Once known for big box stores and chain restaurants, Phoenix, Mesa and their neighbours have been turning their attention to local farms and growers over the last few years and have created a surprisingly independent food scene. Chefs are choosing local ingredients from nearby farmers to use in their menus and innovators are starting businesses that defy typecasting.
True Food Kitchen, Phoenix
My favourite find out of the bunch was True Food Kitchen, a concept restaurant based around Dr. Andrew Weil’s anti-inflammatory diet. I pay no attention to “diets” but was enthralled with this fresh eatery.
The focus is on vegetables, fruit, whole grains and proteins, but without the this-is-a-healthy-meal taste (you know what I mean: you choke it back because it’s good for you but it tastes like soil). Instead, they make dishes like Spicy Miso Edamame (gorgeous), Thai Shrimp Dumplings, Grilled Shrimp Spring Rolls, Albacore Sashimi, and Herb Hummus with pita bread.
Blue Hound Kitchen, Phoenix
Although the Blue Hound is part of the Kimpton Hotel chain, this gastro-lounge stays pretty local. Executive Chef Stephen Jones partners with local and independent farmers to create comfort food using organic produce and free-range meats. Instead of heavy butters and creams, he prefers marinades, vinegars, oils, brines and rubs.
The bar is Shel Bourdon’s canvas and she mixes up some energetic cocktails. On top of offering what the restaurant says is Phoenix’s largest selection of bourbons, scotches and gins, what complements the liqueurs are fresh fruit juices and purees, and locally-grown ingredients. This new restaurant is a total hit for the downtown crowd.
Queen Creek Olive Mill, Queen Creek
Olives are most associated with the Mediterranean, but they actually grow easily – and without the need for pesticides – in the Arizona desert. “Just add water and grow,” says Perry Rae, President of family-owned Queen Creek Olive Mill. “We don’t waste anything. Everything has a flavour profile.”
His mill, located southeast of Mesa, is the only working olive mill and farm in Arizona. They package all of their extra virgin olive oil continuously, rather than in one large assembly, so that it’s as fresh as possible. Each bottle has a bottling date printed on it to ensure freshness. (According to their literature, their process yields “the highest grade of olive oil obtained only from the olive, using solely mechanical means which do not alter the olive in any way. It can be qualified as a natural product.”)
What’s the most popular flavour they sell? This summer, it was the Bacon Olive Oil. Ironically enough, the product is vegan.
Schnepf Farms, Queen Creek
Also in Queen Creek is Schnepf Farms, another family-owned business, billed as the largest agri-tourist destination in Arizona. I didn’t have a chance to visit them, but their u-pick fruit and vegetables on seven acres of pesticide-free farm, educational tours, full dinners, museum, and country store & bakery are mighty tempting…
Postino’s East WineCafe, Gilbert
It’s all about the locally-sourced bruschetta at Postino’s East, with combos like Brie & Apples with Fig Spread, Smoked Salmon with Pesto, Tomato Jam & Fresh Sheeps Milk Cheese, White Bean with Chopped Tomato, and Ricotta with Dates & Pistachios.
The atmosphere is unexpectedly hip for such a small town (pop: just over 200,000). The corner where it rests (there are two other locations, both in Phoenix) is in the historic downtown of Gilbert, a cute stroll of heritage buildings. I went on a Tuesday evening and the place was packed.
Liberty Market, Gilbert
Although it was a grocery store in the 1930s, Liberty Market (across the street from Postino’s East) has been transformed by two local couples into a casual restaurant with lots o’ history. Seek out the wood-fired pizza oven, Vulcan cooking suite and E61 Bar for some vintage machinery. A laminated fact sheet tells the story of the Ong family, Chinese immigrants who purchased the store in the 40s, and points out some original quirks about the building (the attic-height office the Ong’s used or the low window that was once an opening for the beer cooler compressor).
Healthy Cooking Classes
I want to give a special shout out to the Healthy Eating Cooking Class at The Westin Kierland Resort and Spa’s Agave Spa. Every Wednesday at lunchtime Michele Rusinko does a healthy cooking demonstration using the simplest of methods (she prepares everything with a blender and hot plate) and then serves you what she’s made. It’s a nice reminder of how little you need to do to prepare fantastic meals.
I couldn’t get to every great restaurant in the Phoenix area, so what are your favourites?