Best dishes of 2021 in metro Phoenix: Mexican, sushi, pasta and more – The Arizona Republic

Phoenix has kept me busy with a never-ending supply of delicious adventures. Since moving back to The Valley in the summer of 2021, I’ve been eating out almost every night, visiting both essential, longstanding restaurants and newly opened spots.
It’s been a series of pleasures — a flaming cast iron skillet of Iranian eggplant dip, Mexico City-style tortas, a stunning bite of truffled sushi — and the foods on this list represent the most thrilling dishes of them all.
I’ve eaten a lot of amazing things, but for this list I went with my gut, thinking back to dishes that, despite an entire city of new options, I can’t wait to eat again. 
Here are the 10 best things I ate in 2021. 
This restaurant introduced me to the sweet, spellbinding world of Filipino barbecue. While I sat at the table grilling a pork skewer marinated in banana ketchup, I used my other hand to pop cubes of lechon kawali ($12.99), a crispy fried pork belly, into my mouth. Flaming Pig makes an addictive take on the classic Filipino dish. Each pork piece is topped with crunchy skin, which gives way to a layer of glistening fat coating the supple meat. I can’t imagine anything more perfect than these porky bites dunked in peppery brown gravy that’s fortified with pig liver paste.
Details: 1534 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix. 623-999-7446,
A guide to the Flaming Pig:Pork reigns at this new Filipino restaurant in Phoenix
I didn’t expect to find the best torta I’ve ever eaten in the back corner of a Glendale parking lot. But I shouldn’t have been surprised, as this fast casual spinoff is owned by the same people as the Mexican sandwich titan Los Reyes de la Torta. The Norteña ($11) is a synthesis of Sonoran and Mexico City flavors. The carne asada is cooked on the flattop right in front of you, along with melted mozzarella cheese that oozes over the slightly caramelized onions and ripe avocado, all tucked between buttery telera bread. I’ve been all over Mexico eating the finest sandwiches, but I’m crowning this one the king. 
Details: 13971 N. 59th Ave., Glendale. 623-600-8630,
Guide to Tortas CM:How this torta restaurant makes one of the best Mexican sandwiches in metro Phoenix
I smelled truffles the moment I walked into this minimalist sushi bar. Shimogamo is more purist than experimental. It’s all about sourcing here, though the restaurant’s most popular appetizer ($19), straddles the line between simplicity and creativity, and in doing so achieves perfection. Amberjack sashimi benefits from a touch of truffle oil, which is an unexpected complement to their soy-based ponzu sauce. The earthy flavors paired especially well with the clean, but mildly fatty, amberjack fish (also known as yellowtail). After one taste of the salty, mushroomy elixir, I decided to make the combo a new part of my cooking repertoire.
Details: 2051 W. Warner Road, Chandler. 480-899-7191,
Next door to an Islamic fashion store, Alzohour’s dining room may not be fancy, but the food is epic. The tour de force is a hot skillet of flaming eggplant dip called kashkbademjan ($9.10), which marked the beginning of an epic two-hour lunch. It arrived in a cast iron dish that was set ablaze by owner Zhor Saad upon reaching our table. She cooks and serves the restaurant’s Moroccan and pan-Middle Eastern dishes herself, and it shows. When the fire dwindled and we were able to dip in, the creamy eggplant practically poured onto my pita in a heavenly smear studded with slivers of crispy roasted garlic and fresh mint.
Details: 7814 N. 27th Ave., Phoenix. 602-433-5191,
Can we get some more bread, please? Not a request I typically make, especially when I’m dining at an upscale Italian steakhouse owned by a celebrity chef. But this focaccia at The Americano is so good, it’s hard to resist. The focaccia ripiena ($13) arrives at the table in the shape of a bulbous dome cut in quarters and topped with a chunky green pesto. Each piece reveals a cross-section of the stuffing — soft potatoes and a fresh Italian cow’s milk cheese called stracchino, which enriches the bread with a kiss of grassy butter flavor. It’s one of the best things on a menu filled with extravagant truffle topped fillets and caviar French fries. I couldn’t get enough of it. 
Details: 17797 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale. 480-573-0001,
You can find an explosively flavorful Central Mexican barbacoa at the west side restaurant El Kiosco. The owners are from Querétaro, and they roast their barbacoa de borrego, or barbecued lamb, the traditional way — for hours in agave leaves. It’s sold by the pound or in a potent consomme ($7) flavored by the drippings that spill off the lamb as it cooks. Rich and salty, the deep red liquid redefined my previous concept of savory. The meat clung to little bones and bits of fat as I spooned it away from the oily broth. Rice and garbanzo beans float in the heavenly elixir, but I soon gave up on fishing them out with my spoon and began dipping my tortillas in the bowl instead. Seek out this soup, I implore you.
Details: 3650 W. Camelback Road, Suite 3, Phoenix. 602-246-1310,
It wasn’t until the very end of my spellbinding dinner that I peeked around the corner and saw the rustic Sonoran workhorse of a grill with rolling wheels that lift the rack up and down to control the heat. That’s where most of the tiny, five-item menu at Bacanora comes from. And you can taste the mesquite char on the delicious green chile roasted chicken ($32), made with fowl from local Two Wash Ranch. The flavorful bird is cut up into a pile of white and dark meats, all with flawless crispy skin and is served beside thick slabs of potatoes. This dish is one reason Bacanora is an instant Phoenix classic. 
Details: 1301 Grand Ave., Unit 1, Phoenix. 602-612-4018,
Love at first bite:Why this Grand Avenue Mexican restaurant is an instant Phoenix classic
It was hard to choose which item from the inventive Cambodian and Middle Eastern menu at Thaily’s was my favorite. But my mind keeps coming back to the salaw machu eggplant ($8.50), a hearty green jalapeño soup that’s mouth-puckeringly sour thanks to lime juice and fruity tamarind powder — like a Cambodian version of green chile. The spicy broth is packed with fatty pieces of slow-cooked beef and halved Thai eggplant bulbs. The seeds from the eggplant spill out and float around the viscous broth, adding a faint crunch.
Details: 444 E. Chandler Blvd., Suite 1, Chandler. 480-927-3865,  
Review:Why I’m obsessed with the Cambodian dishes at this tiny, chef-driven restaurant
I didn’t think I even liked gnocchi until I tasted this masterpiece. Usually the dough balls tend to be dense and uninviting. But, following the owner Luca Gagliano’s advice, I took a chance and was rewarded with sumptuous, pillowy potato dumplings bathed in a rich and creamy housemade pesto ($14.50). They were olive oil-seeped around the sides, but that didn’t stop me from throwing on some of that housemade chile oil as well. 
Details: 1616 N. Central Ave., Suite 104, Phoenix. 480-787-5654,
The menu guide:This downtown Phoenix Italian restaurant is known for its pizza. But don’t miss the pasta
Chihuahua is the largest state in Mexico, home to a tribe of world-renowned indigenous athletes and a stunning canyon system that rivals the Grand Canyon. It’s also the birthplace of Fernando Hernández, who’s making some of The Valley’s best burritos. His puffy, Chihuahuan-style flour tortillas are prepared inhouse every morning and then loosely wrapped around a variety of simple guisado stews like shredded beef and creamy rajas. The minimalist bean burrito ($4) is the best of the best, with lush refried beans served in tortillas left untucked and open on the ends. They are a state away from the monster Sonoran offerings we love here, but though they may be smaller, that just means you can eat more of them.     
Details: 1325 N.W. Grand Ave., Suite 1, Phoenix. 602-384-9993,  
All about Testal:These Chihuahua-style burritos on Grand Avenue rival the best Sonoran burros in Phoenix
Reach reporter Andi Berlin at or 602-444-8533. Follow her on Facebook @andiberlin, Instagram @andiberlin or Twitter @andiberlin
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