A New Bite Magazine

Posted on March 9, 2015

Facelift fantastic.

Facelift fantastic.

Though it’s now been over a year since Phoenix’s emerging food culture conduit Bite Magazine first landed with its inaugural print issue in March of 2014, the celebrated regional glossy re-emerged with a spark of newfound swagger at this year’s Devoured Phoenix Culinary Classic, flexing its new digital format and stylish new branding.

I was proud to contribute once again to the new, renewed Bite, including a Los Angeles travel piece focused on everything ripe, relevant and right now over a three-day parade of immoderation; a less-intensive, light round-up of Phoenix eating at 3 a.m., when “late night” is reality; as well as a re-post of my 2014 feature of downtown Tucson’s regarded cocktail hideout Scott & Co.

Read it, flip its pages, and, get ready for what’s next. View the new issue here: Bite Magazine.

Best New Phoenix Restaurants 2014

Posted on February 26, 2015

Never exhaustive, never on-time. Below is my immediate laundry list of Phoenix’s new or still-relevant standouts from the past year. Listed in no particular order.


Little Miss BBQ

Little Miss BBQ Phoenix Arizona Meat Tray

Not so little meat tray. Little Miss BBQ, Phoenix, AZ.

In 2014, there was no more important food moment than Little Miss BBQ. The freshman BBQ hot-spot created such an authentic stir for its impossibly delicious, fragile fatty beef brisket, its snappy house-made beef and pork sausages, and well, just about every other item on its menu, Phoenix is collectively pinching itself. Being such a (generally) conventional restaurant town, locals had to ask: how did we score a gift like Little Miss? Even oft-maligned turkey, here smoked and rubbed, schools. Phoenix is also not an inherently barbecue-friendly town. Yes, there are great examples to tap when painful cravings bubble (Bryan’s Black Mountain Barbecue comes to mind), but with one brush of owners Scott and Bekke Holmes’ Texas-style rub, every hopeful peer stumbled steeply down the list. (http://www.littlemissbbq.com)


Steak 44

Chilled Seafood Raw Bar Oysters Steak 44 Phoenix Arizona

Chilled. Steak 44, Phoenix, AZ.

Generally speaking, even the most celebrated steakhouses spark little inspiration. Sure, the cuts can wow, the stiff cocktails can sit you straight and the atmosphere alone can make you feel special being taxied to the table. Steak 44, the latest copy from local steakhouse-whisperer Michael Dominick (see Dominick’s Steakhouse in Scottsdale), stands in front of a now long local line of glitzy red meat showplaces. And, though it parrots the tried-and-true steakhouse formula intimately, in 2014 it still managed to make a splash. The Arcadia-ish outpost swings from open to close, happy hour to last call. Still largely a magnet for Arcadia, Biltmore and Paradise Valley social peacocks – mature, stretched, filled and pulled – Steak 44 has surprisingly benefitted from a more enthusiastic, food-driven and youthful clientele who journey miles to bathe in the classy bar area’s early-evening electricity, tailored surroundings, and yes, handsome drinks. The menu includes one of this city’s best raw bars, bearing icy, towering centerpieces stacked wide with chilled shellfish, briny oysters and buttery crudo; and, the most critical sample of Steak 44’s calling card red meat genes: the bone-in veal chop. Already a mainstay at Michael Dominick’s other restaurants, it continues trophy status here – salty, seasoned and sizzling, each cut melting with every bite. It’s the type of primal token that confirms why Steak 44 was one of the best new restaurants to land in Phoenix last year. (http://www.steak44.com)


Welcome Chicken + Donuts

Welcome Chicken and Donuts Phoenix Arizona

Daily donuts. Welcome Chicken + Donuts, Phoenix, AZ.

The little diner that grew. After ascending to front-page status, pulling food-savvy crowds for savory Southern staples like po’ boys, fried chicken and homemade biscuits and gravy, Welcome Diner owners Michael Babcock and Jenn Robinson took a more light-hearted turn of growth with their latest concept, the cheerful Welcome Chicken and Donuts. Eccentric, artisan donuts (a trend lightyears ahead in other cities) anchored firmly in Phoenix this past year with Welcome. With a rainbow of quirky, seasonal flavors, their daily-edited selections disappear as fast as they cool on display. Though the donuts are fun to sample and (largely) all worth the journey, it’s Welcome’s signature Southern fried chicken recipe – lush poultry crusted in a properly salted, shattering batter – that truly make the new fast-casual spot the ultimate reason to veer off course. Taking the menu a few steps beyond, Welcome Chicken and Donuts pairs the fried chicken with Asian-stamped sauces and fresh sides. My favorite sauce? Naked; none. Fried chicken this good benefits from occasional support. Tossed and soaked entirely as it is, though still delectable, forms a completely different beast. I say avoid the commitment – dip around, mix-and-match. (http://welcomechickenanddonuts.com)


Pizzeria Bianco – Town & Country

Pappardelle Bolognese Pizzeria Bianco Phoenix Arizona

Pappardelle; beef bolognese. Pizzeria Bianco Town & Country, Phoenix, AZ.

The original Pizzeria Bianco, located in downtown Phoenix’s Heritage Square, is more than a gilded address for prize-fighting pies. It’s this city’s most persuasive culinary touchstone of the past generation, a singular ripple that has altered our dining DNA forever. Now with the Downtown temple humming on auto-pilot, the Bianco empire inspired locals once again with the latest reincarnation of their new-er Town & Country eatery in Phoenix. Once named Italian Restaurant, then two restaurant concepts in one, Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria Bianco, the space now holds steady as simply Pizzeria Bianco – and a deluxe version, at that. Pizzas? Duh. The treasures here, however, is everything else on the expanded daily menus, including the handmade pastas, the seasonal desserts – the everything. Pizzeria Bianco’s Sunday Gravy alone, served on the sabbath, is frankly glorious. Wholesome and sentimental, the hand-rolled cavatelli pasta, drowning in a rich, slow-stewed sauce of sausage and brisket, reaffirms this specific location as Pizzeria Bianco’s best execution to date. (http://www.pizzeriabianco.com)


*Honorable mentions: Restaurant Atoyac Estilo Oaxaca, Silver Dragon. (AKA I’ll write about them later.)

Justin Drinks: Penicillin Cocktail

Posted on September 27, 2013

The Penicillin Cocktail

The Varnish Bar, Los Angeles. May 2013.

Let me get this drink off my chest.

I love the simple ceremony of sitting at your favorite bar after a long day, drinking patient, precious cocktails that were crafted by highly attuned barmen (or women). For myself, an ideal drinking experience is letting go, avoiding the nearest cocktail menu, and relinquishing your fate to talented soldiers behind the bar.

If you were to ask me what’s my all-time favorite cocktail characteristic, I’d say fresh citrus without flinching. I love nothing more than acerbic, bright bites of fresh lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, you name it. Even with food, sparks of citrus often improve the experience.

I also love a smoky spirit. Mescal has always been a friend, I’ve always held loyalty to the varying spice of rye whiskey, and of course: the campfire magic of a single malt Scotch.

A perfect cocktail is a quilt of otherwise disparate flavors, sewn together to create something worth enjoying until the last drop. For me, when you go down this road, a “perfect cocktail” is the Penicillin – first exposed to a few years ago at a capable spot, while avoiding the cocktail menu, after a very long day.

There is a reason fresh lemon and a degree of whiskey (in the Penicillin’s case, a blended Scotch whisky) are familiar bedfellows. However, expand that pair, building with the fresh spice of raw ginger, the nutty sweetness of honey and a float of an Islay single malt Scotch, and the Penicillin’s winning formula moves front and center.

The Penicillin Cocktail – NYC Milk & Honey mixologist Sam Ross’ original recipe:

  • 2 ounces blended Scotch
  • 1⁄4 ounces Islay single malt Scotch
  • 3⁄4 ounces honey syrup (water-diluted honey)
  • 1⁄8 oz. fresh lemon juice
  • 3⁄8 oz. fresh ginger juice

A beautiful alternative is the Dutch Penicillin, most recently enjoyed by one of Arizona’s bucket-list bartenders and cocktail consultants, notable gentleman Travis Nass at The Last Drop Bar in Paradise Valley, Ariz., where the blended Scotch is swapped with Bols Genever, a still-smoky but quick-finishing Dutch style gin.

Grub Love: Fish Tacos at Tacos Atoyac

Posted on June 23, 2012

Tacos de pescado

A great taco is a bite hard to forget. A great fish taco is sometimes a bite hard to find.

From local hangouts to corporate franchises alike, fish tacos are ubiquitous, especially here in the Southwest, but an infestation of the bland erode our memory of the truly delicious.

If you haven’t already been to Tacos Atoyac in North Central Phoenix, you should go, now. Located on the NEC of Glendale and 19th Avenues, this spare, no-fuss spot is slightly ajar the well-traveled paths of many, however, it deserves any detour. It is simply one of the best taco spots in town. And yes: they serve some damn good fish tacos.

Sealed inside a thin crust of seasoned batter, Tacos Atoyac’s tacos de pescado present flaky, delicate hunks of searing hot white fish that give immediately. And like any wonderful, Baja-style fish taco, these few-bite handfuls are layered in pliable, warm flour tortillas with a crunchy, bitter cabbage and onion slaw and zags of a spiced, buttery crema.

From their creamy, warming horchata, their carne asada – perfectly charred – and their sinful Al Pastor (chopped pork marinated in pineapple; spices), seasoned to the point of perfumed, some serious thought goes into the food at this tiny, independent Phoenix taquería.

All varieties are super cheap (no taco over $1.50 each), arrive with a sachel of salty grilled onions and spicy jalapeños, and are each made-to-order. Whether you’re riding solo or standing in a line five-deep (I’ve been there), the consistency and patience adhered to each and every taco shoveled out of this humble, pocket-sized establishment is yet another reason to fall desperately in love with it.

Tacos Atoyac also serves menudo, and a whole list of burros, tortas, tamales, desserts, and so on. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to try any of them.

It’s those fish tacos I keep dreaming about most.

Tacos Atoyac | 1830 W. Glendale Ave | 602-864-2746 | North Central Phoenix

Tacos Atoyac on Urbanspoon

Justin Drinks: The Last Word Cocktail

Posted on March 19, 2012

With tumbles of thyme at Lux Central.

Justin Drinks is a column carrying the sole intent of highlighting beverages I love. Alcoholic and non, they are brief punches of drinkable love.

The Last Word is my kind of drink. Aromatic, sharp and provocative, it outlines the type of classy cocktails I adore.

Like many of history’s finest swills, the Last Word reads plain on paper. When painted precisely, however, it smacks with a delicate power that uncovers its quiet popularity. Perfumed by the witchery of green Chartreuse, rounded equally by gin’s juniper bite and the bitter cuff of maraschino liqueur―all electrified with the cut of fresh lime juice―as brief as the Last Word’s recipe card may be, this jade looker is no modest sip.

Too much Chartreuse? Too arresting. Too much gin? Too stiff. Too much maraschino liqueur? Too one note. Too much lime? Too abrasive. We’re talking a meticulous experiment in great booze.

Some garnish with fresh herbs, some instead trim with a complimenting slice of cucumber or wedge of citrus, however, most simply sink in a Luxardo or brandied cherry. The Last Word can be served up and proud, or humbly, washed over ice. Want to, dare I say, soften its might? Opt for a drip of simple syrup or agave.

Feeling moody? Substitute the gin with a fiery mezcal by ordering La Ultima Palabra, one of my favorite alterations. Or, have your barman make you the Last Word’s most well-known sibling the Final Ward, a rough, handsome sip that utilizes the distinct spice of rye whiskey in place of gin’s piney familiarity.

Whatever your method (or taste) may be, the Last Word remains one my gold-standards.

The Last Word:

  • 1 part gin (Plymouth is a great stand-by; Junipero for a kick)
  • 1 part green Chartreuse
  • 1 part maraschino liqueur
  • 1 part fresh lime juice

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Arizona: White Mountain Eating

Posted on March 4, 2012

The cabin road under winter's hold.

Benefiting from increased abuse of my in-law’s mountain refuge in Show Low, Ariz., an alpine escape is never more than a two and a half hour drive from Phoenix. During the summer months especially, this translates to a welcomed contrast of 80 degrees, woodsy breezes and afternoon thunder showers, to 115 and melting.

The idea of dining out in the Show Low, Pinetop-Lakeside and general White Mountain area(s) of eastern Arizona can be painful. However, after sustained homework of the region’s buffet over the years, I can now vouch for a growing selection of spots I’d declare worth a venture out for.

First, let’s be frank with what’s in abundance here. There is zero shortage of so-so BBQ in the area – meats absent of their tender intentions, under seasoned sides that taste like warming lamp leftovers, and neon-hued sauces that could incite shock. There is also no loss for hyper-Americanized Mexican restaurants, sub-par bar food (burgers, sandwiches, fried everything) and Italian restaurants that make the label “red-sauce” read endearing.

Non-comprehensive and non-exhaustive (my eyes are always open), below are eight food and drink related highlights in the area worth visiting, listed in no intentional order:

1. Grumpy Jake’s BBQ & Catering:

Peanuts while you wait.

Grumpy Jake’s BBQ is a definite light in the field. In fact, this is some of the better pulled pork and beef brisket in Arizona outside of the major cities. The meats are smoked and tender, the sauce is rightfully tangy, and a range of above-average sides also help bolster this barbecue experience. Update: Grumpy Jake’s has recently come under new ownership since my last visit; menu changes reported.

2. Cafe Bocado:

Pulled pork special at Cafe Bocado.

In an area so defined by similarities, anything that breaks the mold deserves praise. Fresh, almost entirely homemade fare highlights a decisively upmarket eatery buzzing with local creativity. Open for breakfast, lunch and now dinner, Cafe Bocado is a well-loved neighborhood outpost for those looking for something a little more satisfying, with a little more care and personality. Hearty sandwiches and substantial salads absorb the menu’s majority, however, a rotating selection of house-made baked goods, and an upstanding selection of quiches (think airy, pillowy pies of egg and varied savories, inches thick), make for an eating experience that emerges from the local fray. The recent addition of a dinner menu continues to wow in a local climate that tends to lack. From daily pastas, fresh smoothies and vegetarian options, to fish and other meaty specials, Cafe Bocado is hands-down the best food in a radius of about 50-plus miles. Local growers Linden Market also regularly sells their organic produce at Cafe Bocado on select days of the week. Stay tuned: Full feature on Cafe Bocado coming soon.

3. Sal & Teresa’s:

Rope lights and best Mex in town.

For what it lacks in curb appeal and atmosphere (fluorescent illumination that makes Wal-Mart feel sultry), Sal and Teresa’s is one of the original workhorses in the vicinity serving that saucy, old-school, Sonoran-style Mexican food we native Arizonan’s grew up indoctrinated with. With small cues to New Mexican and Tex-Mex staples, Sal and Teresa’s elevates what Mexican can be locally. The chile is hotter, the flavors a bit rounder, and, despite the frothing neon-cheese, molten by salamander or microwave (hear no evil, see no evil), Sal and Teresa’s is easily the local gold-standard in south-of-the-border eating.

4: Darbi’s Cafe:

Darbi's Monte Cristo.

Darbi’s Cafe is tight, cozy, and, as it should be: straightforward and humble. This small cabin restaurant packs crowds for their soul-warming breakfasts, homemade baked goods and above-average casual eating. Open for lunch and dinner, it’s their sunrise menu that still earns Darbi’s its bounty of praise. Their decadent Monte Cristo sandwich will also satisfy.

5. Red Devil:

Common bruschetta at Red Devil makes for uncommon Pinetop eating. Photo courtesy of Ashley B.

An acceptable standby for pizza in Phoenix, in Pinetop-Lakside Red Devil seems downright indulgent. A classic Americanized pizzeria – thick, doughy crust; generous helpings of strangely sweet tomato sauce; common topping combos like “the works,” and “Hawaiian,” there’s no masquerading what’s happening here. It’s pizza that middle-America loves, but done well. Red Devil is easily one of the better places to eat in the area, and the unending daily crowds help prove this sentiment.

6. Coffee Mania:

Worth the stop.

A tiny bookend at the tail of an old motor inn in downtown Show Low presents Coffee Mania, probably one of the better java spots in the area. Independently owned and operated, and full of personality, Coffee Mania imports a worthy catalog of fine coffees and teas, as well as serves a respectable range of house-made baked goods.

7. The Turquoise Room:

Uniquely, proudly Arizona.

The acclaimed in-house restaurant at the historic La Posada Inn, in dusty Winslow, Ariz., might be an afternoon jog from Show Low, but it’s effort appropriately made. The small hotel itself, charming and pitch-perfect with airs of old Arizona, is full of surprising artwork and the regional character. The Turquoise Room, led by James Beard-nominated chef John Sharpe, does an impressive job showcasing its inherent geography, sourcing almost exclusively from independent purveyors located within the state. Though its dinner menu absorbs the majority of the restaurant’s press, breakfast and lunch are no hotel afterthoughts here. With hyper-local and intentionally seasonal offerings, from sandwiches to entrees, daily soups to desserts, The Turquoise Room presents genuinely fantastic Arizona eating. I’m always excited to return.

8. Red Rock Lavender Farms:

The aromatics in close view.

Located in Concho, Ariz., about a 20-minute drive north of Show Low, Red Rock Lavender Farms feels like an anomaly. After a brief guided tour, however, you once again realize how the state’s diverse topography can allow for yet another myth-buster in a procession of many – incredible Arizona wines, some of the best olive oil anywhere is made in Arizona, the bounty of fresh, organic produce grown right outside the deserts of Phoenix is astonishing, just to spout a meager few. Now, throw thriving lavender fields onto that stately pile of edible accolades. In fact, Red Rock Farms is one of the largest lavender farms in North America, benefiting from an immediate soil makeup that is apparently as nutrient spoiled as sacrosanct Provence itself. A small gift shop also exists, carrying everything from potted lavender plants to take home, essential oils and sprays to assist in sleep and relaxation, lavender-heavy items for the sole purpose of insect repellent, to yes, varied mixes for use in cooking and drinking.

As always, roundups like these are brief and never complete. More White Mountain eating on the horizon.

Grub Love: Pane Bianco’s MTB Sandwich

Posted on April 24, 2011

Chris Bianco is very talented, we know. Slinging those iconic golden pies for the unyielding masses (almost) every night, the James Beard Award-wining chef’s notorious work ethic at his fabled Pizzeria Bianco has never seemed anything south of remarkable.

At Bianco’s sharper and more accessible cousin Pane Bianco, the chef manages to parlay his drive for the perfectly tailored pizza–an intuitive ratio of inspiration, meticulous ingredients and masterful execution–into one of the best sandwich shops in the city.

One of my absolutes at Pane Bianco is their peerless mozzarella, tomato and basil sandwich. Buttery, handmade buffalo mozzarella makes face time with minty basil and ripe, glossy tomatoes (both of which are house-grown), all gently pressed between doughy rounds of Bianco’s fine-tuned ciabatta-lite bread, blistered briefly in the kitchen’s sizable wood-burning oven. It’s Bianco’s nuanced skill, stockpiled for our effortless consumption.

Not one player shines brighter than its neighbor–the endgame of all moving parts; an education in simplicity done right.

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This edible affair is not monogamous, however. For my ode to Pane Bianco’s tuna sandwich (and dreamy rice pudding) in the Downtown Phoenix Journal, go HERE.

Pane Bianco | 4404 N. Central Ave | 602-234-2100 | Midtown Phoenix

Pane Bianco on Urbanspoon

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