You know that Arizona has great Mexican food, that its New Southwestern chefs win oodles of kudos and that steakhouses in this one-time ranching region are prime. But maybe you aren’t aware that the state’s culinary reach stretches as far as Europe, South America and Asia. Here’s a sampling of local restaurants that will transport you to some of the world’s top dining destinations without having to drag your suitcase through customs.
Candela Restaurant, Tucson
Look for the fiery red-and-yellow sign, alluding to the candle flames of the restaurant’s name, to find this Peruvian gem in a strip mall. Candela is romantically low-lit, but its menu shines a bright light on Peru’s rich cultural mix. A Basque touch can be seen, for example, in the aji de gallina, shredded chicken in a creamy walnut sauce. Seafood is a specialty – no surprise, given the country’s vast coastline – and you can’t go wrong with potato dishes like the ground beef-topped papa rellena or any of the house-baked empanadas (my favorite’s the one filled with spinach, feta, raisins and olives).
Dahl & DiLuca, Sedona
A new crystal chandelier raises the elegance level of this longtime Italian favorite, but the dining room retains its warm and festive atmosphere. The cuisine here combines hominess with a sense of occasion, too. Classic dishes from throughout Italy are interpreted with the lightness and delicacy associated with the north, while pastas, soups, sauces and desserts (including a knockout tiramisu) are made from scratch on the premises. For a rare surf-and-turf treat with an Italian twist, try the vitello Botticelli: veal medallions and prawns sautéed with mushrooms in a garlic marsala sauce. Calamari aficionado alert: You’ll find a wonderfully light, flash-fried version here.
Lola Tapas, Phoenix
Daniel and Felicia Ruiz Wayne, onetime proprietors of Phoenix’s superhot Lux Coffeebar, enjoyed their travels to Spain so much that they named their daughter Paloma (think Picasso). And they enjoyed Spanish food so much that they opened a tapas bar – and gave it their daughter’s nickname, Lola. Their enthusiasm for things Iberian – plus a lot of cooking skill – make this a great place to graze on the likes of garbanzos and spinach in a garlicky broth or the famed cured Serrano ham with cheese. Lola’s is tiny and seating is at two community tables, so be prepared to love your neighbor (along with your food).
Neo of Malaka, Tucson
Expect the unexpected at this Asian-chic eatery, where antique wood carvings are complemented by a contemporary abstract sculpture of bubbles (representing energy, according to Feng Shui). The menu includes some familiar Chinese dishes, but most recipes derive from the Malaysian “Straits Chinese” subculture, renowned for incorporating Arabic, Indian and other influences. For a quick course in Malaysian 101, order nasi lemak: small portions of beef rendang, sambal shrimp and pickled vegetables, centered by a mound of coconut rice. And don’t miss Nyonya popiah, crepes stuffed with a tasty mélange of bean paste, salad, herbs, tofu, shallots and shrimp.
Zinc Bistro, Scottsdale
From its pressed tin ceiling to the tiny cornichons accompanying its house-made pâtés, Zinc re-creates Paris in North Scottsdale. The simple but delicious fare of Chef Matt Carter, whose resume includes a stint at Napa’s French Laundry, remind you that Gallic cuisine doesn’t have to be haute – as in haughty. The gruyère fondue is the ideal finger food, letting you dip crispy bread scoops topped with prosciutto into a pot of creamy gourmet cheese. Wherever you choose to perch – the charming back garden, a patio perfect for people-watching – you’ll savor such bistro classics as rosemary roast chicken, duck cassoulet and crispy pomme frites.
(Updated by the Arizona Office of Tourism – 2009)