May 17

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.
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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

11 Responses to “Food Gems in Phoenix”

  1. timheuer says:

    a few guys started chowdownphoenix.com to do some honest reviews…hasn’t been updated in a while though…send your list to them :-)

  2. Bill Brown says:

    Aren’t music and food two of the most subjective and personal subjects possible? What you, in your more refined and sophisticated tastes, or a San Franciscan might regard as unworthy of human consumption, I might really enjoy. People recommending restaurants is a shaky business in the first place for that very reason. I’ve been to a number of the restaurants you recommend and I can’t say I liked them. De gustibus non est disputandum.

    Sorry, but your whole premise offends me at a very deep level. “We Arizonans are clueless….” Except you, of course. You know better. The rest of us sheep just watch TV and say, “Must go to Olive Garden for some hospitalissimo.”

  3. sean says:

    @bill – straw man argument – stop reading my blog if it offends you and enjoy your Olive Garden.

    sean

  4. Sean,

    I’m not aware of any social sites like you are looking for. However, you might want to check out chow.com’s southwest message board. It’s pretty active and has all kinds of good info for Phoenix metro.

    Also, there’s a Google group spun out of Chowhound for Phoenix local. Right now, it has about 75 members and is good for recommendations as well as meet-ups.

    http://groups.google.com/group/PhoenixHoundGathering

    Nice list by the way – I see a lot of places I like there.

  5. David SB says:

    As I commented on Rob’s blog, these appalling results have more to do with poor survey design than any lack of taste on the part of Phoenix residents. The Republic is trying every Web 2.0 fad it can, even if it means trashing whatever pretense of journalistic quality exists there.

    I do find your “pasteurized and lame” statement extreme. Your list of numerous high-quality local restaurants belies such a bleak conclusion. I could come up with a similar list with no overlap of your own.

    Of course, not everyone’s going to agree all the time. I never enjoyed the food at the Sesame Inn and will not miss it at all. Nevertheless, from what I’ve seen on your restaurant list, we probably agree more than we disagree.

    Since the Republic seems out of touch with the local food scene, the suggestion to focus on alternative media is appropriate. The URL for the actual Chowhound board is http://www.chowhound.com/boards/6. There’s also a SW board on Egullet, reviews on Yelp, and numerous food blogs around town. Fortunately, the gap left by our daily paper’s dysfunction can be filled by many alternative media channels for the discovery of good restaurants.

  6. Austin says:

    There is a Phoenix food blog with in depth reviews including photos entirely dedicated to eating in Phoenix.

    http://feastinginphoenix.com/

    I would argue that food suffers the same dilution as everything else in the valley. Phoenix has lots to offer on every front. The distances slow the travel of information and even if you know about something the cost (in time, gas and patience) of going may be too high.

    Austin

  7. sean says:

    @Rob, David and Austin – good call on the chowhound and feastingphoenix sites. They both have some good recommendations and bunch of places I’ve never heard of. We just need a structured format for all the recommendations – like if everyone were agree to add them to googlebase or mark them up with cuisine and geographic data so the listings become sortable.

    both good resources though- thanks for sharing.

    sean

  8. Caroline says:

    I couldn’t agree more about the lack of choices when it comes to food here in Phoenix. However, there are some good ones. Here are a some more recommendations:

    El Conquistador – small Mexican place with Jalisco-style food on 32nd Street south of Bell Road

    Sala Thai – our #1 Thai restaurant in Phoenix, on 32nd Street north of Shea

    Joe’s Farm Grill (http://www.joesfarmgrill.com) – Yummy American style food, located way out in Gilbert. Uses a lot of locally grown food. Best bathrooms in Metro Phoenix

    Persian Garden Cafe (http://www.persiangardencafe.com/) – Outstanding Middle Eastern/Iranian food that goes way past hummus and tabouli. Vegetarian and vegan-friendly. Now serving organic food. 1335 W. Thomas Road

    Last but not least:

    Mrs White’s Golden Rule Cafe – A Phoenix food landmark with most awesome soul food, especially the fried chicken. 808 E Jefferson. Open only on weekdays 11 am – 5 pm and you better be early because they SELL OUT.

    If I think a little longer I’ll probably come up with a few more items. But it is true – you can’t argue taste.

  9. Brad says:

    My girlfriend and I just moved here 2 months ago and have been on a quest to find good local places to eat that aren’t named Bianco.

    We have been generally underwhelmed by the Arizona Republic and the art/food coverage is pathetic.

    I’m just happy that other people feel like we do and are attempting to do something about it. So far we’ve been happy with Carl’s Bad Tavern on Hayden and Grimaldi’s Coal Oven Pizza.

    I’ll read the websites suggested and if anyone finds great treasures, please send out a shout!

    We refuse to go to Oregano’s out of spite from that idiot review that was clearly an advertisement.

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