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You will wait a long time for a table at Pizzeria Bianco, but it's worth it.
You will wait a long time for a table at Pizzeria Bianco, but it's worth it.

A Phoenix foodie adventure

PHOENIX -- Over the last 14 years, I've come to know the Phoenix area as almost a second home. I've eaten at everything from corner taco stands to the finest area restaurants, but I'd never call myself a foodie.

One reader, however, has experienced a different type of Phoenix dining adventure. Jake Hay saw my preview of this trip on Twitter recently, and suggested he, too weigh in. As part of his job in Milwaukee, Hay has spent every other weekend during January, February and March in the Phoenix metro area, and he's done it on a $45 per day stipend, "which I rarely exceed," he says. He's visited more than 25 bars and restaurants, and offer us this expansive list.

Papago Brewery (Scottsdale)
The first place I visited. Tucked back in a strip mall (like a lot of places in Phoenix) lies the go-to place for craft beer. Two dozen-plus taps and a large cooler of bottled beer-to-go available for purchase. If you're looking for a Mecca of great beer and decent pub grub, look no further. Feel free to grab one of the many board games and put back a few pints on the wooden benches. Skip the "beer bites," as they're unworthy of such a delicious-sounding name.

Delux Burger (Scottsdale)
Delux is a blue neon-lighted popular (but sardine-can tiny) place that's known for serving up great burgers. I got the Delux burger which comes with gruyere and Maytag bleu cheeses, arugula and caramelized onions. I was only moderately impressed (Damn you Stack'D and Sobelmans!). Overall a good burger, but not the best.

The Grind (Phoenix)
Yet another strip mall restaurant on busy Camelback Road boasts a 1,000-degree coal oven. I indulged in a sweet and spicy burger -- complete with succulent candied jalapenos. I'm not a huge fan of spicy foods, but this mid-rare burger was a perfect blend of sweet and spicy. The oven put a delicious outer layer of char on the burger that I fell in love with immediately. Paired with a Moscow Mule (vodka, ginger beer and lime) served in a copper mug, this dinner remains on my valley foodie highlight reel. If burgers aren't your thing, there were many other coal-fired options -- including a roasted veggie entree.

LoLo's Chicken and Waffles (Phoenix)
Oh, LoLo's. Nestled in a not-so upscale area south of Phoenix lies a soul-food lover's paradise. A drab brown building with a small rear parking lot doesn't necessarily scream "come on in," but inside is another story. If it's good enough for Muhammad Ali and Shaq -- it's good enough for you. The Southern-centric menu features (of course) fried chicken, waffles and other staples like grits, collard greens, okra and much, much more. Complete your experience by ordering a "Jar-O-Drank" (not kidding) which features free refills of soda or Kool-Aid in a glass mason jar. Fried chicken was good, but in my opinion the waffles were better. LoLo's will make you laugh, cry, and feel the need to work out the next day.

Four Peaks Brewing Company (Tempe, Scottsdale)
Arguably Arizona's most popular brewery, I visited the original location in Tempe for the authentic experience. Road parking only for the most part in a residential area. A rather large interior space, so usually you won't have a problem finding a seat at the bar or getting a table nearby -- some mere feet away from the cold beer tanks. Ordered the "beer bread chicken," which was lackluster, to say the least. Beer was great, but next time I go, I'd get something different to eat. Four Peaks Kilt Lifter scotch ale, the most popular brew they make, I believe – is actually quite bland. The Hefeweizen or the specialty/seasonals are where it's at.

Pizzeria Bianco (Phoenix)
This pizza lover's paradise is open only 4-10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Noted as the area's best pizza, and regarded by many experts as one of the top 5 spots in the entire nation. There's about 10-15 tables, so a visit to Bianco means one thing: WAITING. No exaggeration -- I've been here two times and have waited an hour and 45 minutes the first time and two hours and 30 minutes the second. Why would anyone wait that long? Because, in my opinion, it's worth it. A rite of passage, if you will. To pass the time, head to the house (also owned by Bianco) immediately to the right -- there's a great little bar and sitting room. Or you can join the 30 or so others patiently waiting at a picnic table outside. The pizza -- which is cooked in an authentic wood-fire hearth oven, is out-of-this world good. True Wisconsinites will get "The Wiseguy:" fennel sausage, caramelized onions and cheese over a white sauce. It's so perfectly delicious that a word to describe it hasn't been created yet. Park in the parking garage off 5th Street and make sure to take your parking ticket with you and get it validated inside to avoid the ridiculous $12 fee. Unfortunately, reservations are not accepted.

Thirsty Monk (Mesa)
An odd little Mesa haunt, formerly known as "Buffalo Wings and Rings" as the giant sign still says. New ownership hadn't put up a sign yet when I ate there, but by the time you read this, it may have. Not a bad bar for the Mesa scene, which usually panders to the elderly. Chicken wings are featured, and the boneless ones were pretty good. Plenty of sauce options, as well. Pair them with a decent beer list and you're golden. To be honest, I would only stop back here if I needed somewhere to go close to Mesa.

SunUp Brewery (Phoenix)
Amidst the insane number of buildings and strip malls on Camelback also lies SunUp Brewery. It's a warm and inviting mini-brewery that has a good menu full of munchable bar fare that won't break your bank. Seasonal and specialty brews were very enjoyable. Since this place is so close to the hotel I stayed at, I've been here three times. Locals are friendly and talkative here and bartenders are knowledgeable.

Teakwoods Tavern (Various locations)
In the hunt to find really good chicken wings in the desert, a Google search popped up this local restaurant chain. I visited the East Indian School Road location in Phoenix on a busy Friday night. The place was loud and extremely understaffed. Go ahead and grab some peanuts from the bucket on your table and discard the shells on the ground. This is about the most fun you'll have here all night. The chicken wings were boring and uninspired and the drink menu was basically non-existent. Have a feeling this was busy with nearby locals who call this place "their" bar. Not sure. Either way, skip this one.

Casey Jones Grill (North Phoenix)
THE Packers bar in Phoenix. Visited during the NFC Championship game early Sunday and partied with 200 of Phoenix's greatest green and gold supporters. The food was just OK but that didn't matter. Go here for the atmosphere and good-natured fun. Check out the train on the ceiling as you lift your beer to your lips. 20-plus TVs and a ton of Packers memorabilia.

Sophie's Bistro (Phoenix)
A quaint little French bistro in a small house in Phoenix. Service was attentive during a busy lunch rush the day I visited. Authentic French cuisine was prepared nicely. It was a much-needed change of pace in a nice, quiet setting. My ham, mushroom and gruyere quiche was great.

SanTan Brewery (Chandler)
A downtown Chandler hot spot. Take a look at the canning line through the windows from the sidewalk before you enter. Open garage-door walls throughout (like many places here) get the air flow going and wafts beery malt in the air. Love that you're able to sit at the bar still being outside. Beers were OK and the food was decent, but the atmosphere was the strong point on the busy Saturday evening. Go here if you're southeast of Phoenix, as Chandler/Gilbert area can be a bit far away.

Barrio Café (Phoenix)
Have you ever had a meal, and at first bite you knew it would be one of your greatest ever? This is that place for me. Simply put: mind-altering, heart-fluttering Mexican food. I could write an entire article on how good this food is. Guacamole (sprinkled with pomegranate seeds) is made to order table-side. Slow-simmered 12 hour pork (Cochonitas Pibil) entrée was by far -- one of the greatest meals I've had in YEARS. Live music adds to the ambience of Barrio Café -- as does the nu-skool paintings that adorn the walls here. Added bonus -- the tequila list is so long, you'll be lucky to read through it by the time your hour wait has passed. There's literally more tequila bottles than seats here. Great spot for a date or with a small group of friends. Barrio Café is a must stop, and can range from moderately priced to an expensive night out.

George and Dragon Pub ( Phoenix)
Traditional English fare in Brit-rock/soccer setting. The steak and mushroom pie with a hearty Guinness for lunch was pretty good, and very filling. Plenty of space in here to kick back, relax and catch a soccer game. Honestly, I think this place would be better-suited for a visit at night. Getting drunk here could be pretty hilarious with the uppity bartenders and interesting locals (A group of rowdy bikers at noon on a Sunday when I visited).

Sapporo (Scottsdale)
North Scottsdale sushi hot spot. The Asian fusion food was a bit bland, but the drinks were good and the happy hour specials were pretty great. People watching is the main draw here, as you'll see a flurry of interesting folks. The bar definitely gets crowded in the early evening, so if you decide to visit -- get there early. A decent place if you're willing to travel a bit north on Scottsdale Road.

The Vig Uptown (Phoenix)
Hip bar with a large open-aired "Arizona" room, decent wine and beer list and an indoor bocce ball court. Don't feel like messing with Arizona's strict drunk driving laws? Call Mike, who operates the "Vig Rig" taxi. (He might event give you a beer from his on-board cooler. As always, tips are appreciated.) Food here was good, but portions were awfully small for the price.

St Francis (Phoenix)
This place is a modern family-owned American kitchen with an urban twist. I was seated at the kitchen bar overlooking the busy chefs at work. This place also features a large wood burning oven, which most diners can see if you get seated inside. Oven-fired pork chop was outstanding -- thanks to my coworker for letting me have a bite or two. Even though the kitchen was busy, a sous chef had no problem talking to me while she was working, which was pretty cool. Otherwise St. Francis was slightly unmemorable overall, but the well-thought menu (see: specialty cocktails) and bar make it a worthwhile stop if you're in the area.

Maizie's Café (Phoenix)
Maizie's Café and Bistro reminded me of an upscale coffee shop setting. Comfy couches, art-filled walls and an ample amount of outdoor seating make this a popular destination for locals for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Sandwhiches, salads, panini and wraps seemed to be the main focus when I dined during a late Friday morning. This place might have a serious night crowd, as the chalkboard bar specials filled the entire board.

Bungalow Bar (Scottsdale)
Famished on a Thursday night and driving aimlessly in downtown Scottsdale, I decided on a whim to get some nutrition at Bungalow. Featured a long wrap-around bar and a lounge area inside with tons of patrons enjoying the Phoenix air outside. I was so hungry I could have eaten a horse. I should have ordered that. The chicken wings were dull, and the bungalow pork tacos -- its signature -- seemed like they were prepared by a child. If you'd rather have a drink instead of om-nomming, be prepared for $7 captain and cokes. Skip this unpleasant corner cabana and opt for anything else. There are PLENTY of other options in downtown Scottsdale. As I left, my stomach was angry and my wallet was sad.

Becketts Table (Phoenix)
This newer restaurant highlights comfort food on a slightly upscale level. The place has plenty of seating, high ceilings with exposed wood rafters, and a home-cookin' aroma that fills the air here. According to the server, "Everything here is excellent -- so order what appeals to you and I guarantee you'll like it." Wow, strong selling point. She was right. The osso bucco was exceptional and full of flavor. The "Arizona Farmhand" drink, made with (my favorite) Hendricks Gin and lemonade with ginger was a great complement to the bacon cheddar biscuits and chicken and dumplings. I've had dreams about this place, it's that good. Next time, I save room for the bacon-chocolate s'mores made with homemade marshmallows (seriously). Everything is under $20, so you have no excuse to not go.

Hillside Spot Market and Café (Phoenix)
Off 47th and East Warner sits this great breakfast spot. Oddly enough, there's a bar with a few beer taps, as well. I had the "El Jeffe Omelet" -- containing chorizo, roasted potatoes, red pepper, spinach, and a cheese that started with an "m" that I couldn't pronounce. The fluffy banana nut pancakes with whipped cream were light and extremely delicious as well. Plenty of indoor and outdoor seating.

Hana Japanese Eatery (Phoenix)
If you like sushi and use Foursquare, this is your place. According to its Web site, the most Foursquare check-ins March 23-28 wins dinner for two of off menu items. Mayor here gets free sashimi for checking in! From the shrimp tempura to the miso soup, this is a stellar Japanese dining spot. Let it be known though that Hana is BYOB. Take a seat at the sushi bar to watch the experts construct a mean sushi roll ... or 100. The fresh wasabi was a hit for me, as I like to cry and wince in horseradish pain when I have sushi. The menu is huge here. Raw cuts are definitely the specialty.

Culinary Dropout (Scottsdale)
A hip go-to "gastropub" near Scottsdale's busy fashion center. This bar/restaurant has enough eye candy working to make an entire room of mutes stand up and scream "hallelujah". A well-thought out drink list and a fun, albeit interesting food menu make this a worthwhile stop. See the rest of Scottsdale's bronzed, buxom and beautiful at the bar under large chandeliers and listen to the much-too-loud music pumping through the speakers. If you're eating, go with the turkey pastrami sandwich -- sealed by a pretzel roll. Just drinking? The "El Matador" will have you dancing in no time.

Gallo Blanco (Phoenix)
Planted on the first floor of the '70s retro-cool Clarendon Hotel. The food at Gallo Blanco is very fresh, and captures your attention right away. They prepare small tacos, meant to be ordered all at once or mixed and matched as you go. The guacamole was fresh and had a high citrus tinge to it, as did the shrimp ceviche, served an a goblet aside a large bowl of chips. House margaritas were perfect, and the place offers wine and beer as well. The pork (cochonitas) tacos were great, with the ahi tuna tacos not far behind. One taco ranges between $2 and $4. Another great Phoenix destination -- definitely a must stop, this joint puts Milwaukee Mexican eats to shame. Apparently there's a rooftop bar here as well -- if you can tear yourself away from the tacos. Overall a wonderful, less expensive alternative to Barrio Café.

Durant's (Phoenix)
You can visit Durant's if you pass the following criteria:

  1. Is money no option?
  2. Do you need to impress a date, or a group of friends?
  3. Do you have an insatiable craving for steak?

If you answered yes to, let's say, two of these, then step on in. This Arizona mainstay has been serving delicious steaks and seafood for more than 50 years. Visit the bar after you stroll through the entrance -- which just happens to be the back kitchen line. You'll swear you're at an old school Wisconsin supper club as you notice the red velvet-colored patterns on the interior wallpaper. Better yet, have James at the bar make you an Old Fashioned. Close your eyes and be whisked away back to The Good Land. Be prepared to shell out the greenbacks though -- especially if you order the 48-ounce porterhouse, which runs a cool $83.

There is literally something for everyone in the Phoenix area, and the options are ENDLESS. No one is going hungry here, as the region has a ridiculous amount of choices for any budget in every suburb. For more reading, pick up the current issue of Phoenix Magazine (available at any grocery store), which showcases the valley's 50 best bars. So enjoy the food, enjoy the fun -- but most importantly -- take in the SUNNY outdoor dining.

Bon appetit!


older/wiser | March 18, 2011 at 11:16 a.m. (report)

Thanks for the nice information. Heading to Phoenix next Tuesday-Sunday. Hope to get to two Brewer games and a wedding on the weekend. Also taking you up on your suggestion of booking a room at the Sheraton Crescent. Will print up the list of restaurants suggested in this article. As a first timer to AZ, it will be nice to have a little bit of info to take along.

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lks | March 18, 2011 at 11:11 a.m. (report)

If you feel like driving north to the carefree/cavecreek area, I highly recommend Great steaks and other "cowboy" food and a super reasonable price. You won't be disappointed.

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