Arizona’s cuisine is likely to surprise you. Sure, some of our top restaurants are Mexican, only natural given our close ties with our southern neighbors. But the state draws more than its fair share of food-loving pilgrims, from French chefs to award-winning pizza makers, many of whom have garnered national attention.
The settings for these culinary showcases are equally diverse, from downtown Tucson to the rim of the Grand Canyon. So buen proveche – or bon appetit.
To declare that this restaurant is without peer is not just hyperbole. The fine-dining room at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa is the only AAA Five-Diamond-rated restaurant in Arizona and quite possibly the only Native American-owned eatery in the country – likely in the world – to achieve this high level of cooking and service. Not to mention authenticity.
Consulting Chef Janos Wilder, a James Beard Award winner, and Executive Chef Michael O’Dowd work closely with the elders of the Pima and Maricopa tribes to devise the menu, which might include such dishes as grilled tenderloin of buffalo served with smoked corn puree and barbecue scarlet runner beans. The children of the Gila Crossing Community School work with local farmers to grow lettuces for the salads.
At Kai, no aesthetic detail is spared, from the wrought-iron appetizer caddies down to menus hand-painted by tribal members.
Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix
Everyone has an opinion about what makes a pizza great – including the James Beard Foundation, which awarded pie-maker Chris Bianco the honor of Best Chef, Southwest.
Why would the culinary equivalent of the Academy Award be conferred on the creator of such modest fare? Because Bianco uses only top-notch artisanal ingredients, including the mozzarella he makes in-house every morning. But it’s also Bianco’s perfect timing with a wood-fired oven – not to mention the street cred of having been born in the Bronx – that makes the average pizza lover revel in such creations as the Wiseguy, topped with roasted onions, smoked mozzarella and fennel sausage.
The restaurant, in an historic building in downtown Phoenix’s quaint Historic Heritage Square, is intimate, and the wait for the oh-so-popular pies is long. While away the time with a glass of wine and some appetizers at Bar Bianco, next door.
Cafe Poca Cosa, Tucson
Chef Suzana Dávila is on a mission. Since the mid-1980s, when she opened her first restaurant in downtown Tucson, Dávila has been determined to change the image of Mexican food – to prove that “south-of-the-border,” “gourmet” and “healthy” can appear in the same sentence without irony. Her dazzling cooking and, recently, a venue as chic and colorful as the chef herself, have made her case.
The dishes on her daily changing chalkboard menu originate in many states of Mexico, including Oaxaca and Yucatan, not just Arizona’s neighbor, Sonora, where Dávila was born. The chef is especially known for her complex moles – among them verde (green) and the classic poblano, which is made with Godiva chocolate – and for piling her plates with fresh salad. Can’t decide among the many appealing options? Go for the Plato Poca Cosa, the chef’s sampler plate.
L’Auberge Restaurant on Oak Creek, Sedona
More reminiscent of the French countryside than the Southwestern United States, this ultra-romantic restaurant is nestled among mature cottonwoods beside a burbling creek. Each season brings a slightly different experience. In winter, for example, you can cozy up to a fire, while ducks are likely to waddle over to visit with you on the deck in warmer weather. Year-round staples include fresh flowers, fine table linens, and a War and Peace-length wine list that won the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence in the 2009.
Although the menu is described as “French-inspired American,” you’ll find such Gallic classics as brioche pain perdu at breakfast, croque monsieur at lunch, and macademia-crusted foie gras at dinner. A reliance on fresh local ingredients, including gleanings from the chef’s herb garden in summer, and a tasting menu customized to patrons who call ahead, make this the perfect special-occasion splurge.
El Tovar Dining Room, South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park
No question. The possibility of gazing down into the Grand Canyon is part of the appeal of the restaurant at the El Tovar Hotel, the South Rim’s premier dining venue. If you’re lucky enough to nab one of the few window seats, you won’t find more spectacular vistas.
History also plays a role in the restaurant’s allure. Everyone from Theodore Roosevelt to Albert Einstein has stayed at the historic (opened 1905) hotel, and it’s fun to speculate about the table manners of the rich and famous.
The setting – rustic stone and pine contrasting with the elegance of white tablecloths – is delightful too. But the main draw is the excellent food, which often highlights tastes of the Southwest: polenta corncakes with prickly-pear pistachio butter for breakfast, say; a Navajo taco (fry bread with all the toppings) for lunch; or venison rib chops crusted with peppercorns at dinner.