Suburban living can provide an exercise in dining survival. And yes, you usually grade on a curve when grading class quality. Particularly in the Phoenix area, what we typecast as good “neighborhood dining” outside of the central city or well-tread tourist areas leans disproportionately toward the “I’m settling” column versus any place resembling a truly singular find.
South Tempe is a gentle experience—quiet streets, a nice mix of fresh stucco and shady established neighborhoods that have weathered sun-belt sprawl best they could. It’s the type of inner-ring ‘burb that remains desirable for progressive empty-nesters, striving families and ascending Boomers alike, all wanting proximity to real city life, the airport, stuff to do, without any perceived ails of a full-fledged urban lifestyle.
South Tempe is also the place I call home.
Below is a quick list of the recommended non-franchised dining in the larger South Tempe area. These are some of the neighborhood go-tos when the value of driving to Phoenix, Scottsdale, or beyond, strikes misgiving.
Context: South Tempe is loosely defined as Tempe south of Baseline Road, bookmarked by I-10 and the Loop 101 freeways. The vicinity bleeds otherwise uninterrupted into the adjacent communities of Ahwatukee and west Chandler, so for the purposes of this list, a wider vicinity is being applied.
Dozo Izakaya – South Tempe; NEC Warner/Kyrene
South Tempe is not entirely a sushi or noodle desert, comparatively speaking, but truly recommendable places require the hunt. Beyond their undemanding sushi, fresh and well-prepared, family-owned Dozo Izakaya also serves some of the best ramen in the East Valley, offering boiling bowls of broth and soft, thin noodles available with a full range of primary styles: sho-yu, miso, shio, and a cloudy, embracing tonkotsu. Dinnertime is when Dozo flexes most with their Izakaya Menu, a laundry-list of small plates, skewers and yakitori (grilled items) like baby octopus, steak, crispy chicken skin, mackerel, whole shrimp, marinated vegetables, and more.
Hillside Spot – Ahwatukee; NWC Warner/48th Street
Whether for breakfast served all-day, lunch or dinner, Hillside Spot is an energetic, comfortable neighborhood hangout featuring diverse diner-style menus elevated with a commitment to local sourcing and all things seasonal. Hillside Spot also offers a well-curated craft beer selection by the bottle and a pastry case worthy of takeaways. And, think variety—the daily menus process everything from fresh guacamole and satisfying Al Pastor, to delicious kitchen sink chopped salads, Mexican-style breakfasts, and build-your-own everything, from burgers, omeletes and hefty, knife-and-fork burritos.
Tempe Public Market Cafe – South Tempe; NEC Warner/Rural
Though the new Tempe Public Market Cafe doesn’t officially open until this winter, without coming across too thirsty for something new in the neighborhood, excitement has been building in South Tempe for the big-ticket project. Notable, and busy, Phoenix chef Aaron Chamberlin (St. Francis, Phoenix Public Market Cafe, Taco Chelo) is importing a sibling of his popular Phoenix Public Market Cafe to the area, which promises to be a favorite from launch. TPMC promises to parrot the Phoenix cafe’s straightforward menu of breakfast favorites, salads, sandwiches, and house-made pastries, all well-sourced and seasonal. (Yes, the famous French fries will be available too.) Other perks include a full bar and a smart selection of local wines and craft beers.
Update 1/12/18: Tempe Public Market Cafe is now open. Read about it here.
Crêpe Bar – South Tempe; NWC Elliot/Rural
In a sea of forgettable South Tempe dining, Crêpe Bar clears as one of the area’s most destination-worthy. A pioneer in a neighborhood once resigned to franchises and Sysco sympathizers, chef and owner Jeff Kraus established Crêpe Bar after a successful food truck run with his popular Truckin’ Good Food enterprise in 2012. Kraus and his proud team of kitchen nerds withhold no creativity for the small, personality-driven brick and mortar’s daytime menus. Signature crêpes, both savory and sweet, are now local classics, including the regal, best-selling Papa K, filled with Arizona farm-raised Hassayampa ham, chili jack cheese, roasted mushrooms, and eggs; or, the Maple Butter, pushing layers of brûléed bananas, pure maple syrup and candied pecans. Other recommendable items include the Crêpe Bar Original Cereal, a sophisticated take on the morning sugar ceremony, made with stone fruit, oats, spelt, and nuts like pistachio and almond, as well as always-changing selections of creative, if deviant for a crêpe-minded cafe, adventures like the octopus tostadas, with pork chorizo, hummus, cotija cheese, salsa negra, and avocado. Equally as important, Crêpe Bar plays double agent as one of South Tempe’s best coffee shops, featuring a range of espressos, coffee and cold brew featuring the glorious beans of Portland, Oregon’s Heart Roasters.
The Bagel Man – Ahwatukee; SWC Elliot/51st Street
Phoenix is not a bagel town, nor does it need to be, but for those hell-bent on finding the best in Phoenix, it’s easy to argue The Bagel Man in Ahwatukee is as close to text-book as you’re going to find. Owner and serious bagel-maker Kai Salih, i.e., The Bagel Man, prides himself on his traditional recipe of crisp-to-chew, boiled-before-baked New York style rings made onsite daily with, among other traditional ingredients, water filtered to mimic the prized taps of the Tri-State Area. The nondescript Ahwatukee corner store enjoys brisk morning lines of regulars, often selling out of beloved varieties like the classic “everything” bagel and pumpernickel. The bagel sandwiches, both breakfast and lunch varieties, prove just as worthy: think all-star line items like lox, eggs, pastrami, or the more simple pleasure: bagel plus heavy schmear of one of their house-made cream cheese flavors.
Pomegranate Cafe – Ahwatukee; SEC Chandler/40th Street
Sometimes clean eating can be fun to flirt with. Greasy diner breakfasts rule, but a bright grassy juice and a hearty tofu scramble can often make you feel just as good when the dust settles. Health food, not simply healthy food, is a treacherous model for any restaurant, let alone one that strives for inclusivity. Tempeh, tofu, soy proteins, cashew cheese, and other ethical convictions can easily drift into dread without mindfulness. Ahwatukee’s popular daytime hangout Pomegranate Cafe, however, has managed to remain afloat with vegetarian and vegan menus that aren’t naive about flavor, context and satisfaction. From wholesome-but-healthy breakfast staples, scrambles, loaded waffles, midday sandwiches, wraps, salads, soups, juices, desserts, gluten-free baked goods, oh my, Pomegranate Cafe covers enough familiar real estate to satisfy casual observers and enough fringe elements to pass the “health food” purity test.
Hong Kong Asian Diner – South Tempe; NWC Ray/Rural
Decent Chinese, authentic and more sentimental American, isn’t a hard find in the East Valley. Though the Dobson Road corridor running through nearby Mesa and Chandler has emerged as Arizona’s nerve center for exceptional regional Chinese dining, not to mention its growing Korean influence, staying closer to home in South Tempe isn’t as compromising as you might think. Hong Kong Asian Diner, a multigenerational holdout for less-common Cantonese-style cooking, is one of those immediate gems. Yes, guests can stick with their menu of Americanized stalwarts like moo shu or sweet and sour pork, or they can go where the gold is: Hong Kong Asian Diner’s Chinese menu. Some must-orders? The tender deep-fried duck with taro, the fish fillet and sausage rolls (think crispy white fish wrapped in lap cheong, a dried Chinese pork sausage), a faultless version of the modern classic walnut shrimp; and, the fabulous, perfectly intensive Peking duck, a serious build-your-own experience of salty, brittle duck skin separated for said self-construction, fragrant slices of soft duck meat, and weightless steam buns, all alongside hoisin sauce and fresh spring onions for dress-up.