Society by EVO
Opened: March 2022
With the blessing – and investment capital, one would imagine – of EVO Scottsdale owner Nick Neuman, veteran barman Dominic Scappaticci is the driving creative force behind this co-branded Tempe gastropub, conceived as a less spend-y, less overtly Italian version of the EVO flagship. Open from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. six nights a week and located next door to the Tempe Improv, it’s unmistakably a nightlife place, with garden-of-Babylon wall effects and other baroque flourishes, along with booze-friendly nibbles like the EVO meatballs starter: similar to the veal/beef/pork beauties at the original restaurant, but dressed with a tongue-pleasing balsamic glaze ($15) for extra mop-up appeal. (Society’s ciabatta, served with many of its dishes, hits the toasty/chewy/buttery ideal on the nose.) With about two dozen dishes total, the menu is lively but limited, with the expected bar fare (read: hot-honey fried chicken sandwich, $15) alongside more aspirational entrées like Pound O’ Mussels ($24), a big, luscious bowl of bivalves immersed in an absolutely intoxicating broth of garlic, cream, white wine and sinus-clearing flecks of Calabrian chiles. Shame to waste all that broth; it was all I could do not to scream, “Waiter, more ciabatta!” Overall, Society is not a bad place to drink and graze before you go next door to get the funnies.
Wild Card: Pop in for happy hour (4-6 p.m.), when the chicken sandwich is $3 off and draft beers are $4.
920 E. University Dr., Tempe, 480-550-7801, societybyevo.com
– Craig Outhier
Opened: October 2022
Tucked away behind a carved wooden door in CityScape, Cuban-inspired Coabana is as speakeasy-like as its next-door sister property, Pigtails, but the similarities end there. Pigtails is dark and moody, while Coabana (meaning “the good place” in Taíno) has a tropical vibe evoking bygone Havana – with maybe a touch of “coastal grandmother.” Cocktails, all rum-based, are excellent. The Recluse ($16), essentially an absinthe-rinsed daiquiri garnished with star anise, is especially lovely, while The Get-Away ($15) exudes an island-y vibe without being cloying. Cuban tapas, all nicely priced, are considerably more up-and-down. Mild, buttery croquetas – diminutive avocado balls, rolled in breadcrumbs, fried crisp and dredged in chipotle sauce – are perfect poppers ($7), but bland ceviche, composed of dry, cottony rockfish left too long in its marinade, is awful ($14). Ditto for ropa vieja, devoid of juice or the rich, earthy flavors that should make this dish memorable ($14). Sides include mushy, overcooked cilantro-lime rice and slightly undercooked black beans. An agreeably crunchy Cubano sandwich is reminiscent of a gussied-up grilled cheese, but decent just the same ($15). Best bet: tender, golden-brown empanadas, filled with melty cream cheese and sticky, tart-sweet guava. You’ll want a dozen ($7).
Wild Card: “Craft Your Perfect Mojito” by adding extras ($11).
1 E. Washington St.,
– Nikki Buchanan
Topnotch Island Flavor Kitchen
Opened: December 2021
Owners Gayle and Curtis Reid spent decades working in food and beverage at various Valley resorts. Now they serve up the comforting and sometimes spectacularly spicy dishes of their native Jamaica, all bursting with top-notch flavor. A properly flaky beef patty ($5), filled with mildly spiced ground beef, makes perfect prelude to the many classics found here – perhaps a savory stew of ruddy curry goat, aromatic with allspice ($20) or braised oxtails simmered to a state of glorious unctuousness ($26). Ackee and salt fish, Jamaica’s national dish, combines briny salted cod with the mild nutty flavor of ackee, a tree fruit ($20). And while charred jerk chicken hits the perfect Goldilocks heat level ($13.50), it’s the sweet, smoky jerk pork, rubbed with molasses and ignited with scotch bonnets ($18), that literally and figuratively takes my breath away. Faintly sweet festivals (cornmeal-bolstered fritters, $3), bammy (crisp-tender discs of cassava flatbread, $3) and potato-like breadfruit ($5) all make deliciously starchy fire extinguishers. For dessert, consider dense, moist rum cake with rum-soaked fruit compote ($5).
Wild Card: Get fusion-y with slamming jerk tacos topped with habanero cream and Caribbean slaw ($7-$10).
16816 N. Cave Creek Rd., 602-283-5600, topnotchislandflavorkitchen.net
– Nikki Buchanan
Opened: October 2022
Situated next to a Jazzercise studio with a name at least partially inspired by a yoga activewear brand, Culinary Gangster comes on like a fast-casual brunch-and-lunch “health food” spot à la Flower Child, but it’s not, really – a fact made boldly clear by the ramekin of waxy nacho cheese that accompanies my Gangster fries ($10), a large platter of toasty, crinkle-cut spuds topped with a fistful of bad-for-you bacon morsels and a drizzle of ranch. Likewise, the American burger ($11) surrenders any pretense of good-for-you-ness the moment the chefs lay it on a butter-swiped brioche bun with a gooey slice of white American cheese. The cheese and bun, I dig – the “prime” patty, however, has the gray, cake-y countenance of burger meat with too much filler (and casts a suspicious light on the restaurant’s perfect 5-star Yelp rating). Genuinely health-conscious diners will find some succor in the seven-item Salad/Wraps menu – notwithstanding the lovely bits of blue cheese larding the chopped-chicken Buffalo salad ($13) – and in a tidy selection of quinoa bowls. If carb-avoidance is your trip, the gyro bowl ($13) may prove revelatory. Aside from a modest crown of tzatziki and veggies, the bowl is nothing but fragrant folds of sliced beef and lamb, and I never did find the bottom of it.
Wild Card: Get your workout recovery going early with the three-egg protein bowl ($13) from the Breakfast All Day menu.
14891 N. Northsight Blvd.,
– Craig Outhier