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Top Restaurateurs Defend
Arizona's Evolving Food Culture

Background image courtesy Crudo.

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Image courtesy of Clever Koi.

Despite A Reputation As A Haven For Chain Restaurants, Arizona Actually Boasts A Ton Of Instagrammable Talent From The Likes Of Crudo, Clever Koi, Ocotillo And More

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By Stephanie Sparer
Modern Times Magazine

Aug. 2, 2016 — Think back to 1996. You’re taking your Phoenician family to dinner. Maybe your youngest won their T-ball game or your eldest made honor roll and instead of putting a bumper sticker on your Taurus, you wanted to celebrate with a Bloomin’ Onion and 4085 mg of sodium.

By the 1990s, most families had two working parents and a couple hungry kids. Mom and dad may have had less time to knit or whatever, but they had more money to go out and pretend to understand what their teen daughter was saying. The appeal of not having to make dinner when you’re craving chicken parm and endless breadsticks made chains like Olive Garden more popular than Kelly Kapowski. Family style casual dining restaurants had moderately-priced (and seasoned) meals for the average Joe just lookin’ for some family time and, probably, a Chinese chicken salad.

This was especially true in Arizona. Howard Seftel, Arizona Republic’s former food critic, sat down for his, if you will, exit interview with the paper just last year. Seftel, who began his career in 1992, said he was worried at first about his new job, asking himself, “Where was I going to find enough interesting new restaurants to write about every week?” It was a very real problem in the Valley at the time. The first Phoenix reviews and the first top 100 restaurants list included fair like Red Lobster and mall food courts.

While presently Metrocenter is rising from its own ashes and Sam Fox has a bevy of local restaurant concepts that are as casual as a Red Robin yet as hip as a speakeasy you haven’t heard about yet, Seftel isn’t so convinced about what local restaurants are serving up. “Phoenix isn't a first-tier restaurant city yet,” he says. Maybe with an upturned nose at a turkey lasagna from True Food.

“I think Howard is correct in his assumption,” said Micah Olson, co-owner and mixologist at Crudo and Bar Crudo. Crudo is just one of the many locally-owned Phoenix establishments currently breaking up the monotony of Chili’s and Ruby Tuesday’s. Those restaurants appeal to a certain clientele, sure, but one that the restaurant world is seeing slowly disappear, even in the suburbs, as the next generation seeks out the most deliciously kitsch and Instagrammable eatery.

Olson explained himself, “[Just because we might not be first tier] doesn't mean that we don't have first tier talent. It just means that we have some work ahead of us to get to the level that other cities are at on a whole. I believe our chefs are up for the challenge, now we just need the locals to want it too and support it. I keep hearing how ‘such and such restaurant would be killing it in another said city’ but somehow struggles to keep the doors open here. Just think of all the great places that have closed over the years that now you wished you had gone to more.”

However, some locally owned spots are in the midst of changing the landscape. “I feel like my [favorite chefs and restaurants in Arizona] are really doing something they believe in and...feel is special to the food scene,” Jared Porter, chef and owner of Clever Koi said. “[They’re] willing to put in the hard work to make...relevant spot[s].”

In no particular order, Porter gives shout outs to the likes of Michael Babcock of Welcome Diner/Chicken & Donuts; Anthony & Chris Bianco's Tratto; Armando and family at Tacos Chiwas; Scott Holmes at Little Miss BBQ; and Jeff Kraus at Crepe Bar as innovators changing the restaurant scene in Phoenix, but Porter admits, “I know there [are] many more…”

Meanwhile, Porter “100 percent, without a doubt” disagrees with Seftel. “We are top tier and have been for quite a while,” he said. “In the early stages of Clever Koi, we dealt with comments and critiques from Mr. Seftel and others that actually put a black eye on our vision of what we were trying to do as new restaurant owners...maybe there was some validity to certain comments and maybe there wasn't. But what we know now is that what really mattered the most were the comments from our guests and ...we listened, and we still listen in order for us to make our products and services better every day.”

There are a lot of chefs in the valley right now who “aren’t getting the praise they deserve,” Olson noted before going on to say that so many chefs now emphasize local products, “Like FnB, Ocotillo, Bianco Restaurants and Noble Eatery” while making food fun to eat. For example Olson “[loves] what Stephen Jones is doing at Desoto Market with his multiple concepts under one roof… and Jacob Cutino's Homeboy's Hot Sauce just might be the best I've ever tasted.” He also points to Josh Hebert from Posh and his improvisational menu and Jeff Krause at Crepe Bar “for making breakfast and lunch exciting to eat.”

Porter agrees, stressing a need for those who are “focused on helping to build the dining scene of a city.” He calls for critics to be “[in] support [of] those [who] are putting everything they have on the line to make an impact within their city...We need people that are in these types of positions to rally around the people that are in the industry and help continue to promote us in order for us to get on a more national scale as a hospitality community.”

Despite what Seftel thinks, Arizona restaurants are getting national attention as well. Chris Bianco has single handedly put gourmet pizza on the map (even Oprah says so) and received the James Beard award in 2003 while Kevin Binkley and Charleen Badman get nominated every year for the Best Chef: Southwest James Beard award. Olson also adds to the notables list Nobu Fukuda, Gio Osso, and Beau MacMillan saying that “[they] prove to the world that we have a great scene here in AZ.”

Says Porter, “This is a great city, and state for that matter, for food and drink and restaurant experiences in general. We love this city and it's been great to us and we will continue to work hard to make the people of Arizona happy!”

But as a chef himself, what is Olson most excited about when it comes to the Phoenix food scene? “The day Phoenicians stop eating at so many chain restaurants,” he says.

One can dream.
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