Opened: May 2016
Cuisine: New Italian
4743 N. 20th St., Phoenix,
“Nothing is perfect,” or so the saying goes, but Chris Bianco’s latest endeavor, a bright, ethereal space adjacent to sister restaurant Pizzeria Bianco in the Town & Country shopping center, comes damn close. That’s why this Italian-inspired but ultimately American trattoria has handily snagged our top spot for best new restaurant of 2016. Every Bianco enterprise – including the original Downtown pizzeria that put both Bianco and Phoenix on the nation’s culinary radar – is synonymous with seasonal, locally sourced ingredients and straightforward, unadulterated preparations. But this one, with its white-washed walls, heavy cutlery and charming artwork (courtesy of Bianco’s father), feels like the polished culmination of Bianco’s three-decade legacy. Upscale but unpretentious, sophisticated but comfortable, it’s a restaurant for grown-ups – hold the foam and deconstruction.
Of course, food this soul-satisfying takes a village, which includes not only a lengthy roster of local farmers, ranchers and food artisans but Bianco’s brother Marco, who bakes the restaurant’s magnificently textured bread, and his right-hand man Tony Andiario (formerly of Quiessence), who applies his deft touch to everything from house-cured meats to airy, made-from-scratch pastas. The menu, arranged in the Italian way (antipasti, primi, secondi and contorni), changes constantly, so that rustic farinata or the creamy chicken liver pâté you fell in love with on your first visit may not be there on your second.
But like the Bible says, to everything turn, turn, turn. Maybe instead you’ll get to sample a simple summer salad composed of the sweetest tomatoes you’ve tasted all season; or roasted beets smothered in luscious Gorgonzola cream; or grilled focaccia draped with melting house-cured lardo. You really can’t go wrong when everything is – dare we say it? – perfect.
The restaurant's small size and slower pace make reservations a must. Bianco's intention is a relaxed, multi-course Italian dining experience, not an American hit-and-run.
No real opposition on our team to handing Tratto the top spot – out of seven writers, four ranked it No. 1. And even a writer who didn't had this to say: “It was divine. But I liked my No. 1 a little more.”
Barrio Café Gran Reserva
Opened: June 2016
Cuisine: Nouveau Mexican
1301 W. Grand Ave., Phoenix, 602-252-2777, barriocafegranreserva.com
When word of Silvana Salcido Esparza’s new bistro first trickled into the offices of PHOENIX, here’s the way we understood the project: a scaled-down, “greatest hits” version of the James Beard Award nominee’s Barrio Café, befitting its location in the edgy Grand Avenue arts district. Physically speaking, that’s not too far off – found in the flatiron-shaped storefront formerly occupied by Bragg’s Factory Diner, the new Barrio is a charming shoebox of a place, as if Esparza broke off a chip of her flagship restaurant and moved it to Grand. Scaled down for sure.
On the culinary side of things, however, our expectations were wildly off the mark. This is Esparza at her most towering.
Sure, old Barrio chart-toppers like chiles en nogada and cochinita pibil grace the menu, but it’s the chef’s full-throated passion for innovative fusion dining that commands the mic here – original creations like delicate, pan-seared halibut served over a tangy shock of puréed prickly pear fruit; pork belly tostadas with a gentle rain of watercress; and marinated rib-eye in a savory impasto of mushrooms and corn smut. They’re all spectacular, and make Gran Reserva distinct from Esparza’s other concepts – more like a Binkley’s-style dining lab. Blessedly, you can experience these dishes (or their seasonal counterparts) in trial-size procession via Esparza’s tasting menu – a tactic also employed by the restaurant that follows Barrio on this list, and one we hope becomes the defining Valley food trend in 2017.
Esparza’s lieutenants will push a craft Mexican ale called 159 on you. Let them – it pairs great with her signature, pomegranate-studded guac.
To visit Barrio Café Gran Reserva is evidently to love it – each of the writers who visited the restaurant ranked it in his or her Top 5. But one non-visitor demurred: “I've never been that impressed with [Esparza's] food.”
Opened: March 2016
7044 E. Main St., Scottsdale,
Recommending a new restaurant is often about recommending its most notable dishes: “Hey, you’ve got to try the peacock liver arugula salad with vinegaroon dressing.”
“What, you mean you haven’t had the wild javelina chops with candied anchovies?”
“Oh, the hagfish filet in a cherry Kool-Aid reduction is to die for!”
This approach doesn’t quite work with Sel, Branden Levine’s labor of love in Old Town Scottsdale. Certainly, you could rave about the seared Nova Scotia scallops on curry cauliflower risotto with leeks in a blood orange-roasted beet vinaigrette, or the chilled portabella and roasted beet Napoleon with fire-roasted eggplant pesto, heirloom cherry tomato tartare, house-made mozzarella and lemon oil, or any of the other epic, vaguely molecular, post-nouvelle delicacies that grace the Sel menu. And you wouldn’t be wrong. But your friends probably won’t get the same choices even a week later. The courses of Levine’s prix fixe dinner shift from visit to visit, though certain preferred actors – purées, gravlax, filet, duck, heirloom tomatoes, squash and squash blossoms, and smoked lobster – seem to recur, like motifs in music.
Despite the mercurial menu, or maybe because of it, Sel is one of the great triumphs in the Valley’s dining scene in recent years. A meal there isn’t a quick, casual bite; it’s a gradual, quietly elegant, carefully managed aesthetic experience, executed to what our modest senses tell us is perfection. It feels like a place designed to snare a Michelin star, and you have to admire the bravado of that act alone. You have to visit.
That’s right, smoked lobster. Smoked through ice.
The only criticism: the price point. “I wonder how in step it is with the current trend of dressed-down, gastropub dining,” one writer muses. “There aren't too many people who want to go out and drop $300 on a Wednesday night.”
Opened: October 2015
Cuisine: New American/Southwestern
3243 N. Third St., Phoenix, 602-687-9080, ocotillophx.com
Every once in a while you stumble on a menu so rich with appealing choices that ordering becomes a torturous exercise in indecision. Such is the case at Ocotillo, a wonderful midtown culinary amusement park dishing up New American seasonal cuisine heavy on Arizona influences and replete with sophistication. Do you order the eponymous Ocotillo chicken – a half-bird roasted with chiles, citrus, local honey and herbs perched on a mound of cold potato salad dotted with roasted pecans and sliced dates? Or go for a selection of small plates, including the superior grilled Spanish octopus with emergo beans and roasted garlic? Also perplexing: choosing from chef Sacha Levine’s vegetable dishes. Schooled in the art of vegetable wizardry from former mentors Charleen Badman (FnB) and Chrysa Robertson (Rancho Pinot), Levine scores with crunchy Chinese long beans sprinkled with chopped almonds, fresh parsley, Parmesan cheese and red pepper-laden Romesco sauce. It’s bewitching stuff.
Sure, there are plenty of other restaurants in the Valley pumping out quality seasonal fare in nifty, purpose-built digs, but Ocotillo – led by general manager and sommelier David Johnson, with chef Walter Sterling (late of Mary Elaine’s) running the kitchen alongside Levine – is the new gold standard. A wintertime, high-season visit to Ocotillo’s sprawling, multi-structure campus is a must; diners congregate at picnic tables in the twinkle-lighted beer and wine garden, sit by the fire pit, play games on the lawn and drink espresso at the “O to Go” coffee bar.
It’s a fairly magical scene, and a big reason why this well-tuned ballad to Arizona cuisine deservedly captures a top five spot in our list of the Valley’s best new restaurants.
The Ocotillo compound sits on almost an acre of land at Third and Flower streets in Phoenix.
Too low, according to one writer. “[It] deserves the No. 2 spot... This is what a Phoenix restaurant ought to look, feel and taste like: straightforward, casual, bright and fun with an underpinning of sophistication.”
Drexyl Modern American
Opened: February 2016
Cuisine: New American/Steakhouse
8877 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale,
If restaurants were classic Hollywood heartthrobs, Drexyl would be Steve McQueen – handsome, masculine and elegant, but roguish enough to keep things interesting. It starts with the décor – lots of grays, whites and blacks along with polished wood dashed with cerulean barstools and gleaming geometric tilework. Thankfully for diners wary of yet another “New American” menu of blasé pub grub or humdrum steakhouse standards, the cheeky charm extends to the menu, which is chockablock with classics with a twist – and not just for twists’ sake, but to inject some globe-trotting pizzazz into beloved dishes.
Take the Caesar, with the bright and zingy Southeast Asian notes of lemongrass enlivening the Italian-American standby salad, which can be a downright snooze in lesser hands. The jade pesto halibut accomplishes a similar Marco Polo feat, marrying cilantro-spiked Italian pesto with forbidden black rice, shiitake mushrooms, baby bok choy and a complex coconut curry. Even the more straightforward menu items sing – there’s nothing exotic about Drexyl’s signature heritage pork chop (house-smoked and double-cut, served with grilled apple butter, truffled goat cheese orecchiette, candied bacon and seared Brussels sprouts), but it’s the most tender, perfectly cooked pork chop we’ve ever had. It’s comfort food cranked up to 11.
Perhaps Drexyl’s strongest suit has been its consistency – the food quality and service have never wavered, whether we’ve dined in intimate duos or in unruly parties of 15. That reliability is a rare jewel indeed in the high-turnover restaurant industry, in which excellent executive chefs are often undermined by spotty service or poorly trained kitchen staff. With the departure of founding chef Robert Eckhardt this summer, the mantle of consistent goodness rests on new executive chef Scott Paget. Time will tell if Drexyl continues to play it cool like McQueen.
Drexyl owners Chad Ahrendt and Craig and Mark McDowell (who are twins!) met as freshmen at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale and later worked together as busboys at Ajo Al’s and Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
“[No. 5] might be a bit high,” one writer says. “They overcooked my steak and were a bit slow on my last visit... but [they] made up for it ASAP by... comping dessert.”
Okra Cookhouse & Cocktails
Opened: September 2015
Cuisine: New American/Southern
5813 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 602-296-4147, okraaz.com
In the South, where signature dishes get passed down alongside family heirlooms – be they great-grandmother’s priceless silver table settings or granddaddy’s tarnished spittoon – narrative reigns supreme. Phoenix-born Cullen Campbell may be more Southwestern than Southern, but with his oft-frequented family farm parked across the country in Arkansas, and some college days behind him in Memphis, Okra Cookhouse & Cocktails’ chef/owner is the keeper of his family’s culinary narrative – and his latest chapter is fairly riveting.
Having opened almost exactly a year ago, at the very beginning of our eligibility window, Okra probably seems the least “new” of our new restaurant honorees – but the food is so good, we just couldn’t let it slide. Dishes like potlikker broth mussels, cooked in the same pan where collard greens were earlier simmered low and slow, and the smoked ham hock resting on a bed of black-eyed peas, will get under your skin. So will a stack of crispy fried chicken skins doused in honey hot sauce, the first in a whistle-stop tour of Southern delicacies. Fiery, red, crispy Tennessee Hot Chicken, visiting from the city of Nashville, has been a heat-checking hit since Okra swung open its porch doors.
The sweltering dinner specialties are cooled off by Southern charm behind the bar, where one of the city’s very best cocktail programs, run by mixologist/owner Micah Olson, digs into the history books for an exploration of Dixie cocktail excellence, including a passion fruit-splashed, rum-spiked Hurricane. With one of these in your hand, the bar seats at Okra will begin to feel like ocean-front property.
In addition to a full-fledged happy hour menu with drinks and bites, the Hot Dog Happy Hour changes weekly. One time it was a Memphis dog topped with barbecue pork and slaw. Another time the Tender Belly-brand dog was dressed in salty braised greens, hot yellow fonduta cheese, and crispy fried black-eyed peas.
“I was not a huge fan,” says one dubious writer. “It would be at the bottom for me. Except for the cocktails – they're pretty awesome.”
Nico Heirloom Kitchen
Opened: May 2016
366 N. Gilbert Rd., Gilbert, 480-584-4760, nicoaz.com
Anyone who knows Virtù Honest Craft, Gio Osso’s pocket-size Italian eatery in Old Town Scottsdale, can deduce why his newer, bigger and infinitely noisier restaurant in Gilbert has made it into the top 10 on our Best New Restaurants list. The man can cook. His grilled octopus is the stuff of legend. And his asparagus with bacon candy, duck egg and foie gras hollandaise? Think sex on a plate. Both of these sinfully good signatures have made it to Nico, where they stand out among a compilation of antipasti, pastas, secondi and contorni that seem to be built for comfort, not speed.
This is Gilbert, after all, and a recent menu overhaul has removed the outrageously good carpaccio, porchetta and duck, which simply were not selling. Now, Osso draws on memories of the Sunday dinners of his childhood, re-creating the simple, hearty Italian fare on which he was weaned – Nonna’s meatballs, eggplant Parmigiana, spaghetti Pomodoro and his famous lasagna al forno, the dish he prepared in a Beat Bobby Flay lasagna challenge last year. He lost, but no matter. It’s terrific. Somehow, everything seems as smooth as Osso’s creamy burrata – the traditional food and the loft-like space, with its exposed brick, heavy mirrors and tufted leather banquettes, conjure the old-school Italian restaurants of New York.
The only distinctly Arizonan element is the expansive patio overlooking the street, a great place to sip cocktails and watch Gilbert World glide by. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that Nico would have ranked higher on our list had its menu been a bit edgier. But hey – that’s the way the biscotti crumbles.
Although it’s not on the menu, ask and ye shall receive Osso’s dreamy affogato – a scoop of vanilla gelato or ice cream topped with a shot of espresso.
One writer expressed admiration for the food – “especially the amazing brunch” – but added, “the service wasn’t great, so I'm comfortable with it being in the bottom half.”
Opened: March 2016
1923 E. McDowell Rd., Phoenix, 602-358-8830 tacoschiwas.com
Just AS we thought the Valley’s love affair with tacos was waning, Tacos Chiwas magically appears on the Miracle Mile and, just like that, we’re swooning again. But Tacos Chiwas isn’t just about the tacos – owners Armando Hernandez (formerly of Pizzeria Bianco and Pane Bianco) and his wife, Nadia Holguin, dish up a limited but pitch-perfect menu of down-to-earth Mexican street food inspired by their Chihuahuan roots.
Housed in a former Dairy Queen, the no-frills restaurant offers counter service and a basic dining area with a compact menu of made-from-scratch street tacos, burritos, gorditas, quesadillas, bean soup and a handful of desserts, with nothing priced above $5. The tacos are crafted from hand-pressed and griddled corn tortillas brimming with juicy marinated carne asada, smoky pork carnitas, grilled chicken, beef tongue or tripe and topped with pickled and raw onions. Standouts include the Chiwas, a mélange of diced beef, ham and melted queso asadero spiked with jalapeño and Hatch chiles; and the deshebrada roja burrito – succulent shredded beef drenched in a mild red sauce with smoky overtones. The restaurant also supplies a well-stocked condiment bar with a variety of sauces – some hot, others not – plus limes, cucumbers and smooth guacamole to customize your comida. The bottom line: Tacos Chiwas may appear to be a bare-bones operation in modest surroundings, but this is not just another Mexican mom-and-pop shop. From the slow-roasted meats to the tripe tacos, Tacos Chiwas screams authenticity. In a town glutted with designer taco shops and glitzy new restaurants, scrappy Tacos Chiwas can go toe-to-toe with any of them.
In September, BuzzFeed named Tacos Chiwas the “most popular taco spot” in Arizona.
No haters in the bunch, but one writer says, “I've had better tongue, better al pastor and better carne asada in plenty of holes-in-the-wall over the years. Half the hype comes from the fact that the owner worked for Chris Bianco.”
Artizen Crafted American Kitchen & Bar
Opened: December 2015
2401 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-522-6655, artizenaz.com
Though it’s the highest-ranked hotel restaurant on our list, Artizen doesn’t feel like hotel dining – it’s just unorthodox enough to warrant praise, you might say. Head chef Dushyant Singh, who earned a 2016 Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame “Best Upcoming Chef” nomination, changes the menu on a near-constant basis, imbuing Artizen – embedded at the new Camby Hotel in Phoenix – with the kind of improvisational, progressive energy you might not expect from a restaurant engineered for three-squares-a-day volume dining. On the traditional side: seared diver scallops – four plump and buttery orbs nestled in a sweet corn fondue surrounded by pillows of herb-kissed gnocchi and crispy charred Brussels sprouts; and steak frites – marinated skirt steak wrapped around smashed and fried fingerling potatoes with a splash of garlicky chimichurri and hollandaise sauce. On the transgressive side: roasted bone marrow and crispy Korean cauliflower, both stunning and memorable creations. The service is a little uneven and could use some fine-tuning, and the prices are a tad steep for what you get, but this is one of those rare resort restaurants that fully embraces the “chef-driven” ethos. Just as Singh has been honored as an “upcoming chef,” Artizen is an up-and-comer to keep your eye on. It’s also a lot less stuffy than its predecessor Bistro 24, with muted tones, cozy booths, casual service and an informal bar scene where you can grab a quick bite and watch the game.
Singh appeared on the Food Network’s Chopped: Grill Masters in 2012, but was eliminated in the entrée challenge.
“The food was tasty, but the service spotty at best,” one writer shares. “Example: I ordered a glass of wine and didn’t get it for 15-20 minutes.”
Crab & Mermaid Fish Shop
Opened: March 2016
4218 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-758-4994, crabandmermaid.com
Phoenix’s Square One Concepts isn’t known for subtlety. Want a shot of 100-proof liquor? Pay a visit to Wasted Grain. Hops and beef? Visit Cold Beers & Cheeseburgers. Crab & Mermaid is similarly forthright, with fishing nets, life preservers, surfboards and other over-the-top nautical décor to burn the concept into your brain. Ariel’s friends are on every plate, from the decadent and buttery king crab plate to crispy whitefish with Alaskan Amber batter to refreshing, clean-tasting tuna poke with spicy sambal, a staple of Thai and Malaysian cuisine. The admiral of the C&M menu is a moist lobster roll that puts the “ahh” back in lobstah. Piled high with pillowy claws instead of the usual fuselage flesh, this monster crustacean sandwich also exhibits a remarkably low mayo-to-meat ratio, making it the best of its kind you’ll find in the Valley.
More casual than Ocean Prime, but with broader, fresher sourcing than Wildfish Seafood Grille or Knock Kneed Lobster, Crab & Mermaid is the Valley’s best new seafood restaurant in 2016, with a raw bar on par with some of our favorite coastal Oregon seafood joints. On our first visit we spotted a whole octopus behind the glass, not to mention oysters the size of soap dishes.
A staple of the Caribbean diet, conch are basically giant sea snails that can grow up to a foot long. Luckily, Crab & Mermaid’s versions are bite-size and fried golden brown for easy digestion – both mentally and physically.
The lobster roll is superlative, another writer agrees, but adds that the restaurant falls slightly short of the upper tier of Valley seafood restaurants.
Buck & Rider
Opened: October 2015
4225 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-346-0110, buckandrider.com
Restaurateur Bob Lynn of LGO hOSPITALITY bravely dove into the shark-infested waters of the Valley’s recently surging seafood scene with this swanky Arcadia restaurant. The result? Entirely seaworthy, if slightly less than spectacular. The grub is well-spiced and artistically presented, with standouts ranging from seared scallops swimming in bright, citrusy yuzu to fiery chorizo and shrimp skewers stoked with chile-spiked harissa. For landlubbers, there’s herbaceous picnic chicken that’s legitimately finger-licking good, and crispy Brussels sprouts with sumptuous goat cheese “dipping” sauce as thick and rich as cake frosting. The shellfish is spring-breeze fresh – always an impressive feat in the desert – but let’s be frank: Buck &Rider is more about the trappings and service than the catch of the day. Like another LGO restaurant, Chelsea’s Kitchen, the service is Penn & Teller-like, wherein your water glasses are magically refilled when you aren’t looking and a replacement roll for a maki misstep appears at your table faster than you can say “abracadabra.”
In terms of overall appeal, B &R is moored in the general vicinity of standouts like Little Cleo’s Seafood Legend and Bluewater Grill, but its infuriatingly pricey raw bar (seriously, we once dropped a C-note just for two crab claws, a tiny oyster plate and a cocktail) is the proverbial albatross that kept it just below our top 10 list. And as LGO concepts go, Ingo’s is still our favorite.
Ahoy, mateys! Or is it g’day mates? The LGO folks modeled Buck &Rider’s chic look after several seaside homes pictured in a magazine article about the surfing town of Noosa in Queensland, Australia.
BNR Extra No.2
The odd spacing in the Buck &Rider name, with no space after the ampersand, isn’t a typo. Lynn and his LGO cohorts decided to mate the characters together like a fisherman’s “buck and rider,” in which a male crab carries the female on his back.
“Way too corporate for my taste,” one non-fan stated. “Loud, crowded, a scene with barely above-average food. I had poorly shucked oysters and ceviche here. The ceviche was bland and boring.”
Stock & Stable
Opened: June 2016
Cuisine: American Gastropub
5538 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 602-313-1001, stockandstable.com
In a city overstuffed with American gastropubs, Stock & Stable carves out a niche with imaginative dishes and a cocktail menu of delectable libations with clever names like “How ’Bout Them Apples” and “Church on Time.” Among the Valley’s restaurant personalities, we like to think of S&S as the quirky, Flo-style sidekick on a classic all-American sitcom, complete with cat-eye glasses and beehive.
Reviewed on page 141 of this issue, S&S doesn’t have quite the star quality of Citizen Public House or FnB, but it’s innovative enough to crack the honorable mentions list. The restaurant’s home inside a funky repurposed 1950s office building is an eclectic yet comfortable mashup of masculine leather, elaborate tilework and tongue-in-cheek cow paintings. The latter pays homage to the eatery’s meatier items, which include beef tongue hash and thick-cut, perfectly cooked New York strip slathered with enough herb butter to grease an industrial skillet. Some of Stock & Stable’s menu items are downright wacky – Froot Loops cereal with berries or the salted cod version of tater tots, for example – but there’s a certain vintage charm here. Thankfully the salads are decidedly more mundane; we especially dig the wedge-like baby gem and the contrast of sweet watermelon and creamy, salty ricotta in the kohlrabi salad.
Stock & Stable’s smoked corn manti pasta (no, not antipasto, though there’s often a confusion) isn’t an Italian dish. The dumplings are a regional Turkish fave, traditionally stuffed with spicy ground lamb and boiled.
Though none of our writers fought to get S&S into the Top 10, most found value in the wily, wide-ranging menu. “There are some fun shareable dishes and unique, comforting entrées,” one writer says.
Joe’s Midnight Run
Opened: April 2016
Cuisine: American Gastropub
6101 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 480-459-4467, joesmidnightrun.com
Impossibly loud and more than a little crowded, this industrial-designed sliver of a restaurant-cum-lounge pays homage to Joe’s Drive-Thru Liquor, a North Phoenix neighborhood fixture once housed in the same narrow, mid-century building. Like the old Joe’s, where midnight rum runs were surely common, the new one embraces the same fight-for-your-right-to-party mentality, dialing in a throbbing ‘80s and ‘90s soundtrack while slinging intoxicating beverages in a variety of thirst-slaking forms – wines both bottled and on tap, clever cocktails and craft beers, which are offered in three sizes, including 40-ounce bottles, and served in paper sacks stamped with Ice Cube’s mug on them.
Meanwhile, executive chef Michael Goldsmith (Lon’s, Joyride Taco) keeps his hip-hop-inflected menu set at full-tilt boogie until 2 a.m., offering up small plates (called “shorties”) and entrées (called “biggies”) of wood-fired dishes that span the globe. Cantina poutine, ladled with chorizo gravy and melted Mahon, is a gooey mess of deliciousness and a complete 180 from delicate sweetbreads, accented with capers and crunchy almonds. And that’s the beauty of this place; it possesses a playful, all-over-the-map quality (take us literally there) that’s irresistible. Cases in point: a whimsical take on the PB&J involving oven-roasted foie gras with blackberry jam and cashew butter, and the Notorious B.I.G. Burger, an in-your-face monster piled high with braised pork and garnished with pork rind. If the food was more consistent, Joe’s might have earned more than an honorable mention in these pages. But alas, a few dishes are out-and-out duds – under-seasoned, under-cooked or past their prime, like an old-tasting watermelon salad. If you said Joe’s is more about style than substance, we probably wouldn’t disagree; we’re simply having too much fun to argue.
On your way out, grab a 40-ounce beer growler to go; it’s such a Joe’s thing to do.
Better than honorable mention, according to one writer: “If it's a Thursday night and I'm ready for a drink and a fun evening with a good friend, this is where I want to be.”
Opened: April 2016
7116 E. Mercer Ln., Scottsdale, 480-607-2888, leonisfocaccia.com
When’s the last time you had a great focaccia sandwich? How about a good one, even? The kind layered with fine cured Italian meats and crumbly Gorgonzola or soft mozzarella, with lively produce sprinkled with zesty vinegars, served on house-baked focaccia that’s been basted in rich olive oil and finished with salt, pulled fresh from a stone hearth oven?
Another question: Was it spread with vibrant, briny olive tapenade?
One more: Was there a chunky layer of bright, pickled giardiniera, the stuff of delicatessen legend?
If you answered no to any of the above, get thee to Leoni’s Focaccia, where the pure artistry warrants a spot on our Best New Restaurants honorable mentions list, despite its sandwich-only menu. Italian-born Danielle Leoni – you may be surprised to learn – is best known for conjuring the exotic flavors of the Caribbean at The Breadfruit and Rum Bar in Downtown Phoenix with partner Dwayne Allen. Inevitably, the culinary traditions of Leoni’s native Genoa have bubbled up to the surface, emerging as this little sandwich shop, Italian through and through. The menu is laser-focused down to six sandwiches, each delivering on an intuitive cast of ingredients: basil with tomato, mozzarella and balsamic if you’re playing it safe; bresaola – a cured beef – with sun-dried tomatoes and pepperoncini if you’re branching out; albacore tuna salad with firm pecorino Romano cheese and bitter arugula if you crave a taste of the Genoa coastline. Even more adventurous: Enjoy a ‘wich with a petite bottle of San Pellegrino Chinotto, which has a cult following thanks to its distinctive citrusy flavor. The bittersweet, effervescent drink will remind you of an amaro spritz, sans ABV, and have you cheers-ing “cin-cin” by lunchtime, as the Italians do.
At Leoni’s, it’s like the hard-as-rock, plastic-wrapped biscotti of the 1990s never happened. Leoni bakes hers fresh. You may want a coffee to go with it, but you certainly don’t need it.
Though not in the same realm as last year’s BNR sandwich heavies – Noble Bread and Nocawich – it’s fully worth a visit, according to one writer. “Nothing too flashy... but very tasty.”
Alma WxSW Cuisine
Opened: May 2016
8989 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale,
Sure, pastrami and salmon aren’t typically associated with cowboy cuisine. But, first of all, Alma WxSW in North-ish Scottsdale isn’t your typical cowboy beanery. And, second of all, when they taste as good as they do here, who cares whether the average cowpoke partook of them out on the range?
It’s not every restaurant, and especially not every higher-end, non-resort restaurant, that offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, but within its sophisticated, chi-chi bunkhouse setting – rusty, distressed metal tiles and Georgia O’Keeffe skulls on the walls – Alma shows up for the full culinary tour of duty. For Valley lifers, it’s Southwestern fare that’s fun without the cornball clichés. Breakfast may quite possibly be Alma’s finest hour. If there’s a better plate of batter in the Valley than its lemon ricotta pancakes, expertly blending sweet citrusy sting with cheesy creaminess, we haven’t come across it yet. But lunch and dinner won’t leave you short in the saddle, either. Along with a nice selection of antojitos (street foods), Alma offers sandwiches ranging from a chicken torta on a tasty bolillo roll to salmon with thick bacon, chipotle mayo and a slaw of sliced apples to “Cowboy Pastrami.” Maybe best of all is the Arizona cheesesteak: succulent roast beef, pepper jack and provolone (no Cheez Whiz here), horseradish mayo and pepperoncini on a toasted bun glossy with butter. Dessert is also a strong suit for Alma. Selections vary from visit to visit, but range from lovely pumpkin crème brûlée to the more cowpuncher-authentic blueberry and rhubarb pies.
The coarse, chunky, sweetly tart lemon pie is said to be based on a recipe from Chef Sheila Bryson’s mother. Mom knows best.
“More of a neghborhood place,” one writer sniffed. “There's nothing here I'd drive across town for... particularly with so many great Southwestern eateries around.”
5 That Didn’t Make it... and Why
Hash Kitchen: With its now-legendary French toast spread and weekend-morning chill-core DJ, it might be the Valley’s best brunch spot. But it opened in July 2015. Not quite new enough.
CoR Tapas: Was on the bubble, but didn’t have the consensus support to make it an honorable mention. “It still needed some massaging to the menu when I last went,” one BNR writer opined.
Flourish: Great views, some interesting cocktails, but the new flagship restaurant at the CopperWynd Resort in Fountain Hills didn’t overwhelm any of the BNR writers who tried it.
Wink 24: Great atmosphere, great service, but the kindest assessment we can give the wood-fired pizzas and wine-centric culinary program is “masses-pleasing.”
Pomelo: Too many mixed reports from our food writers. Overpriced, a bit banal.
Maybe in 2017?
These promising Valley restaurants didn’t open in time to make our 2016 BNR window.
Stella: Restaurateur Mark Drinkwater vultured chef Robert Eckhardt from Drexyl to lead this New American-Italian eatery in the old Central Bistro space on Camelback Road and 32nd Street.
Match Cuisine & Cocktails: Located in the new FOUND:RE boutique hotel in the Roosevelt arts district, the restaurant will offer locally sourced “global street food.” Originally slated to open last spring. New ETA: November.
Hot Noodles Cold Sake: Josh Hebert (Posh Improvisational Cuisine) unveiled his eagerly awaited ramen shop near the Scottsdale Airpark in early October.
Yama Sushi House: Filling a neighborhood need, this maguro-mover opened in Uptown Phoenix just south of Camelback in September.
Binkley’s: The resurrection of chef Kevin Binkley’s flagship gastro lab – located in the old Bink’s Midtown space in East Phoenix – is slated for January.
The best new restaurants of 2016, according to our online BNR readers’ poll.
Helio Basin Brewing Co.
Joe’s Midnight Run
Best New Bar
We’re not sure what to call it – synergy, alchemy, canny opportunism – but something conspired to make this underground tiki-inspired bar a runaway hit before the first Mai Tai was even mixed. Maybe people just love the idea of turning the service pits of a Jiffy Lube into a bar. Or maybe the super-limited seating capacity (about two dozen customers at a time) feeds our First World hunger for scarcity. Or perhaps folks were simply bowled over by the bar’s all-star cadre of Valley mixology pros, a list that includes Jason Asher (Counter Intuitive), Travis Nass (late of Last Drop), Micah Olson (Crudo) and more. Final explanation: the cocktails are just that good. And they are. 3620 E. Indian School Rd., Phoenix, 602-900-5188, sipcoffeeandbeergarage.com
Best New Pizza
Boss Pizza Bar
Yes, our reviewer loved the Chicago-style pies at this Old Town pizzeria, including the “perfectly balanced” house pepperoni and all-veg Meat Haters with spinach, green peppers and mushrooms cut as thick as bread slices. But we have a feeling the restaurant’s reputation will really take off this winter, when the public can finally take advantage of the pizzeria’s signature, wrap-around patio. 7125 E. Second St., Scottsdale, 480-777-2677, bosspizzabar.com
House of Egg Roll
First rule of dining at House of Egg Roll? Don’t order the egg rolls. That directive comes straight from the new owners, who overhauled the menu with hard-to-find, vibrantly spiced classic dishes – e.g. cumin-spiked braised chicken and hot and sour lamb dumplings – from China’s northwestern province of Shaanxi after acquiring the restaurant late last year. The name stuck, the egg rolls did not. The restaurant was subsequently anointed one of Time Out’s 17 Best Chinese Restaurants in America. 961 W. Ray Rd., Chandler, 480-899-9331, shaanxibiangbiang.com
Best Brewery Food
Helio Basin Brewing Co.
Duck fat charro beans, where have you been all our lives? The savory side dish is one of several items on the brewery’s limited but inspired menu that transcends the salt-and-carb model of typical microbrewery food programs. The centerpiece of the menu – a selection of eight tacos – reads like a pub-grub version of Native American fine dining legend Kai, with Southwest-inspired deliciousness like roasted Tohono O’odham tepary beans with blackened tomato hummus. The signature War Bonnet taco with jalapeño-marinated beef and hibiscus-pickled cauliflower is a must-try. 3935 E. Thomas Rd., Phoenix, 602-354-3525,
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