The Phoenix Food Scene Has a Long Way to Go

Categories: Schaefer

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Hillstone is good, but can't Phoenix do better?
Welcome to "Schaefer," in which Eric Schaefer -- a local guy with a big (but discerning) appetite and a sense of humor to match -- takes on the Phoenix food scene.

As much as I hate to admit it, U.S. Representative Michelle Bachmann is right: The end times are upon us.

Although she made that statement (with joy, I might add) in reference to President Obama's foreign policy, the same inference could be made from the dismal and declining state of restaurant offerings in Arizona.

See also: Steak 'N Shake in Tempe Disappoints

While other similar-size metro areas are seeing a renaissance of diverse culinary offerings, we've got sub sandwich concepts multiplying faster than a pair of horny rabbits in heat. Entrepreneurs are launching new burger restaurants as if it's a novel idea. There's even a rash of olive oil stores (really, they specialize only in olive oil) opening in shopping malls. I know of four, and that's just in Scottsdale. I can't find a decent banh mi in this city of over 4 million residents, but my options for olive oil are nearly infinite.

Have we run out of ideas?

I don't particularly mind that within a one-mile radius of my house is a Subway, two Jimmy Johns, Which Wich, Schlotsky's, and Jersey Mike's. Nor do I care that some kid won't go to college because his parents invested his college fund to open a store dedicated to olive oil, but I am feeling decidedly unexcited about food in Phoenix these days. It has become downright depressing, and I'm afraid that it's getting worse.

It isn't just that we've run out of ideas, it's that some of the restaurants that do open are head-scratchers.

Case in point: Call me a cynic, but I have a hard time comprehending how Naya, a new Mediterranean restaurant in 6,500 square feet of pricey Scottsdale real estate, is going to survive long term. I'd love to be proved wrong, but it just doesn't seem like what this town needs right now, and it's hard to comprehend the economic calculus. How many tables do they need to turn a night -- every night -- to cover that kind of overhead? If the population of Phoenix can't even keep Nobuo at Teeter House full, are they going to rally behind high-end Mediterranean? I hope I'm wrong, and that Naya turns into our version of Philadelphia's Zahav. To further my case: The same shopping center where Naya debuts is also welcoming the opening of -- get this -- a high-end burger place. Surely, they jest.

No, we can't have decent Peruvian food, more than just one option for ramen (which has taken most major metros by storm), Cambodian food, or the communal support needed to sustain more than just a handful of truly ingredient-driven joints, but we've got so many steakhouses that we really ought to convert Metrocenter into a working cattle ranch to feed our habit for beef.

Frankly, I'm bored. And that's not to say that great places with exciting food at various price points don't exist. They do, and there are many die-hards who are diligent about finding and supporting them. But for every Crudo, there are 50 places still serving salmon on a cedar plank. I've been to cemeteries that have more life than many of this city's best restaurants on a weeknight, and if that trend continues, we might as well wave the white flag and surrender to Hillstone, which runs on at least a 45-minute wait every night of the week, despite serving decidedly unexciting fare, albeit well prepared and in a pretty setting.

It seems to me that, as far as food in concerned, Phoenix has always had something of an inferiority complex. Read the mainstream food chat boards (Chowhound, for example), and you'll frequently notice that contributors often refer to well-liked restaurants as "making them feel like they were in New York or San Francisco" -- you know, real restaurant cities. Maybe that inferiority complex is well deserved; if we're not going to support the great restaurants that we do have, then we might as well be stuck with 50 shades of hamburgers and steak.

I'm excited about the opening of Clever Koi, which sounds promising. And I love that Chou's Kitchen, Hana Sushi, and Pho Thanh have developed cult-like followings. Rancho Pinot, one of my favorite restaurants, just celebrated 20 years in the Valley. Cork is a gem that should be drawing from all over town, not just Chandler. Teleport Posh to New York City and the counter would be packed every night of the week; it's that great. Otro Café is ridiculously good. And I'm dying to find out who will be the next chef at Noca, although its owner (and friend of mine) Eliot Wexler won't tell me. I haven't even mentioned the hundreds of undiscovered and underpublicized but deserving holes in the wall. We have James Beard Award winners like Christopher Gross, but I wonder how long our culinary talent will stay motivated if we can't return the favor. Ask almost any restaurant owner in Phoenix and they'll tell you the same thing: This summer was particularly brutal, with many restaurants barely hanging on.

I've always been a strong advocate for Phoenix and have defended it against the critics. "But we've come so far," I often say, referring to the great strides we've made in the past 10 years.

We've also got so far to go, and I hope that doesn't mean traveling to Los Angeles for a great meal.

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Location Info

Clever Koi

4236 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, AZ

Category: Restaurant

Chou's Kitchen

910 N. Alma School Road, Chandler, AZ

Category: Restaurant

Hana Sushi

602 W. Union Hills Drive, New River, AZ

Category: Restaurant

Pho Thanh Restaurant

1702 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix, AZ

Category: Restaurant

Rancho Pinot

6208 N. Scottsdale Road, Paradise Valley, AZ

Category: Restaurant

Posh Improvisational Cuisine

7167 E. Rancho Vista Drive, Scottsdale, AZ

Category: Restaurant

Noca

3118 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix, AZ

Category: Restaurant

Nobuo at Teeter House

622 E. Adams St., Phoenix, AZ

Category: Restaurant

Naya Mediterranean Cuisine

8877 N Scottsdale Rd, Scottsdale, AZ

Category: Restaurant


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13 comments
PhxChef
PhxChef

And I can find decent Bahn Mi, and I'm in Peoria. Almost as good as I had living in SF's Little Saigon. Try the spot in LeeLee's at 75th Ave and Cactus.  But strangely it's never as packed as it should be. Oh, Thats right, it's not trendy, in Scottsdale or some life-changing cup o' juice, or whatever other steaming pile Sam Fox has left tightly coiled in a Valley strip mall  so it's not New Times worthy. If you don't mind cancelling your reservation at Houstons for tonight, maybe give it a try...

PhxChef
PhxChef

Seriously... Fancy hamburgers? They say you can't polish a turd, but we still do. And we'll sell it to you for $20. Yeah it's just ground beef, but those tomatoes pickles and onions came from Dickface Farms and they are organic.

Olive oil stores? Yeah, that's why dinner tastes like shit, no expensive olive oil. 
Everyone wants to bitch about a lack of independent restaurants, but the fact is we still see your ass at Applebee's and Chili's every night, and when that's what you consider "going out to dinner". Then 100 fancy hamburger shit holes is all you get. The market here only really supports chain restaurants, that serve overpriced mediocre comfort food. If thats what you want, then thats what you get. Stop going to chains, and you'll see a lot more indie joints pop up, and stick around too. SMH.

richardsonsnm1953
richardsonsnm1953

simple snobbery, let people decide where and what they want to eat. if they want to move to another "food mecca", go for it. having been in the valley since 83, enjoy this great town and stop tend us we need another good joint or trendy place. in my long career, i have seen a ton go south that the foodies raved about. so when the critics rave, go very quick, or u might miss it, and gee whiz, i don't feei like we really need wolfgang or any of the other food geniuses. My opinion, feel free to tell me to kiss my ass. 

itsnotyouitsme
itsnotyouitsme

MESSAGE TO PHOENIX FOODIE COMMUNITY FROM THE MASS OF LOCAL HUMANITY NOT LASER-FOCUSED ON RESTAURANT-CULTURAL CONCERNS:

Sorry, we're just not that into you.

Erin Giles-Raveling
Erin Giles-Raveling

No offense but what about Snob-o? What's wrong with cedar plank? I get not everyone wants to eat Applebee's every day but does food have to be so of the moment? I think there is a good Portlandia about this---it's so over!:)

Ryan White
Ryan White

Houston is a culinary giant, with several top restaurants in the country opening in the past few years. There is no comparison.

opinionatedbutright
opinionatedbutright

Here's what I think: Food is expensive. That means that prices in restaurants are higher even when the restaurants where they do do a great job keeping food costs lower. I want to eat out four or five times a week (believe me, I don't want to shop and cook every night) but when a meal out costs four times or more than what it costs at home, I have to stay home. There's no solution for that right now. Food costs have to come down or I have to make more money! As for the paucity of ethnic restaurants-so much agree with you. But if you hang out a little more on the west side of town, I think you'll be surprised.

Biannca Dominguez
Biannca Dominguez

Allie Marconi Love.Crudo. Crudo's the best! Maureen McGrath Campbell

SkilletDoux
SkilletDoux

This almost makes up for the Red Lobster piece ;-)

I really hope this summer was a blip and not a trend, because if it's the latter, we're in big trouble.  We're not out of ideas.  As you point out, it's just that we're not supporting the good ones.  Very few of the chefs and cooks I know are doing what they want to be doing.  They're doing what they have to be doing to survive.  The stories I hear of customers -- good, regular customers -- requesting that great restaurants dumb down their menus are completely heartbreaking.  There is, as you mention, a cult of diehards, but the challenge is mainstreaming what are still fringe opinions.  

The key to everything, I think, is diner education, and if we want to see positive change, that's how everybody with a mouthpiece in the local food media has to think of themselves -- as educators.  Whether we shape opinion or reflect it is an age old media question.  But unless those of us who write and talk about food in Phoenix take on that mantle and make it our goal not just to generate content but to do our part to actively push the ball forward in every way we can, we're just accepting that we're a city with a metro population of 4.2 million and a restaurant scene that looks like we're an eighth of that.

Not speaking of anybody in particular, or suggesting that, collectively, we aren't trying.  It's just... this has been on my mind a lot lately.  If Phoenix isn't appreciating the good stuff, I see that not as the dining public's failing, but as *our* failing.  And it makes me want to work twice as hard.

(Incidentally, check out Tumi for Peruvian.  It isn't the dearly departed Contigo Peru, but it's solid.)

exit2lef
exit2lef

@Erin Giles-Raveling What's "Snob-o"? 

SkilletDoux
SkilletDoux

@Erin Giles-Raveling Nothing's wrong with cedar planks.  The problem is 50 cedar planks in a two-mile radius.  Of course food doesn't have to always be of the moment.  Any good scene will have a healthy mix of classic and contemporary, traditional and creative.  The whole point of the article is that the balance in this town is horribly skewed towards the former.  If classic vanilla is what you want, you've got 99% of the restaurants out there to choose from. Is it such snobbery to suggest that it might be nice if that were only 97% or 96%?

SkilletDoux
SkilletDoux

@opinionatedbutright

"As for the paucity of ethnic restaurants-so much agree with you. But if you hang out a little more on the west side of town, I think you'll be surprised."

Two things:

YES.  This whole "west of the 17 is nothing but chains" is a total myth.  There's hordes of stuff out there and local food writers (I include myself) are just barely scratching the surface.

Second, please don't leave it at that!  If you aren't already, PLEASEPLEASEPLEASE write about these places somewhere.  Or at the very least, find somebody's ear to bend and bend it.  So many wonderful places languish because we aren't getting the word out.

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