Zu & Pocha
Opened: May 2022
From the team behind Bei Sushi, Bei Express, Junn Sushi and Zu Izakaya comes Zu & Pocha, self-described as a “modern seafood eatery and drinkery with a Korean touch” – pretentious language for one-dimensional cocktails and Korean flourishes so tame they barely qualify as Korean. That said, the beautiful bar is a good hangout for ice-cold beers and plump oysters on the half shell ($3 each at happy hour) served with a terrific sesame oil-tinged mignonette. Alas, smoked seafood mandu (briny steamed dumplings set in soju-ginger broth with flaccid salmon roe, $13) aren’t half as sexy as their smoky presentation, while the charcoal brioche buns that enfold fried shrimp sliders ($13) are so dry they crumble. Chewy New York strip ssam (Korean lettuce wraps using minty perilla leaves, $16), cooked past medium rare and topped with what might be perilla chimichurri (not the ssamjang on the menu) is strictly OK. The good news: Squid ink pasta, smothered in garlicky, Parmesan-enriched pollack roe sauce ($24) and a seared duck special perfumed with five-spice ($25) are pretty decent. Love the sophisticated space and wonderful service, not the apologetic approach to Korean food.
Wild Card: Wonderful root vegetable pavé ($12), a crispy “paving stone” of layered potato, carrot and Parmesan á la Thomas Keller.
1212 E. Apache Blvd., Tempe, 480-590-2903, zuandpocha.com
– Nikki Buchanan
Opened: July 2022
Small, family-run Almuerzo (a word that means “lunch” in Spanish, but is generally used in Mexico to describe a mid-morning snack) brings brunch-y fun to Laveen, cranking out omelets, waffles and lattes for breakfast eaters, as well as sandwiches and salads for lunch eaters. But the menu’s sweet spot is a tiny section called “wake up starters,” where you’ll find bone marrow bruschetta ($13.75) – three dainty squares of lightly toasted bread topped with an avocado-tomato combo (the menu says tomatillo-habanero, and I wish it were). Scoop the marrow onto the bruschetta and – voilà! – you get a light nibble with a fatty, meaty undertow. Even better: stingray crispy roll-ups (think ultra-crunchy fish taquitos, $6.50), served with spicy aioli and pickled red onions. So good. Meanwhile, the morning charcuterie board ($13.75) – composed of slivered Nova lox, bagel chips, cream cheese spread, herb-seasoned tomatoes, grapes and strawberries – puts a trendy spin on classic lox and bagels. For something more substantial, there’s slow-cooked red beef Benedict ($16.75), a combo of red chile beef, perfectly poached eggs and luscious hollandaise, spooned over sopes (masa-based Mexican corncakes) and sided with roasted potatoes.
Wild Card: A butter pecan waffle topped with homemade butter pecan syrup and whipped cream makes the perfect dessert ($10.75).
6115 S. 51st Ave., Laveen, 602-237-7665, Instagram: @almuerzorestaurant
– Nikki Buchanan
Little Chef Diner
Opened: July 2022
Set in the nine-seat vintage micro-diner that helped launch Welcome Diner to stardom in the Garfield Historic District, Little Chef is the burger-frying, chilaquiles-slinging, day-brightening salute to Americana we need. The diner had unsatisfying dalliances with a series of tenants after the Welcome Diner crew vacated it in 2018, but new owner Mike Beltran seems to appreciate the nostalgic magic of the place, and has the cooking skills to bring the concept full circle. Chopped cheese ($17), a fabulously gooey composition of grilled Angus beef, caramelized onions and white American cheese, all chopped up and served between two slick slabs of toast with an over-easy egg and sweet peppers, leans hard into the diner-food ideal, and you’ll lean right back. Open 10 a.m to 2 p.m. five days a week – at least until cool winter weather allows Beltran to exploit his patio (and liquor license) – Little Chef also excels with brunch fare, including awesomely filling chilaquiles rojo in a densely flavored guajillo sauce ($11) and sweet-pepper-dominated vegetable hash ($12, pictured), which is more like a medley than a hash, but still quite tasty.
Wild Card: Breakfast pleasers like pancakes ($6) with apple-cinnamon butter and cold-brew coffee drinks ($4-$7.50) make Little Chef a sneaky-good breakfast solution.
924 E. Roosevelt St., 602-612-4054, littlechefdiner.com
– Craig Outhier
Opened: August 2022
The original, much admired Forno 301 in Midtown Phoenix somehow slipped under our radar when it opened in 2015, so when owners Roberto Dadone and Luca Dagliano – a pair of friendly lads from the Italian Riviera – opened their follow-up location in South Scottsdale, we were there with campanas on. And you know what? It was pretty good, maybe not great. One of about a dozen wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizzas on the menu, the prosciutto crudo ($16) had all the elements – fresh mozzarella, tangy tomato, pleasantly funky prosciutto – but scant char from the oven. We’re spoiled Phoenicians. We need that char. Ordered from the fatte a mano (homemade) pasta menu, butter and sage ravioli ($16.50) was similarly fine in theory, but probably the wrong thing to order alongside the wood-fired cauliflower appetizer ($11), itself smothered in a béchamel sauce. Rich, buttery ravioli alongside rich, cream-drenched cauliflower. It was a bit much. The Caprese salad ($15) might have served our appetizer needs more aptly.
Wild Card: Go big with a salami calzone ($15.50), stuffed with ricotta and many cured proteins.
7111 E. Thomas Rd., 480-442-8641, forno301.com
– Craig Outhier