These days, the Valley of the Sun (Phoenix, Scottsdale, and the surrounding towns) might have to be renamed Valley of the Eats. There’s so much good food here that you could spend an entire vacation just checking out the restaurants across the Valley. I’ve been coming to this area for almost 30 years, and I’ve never seen the dining scene as good as it is now. Mexican and other Latin influences are predominant, but whatever you’re in the mood for, the Valley of the Sun pretty much has it all. Here are some of my favorites that you need to add to your Arizona travel itinerary.
Helmed by 2019 James Beard award winner Charleen Badman, FnB offers a creative menu that gets right at the heart of good food: fresh ingredients, imaginatively prepared without being fussy. Located in Craftsman Court (a vintage shopping center from the 1950s), it’s always packed—nomsurprise since it’s considered one of the best restaurants in town. A mix of local Arizona flavor and global fare, you might start with a “green salad” of grapes, green beans, fennel, and goat cheese, or perhaps some charred sweet potatoes with harissa vinaigrette (I’d suggest ordering several starters to share). For a main, you can’t go wrong with pasta with chanterelles, parmesan, and bacon, or perhaps a chicken paillard attractively presented with shishito peppers and polenta croutons. Being based in the local bounty, the menus change seasonally, but whatever time of year you’re there, you can be assured of something special at this must-visit spot. 7125 E. 5th Ave., Scottsdale. Tel: 480-284-4777. www.fnbrestaurant.com
One look at the lively murals greeting you outside Barrio Café, and you know you’re in for something special. Take a seat in one of the rooms adorned with vibrant art, and the feeling increases. Then take your first bite of chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s elevated Mexican cuisine, and you’ll be hooked, as I am. I try to get something different every time I come, and the menu is large enough that you can easily do that, but somehow I keep gravitating to a few favorites. There’s the Kauli de Camaron, two totopos topped with avocado and shrimp, with a mound of salsa in between. Then there’s the Chiles en Nogada, an amazing dish of roasted poblanos stuffed with chicken, fruit, and pecans, on a sea of almond cream sauce. It’s finished with cilantro, queso fresco, and pomegranate seeds, bringing forth the colors of the Mexican flag and adding more layers of flavor and texture to an already complex dish. The Cochinita Pibil is justly famous, a dish of slow-roasted pork that’s been marinated in achiote and sour orange and wrapped in a banana leaf for overnight cooking. Wash it all down with a wonderful horchata or tamarind water, and don’t neglect such incredible desserts as churros filled with goat cheese caramel. In short, you really must pay Barrio Café a visit. If you’re like me, it won’t be your last time. 2814 N. 16th St., Phoenix. Tel: 602-636-0240. www.barriocafe.com
From the outside, it’s part of an ordinary looking strip mall. Step inside Café Lalibela, and you’ll see that old adage about judging books by their covers applies, for you’ve entered a world of culinary marvel that’s as exceptional as the region of Ethiopia, famed for its one-of-a-kind underground temples, after which it’s named. Dedicated to presenting the best of Ethiopian cuisine, Lalibela has been a local favorite for almost twenty years by combining a super-friendly welcome with some of the most beautifully presented and vibrantly flavorful cuisine I’ve experienced in ages. The riches here are equally abundant for carnivores and vegans, all eaten with the uniquely Ethiopian injera, a spongy flatbread that you use instead of cutlery. Try the Doro Wat, a hearty and spicy chicken stew, or Asa Wat, with dense and perfectly spiced tilapia. Misir Wat (spiced red lentils), Yekik Alicha (yellow split peas flavored with turmeric), and Azifah (slightly spicy brown lentils, fascinatingly served cold) are among the vegetarian favorites, but you really can’t go wrong with anything: I mean, this is a place that makes collard greens (Gomen) or cabbage (Tikil Gomen) into something special! My suggestion: order a platter comprised of several dishes. For two of you, a Lalibela Deluxe or Vegan Deluxe offers over half a dozen samples of the enticing cuisine, all served on a gigantic injera. (Hint: when you’ve polished everything off, the injera that’s left on the plate, rich with the tastes of all the dishes, is the highlight.) Be sure to have a post-dinner coffee, for which they’re rightfully renowned. 849 W. University Dr., Tempe. Tel: 480-829-1939. www.cafelalibela.com