As the temperature in Phoenix goes from “why is it still 100 degrees in the first two weeks of October!?” to absolutely perfect just a week later, the annual migration of snowbirds flying south for the winter and seeking southwestern sanctuary is upon us. Here to enjoy the amazing weather, southwest culture, golf and some great desert escape resorts. So if you’re one of these snowbirds, are new to the area, or just looking for a new place to try, a native Phoenician would like to share a few of his favorite places to eat in the general downtown area of Phoenix, Arizona.
This is not a full on review of these restaurants and my selections are in no particular order. These are places I’ve been to multiple times as I feel I can’t accurately assess a restaurant having only been there once. I’ve been to a ton of restaurants which were great but again I’ve only been there once and haven’t been too compelled to go back unless I’m in the neighborhood but have had good experiences nonetheless. Now I’m not some tattooed, rebel, breaking-all-the-rules chef that studied in some secluded culinary temple somewhere in southern France nor am I some respected food critic. I’m just a regular guy with a 9-5 and a huge appetite that has been around the world a few times.
For the record I think Mediterranean food, more specific to Athens, Greece is my favorite but I still have not found a Greek place that will put French fries in my gyro without having to request them or receive weird looks for asking. Hell, even all the doner I had in Turkey had fries inside. So ALL the “authentic Greek/Athenian” places I’ve been to here sadly receive the egregiously demeritorious offense of flat out getting it wrong. I miss you dearly Athens (and Istanbul) where fries come standard in your perfect gyros and souvlaki.
Blue Fin – Blue Fin is about half a block south down Central Ave. from where I work. Here you can get fast, affordable and delicious teriyaki bowls and more. It is the definition of a family owned and operated local business. The kind of place where they’ll remember and greet you by name with top notch and friendly service. This place is a shining example that you don’t have to be a five star restaurant to give great taste and five star service. My co-worker is actually calling in an order as I type this. Blue Fin was also one of the only places that were happy to have me take photos in their establishment and share them with you. They score huge friendliness points for that. Thank you Lyn and Olga. A few other regulars were having a small birthday celebration when these photos were taken and they were nice enough to give me, a total stranger, a slice of their chocolate cake. I like it there. Favorite dish: All white meat panko chicken with extra tonkatsu sauce.
Matt’s Big Breakfast – If you’re at all familiar with the downtown area, you’ve heard of this place. I’m a huge breakfast food person and I feel I was spoiled by working the night shift as I was able to walk to Matt’s and get there just as they opened so my co-workers and I would usually be the first party seated. Back when they were in the original building that seated maybe 20 people. The new location is much larger by comparison but still if you’re going to get there after 8 any day of the week, be prepared to wait though you shall be rewarded. They only have a few items on the menu with one changing special of the day so you know they do those few items extremely well. Favorite dish: Salami Scramble with hash browns. I’ll usually throw some cheese in as well.
Angel’s Trumpet Ale House – The 31 ever rotating craft beer list coupled with one of the best burgers I’ve ever had complimented and complemented by homemade deserts is a winning combination in my book. Desserts are great because they’re not the ubiquitous pizza cookie or some kind of brownie with ice cream that’s on EVERY chain restaurant’s dessert menu. They also have a dog friendly patio and it always puts a smile on my face watching happy dogs. They don’t have an online food or draft beer menu since once a keg blows, they replace it with something totally different. Have you ever had a homemade Pop-Tart? They’re awesome. Favorite dish: Outlaw burger with a fried egg thrown in.
Taco Guild – A restaurant converted from an old Methodist church that was built in 1893 that serves interesting taco combinations along with an authentic elote (grilled corn on the cob). You can choose from different types of meat ranging from duck to lamb which allows for a great variety of combinations. As you can see it’s not really traditional Mexican food but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s also a great place if you’re a fan of tequila. Favorite dish: Three tacos, one al pastor, one duck, and one chipotle cherry beef on corn, never flour tortillas, with street corn (elote).
43rd Express/Pho 43 – This one isn’t actually in the downtown area but 43rd Avenue and Thomas is just a short drive away. I love pho and it’s always great at every place I’ve had it but 43rd Express takes the first place trophy on taste and the whole experience of dining at a down-to-earth Vietnamese restaurant. Worried about authenticity? There will be plenty of Asians dining there to verify that this place is legit. If you want to have that “hole in the wall” restaurant experience everyone is looking for, come here. If you’re a fan of fresh, handmade macarons, come here. Macarons By Binh are made and sold here which can also be used to make an ice cream sandwich with the cookies as pictured below. They’re only available on the weekends and sell out quick so get yours early. They’ll also take a small Polaroid of you if you’d like to be placed on the wall. 43rd Express was another place that was interested in my camera and were really cool about me taking pictures in their restaurant and sharing them. Thank you guys. Favorite dish: Extra large flank steak pho with extra noodles then a macaron ice cream sandwich for dessert.
Hula’s Modern Tiki – If you’re driving either direction on Central Ave., it would be pretty hard to miss Hula’s with the hexagon window displaying vibrant, hanging red lights from atop the bar. I truly like the atmosphere at Hula’s. It deftly walks the line of a comfortable and contemporary restaurant while immersing you into the Hawaiian surf culture of the 60’s and 70’s. Amazing food that has never disappointed and island inspired drinks make it a top choice. Favorite dish: Blackened ahi sandwich.
China Chili – When I’m looking for Chinese food in the downtown area, China Chili is always the first place that pops into my head. You can get all the favorites you know and love and even a little more. There’s no attempt at fusion food or adding anything as a gimmick, just good Chinese food. I’d like to think of their food as very tasty and impressively presented but with no frills. Change is usually good but when there’s nothing wrong to begin with, it’s nice to have that familiarity. Favorite dish: Chicken in Phoenix nest.
Cherry Blossom Noodle Cafe – Cherry Blossom is my go to place in Phoenix when I’m craving a hot and steaming bowl of ramen with some good sushi. Sadly when people hear the word ramen they automatically think of the dry stuff in a bright package with some type of animal flavored dust. I know it was probably your college survival food but if the packaged ramen is all you know, you’re in for a fantastic new world when you have the real thing at Cherry Blossom. Favorite dish: Chicken ramen with a side of yellow tail sushi.
Vovomeena – This is another great breakfast and brunch spot that may be a little hidden from the southeast corner of 7th Avenue and McDowell. A local and independent place that effortlessly mixes interesting ingredients and thankfully injects personality into an area saturated by boring chain restaurants. Where else can you get something called johnnycakes with prickly pear syrup? Since Vovomeena closes at 1:30, there’s always plenty of parking in the morning in an area that turns into Mad Max and the Thunderdome around lunch time. Favorite dish: Pain Perdu. Banana bread pudding French toast with whiskey caramel.
Pizza People Pub – The PPP is across from Blue Fin so it’s another go to choice for lunch or after work dinner and beer. A restaurant that started out as a food truck, it has definitely grown into a beautiful and welcoming place. Pizzas are personal sizes but they also serve burgers, salads and ridiculously satisfying mac and cheese. Favorite dishes: The Encanto burger with a black bean patty and the Hulk pizza.
Burger Factory – Burger Factory has THE best breakfast burrito in Phoenix. A no frills, simple ingredient, short order, counter serve restaurant where you can see all your food being made. More often than not I just want simple ingredients that don’t have 5 adjectives attached to them. I just want a hearty amount of eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, hash browns, and cheese wrapped in a massive tortilla for only $4. And yes, they do have tasty burgers as well. I don’t know why most places try to forego simplicity for what sounds fancy. Simplicity is often the hardest thing to achieve and Burger Factory makes it look easy. This is another one of my third shift haunts and I still have not had a better breakfast burrito to this day. Favorite dish: The Original Breakfast Burrito, obviously.
Guanaquito – El Salvadorean.
Cibo – Italian.
Carly’s Bistro – Bistro.
I hope this list helps anyone who may be looking for a good place to try while visiting the downtown Phoenix area. If there are any restaurants you know of in the downtown area that you’d like to recommend, please feel free to let me know. Have a wonderful day.