Anyone who thinks Phoenix isn’t a legitimate food town just hasn’t been keeping up. Besides the decades-old steakhouses and bright Mexican cafes we still revere and visit frequently, the city now supports restaurants of every stripe —both the high-end and down-home, the culturally diverse and solidly American. Here’s a look a look at the old and new classics that diners won’t want to miss, whether it’s a simple flour tortilla, a fancy French macaron, or the best pizza in the United States, which is not an idle boast.Read More
Phoenix’s 18 Most Iconic Dishes
Fill up on a tequila sunrise, fluffy flour tortillas, butterscotch pudding, and more
Chocolate Soufflé at Zinc Bistro
There’s a lot to love at Matt Carter’s French bistro in Kierland Commons, including a duck confit sandwich, Parmesan-truffle fries, a sidewalk patio perfect for people-watching, and a dreamy, labor-intensive chocolate soufflé (which could be classified as an endangered species). Made with premium Valrhona chocolate and dusted with powdered sugar, it’s an intensely chocolatey puff of air, which the server deflates at the table with a spoon, filling its molten core with rich, creamy sauce (chocolate or Grand Marnier, take your pick) poured from a tiny pitcher. The larger, shareable soufflé takes 30 minutes to bake, so plan accordingly, or order an individual size, which is ready in under 20 minutes.
Fatty Brisket at Little Miss BBQ Sunnyslope
Valley barbecue buffs flock to Little Miss BBQ an hour before it opens to get in line for Scott Holmes’s Central Texas-style smoked meats pulled from thousand-gallon offset smokers. In truth, every meaty option — whether pulled pork, pork ribs, turkey, sausage, or even specialty pastrami — is exemplary, but the biggest draw is the fatty brisket, an ivory-webbed thing of beauty that jiggles on the plate and dissolves on the tongue in a burst of salty, rich, robustly beefy flavor. Eaten with ranch-style beans and cheddar-jalapeño grits, it’s barbecue bliss.
Tequila Sunrise at the Arizona Biltmore
After a day in the desert sun, an original tequila sunrise can bring fresh life. Way back in the Arizona Biltmore’s 91-year history, a bartender named Gene Sulit invented the classic cocktail of tequila, crème de cassis, club soda, and lime. Ice packs through the tall thin glass and mounds past its brim, tight walls bowing inward slightly, almost like an hourglass. A wistful shade of red colors the bottom and fades to a near-white at top, mimicking the ombre shading of a sunrise.
Clam chowder at Chula Seafood Uptown
Jon and Mandy Heflin’s mini restaurant empire is founded upon stellar seafood, including poke bowls, creative sandwiches and quirky specials such as branzino torta Milanesa. But a popular constant at all three locations is Chula’s superb clam chowder, its blissfully creamy base made chunky with potato, onion, celery, Neuske’s bacon and sweet chopped clams. Given a drop of sherry, a pinch of thyme and a sprinkle of chives, this heady brew is rich, smoky and complex, a chowder that — dare we say? — could hold its own in Boston.
Hiramasa Crudo at Valentine
Thanks to a new wave of suppliers and a base of skilled and creative chefs, seafood in the Sonoran Desert took a few giant leaps forward in the last decade. One eye-opening example: hiramasa crudo from Valentine chef Donald Hawk. When Hawk left the Gladly, he took his cult-favorite dish with him, adding a few flourishes in the process. Opalescent slips of fish rest in a puddle of lime vinaigrette enriched with fish sauce and brown butter. It’s an umami bomb gilded with I’itoi onion, mint, and golden raisins for a sweet counterpoint.
Green Chile Stew with Ceme’t at Fry Bread House
For more than 25 years, Cecelia Miller’s hit restaurant has served foods mostly from the Tohono O’odham tradition. The green chile stew, however, with lengths of pepper twisting through it, has Puebla roots. For preparation, Fry Bread House gives Hatch chiles an extra-long simmer. To the side of the fiery, beef-studded stew rests a foil-wrapped fold of ceme’t, a toasty, tortilla-like, flour flatbread.
The Original Chopped Salad at Citizen Public House
When chef Bernie Kantak left Cowboy Ciao to open Citizen Public House, he brought the Stetson chopped salad he invented with him. An informal custody battle ensued until Cowboy Ciao closed its doors in 2018, but Kantak’s famous salad survived. Now called the “Original” chopped salad, it lives on at Citizen as well as at Kantak’s Camelback Corridor restaurant — the Gladly. It’s a colorful mix of ingredients that play well together — smoked salmon, arugula, pearl couscous, pepitas, dried sweet corn, and marinated tomatoes — arranged in neat rows, sprinkled with Asiago cheese and tossed table-side in herbaceous buttermilk dressing. Salty, sweet, and loaded with texture, it’s the kind of salad that invites imitation; indeed, the recipe — in some form or other — has been posted on the internet repeatedly. But why make it at home, when you can eat the original “Original”?
Butterscotch Pudding at FnB Restaurant
As her frequently changing farm-to-table menu suggests, chef Charleen Badman is a vegetable fanatic, nicknamed “Veggie Badman” for good reason. That said, she’s not above making downright sinful desserts. In fact, she’s famous not for her squash or her turnips (although they’re terrific) but for her butterscotch pudding, an umber-colored cup of silk so rich and luxurious that sharing it is nearly impossible. Caramelized brown sugar gives it smoky depth, while a cloud of whipped cream, sprinkled with freshly grated nutmeg, serves as light, fluffy counterbalance. It’s the perfect pudding.
Macarons at Essence Bakery Cafe
Chef and owner Eugenia Theodosopoulos was the first person to introduce French macarons to Phoenix nearly 30 years ago, and no matter how many competitors enter the ring, her macarons invariably take the prize . . . literally. They’ve won countless awards, which is not surprising considering that Theodosopoulos went to culinary school in France, then worked there for years before coming to Phoenix to open a bakery and cafe that also turns out beautiful pastries and faultless croissants. Her pretty macarons, offered in two sizes, are delicately crisp yet moist and a little chewy (never dry or crumbly), and they come in a rainbow of colors and flavors, including raspberry rose, pistachio, key lime, Meyer lemon, pink grapefruit, espresso, French chocolate, and caramel cream.
Lobster Roll at Nelson's Meat + Fish
Sure, it sounds counterintuitive — a fantastic lobster roll in Phoenix, a city situated smack in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. But owner Chris Nelson, who is fastidious in everything he does, sources 14 dozen lobsters from Maine each week, which are flown in on Tuesday and prepared for Wednesday’s lobster roll special. His recipe is blessedly simple: firm chunks of sweet lobster meat, minced celery, and chives, tossed with mayonnaise, lemon, and a dash of Old Bay, the luscious mixture tucked into a buttery split-top bun custom-made by Noble Bread. Running between $27 and $32, it can feel like a splurge, but it’s worth it. It’s as good as any “lobstah” roll in Maine.
Also featured in:
Date Shake at Sphinx Date Co. Palm & Pantry
Grown on only two states, dates were once a pillar of Arizona’s economy, luring tourists to the Sonoran Desert with promises of palm trees and “exotic” fruit. Vestiges of this now largely vanished culture linger, including the date shake at Sphinx. This family-owned gift shop (a retail outlet for Sphinx Date Ranch) specializes in Arizona-grown dates, sold by the bag, platter, or basket. But it’s the date milkshake, composed of nothing more than milk, ice cream, and sweet, sticky dates, that offers a unique taste of Arizona past and present.
Sonoran Hot Dog at El Caprichoso Hot Dogs Estilo Sonora
A humble beef frank can do no better than when it’s dressed up as a bacon-wrapped Sonoran hot dog, the best of which El Caprichoso lavishes with toppings like beans and pico de gallo, guacamole, crema, and a blizzard of cheese. Don’t overlook the bun, ample, chewy, soft, and lightly kissed by the griddle.
Cochinita Pibil at Barrio Cafe
At this pioneering cafe on 16th Street, Silvana Salcido Esparza slow-roasts and smokes pork to make a cochinita pibil that emulates the flavors of the pit-cooking method common in the Yucatan’s iconic dish. She heaps the shredded pork onto a banana leaf, with crimson dripping juices into a vivid crimson pool. Flavors of smoke, bitter orange, and achiote roughly harmonize, a soulful keynote from one of town’s essential chefs.
Broiled Steak at Durant's
For over 70 years, generations of Phoenix’s movers and shakers have ducked into Durant’s, a sterling example of the classic American steakhouse, where the lighting is dim, the booths are red leather, and the martinis flow clear and cold. It’s all in service to the steak, which comes in loads of cuts. The luxurious, broiled filet mignon rises above the rest.
Guacamole at Gallo Blanco
Doug Robson may have Scottish ancestry, but he grew up in Mexico, and he makes what is arguably the best guacamole in town. Made to order and mashed to the creamy-but-still-chunky stage, it’s embellished with charred tomatoes and orange segments, which add smoky sweetness and a touch of acidity, then sprinkled with cotija cheese. Scooped onto hot, crispy, house-made chips, and jazzed up with tangy tomatillo or fiery chile de arbol salsa (the latter made with charred tomatoes and sesame seeds), it’s the kind of addictive starter that could ruin the rest of a meal. Guacamole-lovers can also find a more straightforward (but equally delicious) guacamole at sister restaurant Otro Cafe, where the mixture includes tomatillo, serrano chile, red onion and cilantro.
Rosa Pizza at Pizzeria Bianco
At his tiny pizzeria in Heritage Square, America’s best pizza maker Chris Bianco makes a half dozen splendid pies, but the standout is the Rosa. It’s a white pie, strewn with crushed pistachios,
Parmesan, rosemary, and red onion. This white pie is quintessentially Bianco: Strewn with crushed pistachios, Parmesan, rosemary, and red onion, it’s a genre-bending that nods to the flatbreads from which pizza evolved hundreds of years ago. It’s beautifully crusty and wondrously chewy.
Machaca at El Horseshoe Restaurant
It’s hard to get more “old-school Arizona” than a platter anchored by machaca — dried and rehydrated beef. The version at El Horseshoe restaurant has long been considered one of the most satisfying in town. At simple red tables in an unadorned room, diners tuck into what’s considered the best plates of machaca in town, alongside eggs, potatoes, or vegetables. Another great way to experience the shredded beef here is with rice and beans wrapped into a flour tortilla.
Flour tortilla at The Original Carolina’s Mexican Food
In Arizona, flour tortillas are a beloved staple, as they are in the neighboring states in Northern Mexico. At the original Carolina’s downtown, where they’re made fresh on premises every day, the flour tortilla reaches its apotheosis — ethereally light, supple, and nearly transparent. Naturally, these winsome wrappers are the foundation for Carolina’s famous burritos and chimichangas, but many customers drop in to buy a dozen tortillas for take-home. More often than not, they’re handed a floppy, fragrant package that’s still warm from the griddle.