Blanco Cocina + Cantina

When downtown Phoenix has seen developments with ambitious names like “CityScape” and “The Arizona Center,” it’s hard to get excited about something with the more modest moniker of “Block 23.” All it takes is a little awareness of local history, though, to understand the importance of the redevelopment of this site, named for the numbered system of parcels used when the city was first developed. Block 23 has been home to city hall, a fire station, the Fox Theater, and a JCPenney store before sitting vacant, underutilized as surface parking, for several decades.

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Happy Bao’s

Over the past two decades, Mesa’s Asian Business District has grown from a few scattered shops to a busy corridor, and one shopping center, Mekong Plaza, has been at the center of the growth. The former Target store, now an Asian-themed plaza full of restaurants and stores, is now joined by the H Mart across the street, Arizona International Marketplace down the road, and even plans for its own expansion. Even so, Mekong Plaza itself still has plenty of hidden corners to explore. One of them is a tiny restaurant by the food court known as Happy Bao’s.

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Superstition Downtown

Without a time machine, it’s hard to know for sure, but it’s often thought that the world’s oldest fermented beverage is mead. Since mead is made with honey, a sugar source that can be found naturally through foraging, its use to create alcohol could have easily predated the agriculture needed to grow grain for beer or cultivate grapes for wine. Just east of downtown Phoenix, Superstition Meadery has fittingly chosen an old building, the former Ong’s market, for a restaurant and shop focused on its signature beverage and complementary food.

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Zuki’s Pita

The ubiquitous pita bread, descended from flatbreads that originated thousands of years ago in the Fertile Crescent, has become so popular it’s the theme of many restaurants, including several chains with the word “pita” in their names. Sometimes, though, there’s still room for a family business with a single location with a focus on pita and the kabobs, dips, and salads it can accompany. On 19th Avenue’s international restaurant corridor, Zuki’s Pita is just that type of place: a neighborhood shop for Mediterranean food in a casual counter service environment.

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Little O’s

Over the past decade, the intersection of McDowell Road and Seventh Avenue has become a busy cluster of restaurants. Many of the arrivals have been national or regional chains, leading one local writer to lament a “fast food dump” at the corner, and there have been the inevitable complaints about insufficient parking. It’s therefore refreshing, both figuratively and literally, to see locally owned Little O’s create a place that invites customers to arrive via bicycle if so inclined, quench their thirst with a pint or pitcher of craft beer, and linger for a while.

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Cartel Coffee Lab

Observers of coffee culture often speak in terms of waves. The current wave, one that has been crashing over our cities since the ‘90s, is the third one, although there has been talk of an emerging fourth wave. Regardless of what trends dominate worldwide, one local coffee house has been making its own waves for over a decade via steady expansion throughout Arizona and even a few points beyond. Now with ten locations, Tempe-based Cartel Coffee Lab has grown a great deal since its founding in 2007, both in terms of its beverage and food to accompany it.

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Comedor Guadalajara

The second largest metropolitan area in Mexico and the capital of the western state of Jalisco, Guadalajara is big, busy, and beautiful with its art and architecture. It’s fitting therefore that a restaurant in Phoenix named for the Mexican city has similar qualities. From the outside, Comedor Guadalajara looks to be a basic beige box. On the inside, it’s a different story. The restaurant has three cavernous dining rooms, bustling even when operating at reduced capacity during the pandemic and decorated with beaded sombreros and colorful prints on the walls.

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MATCH Market & Bar

2020 has been a terrible year for the restaurant industry, and while everyone has suffered, some of the biggest impact has been felt at hotel restaurants. With travel a fraction of what it was before, many properties have shuttered entirely while others have had to reduce operations. For hotel restaurants to survive, they’ve had to rethink their operations and adapt. In the case of the artsy FOUND:RE hotel at the north end of downtown Phoenix, its former full-service restaurant, MATCH, has reopened as a combination of a casual restaurant, a gourmet shop, and a bar.

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Spoonz

For many years, the downtown Phoenix menu seemed to be weekday lunches with a side of breakfast. So many establishments catered to employees of nearby office towers but saw little reason to stay open nights and weekends. Of course, that has all changed with new apartments and entertainment options in the city, and many of those lunch-only establishments have closed. The pandemic has added another challenge with so many people working from home, so it’s fascinating to see Spoonz, a sandwich and salad shop still operating on the office lunch model.

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El Pollo Supremo

There are plenty of restaurants that make an effort to please everyone. Sometimes, that means accommodating reasonable requests for modifications to a dish. It can also mean adding a token entree outside a place’s usual niche in order to override the veto of one member of a group considering a meal there.Those are all understandable steps to take, but it’s easy to get carried away with excessively long menus mired in mediocrity. That’s why it’s refreshing that places like El Pollo Supremo carry on with tightly focused menus that don’t try too hard.

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M’Olé

Mole, the Mexican sauce often associated with ground chilies, spices, and even sometimes chocolate, can be a complex dish. Secret recipes, tacit knowledge, and a certain amount of improvisation can create the nuance that makes each mole unique. It’s a welcome surprise then that mole is the namesake dish at a simple order-at-the-counter lunch spot on the ground floor of a downtown office tower. The restaurant’s name, M’Olé, is both a nod to the signature sauce and a play on the Spanish interjection used to express approval or celebrate victory.

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Slices on Mill

At first glance, Slices on Mill seems like a typical New York pizza place. It’s location three blocks south of the Mill Avenue / Third Street light rail station is cramped and casual. There are a few high-top tables and two counters, most of them adorned with shaker jars of crushed red pepper. A small patio provides additional dining space. The front counter usually has multiple types of pizza on display. In ordinary times when nearby Arizona State University is at its full population, the restaurant caters to the bar crowd by maintaining late hours until 3 AM on weekends.

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