surpass, really — the long-weekend test. I came for seven days to understand dining in Phoenix as best and as quickly as I could. A week, obviously, could never be enough to truly absorb the depths of a city’s food culture, though I trusted it was enough to judge if we’ve all been missing something. Or not.

A gordita stuffed with bright red meat and another stuffed with green salsa verde meat and a white rectangular plate.
A pair of gorditas from Tacos Chiwas

Dinner at Tratto, a handsome restaurant of calming white walls and oak in the Town & Country shopping center, began with chicken livers spread over some righteously charred toast. Sweet-sour plum jam offset the livers; the fruit was left in big, melting hunks and scented with lemon verbena. Wide-mouthed rigatoni came next, sauced in a guinea hen ragu whose lightness felt ideal for a warm Arizona fall evening.

Conveniently located right next door to my favorite branch of Pizzeria Bianco, Tratto is the restaurant I’d most fervidly recommend to anyone visiting Phoenix right now. The finessed cooking, focus on stellar ingredients, and spirit of generosity put it on par with the finest modern Italian restaurants in the country.

A colleague and I ended up sharing the pork chops with apples, and a side dish of garlicky oyster mushrooms, with the group of four seated next to us; it was our sixth meal of the day. We were pointed toward a bottle of Klinec Medana Jakot, a funky Slovenian varietal that was as orange in color as it was in its citrus-blossomy notes. The wine saw us through to the finale, a wedge of custardy lemon tart exactly right in its simplicity.

Tratto opened in 2016 to rhapsodic reviews by local critics. Why don’t more people know about it coast to coast? As a maker of best-new-restaurant lists, I’ll speak to my own (flawed) thinking: Chris Bianco owns Tratto, and I didn’t think he needed any more attention. Yet Bianco has moved into a career phase where he is as much or more of a restaurateur and mentor as he is a chef. At Tratto, he cedes some of the spotlight to the energized team of chef Cassie Shortino, pastry chef Olivia Girard, and beverage director Blaise Faber for the day-to-day operations.

Bianco steps into more of an advisory role at Roland’s Cafe Market Bar, an all-day restaurant launched last year as his collaboration with Armando Hernandez (who previously worked for Bianco), Seth Sulka, and Nadia Holguin. In my long-weekend matrix for Phoenix, Tratto is the Friday-night stage-setter, and Roland’s is the Monday-morning finale. Hernandez and Holguin, who are husband and wife, also run three-year-old Tacos Chiwas on McDowell Road, a bastion of old-line Mexican restaurants northeast of downtown. “Chiwas” riffs off of Holguin and Hernandez’s heritage; both have roots in the northern border state of Chihuahua. The tacos and burritos at Chiwas are solid, but the gorditas — yawning wheat-flour pockets most memorably filled with deshebrada roja (shredded beef in red chile sauce) — steal focus from every other dish.

The chile colorado pork burrito from Roland’s

At Roland’s, the Mexican-with-hints-of-Italian cooking is uplifting and individualistic. An open-faced (read: pizza-shaped) quesadilla dotted with mortadella and asadero cheese is a palpable tribute to Bianco, whose company provides the organic Sonoran wheat flour for the tortilla on which the quesadillas are built. Yet this is really Holguin’s show — an expression of la cocina norteña (the cooking of northern Mexico, born of its desert and Gulf of California geography) that merges her background and her culinary training.

Beyond the fantastic quesadillas (they rightly star on the breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus), the entomatadas highlight Holguin’s precision with textures: crisped and stacked corn tortillas bathe in chile-spiked tomato sauce, fused by shredded asadero melting in the heat, and crowned with a fried egg. Alongside the flaky, painstakingly plaited empanadas filled with cabeza (beef head meat), ask for an array of salsas, bright in color and flavor, that aren’t automatically brought to the table. Chihuahua is the spiritual home of the burrito; Holguin fills her concise, captivating version with pork saturated in ruddy, garlicky chile colorado.

Breakfast or lunch at Roland’s makes for an apt conclusion to a long-weekend agenda, especially in how it frames la cocina norteña: This is a chef ascending to her deserved platform. If in a decade Phoenix becomes nationally synonymous with chefs ingeniously upholding and interpreting variations on northern Mexican cuisines, I predict Roland’s will be seen as a major touchstone in that progression.

Before a meal at Roland’s, seek out some Sonoran- and Chihuahuan-style cooking throughout the Phoenix metro area: It puts a nationally under-sung aspect of the city’s culture in delicious perspective. A rambling Saturday outing began for me with those lush wheat-flour gorditas at Tacos Chiwas. At the original Carolina’s Mexican Food, not far from downtown, sunshine slipped through narrow windows, revealing a nearly imperceptible blizzard in the streaks of light. The air was filled with flour; Carolina’s doubles as a tortilla factory. I ordered a simple, blazingly hot burrito wrapped around scrambled eggs and machaca — a Sonoran staple of dried and rehydrated beef, served shredded and often combined with other ingredients.

I’d return to Carolina’s for the atmosphere, but El Horseshoe Restaurant, on an industrial stretch west of downtown, is the place to truly savor homemade machaca for breakfast. Here, the Avitia family sautees it among potato, egg, and onion, its concentrated beefiness permeating every molecule of the dish, with sides of rice, beans, and a freshly made tortilla. The state of Sonora, beyond its desert interior, stretches across much of the Gulf of California’s eastern coastline; Horseshoe serves a restoring version of cahuamanta, a classic brothy stew bobbing with shrimp and pearly hunks of manta ray.

An exterior photo of the Horseshoe Restaurant features a mural of a saguaro cactus.
Phoenix’s Horseshoe Restaurant focuses on Sonoran specialties
Bill Addison/Eater

For a deeper immersion into regional seafood dishes, I swung by El Rey de Los Ostiones, a seafood market in a low-slung strip mall northwest of downtown. The bilingual staff graciously quizzed me on my tastes, finally delivering customized aguachiles and ceviches full of shrimp and oysters, along with several kinds of hot sauce and other condiments to tweak the seasonings. A 10-minute drive from El Rey, I had my favorite tacos of the trip at Ta’Carbon, an always-packed draw specializing in carne asada (among other meats like lengua and cabeza) grilled over mesquite.

Before the afternoon ended I veered off the Sonoran trail for a “taco” of another kind: a puffy, palm-scorching, mood-elevating flatbread filled with green chile-laced beef, refried beans, and cheese at the Fry Bread House, a Phoenix institution started in 1992 by Cecelia Miller of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

Restaurants serving American Indian cuisines are too few around the country and in the Southwest. Kai, the flagship restaurant at the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass and one of the Valley’s toniest dining experiences, vaguely themes its dishes in Native American directions with indigenous seeds and beans and plants. But really, Kai falls more into the category of modern-American splurge restaurant.

The signature grilled buffalo tenderloin came surrounded by sides and adornments straight from 1990 — smoked corn puree, cholla cactus buds, a light chile of scarlet runner beans, chorizo, a drizzle of syrup made from saguaro blossoms — that manage to coalesce. That entree is $58. The setting, with the sun disappearing behind mountains in the distance, is gorgeous, but for a more consistently dazzling and sure-file splurge, I’d suggest Binkley’s immersive tasting menu, or Silvana Salcido Esparza’s Barrio Café Gran Reserva for beauties like pan-seared corvina served with rose pepper mole sauce and salsa fragrant with smoky morita chiles (and her chiles en nogada, as superb as ever).

On Sunday, I needed extra coffee to jolt me after Saturday’s taxing schedule. A skillful macchiato and pour over at Giant Coffee animated me. First stop: Little Miss BBQ. Every major city in America has a pit master whose next-level dedication has pushed its scene to great smoked-meat raptures in recent years. Scott Holmes achieved this in Phoenix with his blackened, barky brisket, deliriously fatty in the style of Austin’s famed Franklin Barbecue. Loved the on-theme smoked pecan pie for dessert.

The lamb tagine at Alzohour Market

Second lunch, a restaurant recommended by local food-writer friends, was the trip’s sweetest surprise. I’d been briefed on the setup at Alzohour Market. Owner Zhor Saad takes orders and prepares the tiny restaurant’s Moroccan specialties herself. I poked around, looking at the clothing and candies and bric-a-brac she sells in the retail space adjacent to her dining room while I waited for bastilla, the sweet-savory masterpiece traditionally made of spiced pigeon and roasted almonds wrapped in phyllo and dusted with sugar and cinnamon. Saad substituted shredded chicken in her bastilla, but it was among the best versions I’ve had in America. Her lamb tagine was nearly as poetic.

Charleen Badman, chef and owner of FnB, also regularly appears on Beard semifinalist lists; her restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale gave me the trip’s most accurate and evocative sense of Arizona’s growing cycles. Salads of persimmon and pistachio, or little gem with pears, plums, and pecans; rice-stuffed squash blossoms with a riff on shakshuka made with summer squash; sheets of pastas entwined with foraged lobster mushrooms: I felt myself settle into the land in Badman’s dining room. Like many modern chefs, she thinks about flavors globally. For example, wonderful lamb manti (Turkish dumplings) dolloped with yogurt, sprinkled with pine nuts, and served in butter flecked with urfa chile was one of several dishes that evoked Middle Eastern cuisines. That dish also paired well with a fairly spectacular syrah from Rune Wines, a luminary among Arizona’s maturing viniculture industry.

I sat finishing the last bites of huckleberry-lemon sponge cake with fig-leaf ice cream, thinking that in a city with a glossier dining reputation, Badman and FnB would be basking in even more accolades. If I’d have beelined to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport right after this dinner, I would have climbed into the heavens happy and sated.

A quartet of Addison’s favorite tacos in Phoenix, at Ta’Carbon

Assuming that most people don’t gorge through a city like a food critic on a research jag, I’ve detailed more than enough meals to exceed a long eating weekend in Phoenix. (And here I’ll fill in a couple of potentially empty slots in the Long Weekend Theory itinerary I vaguely followed above: You can drink as well as you eat at Tratto, but for a pre-Friday night dinner starting point, the move is Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour, cheekily located in a building where the Arizona Prohibition Headquarters was once housed. Also, for a second breakfast option, try local darling Matt’s Big Breakfast for Americana personified.)

Sure, there were ups and downs as I continued grazing through the area. Other charmers included Pa’La, where Claudio Urciuoli writes out his affordable daily menu on a chalkboard behind the counter, anchored by a top-shelf mix-and-match grain bowl. But there were mid-level letdowns, too. Two memorable disappointments came from newer arrivals with strong local word of mouth. Maybe I totally misordered at Cotton & Copper in Tempe, but the oddly mealy corn dumplings in parmesan cream and carpaccio topped with citrus segments and chunks of chewy cheese felled my dinner at the bar. And I was intrigued by the promise of “modern Southwest cuisine” at Ghost Ranch in Chandler; that amorphous genre could use some sharp redefining. I didn’t find it in a ho-hum sampler platter (pork and chicken enchiladas, cheese-filled chiles rellenos, grilled skirt steak) and bland grilled chicken with polenta and green chile jus.

Overall, though, I left impressed by Phoenix. I knew there were pleasures and pockets of potential gems I’d left untried: dim sum at Mekong Palace Restaurant in Mesa, other serious pizzerias spurred by Bianco’s success, and upscale stalwart Rancho Pinot, for starters. But even after only a week of immersive gorging, it’s clear that dismissing the Valley as a snowbird’s destination for chains and lowest-common-denominator palates is anachronistic and plain wrong. I’d nudge other national food writers to come test out the Long Weekend Theory here for themselves. Is Phoenix’s restaurant culture on par with a similar sprawl of urban vastness like Houston? Not yet. Is the breadth and depth of dining better than most of us are giving it credit for? It won’t take more than a few happy, immersive days of eating to know the answer is: absolutely.

Bill Addison is a food critic for the Los Angeles Times; he was Eater’s roving national critic for nearly five years until November 2018.
Fact checked by Pearly Huang
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter

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