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
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)
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
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
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)