I’m a die-hard Tucsonan. While I would never live in Phoenix, I acknowledge that Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the country. More people means more of everything: traffic, sprawl, chain restaurants, yes, but also a bigger airport and concert venues, and more food options. As Tucsonans, we have the option to take advantage of these resources on a weekend trip — and then we get to come home.
So I teamed up with Andi Berlin, the dining critic at the Arizona Republic — and the former food writer for #ThisIsTucson — to get her best, most helpful food recommendations for Tucsonans visiting Phoenix.
So you’re going to Phoenix…
Andi has spent half her life in Phoenix, and half in Tucson (with a brief stint in California). She knows Phoenix on an intimate level, and gave me the most general of generalizations to help me understand the layout of the city’s food scene.
East Valley: “Chandler, Mesa, not as much Gilbert … are great. They have an incredible Asian food scene,” Andi said. “They have a lot of big Asian markets, Korean markets, Chinese markets, Vietnamese markets. They’ve got Lee Lee’s. They’ve got Mekong Plaza, which is an entire mall of Asian stuff, right?
“So if you want Asian food, that’s the place to go, I would say … You have any kind of Chinese food represented. You’ve got northern Chinese, you’ve got Shanxi. You’ve got Szechuan food, you’ve got all kinds of noodles,” she said.
Andi loves dim sum and is aware we are short of options in Tucson.
“I’d say go to Phoenix Palace over by Lee Lee’s in Chandler. Then there’s Lee’s Sandwiches. It’s a chain, it’s bánh mì, I love it. I love going there. That’s the first place I’d go if I was coming from Tucson,” Andi said.
Tempe: “I would say if you're looking for Middle Eastern food and Indian food, [it’s] in Tempe, closer to ASU,” she said. A favorite of hers, Golden Bakery, makes their own breads, different dips and spreads. You can get flatbread with za’atar, mint lemonade, and pide — a flatbread shaped like a boat and filled with cheese and egg or honey.
North Phoenix: “That’s actually a really good area for Eastern European food. Bosnian, Polish, Eastern European, Balkan cuisine. Cafe Balkan, oh my gosh that was incredible. It’s similar to Alisah’s (in Tucson),” Andi said.
“I’d definitely recommend seeking out a Balkan restaurant. It kind of tastes like Eastern European, but it’s in between Turkey and the Middle East and was colonized by the Ottoman Empire. They have stuffed cabbage that’s different than a New York deli stuffed cabbage and a bean soup called pasulj,” she said. Cafe Balkan also has borek, which is like a more refined spanakopita.
West Valley: “Glendale is really good for Mexican food. And also Cuban food is out in Maryvale … That’s a big generalization but that’s a great place to go,” Andi said.
She explained that what makes Phoenix’s Mexican scene different is that they represent regions from across the country, rather than specializing in Sonoran food like we do in Tucson.
If you want Mexico City food, she recommends Los Reyes de la Torta, a CDMX-style sandwich shop.
“I found a strip mall in Glendale that’s a tour of Mexican food, in downtown Glendale. Inside this one strip mall you’ve got food from Jalisco, from Mexico City, Michoacan, a Sinaloan mariscos spot. You could do a tour in just that little strip,” she said.
“Phoenix has kept me busy, and really excited. I’m writing about an Ethiopian restaurant right now that’s really incredible. There’s so much to explore,” she said.
Here are her quick picks sorted by occasion:
… you’re going for a concert
“Dragon Flame Chinese Grill,” Andi said. “I did this when I was living in Tucson. The concert got out at 11, and I went there because it’s open really late. It closes at 2 a.m. and has northern Chinese skewers and kabobs. Wow! It has weird balloons, stuffed animal things all over. A funky, weird restaurant. It’s really delicious and fun for late-night eating before you go back home. That’s my No. 1 pick.”
But if you’re looking to keep the party going, Andi recommends you check out a Korean pub called Drunken Tiger.
“That place is really good,” she said. “They have this egg — Korean fried chicken, Korean egg souffle that puffs up. It’s open late. They’ve got soju and soju cocktails. That place is awesome. Syrupy fried chicken, popcorn chicken, cheese corn (she laughs), it’s pretty good.”
… you’re going to the airport
“Over by the airport is Little Miss BBQ, which is a famous Phoenix place … it’s one of the most popular Phoenix places, so I’d recommend that,” Andi said.
… you’re going to the Musical Instrument Museum
“Cafe Balkan is a 10-minute drive down the highway. It’s also right by Desert Ridge, which is kind of an outdoor mall. There’s an incredible fancy Korean BBQ place called Sizzle. That’s a little bit nicer, they have better cuts of meat,” Andi said.
… you’re going to water parks
Since we figured you might be going to water parks with family, Andi racked her brain for kid-friendly eats that are easy to get to from water parks like Great Wolf Lodge.
“I’d just go to White Castle, ‘cause you can’t go to White Castle in Tucson,” she said. “It probably tastes like trash but it’s kinda fun and nostalgic. I don’t want to get too into the chains, but we also have a Shake Shack, which is really good. Jollibee, which is a Filipino fast-food chain way out in South Chandler, but that’s really good.”
“If you’re going to Golfland Sunsplash,” Andi said, “people love to go to Joe’s Farm Grill. The food is pretty good. They have pretty good burgers. It’s in this weird master planned community … The restaurant is in the center of this subdivision they made to look like a farm.”
“[Gilbert’s] got a lot of second locations of popular restaurants downtown,” Andi said. “They’ve got a second location of Belly, by the Welcome Diner guy … [it has] Vietnamese, Asian food, trendy, lotta cocktails. I’d say that. Peixoto, that’s my favorite coffee place in downtown Chandler, but they have one in Gilbert too. It’s like the hit list of Phoenix is there.”
… you’re going for a romantic weekend
“One place I think would be interesting to Tucsonans is this restaurant called Sottise,” Andi said. “That is a date night kind of French restaurant, in an old bungalow that was restored. French small bites food, from a Phoenix chef. That’s like if you’re having a fancier night out with cocktails and such, it has a lot of charm to it. You can pop in and have an appetizer or go all out.
“It’s a sleek atmosphere like Penca (in Tucson), but it’s French. Beautiful old building — everything is perfect. The food is incredible. It’s classy. They’ve got snails,” she said.
When Andi visited, she liked their French onion soup. The showstopper of the evening, though, was their seafood tower, which you can order by the tier.
“You can order a little shrimp, a little mussel conserva, then they bring it out in a big seafood tower on ice,” Andi said. “That’s really fun.”
Another date night spot is an extremely buzzy, extremely good Sonoran restaurant.
“There’s a restaurant that makes it on all the ‘best of’ lists. It’s hard to get into but I’d consider it one of the best restaurants in the whole state,” Andi said. “Bacanora. I’m sure you’ve heard about it in all the lists.* It’s hard to get into but it’s earned its place on these lists. The chef is from Nogales. He has this huge mesquite grill that takes up so much space. You have to have a reservation for (it) at night. It’s an incredible meal.”
*Bacanora was one of five finalists for Best New Restaurant in this year’s James Beard Awards and made Bon Appetit’s best 50 restaurants of the year.
… you’re going for a staycation
If you’re looking for an area to explore over the weekend, Andi would point you in the direction of Grand Avenue.
“Grand Avenue is the emerging hipster neighborhood that runs at a right angle to downtown Phoenix,” she said. It’s a big street that eventually turns into the AZ-60 to Wickenburg. “You can walk around Grand Avenue and stuff, with a different scene than Tucson,” she said.
The part Andi’s talking about is the section closest to downtown, where Bacanora is — and another one of Andi’s favorite spots, Testal. Testal is a burrito spot in the style of Chihuahua.
“The owner is from Chihuahua, Mexico, so the burritos are different than what you get in Tucson. It’s a thinner burrito, puffier, and open on the ends. Instead of carne asada, it’s more stews.
“The rajas stew is my favorite, but you can get just refried beans, chicharron. It’s a cute little spot that focuses on the culture of Chihuahua, and their burritos are on the level of the Yuma place. I would travel hundreds of miles for this burrito,” Andi said.
Andi Berlin is the dining critic at the Arizona Republic. She used to be the food writer for #ThisIsTucson and has been published in the San Francisco Guardian and The New York Times.
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