I lived in Phoenix from 2004 to 2006 while working at Arizona State University, and the dining scene was almost exclusively made up of chain restaurants. Finding a good, independent option at which to eat was a struggle. Shortly after I left the city to move to the Bay Area, my best friend, Daniel Warren, arrived in the Valley of the Sun for medical school. Now a doctor, and an incredible foodie, he has helped me to explore the more recent explosion in incredible dining options in the city he has called home for over a decade.
Daniel: When I moved to Phoenix over a decade ago, there was a dearth of great restaurants. Most of the food choices were mediocre at best. There were some fine dining options, but they were few and far between. Over time, however, that has changed. Today, Phoenix is one of the most underrated food cities in the US. Now don’t get me wrong, there are still considerably fewer choices than in a city like New York or LA. But that too is changing. Maricopa County is the fastest growing county in the States, and with that population growth comes an increase in exceptional dining options.
Let’s explore a few of Daniel’s and my favorites.
One of the places Daniel and his fiancée took me last time I was in Phoenix, FnB focuses on seasonal ingredients, beautiful preparations of shared plates, and some of the best vegetable cookery I’ve experienced. The watermelon and beet salad was absolutely to die for!
Daniel: A more recent discovery, FnB is my new favorite spot. Chef Charleen Badman recently won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southwest. The menu changes often based on seasonal availability. Deemed the “veggie whisperer,” Chef Badman is a guru at making vegetable-centric dishes explode with flavor. Of course, there are meat and fish options also. Right now it is fairly easy to get a reservation, but that is changing with the recent accolades. Her sea bass with pigeon peas, oranges, olives, and tomatoes was one of my favorites.
Watermelon and beets at FnB.
I have never been to Kai, so I’m going to let Daniel tell you all about it.
Daniel: Kai is without question the best restaurant in Phoenix. Due to its location at the very southern end of the city, most Phoenicians don’t know it, but trust me when I tell you it is worth the drive. It is the main restaurant at the Wild Horse Pass Resort, and you’ll need a reservation well in advance. The cuisine is a mix of Native American and contemporary French, and the menu changes often. Many dishes focus on game meats, but there are numerous options for those who would prefer other profiles. Some of my favorite menu staples are the escargots with wild mushrooms and caramelized goat cheese, fois gras with onions, and the elk loin wrapped in Ibirico ham.
The food at Kai is sheer artistry!
Paradise Valley Burger Co.
A good burger is something to be cherished, and this casual strip mall joint in north Phoenix has one of my favorites. Daniel discovered it when Guy Fieri came here, and while I’m not Guy’s biggest fan, he got this one right.
The entire menu at Paradise Valley Burger Co. is good, but there is only one brûlée burger. Two patties, cheese, bacon, pickled onions, a sunny side egg, and brûléed sugar for a crunchy, oozy, salty, perfect combination.
Brûlée burger and fries. A perfect combo!
I spoke about what has often been called the best pizza in the country when I visited Heritage Square last year. That reputation is still intact, and still very much earned. Thin crust, crispy, high quality toppings, and a cool ambience are hallmarks of Chris Bianco’s pizzeria.
My personal pick at Pizzeria Bianco? The “wise guy,” with fennel sausage, onions, and smoked mozzarella. Spectacular, even though I ate too quickly to have a photo!
Pizzeria Bianco is iconic, and worthy of its reputation.
Another “new” restaurant for me, Roka Akor is elevated Japanese cuisine. Like FnB, it focuses on shared plates, which is good since you will want so many things on the varied menu. The plating here is artistry; it almost seems a shame to eat the beautifully presented food. Try the lobster tempura, served in its shell.
Daniel: The best Japanese restaurant in Phoenix, Roka Akor is consistently fantastic. While they do have sushi on the menu, I wouldn’t recommend it. Don’t get me wrong, the sushi is great, but the other menu choices are even better. The menu is large, offering both incredible food and innovative drinks. Some of my favorites are the pork belly, yuzu miso marinated black cod, and their spectacular Brussels sprouts.
Roka Akor’s spectacular pork belly.
Whether you are in the mood for a casual burger or pizza, or want to dress up for a fine dining experience, Phoenix’s dining scene is rapidly adapting to suit your every whim. While I am a bit frustrated that this explosion of culinary excellence largely began after I left the city, I am thrilled to be able to try a new amazing place or two each time I go back to visit Daniel.
To explore more of Daniel’s adventures in Phoenix and out, follow his Instagram account.
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