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Best Phoenix Restaurants

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Foodies bound for Phoenix will be happy to learn that, in a city known for mythical risings, the latest one seems to be of the gastronomical variety. Chefs here helped invent Nuevo Latino cuisine, and the city’s best purveyors of “Viejo Latino” cuisine—that is, good old Mexican food—set the standard in this part of the country. But the culinary landscape in Phoenix is defined by far more than hot peppers and homemade tortillas. The world’s most famous Native American restaurant is located here, as is a pizzeria that serves what a New York Times food critic called “what just might be the best pizza in America.” Ground zero for the city’s food revolution is CenPho, where independent eateries have sprung up near new downtown development and along the light rail line. Established chefs ply their trades at refined restaurants in Scottsdale, Arcadia specializes in hip dining influenced by the local-food movement, and resort restaurants offer top-notch meals (at top-dollar prices). As for the aforementioned Mexican food, it can be found on nearly every corner, but hungry troopers will be rewarded for trips to 16th Street and South Phoenix.  

Kai

Neighborhood: East Valley Price: Expensive
Located at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort on the Gila River Indian Community, Kai is the most critically acclaimed restaurant in Arizona. Kai means “seed” in the Pima language, and a visit there is bound to plant itself in your culinary consciousness. The restaurant is best known for its use of wild game and exotic meats (buffalo, goat, lamb, free-range pigs), and most of the produce is locally farmed on the reservation. Kai’s menu changes twice a year, but one dish always persists—our favorite, the grilled buffalo tenderloin with corn puree, cholla buds, runner-bean chili, and saguaro-blossom syrup. (It's worth shelling out the $45 it'll cost you.) The dress code in the candlelit dining room is “smart business casual,” and the staff provides synchronized, Russian-style service.

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Kai  

noca

Neighborhood: Camelback Corridor Price: Expensive
Named for its north-of-Camelback location, noca is a darling of critics and local foodies. In 2009 it was a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in the U.S. The menu of Modern American dishes changes frequently, but nightly specials include Wagyu pastrami on Thursdays and lobster roll on Wednesdays. But the best night to visit is Sunday: Chef Chris Curtiss’ comfort-food-themed “Sunday Simple Supper” ($35 for three courses) has largely fueled his restaurant’s rise to cult status. Make Sunday Supper reservations a week in advance—earlier if the planned theme is fried chicken. Noca’s modern yet unpretentious ambiance compliments the cuisine: Natural light pours through large front windows, and multiple mirrors allows nearly every table to watch the tattooed Curtiss and his team work in the kitchen. Dress smart, because you'll be part of a hip and urbanite crowd: designer denim defines the unspoken dress code.

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Binkley's Restaurant

Neighborhood: Cave Creek Price: Expensive
Howard Seftel, the veteran food critic at the Arizona Republic, writes: “Are there other restaurants as good as Binkley’s? Absolutely. Except, they are in places like New York, San Francisco and Paris, and they have Michelin stars next to their names.” Before Kevin Binkley opened his restaurant in the relative wilds of Cave Creek (about 30 miles north of downtown Phoenix), he worked with Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame. More recently, Binkley was nominated for a 2010 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southwest. Binkley’s menu of seafood and contemporary American cuisine changes daily, but a constant hit are his artful amuse-bouche creations. Reservations for dinner in the intimate dining room are practically mandatory; make them several weeks in advance, if possible. Binkley’s is closed Sundays and Mondays and the month of July.

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Pizzeria Bianco

Neighborhood: CenPho Price: Moderate
Pizzeria Bianco is no longer Phoenix’s best-kept culinary secret. Not after Oprah sang its praises, and certainly not after New York Times food critic Ed Levine wrote that Chef Chris Bianco crafts what “just might be the best pizza in America.” Bianco has been working in a pizzeria since he was a kid. His restaurant in downtown’s Historic Heritage Square is intimate and bustling, with exposed-brick walls and a glowing, wood-fire oven. Bianco grows his own herbs in a garden outside. Every pizza is good, but we usually crave the Wiseguy, with its house-smoked mozzarella, wood-roasted onions and local fennel sausage. Pizzeria Bianco is always packed, so arrive early (around 5PM) or expect to wait up to two hours for a table. If you're waiting, why not nurse a glass of wine at Bar Bianco next door or a pint of ale at the pub across the street?

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Barrio Cafe

Neighborhood: CenPho Price: Moderate
Before opening her restaurant at the age of 42, Silvana Salcido Esparza packed up her 1968 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and drove to Mexico to spend a year learning about local cuisine from villagers. These days Esparza rides a motorcycle, competes for James Beard awards and lends her voice to Hispanic causes. Her food is infused with her big personality. Don’t expect burritos and combo plates here; Esparza specializes in regional cuisine from central and southern Mexico. Try the guacamole, prepared tableside (with seasonal pomegranate seeds) and the Cochinita Pibil—pork slow-roasted for 12 hours. The décor celebrates Chicano and other Latin-themed art, the bathroom is a shrine to masked luchador wrestlers, and the tiny bar offers one of the largest tequila selections in Phoenix, which is saying something. Amid a desert sea of Mexican restaurants, Barrio Cafe consistently retains best-in-the-city status.

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Tuck Shop

Neighborhood: CenPho Price: Moderate
A local architect owns this hidden gem of a neighborhood eatery, and it shows. What was once a nondescript brick building is now a testament to thoughtful modernism. Think of the coolest neighbors your family had in 1969: this is their den. The food is as thoughtful as the atmosphere. The Tuck Shop specializes in small plates and sharing plates, and the best of the former presents Medjool dates stuffed with local chorizo and melted Gruyere. For sharing, try the citrus-brined fried chicken with cheddar waffles and black-eyed-pea succotash. Tuck Shop patrons tend to be neighborhood residents who walk there at least once a week for dinner; the friendly manager seems to know them all. The Tuck Shop isn’t open for lunch or on Sundays and Mondays. And they only accept reservations for parties of six or more.

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Tuck Shop  

Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar

Neighborhood: CenPho Price: Budget
Doug Robson, the owner and head chef at Gallo Blanco, was born in Mexico City, and the name of his restaurant is Mexican slang for “white guy.” Robson brought his love of Mexico City street food to Phoenix with the 2009 opening of Gallo Blanco. Robson is an advocate for sustainable fishing, and his menu also features lots of locally grown produce. Affordable prices encourage sampling and sharing. Consider the egg torta on toasted telera bread with avocado and chorizo (breakfast is served all day) or the elote callejero (grilled corn with cotija and smoked paprika). Gallo Blanco is located in The Clarendon boutique hotel, where the vibe is loud and hip. If it’s hot outside, cool down with a michelada— Mexican beer and fresh lime juice, served in a pint glass with a spice-salted rim.

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Cyclo Vietnamese Cuisine

Neighborhood: East Valley Price: Budget
Owner Justina Duong is the force of nature behind Cyclo, a modern Vietnamese restaurant near Chandler Fashion Center. Duong is tall, attractive and works most of the day in fashionable, four-inch pumps. She dares regulars to try something new and playfully chides them if they order the usual. Our favorites include grilled spicy beef salad, their classic Pho, and crispy lemongrass chicken, prepared with chili and garlic and served beside jasmine rice. Simplicity reigns at Cyclo, which is decorated in bold colors and lit by white paper lanterns. Bring your own wine, if you want; there’s no corkage fee. Cyclo is closed Sundays and Mondays (Ms. Duong must rest her feet sometime).

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Carolina's Mexican Food

Neighborhood: South Phoenix Price: Budget
Founded in 1968 by Carolina Valenzuela, Carolina’s is a Phoenix institution. If you’re hankering for an authentic Mexican meal at a neighborhood dive, this is your place. You order from a large menu board above a walk-up counter. During peak lunch hours, expect a line. The $3.40 Oaxaca burrito—with chorizo, beans, potatoes and cheese—will test the structural integrity of your paper plate and require two hands to eat. Breakfast is served till 10:30AM. and features classics like machaca with eggs ($3.30). Many Phoenicians swear Carolina’s has the best tortillas in town; they’re made on site and can be purchased by the dozen. Accentuate your lunch with an old school Coca Cola from Mexico—where they still use real cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Carolina’s closes at 7:30PM. Monday through Friday, at 6PM. on Saturdays, and all day on Sundays.

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Matt's Big Breakfast

Neighborhood: CenPho Price: Budget
This crowded diner in downtown Phoenix isn’t for folks with claustrophobia, but for breakfast lovers, it's a little piece of Nirvana. Owner Matt Pool doesn’t skimp on the basics. His menu entices with sweet cream butter, real maple syrup, cage-free eggs, grain-fed Iowa pork and organic produce. The fluffy Belgian waffle, served with the aforementioned butter and syrup plus thick-cut slices of bacon, tastes as if it were created by some heavenly band of waffle angels. Lunch items include “Big Butter Burgers,” Reubens and BLTs. Complement your order with a tiny tumbler of fresh-squeezed orange juice or a glass of honey lemonade. Expect to wait an hour for a seat at the diner’s bright-orange lunch counter or one of the’50s-style Formica tables. And for the sake of hungry customers baking outside in the sun, don’t linger too long after your meal. 

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