Best of the Valley Picks from PHOENIX Dining Critic Nikki Buchanan

Nikki BuchananJuly 7, 2021
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Photo by Mirelle Inglefield
Photo by Mirelle Inglefield

Best Bookstore Bakery
Por Vida (pictured above)

Self-taught baker Eileen Payan sells her cookies, mascarpone-enriched pies, towering layer cakes, empanadas and quiches from a cute little corner of Palabras Bilingual Bookstore, and her prices are so reasonable ($3-$7), you can order one of everything, including a limonada mineral water you’ll want to guzzle. 906 W. Roosevelt St., Phoenix, 602-595-9600

Best Tex-Mex Tacos
Quesabirria Tacos at Chantico

Way trendy, yes, but Chantico’s quesabirria tacos are legitimately off the hook. The shells, stained red from a preliminary dunk in chile-laced birria, are stuffed with melting beef and cheese, then fried crisp until everything oozes out the edges. A side of consommé allows for French dip-style immersion before each luscious, dripping bite. 1051 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-699-3015,

Most Worthwhile Carb-Binging
Daily Special Pizzas at Hot Daisy Pizza

Whether you’re crushing carbs to enhance your athletic performance or simply feeding the monkey on your back, Hot Daisy’s daily specials offer a splendidly starchy solution. Built on a thin, chewy crust, one pie might be smothered in mac and cheese, another topped with gnocchi, mozzarella and balsamic. Carb-on-carb heaven. 610 E. Roosevelt St., Phoenix, 602-840-3644,

Best Japanese Fusion
Chuzara Signature Plates at Kaizen

On one section of his mostly traditional Japanese menu, Chef Gustavo Muñoz brilliantly fuses Mexican ingredients and seafood traditions with those of Japan, creating scallop aguachile brightened with serrano, chiltepin and yuzu kosho, and a panko-fried chicken katsu torta drizzled with tonkatsu sauce and sided with escabeche – all so deliciously fun. 515 E. Grant St., Phoenix, 602-432-0752,

Best Non-Q Sandwich at a Barbecue Joint
Fresh Tomato Sandwich at Bryan’s Black Mountain Barbecue

Only available when summer tomatoes are at their peak, this juicy bit of ephemera is made on griddled white bread, smeared with house-made molasses-Dijon spread, stacked with yellow and red tomato slices, sprinkled with sea salt (house-smoked, of course) and topped with red onion and watercress. Light, but surprisingly decadent. 6130 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek, 480-575-7155,

Best Reason to Take a Drive
Lunch or Dinner at Confluence

Brandon Gauthier, the most under-rated chef in town, bakes fantastic breads, sources rare fish and sweats every laborious detail every single day at his charming, global-inspired bistro, where the modest prices in no way reflect the quality of the food or the experience. Just get in the car already. 36889 N. Tom Darlington Dr., Carefree, 480-488-9796,

Best Fried Green Tomato Sandwich
Welcome Diner

Years ago, Welcome added a modern Southwestern twist to a Southern standby, tucking panko-breaded fried green tomatoes between slices of griddled, chipotle ranch-smeared Noble Bread sourdough and piling on the corn relish and arugula. The result: a sandwich bursting with crunch, tang and sweet heat. Now it’s a beloved standby, too. 929 E. Pierce St., Phoenix, 602-495-1111,

Best Gateway Cocktail
Dunmore Park at Jade Bar

Can’t imagine liking scotch – even in a cocktail? This nutty, faintly tropical little number will change your mind. It starts with a Speyside-style scotch, which is more biscuit-y than peaty, shaken with fresh pineapple and house-made horchata made with black forbidden rice, coconut and walnuts. Unlikely and insanely good. Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort, 5700 E. McDonald Dr., Paradise Valley, 480-607-2300,

Dunmore Park at Jade Bar. Photo courtesy Sanctuary Resort Scottsdale
Dunmore Park at Jade Bar. Photo courtesy Sanctuary Resort Scottsdale


Photo courtesy Everardo Keeme/Binkley's
Photo courtesy Everardo Keeme/Binkley's

2320 E. Osborn Rd., Phoenix,

  • A two-hour progressive dinner – moving from garden to bar to table – emulates the relaxed mood of a dinner party
    with friends.
  • Warm but professional service, a tone reinforced by chef Kevin Binkley himself, who personally introduces every course and offers lore about the food.
  • 18-25 courses, each offering a new, exciting experience every time you go.
  • $225/person.

Photo courtesy ShinBay
Photo courtesy ShinBay

3720 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale,

  • Reservations capped at four to six people per two-hour seating keep the atmosphere intimate and comfy, as do cushy upholstered chairs.
  • Imported Japanese fish seldom seen in the States is transformed into exquisitely restrained nigiri-sushi by sushi savant Shinji Kurita.
  • Where else can you find sake aged three years in snow?
  • $170/person.

Best Fancy Lunch

Light-filled and elegant Francine is easily the prettiest new restaurant to come along this year. Combine its graceful design with the Mediterranean-influenced cooking of the South of France and you have the best spot in town for a sophisticated déjeuner of, say, fig and prosciutto tartine, salade Niçoise or croque madame. 4710 N. Goldwater Blvd., Scottsdale, 480-690-6180,

Best Steak for Beef Geeks
Dry-Aged Grass-Fed Steak at Persepshen

The cuts change (because chef-owner Jason Dwight butchers whole steers), as do dry-aging times, which range from an extraordinary five to nine months in a temperature- and humidity-controlled chamber built by Dwight himself. The result? Tender steaks packed with beefy, earthy, umami flavors reminiscent of truffles and blue cheese. Absolutely worth the $140. 4700 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-935-2932,