by Rich Rubin
Encanto Park in Phoenix (Photo by: Gregory E. Clifford)

I fall in love with the place, with its wood walls, teal blue banquettes, hanging copper lights, and open kitchen at the back: comfy, classy, and lovely.

Encanto Park in Phoenix (Photo by Gregory E. Clifford)

For one of the top dining experiences in the Phoenix / Scottsdale area, FnB sure doesn’t give off airs.

In the twenty years or more that I’ve been going to the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, the dining scene has really taken off by leaps and bounds. It’s always been good, but now it’s better than just “good.” Perhaps this isn’t surprising for a tourist destination, but all the places I visit seem to be attracting as many locals as visitors. From down-home to elegant, quintessentially local to intriguingly globetrotting, the restaurants in the Valley of the Sun have refined their craft to the point where there’s a plethora of great places to dine. Here are a few of my favorites.


Gnocchi with Mushrooms at Virtu (Photo: Magdanatka)

Gnocchi with Mushrooms at Virtu (Photo by: Magdanatka)

“We bring honest cooking to your table,” proclaims the menu at Virtu Honest Craft. Under the guidance of chef Gio Osso, this Scottsdale mainstay’s cuisine is not only honest but fabulous. The restaurant itself is elegant but unpretentious, with service that’s friendly and attentive. Every dish I’ve had there achieves something very close to perfection. The Polpo starter, for instance, takes octopus (not usually my favorite) and cooks it using the chef’s grandmother’s trick: braising it with wine corks. The result is a charry, tender and delightful dish, the plate painted with chile butter, garnished with a Calabrian chile and lemon-marinated chickpeas. It’s honestly the best octopus I’ve ever had. Still can’t bring yourself to eat it? Try the Asparagi, grilled asparagus with a fried duck egg, feta, and “bacon candy,” or perhaps you’d prefer gnocchi made from “grano arso” (wonderfully charry “burnt wheat flour”), with chanterelle and trumpet mushrooms and a parmigiano foam. For a main course, I suggest the Anatra: duck breast with a black garlic puree, dandelion greens, and black cherry mostardo. Accompany these delights with a wine from their (mainly Italian) list, including such relatively unknown choices as Fiano, Verdicchio, or Arneis for whites, and Nebbiolo, Negroamaro, and Garnacha for reds. For dessert, a Budino (salted caramel butterscotch pudding) or date sticky toffee cake with salted caramel gelato is sure to round out your meal to perfection. 3701 N. Marshall Way, Scottsdale. Tel: 480-946-3477. www.virtuhonestcraft.com


elements at Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa Photo: Courtesy Experience Scottsdale

elements at Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa Photo: (Courtesy Experience Scottsdale)

What strikes you immediately about elements is the view: a wall of windows looks out onto an amazing vista of Paradise Valley and the surrounding mountains. Soon, though, your attention will be diverted from this panorama as your server starts bringing over creative and well-prepared dishes. There’s a hint of Asia, a hint of the Southwest, a willingness to take chances and span cultures with the cuisine, and I’ve never once seen it not pay off. Shishito peppers make a great starter, livened by soy caramel and crispy garlic, while Oysters Rockefeller are transformed by Chinese sausage, spinach, and hijiki aioli (see what I meant about spanning cultures?). Main courses range from a delicious salmon resting on a bed of somen noodles, with snow peas, heirloom carrots, and a sprinkling of microgreens, to pumpkin curry with udon noodles that’s perfect for your vegetarian friends, or filet of beef with porcini “dust” and black garlic butter for the carnivores among you. Dessert? Do try the lemon/blood orange custard, which is smooth, citrus-y and delicious, livened by honey meringue, streusel, and white chocolate bark. My favorite, though, will always be the deconstructed strawberry shortcake, with a rich butter cake, mascarpone Chantilly, strawberry compote and (yes) pickled berries. There’s a lot more here than a great view. Add in sparkling service and inventive cuisine, and what you have is a winner. 5700 E. McDonald Dr., Paradise Valley. Tel: 855-245-2051. www.sanctuaryoncamelback.com


Crunchy Beef Taco at Crujiente Tacos

Crunchy Beef Taco at Crujiente Tacos ( Photo by Debbie Wolvos)

I must admit, entering from the faceless little strip mall, I didn’t expect CRUjiente Tacos to be so pretty. From my first glance, though, I fall in love with the place, with its wood walls, teal blue banquettes, hanging copper lights, and open kitchen at the back: comfy, classy, and lovely. Then the food arrives, and I fall even more in love. Tacos here come in two types: soft shell and crunchy (i.e., crujiente). Before I make taco decisions, however, I indulge in a Grilled Street Corn appetizer, made into a sort of salad with caramelized onion, cotija cheese, cilantro, and a variety of chiles. As you can imagine, it carries a bit of a kick, but the sweetness of the corn shines through, evening out the dish. Then it’s on to the beautiful little tacos: among the soft-shell ones, I choose the Korean Fried Chicken Taco, one of their signature dishes, spicy, deep in flavor, and wonderful, with the Korean hot sauce gochujang and pickled jalapeños uniting the two cuisines in fiery pleasure. For my crujiente, I go with vegetarian (though you can also get pork, beef, or lamb), with potatoes, poblanos, cheese, and both house hot sauce and Pico de Gallo. They’re sort of mirror images, the first with a soft outside and a crunchy interior, the latter reversing the process, and I don’t know which one I like better. I suggest you do what I do and get one (or more) of each type! They also feature a taco of the week, which could be anything from green beans or truffles to scallops or crab. Dessert features a similarly changing selection, as they always have a “hand pie” which could be something like pineapple/habanero, or (the day I visit) plum/hibiscus, which would be great enough even without the honey whipped cream! Pay a visit, and I think you’ll be as surprised as I was. Well, actually you won’t be surprised, because now I’ve told you about the wonders hiding behind that strip mall façade! 3961 E. Camelback Rd, Phoenix. Tel: 602-687-7777. www.crutacos.com


Veggie-Forward Cuisine at FnB

Veggie-Forward Cuisine at FnB (Credit Debby Wolvos for Experience Scottsdale)

For one of the top dining experiences in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, FnB sure doesn’t give off airs. That’s the thing I like best about it: its food is beautiful, its chef a James Beard Award winner, yet it’s as welcoming and casual a place as you can imagine. Take a seat among the variety of art on the deep red walls, and you’ll soon discover the next great thing about it: the food doesn’t put on airs either. It’s simple food with a complex taste. Chef Charleen Badman isn’t one of those “look how clever I am” chefs, but rather is all about flavor and texture combinations that make sense. Thus, the best falafel in the world (dense, soft, and flavorful) are paired with kale, olives, garlic, chiles, and yogurt. Spigarello, an heirloom broccolini from Italy, rests on a bed of polenta and is not only delicious, but a new culinary discovery for me. A roasted beefsteak tomato is served over quark, with a sprinkling of the Egyptian spice/nut mix dukka on top. Pasta might feature local lobster mushrooms, pancetta, and parmesan, while a half roasted chicken is dressed with red potatoes and white barbecue sauce in a reversal of the colors you might expect. The food is amazingly fresh, which is the key to Badman’s elegant simplicity. You’ll find the same beautiful simplicity with their wines: a Syrah/Tempranillo blend, for instance, is livened by Graciano (a lesser-known grape) and is both smooth and bold, a perfect accompaniment. Dessert? My hands-down favorite is the butterscotch pudding, which is rich, creamy, and has an almost smoky/charry taste that’s a deeply satisfying end to the meal. The only thing you won’t find at FnB is pretension: these are people who take their food seriously, and it shows in the perfectly (and I do mean perfectly) straightforward amazements they serve. 7125 E. 5th Ave., Scottsdale. Tel: 480-284-4777. www.fnbrestaurant.com


Geordie’s Dry Aged Ribeye

Geordie’s Dry Aged Ribeye

Geordie’s has a definite feel of history about it. It’s located in the Wrigley Mansion, which was built by the chewing gum magnate in 1932. Sixty-years later, as the city planned to demolish the mansion to make room for condos, it was rescued by Geordie and Jamie Hormel (causing local wags to comment, “it was built by gum and saved by Spam”). Take a seat in the wood-beamed space, beneath the white stucco walls, and you’ll find yourself gazing out at an amazing view over the city, mountains, and rows of distant trees. There’s something comforting about the durability of this restaurant, named after the man who saved the mansion, but it’s not all nostalgia, as the menu is very up to date and inventive. Panzanella is presented as a long row of bright color and freshness, with cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, arugula, and of course those perfect little rye croutons. If you’re there for lunch, as I am, I might suggest the Turkey Melt, which combines familiarity with creativity, using cranberry-walnut bread and herbed aioli. Or you might try one of the larger plates (available at dinner also): Lemon Poussin comes with an alluring lemon-thyme jus, while Seared Diver Scallops are presented with a wonderful risotto and pomegranate beurre blanc. Now let’s talk about that Warm Chocolate Gateau, a little inferno of rich chocolate-y taste, with zigzags of sea salt caramel, roasted banana ice cream, and little honey-sesame crisps sticking up jauntily from the plate. Vintage and modern combine here for a winning effect! 2501 E. Telawa Trail, Phoenix. Tel: 602-955-4079. www.wrigleymansion.com


Gnocchi with Mushrooms at Virtu (Photo: Magdanatka)

Gnocchi with Mushrooms at Virtu (Photo by: Magdanatka)

I asked several Phoenix friends, including one restaurateur, where I absolutely must eat in town. To a person, they said the same thing: Glai Baan, a Phoenix restaurant specializing in Thai street food. So what could I do but check it out! Whether you dine in the spacious courtyard under the overhanging trees, or in the cozy interior, lit by about a million twinkle lights, you’re in for a treat. To start, try the Kanom Jeeb, steamed dumplings filled with pork, scallions, and ginger, that are a house specialty. Also alluring is the Yum Hed Tod, tempura oyster mushrooms, crispy with a dense, meaty inside, the flavors deepened by fish sauce, lime, and what my lovely server calls “an herby sauce.” I see red chili flakes scattered throughout, but the dish is only slightly spicy, as there are so many other flavors combining in a kaleidoscope of surprising taste. (As I write this, I look in my notebook and see the words, “The best dish in the history of mushrooms.” Any more questions?) For a main, one favorite is Pad Kee Mao, a noodle dish that, like Pad Thai, is a regular in Thai street food. For something more unusual, try Kao Soi, a chicken curry broth you don’t find as often on U.S. menus. I’m hooked from the minute she brings it and the aroma wafts up, so pleasantly spicy and rich. It’s filled with chunks of chicken, bean sprouts, cilantro, and pickled Napa cabbage, finally chopped and cutting through the richness of the broth. The huge selection means you’re certain to find something to your taste, especially since everything I’ve tried on the menu is fantastic. See for yourself what all the raves are all about, and do make a reservation, as my friends (and now I) are not the only ones who love it! 2333 E. Osborn Rd., Phoenix. Tel: 602-595-5881. www.glaibaanaz.com

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