Phoenix-Scottsdale vs. Tucson food fight

Two Southwest titans duke it out for the title of best food city

Southwest smackdown

Photo by Annabelle Breakey

Southwest smackdown

Arguing for Pho-Sco: Craig Outhier (reviews restaurants for the Arizona Republic and covers dining and lifestyle news for Phoenix magazine). We concede that the best Mexican restaurant in Arizona might be Tucson’s Cafe Poca Cosa, but our concessions end there. By every other important standard—fine dining, ethnic eats, chef-owned gastropubs, omakase masterminds—the Phoenix-Scottsdale metro tag team beats the stuffing out of rinky-dink Tucson. You can find a decent street taco in Tucson. You might even hunt down a hip New American grill where the chef dreams up some credible culinary use for the cholla buds he picked behind his condo. But here’s the sad truth: You’ll exhaust Tucson’s reservoir of interesting restaurants in about a month. Not so in Pho-Sco, where a critical mass of award-winning culinary talent powers the region’s best food scene.

Arguing for Tucson: Edie Jarolim (Tucson editor for Zagat and contributing dining editor for Tucson Guide). David to Goliath: We’re coming for you. Go ahead and let our sleepy cow-town image fool you, but while you’ve spent your boom years grilling steaks for planeloads of sun-burned golfers, Tucson has been slow-cooking its way into culinary respectability. A new generation of energetic young chefs can whip up perfect steak frites from grass-fed local beef and purple Peruvian spuds, mix a mean ginger-infused margarita, and finish with a bracing tart-and-sweet prickly pear sorbet. Add expansive, smog-free Sonoran Desert vistas, and we’ve got you L.A. wannabes to the north hog-tied. Bring it.

Pho-Sco: Star wattage

Photo by Andrea Gómez Romero

Pho-Sco: Star wattage

Tucson has never produced a culinary superstar like James Beard award–winner Chris Bianco: His Pizzeria Bianco pies (pictured) have been praised by everyone from Monday Night Football announcer Joe Theismann to media goddess Oprah Winfrey, who slapped the title of Best Pizza in America on his thin-crust masterpieces. Of the 9 Arizonans to win the Best Southwest Chef award, 8 have hailed from here, including French-revivalist Christopher Gross of Christopher’s and the incomparable Nobuo Fukuda.

Score: 8

About the scoring: We weighed each writer’s argument against Sunset’s collective food IQ and then scored. Cities earned up to 10 points in each category except “smug factor,” where they lost points. 

Pho-Sco: New ideas

Photo by Andrea Gómez Romero

Pho-Sco: New ideas

Our restaurants have cultivated a lightning-quick response time to national food trends, from the local-first principles espoused by Pavle Milic and Charleen Badman at FnB to the pork-fat fetishism (think seared pork-belly pastrami) on display at Bernie Kantak’s Citizen Public House. Chef-owner Joshua Hebert (pictured) of Posh pioneered the late-night cooperative concept, a partnership of like-minded restaurants that take turns staying open past 1 a.m. to cater to nocturnals and industry pros.

Score: 7

Pho-Sco: Great markets

Pho-Sco: Great markets

On weekends, farmers’ markets bloom throughout the Valley, from Ahwatukee to Mesa. At the Roadrunner Park Farmers’ Market in north Phoenix, the woman selling produce at the extreme west end can set you up with galangal, lemongrass, and Thai basil. Also in Phoenix are the much-copied La Grande Orange Grocery (pictured) and Luci’s Healthy Marketplace, which has arguably the best organic dairy section in town.

Score: 7 

Pho-Sco: Obsession factor

Pho-Sco: Obsession factor

At last count, there were 27 daily or almost-daily food blogs in greater Phoenix, but the most influential civilian foodie entity in Arizona is Foodies Like Us, a social network that orchestrates well-behaved flash-mob invasions of local restaurants and bars. Our food bloggers aren’t hacks, either. They include former daily newspaper dining critics (Jess Harter of Mouth by Southwest and Nikki Buchanan of Wild Lavender) and a former magazine publisher (Rick Phillips of Eater AZ), to name just a few.

Score: 7 

Pho-Sco: Booze & caffeine

Pho-Sco: Booze & caffeine

Sure, we have the promo-girl-infested dives of Old Town, but we’re also riding the new wave of mixologist-led bar concepts. One of the best is Tuck Shop, a stylish, micro-size dining hovel in central Phoenix that fabricates its own tonic and ginger ale mixers. In coffee shops, the self-roasting ethos is embraced by the java Jedis at Cartel Coffee Lab (pictured) and Lux Coffeebar—both of which exude far more worldliness and urbane mystique than anything you’ll find in dusty, collegiate Tucson.

Score: 7

Pho-Sco: Crowd control

Photo by Andrea Gómez Romero

Pho-Sco: Crowd control

We obviously have nothing like Napa’s notoriously exclusive French Laundry. If you’re willing to hang out, you’ll almost always get a table here. Even at Fukuda’s secret omakase hutch at Nobuo at Teeter House (pictured), which seats only 4 diners, the chef requires reservations a week in advance. You might have to wait hours for a table at Pizzeria Bianco, but once seated, you won’t go broke. Bianco’s sought-after pizzas run about the same as a Domino’s pie.

Score: 8

Pho-Sco: Smug factor

Pho-Sco: Smug factor

Okay, we’ll cop to this. The whole celebrity chef catwalk thing does get pretty obnoxious, and Phoenix-Scottsdale certainly has its fair share. Still, only the most devoted foodies know their Aaron Mays (Vitamin T, Iruna) from their Beau MacMillans (Elements). Mitigating factor: The most ubiquitous dining personality in the Valley—Sam Fox of True Food, The Arrogant Butcher, Modern Steak (pictured), et al.—actually started his career in Tucson. So there.

Score: –4

Pho-Sco: Variety / diversity

Pho-Sco: Variety / diversity

Clearly, our Latin-influenced cuisine is excellent, starting with the rarefied Euro-Mex fusion dishes of Silvana Salcido Esparza (pictured) at Barrio Café. But we also have a colony of Vietnamese pho shops and quality Thai. We sport a little Jamaican (The Breadfruit), Brazilian (Fogo de Chão), East African (Tariq), not to mention the best fried chicken this side of Atlanta at Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles. Note to soul food–deprived Tucsonans: The syrup goes on the chicken.

Score: 7

Tucson: Star wattage

Photo by Edward McCain

Tucson: Star wattage

James Beard award–winner Janos Wilder (pictured) is the state’s most influential chef. Along with his 3 Tucson restaurants (Janos, J Bar, and Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails), he is the consulting chef at Kai in Chandler, the only AAA Five Diamond restaurant in Arizona. Suzana Davila of Cafe Poca Cosa has been written up by almost every major food publication in the country.

Score: 6

Tucson: New ideas

Tucson: New ideas

Unlike our neighbors to the north, we keep it real. We have the Tucson Originals, a group of indie restaurateurs who banded together to fight against the onslaught of fast-food chains. We have Native Seeds/SEARCH, the first-of-its-kind seed bank that preserves Native American crops and inspired similar banks around the nation. And is there anything more real than our Sonoran hot dog? A Coney Island finger food cloaked in bacon and doused with pinto beans, salsa verde, and other south-of-the-border condiments. It’s called folk food, and it’s kind of a big deal down here.

Score: 8

Tucson: Great markets

Photo by David McDonald

Tucson: Great markets

We’ve got plenty of individual markets specializing in health food, European, Middle Eastern, Asian, and, of course, Mexican. But for originality and scope, it’s tough to match the 17th Street Market. Besides the organic produce and fresh fish, it’s got hard-to-find Asian goods—like 150 types of noodles. Farmers’ markets? We love Sunday at St. Philip’s Plaza, a gathering of fresh produce, cheese, honey, eggs, butter, and meat from farms, ranches, and apiaries in southern Arizona. It even has a wormery.

Score: 7

Tucson: Obsession factor

Tucson: Obsession factor

Remember books? We have a glut of resident food (and drink) authors, including seed bank cofounder Gary Paul Nabhan, whose historical-political Coming Home to Eat details a year spent eating only foods grown within 250 miles of his home, and Robert Plotkin, who has written several cocktail guides, including Secrets Revealed of America’s Greatest Cocktails and ¡Toma! Margaritas, which he coauthored with Ray Flores of El Charro Café.

Score: 5

Tucson: Booze & caffeine

Photo by Tequila.net

Tucson: Booze & caffeine

We rule Arizona—and, really, the rest of the country—in the agave arena. We’re home to the World Margarita Championship, but we celebrate much more than tequila. Mescal, sotol, even bacanora (which you won’t find anywhere else in the States) all make regular appearances on our drink menus. We also have Seven Cups—the only American tea company with its own Chinese trading license—where, in the tearoom, you can schedule an authentic Chinese tea ceremony.

Score: 8

Tucson: Crowd control

Photo by Alex Landeen

Tucson: Crowd control

Tucsonans don’t like to wait for food, and we rarely have to. Our favorite local dining spots—say, Vivace and Cafe Poca Cosa (pictured)—get crowded in the winter high season. But even if you don’t book ahead at the top spots, you can usually get squeezed in after spending a little time at the bar.

Score: 8

Tucson: Smug factor

Photo by Robin Stancliff Photography

Tucson: Smug factor

Some of our chefs could dial back the Michael Pollan a bit. Here’s a snippet from the long website description for Acacia (pictured): “[Our salmon] has met the world’s most stringent health, environmental, and animal welfare standards. [Their diet] comes from the freshest fish, refrigerated from catch and processed only 3–6 days from having been caught ... and does not contain any hormones, growth promoters, salmon offal or waste from any farmed species.” Okay, we get it: Order the fish.

Score: –3

Tucson: Variety / diversity

Tucson: Variety / diversity

You might have to do a little digging, but you’ll find just about every type of ethnic food here: Jamaican, Hawaiian, Serbian, Thai, Italian. Though of course our strength is Latin American cuisine. (We were part of Mexico until 1854; Phoenix never was.) Peru, Colombia, Guatemala—they’re all represented (and represented well), not to mention the hundreds of Mexican restaurants and carts scattered throughout the city.

Score: 7 

And the winner is...

Photo by Atlantide Phototravel / Corbis

And the winner is...

Phoenix-Scottsdale: 47 / Tucson: 46

Why it won: 7 spots to convince you Pho-Sco is king

1. Nobuo at Teeter House. The izakaya has an everyday menu that’s terrific, with elevated Japanese pub grub like okonomiyaki, seafood-and-pork pancake. But it’s the $130-a-person omakase chef’s-choice tasting menu—with such mind-boggling concoctions as foie gras–infused egg custard and Wagyu short ribs with miso butter—that makes Nobuo perhaps Arizona’s foremost dining destination. $$$; 622 E. Adams St., Phoenix; 602/254-0600.

2. Eating at Pizzeria Bianco is like visiting the Louvre when you’re touring Paris: It won’t be the highlight of your trip, but you’ll be glad you went—especially after biting into the wood-roasted onions and house-smoked mozzarella that grace Bianco’s famous sausage pizza. $$; 623 E. Adams St., Phoenix; 602/258-8300.

3. Heat seekers, prepare to meet your Waterloo at Los Dos Molinos. Famously hard on the soft tissue, the spicy slow-roasted meats and go-for-broke chile pepper–dominated salsas are also impossible to resist, even as you wipe the tears out of your eyes. $; 8646 S. Central Ave., Phoenix; 602/243-9113.

4 more reasons why it won

Photo by Andrea Gómez Romero

4 more reasons why it won

4. Live out your carnivorous fantasies at Sam Fox’s Modern Steak (pictured), a swank chophouse that not everybody loves but certainly proves that Pho-Sco can grill a decadent 20-ounce bone-in rib-eye as well as the next modern American metropolis. $$$; 7014 E. Camelback Rd., Scottsdale; foxrc.com

5. Few Arizona restaurants have garnered the level of praise heaped on FnB. The homey micro-eatery specializes in comfort food like grilled spicy broccoli with tangerine aioli or braised leeks with mozzarella and mustard bread crumbs. Snag some face time with co-owner and maître d’ Pavle Milic, who will not only describe the singular texture and taste of your ginger crème fraîche–drizzled Gilfeather rutabaga but also share a colorful anecdote about the Vermont farmer it’s named after. $$$; 7133 E. Stetson Dr., Scottsdale; 480/425-9463.

6. Throw caution to the wind at Posh, owner-chef Joshua Hebert’s experiment in “improvisational cuisine”; just check off the kinds of meat you won’t eat (raw sea urchin) and let the chef do the rest. That might mean mesquite-braised veal cheeks. Or alligator-tail tenderloin. You never know. $$$$; 7167 E. Rancho Vista Dr., Scottsdale; poshscottsdale.com

7. Flag down Scotts­dale’s Sweet Republic ice cream truck, a converted 1959 Chevy painted Day-Glo orange that was featured on TLC’s Best Food Ever. The frozen artisanal treats therein are just as distinctive, including salted butter caramel and a seasonal truffle and white-chocolate number that haunts us like a dead lover. sweetrepublic.com  

 

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