Heading to Phoenix soon? Trying to figure out the best places to eat? Whether you’re looking for Chinese-Mexican fusion or a cinnamon roll pancake, we’ve got you covered right here with a list of the tastiest destinations to hit while you’re in town.
15414 N 19th Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85023
This review of Chino Bandido originally appeared May 8, 2017.
Chino Bandido shouldn’t work, yet it does. The Phoenix eatery bills itself as Chinese-Mexican fusion, but what is that, really? Meat and rice bowls aren’t unique to those two cuisines, and Chino Bandido doesn’t limit itself to those two anyway. If it did, it wouldn’t serve jerk chicken or jerk fried rice, which fuse Jamaican and Chinese because why the hell not?
So why do I want to go back every time I return to the Valley of the Sun? Is it the free cookie? Is it the 500-pound bronze statue of a panda holding a rice bowl while wearing a sombrero and a bandoleer? Is it the watermelon tea?
In truth, it’s a little of all of it. Chino Bandido serves pretty good Chinese and pretty good Mexican. (And, judging by the jerk fried rice, pretty good Chinese Jamaican.) Nothing is the best of anything I’ve ever had. The Jade Red Chicken is a four-star General Tso, but it wouldn’t get invited to join the Joint Chiefs of American Chinese Takeout. The free cookies aren’t really free. Their cost is included in the price of the rice bowl, but because this cost isn’t broken out, each bite of the gooey chocolate lava cookie felt like a bonus just for me.
Perhaps the reason the whole of Chino Bandido is so much greater than the sum of its parts is its all-out assault on the culinary id. Almost everyone craves Chinese takeout on occasion. Almost everyone craves solid Mexican basics on occasion. Nearly everyone loves cookies, and the only thing better than a cookie is a free cookie.
Plus, I couldn’t stop staring at that panda. Imagine the response of sculptor who originally took the order. You want a WHAT? Give me that panda and the option of sweet and spicy chicken or a quesadilla—or both, because YOLO—and a cookie that I think is free and charge me about $10. I’ll be satisfied, and I’ll be back.
That’s why Chino Bandido works, even if it shouldn’t.
8338 N 7th St, Phoenix, AZ 85020
This review of El Bravo originally appeared May 11, 2015.
Those who have read this space for a while know that while I consider my palate fairly refined with regard to barbecue and Southern comfort food, my standards are far less rigorous for pizza. I don't have a favorite type, and while I can tell the difference between average and superb, it all tastes pretty good to me. This goes double for Mexican food. Take a protein, melt some cheese, toss in some beans and wrap in some kind of carbohydrate shell. This formula works at a Michelin-starred restaurant or the Chipotle on your street. It all tastes basically good, so I always wondered why friends who spent more time in the southwest would rave about one place and bash another when almost all of them clung to the protein-cheese-beans-carb model.
Of course, they probably wonder the same thing about me when I praise one barbecue joint and bash another. You just don't understand, man. They use Post Oak instead of hickory. My obtuseness regarding Mexican food continued unabated until a friend mentioned the chicken green corn tamale from El Bravo in Phoenix. The sentence started with "It's so good," and it ended with a phrase that called to mind the most memorable moment in American Pie. That, dear readers, is high praise indeed.
So while in Phoenix last week to cover the various conference meetings, I ventured to El Bravo. It doesn't look like much. It's tucked into a strip mall on a street full of them. The decor is wholesale club chic. In other words, it's perfect. The members of the family that runs El Bravo probably haven't ever uttered the word "concept" in relation to their restaurant—even when they were opening a branch in Sky Harbor Airport. They probably talk a lot about taste, though.
The green corn chicken tamale my friend so enthusiastically endorsed is the unquestioned star. The corn melts in the mouth and the juicy chicken offers a chance to chew and savor the sweetness of the corn and the bite of a tomatillo sauce that fights in gravy's weight class. I ate two of these. I would have eaten 12. I would not have done what my friend suggested because that would have given me one fewer tamale to eat, and wasting such a treasure should be punishable by law.
4743 N 20th St. Phoenix
This review of Pizzeria Bianco originally appeared May 11, 2015.
The aforementioned El Bravo wasn't the only place in the Valley of the Sun that came so highly recommended. While no one endorsed an inappropriate fate for a pie from Pizzeria Bianco, the reviews were generally excellent. This place, we were told, would rival the best we've had in New York. (We visited the Town and Country location and not the more crowded original downtown.) This could be my lack of pizza sophistication talking, but I wasn't aware that it was a badge of honor in the pizza world to make a razor-thin crust. I understand why some prefer New York style over the pizza-shaped cakes they serve in Chicago -- I'm happy with either; they're completely different dishes—but I thought the idea was to have something to chew, not a cracker that holds toppings.
The ingredients were excellent. The soppressata on my Sonny Boy kicked, and the fresh mozzarella melted to velvety perfection. But the crust cracked upon the slightest collision with a tooth. My favorite crusts—the ones at Motorino in New York and Antico Pizza in Atlanta—put up a fight. They require a little chewing. This crust surrendered immediately, and that made it no match for the splendid toppings.
This is not to say that I would avoid Pizzeria Bianco entirely. The gnocchi with pork required the perfect amount of chewing. I could eat bowl after bowl of the stuff. The pappardelle bolognese is even better. Pappardelle noodles feature the perfect surface area-to-volume ratio for the rich, meaty bolognese. On future visits, I’d probably get that instead of pizza.* Which is good, because a pizza with a paper-thin crust tends to leave the stomach longing for more.
*Update: That’s exactly what I did in later visits. The pappardelle bolognese remains undefeated.
Little Miss BBQ
4301 E University Dr, Phoenix, AZ 85034
This review of Little Miss BBQ originally appeared Feb. 16, 2015.
The Twitter messages came sporadically, maybe two or three a week. They didn’t come from the same person, which lent them credibility. They made one request. The next time work took me to Phoenix, I needed to try Little Miss BBQ.
I remained skeptical. A bunch of diners in Texas or Alabama recommending the same barbecue place? That’s a no-brainer. But in Phoenix? This was going to go one of two ways. Either someone had decided to bring real barbecue to the deprived masses in the Salt River Valley, or a place outside the barbecue belt had once again sullied the good name of America’s finest culinary contribution.
So I drove west on University Drive from the Arizona State campus, past Sky Harbor airport and into an industrial district known in most towns as The Place With The Airport Adjacent Strip Clubs. This might frighten away some of the transplants accustomed to the manicured chaininess of Scottsdale, but no true barbecue lover worries about such things. Experience has taught us that a barbecue restaurant in a good neighborhood offers far more cause for concern. Besides, there is nothing to fear during Little Miss BBQ’s hours, which are 11 a.m.-4 p.m., or until they sell out.
I arrived at Little Miss at about 1 p.m. this past Thursday. A line snaked around the side of the building and into the picnic area set up near giant offset smokers that still smelled of that day’s brisket. A pile of wood—Arizona oak and pecan, according to the Little Miss website—stood nearby. These were the most positive signs. The best barbecue places always have a giant pile of wood nearby, and no one will wait in line for terrible barbecue.
The folks at Little Miss make the best of their location. The building is tiny and can’t accommodate the demands of the lunch crowd, so diners have to queue up outside. But the proprietors of Little Miss have created a tent system to ensure most of the waiting is done while shielded from the unforgiving Arizona sun. They also stash a cooler full of water bottles at the midpoint of the line. No one needs to be dehydrated before they consume a pound or two of salty meat.
When diners finally do gain entry to the Little Miss inner sanctum, the scene at the counter erases any lingering doubt. Beautiful, bark-covered briskets are sliced open to reveal cascading juices and a glistening red smoke ring. The beef looks as good as the stuff at any hot Texas spot, but the menu doesn’t stop at the Texas trinity of brisket, sausage and pork spare ribs. Near the bottom, I noticed something else: Lamb neck.
When we bring home a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, I immediately grab the neck bone before my wife or kids get the chance to swipe it and take the tiny shards of tender meat. I thought about the size difference between a chicken and a lamb and immediately ordered half a pound of lamb neck meat. The man behind the counter informed me that Little Miss only sells whole necks. Then he grabbed one and tossed it on the scale: 1.6 pounds. At least half of that is bone. The rest is pure bliss. Imagine the most succulent leg of lamb you’ve tasted. Now make it more tender. Now add smoke. And bark. That’s a lamb neck from Little Miss*.
*2017 Update: The lamb neck proved too expensive to make daily, so now it only comes out on special occasions. The brisket, however, remains as good as ever.
The lamb neck was so good that it overshadowed the brisket, which might be the best available west of Texas. If not for the neck, you’d be reading a glowing review of that brisket. I could also spend several quality minutes discussing the jalapeno cheese grits, but we’ve already crossed the 4,000-word mark on this column and need to wrap things up lest your workday productivity suffer.
Just know this: Little Miss is no mirage. It is a pure oasis in the barbecue desert that is the western United States.
2045 E Camelback Rd A17, Phoenix, AZ 85016
This review of Snooze originally appeared Aug. 1, 2016.
With what little voice I had left, I listed my symptoms to my wife over the phone. It was only a nasty cold, so it wasn’t a big deal medically. But I felt awful, and I needed to pick myself up and get to work. SI had sent me to Phoenix in early May to cover the Big 12/Pac-12 spring meetings, and I couldn’t waste a day being sick. Complicating matters was a pledge I’d made to myself to eat a little healthier. I was trying, at least for a little while, to cut out processed sugar and flour. I hoped I could limit myself to meat, fruit and vegetables for a few weeks and shed some pounds. My wife offered a treatment that I’m guessing wasn’t covered when she was in Physician Assistant school.
“You need pancakes,” she said.
For a few meals, she said, I should embrace the carbohydrates I’d been trying to ignore. Unless I went on an epic binge, my body would use those calories to fight the cold. So I wandered out of my hotel and looked down at my phone. There was a breakfast place in the shopping center next door. Hopefully, it would have pancakes.
Oh, it absolutely had pancakes.
Snooze calls itself an A.M. eatery. That’s probably the correct amount of churching up for a place that serves elevated versions of diner breakfast staples. It started in Denver and has expanded to southern California, metro Phoenix and Austin. A Houston location will open soon.
I can’t speak to the omelets or the multitude of eggs Benedict variations, but I can heartily endorse the pancakes. That’s all I wanted that day, and Snooze went above and beyond. The bartender, who apparently makes a lot of Bloody Marys, kept my coffee cup full through two separate pancake orders. I thought all I would need were the Blueberry Danish Pancakes. These are buttermilk cakes drizzled with pureed blueberries and sweet cream and dusted with almond streusel. This sent my simple carbohydrate deprived system into nirvana, and the dollop of lemon cream in the middle of each cake offered a tart, rich balance to all the sugar.I devoured these, and I instantly felt better.
I probably could have stopped there, but something else on the menu had caught my attention. The pancake of the day was Cinnamon Roll, and I wasn’t leaving without ordering it. It was a giant buttermilk pancake topped with syrup, cream cheese frosting, pecans and powdered sugar. In the middle sat a small ball of maple butter. It was a calorie bomb packed with sugar and the worst kind of carbs, and it was exactly what I needed.
So thank you, Snooze. You haven’t found the cure for the common cold, but you may have developed the most effective treatment yet.
546 E Osborn Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85012
This review of Taco Guild originally appeared Jan. 18, 2016.
Not long after I landed in Phoenix to cover the run-up to the national title game, a text popped in from Lindsay Schnell. Lindsay commanded that those of us in the Valley of the Sun for the game go forth and try Taco Guild, a two-year-old restaurant that began life as a church. We assumed that the flat screens over the altar bar and the jukebox—which ate a member of our party’s credit card— were added after the place became a taco temple.
There is some mumbo-jumbo on Taco Guild’s website about master craftsmen and plate harmony. It’s nonsense. All that really matters is that you’ll need one order of Fundido for every two people at your table. You’ll be spooning this mixture of melted menonita cheese, longaniza sausage, roasted-jalapeño mushrooms, caramelized onion and Mexican tea into tortillas and then inhaling them. This is the best item on the menu, and it comes before the main course. If you choose to order it as your main course, so be it. You’ll go home full and happy.
This isn’t to say the tacos aren’t worthy. Some of them are quite good. Skip the duck confit, which is a daring idea that doesn’t quite work, and double down on the crackling lamb. This is barbacoa lamb, roasted-jalapeño hummus, mint chimichurri, avocado, Cotija cheese and cilantro swaddled in a corn tortilla. The spicy hummus accentuates the burst of lamb flavor, and then the chimichurri and avocado cool things down. For the third taco on your combo plate, get the al pastor. It may be an old standby compared to the more adventurous creations on the other side of the menu page, but the grilled pineapple and jalapeño bacon ensure it never gets boring.
Chop and Wok
10425 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, AZ 85253
This review of Chop and Wok originally appeared Jan. 18, 2016.
A few nights after visiting Taco Guild, I’d already eaten dinner when I ventured out to a bar about 25 minutes away in Scottsdale that some co-workers had recommended. Unfortunately, that bar was in the middle of last call at 11:30 p.m. It was suggested that we visit another place nearby. This place, we were told, would be serving drinks until 2 a.m. We were not told what else the place would be serving until 2 a.m.
From the entrance, Chop and Wok looks like a larger-than-usual Chinese restaurant. Only after passing the counter does it become obvious that the real feature is the Wok Star Bar, which has an excellent beer selection and serves the full Chop and Wok menu into the wee hours. Sure, every town has a Chinese takeout place that stays open late. But how many of those places have a full bar?
And that is how, on a night when I had already eaten a bone-in ribeye, I found myself looking down at a plate of spicy beef lo mein that I probably wouldn’t have ordered at 5 p.m. but absolutely had to have at 12:30 a.m. The lo mein was pretty good, too. But what made the place amazing was the fact that in the middle of one of America’s most plastic suburbs, we found a bar/Chinese restaurant populated by real people who just wanted to drink beer, eat lo mein and listen to a mid-90s hip-hop soundtrack that sounded as if it was programmed by the DJ who worked the Homecoming dance my senior year of high school. As random finds go, this one was damn near perfect.
202 E. University Dr., Tempe, AZ 85281
This review of The Chuckbox originally appeared March 2, 2015.
The great college town burger joints seem to be very particular about ordering. When I visited Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger in Ann Arbor in 2009, the procedure felt similar to the instructions the Seinfeld characters received when learning how to order from the Soup Nazi. When I visited The Chuckbox, which is located over by the Arizona State Campus in Tempe, about 20 minutes from Phoenix, that same wave of trepidation washed over me when the cook manning the grill pointed his spatula at the two frat boys in front of me in line and barked, “Hey, guys, you gonna order?”
Don’t enter The Chuckbox line without an order in mind. Hesitation when that spatula is pointed at you could foul up precision operation that hinges on quick ordering and what appears to be a semaphore system of toothpicks that denote exactly what the diner has ordered. And those who order correctly will reap a reward. Because that men who hold those spatulas are masters of a charcoal grill that puts all backyard cookouts to shame.
I ordered a Double Great Big One (two half-pound patties) with bacon, cheddar, and green chiles. (“Now THAT’S a burger,” one of the frat dudes ahead of me proclaimed after I ordered.) All of this was cooked on the grill, and none of it was placed there until I ordered it. As my burger’s bun toasted, it was impaled with a long, broken toothpick, a long intact toothpick, a short toothpick and a green toothpick with a curlicue at the end. This code ensured the accuracy of my order. With about a dozen people in the line and at least six orders on the grill simultaneously, the cook’s organizational skills were spectacular. The toothpicks truly spoke to him.
When my creation reached the appropriate temperature, he slid it between the buns and slapped it on a paper plate. I paid, added mustard, ketchup and lettuce at the topping bar and took my seat. Then I took the first bite.
Juice gushed in every direction when teeth met beef. The chiles provided the ideal spice to the flood of savory bursting from the patties. I had to flip the burger to set it down lest the thinner lower bun get drowned. (Nothing ruins a burger faster than a soggy bun.) I didn’t have to worry, though. Though I wanted to savor the taste, I couldn’t stop taking more bites. Before I knew it, the best backyard burger I’d ever eaten indoors was only a memory.