2011 Best New Restaurants

Written by Elin Jeffords, Geri Koeppel, Carey Sweet and Gwen Ashley Walters Category: Food Reviews Issue: September 2011

KEY
$=under $10
$$=$11-$15
$$$=$16-$25
$$$$=$26 and over

 

phm0911bnr 2 lgAmaro Pizzeria and Vino Lounge
28234 N. Tatum Blvd., Cave Creek
480-502-1920, amaroaz.com

Opened: November 2010

Cuisine: Italian

Price: $$-$$$

Atmosphere: Don’t let the formal hostess stand fool you. The vibe is upscale, but the service is downright friendly at this Cave Creek pizza, pasta and wine bar. A row of high-back booths lining the front window is partitioned from the dark, spacious open dining room by a pony wall. Red accent walls, chandeliers and gleaming glass partitions add class, while the massive wood-burning oven adds substance. Grab a seat at the chef’s counter to view the exhibition kitchen, or sink into a comfy couch in the long, sleek bar on the opposite side. 


Outdoor seating: No

Key players: Owners Frank Vairo and Tagan Dering, and Chef/co-owner Jon Spahr

Must-try menu items: Neapolitan-style pizzas with crisp, chewy edges and wet centers are a must, and Amaro offers both red and white (no sauce) versions. Try the red diavolo ($13) with a slight kick from spicy soppressata, house-pulled mozzarella and basil. The dolce arrabiatta white pizza ($15) is extra spicy with the addition of Calabrian red chiles, and extra delicious with caramelized onions, Italian sausage and mozzarella and taleggio cheeses, but the garlicky funghi ($14) scented with truffle oil is equally mouthwatering. Man cannot live by pizza alone, so order the bowl of herb- and garlic-flecked meatballs ($10), and ask for a side of their fantastic grilled bread to sop up the thick, sweet marinara sauce.

Drink to die for: Sip an Amaro Old-Fashioned ($8), a short glass of bourbon gussied up with slightly bitter, herbaceous Amaro Italian liqueur and juicy Italian amarena cherries.

Secret of the house: As an Italian cucina, Amaro goes through molti bottles of olive oil. The olive oil producer, La Cucina, bottles a private label just for Amaro, and you can take home a bottle, too ($15 for 12 ounces).

Hours: 4-10 p.m. Su & Tu-Th; 4-11 p.m. F-Sa; closed M

Happy hour: 4-6 p.m. daily; reverse happy hour 9-10 p.m. daily

Takes reservations: Yes


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The Arrogant Butcher
2 E. Jefferson St., Ste. 150, Phoenix (CityScape)
602-324-8502, foxrc.com/the_arrogant_butcher.html

Opened: February 2011

Cuisine: American

Price: $$-$$$

Atmosphere: Imagine a 1950s diner dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and you’ll probably come up with something much like the Butcher. It’s big and industrial-looking with hard surfaces and neutral colors, except for a flash of red. The bar and lounge nestle up to the exhibition kitchen, and booths line the dining area. The star of the show is the lighting system, both for the dramatic fixtures and the soft, flattering glow they emit.

Outdoor seating: Yes

Key players: Owner of Fox Restaurant Concepts Sam Fox, general manager Peter Hearn, and executive Chef Jeff Clastill

Must-try menu items: The Butcher features plenty of well-thought-out and delicious entrées. Jambalaya ($18) is as good or better than many versions served in New Orleans. Spicy short rib stew ($16) is a modern take on cassoulet. And sweet scallops with astringent spinach, white beans and bacon ($22) is unforgettable. But it’s the snacky stuff that’s the most fun. High-end cheeses and salumi ($5-$11) matched up with cornichons, roasted peppers, olives ($2, $3, $3) and crusty bread is super satisfying. All starters, from potato fritters jazzed up with cheddar and crème fraîche ($8) to crispy rock shrimp with shisito peppers in a tempura batter ($13), are excellent. Save room for dessert, particularly the warm peanut butter cup and the hot chocolate cake (both $6).

Drink to die for: They call them classics for a reason, kids, and Butcher’s thoroughly modern Old-Fashioned ($9) goes down mighty easy. The silken smooth blend of Knob Creek bourbon, Angostura bitters, a sprinkle of sugar and the bite of citrus peel is downright seductive.

Secret of the house: The Butcher has its own in-house gallery – the cozy, private News Room, which showcases a collection of photos that includes bits of Arizona history as well as other thought-provoking art work.

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. M-Th; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. F; noon-10 p.m. Sa; brunch noon-4 p.m. Sa.; closed Su

Happy hour: 3-6 p.m. M-Sa, featuring $4 well drinks, selected wines and house cocktails; $2, $3 and $4 draft beers; a shot-and-beer special for $6; and discounted appetizers

Takes reservations: Yes


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Beckett’s Table
3717 E. Indian School Road, Phoenix
602-954-1700, beckettstable.com

Opened: November 2010

Cuisine: American

Price: $$-$$$

Atmosphere: The buzzy, open kitchen fronted by a capacious communal table is the heart, soul and mission statement of this restaurant. It’s where Chef Justin Beckett presides over diners gathered in a convivial swirl of conversation, food and drink. Though it’s a big room, vaguely industrial in design with exposed beams and a liberal use of brick and block, it feels warm and intimate, thanks to carefully chosen pieces of furniture and accessories and table lamps that shed a soft glow. While it is comfortably casual, there is still a satisfying sense of occasion.

Outdoor seating: Yes

Key players: Chef/owner Justin Beckett, co-owners and managers Michelle Beckett and Scott and Katie Stephens

Must-try menu items: High-end comfort food seasoned with sass is the name of the game, and Beckett’s is already known for some instant classics. Starters include creamy grits and sausage ($8) and a freshly reworked version of the classic grilled-cheese-and-tomato-soup combo ($9). An order of bacon-cheddar biscuits with apple butter ($5) is a great kick-off as well. Beckett shows off his cooking chops with plenty of pork dishes – try the pork osso buco entrée ($17) – though chicken ’n’ dumplings ($16) and short ribs ($19) rock, too. For dessert, along with a terrific fig and pecan pie ($5), there’s more pork in the guise of chocolate-glazed bacon accompanying do-it-yourself S’mores ($5) – truly inspired.

Drink to die for: The Basin Street Breakfast ($8): Vodka, gin and rum are combined with the spicy, complex house tomato-based mix for a muscular take on a Bloody Mary.

Secret of the house: Although there’s an excellent regular wine list with moderately priced options by the glass, mini-carafe and bottle, insiders looking for that perfect bottle of wine know to ask for the “super sneaky” listing – some 30 carefully selected and well-priced vintages.

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tu-Sa;
5-9 p.m. Su

Happy hour: While there is no happy hour per se, Beckett’s always features the “Here’s the Deal” – a specially chosen red and white wine as well as sangria for $5 a glass.

Reservations: Yes. Reservations are strongly recommended on Friday nights and weekends.

 

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Bliss
901 N. Fourth St., Phoenix
602-795-1792, blissonfourth.com

Opened: August 2010

Cuisine: American

Price: $$

Atmosphere: Inside it’s a cozy, historic, wood-floored bungalow, but most of the year the action is al fresco on the tree-shaded patio. Dance/pop provides a low-decibel soundtrack, and top-of-their-game servers float effortlessly between here and adjacent reBar for drink orders. Friendly, chummy attitudes make you feel like a regular immediately, and we’re not just talking about the employees – don’t be surprised if fellow patrons strike up conversations from nearby tables. This is a hangout for seeing and being seen, not for blending into the background. Groups of well-groomed men in tight T-shirts and lots of hair gel are the predominant demographic, but you’ll also see couples heading to nearby concerts or the theater. FYI, it’s a zoo on First Fridays, with a line out the door and around the block.

Outdoor seating: Yes

Key players: Partners Mark Howard (Fez on Central) and Jackson and Kevin Kelly; executive Chef Eric Gitenstein

Must-try menu items: This is comfort food that won’t put you to sleep. Start with spicy sriracha Caesar salad ($9.50) and move on to ultra-rich mac-and-cheese ($12) loaded with chicken, bacon and onions, or Mama’s pot roast ($15) with a luscious pomegranate-wine sauce and a side of creamy mashed cauliflower and vegetables. We also love the grilled cheese ($7) with pepper jack, provolone, pears and bacon, or any sandwich perched on a soft, buttery pretzel bun, accompanied by crispy parmesan shoestring fries ($4). Save room for dessert; the house-made brownie sundae ($6.50) is scrumptious.

Drink to die for: The Cîroc Red Berry Rapture ($8) – made with Cîroc vodka infused with blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, spritzed with lime juice – packs a fruity punch, plus it’s low-calorie, with no added sugars.

Secret of the house: Chef Gitenstein goes through 50 pounds of white cheddar and pepper jack a week for the mac-and-cheese. Each batch has an “exorbitant amount of cheese in it,” he says. Good thing the signature drink is skinny.

Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight M-F; 10 a.m.-midnight Sa-Su; late-night until 2 a.m. F-Sa

Happy hour: 3-6:30 p.m. daily and 10 p.m.-close Su-Th with two-for-one drinks, $3 beers and house wine, and $5 martinis, plus a $3 all-day special cocktail. Each day features specials, too: A favorite is Sunday, with $10 pitchers of mimosas or $4 Bloody Marys.

Takes reservations: Yes


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Bonfire Grill & Bar
7210 E. Second St., Scottsdale
480-945-6600, thebonfireaz.com

Opened: March 2011

Cuisine: American

Price: $$-$$$

Atmosphere: Jeff Low, who also designed La Bocca, American Junkie, PussyCat Lounge and Revolver, wanted to conjure a campfire setting and sense of nostalgia for old Arizona with rough-hewn wood planks on the walls, a copper bar and a 12-foot video wall of flames. But this is Scottsdale, so it’s more upscale than rustic, with iridescent upholstery on the booths and parsons chairs adding glitz. Early on it’s low-key, with classic rock and country, but things get going with DJs and hip-hop later, as the younger set comes in to fuel up pre-club-hopping. The wisest guests arrive early for one of the best happy hour menus in town.

Outdoor seating: Yes

Key players: Owners Robbie Swann and Cheri Smith; consulting Chef Matt Carter (Zinc Bistro, The Mission); head Chef Eric Guerin

Must-try menu items: A grilled artichoke ($7) with creamy aioli; smoky, tangy chopped salad ($8, $5 happy hour); or punchy Campari tomato salad ($8) with skewered cherry tomatoes and Maytag blue cheese are excellent light starters. Potato pancakes ($8, $5 happy hour) create cravings, thanks to cheddar bacon fondue, charred scallions and house ranch dressing. For the main course, go for the gusto with a filet and shrimp skewer ($25) or bacon-wrapped scallops skewer ($20). Sides (one free with entrée) of cast iron corn bread, creamed spinach, Creole dirty rice with andouille sausage and house-mashed potatoes with truffle and parmesan are best bets. The Sweet Republic ice cream sandwich ($4) with house-made cookies is insane.

Drink to die for: The jalapeño margarita ($10) is sweet going down, thanks to a blend of Ketel One Citroen, orange zest, lemon and cranberry juices, and yes, muddled jalapeños, which give an after-kick like a mean old mule.

Secret of the house: It’s truly a family affair – owners Robbie Swann and Cheri Smith are siblings, and Matt Carter is their cousin. Swann’s son Jimmy is the general manager; his daughter and son, Ashleigh and Cory Swann, are servers; and Smith’s daughter Heather Smith is a server.

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. W-Su; kitchen open until 10 p.m. W-Th and until midnight F-Su; closed M-Tu

Happy hour: 4-7 p.m. and 10 p.m.-close daily; half-off well drinks, $1 off drafts, $5 house wines and nine “campfire bites” appetizers for $5

Takes reservations: Yes


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Canteen Modern Tequila
640 S. Mill Ave., Tempe
480-773-7135, canteentequilabar.com

Opened: October 2010

Cuisine: Mexican

Price: $$-$$$

Atmosphere: Lunch attracts working professionals and Arizona State University staff, but as the sun goes down the crowd turns decidedly younger and party-minded. The interior is living-room cozy, illuminated by modern dandelion puffball light fixtures. Crushed-velvet curved booths line wood-planked walls, and in the center, low, cushy chairs cluster around even lower tables. The bar opens to a narrow outdoor sidewalk patio, and there’s a larger patio in the back with another bar manned during busy times.

Outdoor seating: Yes

Key players: Owner Julian Wright, Chef Luis Millan and mixologist Clint Manning

Must-try menu items: Canteen is serious about tequila (they serve more than 100 varieties), but they’re equally serious about their boldly flavored Mexican street food, especially the tacos. Gourmet street tacos ($8-$10) come three to an order, but the best are the Corona-, cilantro- and lime-marinated chicken and the earthy vegetarian portabella with the house-smoked blue cheese. Splurge for the chunky guacamole ($7), and don’t complain about shelling out for the fantastic trio of salsas with chips ($6). The slow-roasted cochinita pibil with habanero mango salsa is portioned for two as an entrée ($22), but it’s the same pork used in the tacos for only $9. Satisfy your sweet tooth with the cinnamon-y, rum-spiked rice pudding ($6) for dessert.

Drink to die for: Organic grapefruit soda, fresh lime juice and 100 percent blue agave blanco tequila make the Paloma ($6.50) both refreshing and potent. Canteen rims half the glass with salt mixed with grapefruit zest. It’s pretty and pink, but it’s no sissy drink.

Secret of the house: There’s a reason the Corona, cilantro and lime chicken is beyond juicy – the marinated chicken is slowly churned on a rotisserie. Starting in October, Canteen will add pineapple-marinated pork al pastor to the rotisserie when they unveil a new menu to celebrate their first anniversary.

Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Su-W; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Th-Sa

Happy hour: 4-6:30 p.m. daily

Takes reservations: Yes


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Carmel’s Coffee & Bakery
4233 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix
480-251-8888, carmelscoffee.com

Opened: March 2011

Cuisine: American/Bakery

Price: $

Atmosphere: It’s easy to fly by this tiny 1940s cottage as you zip down Camelback Road west of 44th Street. But then you’d miss out on a cheerful retreat with a simple, comfy ambience that includes two counters lined with leather high-top chairs, brown leather booths, and old schoolhouse-style wood chairs nestled on a stained natural concrete floor. The owner has a design background, and his creative side shines though in the fun, urban-chic décor where vintage, mid-century modern and classic furniture mingles happily with garage sale finds. The changing but always brilliant art will stop you in your tracks; think embroidered dollar bills or a summery piece that resembles a Day of the Dead skull eating watermelon.

Outdoor seating: Yes

Key players: Owner Pat Flanigan and baker Nathalie Lozano

Must-try menu items: Brevity is the soul of this bakery’s menu, with just a handful of breakfast and lunch items, but it’s brimming with homemade goodness. To wit: Daily changing baked goods might feature plump blueberry muffins warm from the oven ($3.50), honey crêpes ($6.75), or a croissant sandwich with boutique bacon and farm eggs ($6.75). At lunch, the retro theme carries through with what Flanigan says were his grandmother’s and mother’s favorite foods: a BLT on homemade buttermilk bread ($6.50), spinach quiche ($4) and a citrus salad tossed with goat cheese, almonds, mixed greens and homemade vinaigrette ($6.50). Customers spill in for the signature puff pastry tarts ($5.50) topped with tomato and goat cheese or potato, gorgonzola and bacon.

Drink to die for: It’s a coffee shop, and the java is dynamite, sourced from Tempe roaster Cartel Coffee Lab and served as double-pull shots of espresso ($2.50), iced toddies ($3) and old-fashioned drip ($2.50).

Secret of the house: Chef groupies, this is where you want to be on Sundays, when many of the Valley’s top toques convene to munch on freshly baked brown butter scones ($3.50).

Hours: 6 a.m.-3 p.m. daily

Happy hour: No

Takes reservations: No


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Chez Vous
8787 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
480-443-2575,
chezvous-az.com

Opened: April 2010

Cuisine: French Crêperie

Price: $

Atmosphere: With only 24 or so seats inside, Chez Vous is quaint and cozy, with chocolate-colored walls adorned with dozens of white plates on one side and a windowpane white mirror on the other, creating an illusion that the space is larger than it is. Most of the polished wood tables, with country chairs painted white, are snuggled close together across from the bakery case and counter. An upright piano sits up front, sometimes silent but sometimes played by owner Richard Horvath and others.

Outdoor seating: Yes, limited to a few sidewalk tables in front of the restaurant.

Key players: Owners Richard and Isabelle Horvath and Chef Jeremy Snipes

Must-try menu items: Specializing in Brittany-style crêpes, Snipes uses dark, organic buckwheat for the dozen or so savory crêpes and wheat flour for the 14 sweet crêpes. Some savory crêpes come with the French family’s thick, rich béchamel sauce, such as the lovely forestiere with sautéed mushrooms, shaved ham and melted Swiss cheese ($10.50). Another favorite is the Brittany ($10.50), with roasted chicken, tomatoes and caramelized onions bathed in crème fraîche. All savory crêpes, folded into a rectangle with just a peek of the ingredients showing, are served with a simple mixed green salad drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette. Save room for the delicate dessert crêpes with crisp edges, such as the Damnation2 with chestnut paste and melted dark chocolate ($7.75), or even the Classic, a simple crêpe dusted with powdered sugar and lemon drizzle ($4.80).

Drink to die for: The short wine list features some French gems, such as the Hugel Gentil from Alsace ($8.50), a white blend with an aromatic nose and mouthwatering fruit finish that pairs well with the béchamel-based crêpes or quiche.

Secret of the house: Crêpes are Chez Vous’ claim to fame, but the crêperie also makes baguette sandwiches, quiche (by the slice, $6.50, and whole to-go, $25) and wickedly delicious crème brûlée, including espresso and white chocolate flavors. The quiches are made daily, so call ahead to take a whole one home.

Hours: 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. M-Sa; closed Su (beginning in October, hours will expand to include dinner and Sundays)

Happy hour: No

Takes reservations: No



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Citizen Public House
7111 E. Fifth Ave., Ste. E, Scottsdale
480-398-4208, citizenpublichouse.com

Opened: January 2011

Cuisine: Contemporary American/Pub

Price: $$-$$$

Atmosphere: The tables may be covered with white tablecloths, but this Old Town newcomer is pure comfort. Dark wood accents and buttermilk-hued walls decorated with nostalgic black and white photos of the owners’ families soften the capacious room. But it’s hard to miss the focal point, a prominent rectangular bar in the center of the room. It is a pub, after all.

Outdoor seating: Yes

Key players: Chef/partner Bernie Kantak, operator/partner Andrew Fritz and mixologist/partner Richie Moe

Must-try menu items: Although the contemporary pub-grub menu features everything from crab cakes to short ribs, Chef Kantak loves pork – specifically Denver’s tender belly pork – and we love what he does with it. From heirloom popcorn popped in bacon fat ($5) to a BLT on grilled French bread ($12) to a bacon-infused beef burger called the “Squealer” ($15), Kantak proves everything does taste better with bacon. The signature bacon dish, though, is the phenomenal pork belly pastrami ($12). A juicy slab of roasted pork belly spiced with brown sugar, juniper berries and paprika is paired with rye-flavored spaetzle and shredded Brussels sprouts “sauerkraut” flecked with mustard seeds. It’s a small portion, so don’t plan on sharing.

Drink to die for: The centerpiece bar isn’t just for looks, and Moe uses the space full tilt, crafting both old-school cocktails and newfangled libations. It’s a pub, so there is plenty of craft beer, both by the bottle and on draft, including local Four Peaks. Start with one of Moe’s magic mixtures, such as the “jeweled” Bijou ($13), a straight-up gin, intense green Chartreuse and sweet vermouth concoction finished with a dash of bitters and lemon zest.

Secret of the house: The floor-to-ceiling mirror at the end of the hall near the bathrooms is actually a door that leads to a secret room upstairs with a cozy fireplace and bar, perfect for a private dinner or a special celebration with friends.

Hours: 3-11 p.m. daily; late night 11 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Th-Sa

Happy hour: 3-6 p.m. daily, aptly named “social”

Takes reservations: Yes


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Fuego Tacos
2501 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix
(Camelback Esplanade)
602-441-5728, fuegotaco.com

Opened: February 2011

Cuisine: Mexican/American

Price: $

Atmosphere: Manhattan meets Mexico. This two-story tribute to tacos puts a mod spin on one of man’s most traditional foods, utilizing inventive ingredients served under sultry lighting amid brick accents with an often raucous bar crowd. The colorful backlit displays of alcohol bottles are nearly art, and a long, communal table invites mixing and matching new friends amid DJ music and jammin ’80s videos. While you can take the kiddies here during the day, ultimately it’s more of a grown-up spot.

Outdoor seating: No

Key players: Owner Jeff Ward (also owns Fuego Bistro in Phoenix)

Must-try menu items: Tacos, por supuesto. These are stellar models, each dressed with sugar-cured cabbage, house-made pico de gallo and a blend of Oaxacan cheeses, and paired with house-made chips and salsa, rice with pigeon peas, and Cuban black beans. The house specialty is melt-in-your-mouth pernil asado, a succulent tumble of pork shoulder that’s marinated overnight and slow roasted for six hours, then finished in mango chile salsa ($9). But perk up your taste buds for the short rib barbacoa ($10) – that elusive, deeply infused flavor you’re enjoying is a braise of pineapple, soy, chipotle and Dr. Pepper, kicked up with a pineapple-habanero hot sauce.

Drink to die for: Name your poison. It’s a bar as much as a taqueria, so the menu showcases more than 30 mixed drinks, including all kinds of homemade sangria, mojitos and martinis. Our favorite quaff is the Fuego margarita ($7), a spicy ride of jalapeño-infused silver tequila and Bone Daddy mix spritzed with key lime juice, then finished with a cumin-salted rim.

Secret of the house: You can actually get a regular taco. The “Purist” ($9) is a hard corn tortilla shell stuffed with ground Angus chuck and cheddar. It’s gussied up just a bit: The meat is sautéed with guajillo chile, garlic, peppers and onions, then topped with tangy Mexican crema.

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. M-Th;
11 a.m.-10 p.m. F-Sa

Happy hour: 3-7 p.m. M-Sa. The entire house gets happy with “street” deals such as $3 tacos, $4 cocktails, $3 cervezas and a $3 daily churro.

Takes reservations: No


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The Herb Box
7134 E. Stetson Drive, Scottsdale
480-289-6160, theherbbox.com

Other location: North Scottsdale, 480-289-6180

Opened: January 2011

Cuisine: American

Price: $-$$

Atmosphere: When the Herb Box closed one of its Arizona shops (the one at Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard) and opened in the former Estate House in the SouthBridge complex, it seemed like an odd fit. The space was previously sprawling and ostentatious – not an obvious choice for the unassuming little café with the down-to-earth menu. But it grew into it with grace, creating an ambience that’s warm, welcoming and chic but not too chi-chi. Natural wood beams, light wood floors, dark wood tables, sleek silver chandeliers and lots of natural light give it that studied-casual wine-country feel. But pops of orange fabric and cute accents like a penny-farthing (an antique bicycle with one oversize wheel and a tiny one) say, “We’re not taking ourselves too seriously.” It’s popular with ladies who lunch, but the absence of fussy décor makes it just fine for business meetings and date nights. And the food is anything but lackadaisical: Count on consistently high-quality ingredients prepared with love, and an enthusiastic, confident staff ready to offer suggestions.

Outdoor seating: Yes

Key players: Owners Susan Smederovac-Wilcox and Becky Windels (also the executive chef)

Must-try menu items: The urban market steak salad ($15) is both saintly (it has greens) and sinful (creamy house blue cheese vinaigrette). The Market Street short rib taco ($13) is probably one of the best short rib dishes ever made. Other flavor explosions happen in Brussels sprouts and pancetta flatbread ($15), butternut corn enchiladas ($15) and Thai BBQ baby back ribs with green apple slaw ($22).

Drink to die for: SouthBridge Tea ($8) with whisky, blackberry jasmine green tea, agave and muddled mint leaves is an irresistible take on Southern sweet tea.

Secret of the house: Windels puts a faux skeleton in all of her kitchens for “good voodoo” or good mojo, and has ever since The Herb Box Catering Co. opened 17 years ago. Some are ornate, others are simple.

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. M-W; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Th-F; 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Sa; 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Su

Happy hour: 3-6 p.m. M-Sa, with $5 select glasses of wine, $4 draft beers and half-off appetizers

Takes reservations: For parties of five or more


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La Condesa Gourmet Taco Shop
1919 N. 16th St., Phoenix
602-254-6330, lacondesatacoshop.com

Opened: January 2010

Cuisine: Mexican

Price: $

Atmosphere: Colorful Mexican art – mostly Dia de Los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) pieces – brightens the small, boxy dining room, and heavy wooden tables and ornate chairs give a rustic, Old Mexico feel. The owners also own Bellas Artes de Mexico, a home furnishing store in Scottsdale, the source of much of the furniture and artwork. La Condesa now offers table service, but help yourself to the salsa bar, featuring a dozen or so freshly made salsas ranging from mild to searing hot, including some seasonal salsas, such as the sweet-spicy strawberry salsa.

Outdoor seating: No

Key players: Owners Cristina Meillon de Guzman and Felipe Guzman

Must-try menu items: With tacos as part of the restaurant name, you’d expect the tacos ($3) would be exceptional, and they are, but La Condesa also delivers stunning fried corn masa quesadillas ($7-$8) and fat burros ($6-$8). Fillings for all three cover most regions of Mexico: Baja-style battered and fried dogfish shark and shrimp, Mexico City-style chicken tinga, Yucatan-style cochinita pibil and Oaxacan black mole, to name a few. As much as we love the tacos, we love the fried Guadalajara-style corn quesadillas more. It’s impossible to pick a favorite, as each delivers a mouthful of exciting flavors. Be forewarned: The chicken tinga is spicy, thanks to a hefty punch of chipotle, but it’s so juicy and flavorful, stewed with a mix of tomatoes and onions, that we don’t care. That’s what the horchata’s for anyway – to cool the sting.

Drink to die for: The gigantic horchata (32 ounces, $4) is heavy with cinnamon, but something else makes this sweet, milky rice drink special: fruit and pecans. Depending on the season, the fruit might be tiny bits of melon and strawberries, or even apples. The fruit and toasted pecans add flavor, plus a bonus snack after the last slurp of the cool, creamy drink.

Secret of the house: La Condesa serves a handful of Mexican beers, like the thirst-quenching Victoria lager, but plans are in the works to install a full bar, offering margaritas and other cocktails from various Mexican regions to pair with the regional Mexican fare.

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. M-Sa; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Su

Happy hour: No

Takes reservations: No


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Litchfield’s
300 E. Wigwam Blvd., Litchfield Park
623-935-3811, wigwamarizona.com

Opened: January 2011

Cuisine: American

Price: $$$

Atmosphere: Though it’s situated at the historic Wigwam, this isn’t your father’s resort dining experience. When we say open kitchen, we mean open kitchen – it’s smack dab in the center of the dining room, flames and all. Try to get a seat in view of the hardworking chefs. Décor is appropriately a mix of rustic yet elegant. The cushy dark brown and burgundy leather booths studded with nail heads are holdovers from the previous restaurant here, Red’s Steakhouse, but filament bulb chandeliers bring it up to date while retaining a sense of nostalgia. It’s a bit tricky to find from both the self-park and valet if you’re not familiar with the resort, so ask for directions.

Outdoor seating: Yes

Key players: Menu by Chris Bianco (Pizzeria Bianco); chef de cuisine Kirsten Seltzer

Must-try menu items: Because Bianco’s connected, expect organic and local whenever possible, starting with the farmers’ market salad ($8), sourced from the Wigwam’s own market. Sweet potato hummus ($8) with olives and oranges sounded like an odd combo, but eat them in succession and you’ll get it. Choose tortilla soup ($8) if you want a heartier starter. House-made spinach fettuccine ($10) as an appetizer? Yes, this light-as-air dish won’t weigh you down. Someone obviously knows how to make pasta, because cavatelli ($17) with house-made pork sausage is another delight. Whoever says there’s no good fish in Arizona should try the pan-roasted trout ($19). Finish with crème brûlée ($12) with orange compote, a more complementary taste than berries.

Drink to die for: Rosemary gimlet ($9) with fresh rosemary grown on site in the chef’s garden. But be sure to check out the wine list, too, which features an impressive selection of Arizona wines.

Secret of the house: The logo for Litchfield’s is Paul Litchfield’s actual signature, taken from a legal document dating from the 1920s. As you enter the dining room, look for the picture of Litchfield on the wall, and you can view the original signature. Litchfield, the founder of Litchfield Park, was a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. executive who came to Arizona in 1916 and began a cotton subsidiary for use in tire manufacturing.

Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. daily

Happy hour: No

Takes reservations: Yes


phm0911bnr 16 lg

Local Bistro
20581 N. Hayden Road, Scottsdale
480-302-6050, localbistroaz.com

Opened: November 2010

Cuisine: Italian/Mediterranean

Price: $$-$$$

Atmosphere: The exposed high ceiling and two walls of glass give the square dining room an airy feel. A playful chalkboard behind the bar and a red brick wall in the back lined with sleek banquettes, and rack after rack of boutique wines, turn the chic and modern Local Bistro into a friendly and fun space.

Outdoor seating: Two small, narrow, covered patios flank the front door.

Key players: Owner German Osio, Chef Andrea Volpi and manager Lucia Morales

Must-try menu items: Volpi is known for his lusty risottos – try the saffron-scented seafood risotto ($16) with shrimp, lobster and calamari – but the pastas are just as noteworthy. Want something lighter? Dive into fresh clams in a white wine broth with bucatini ($16), or for a heartier dish, try the wide, house-made pappardelle Bolognese bathed in a veal, pork and beef ragù ($16). Starving? You won’t be after one of the “big plates,” such as the crisp chicken parmigiana ($15) or the juicy Berkshire pork chop ($14). Don’t miss the “drunk bread” appetizer ($12), a thick slab of ciabatta soaked in white wine and covered with melted gruyère.

Drink to die for: Any of the 27 wines by the glass is sip-worthy and selected specifically to emphasize the Mediterranean fare, but whet your whistle before dinner with the refreshing basil gimlet ($9). The minimalist mixture of muddled fresh basil, vodka, lime juice and a splash of simple syrup is strained into a chilled martini glass.

Secret of the house: Local Bistro serves up a killer spaghetti carbonara ($16), but you won’t find it on the menu. It’s only available upon request because Volpi is particular about how it’s made and presented. The eggs have to be tempered just so: Too hot and the eggs scramble, too cold and it’s a gooey mess.

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. M-F; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sa; 10 a.m.-
9 p.m. Su; brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sa-Su

Happy hour: 4-6 p.m. M-F

Takes reservations: Yes


phm0911bnr 17 lg

Seasons 52
2502 E. Camelback Road, Ste. 140, Phoenix
(Biltmore Fashion Park)
602-840-5252, seasons52.com

Opened: October 2010

Cuisine: Global

Price: $$-$$$

Atmosphere: The main dining room is handsome, with colorful, contemporary upholstery, warm woods, an open kitchen and lots of glass. The bar/lounge area, with booths on the perimeter, cozy barstools, romantic lighting and a piano behind the bar, is more intimate – perfect for date night. Other spaces can be configured for private parties large or small. Service is polished, well-trained and friendly. All dishes are prettily presented, seasonally chosen and less than 475 calories.

Outdoor seating: Yes

Key players: Owned by Darden (Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Bahama Breeze and The Capital Grille); locally, Charlotte Hopkins, managing partner; Steve De Barril, executive chef partner; Adrienne Caruso, group sales manager; Dave Culley, West Coast operations director

Must-try menu items: The menu changes seasonally and includes weekly specials (thus the “52,” for 52 weeks’ worth of specials), but don’t miss the flatbreads, whether standard (spicy chipotle shrimp, $9.95) or seasonal (BLT, $8.30; artichoke and goat cheese, $8.60). And don’t pass up a mini-indulgence ($2.50 each), a tiny cup of joy holding desserts such as chocolate peanut butter mousse, blueberry cheesecake or Meyer lemon pound cake. Other mainstays include Colorado buffalo chili ($5.85/cup, $6.30/bowl), BBQ chicken salad ($12), Maui tuna crunch salad ($15.80), caramelized sea scallops ($20.95) and tiger shrimp penne pasta ($17.30). Gluten-free, garlic-free, low-sodium, vegan and other special menus are available.

Drink to die for: The Organic Sunshine Martini ($10.70), with orange-infused Prairie organic vodka and agave nectar, is refreshing. But check out the stellar wine list: Choose from 60 by the glass or 100 by the bottle, including solid favorites and “before they become famous” options. This location even boasts Arizona wines.

Secret of the house: Who’s that guy George on the wine list? He’s George Miliotes, master sommelier and in-house wine guru for Seasons 52. He globe-trots to not only find the best wines but also assist in making them. He custom blends chardonnay in South Africa, puts his stamp on merlot in Spain and helps craft riesling in Germany in order to bring in wines that pair effortlessly with the dishes.

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Su-Th; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. F-Sa (piano bar open an hour later daily).

Happy hour: No

Takes reservations: Yes


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ShinBay
7001 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale (Scottsdale Seville)
480-664-0180, shinbay.com

Opened: May 2011

Cuisine: Japanese, Sushi

Price: $$$$

Atmosphere: Many of Tokyo’s most coveted restaurants are hidden away on side streets, their entrances indicated by lanterns. So it is with this discreet little gem, tucked in a nook of the Scottsdale Seville shopping center. There are just 30 seats, and the place is high class all the way, boasting sleek, dark wood, sexy box-style lighting, a curving sushi bar and tiny Zen gardens accented with fresh flowers. The mood is quiet and nearly reverential for the artistry of the chef. But that doesn’t mean stuffy, so don’t be surprised if your neighbor leans in to politely ask what you’re eating and offers tips on his or her favorite culinary discovery.

Outdoor seating: No

Key players: Owner Shinji Kurita and spirits manager (and Shinji’s wife) Kumiko Kurita

Must-try menu items: Each dish is a meticulous creation of color, flavor and texture, and don’t ask for that American over-used condiment of soy sauce, since the chef applies it only as an accent (some call Kurita obsessive, but we just say, hey, lucky us who get to eat the results). As he gets settled into his new space, the chef has been limiting meals to an extremely brief menu of approachable dishes, such as classic, simple nigiri (chef’s choice, 5 pieces, $20), pristine tofu with dainty condiments ($8), tempura ($12), and sizzled meat or seafood on a hot ceramic plate ($18). Elaborate, multi-course chef’s choice omakase dinners (market price) are available by reservation only, though by the fall, Kurita plans to have them on the everyday menu; dishes may include tomato nigiri sprinkled with Himalayan sea salt and a whisper of sweet soy, or enoki and shiitake mushrooms touched with a blow torch.

Drink to die for: Kumiko painstakingly selects sakes and wines for remarkable pairings, plus curates boutique Japanese craft beers such as Coedo Beniaka ($9), a lager made from malt, barley, hops and roasted Kintoki sweet potatoes.

Secret of the house: Regardless of the menu, just let the chef order for you. Kurita is constantly sourcing delectable, daily selections like Big Eye tuna from Hawaii, blue fin toro from the Mediterranean, Alaskan Black cod, and Kushi oysters from British Columbia.

Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. W-Su

Happy hour: No

Takes reservations: Yes



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Soi4
8787 N. Scottsdale Road, Ste. 104, Scottsdale
480-778-1999, soifour.com

Opened: December 2010

Cuisine: Thai

Price: $$-$$$

Atmosphere: Soi is a Thai word for the side streets or alleyways that form the lifeline through Bangkok. And like that frenetic city, this restaurant is a bustling, high-energy place pulsing with new-wave tech music. It’s contrasted with a contemporary backdrop of warm, polished wood tables and modern sculpture – no kitschy Asian knickknacks in sight. Some of the best seats are cuddled up at a long, open banquette cushioned with colorful pillows, or perched in a private second-story loft dining room accessed by a slat-wood staircase glowing with golden lights. 

Outdoor seating: Yes

Key players: The owners are the Sirimongkolvit family, who also own four critically recognized eateries in the San Francisco area. Todd Sirimongkolvit is executive chef for the entire restaurant collection, and his sister Dannie Lum runs the Scottsdale kitchen alongside managing partner (and Dannie’s husband) Kin Lum.

Must-try menu items: Dishes are more authentic Asian than American-style sweet, so complex flavors shine through. You can get first-rate versions of all your favorites, but look for that extra touch, such as lime vinaigrette on the crispy veggie rolls ($7), or the golden fried egg option ($2.50) on crab fried rice ($11). The chef prepares creative signatures, such as pungent mustard leaves lining a canoe-like plate topped with scoops of chopped prawns mixed with roasted coconut, lime, citrusy pomelo, ginger, nuts, hot chile and sweet palm drizzled in a caramel-y sauce ($7). Vegetarians will be in heaven with elaborate creations such as star anise-braised tofu, shiitakes and baby bok choy atop glass noodles in a clay pot of rich broth ($11). But some may convert to carnivores for the toothsome pork shoulder, braised in coconut milk, doused in tangy red curry with chunks of kabocha squash and decorated with Thai basil ($13).

Drink to die for: The wall-length, usually packed bar is the first hint that Soi4 takes its libations seriously. What’s this? Artisan Asian cocktails? We salute the ingenious mind that came up with the Thai-inspired yet non-cliché Silky Sky ($8), a sweet-tart delight of lychee liqueur, Skyy vodka and ruby red grapefruit juice.

Secret of the house: Desserts are nearly always afterthoughts in Asian restaurants. But the chef here put forethought into homemade treats such as deep-fried mango encased in crispy, shatter-thin batter, served à la mode ($6.50), and elegant ice cream topped with warm, Chambord-soaked berries ($6).

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. M-F; 5-9:30 p.m. Su-Th; 5-10 p.m. F-Sa

Happy hour: 5-6:30 p.m. M-F with $5 “street snacks,” $6 specialty cocktails and $3 draft/bottle beers

Takes reservations: Yes


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Spasso Pizza & Mozzarella Bar
4743 N. 20th St., Phoenix (Town & Country Shopping Center) 602-441-0030,
spassospizza.com

Opened: September 2010

Cuisine: Pizza/Italian

Price: $$-$$$

Atmosphere: Tucked into the center of the approachable Town & Country Shopping Center, this intimate eatery packs a lot of charm into a small space. The back wall replicates a slice of an Italian village, and tables cluster around a huge artificial tree in the center of the room. A shade-dappled wraparound patio is an organic extension of the dining room, and the whole setup feels like a little trattoria in Spoleto.

Outdoor seating: Yes

Key players: Chef/owner Michael Lepore (former owner of Leccabaffi); general manager Luis Mata (former owner of Plaza Grill and, prior to that, manager of Such Is Life)

Must-try menu items: As the name suggests, you can’t go wrong with the high-quality, house-made cheeses (fresh mozzarella, smoked mozzarella and the assertive scamorza) served with roasted vegetables (one choice $10.95, two $12.95, three $14.95). Fact is, virtually everything served here is made from scratch, including bread, sauces, dressings, sausage and desserts. Of course, the thin-crusted yet sturdy brick-oven pizzas ($11.95-$15.95) are terrific as well. Stellar appetizers include grilled calamari ($9.95) and marvelous crusty eggplant fritters ($8.95). Pastas shine, particularly the orecchiette with sausage and rapini ($14.95). As cooler weather approaches, look for specials that will include venison, rabbit, quail, fegato (liver) and a classic veal chop.

Drink to die for: The house-made limoncello and tangerinecello (made with tangerines) are sweet, citric and mighty potent. Order a ’cello spritzer ($7) muddled with mint as an aperitif; it works as a refreshing quaff with food as well. After dinner, a thimble-sized glass of the liqueur ($6) is the perfect accompaniment to a steaming espresso and dessert.

Secret of the house: Craving cioppino, braciole, scungilli or any other hard-to-find Italian delicacy? Just give Lepore a call: With 24-hour notice the kitchen can whip up virtually anything in the Italian culinary spectrum. We’ll go for the grilled cuttlefish.

Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. M-Sa

Happy hour: 4-6 p.m. M-F. Enjoy any appetizer for $5 along with $3 beer, $4 well drinks and $5 glasses of wine.

Takes reservations: Yes


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Tanzy
15257 N. Scottsdale Road,
Scottsdale (Scottsdale Quarter)
480-483-3255, tanzyrestaurant.com

Opened:  January 2011

Cuisine: Mediterranean

Price: $$$

Atmosphere: Over-the-top with no excess spared is the best way to describe Tanzy. Perched at the top of a vertiginous escalator, it’s a big and flashy Vegas-style production with floor-to-ceiling windows, smoky colors and striking architectural details. Booths are huge, lighting is subdued and a wall-sized display of wine bottles makes for an absolutely stunning room divider.

Outdoor seating: Yes

Key players: Owner iPic Entertainment, general manager Tony Brunetti, executive chef Geoff Baumberger

Must-try menu items: While nominally Mediterranean, Tanzy’s culinary style is imaginative and far-reaching. Simple, good-quality ingredients are treated with pizzazz, starting with appetizers such as polenta cakes with melted cheese and a drizzle of butter ($9), and a classic version of carpaccio ($12). For the main course it’s a tough call among flaky black cod ($26), tender short ribs ($28) and mushroom risotto with saffron ($19). No better way to finish than with croissant bread pudding dotted with chocolate and topped with a dollop of Chambord-flavored whipped cream ($8).

Drink to die for: Tanzy’s prickly pear margarita ($11) with Arizona honey is made with Chinaco Silver Estate tequila and, as the menu puts it, “love.” Whatever that special ingredient, it’s a tasty treat that’s refreshing in summer and warming in cooler weather.

Secret of the house: Fresh pulled mozzarella served tableside with an assortment of flavored salts and oils.

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Su-Th; 11 a.m.-midnight F-Sa

Happy hour: From 3-6 p.m. M-F, Chef Baumberger hosts an artisan table with complimentary samples of a variety of foods. Also, a different high-end red and white wine is featured for $6 along with one of Tanzy’s 11 specialty cocktails priced at $9.

Takes reservations: Yes


phm0911bnr 22 lg

Tien Wong Hot Pot
2330 N. Alma School Road, Chandler
480-802-2525, thehotpots.com

Opened: December 2010

Cuisine: Asian

Price: $-$$

Atmosphere: You park in a stripped-down strip mall, almost walk past the nondescript storefront but spot a red neon sign that reads “Hot Pot.” Then you open the door and discover a hip, mod-Asian space decked out with silk lanterns and voluptuous vases where cool clientele bob their heads and chopsticks to pulsing indie rock while slurping from burbling cauldrons of soup.

Outdoor seating: No

Key players: Chef-owner Johnny Chu (formerly of Fate)

Must-try menu items: Hot pots of soup are pretty much the whole deal here, but choice isn’t limited: You build your bowl from a jaw-dropping list of exotic ingredients. First choose a broth, such as rich, herbal lemongrass ($4.95), delicate vegetarian miso ($4.95) or robust Thai curry ($4.95). Indecisive? Go for the Yin-Yang ($5.95), a single bowl split into a duo of Hong Kong-style and Taiwanese-style bases. Then pile in whatever tempts your appetite. Start with starches, such as silky clear ($2) or fat udon ($3) noodles, or jasmine rice ($2). Power up with premium protein like Wagyu beef ($8), shabu-shabu beef ($5) or lobster ($9). Daring diners go for authentic add-ins such as tongue ($4), pork blood cake ($3), which is way better than it sounds, and shrimp with crunchy heads still on ($5). Toss in some veggies, swish, swirl and slurp.

Drink to die for: It’s BYOB, but who needs alcohol when the chef puts a creative spin on house-made juices such as herbal sugar cane ($2), watermelon-strawberry ($4), or coconut milk ($2)? They’re light and palate-cleansing alongside that steaming, highly seasoned soup.

Secret of the house: Most hot-pot cooking emphasizes meat, but this spot is nirvana for vegetarians. There are eight kinds of tofu ($2-$3), seven kinds of mushrooms ($2-$4), uncommon greens such as tongo ($3) or gai choy ($2), and slippery sweet Korean pumpkin ($3).

Hours: 4 p.m.-midnight daily

Happy hour: No

Takes reservations: Yes


phm0911bnr 23 lg

Tryst Café
21050 N. Tatum Blvd., Ste. 108, Phoenix
480-585-7978, trystcafe.com

Opened: December 2010

Cuisine: Mediterranean/International

Price: $$

Atmosphere: From the outside it looks like a straightforward strip mall. Inside, it’s a neighborhood bistro with streamlined wood furniture, lots of windows and a showpiece bar backed by colorful, Asian-style fabric wall hangings. The patio is actually the prime real estate, however, feeling somewhat Parisian with its cozy seats and cranked-up world music, protected from the elements by slick plastic drapes. Bring the little kids or bring a first date – the relaxed, classy mood works on all levels, and the friendly staff adapt to whatever level of service you’d like, be it sippy cup or a limited production organic sauvignon blanc.

Outdoor seating: Yes

Key players: Owners Sami and Lisa Khnanisho

Must-try menu items: Healthy tater tots. Need we say more? When this fun spot says it takes a good-for-you approach to cooking, it even includes these tasty treats, made from sweet potatoes ($3.25). What they really mean is that most ingredients are organic, 100-percent natural, and often locally grown or produced, down to the ice teas from Scottsdale’s China Mist. There are vegan and vegetarian options, such as a summer roll chockfull of mango and veggies wrapped in rice paper and dunked in spicy chile-mango sauce ($6), or a gluten-free, open-faced portobello sandwich ($10). But what gets our hearts really thumping are the meat dishes, which may be prepared in a healthy way but definitely are not diet food. The Hawaiian breakfast is a monster bowl of fried eggs and house-smoked kalua pork so tender it falls apart with a sharp glance, set over cabbage, jasmine rice and wonton chips ($10). The French toast Monte Cristo is overstuffed with ham and gruyère and glazed with strawberry jam ($11). And what’s not to love about snacks such as shrimp “cigars” ($10) – clever little “lumpia” (egg rolls) stuffed with seafood mousse? We’re not even going to pretend that the “Bring It on Burger” ($13) – mounded with capicola ham, buffalo mozzarella, roasted tomatoes and pesto alongside a pile of waffle fries – is Puritan, but dang, it’s delicious.

Drink to die for: Insiders know to ask for the Bloody Mary ($9), based on organic cucumber vodka and made-to-order to whatever spice level you desire.

Secret of the house: This isn’t an all-day breakfast place, but if something from the a.m. menu strikes your fancy and the kitchen isn’t too busy, it will cheerfully accommodate.

Hours: 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m. daily

Happy hour: “Halfy Hour” runs daily from 3-6 p.m., with a generous offering of half-off the entire drink and food menu.

Takes reservations: Yes


phm0911bnr 24 lg

Viet Kitchen
114 W. Adams St., Phoenix
602-262-5535,
vietkitchenaz.com

Other location: north Phoenix, 602-788-5535

Opened: November 2010

Cuisine: Vietnamese

Price: $

Atmosphere: The dining room is basic, with generic black tables and chairs and dark tile floors, but it’s light and bright thanks to big windows. The humble décor belies the complexity of the food. Aromatic pho (pronounced “fuh”), the signature dish of Vietnam, is rich yet floral. Produce is fresh as it can be in every dish. The mood can get manic here as Downtowners flood in at lunch hour and dishes fly to and fro, but a sense of pride pervades the cuisine, as you can see from the hardworking chefs in the open kitchen. Service is quick yet conscientious and accommodating – extra plates and napkins are brought with a smile; drink refills are prompt. And if you do want to stay and linger, you’re never rushed out.

Outdoor seating: No

Key players: Husband-and-wife owners Tung Nguyen and Jenny Phan

Must-try menu items: Start with spring rolls ($3.75 for two), beef lovers salad ($9.50) or papaya salad ($9.50). Prime pho bo ($7.25) with meatballs and thin, silky strips of steak is a good one to try if you’re new to the dish. Regular stir-fry ($7.25) and house stir-fry egg noodle ($8.75) with a colorful vegetable medley and meat trio (beef, shrimp and chicken) will satisfy both Asian aficionados and newbies. Spice fans, go for ca ry banh mi ($7.75), zesty yellow curry in coconut milk with chicken, potatoes and carrots, served with a small French loaf.

Drink to die for: Vietnamese iced coffee ($3) is sweet but packs a punch. No liquor license.

Secret of the house: Nguyen was never interested in cooking, but a cousin in Vietnam talked him into opening a restaurant. The cousin taught him how to cook, and every night for six months before opening their first location, Nguyen would cook for 10 to 20 people in his home to practice. All the recipes at Viet Kitchen are his, and he’s extremely picky about his ingredients.

Hours: 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. M-F (summer); 8 a.m.-8:30 p.m. M-F starting in October

Happy hour: No

Takes reservations: Yes


phm0911bnr 25 lg

Vitamin T
1 E. Washington St., Ste. 175, Phoenix (CityScape)
602-688-8168, eatmoretacos.com

Opened: December 2010

Cuisine: Mexican

Price: $

Atmosphere: It’s bright, colorful and tidy, and the line at the counter moves fast, but once you have your food it’s a little tricky. The space was designed for Downtowners to do take-out, so it’s cramped inside with just 14 seats and a lot of elbowing and bumping to get to the salsa bar and soda fountain. The patio seats 16; plans are in the works to expand and add misters and awnings. If you’re Downtown, it’s one of the best choices for grabbing a quick bite at lunch, while shopping at CityScape or before a game (it’s within sight of US Airways Center and within walking distance of Chase Field). The name comes from the nickname for the grab-and-go tacos, tortas, tamales, etc., sold at taquerias and puestos (food stalls) in Mexico. They validate underground parking – come up through the office building and make a right.

Outdoor seating: Yes

Key players: Chef/owner Aaron May (Mabel’s on Main, Iruña, The Lodge, Over Easy); chef/managing partner Peder Bondhus

Must-try menu items: Green salad ($6), black beans ($3), barbacoa tacos (all tacos are $2.50 each or three for $7), gooey queso fundido tacos, the juicy ahogado (drowned) torta ($7), zesty Sonoran dog ($6) and, seasonally in cooler months, pozole (pork and hominy stew, $5)

Drink to die for: Frozen margaritas – classic ($5) or pomegranate, peach, ginger or apple ($6). They also sell Dos Equis ($4 and $6 drafts) and chilled shots of Don Julio ($6 for blanco, $8 for reposado, $10 for añejo), but that’s the extent of the bar menu.

Secret of the house: May and Bondhus took a two-week road trip through Mexico for research. Bondhus estimates they ate at “10,000 taco stands,” causing him to gain 30 pounds (he jokingly says May, however, retained his “svelte” physique). Their creations are mostly inspired by the cuisine of Sonora and Oaxaca, but May – who has worked in Paris – and Bondhus – who did stints at Mary Elaine’s and Le Bernadin – bring French techniques to their fare as well.

Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. M-Sa; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Su

Happy hour: 3-6 p.m. M-F and all day Sa-Su; $3 classic margaritas, $4 flavored margaritas, $3 and $5 draft beers, $2 off shots

Takes reservations: No

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