Arizona was the last of the contiguous 48 states admitted to the union, home to the 2001 World Series collapse of the New York Yankees, and has a really big hole in the ground. Here in Phoenix, I-10 slices the city in half, leaving a space near the city’s convention center isolated from the culture of the town. Sure, there are some great bars, but the local food scene is hidden from my 19th floor hotel room in Downtown Phoenix. Walk down 2nd Street here in downtown, and it feels sterile — a couple of large gray sports arenas, a fine collection of parking garages, and plenty of Starbucks storefronts. But, Phoenix is the crossroads of Mexican, Native American and Anglo-American culture, and when you breakout of Downtown, your dining options open up to a range of slow food and highly detailed kitchens that are doing some excellent things.
Where to Eat
Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza is a James Beard Award-nominated chef who opened Barrio Urbano in 2015 at The Yard (a block of restaurants with an enclosed patio space featuring ping-pong, supersized Jenga, cornhole and a lot of televisions). The macro category for Barrio is Mexican, but it’s really more like an upscale Mexican street food restaurant. An open kitchen looks out at a small dining room and adjoining patio seating. Carlos, our very accommodating waiter, ably handled 10 of us and took great pains to explain the menu to the uninitiated Mexican eaters in our group. He also went above and beyond in explaining the cocktails on the menu, bringing out bottles of Damiana liqueur used in some drinks (Carlos also yelled at me for pouring a shot from one bottle left in front of me. Listen, leave an open bottle of booze in front of me and that’s what you get.).
Pork, specifically cochinita pibil, is the specialty of the house. Chef Silvana’s preparation of the Mayan classic is to marinate it in sour orange and achiote, wrap it in banana peel and roasted it for 13 hours. The result was probably the best restaurant preparation of pork that I’ve ever had. Stringy, but not sinewy. Tangy, but not sour. Tender but not dried out. Those ordering burritos mentioned that everything tasted fresh, not the food service repackaged stuff we get in the Northeast, but as if there was an emphasis placed on sourcing good ingredients.
Barrio Urbano, 5632 N. 7th St, Phoenix, AZ 85014, 602-287-9000
Reservations at OpenTable. Entrees between $11 and $23.
Does the world need ANOTHER gastropub? No, but only because 90 percent of gastropubs are shit. I think that the concept has come to mean “restaurant where we throw a bunch of ingredients together at random and charge a 30 percent premium.” A good gastropub has an eclectic menu, puts a unique touch on traditional dishes, and does it in a casual environment.
Culinary Dropout is from the Fox Restaurant Group and has three locations in the metro area. Its spot at The Yard is a perfect fit for its vibe of high-quality food and drinks. It features a wide menu from grilled cheese sliders to homemade jerky and charcuterie to pork belly ramen and meatloaf. The pork belly ramen came recommended by one of you, dear readers, and was a winner. I mean, you say “pork belly,” I say “Uhhh, yeah.” The ramen bowl featured homemade noodles, a generous hunk of pig that fell apart while using chopsticks, and bok choy all supported by a tonkotsu broth that could have used a hare more salt. Three people ordered it in my group and it was unlike anything they had eaten before. (We need some noodle places in Upstate New York.)
Culinary Dropout, 5632 N. 7th St, Phoenix, AZ 85014, 602-680-4040
Reservations at OpenTable. Entrees between $10 and $24.
The Market Restaurant+Bar
Jennifer Russo’s restaurant off Indian School Road in East Phoenix focuses on locally-sourced ingredients. Meat, cheeses and veggies from local farms and creameries. Grains from local mills, and beans from Ramona Farms, which resurrected the tepary bean that was nearly lost to time. The Market cooks them for five hours (they are extremely dense) and tosses them with tomatoes and kale. The texture is like a garbanzo bean, but it is grainy and picks up the flavors around them.
I made quick work of a flavorful posole, loaded with hominy and tender pork shoulder. The co-worker sitting across from me was overwhelmed by the quality of the homemade gnocchi served with veggies in a roasted red pepper coulis. It was the quietest meal of our trip, as no one wanted to stop to talk. The detail and crafting that went into the meal did not go unnoticed and the staff agreed that this was the best food from our stay in town (Barrio was probably the best dining experience of the trip).
The Market Restaurant+Bar, 3603 E. Indian School Rd., Ste A, Phoenix, AZ 85018, 602-626-5050
Reservations at OpenTable. Entrees between $12 and $26.