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.
When the weather’s chilly, seek the smoky, spicy heat of chile verde.
111 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix
With its brick walls, soaring rafters and roll-up garage doors, Chef-owner Aaron Chamberlin’s revamped 1955-style restaurant typifies modernist urban chic. But his secret weapon is pure old-school: A custom-built, brick-framed oven that uses mesquite wood for smokiness and almond wood for heat, adding a sizzling succulence to meat and vegetable dishes alike. Thanks to that wood oven, the pork in the chile verde emerges tooth-tender and deeply savory. The juicy stew is served bubbling hot in an iron skillet with hefty chunks of sweet cornbread alongside for dipping. The delight is in the details: Chamberlin finishes the chile-spiked dish with gooey Jack cheese, a squeeze of lime and a tuft of fresh cilantro. For an even more decadent dive into the ultimate comfort food, the kitchen will happily add two sunny-side up eggs as a yolky crown. Be sure to ask for more cornbread to mop up all that extra goodness.
These traditional French open-faced sandwiches are cheesy, veggie-topped knife-and-fork feasts.
4225 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix
Set in a tiny 1940s Arcadia cottage, this upscale coffee shop packs a big punch, thanks to owner Pat Flanigan and his passion for gourmet coffee, delectable bakery delights, European-style salads, sandwiches and quiche. Credit is also due to his mother and inpiration, Carmel, as well as his grandmother, since both women contributed their favorite recipes to the menu.
Old-fashioned bread pudding is enjoying a delicious revival all across the Valley. We found some creative, custardy twists
713 E. Palo Verde Dr., Phoenix
We get hot for a cold horchata drink on a warm day, but sometimes our stomachs need a more substantial diversion. Thankfully, as fashioned by the clever cooks at Fuego, horchata – a traditional Mexican beverage made with rice, milk, vanilla, nuts and cinnamon – serves as the scrumptious lifeblood of the Latin American eatery’s signature bread pudding. The blend of breads – croissants, French bread and the baguette-like Mexican bolillo – are all infused with chocolate chips, cinnamon and that honeyed horchata, cobbled together in a thick, custardy slab.