Or: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Carb
Fall is fully upon us, a season filled with Hallmark movies, family merriment and mashed potatoes – plate upon glorious plate of hot, buttery, hypnotically soothing mashed potatoes, along with other starchy, fatty delights. According to dietary scientists, a stress hormone called cortisol could be behind mankind’s collective affection for such foods, going back to prehistoric times, when the prospect of a long, foodless winter triggered such cravings as a survival mechanism. Well, consider this 22-page Valley dining guide our white flag: You win, cortisol. Just give us our pierogi and fried chicken. Find dozens of recommendations for comfort-cuisine satisfaction, along with picks from our favorite Valley food pros.
By Nikki Buchanan, Jess Harter, Marilyn Hawkes, Leah LeMoine, Craig Outhier, Madison Rutherford
Photography by Eric Cox, Brian Goddard, Michael Hannan, Mirelle Inglefield, Nikiana Medansky, John Mendoza, David B. Moore, Jill Richards, Travis Whittaker
“In heaven, after antipasti, the first course will be pasta.”— Music producer Steve Albini
3 Best Pasta Restaurants
By Nikki Buchanan
1 Andreoli Italian Grocer
How do you say “comfort food” in Italian? One way: Giovanni Scorzo’s chalkboard special of fusilli con ricotta e pomodorini, a deceptively simple dish from Southern Italy composed of corkscrew-shaped pasta bathed in a rich but fresh sauce of olive oil, cherry tomatoes (slightly burnt from the pan), fresh ricotta and buttery Parmesan. It’s rustic and ethereal all at once, and like a hug from your mother. 8880 E. Via Linda, Scottsdale, 480-614-1980, andreoli-grocer.com
In the cooler months, Cassie Shortino channels her grandfather (who owned an Italian restaurant in Rochester, New York) with her sensational house-made orecchiette with butter, loose tomato passata (uncooked tomato purée) and three cheeses melted into the mix – Parmesan, mozzarella and Provolone-like caciocavallo. It’s a plate of stringy, gooey, moan-worthy scrumptiousness. 4743 N. 20th St., Phoenix, 602-296-7761, trattophx.com
3 Franco’s Italian Caffe
Pasta erbe aromatiche isn’t your everyday Italian staple, but rather owner Franco Fazzuoli’s own inspired creation, combining sturdy strozzapreti (“priest-choker” pasta) with prosciutto, leeks, white wine, cream, Parmesan, Romano and a slew of herbs to arrive at a plate that’s dizzyingly aromatic and wonderfully satisfying – because who doesn’t love ham and cheese? 4327 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-481-7614, francosscottsdale.com
Known primarily as a California-style pizza pub – with squirrely diversions like drive-thru beer growler refills – this Uptown restaurant from food-and-bev maestro Upward Projects also boasts a tidy but excellent menu of Italian soul standards. Case in point: a salty, scrumptious veal Bolognese (pictured), packed with enough umami to quell any workaday anxiety or full-blown existential crisis. 5210 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-795-2520, federalpizza.com
Mac and Cheese Countdown: Pizza People Pub
Macaroni and cheese is the quintessential comfort food, and there’s a slew of places that do it well in the Valley. But Pizza People Pub might be the preeminent purveyor – the Downtown Phoenix pizza joint offers 10 different types, all with a golden-brown crust and warm, gooey interior. PHOENIX editor and mac and cheese maven Madison Rutherford has tried them all. Here’s how she ranks them.
1 Jalapeño Mac
Nothing pairs better with melted cheese than a subtle hint of spice. Thinly sliced jalapeños add piquancy and texture to the comfort classic.
2 Regular Mac
It’s tough to beat the classics. Rich, creamy and baked to perfection, this gooey staple is the gold standard.
3 Spicy Buffalo Mac
Those looking for an extra kick will love this Buffalo sauce-soaked number, which packs a serious punch of chile and tanginess.
4 Mushroom Mac
Find a new way to enjoy the popular pizza topping in this protein-packed mac crowned with creminis.
5 Truffle Mac
Consider splurging on this decadent dish saturated with white truffle oil. Pair with a glass of prosecco. Pinkies up.
6 Korean Sweet & Spicy Mac
Mixed with a secret sauce featuring gochujang paste – the same coating used for the restaurant’s wings – this version has a unique flavor profile favored by those with adventurous palates.
7 White Parm & Corn Mac
Elote enthusiasts can douse this version – infused with corn and dusted with Parmesan – with hot sauce for a creative take on south-of-the-border comfort food.
8 Pesto Mac
Blended with a liberal portion of pesto, this variation has a creamier quality than some of its counterparts. Order if you’re hankering for something herby.
9 Smoky Paprika Mac
This addition to the menagerie of macaroni delivers a subtle smoky kick but feels slightly bland compared to some of Pizza People’s more imaginative offerings.
10 Blue Mac
Dairy lovers will delight in this double dose of cheese, rounded out with a generous speckling of Roquefort. Those not so keen on blue cheese might find it overpowering.
Pizza People Pub
1326 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
Thursdays are manna for mac and cheese lovers at PPP, when the restaurant offers flights of three different flavors. Portions available in mini (8 oz.) or biggie (20 oz.) with add-on options of meatballs, bacon, shredded chicken, ground beef, Italian sausage, chorizo or soy sausage.
“I like to do ‘Garfield Mondays’… lasagna and napping in a box.”— Actor Chris Pratt
3 Best Lasagnas
You would think Pesto’s plate-sized portion of lasagna – made with ground beef (no sausage) and a tame tomato sauce – might be a little bland. You’d be wrong. And you’d quickly discover the two included pieces of garlic toast are not nearly enough to mop up every last bit. 1960 W. Ray Rd., Chandler, 480-821-2949, pestoschandler.com
It’s Italian-American heaven at this Scottsdale restaurant/market, where the Guido family has been slinging soppressata since 1983. The lasagna is fail-safe: layer upon layer of wavy noodles holding rafts of meaty marinara and gooey cheese. Can’t sleep? Try this lasagna. It’s a paesano Ambien. 10893 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scotts-dale, 480-951-0636, guidosofchicago.com
3 Fabio on Fire
For belly-filling bliss, it doesn’t get any better than Fabio Ceschetti’s lasagna, layered with a simple bechamel cream sauce (besciamella to Italians) and smothered in a meaty ragu with suggestions of rosemary and fennel. The chef finishes the dish with a dusting of Parmesan, cooked to a crispy finish. 8275 W. Lake Pleasant Pkwy., Peoria, 623-680-5385, fabioonfire.com
Spaghetti and Meatball at Tarbell’s
Note the conspicuous singular noun here: spaghetti and meatball. And what a ball chef Mark Tarbell hath wrought: a 20-ingredient masterpiece that begins with ground pork and veal, and ends with a sweetening splash of balsamic. Pair it with the chef’s organic marinara, and you have arguably the Valley’s most beloved comfort dish. 3213 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-955-8100, tarbells.com
“For me, a plain baked potato is the most delicious one… It is soothing and enough.”— Legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher
3 Best Mashed Potatoes
By Nikki Buchanan
If you’re lucky enough to get an entrée sided with Brandon Gauthier’s spectacularly good mashed potatoes, count your blessings. He sous vides La Ratte fingerlings for two hours, then torments them in various ways before beating butter and cream into the mash with a wooden spoon, rendering rich but astonishingly fluffy spuds representative of both heaven and Earth. 36889 N. Tom Darlington Dr., Carefree, 480-488-9796, restaurantconfluence.com
2 MODERN Oyster Bar + Chophouse
MODERN has “the best mashed potatoes ever,” its menu brags, and it’s not an idle boast. Made with Yukon golds, a ton of butter and vats of cream (only slightly hyperbolic), these spuds are so rich you’ll need a nap immediately thereafter. Add three ounces of lobster for an extra $13 and enjoy an even more decadent experience. 10050 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-531-1400, modernoysterbarchophouse.com
“Nothing anyone will find in the Valley comes close to those two,” Buchanan says defiantly.
Comfort Throw Down!
Seems like every sentient earthly lifeform has its own favorite fry. Two of our critics lobby for their preferred specimen.
Marilyn Hawkes: The Stand
Potato connoisseurs may not agree on what makes a good french fry, but The Stand owner Eva Hofstedt covers all the important bases. She hand-cuts potatoes, fries them in vegetable oil until they’re golden brown and crisp, and dusts the skin-on spuds with salt and seasonings. Throw in ketchup and you’ve got perfection on a plate. 3538 E. Indian School Rd., Phoenix, 602-314-5259, thestandbnt.com
Jess Harter: Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company
Ridiculously tasty hand-cut fries – cooked in duck fat oil and seasoned with rosemary and thyme – have been the menu star since the brewpub opened in 2013. Make a meal by topping them with bacon and beer cheese; pulled pork and cheese; or wort gravy and cheese curds. 721 N. Arizona Ave., Gilbert, 480-497-2739, azwbeer.com
“My food demons are Chinese food, sugar, butter.”– Actress Kirstie Alley
Once Italian tradesman Marco Polo slurped his first Chinese egg noodle, it was game over for Western civilization. Peruse the Pacific Rim’s regional noodle passions at these restaurants.
Beef with Stir-Fried Noodles in XO Spicy Sauce at China Magic Noodle House
China Magic offers 20-plus noodle preparations, and this is the must-have. After choosing what type of noodles you want – there are five varieties from “narrow flat” to “thick”– you can watch a chef hand-pull yours to order thanks to a display window between the dining room and kitchen. We prefer the “shaved” noodles with the bits of beef, red chiles, scallions, carrots and onions in a seafood sauce. 2015 N. Dobson Rd., Chandler, 480-899-1590
Pad Thai at Thai E-San
For the pepperoni pizza of Thai cuisine – easy to do adequately, but extremely difficult to do awesomely – we love the supple, slickened noodles at this Midtown restaurant, served with a lusty mound of crushed peanuts and animated with scallions, bean sprouts and pickled turnips. It’s our favorite pad in town. 616 W. Indian School Rd., Phoenix, 602-297-8888, thaiesanphx.com
Ika Yakisoba at CherryBlossom Noodle Café
Valley noodle fans love this Camelback izakaya, which plates Japanese and Italian classics with equal gusto. All the noodles are wonderful, but the one that really makes ’em homesick for Hokkaido is the ika (read: squid) yakisoba – rings of springy calamari over mirin-kissed buckwheat noodles with a toupée of heshiko green onion. It’s the most Japanese thing ever. 914 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-248-9090, cherryblossom-az.com
Japanese Wild Mushroom Hot Pot at Roka Akor
Got a yen for Japanese-style comfort food? Chef Tyler Tellez makes a wondrous umami-packed porridge of Japanese rice (cooked like risotto) with mushroom stock, mushroom butter and Japanese mushrooms, including enoki, oyster, maitake and shimeji, finished with ginger juice and fresh shiso leaf. It’s so swoon-worthy you’ll channel Oliver Twist: “Please, sir… more hot pot?” 7299 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-306-8800, rokaakor.com
Comfort Throw Down!
Tom Kha Gai
What Thai restaurant does the ambrosial chicken-coconut soup – enlivened with ginger, galangal and other herbs and spices – best?
Leah LeMoine: Touch of Thai
A good tom kha gai should coat your mouth with the lush sensation of creaminess before releasing a pucker punch of sourness to the insides of your cheeks – and this one does that, with sinus-clearing bravura. 16816 N. 35th Ave., Phoenix, 602-896-9009, touchofthai.info
Craig Outhier: Thai Lahna
I like a nice, earthy tom kha gai with plenty of galangal, that woodsy root thing you find floating in the bowl. This mom-and-pop doesn’t skimp, giving the tom a long simmer to extract that piney goodness, plus enough chile to give the broth a bold orange tint. 3738 E. Indian School Rd., Phoenix, 602-955-4658, thailahna.com
Valley food pros share their favorite dishes.
Chef-owner, the larder + the delta
“The mackerel fried rice at Glai Baan, for me, is everything. I eat it at least twice a month, if not three times – it’s that good and soulful. The oily mackerel is flaked to perfection then combined with the best funky fish sauce [and] perfectly cooked rice. It will leave ya in your happy place.”
“If Little Timmy had just had more meatloaf, he might not have grown up to fill chest freezers with Cub Scout parts.”– Anthony Bourdain
3 Best Meatloaves
By Nikki Buchanan
1 Citizen Public House
Sophisticated comfort food has forever and always been Citizen’s calling card, and the amaro meatloaf is its showpiece, offering silky texture (parsnips cooked down with onion and garlic) and a beefy-porky flavor profile that skews ever so slightly sweet, thanks to that syrupy, bittersweet amaro. 7111 E. Fifth Ave., Scottsdale, 480-398-4208, citizenpublichouse.com
2 The Gladly
Humble meatloaf goes haute at The Gladly, where it’s made with duck, smoothed with foie gras mousse and set in a sticky puddle of smoked cherry demi-glace, the whole thing so rich and sticky it barely seems like meatloaf at all – except for the dreamy, comforting part. 2201 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-759-8132, thegladly.com
3 Welcome Diner
The city’s coolest and best diner puts a Southwestern spin on its meatloaf, combining beef, chorizo and spices for a spunky, ultra-moist slab ladled with a deep, smoky chipotle-tomato sauce so yummy you’ll consider just eating it with a spoon. 929 E. Pierce St., Phoenix, 602-495-1111, welcomediner.net
Old-School Meatloaf Bonus
Gramma Shirley’s Meatloaf at Chase’s Diner
Yes, Grandma Shirley was a real person, and her many comfort-food recipes were instrumental in helping Skip and Nancy Chase open their classic diner in 1997. Her meatloaf is made with ground beef, breadcrumbs, onions, ketchup, eggs, garlic and spices, served with mashed potatoes and brown gravy. It’s completely orthodox and quite irresistible. 2040 N. Alma School Rd., Chandler, 480-855-3663, chasesdiner.com
Dumplings, Pasties & Turnovers
AKA “CARB POCKETS”
“Go on, have a pasty.”– Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Pierogi, empanadas, pupusas, pasties – whatever the language, the translation is usually the same: “stuffed stuff.”
The Oggie at Cornish Pasty Co.
The Valley’s foremost peddler of pasties (a traditional meal for Cornwall miners similar to an empanada or calzone) offers more than three dozen fillings, ranging from lamb vindaloo to peanut butter and jelly. For our money, the most scrumptious model is the one that started it all, stuffed with steak, potato, onion and rutabaga, served with a side of red wine gravy. Five Valley locations, cornishpastyco.com
Dizzy Fig at República Empanada
You can’t go wrong with any of the 16 savory empanadas at this Latin American-inspired eatery, but you’ll want to be sure to leave room for the Dizzy Fig dessert version. Crunchy, buttery crust is filled with a hot, oozing mix of Mesa-grown figs, dulce de leche and creamy, stringy mozzarella. 204 E. First Ave., Mesa, 480-969-1343, republicaempanada.com
There’s a lot more than pierogi at All Pierogi Kitchen – borscht, kielbasa, schnitzel – but if you don’t order the Eastern European dumplings, we wash our hands of you. Of the more than 20 succulent, pillowy, pliant, pitch-perfect varieties (sauerkraut, potato, blueberry), we love the simple, perfect farmer’s cheese and chive the most. 1245 W. Baseline Rd., Mesa, 480-262-3349, allpierogi.com
Gluten-Free Pocket Bonus
Cabbage at Edelweiss
Besides more spaetzle and schnitzels than you can shake an alpenhorn at, the biergarten offers a formidable menu of Hungarian staples, including this old-world favorite, pickled cabbage leaves stuffed with seasoned pork, then slow-cooked and finished with a scoop of sour cream. Delicious? Ja! Carb-heavy? Nein! 2625 E. Bell Rd., Phoenix, 602-404-5919, edelweissphoenix.com
Owner-chef, The Gladly and Citizen Public House
“My grandmother’s stuffed cabbage would be my go-to, but I have yet to find anything comparable. I’d have to say any pasta dish at Virtù or Tratto is what really makes my soul feel good until I find some spectacular stuffed cabbage!”
“The best comfort food will always be greens, cornbread and fried chicken.”– Maya Angelou
3 Best Fried Chicken
By Nikki Buchanan
1 The Larder + The Delta
Stephen Jones puts his own haute cuisine spin on Nashville hot chicken, creating a super craggy, mahogany brown crust over Two Wash Ranch chicken that’s a tad less hot, a tad more sweet and a whole lot more delicious than most greasy-spoon versions. (We also get a touch of Middle Eastern spice in there… maybe Baharat?) Why, oh why, is it only available for by-the-bucket takeout on Tuesdays? 200 W. Portland St., Phoenix, 480-409-8520, thelarderandthedelta.com
2 Welcome Chicken + Donuts
There’s nothing remotely healthy (not to mention logical) about a meal composed solely of fried chicken and doughnuts, but cholesterol counts and coherence will go right out the window when you bite into Welcome’s Red Bird Farms chicken, battered and deep-fried to lustrous golden brown crunchiness. Order it plain (delish) or tossed in sauces (spicy Korean, sweet-ish Japanese or herby Vietnamese) – all of which pair nicely with a wildly exotic doughnut. 1535 E. Buckeye Rd., Phoenix, 602-258-1655, welcomechickenanddonuts.com
3 Southern Rail
Justin Beckett wins raves for his cola-brined cluckers, breaded in three stages involving buttermilk, flour, citrus and spices, then deep-fried to a gloriously satisfying crunch. Sided with dreamy Yukon gold mashed potatoes and collard greens, it’s every Southerner’s sweet spot and the restaurant’s No. 1 bestseller for good reason. 300 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-200-0085, southernrailaz.com
Fried Chicken Bonus
Korean fried chicken’s rise in popularity began in Seoul in the 1990s, but Bonchon has brought it to the world. The fast-growing global chain’s double-frying method sheathes juicy chicken meat in a thin, crispy skin. Every flavorful piece is cooked to order and topped with a signature sauce. 780 W. Elliot Rd., Tempe, 480-361-9282, bonchon.com
Author and blogger, Write on Rubee
“Justin Beckett’s shrimp and grits at Southern Rail. He boosts the flavor with corn stock and cooks McClendon’s grits low and slow for hours so they become super creamy. Then he gilds the lily by piling on shrimp, Schreiner’s sausage and smoked onions in a buttery mustard sauce.”
“If it were easy to resist, it would not be called chocolate cake.”– Author Maryrose Wood
3 Best Puddings
By Nikki Buchanan
Comforting, mais oui, but Charleen Badman’s butterscotch pudding really belongs in the ethereal “last meal on earth” category. Dig down through a cloud of thick whipped cream to a shiny golden-brown bottom layer of luxurious pudding that exudes the smoky sweetness of caramelized brown sugar, and the eye-rolling richness of heavy cream. 7125 E. Fifth Ave., Scottsdale, 480-284-4777, fnbrestaurant.com
2 Pizzeria Bianco
Reconnect with your inner child over Bianco’s light and sublimely simple rice pudding, fragrant with vanilla. No raisins here, but you won’t care once the first spoonful of heirloom rice (Carolina Gold, sourced from Anson Mills in South Carolina) – fixed in a delectable mortar of cream and sugar, offered up with a dollop of house-made jam – enters your mouth. Two Valley locations, 602-258-8300, pizzeriabianco.com
3 Virtù honest craft
Gio Osso’s golden-hued butterscotch pudding is lighter, both in color and weight, than Badman’s version, but no less a godsend for that. He gives it a judicious sprinkle of sea salt and a drift of vanilla whipped cream, siding it with a dainty hazelnut praline for crunch. 3701 N. Marshall Way, Scottsdale, 480-946-3477, virtuscottsdale.com
PHOENIX mag Comfort Cookie
Chocolate Chip Cookie at Not Your Typical Deli
There’s nothing typical about the quarter-pound, big-as-your-hand, rustic-looking chocolate chip cookies at this Gilbert deli, where most of the young staff members have autism or other developmental disabilities. The scrumptious cookies have a chewy texture that perfectly straddles the line between soft and crunchy. 1166 S. Gilbert Rd., Gilbert, 480-794-1116, nytdeli.com
“There is hardship in everything except eating pancakes.”– British sermonizer Charles Spurgeon
3 Best Cinnamon Rolls
By Marilyn Hawkes
1 Sweet Cakes Bakery
Made fresh daily, Sweet Cakes cinnamon rolls are layered with butter, brown sugar and cinnamon and then iced while still warm. The frosting, made with butter, powdered sugar and a touch of vanilla, melts into all the crevices. The kitchen also whips up a mean caramel pecan cinnamon roll that’s rumored to weigh close to a pound. 21 W. Main St., Mesa, 480-461-9529, sweetcakesaz.com
2 Sweet Dee’s Bakeshop
Sweet Dee’s serves up a cinnamon roll for the ages – thin layers of buttery dough decorated with sweet cinnamon all the way through to the soft, fluffy heart. Topped with creamy white icing that seeps into the circular layers, this sweet sensation is equal parts cinnamon toast, cinnamon sugar doughnut and cinnamon roll. 7350 E. Stetson Dr., Scottsdale, 480-994-6733, sweetdees.com
Catch one of Luci’s cinnamon rolls right out of the oven and you’ll be overwhelmed with cinnamon sugar goodness. Standing about 3 inches tall, the bun has coils of yeasty dough sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and topped with a luscious, toothache-inducing icing. Worth it. Three Valley locations, lucisgrove.com
Smothered Chicken and Waffles
Lo-lo’s Chicken and Waffles
Breakfast, lunch, dinner, midnight bingeing – no matter the meal, this iconic Lo-Lo’s dish fits it like a pillowcase. Positively scandalous when it debuted at the original Downtown location in 2002, this savory-sweet mashup of crispy, salty fried chicken, peppery white gravy and fluffy, griddled waffles helped expand the Valley’s culinary consciousness – not to mention its waistline. Four locations. loloschickenandwaffles.com
Biscuits & Gravy
The flaky buttermilk biscuits made in-house at this community-minded cafe are a treat by themselves, but you have two choices of gravy: a traditional white sausage gravy for those who prefer a classic Southern presentation or a slightly spicy chorizo gravy for those looking for some Southwestern zest. Both will return you to the womb. 6340 S. Rural Rd., Tempe, 480-839-6455, markscafeaz.com
The brunch menu at The Henry will present you with some difficult choices, but if you’re looking for instant comfort, choose the dreamy caramel apple French toast. Covered with cooked apples bathed in caramel with a hint of vanilla, the light and airy griddled egg bread dish will sweeten your day – and the memory will linger. 4455 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-429-8020, thehenryrestaurant.com
Butterfield’s Pancake House
If you’re a true pancake devotee, you might scoff at hotcakes gussied up with extras like chocolate chips, whipped cream and cinnamon sugar icing. While the add-ons are well-intentioned, there’s nothing more comforting than a plate of Butterfield’s unadorned, fluffy buttermilk cakes slathered with real butter and soaked in maple syrup. 7388 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale, 480-951-6002, butterfieldsrestaurant.com
“So how as a nation can we sit around and eat Mexican food, drink beer and make friends? That’s the question. If we can do that on a broader scale, I think we’ll come out all right.”— Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor
1 Cheese enchilada at Rosita’s Place
The cheese enchilada at Rosita’s Place hits all the vital comfort zones – it’s stuffed with greasy, dripping cheese wrapped in a fried tortilla and blanketed with red chile-flecked enchilada sauce – or green, if that’s your jam. Don’t fill up on chips because you’ll want to save room for this masterpiece. 2310 E. McDowell Rd., Phoenix, 602-244-9779
2 Chicken Spinach Enchiladas at Taquitos Jalisco
Taquitos Jalisco may look like just another of the many “-o’s” Mexican fast-food restaurants so prevalent in the Valley, but the food quality is anything but commonplace. The go-to selection is the chicken spinach enchiladas with juicy pieces of chopped chicken smothered in cheese and green chile sauce. Two Mesa locations, taquitosjalisco.com
3 You-Call-It at Gadzook’s
How do you like to be comforted? Meat? Cheese? Carbs? Spice? The great thing about Aaron Pool’s Chipotle-style enchilada emporium is the fare is customizable, so a carnivore can find contentment in Modelo-braised bison enchiladas while a vegetarian can seek solace in smashed jack potato enchiladas. Three Valley locations, gadzooksaz.com
How to describe Aztec Cake? Think Southwestern lasagna, with layers of tortillas instead of noodles. Think enchilada casserole with pulled chicken, sweet corn, roasted green chiles and lots of cheese all piled in a cast-iron skillet. Think one of the most memorable dishes you’ll ever taste. 1006 E. Warner Rd., Tempe, 480-474-4328, ghostranchaz.com
Richardson’s is the king of Southwestern comfort fare in the Valley, and the relleno is its crown jewel – two roasted Hatch chiles stuffed with your choice of beef filet, chicken, duck or vegetables, then blanketed in a spicy miasma of molten cheese and mojo rojo sauce. Hold on tight, because the unburied childhood memories are on their way. 6335 N. 16th St., Phoenix, 602-265-5886, richardsonsnm.com
Green Chile Stew
New Mexican Grill
New Mexican Grill is one of the East Valley’s most underrated gems, and the highlight of the menu is the green chile pork stew, seasoned lean pork stewed with tomatoes, potatoes, onions and Hatch green chiles. This rib-sticking comfort masterpiece is also available in tacos and burros or served with a piece of hot fry bread. 3107 S. Lindsay Rd., Gilbert, 480-899-0773
Owner, Arcadia Premium
“It would be real tough to choose between the Pomeroy’s patty melt and JT’s gringo tacos. These are things I crave often but don’t indulge in enough. Comfort beer: North Coast Old Rasputin! For my money, [the best] non-barrel-aged Russian imperial stout available all year round.”
“Soup not only warms you and is easy to swallow and to digest, it also creates the illusion in the back of your mind that Mother is there.”—Marlene Dietrich
The roster of soup-loving nations could literally fill the United Nations General Assembly. You’ll find many tasty representatives in the Valley.
Matzo Ball Soup at Chompie’s
When Grandma isn’t available to make matzo ball soup for what ails you, hightail it down to Chompie’s for the next best thing. Order a giant, fluffy matzo ball floating in chicken broth laden with bits of chicken and chunks of carrots and celery and you’ll be good as new. Five Valley locations, chompies.com
New England Clam Chowder at The Salt Cellar Restaurant
Not many restaurants in the Southwest expend the time and effort to make clam chowder from scratch with fresh Quahog clams flown in from the Northeast. The briny bivalve bits in this American classic are complemented by sweet pork and tender vegetables in a broth more milky than thick. 550 N. Hayden Rd., Scottsdale, 480-947-1963, saltcellarrestaurant.com
Korean Army Stew at Koreatown
It’s like the heartier, Korean-American cousin of pho. After the Korean War, protein-impoverished locals turned to U.S. military bases for Spam and other durable meats. Instead of eating the nasty stuff by itself, Koreans give it the hot pot treatment, adding ramen, kimchi, fish cakes and other tasty bits. From desperation sprang comfort. And the Spam: Not half bad. 1832 W. Broadway Rd., Mesa, 480-284-4936
Lagman at Café Chenar
Served on pretty, gold-filigreed china, the food served at this North Phoenix restaurant – specializing in the Bukharian cuisine of Central Asia – pushes grandmotherly fussiness to its scientific limits. Lagman, a scarlet-red Uzbek soup brimming with beef, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, onions and thin, springy noodles, could be the most habit-forming thing you eat this year. 1601 E. Bell Rd., Phoenix, 602-354-4505
“Hands down, the pho at Pho Winglee in Mesa. [It has] the most nuanced and flavored broth. Even before partaking in the minutiae and foreplay of adding the basil, lime, bean sprouts and fresh culantro (not cilantro), I breathe in the broth aroma and taste it on its own.”
“Enjoy every sandwich.”— Late musician Warren Zevon, said to David Letterman weeks before his death in 2003
Technically a British invention, the sandwich was perfected in the Americas and embraced globally, from Vietnam to Mexico.
French Dip at Chelsea’s Kitchen
At Chelsea’s Kitchen, the prime rib beef dip is stacked with thin slices of rare, achingly tender rotisserie Angus beef stacked on a toasted French roll. The beefy sandwich comes with an ample bowl of jus for dunking, a ramekin of mayonnaise and a knot of crisp, salty fries. It’s a beef lover’s dream. 5040 N. 40th St., Phoenix, 602-957-2555, chelseaskitchenaz.com
Philly cheesesteak at Casella’s Italian Delicatessen
This tiny mom-and-pop Scottsdale deli dishes up a down-home Philadelphia cheesesteak with a simple formula: thinly sliced, tender roast beef (made in house) on a soft white or wheat hoagie roll smothered with cheese and red sauce – grilled onions and peppers optional. Eating at Casella’s is like stepping into a wormhole for Philly natives. 5905 N. Granite Reef Rd., Scottsdale, 480-991-0770
Perfectly Grilled Cheese at Perfect Pear Bistro
It’s hard to pick one from among the four signature grilled cheese sandwiches on the menu, but if put to the question, we’ll go with the Perfectly Grilled Cheese, a mouthwatering mix of Brie, a four-cheese blend, arugula and bacon pressed between two slices of grilled spiced pear bread. Two Tempe locations, perfectpearbistro.com
Roasts & Chops
“The feeling of friendship is like that of being comfortably filled with roast beef.”— English writer and moralist Samuel Johnson
Roasts and Roulades
What is it about slow-cooking a piece of meat that arouses such ardor in the hearts of men? In a word: collagen. And it translates to “delicious” in every language.
Cerdo al Horno at Millie’s Café
This Puerto Rican cafe pairs the Latin American country’s two national dishes, cerdo al horno (slow-roasted marinated pork) and arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas with roasted pork) on its signature plate. The juicy pork is roasted with sofrito, adobo and parsley until it falls off the bone. 1916 W. Baseline Rd., Mesa, 480-223-8217, facebook.com/milliescafeaz
Pot roast at NPX
Superlative pot roast is so tender that it immediately yields to your fork and falls apart. At NPX, it’s pre-shredded, with a texture akin to barbacoa, and sided with white cheddar mashed potatoes and glazed carrots. It’s sweeter than the average roast, too, thanks to a long, hot braise in root beer and Huss Brewing Co.’s Koffee Kölsch. 4717 E. Bell Rd., Phoenix, 602-788-7134, npx.life
Porchetta at Phoenix Public Market Café
For pork-ophiles, happiness is a gob stuffed with chef-owner Aaron Chamberlin’s juicy, fabulously fatty porchetta. Chamberlin puts a Southwest spin on the roulade-like dish by layering red chiles into the pork loin, which he rolls, roasts and serves on ciabatta with arugula and a rich lemon aioli. 14 E. Pierce St., Phoenix, 602-253-2700, phxpublicmarket.com
Best in Show
To devotees, barbecue is a universe of culinary comfort unto itself. PHOENIX low-and-slow maven Jess Harter names his Valley favorites in three different staples.
“Naked coats its pork shoulders with its secret-recipe dry rub before subjecting them to at least 14 hours in an oak-and-pecan smoker,” Harter says, resulting in super supple pork that falls apart on command.
Little Miss BBQ
The Guernica of Valley barbecue, which hauntingly dissolves on your tongue with every brain-bending bite. It is “the end result of a 36-hour process that includes a simple dry rub and full day in a smoker fired by oak and pecan,” Harter says.
Bryan’s Black Mountain Barbecue
A “very close call” over Little Miss, Harter says, due to the pecan-smoked spare ribs’ “slightly more flavorful spice rub.” He also recommends Pork on a Fork if you prefer baby back ribs (more tender but less flavorful than spare ribs).
Chef de cuisine, Talavera
“It has to be the lamb vindaloo from Marigold Maison with garlic naan. It’s just so spicy and warming. It always hits the spot. I can eat it at any time!”