Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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50 Best AZ Restaurants

0114BNRWe ate. Then we drove. Then we ate some more. On and on, until we felt qualified to hand you this hand-picked platter of the Grand Canyon State's finest culinary outposts, from Winslow to Sonoita and many points between.

Valley food fanatics do not nosh on foie gras-stuffed quail alone. Nor do they exclusively dine in the prime culinary corridors of Scottsdale and Phoenix. We tried to keep these facts in mind while compiling our list of Arizona's 50 best – or, if you prefer, most essential – restaurants.

 

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Astor House

Goodbye, eclectic breakfast fare. Hello, Arizona barbecue.

When I heard that Astor House, the quirky Coronado neighborhood sidekick to The Tuck Shop, ditched its New Orleans-themed mishmash menu in favor of smoked meats and barbecue sauce, I tucked a napkin in my shirt and got in line. As any fan knows, central Phoenix is a criminally underserved market for the barbecue arts.

The place is still called Astor House (along with the somewhat ungainly postscript "Coronado 'Cue & Watering Hole"), still has counter service and retains its groovy mid-century decor. But now, hallelujah, there's a real smoker on premises – two, in fact, stuffed with hickory wood. The fragrant slabs of meat pulled from their gobs won't win any Kansas City Barbecue Society trophies, but several specimens will quell your low-and-slow cravings.

 

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La Ristra

A Los Dos Molinos heir banks on the family legacy at his own New Mexican-inspired eatery in Gilbert.

Family history can be a boon, and a bane.

Tell it to John Gabaldon, owner of the recently opened La Ristra New Mexican Kitchen in Gilbert. As a third-generation flag-bearer of the Los Dos Molinos restaurant clan – a line that traces back to his great aunt, Victoria Chavez, who founded the original Los Dos almost 40 years ago – Gabaldon inherits immediate street cred. At the same time, he faces grand expectations by launching the family's first off-brand venture.

 

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The Gladly

The culinary troika behind Citizen Public House gives rise to another enchanted New American superpub.

Generally speaking, when you subtract one big-box corporate steakhouse and add one swank independent gastropub, it results in a net positive gain. A food-scene "win." It's basic culinary math.

Case in point: The closing of Ruth's Chris Steak House on Camelback Road near Biltmore Fashion Park, and the subsequent opening of The Gladly in the same space. Led by Chef Bernie Kantak, mixologist Richie Moe and manager Andrew Fritz, the chic New American eatery is a more global, slightly more urbane answer to the trio's beloved Citizen Public House in Scottsdale: inspired pub fare, crazy-good revivalist cocktails and stylish period digs. There are also 175 varieties of whiskey to chose from – a nod to the Roaring Twenties jazz-lounge mystique that also gives the restaurant its name.

 

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Kong Fu Gyoza

Looking for a reason to go Chinese food treasure-hunting? This Mesa mom-and-pop has 34.

I’ll give you three reasons you might never eat at Kong Fu Gyoza, but then I’ll give you 34 reasons you should. First, the bad news: It’s tough to locate. Tucked in a corner inside the massive Mekong Plaza Asian shopping mecca, the oddly named Northern Chinese restaurant specializing in handmade dumplings, noodles and savory pancakes isn’t visible until you’re practically inside it. Second, a demure, sweet couple from Beijing runs it, but they speak very little English, making ordering somewhat challenging. Finally, sitting at cafeteria-style tables and chairs under blindingly bright fluorescent lights isn’t exactly what I call “relaxing ambiance.”

 

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Hopdoddy Burger Bar

Cheeky Austin import wins fans with moist, hand-spanked patties and sinful shakes.

Hopdoddy is sexy and they know it. The trendy beef and brew palace is the brainchild of Larry Foles and Guy Villavaso, founders of Roaring Fork and Salty Sow. The venture has all the hallmarks of an Austin import: black-and-white photo murals, homemade buns, locally sourced ingredients and servers with Southern sass whose uniforms declare, “We spank our patties and they like it.”

 

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T. Cook’s

PHM0214Flash-1-2aA semi-sacrilegious makeover at the Valley's most beloved resort restaurant tastes divine to us.

It was a calculated risk. Widely recognized as the most storied “romantic evening” restaurant in the Valley, T. Cook’s at The Royal Palms underwent a remodel last summer to modernize the decor and cuisine. Logically, a new executive chef was brought on board: Paul McCabe, an Arizona native with extensive resort experience and a “Rising Star Chef” nod from the James Beard Foundation.
Based on the buzz, I expected an extensive – if not heretical – overhaul. Faithful patrons can breathe a sigh of relief. Where once we found an elegant resort restaurant serving Continental cuisine speckled with Mediterranean influences, we now find one serving modern American cuisine speckled with Mediterranean influences. Heresy? Hardly. But still worth getting excited about.

 

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