Rob Brooks-Bilson just posted on a topic we’ve been discussing in the office lately: the sterility of 99% of the food options in AZ, the idiocy of the food reviewers and how to find the true gems that are out there (because there are some gems). I know Rob from back in the day having run the local CFUG. Rob is an accomplished chef, a bright technical mind and he authors the “Foo(d) Bar Blog,” a great food-focused blog. I respect his food opinions immensely and couldn’t agree more with his post.
<begin AZ food rant> The Ahwatukee Food Review that Rob mentioned seems to be either “advertorial” or just ignorant. The fact that Oregano’s won 11/33 awards is asinine. I don’t know enough about the Ahwatukee publication to speculate but I’ve seen other reviews by New Times and AZ Republic that seemed to blur the lines between legitimate editorial and advertising. The peoples’ choice “Best of Phoenix” always seems pretty shady as well too- that or we Arizonans are just clueless when it comes to picking good food. I spent the month of November living up in SF and coming back to AZ was like returning to culinary sensory deprivation after being on a food furlough program. Don’t get me wrong- I like AZ. I grew up here and I’m still living here. But our food in general is completely pasteurized and lame. It’s like what you’d eat if Walmart, Clear Channel and Microsoft got together and threw a dinner party.
What Rob made me consider though is “how much of this lameness is perpetuated by reviewers promoting crappy places and then people recommending them because they don’t know any better?” Food is one of those things like music where the best discovery vehicle is usually a recommendation from a friend who has good taste. But when you don’t have exposure to good stuff, you recommend what you know. You turn to reviews and eat the blah crap that chains can afford to promote and then tell your friends how good the Olive Garden is. In the interest of averting the extinction of the few undiscovered restaurant gems that are hiding around Phx Metro, we should figure out a better way to promote them. One of my favorite Chinese restaurants just closed down presumably for lack of business- everytime I went there it had one or two other people eating there. They weren’t good marketers at that place but they were outstanding cooks and it seems this is a tricky problem because we can expect the people who are right off the boat with the best food skills will also be the same people who have no idea how to market their restaurant.
<end AZ food rant>
So I hate to complain about something and not offer any solutions. The way I see it there are three parts to this problem and a few things that can be done in each realm:
PART I – DISCOVERY
We need a better mechanism to share food recommendations with trusted sources. Does anyone know of such a service? If so leave it as a comment. I know Yelp.com does food reviews among other local things but is there a de facto one that everyone uses? I’m not real keen on joining another social network. Traits of my ideal system here would be that it is: neutral, open, has a trust component, RSS feeds, is searchable by cuisine and geographic proximity, has maps integration, etc. Unfortunately I have zero time to devote towards making anything like this and I imagine something decent has to already exist. Microformats and Structured Blogging would be ideal for this but we’re not pushing that forward because we couldn’t make a business out of it and are focusing on JumpBox instead. For now I’ve setup an open Facebook group here and seeded it with my local Phx restaurant suggestions. I would love to see someone do the equivalent to the Starbucks Delocator for local neighborhood restaurants.
PART II – PATRONAGE
It seems to me the 2nd part of this problem lies in the need for people to consciously patronize new “mom & pop” food places and divert away from chain restaurants. I’m not suggesting everyone boycott chain restaurants altogether – sometimes fastfood is just too convenient, but if folks were to commit to finding one new small-business-owned eating establishment each week and bubble up their feedback either via their blog or one of the above systems, it would help foster a better restaurant scene. And more importantly, it would ensure that little places like Sesame Inn get a constant flow of new customers, get awareness inspite of their lack of marketing abilities and stay in business.
PART III – MEDIA REPRESENTATION
This one is a tougher nut to crack. Moving mainstream media is like trying to parallel park an aircraft carrier with all the intertia involved. I have no extra personal bandwidth to engage in a campaign to bring mainstream awareness to the under-promoted food gems in AZ, nor to do I believe that’s even the best thing to do. But hopefully someone in a position will work to fix the legitimacy of these food reviews or at least disclose when there’s a bias towards advertisers. There may be enough web-savvy people at this point where mainstream media can be ignored entirely and a web-based system provide just enough awareness of the good places amongst the right people where the gems will be sustained. This system doesn’t have to be centralized on something like Facebook or Yelp either. Maybe we Phoenecian social media people can agree on a standard tag that’s not used anywhere yet like “PhxFoodRec” or something so this decentralized info can be searched conveniently?
So here are my food recommendations for good restaurants in Phoenix. Join the Facebook group I just setup and share yours, or post them in a comment here. And if you know a good site for discovering and sharing good local restaurants, please let me know.
My Phoenix Restaurant Recommendations
Fate – Asian Fusion – 3rd st. & Roosavelt – Johnny Chew is an amazing chef. cool atmosphere
Portlands – Bistro – Portland & Central – pricey but good
Takamatsu – Korean – 42nd Ave & Dunlap – incredible beef bulgogi
Atlas Bistro – Bistro – Scottsdale & Oak – tiny place adjoining a wine bar, great date place
Grazie – Italian – Main & Goldwater in Scttsdale – best italian in Phx, cool patio, huge wine list, Marcello rules
Postinos – wine bar – 40th & Campbell – converted post office, great bruschetta and huge wine selection
Merc Bar – Bar – 24th st. & Camelback – lounge with great cheese plates, best martini in AZ
Los Dos Molinos – Mexican – Central & Baseline – extremely spicy salsa, great margaritas, unique atmosphere
Thai Basil – Thai – University & Mill – best Thai in Tempe
Duck ‘n Decanter – Deli – 16th st. & Camelback – a fixture in AZ since 70′s, best sandwiches in Phx and cool shady patio w/ eucalyptus trees
Sylvia’s la Canasta – Mexican – 7th Ave. & Missouri – one of the more legit mexican restaurants
Honey Bears – BBQ – 52nd & Van Buren – best pulled pork BBQ in Phx
Goldman’s Deli – Deli – Hayden & Indian Bend – solid jewish deli in Scottsdale
Arcadia Farms – Deli – Scottsdale & Indian School – tasty sandwiches, mostly women for some reason, good pastries, braided trees on patio are cool
Swaddee – Thai – Pima & Via Linda – #2 Thai place in Phx
Farms at South Mountain – 32nd st. & Southern – good for brunch, awesome ambience and fresh food
Hannah Zen – Sushi – 7th Ave. & Missouri – pricey but some of the best local sushi
Sabuddy – Israeli – Scottsdale & Shea – best Israeli food in Phx
Pita Jungle – Mediterranean – multiple locations – best mediterannean
Cafestesia – Greek – 20th & Camelback – best Greek
House of Trick’s – Bistro – Mill & 7th St. Tempe – best patio in AZ, great brunch, lunch and dinner
Royal Palms – ?? – Camelback and 52nd St. – best Lobster Bisque in AZ, cool to walk around grounds
Elements – contemporary – Camelback Mtn ~57th st. & McDonald – Incredible view of city, modern interior, amazing soup
Camelback Inn – ?? – 54th st. & Lincoln – Best gazpacho, can eat it poolside at their resort, great brunch
El Chorro – ?? – 52nd st & Lincoln – wood-fired stuff on a patio, always packed day before Thanksgiving
Lon’s Hermosa – ?? – 55th st. & Stanford – Fixture of phx with desert surroundings, great ambience and solid menut
Durant’s – Lounge/Steakhouse – Central & Thomas – best steaks in AZ, has original upholstery from 70′s i think