Valley chefs elevate a humble comfort classic. Hint: Lobster helps.
If the last pot pie you ate came in a flimsy tin from the freezer, it’s time to get reacquainted with this timeless staple. Every cuisine has some variant of a steaming, savory stew wrapped in warm pastry dough. Most are modest dishes, but every once in a while a chef will fuss with the humble pie, elevating it from pauper to princely fare. Michael Mina’s signature lobster pot pie is one such regal feast – market priced at $75 on our visit. Why so pricey? Because of the pristine two-pound lobster and elaborate presentation. The hefty crustacean is shelled and nestled into a copper pot with pearl onions, potatoes, wild mushrooms and carrots. Smothered in a creamy, brandy-infused lobster sauce, the pot’s prized contents are sealed with buttery pie dough. After baking, the pot is rushed tableside. A server ceremoniously cuts the golden crust off and places it on a plate before mounding the sea-scented bounty on top, finishing with a ladle of luscious lobster cream. 7575 E. Princess Dr., Scottsdale, 480-513-6002, scottsdaleprincess.com/dining/bourbon-steak
Duck – dubbed the “new pork” by foodies – gets top billing at Valley restaurants.
7133 E. Stetson Dr., Scottsdale
You’ve got to love a person who bills herself as the “sweet tooth seductress.” That would be Country Velador, who invents the recipes and handcrafts all the desserts at this eclectic Old Town Scottsdale restaurant. We bow to her for everything, but especially for her wondrous Warm Apple Cobbler on Quack, a fruity delight drizzled with Brie crema and partnered with a big scoop of insanely rich duck-fat ice cream. The dessert doesn’t look so unusual when it hits the table – just a long-handled bowl of hot apple goodness, topped with buttery sugar crumbs. But one bite, and it’s a fowl ball. The duck fat lends decadent delight and lovely richness without going over the top. Other Ciao duck dishes that elevate the humble bird include an entrée of savory Tuscan duck sausage stew (the sausage is house-made, of course) stocked with white beans and juicy black kale, plus a chile relleno to beat all chiles rellenos. This version comes stuffed with velvety duck confit, queso Oaxaca, cheddar and roasted shallots, all smothered in roasted guajillo chile-tomatillo salsa.
Tracy Dempsey Originals
Pastry chef goddess Tracy Dempsey hardly needs help making her magical desserts taste better. Her Tempe-based boutique kitchen didn’t become the sweets-supplier of choice for Citizen Public House, Stockyards, Crudo, Alchemy at the Copperwynd Resort, and NOCA by accident. Still, finding select desserts in little Ball canning jars is a welcome touch of whimsy, sort of like gourmet pudding cups for grown ups. Her recipes tend to change with the seasons, but one reliable treasure is the Dream Pudding Jar of dark chocolate pudding, peanut butter caramel, and salted chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies dolloped in whipped cream. The Black and Tan is another stellar sweet, made with a rich, billowy and crunchy layering of dark chocolate pot de crème, caramel pudding, whipped cream, pretzel brittle and brown sugar shortbreads. The brittle sticks out of the cloud of cream like a sturdy spoon, while the shortbreads beg to be nibbled between each pudding bite. No one will judge you for that telltale squeak of metal against glass as you scrape up every last bit with a real spoon, either, since they’re all doing it, too.
The brown-bag staple goes a little bit gourmet and a little bit crazy.
3375 E. Shea Blvd., Phoenix
Rick Phillips, the owner of this funky new gastropub, is known for irreverent takes on the food scene through his EaterAZ blog, and for judging Valley chefs in his popular Arizona Taco Festival and Arizona BBQ Festival each year. Now, he’s proven he can dish it out with his own food. Consider the humble chicken wing. Here, the meaty nubbins are gently smoked for just a hint of earthiness, then grilled for a bit of crusty char. Next, they’re slathered in a choice of sauces, including a traditional buffalo recipe, Asian sweet and spicy glaze, perky Dijon barbecue, or the bomb – a concoction called “PB&J.” This is a sweet treat fashioned from spiced-up Concord grape jelly finished with a coat of crushed peanuts. Think Asian satay meets a French red wine braise. The drumettes are addictive, particularly when paired with a side of slow-braised kale, cooked with country ham, peanuts, brown butter and raisins.
It’s cactus season in Arizona, and Valley chefs are finding creative ways to present this desert-to-table staple.
7114 E. Stetson Dr., Scottsdale
Mexican cuisine has long celebrated nopales, the firm but fleshy pad of the prickly pear cactus. The flavor is vegetal and slightly tart, like green beans with a note of clean celery. Some say it’s an acquired taste, but once you’ve acquired it, it’s a beautiful thing. Barrio Queen chef/owner Silvana Salcido Esparza tours Mexico several times a year, constantly updating her already rich understanding of authentic regional cooking. So while her recipes are fresh and contemporary, they embrace true heritage, too. She stuffs soft tacos with goodies like chilled smoked salmon pulled into meaty shreds, curly strips of grilled nopales, and a flurry of queso fresco, or a savory blend of cactus, fiery serrano pepper, onion and tomato. One of our favorite tacos is a juicy, breakfast-y mix of cactus strips sautéed with serrano, onion and tomato, then topped with a golden-yolk fried egg and sprinkled with more ripe tomato chunks. It’s served open-faced for a knife-and-fork feast (or a napkin-necessary nosh if you choose to eat it with your hands).
From pickles to buffalo to jalapeños, Valley chefs will chicken-fry just about anything
6003 N. 16th St., Phoenix
The marquee sign on the side of the building says it loud and clear: “Over 812,890 Chicken Fried Steaks Served!” (By the time you read this, that number will have jumped by perhaps a thousand.) If there were a local hall of fame for the dish, this Valley favorite would win, forks down. Since 1985, the steakhouse has packed fans into its small, scrappy dining area lined with Texas paraphernalia on every inch of the walls and ceiling. Some come for the Texas beers, some for the friendly banter of the longtime servers and bartenders, some to see their friends – other regulars – dining at neighboring booths. But all come for the masterpiece chicken-fried steak. As owner Steve Freidkin notes, “There are certain things we wouldn’t divulge for love or money,” and that means the recipe for the house specialty of a choice of tenderized beef steak, boneless chicken breast or boneless pork loin chop, double dipped, fried, and swimming in cream gravy. You can get this belly-buster served as two monster pieces of meat with mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, a buttermilk biscuit and a salad, or for Sunday brunch with sunny side eggs and Creole potatoes.