To Phoenix, for Some Fantastic Food (and Lots of Photos)

Atoyac lengua and al pastorPhoenix, the sixth largest city in the United States, is just one flight away from Seattle, making it a manageable getaway to explore someplace different. As this food writer has done with destinations like Victoria and Salt Lake City, I left Seattle a bit skeptical but eager to see what kind of food I’d find in a city that’s not necessarily known for its culinary scene.

From seasonable vegetables to (would you believe?) seafood surprises, and from frijole-filled hole-in-the-wall Mexican joints to Five-Diamond fine dining with Native American flavors, I was thrilled with my discoveries in the Phoenix area. Included, in order of appearance:

Read on for my recommendations of restaurants to try, along with a couple of resort hotels sure have appeal to one type of traveler or another.

Bianco exterior

For me, a trip to Phoenix meant a long-anticipated pilgrimage to Pizzeria Bianco. Having been to Di Fara (Brooklyn) and Frank Pepe (New Haven) and Mozza (LA) and more, this was the one on my list I’ve been waiting to hit. Now with two locations, the lines have subsided. With just two in my party, we walked right to a table at the downtown location, though with a busy eating schedule, we had limited stomach space for sampling the menu.

Bianco olives

While awaiting our pizzas, we started with this plate of delicious olives.

Bianco margherita

Pizzeria Bianco’s Margherita pizza: Good char on the crust and delicious flavors, though surprisingly a little undersalted.

Bianco pistachio pizza

More interesting was the Rosa pizza, a gorgeous specimen with red onions, Parmigiano Reggiano, rosemary, and Arizona pistachios. I enjoyed the combination of flavors, though ultimately my preference is always a tomato sauce-based pie.

Bianco interior

The scene inside Bianco.

Bink's biscuits

I’d quickly learn there are other delicious eats beyond Bianco in Phoenix. At Bink’s Midtown, lunch starts with these fabulous buckwheat drop biscuits with vanilla and honey butter.

Bink's broccoli rabe

What I especially like about Bink’s is the separate menu that features fresh, local produce. Here’s broccoli rabe with chile, grapefruit, soppressata, and Parmesan served with grilled crostini.

Bink's sunchokes

More veggies: sunchokes with tangelo, scallions, and Fresno chile. Earthy and delicious.

Bink's posole presentation

Bink’s presentation of posole with hominy, pork, cabbage, radish, onion, cilantro, oregano, and lime.

Bink's posole

Posole with ingredients added. Decent flavor, but was hoping for more depth of flavor.

Bink's sandwich

Another feature of Bink’s is the Pig Sandwich of the Week. This one is pulled pork Mediterranean-style, with feta, labne, and arugula. Again decent, though I wanted something more from the pork itself—perhaps more seasoning or smoky flavor.

Crudo cocktail

A toast to Crudo, the restaurant I’m most likely to recommend to visitors to Phoenix. Fabulous food (everything was delicious) for the price point, and great cocktails, too. Here’s the Milano Gimlet: Ford’s gin, Fernet Branca, lime, grapefruit, basil, and grapefruit cinnamon syrup.

Crudo crudo pair

Crudo offers various coursing options in which you can choose 3 items (in any category) for $35, 4 for $45, and 5 for $55. Given the restaurant name, my dining companion and I each started with crudo courses. In the foreground: butterfish with tomato, lardo, and arugula.

Crudo yellowtail

Crudo of yellowtail with controne, bottarga, and chive.

Crudo pig tail

Side order of pig tail with foie gras fegatelli.

Crudo cheese

From the Cheese section of the menu, this is burricotta (a cross between burrata and ricotta) with beets, citrus, and olives. I really enjoyed the sweetness of the beets against the richness of the cheese.

Crudo bread dumpling

From the Cotto (Cooked) section of the menu, this is the dumpling with butternut squash along withpork and Parmesan enriching the broth. Intense comfort food.

Crudo risotto

One of Crudo’s most iconic dishes is this risotto with squid ink, chilies, tuna, and tomato. A definite highlight that lived up to the billing, even if the photo doesn’t quite capture the allure. (Tough lighting conditions in the restaurant.)

Crudo fish

From the Griglia (Grilled) section, this is seafood zuppa: loup de mer, soffrito, and escarole.

Crudo brisket

For a turf option, I enjoyed this brisket with cannellinni, spinach, tendon mamellatta, and ceci. A rich dish, with the beans a delightful accompaniment to the meat.

Crudo dessert

Local pastry chef Tracy Dempsey does the desserts for Crudo. This brown butter buckwheat cake had earthy flavor, and came with blueberry lemon marmalade and maple creme fraiche.

Tuck Shop crab

In Phoenix, some of the more interesting restaurants are in unexpected locations. Bink’s Midtown is one example, and Tuck Shop is another. I visited this home of “neighborhood comfort food” on Valentine’s evening. A set menu on a busy night isn’t ideal for evaluation, so I instead present a couple of photos, starting with this chili lime lump crab and avocado salad with heirloom tomato.

Tuck Shop duck

Also at Tuck Shop: Spiced Madeira-glazed duck breast with red spinach, white asparagus, and Okinawa purple potatoes.

Agritopia farm

With all the great produce I’d been eating, I wished I had more time to visit some of the sources. I was able to make a quick trip to Agritopia, a community in Gilbert with an urban farm that feeds the locals and supplies local businesses. (I’m a little leery about any community that is religiously based, as I’d heard about Agritopia, but didn’t have time to learn more about this, other than noting the Christian school in this “Eden.”)

The Coffee Shop

There are a cluster of businesses at the heart of Agritopia, including an honor system farm stand. The Coffee Shop is a place for baked goods and beverages.

Joe's Farm Grill

Joe’s Farm Grill at Agritopia is open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, serving meals made with as many local products as possible. The milkshakes are refreshing in the hot sun, especially when the Medjool dates (the trees are in sight of the restaurant) are in season.

Sweet Republic

Speaking of frozen treats, Sweet Republic in Scottsdale serves some delicious ice cream and sorbet. Pictured: basil-lime sorbet on the left (with Arizona basil) and honey blue cheese on the right (with Arizona honey).

Kai menu

My most upscale meal in the Phoenix area was at Kai restaurant, based at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass in Chandler. The hotel is situated on the Gila River Indian Community, and the restaurant incorporates the essence of the Pima and Maricopa tribes into the menu. Regarding the menus, each is unique with artwork that tells a story.

Kai dining room

The essence of the Pima and Maricopa tribes extends to the décor of the restaurant as well. It’s a quiet and comfortable place for a meal. The service is attentive and respectful, and the food is fantastic. Kai is a continual winner of Forbes Travel Guide’s Five-Star Award and AAA’s Five-Diamond Award.

Kai soup 5699

Mesquite-charred pumpkin and squash puree with mesquite bean-glazed Duroc pork belly, aji amarillo, compressed squash, and nopales & tart apple spume. (Native meals frequently feature the “3 sisters” of corn, squash, and beans.)

Kai foie gras

Seared Hudson Valley foie gras with Sonoran-spiced funnel cake, along with powdered foie gras sugar, caramelized apple & Bosc pear preserve, aged port & saguaro syrup reduction. Playful and delicious!

Kai intermezzo

Intermezzo of apricot-orange sorbet with cranberry-gooseberry syrup, done in a beautiful presentation. (Note: the meal started with an amuse bouche of mole-seared ahi tuna and an interesting assortment of breads.)

Kai buffalo

Grilled tenderloin of tribal buffalo with smoked corn puree, cholla buds, Merquez sausage and scarlet runner bean chili, and saguaro blossom syrup. The meat was tender and slightly sweet.

Kai elk loin

Bellota Iberico llomo-wrapped high country elk loin with winter truffle risotto, wild mushrooms, Comte cheese, and natural jus & truffle emulsion. Like the buffalo, the meat was sweet and quite succulent. A rich dish that I’d especially enjoy on a winter’s day—or anytime.

Kai dessert

I wouldn’t expect Kai’s desserts to be anything but beautiful. This is the Gila River mesquite short bread with Crow’s Dairy goat cheese, roasted fig & dates, Fontainebleau, spiced pears, honey dust, and pear gelée. Following this, a selection of single-origin chocolates to officially end the meal.

Sheraton Lobby Windows at night

A look from the outside in at the lobby of the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass.

Sheraton upper lobby

Here’s the upper lobby of the Sheraton, with a view to the mountains.

Sheraton Lower Lobby

And now the lower lobby.

Sheraton Gila River Indian Community Murals

Here’s a closer look at the murals perched high above the lobby. There’s rich history in the hotel, with many art objects, books, and people willing to provide further explanation. The property also sports a golf course, spa (with Native treatments), and an equestrian center that offers horseback riding (a fun way to spend some time at the hotel).

Sheraton Deluxe suite bedroom

Guest room accommodations at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass are incredibly comfortable, with gorgeous views.

Ko'sin breakfast fry bread

Ko’Sin is the place for breakfast (and other meals) at the Sheraton. The word means “kitchen” in the Pima language. Staying with Native-influenced foods, here’s the breakfast fry bread: fluffy Pima fry bread with scrambled farm eggs, chorizo, Tepary bean refry, vine-ripened tomatoes, queso fresco, and salsa verde. I really enjoyed this dish.

Ko'sin breakfast frittata

Also at Ko’Sin for breakfast is this Estrella frittata: an open-faced omelet with smoked ham, mushrooms, roasted peppers, onions, cheddar, and chipotle aioli.

Fairmont exterior

After two nights at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass, I moved to the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess in Scottsdale. With music playing on the premises (I laughed listening to Rick James’ “Super Freak,” wondering if the kids knew the song), it’s a very different environment, active with people enjoying the five swimming pools, golf, tennis, spa, and the numerous indoor/outdoor dining options.

Fairmont guest room

Here’s a look inside one of the guest rooms at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. There are 649 rooms at this large, AAA Five-Diamond property.

La Hacienda guacamole

The most acclaimed restaurant at the Fairmont is Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak, but I instead opted for a snack at La Hacienda by Richard Sandoval. Here you can order a tasting of guacamole three ways, but I went for the basic version, prepared tableside. Quite creamy, wanting some salt to boost the flavor.

La Hacienda tacos

Having heard good reviews, I also ordered the tacos de langosta made with fresh Maine lobster, black bean, and chile de arbol sauce. Three very small tacos will cost you $20, so prepare accordingly.

La Hacienda coffee preparation

If it’s dinner and show you’re after, be sure to order one of La Hacienda’s flaming coffees. The pyrotechnics are great fun!

La Hacienda flaming coffee drink

And here’s the finished drink, this one with 1921 tequila de crema and whipped cream.

Atoyac menu

I couldn’t resist seeking out hole-in-the-wall, lesser-known Mexican restaurants in Phoenix. Here’s the menu for Tacos Atoyac.

Atoyac lengua and al pastor

This trio of tacos includes al pastor (my favorite of the meal) and lengua (tongue).

Atoyac tripe and cabeza

Another pair at Atoyac: tripe and cabeza (head).

Atoyac fish taco

Finally, the fish taco at Atoyac, made with battered swai topped with cabbage and onion slaw, plus spicy cream sauce. Delicious, and well worth a detour.

Carolina's exterior

Immediately after Atoyac, I went to Carolina’s Mexican Food, as numerous people told me they have the best tortillas in town.

Carolina's menu

Here’s the menu board, above the ordering counter. Peer to the right of the counter, and you’ll see the staff making tortillas for your order.

Carolina's enchiladas

An enchilada combination from Carolina’s. Tasty.

Carolina's burro

And here’s a burro. It looks a little sad by itself, but the flavor’s good, and the tortillas are pretty pillowy.

Rito's exterior

I also recommend a stop at Rito’s Mexican Food, situated right across from a school. Order inside, then eat outside.

Rito's menu

Here are the menu boards at Rito’s.

Rito's waiting

This is a popular place for reasonably priced Mexican food, so expect to wait.

Rito's burrito

My enchilada-style burro at Rito’s. Loved it!

Ranch Market tortillas

Near Rito’s is a Ranch Market, a palatial store full of Mexican food products. The tortilla center is fascinating.

Ranch Market butcher

Real food at Ranch Market.

Sheraton horse ride

Back at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass, that’s me riding off into the sunset. (Or was it the sunrise?)

(Thanks to Visit Phoenix and its sister organizations for assistance with aspects of this trip. And thanks to Sheraton Wild Horse Pass for the photos of their property, including the interior shot of Kai, and to Fairmont Scottsdale Princess for their property photos.)