Pho A.V. in North Phoenix: a Vietnamese Restaurant with Heart

Jackie Mercandetti
Pho A.V. offers satisfying traditional Vietnamese dishes that stretch a $10 bill just about as far as it will go.
On the surface, Pho A.V., the tiny, six-month-old Vietnamese restaurant in North Phoenix, looks like many of the no-frills spots throughout the Valley: fluorescent lights, a modest assembly of tables and booths, a buzzing cooler.

But through its doors hung with white lace curtains, in the back of the room on a blush-pink wall where an antenna connects to a television that is never turned on, there are three large black-and-white photographs. And it's through these images that you start to understand what this modest spot of traditional Vietnamese dishes and its owner, Phat Pham Tan, are all about.

Is it possible to appreciate a restaurant not only for its food but also for the people behind it?

In the case of Pho A.V., it is.

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15 Most Interesting Dining Experiences of 2013

Categories: Hahnefeld

Luster Kaboom
Looking back at things remembered from dozens of restaurant reviews, nearly as many First Tastes, and a countless number of places popped into just because, I'd be remiss if I didn't thank the restaurants, readers, tipsters, colleagues, and dining companions who helped make my 2013 year of eating such an enjoyable one.

But memories come by way of the unusual as well. And it pretty much goes without saying that given those numerous visits (and the fact that I travel anonymously), things have happened -- strange things, funny things, food things -- that made this year stand apart from others.

So before 2013 is in our rearview mirrors for good, I'd like to give a special Happy New Year shout-out to those who made this year especially interesting for me.

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Barrelhouse in Chandler Delivers on Food and Cocktails, Falls Short on Comfort

Jackie Mercandetti
Barrelhouse's lobster baked chile relleno is enough to cause a serious case of dish envy.
It could be said that Barrelhouse American Kitchen & Cocktails in Chandler truly supports the arts. Not just on its walls, where local artists hang and sell their works, or during its art-inspired dinners, but through its cuisine as well.

And if you can get past Barrelhouse's inability to put you in the cocoon of its concept, which seems to want to be either a casual high-end restaurant or a mod-ish lounge, then there are well-crafted cocktails and (mostly) satisfying plates of polished comfort food to enjoy.

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Henry's in Tempe: An Instantly Enjoyable Restaurant for Taiwanese Eats

Jackie Mercandetti
Main dishes, like the very good stir-fry squid with Chinese vegetables, are served in portion sizes that result in leftovers.
Chef and restaurateur Henry Ku has been credited with putting Taiwanese food on the map in Seattle. And with the opening of his Tempe restaurant, Henry's Taiwan, in August, he's looking to do the same in the Valley.

Adding to the Asian island's melting pot of cooking styles from mainland China, Europe, and Japan, Ku blends the childhood memories of his homeland with the French cooking techniques he learned in the States. All of which help make Henry's Taiwan in Tempe a surprisingly accessible, affordable, and instantly enjoyable restaurant.

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Some Like It Hot at Chennai Chettinaad Palace in North Phoenix

Jackie Mercandetti
Are you the kind of diner who enjoys dishes that dole out the heat? Not from a blistering fury of chile peppers, but from a complex harmony of Indian spices that punish and delight in equal measure?

Then the cuisine of Chettinad, a dry, remote region of the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India, is probably for you. Its abundantly spiced food (even to the southern Indian palate) started centuries ago with the Chettiars, a caste of affluent, traveling traders who were as well known for their unique spice blends as for their mansions of Burmese wood and Italian marble.

Chettinad cuisine is difficult to find in the Valley, which makes the arrival of the roughly one-year-old Chennai Chettinaad Palace in North Phoenix reason enough to celebrate.

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Grassroots Kitchen & Tap in North Scottsdale: Plainly Delicious

Jackie Mercandetti
If it's a hunk of chicken you're after, the roasted free-range fowl at Grassroots is sublime.
At first glance, you might think you could run Grassroots Kitchen & Tap yourself. You'd be wrong -- and therein lies the genius of this North Scottsdale restaurant.

What seems obvious about the place is really a kind of deceptive simplicity. Look closer and you'll find the approachability of this Houston's-meets-neighborhood hangout is the product of precision, harmony, and a commitment to clarity.

Valley foodies might argue that there are more intriguing restaurant destinations in the Valley, and there are. But when it comes to plainly delicious eats served up in a comfortable spot, it's tough to beat Grassroots.

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Short Leash Sit . . . Stay: A Shrine to Sausages in Downtown Phoenix

Laura Hahnefeld
Brad and Kat Moore's gourmet hot dogs come wrapped in warm naan "buns."
Short Leash Sit . . . Stay is Brad and Kat Moore's urban shrine to sausages, a collection of frankfurters steamed, baked, and fried; decorated with things like roasted red peppers, mango chutney, and Cracker Jack; and wrapped most of the time in a warm naan "bun."

The husband-and-wife team, who launched Short Leash, their successful hot dog food truck,in 2010, opened their permanent dog house this summer. And it's here that you'll find the dynamic duo of dogs and grog.

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Mariscos Altata in West Phoenix: Tasty Sinaloan-Style Seafood Meets a Mexican Beach Party

Jackie Mercandetti
Scallops appetizer.
Does a loud and lively Mexican beach party sound tempting?

If so, then Mariscos Altata on the city's west side is probably going to be a place you'll enjoy.

But if your feelings about parties (and noise) don't include an ever-present blasting of banda beats from a jukebox, squawks from televisions, and wails from strolling musicians, then Mariscos Altata's very good Sinaloan-style seafood dishes -- like a citrus-laden cocktail of meaty octopus, tomato, onions, and chiles; slurp-worthy, slithery oysters topped with avocado, tomato, and squirts of hot sauce; or spicy and crunchy shrimp you eat shells and all -- won't be enough to get you through the door.

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10 Best Things I Ate in October

Jackie Mercandetti
Shrimp and corn tamale at The Blind Pig.

Another month checked off in the culinary datebook of 2013, another month when I look back on the best things I ate.

From dishes like my new favorite macaron of the moment to sophisticated nachos and a tough-to-find street snack, here are 10 of the best things I ate this month, selected from reviews, first-time visits, and places I've popped into just because.

I hope it inspires. Enjoy.

Shrimp and Corn Tamale at The Blind Pig (above)

The best thing on the menu at this meat-centric venture in Scottsdale (complete with a butcher's case of take-home proteins) is the shrimp and corn tamale ($10). When it arrives, the husk has been spread open to reveal plump grilled prawns resting atop a delicately sweet masa cake covered in a sumptuous corn and cilantro cream sauce for a gourmet take on a Mexican street food that's nothing short of spectacular.

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Getting Cozy at Krua Thai Cuisine in Phoenix

Jackie Mercandetti
Krua's fried fish and duck curry are two of its many menu items.
Have an image of a cozy Thai cafe? It probably looks a lot like Krua.

The little eatery on the city's north side is a pleasant space, small and tidy, with a handful of tables and booths frequently occupied by guests who tuck into bowls of steaming, fragrant curries, spicy salads kissed with lemon, and stir-fried dishes laden with crunchy vegetables with the familiarity of having had them here before.

And given its nearly 80 menu items -- a listing of traditional dishes of the country as well as around 20 specialties -- the kitchen, or krua in Thai, is a busy place.

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