It was a weird, wonderful year for Valley dining. Some great new restaurants opened. An unfortunate few opened AND closed. The dining community emerged from lockdown only to face staff shortages, supply-chain hiccups and a wider cultural debate over masks and social distancing. But stepping back and looking at this year’s crop of culinary newborns, we just have to say: “Not bad. Not bad at all.” Find our picks for the Top 10 New Restaurants, plus best-in-show selections, honorable mentions and more.
By Nikki Buchanan, Craig Outhier & Madison Rutherford
Photography by Monserrat Apud De La Fuente, Rob Ballard, Izabella Hernandez, Mirelle Inglefield, Kyle Ledeboer, David B. Moore, Shelby Moore, Madison Rutherford & Debby Wolvos
Best New Restaurant of the Year
Chef-owner Rene Andrade’s tiny, vibrant eatery, a heartfelt homage to the rustic cooking of his native Sonora, has been the restaurant phenomenon of the year, earning universal raves for its flame-licked pollo asado, caramelos stuffed with succulent carne asada and otherworldly grilled octopus (which he offers on Saturday only). Andrade cooks everything on a Santa Maria grill he built himself with help from his partners, Armando Hernandez and Nadia Holguin of Tacos Chiwas, who also supply him with house-made flour tortillas. He makes liberal use of fiery chiltepins, hauled up from his family’s Sonoran ranch, and pours the restaurant’s namesake agave spirit, Bacanora, in a spectacular presentation of cinnamon, piloncillo and smoke. His soulful food bears the sophistication that comes from years of cooking in high-end restaurants and it elevates every dish, redefining the Sonoran cuisine we thought we knew but suddenly see with fresh eyes.
Did You Know?
A peppery type of mezcal, Bacanora enjoys trademark protection and must be distilled in the Mexican state of Sonora to be marketed as “Bacanora.”
Christopher’s at Wrigley Mansion
2501 E. Telawa Trail, Phoenix, 602-522-2344, wrigleymansion.com
Opened: March 2021
After a three-year hiatus, James Beard Award winner Christopher Gross comes roaring back with a sleek hilltop restaurant retreat so stunning that the prix-fixe multi-course dining experience offered here is a visual feast as well as a literal one. Where to fix your gaze? On the sexy, minimalist building, designed by Wendell Burnette? At glittering city lights viewed through floor-to-ceiling windows? Or at the French-inflected, globally influenced dishes at your table, each course beautifully composed, and presented in wildly clever fashion? Despite the caviar and Wagyu, the thoughtful wine pairings and $250-per-person price tag, the tone is remarkably unpretentious. This is what modern fine dining looks like, and this is the restaurant that puts Phoenix on the international radar at last.
Did You Know?
Gross serves his crispy potato croquette amuse-bouche on a piece of dishware cast from the upturned palm of his longtime girlfriend and co-owner, Jamie Hormel.
4130 N. Seventh Ave., Phoenix, 602-612-2961, valentinephx.com
Opened: December 2020
Phoenix’s hippest new restaurant offers a variety of looks. In the morning, it’s a cool, Mid-Century, bring-your-computer hangout plying cajeta lattes, yuzu lemonade and squash sticky buns (the latter courtesy of Tartine alum Antonia Kane). At night, it presents as a buzzy watering hole for lingering over Blaise Faber’s unique, Arizona-inspired cocktails, complete with a weekend-only speakeasy around back. At all times, it’s a brunch/lunch/dinner go-to for grazing on chef-owner Donald Hawk’s wildly creative menu, which draws from his Korean upbringing, his past life as the raw bar chef at The Gladly and his commitment to local ingredients. Imagine churro waffles, molasses-glazed hushpuppies and crispy cauliflower with native seed tahini, laved with tangy raisin escabeche. Hawk also makes arguably the city’s best chicken dishes – a brined and smoked half-bird set on a puddle of creamy yogurt with durum wheatberries.
Did You Know?
Valentine is set in retro furniture shop Modern Manor, so the décor is ever-changing.
The new, industrial-chic Pa’La in Downtown Phoenix is so different from the humble 24th Street original that it deserves consideration as a new restaurant – or, at least, a blockbuster sequel. Naturally, the expanded menu still hews to the simple grains, vegetables and seafood of coastal Italy, and chef/co-owner Claudio Urciuoli’s culinary worldview – read: source the best ingredients possible and let them shine – remains intact, but the changes are dramatic and welcome, including table service and creative cocktails. Former Roka Akor executive chef Jason Alford heads the kitchen and, like his Neapolitan patrono, is a Zen master of simplicity, seamlessly blending Japanese and Italian ingredients to reimagine Urciuoli’s pristine seafood-centric tapas and turn out supernal wood-fired pizza.
Did You Know?
Urciuoli’s co-owner at Pa’La is Omar Alvarez, who owns popular Valley eatery Tortas Paquime.
When Welcome Diner alumni Michael Babcock and Wayne Coats opened Southeast Asian-inspired Belly in a compact, two-story building in the Melrose Historic District last fall, we were deep into COVID, and the restaurant’s M.O. was takeout only – not an ideal scenario for putting your best foot forward. Now the restaurant, upstairs bar and rooftop patio are in full swing, and the place has hit its stride, slinging adventurous cocktails and turning out edgy riffs on the classics: crispy crab bánh xèo; PEI mussels, afloat in a fragrant broth of coconut milk and lemongrass; salty king mushrooms, zapped with Sichuan peppercorns; and crispy fried chicken shellacked in a funky, fish-sauce-based glaze. And look for this on-again, off-again special: five-spice-flicked lamb shank braised to unctuousness in coconut juice, garlic, shallots and caramel sauce.
Did You Know?
Babcock and Coats, along with co-owners Paul Waxman and Robert Cissell, have all played in Valley rock bands. Hence their collective name: Instrumental Hospitality.
From the Victorian décor to the lithographed “nectarian bill of fare” (read: drink menu) featuring cobblers, punches and other old-timey cocktails, this basement speakeasy beneath Roosevelt’s Ten-O-One building is ticklishly, tirelessly on point. That includes the food, of course, a surprisingly well-muscled menu of yesteryear-inspired small plates, raw-bar goodies and entrées from chef Jose Morales. Served over a gloriously salty lima bean succotash, the crispy porchetta is a brain-scrambling festival of flavor, while Morales’ tempura cauliflower with blistered shishitos gives a fresh look to two now-familiar gastropub standards. These dishes – plus throwback people-pleasers like shrimp and grits, a lobster roll swiped with brown butter aioli and a weekends-only Beef Wellington – elevate Rough Rider over the speakeasy fray like so many cats and kittens doing the Lindy Hop. Put it on your to-do list.
— Craig Outhier
Did You Know?
While serving as U.S. president (1901-1909), Teddy Roosevelt was fond of taking skinny dips in the Potomac River.
Hotel dining can be staid and expensive, and while Renata’s – a lively, Latin-inflected restaurant that replaced Wright’s in the Arizona Biltmore’s fine dining space this spring – is a bit pricey, it’s never dull. A mezcal-based cocktail and bread pudding dessert both arrive at the table under smoke-filled clear glass cloches, dramatically unveiled under the diner’s nose. The seasonal menu zeroes in on seafood-focused small plates (oysters, ceviche, grilled shrimp) and shareable platters for the table – most of them rarified meat cuts, grilled or smoked. Massive slabs of fatty pork belly, roasted to an umber crunch, are supremely satisfying, and even side dishes (say, charred street corn with lime and smoked goat cheese) have sex appeal. All this and Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired design, too.
Did You Know?
Choose from a dozen liquor or cocktail flights, and a Renata “flight attendant” dressed as a stewardess will come to the table to explain your sips in detail.
The Stone Tofu House
1870 W. Main St., Mesa, 480-361-0523, thestonetofuaz.com
Opened: December 2020
Tofu might not be the first thing you think of eating when you’re headed to a Korean restaurant, but it’s a specialty here, made fresh daily without preservatives, the curd sweeter and creamier than commercial brands. Owners Don Kim and Cookie Sohn slip it into the restaurant’s bubbling soups and enormous, cooked-at-the-table hot pots, also frying fat rectangular cakes of it in sesame oil until they turn crisp. It’s heady but healthy, too, as are fresh-tasting versions of classics such as savory mung bean pancakes, kalbi, bulgogi and bibimbap. This pleasantly low-key place keeps it real – real spicy, that is – but fresh and healthy, too.
Did You Know?
Benjamin Franklin was tofu’s earliest champion in the U.S., describing the Asian staple as a “cheese” made from soy curds and seawater in a 1770 letter to colonial botanist John Bartram.
As the Valley’s first modern meadery, this Prescott import deserved an automatic recon visit when it opened south of the Melrose Historical District last winter. As advertised, the award-winning fermented honey beverages were excellent. Not so expected: the remarkable ambition of its culinary program, including a rousing global tapas menu featuring pork belly bao, Ukranian cabbage rolls and some of the tastiest roasted beets in the Valley. The selection of grilled steaks and chops was formidable, too. Management has since dialed the menu back a bit – hey, who hasn’t? – but our favorites remain, including a killer, gochujang-marinated skirt steak, and a vast playground of a charcuterie board with singular treats like duck prosciutto, bacon jam and local Hassayampa Vineyard & Farm Hassiago cheese. Waiter, more mead!
Did You Know?
Mead is thought to be the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage. Pottery vessels containing mead residue have been found in Northern China dating from 6,500 to 7,000 BCE.
The second time’s the charm for James Beard Award-winning chef Alex Stratta, who wisely pulled the plug on faltering Stratta Kitchen and even more wisely partnered with Genuine Concepts to create this lovely and lively bistro. Genuine Concepts wrote the book on neighborhood hangouts (consider The Vig) and that’s abundantly obvious here. Every inch of space – beautifully backlit bar, intimate dining area and plant-filled patio – is packed with locals who’ve shown up for happy hour deals (margherita pizza and a bottle of wine, $25), the already famous limoncello margarita and satisfying Italian food built upon a menu of antipasti, pasta, pizza and a handful of high-end entrées. Nothing is mind-boggling, but when did mind-boggling ever have anything to do with success?
Did You Know?
Stratta is the Valley’s lone Michelin-starred chef. He picked up two of them fronting his eponymous restaurant, Alex at the Wynn Las Vegas, in the mid-2000s.
Opened: December 2020
“A must for day-trippers,” we wrote of this upscale Mexican fusion restaurant in Cave Creek back in May, lauding its “well-authored selection of tacos, salads and gourmet hand-food.” Try the Pueblan-inspired Pasta en Nogado (tagliatelle with a poblano- and raisin-studded walnut sauce).
7100 E Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek, 480-488-2187, theofrenda.com
Opened: November 2020
Our critic loved the vibe at this “scene-y, Modern Mexican restaurant with a broad, regionally inflected menu that doesn’t feel cookie-cutter,” and was blown away by some of the small plates, including the crispy duck leg, “smothered in velvety, sesame seed-strewn mole negro.” One of the Valley’s great new happy hour haunts.
1051 E Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-699-3015, chanticophx.com
Hot Daisy Pizza
Opened: February 2021
Pastry darling Tammie Coe pivots deliciously to the other kind of pie at her Roosevelt District walkup. “I’d say her crust is reminiscent of a great baguette – sturdy with a nice balance between airiness and chew,” our critic raved, singling out one variety topped with Mexican street corn. “Pure heaven for a carbaholic like me.”
610 E Roosevelt St., Phoenix, 602-840-3644, hotdaisypizza.com
Opened: April 2021
Though the “Khmer and Arab finger foods” elevator pitch is a bit off the mark – aren’t gyros Greek? – this mom-and-pop fusion diner in Chandler “is so charming you won’t really care about nitpicky descriptors anyway,” our critic wrote. Try kaw, a daily special of caramelized pork belly stew served with white rice.
444 E Chandler Blvd., Chandler, 480-927-3865, www.restaurantji.com/az/chandler/thailys-/
Opened: August 2021
Feast on coconut-vinegar-marinated beef skewers at this friendly Filipino you-grill-it concept in the Christown area. Other winners include tocino (sweet cured pork), lechon kawali (crispy pork belly) and gloriously pungent pork adobo. Lots of pork, and lots of fun. The epitome of a “secret find.”
1534 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 623-999-7446, flaming-pig.com
As good as this year’s crop of best new restaurants turned out to be – 1 through 5, it’s the strongest in recent memory – it could have been even better if not for the premature demise of two restaurants: Peter Kasperski’s Character, which wowed Roosevelt diners upon its opening last December, but abruptly closed this summer; and Pulque, a sweet, owner-operated Mexican fine-dining restaurant in Scottsdale that came and went over a five-month span. Both would have been Top 10 picks.
Best New Food Truck
Expect crazy-delicious tacos and other global bites from former restaurant chef Lawrence Smith and his partner Aseret Arroyo. Their ever-rotating selection might include beef cheek and brisket bulgogi on seaweed-rice tortillas; hot chicken and apricot sauce on sourdough tortillas; or chile relleno tacos stuffed with butternut squash, goat cheese and fried leeks. Find them Saturday mornings at the Gilbert Farmers Market.
Best New Vegan Restaurant
In the vegan milieu, processed mock meats seem to take the spotlight. Pachamama chef-owners Maria and Kevin Lebron prefer to make use of ingredients from the earth. The restaurant’s name means “Mother Earth” in the Quechua language, and the Lebrons deftly craft Latin-influenced, plant-based proteins out of fruits and veggies. To wit: hibiscus “carne asada” and “ceviche” created with hearts of palm, plus from-scratch sides and sauces.
4115 N. 19th Ave., Phoenix, 602-586-3991, pachamamaphx.com
— Madison Rutherford
Best New Food Style We Didn’t Know Existed
What in the name of Papa John, you might ask, is Alsatian-style pizza? Well, it descends from the lesser-know flatbread traditions of the Alsace region straddling eastern France and Germany. It’s not big on tomato sauce (too cold to grow them!). Bacon, onions and rich, creamy fromage blanc are favored toppings. And now you can try one at this Gilbert pizzeria. (They do plain ol’ pepperoni, too.)
3765 S. Gilbert Rd., Gilbert, 480-306-7776, frenchiepizza.com
Best New Bar
All of them!
No, this isn’t a cop out. (Well, maybe a little.) We’re just amazed that – following a full year of state-mandated COVID mothballing – anyone would have the stones to open a new bar in the Valley of the Sun. But they did, and we salute them for it. And just to prove our sincerity, we’re doing something else: Devoting a whole feature package to new bars, starting on page 150. Bottoms up!
V2: Pop-Up Taco Trio
Random AF Kitchen
If an award existed for Most Instagrammable Tacos, this thrice-weekly pop-up would win, hands down. Former restaurant chef Enrique Sanchez Garcia and his mom, Ana, have amassed more than 21,000 followers for their drool-worthy reels of quesabirria tacos sizzling on the griddle and birria grilled cheese sandwiches pulled apart to reveal gobs of melting, stringy cheese. It’s food porn so compelling you’ll rush to Random AF to take your own photos – and eat.
Find them on Instagram: @randomafkitchen2020
Brothers Andrew and Mike Renteria sell their tacos from the snack bar at The Salvation Army Kroc Center, cranking out some of the biggest and best traditional street tacos in town. The limited menu often includes chicken tinga, mesquite-grilled carne asada, juicy birria and a deep-fried cheddar mashed potato taco you shouldn’t miss.
1375 E. Broadway Rd., Phoenix, 480-213-8291, chubascotacos.com, IG: @chubascotacos
Jewel’s Bakery & Café owners Misael and Justine Trujillo operate an on-premises Mexican food pop-up Thursday through Saturday featuring seven tacos – some traditional, some a little out there, all first-rate. The most fun? An “asada fry” heaped with meat, baby french fries and cotija cheese, tucked in a baby-pink tortilla made with Flaming Hot Cheetos.
4041 E. Thomas Rd., Phoenix, 602-486-3141, trutacos.fun, IG: @trutacos
Maybe in 2022?
These promising Valley restaurants didn’t open in time to make our 2021 BNR window.
Truffle fries, papaya salad, shaken beef and other pan-Asian delights in the heart of Chandler. Opened in October after our deadline.
Parting ways with Hush Public House in Scottsdale, barman-restaurateur Charles Barber Jr. is opening this lounge-y gastropub in North-Central Phoenix this fall.
Saber Tooth/Astro Bar
From the wily mixologists behind Killer Whale Sex Club come these dual concepts, a Japanese izakaya and immersive, 90-minute music-drink-food experience, respectively. No opening date set.