Monthly dining reviews from all over the Valley.
Opened: November 2020
Located in a former Tottie’s Asian Fusion in the badlands of North Scottsdale, this to-go-oriented dining spot offers a similar mash-up of Asian favorites, from Americanized orange chicken to pad Thai. The difference: the new owners’ winning emphasis on Cantonese dim sum dishes. Shu-mai dumplings ($7) arrive as plump orbs of umami, the sausage-like pork insides snapping your senses to attention with green onion and ginger. I wasn’t bowled over by the naan-like scallion pancakes ($9) – kind of flat, both in form and flavor – but the generously endowed vegetable fried rice ($9.50) and Singapore noodles ($13.50) – the latter pan wok-ed in a slightly tumeric-y curry – were above average. In retrospect, I should have invested a bit more in the dim sum selections rather than ordering General Tso’s chicken ($12.50), which was edible enough, but blatantly engineered for banal laowai palates. In sum: a decent place to pick up some Chinese the next time you’re transiting the North Valley.
Wild Card: Get your weekly recommended carb intake with Shanghai pork buns ($7).
6245 E. Bell Rd.
Belly Kitchen & Bar
Opened: November 2020
Remember Wayne Coats and Michael Babcock, the hipster hospitality pros who lifted Welcome Diner to mythic foodie status before parting ways with the restaurant in 2019? Well, here they are again, slinging banh mi and upscale Vietnamese eats in a ginchy Melrose gastropub. Aromatic claypot rice plates (i.e. meats braised in a clay pot, $13-$15) are the marquee items on the tidy 14-item menu, and the pork belly is the best of them, relaxed in a simmering elixir of coconut juice, garlic and fish sauce until it achieves spoon-tender lissomness. Less amazing was the jackfruit claypot: just a little too starchy with its surfeit of Japanese sweet potatoes.
Hit with a splash of spicy vinegar and more of that ubiquitous fish sauce, the pork fried rice ($12) is legit, and I can’t wait to try the curry-doused crispy white fish ($20) sourced from Nelson’s Meat + Fish, on a future visit. One might also hope that Babcock adds a version of his famous shellacked Vietnamese fried chicken in the coming months, when Belly opens its mothballed upstairs bar and converts to an eat-in model. It’s currently takeout-only.
Wild Card: The adult beverage menu is quite the little player, with a quartet of craft cocktails ($8-$10), four by-the-bottle natural wines ($24-$28), and hard-to-find Tiger beer from Southeast Asia ($3). All available to go.
4971 N. Seventh Ave.
The Spice Sea
Opened: January 2020
Of the Valley’s many seafood-in-a-bag places – Angry Crab Shack, Hot N Juicy Crawfish, et al – this new family eatery in Northwest Phoenix has the coolest décor. With its prow-like patio and rigging-strewn bar and dining room, it nails the “nautical theme” ideal. And the food? Not to be dismissive, but it’s seafood in a bag. If you’ve ripped open one winched cellophane nappy to feast on a messy stew of mussels ($13), shrimp ($13-$15), crawfish ($12) and more, you’ve ripped open them all. The “house” boiling sauce – same as the Cajun sauce option, but with added garlic butter – was sop-it-up tasty, and the snow crab ($26) proved a nice compromise between the more-indulgent king crab ($48) and scrawny blue crab ($16).
One item I would absolutely not recommend: fish and chips ($13.50) from the menu of deep-fried staples. “Fish” is a more accurate rendering in this case, because the flat, limp fillets were almost certainly out of a box, and had the composited texture of mid-shelf frozen fish sticks. Insulting they served it, let alone at the price.
Wild Card: Vegetable eater? You’re mostly out of luck, but the fried zucchini ($7.25) and mushrooms ($8.75) might qualify.
3345 W. Greenway Rd., Phoenix
The Hudson Eatery & Bar
Opened: November 2020
Whiskey, bourbon and other well-oaked “brown” spirits are the collective jam of this breezy Tempe gastropub, set in a one-time realty office on the outskirts of Tempe’s historical Hudson Manor neighborhood. Lots of good hooch to sip, lots of garage-style indoor-outdoor seating on which to enjoy it. Lest I forget: There’s food, too. The mindful if scant 12-item menu is headlined by a spot-on Philly cheesesteak ($11), filled with tender chopped sirloin in a gooey amnion of melted provolone and tangy pickled peppers. Hudson offers a lone burger option: the two-patty Boom Boom ($11), with American cheese, lettuce and tomato between a – somewhat dry, when I had it – brioche bun.
Vegetarian dishes are given surprising shrift at Hudson, including vegan tahini pasta ($9) and a white bean cilantro stew ($7) that I found perfectly pleasant, with a nice aromatic whiff to the dark, tomato-y broth. Gotta love the overall brio and energy here, along with the people-watching opportunities overlooking Apache Road in a growing part of the ASU metroplex.
Wild Card: No room for the dry-rub wings ($13), but they looked great on that other guy’s table.
1601 E. Apache Blvd., Tempe
Hard to believe it’s been nearly 25 years since Phoenix City Grille (phoenixcitygrille.com) brought its brand of casual-but-sophisticated urban dining to North-Central Phoenix. One constant through it all: the restaurant’s now-iconic signature pasta dish, which isn’t so hard to whip up at home.
1½ cups penne pasta, cooked
2 tbsp. olive oil
6 oz. raw chicken breast, diced
¼ cup Chardonnay or other white wine
¼ cup chicken stock
¾ cup heavy cream
1 tbsp. roasted garlic purée
½ cup broccoli florets, blanched and cooled
3 sun-dried tomato halves, cut into thin julienne strips
½ oz. grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Drizzle 1 ounce of olive oil over a head of garlic. Wrap in foil. Bake at 350 degrees until soft and the cloves are golden brown, about 45 minutes. Remove from foil and allow to cool. Squeeze the garlic cloves out and mash until smooth in consistency. Set aside.
Preheat a sauté pan over medium heat. Add 1 tbsp. of olive oil. Sauté the diced chicken breast, allowing a golden-brown color to develop. Add the sundried tomatoes and deglaze with the white wine. Allow wine to evaporate out. Add the chicken stock, heavy cream, roasted garlic purée, blanched broccoli and penne pasta. Toss well and cook over medium-high heat until cream and stock are reduced by about half and coat the penne pasta well.
Place the pasta in two serving bowls. Garnish with the grated Pecorino Romano. Salt and pepper to taste. Recipe yields two portions. For larger meals, scale up accordingly.