What can I say ? It was a lean year.
No, not for Phoenix restaurants. For me.
Arizona’s 2,613 flat total last year is still my single-season record. I only managed 2,576 in 2018.
Taking the time to revisit the best dishes is one of my favorite end of year projects.
Fleshy and vegetal, salty and sweet, edgy and familiar, they run the gamut as usual. Together, they provide a little insight into the value of another year of exciting meals in the Valley.
Here are my 10 favorite Arizona dishes of 2018, listed alphabetically, along with 10 honorable mentions. Drop me a line. I would love to hear about yours.
Cabeza Empanadas – Roland’s Cafe Market Bar
What’s so refreshing about this dish is what it isn’t. It’s not bloated, it’s not a mess of contrasts, and it doesn’t feel pressured to throw acid, sugar, or hot spices at the wall. This is a simple, almost creamy cabeza, in a light pastry crust topped with a little chili and served with a simple chickpea dip. It’s ostensibly simple, an almost painfully modest dish that doesn’t reach out and grab you, but instead provides a soft earthy hum that you can quietly fall into.
Details: 1505 E. Van Buren St., Phoenix. 602-441-4749, rolandsphx.com.
Gramigna alla Salsiccia – Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana
It’s probably just as good that it’s a special over and over again or that I would never order anything else from Pomo. True to its Bolognese roots, this is a gloriously rich dish. But where too many joints would leave the noodles swimming in cream, Pomo preaches restraint. It’s silkier than soup, and it’s a textural wonder, pairing practically dancing pasta with a finely textured mix of crumbled sausage, chopped pancetta, and mushrooms. It’s hard to pass on the restaurant’s namesake, but the pizza will still be there when I get back. La gramigna may not be.
Details: 8977 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale. 480-998-1366. Other locations at pomopizzeria.com.
Grilled Pheasant – Mowry & Cotton
Technically speaking, I tasted it for the first time last year, right after dropping off the best restaurant dishes of 2017. It had been a long time, but I had no chance of forgetting to include it. Tandy Peterson’s Pheasant is notable, not only because it has managed to stay on the menu for over a year in a city that often treats game birds with suspicion, but because it’s just plain good. The skin is a wonder, stretched and lacquered after receiving more treatments than a spa client, and resting on a chaotic pile of onions, citrus fruits, cherries, broccolini and almonds, she holds firmly to the rustic sensibility of Peterson.
Details: The Phoenician, 6000 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix. 480-423-2530, mowryandcotton.com.
Kapro Gai Kao Dao – Glai Baan
What a sweet and merciful relief. Do you have any idea how many Thai restaurants spoil this dish? It shouldn’t be rocket science. Ground chicken, garlic and peppers, a handful of basil, a little sauce and a lacy fried egg. But there are enough cloying, simmered, and pepper-riddled versions to push you over the edge. Then a bright, fiery, and well-focused dish like the one Cat Bunnag serves at Glai Baan grabs you by the wrist and pulls you firmly back. Crisis averted.
Details: 2333 E. Osborn Road, Phoenix. 602-595-5881, facebook.com/glaibaanaz.
Lychee ‘Scallops’ – Bri
This one is just bonkers, and I mean that in the best possible sense. Bri’s fire roasted meats are excellent, that’s right, but the dish I can’t get out of my head is Vince Mellody’s lychee “scallops”. The quotes are not ornamental. He originally designed it as a seafood dish, but in an effort to offer more vegan options, he may have gone for an even better dish. The sweet and juicy lychees are brined and seared, then soaked in a spicy and fresh carrot juice broth enhanced with turmeric and chili oil. Small dish, giant flavor.
Details: 2221 N. Seventh Street, Phoenix. 602-595-8635, brion7th.com.
Roast Peach – Confluence
Served as a starter, I would have gladly ordered it as a dessert. Here’s a juicy roast peach, hanging out with its mint, pecan, and honey buddies, and they relax, minding their own business. Then a funky Epoisses fondue arrives and spins the whole dish on her ear, making her the poster child for mixed cheese plates. Why walk around with a piece of cheese and a piece of fruit and some nuts sitting on a wooden board when you can have something like that?
Details: 36889 N. Tom Darlington Drive, carefree. 480-488-9796, restaurantconfluence.com.
Nigiri with salmon – Sushi Nakano
Minimalism. That’s the key word when it comes to great sushi, and while there were a few pieces of Leo Nakano’s signature nigiri that I could have chosen, the one that stood out to me the most was this Salmon. Perfect rice and a delicious slice of fish, yes. But the hook is a shard of battera kombu – a pickled seaweed – like a piece of green-hued glue glass that gives it a slight hint of sweet, sour and salty all at the same time.
Details: 4025 E. Chandler Blvd., Phoenix. 602-603-2129, facebook.com/sushinakanoaz.
Secreto Iberico de Bellota – Talavera
I don’t know what it says there are two pork bombs among the favorites of 2018, but I embrace both. The first is courtesy of Samantha Sanz in Talavera, from a pig with as prestigious a pedigree as they are. Cut into the shoulder of famous Spanish Iberian pigs, this secreto was amazingly good. Seared, sliced and simply tossed with fresh fruit and herbs, it was such a pure expression of pig bliss I’ve had all year.
Details: Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale, 10600 E. Crescent Moon Drive. 480-513-5085, talaverarestaurant.com.
Starlite Can Can Pork Steak – Starlite BBQ
Of course, lightning can strike twice. Starlite created an embarrassingly decadent pork dish, and I love them for it. Smoked loin wrapped in a juicy slice of belly, the canned pork steak immerses you in sweet, smoky pork fat. But what I love – aside from its juicy bite and perfect sizzle – is its flawless clarity, paired with nothing more than shards of pickled serrano pepper. Less is more, and it’s almost more pork than I can handle. Almost.
Details: 7620 E. Indian School Road, Scottsdale. 480-553-9330, starlitebbq.com.
The Original Muffaletta Burger – Southern Rail
I have tried an obscene number of burgers this year. Although I have tasted a lot of terribly tasty specimens, there is only one that I have come back for since I selected the 25 best burgers in Phoenix. The sesame bun, the grilled cold cuts, the tangy olive salad, the Creole aioli smear – I could try to analyze it, but I’d rather get lost in it. It was a nice, nice burger.
Details: 300 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix. 602-200-0085, sudrailaz.com.
Burrata – Rancho Pinot
Burrata abounds, but Chrysa Robertson avoided the sweet for a tangy anchovy, fennel and lemon relish.
Details: 6208 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale. 480-367-8030, ranchopinot.com.
Cabrito filet mignon carpaccio – Cotton and copper
So much to unwrap here: Minced raw goat cheese with sweet strawberries, hibiscus hips and cinnamon-flavored mesquite? Just wild.
Details: 1006 E. Warner Road, Tempe. 480-629-4270, cottonandcopperaz.com.
Meatloaf with chorizo - Welcome dinner
Happy to see you again! The meatloaf is excellent and the pickled vegetables are better, but the chipotle cream sauce wins out.
Details: 929 E. Pierce St., Phoenix. 602-495-1111, welcomeiner.net.
Chuchvara – Café Chenar
Juicy, plump and sweet seared small pelmeni with caramelized onions. Obviously, I need more Bukharan cuisine in my life.
Details: 1601 E. Bell Road, Phoenix. 602-354-4505, search for “Café Chenar” on Facebook.
Dip the noodles in a garlic sauce – Jardin du Shaanxi
So many options, but I’ll take my fluffy belt-shaped biangbiangmian with a simple spicy dip, please.
Details: 67 N. Dobson Road, Mesa. 480-733-8888, shaanxibiangbiang.com.
Goat Meat Soup with Fufu – Jollof King
The sultry soup is very fine, but the soft and elastic texture of this yam fufu is magical.
Details: 325 W. Elliot Road, Tempe. 480-550-7292, jollofkingaz.com.
Kohitsuji Misoyaki – Japanese Restaurant Hana
Lori Hashimoto brought the big guns to Devour, serving miso-marinated chops dripping with sizzling lamb fat.
Details: 5524 N. Seventh Avenue, Phoenix. 602-973-1238, hanajapaneseeatery.com.
Mike’s Potato Skins – Keegan’s Grill
Not even jokingly. Perfectly composed with soft, crisp edges, it was like the platonic ideal of a childhood favorite that I had long forgotten.
Details: 3114 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix. 602-955-661. Other locations at keegansgrill.com.
Pita with skate and sausage – Pa’La
Claudio Urciuoli is back, and this winner has combined his sense of bread-making and his new focus on seafood for a magnificent effect.
Details: 2107 N. 24th St., Phoenix. 602-795-9500, palakitchen.com.
Plain with Meringue – Quiessence
Dustin Christofolo got the uni to play against the guy, pairing him with shiny elements like grapefruit, apple and pickled kohlrabi.
Details: The farm at South Mountain, 6106 S. 32nd St., Phoenix. 602-276-0601, qatthefarm.com.
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