Monthly dining reviews from all over the Valley.
Origami Ramen Bar
Opened: August 2020
A 2020 PHOENIX magazine Best New Restaurant honorable mention, this tidy and efficient little Japanese strip-mall eatery in Ahwatukee specializes in chicken-broth ramen, a staple known as paitan. Enriched with egg yolk and, sometimes, miso paste, the Origami ramen bowls ($11.75 and up) offer a much richer, mouth-filling experience than typical tonkotsu (read: pork broth) ramens. So, yes, delicious, but the thing that haunted me most about my Origami classic bowl was the chicken itself: breast meat that was perfectly lean, but also so mysteriously supple and tender, I imagined it must have been poached in sesame oil or butter… or something. It was scary-good, and my first hint that the chefs here are truly, unusually talented. Further evidence was found in the takoyaki (bite-size dumplings, bursting with mayo-slickened octopus, $7.50-$13.50) and their version of the suddenly ubiquitous karaage (light fried chicken, $7.50). Origami is more of a bistro than a bar, an izakaya without the alcohol, and it’s splendid.
Wild Card: Wash it all down with Japanese strawberry milk tea ($4.25) – a milkshake-like drinkable condiment in the Thai iced tea vein.
4810 E. Ray Rd., Phoenix, 480-940-4455, origamiramenbar.com
AZ Taco King
Opened: September 2020
Birria – aka braised goat – is the centerpiece protein at this Uptown food-truck-turned-taco-shop and, yes, it’s pretty spectacular. Enjoy it in a starter-size quesadilla ($3.50), fall-apart tender and dripping with savory adobo braising juices, the whole thing fixed in place by gooey Monterey Jack cheese. Taco, burrito and enchilada iterations are also available, but the dish that made the AZ Taco King food truck famous is the birria ramen ($8), in which the adobo – a traditional, deep scarlet Mexican braise made from smoked jalapeños – serves as the broth. Dive in and you’ll find basic but serviceable Top Ramen noodles, a hunk of that divine birria and a bottom-of-the-bowl mantle of Jack cheese for even more umami. It’s delicious, and a ticklishly spot-on stand-in for the Northern Chinese Shaanxi cooking that’s all the rage in the East Valley these days.
Wild Card: AZ Taco King also does an unusual but very nice cinnamon-forward carnitas ($8). Postscript: Skip the yucky refried beans. Pretty sure they’re out of a can.
2030 W. Camelback Rd., 602-675-0923, facebook.com/aztacoking
Ocho Rios Jerk Spot
Opened: June 2018
Is there any food in the world that makes you pay more dearly for its favor than oxtail? Braised to fainting perfection in a brown sugar/Scotch bonnet pepper slurry, the tender tail meat at this Jamaican gastropub in West Phoenix is necessarily riddled with little pieces of bony shrapnel and the like – a completely fair trade-off in my opinion (served with a choice of sides, $17), given how rarely you find the farmhouse delicacy on menus. An under-the-radar opening in 2018, Ocho Rios is a pleasant head trip. Brightly lit and hung with an astounding number of flat-screen TVs per square foot, it’s not exactly a lay-low, atmospheric type of place. However, if you want to drink a Red Stripe and nibble on some fantastic, sinus-clearing jerk chicken wings ($8.50) while watching the Sunday morning NFL games, it might be your best and only option. And the takeout fare, including a fine, mild coconut curry shrimp ($14) served with a big hunk of sweet festival bread, is uniformly da bomb, mon.
Wild Card: Go for broke and get a whole red snapper ($25) prepared escovitch style (read: julienned veggies and spicy vinegar) or with the lip-smacking brown stew from the oxtails.
4220 W. Northern Ave., Phoenix, 623-248-5131, ochoriosjerkspot.com
Opened: September 2020
To-go sushi has always been problematic for fans of the fin. For starters, nigiri and mori rolls inevitably warm up on the way home, which is never a favorable posture for raw fish, and the rice dries out, losing its suppleness and aroma. That being said, this fast-casual version of a popular sit-down sushi joint in Scottsdale appears to be purpose-built for the pandemic takeout revolution, and the results are not half-bad. Packaged in snap-lock recyclable boxes that essentially function as mini-humidors, the Tropicana Roll (spicy tuna and salmon daubed with Sriracha, $11.50) and butterfish tataki (seared escolar with a peppery citrus jus, $13.95) arrive on my dining room table in fine shape, and while the vegetable and shrimp tempura ($8) could certainly be hotter and crisper, it still delivers an adequate crunch. (In retrospect, I should have toaster-ovened them.) Bento boxes and poke bowls are also available, as is a criminally bland miso soup ($3).
Wild Card: Why did it take society so long to invent the sushi burrito ($11.95) – spicy tuna, crab, salmon and more, wrapped in soy paper with eel sauce?
2910 N. Hayden Rd., 480-471-8461, beiexpress.com