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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Ramen Kagawa

The movie “Blade Runner,” set in a fictional version of 2019, shows a bleak future. With 2020 being defined by a global pandemic, record heat, and social unrest, the actual present doesn’t always seem much better than the world envisioned in the movie. One memorable scene involves a stop for a meal at a crowded noodle shop in a busy alley. The experience of a quick stop for nourishment in a bustling environment is hard to find with so many downtown workers at home for now, but Ramen Kagawa has bravely opened in the middle of all the malaise.

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Myke’s Pizza

As restaurants struggle to remain in operation while complying with public health directives, many have found themselves expanding into the sidewalk and even the street with enlarged outdoor dining areas. Downtown Mesa has embraced this trend, allowing places to use more exterior space than ever before, one adaptation to the virus that might be worth making permanent. As so many restaurants move outside, there’s one, Myke’s Pizza, that was actually born outdoors on Main Street before migrating to a home inside another business, Cider Corps.

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Four Peaks Brewing Company

It has been about five years since the surprise announcement that local favorite Four Peaks, one of the craft beer pioneers in Arizona, was being acquired by the multinational giant Anheuser-Busch InBev. That news, one of many acquisitions of regional breweries, led to concern about the transaction’s impact on other craft beer producers and inevitable accusations of “selling out.” While the financial arrangements may be different behind the scenes, it’s reassuring that little has changed, and some aspects have even improved, for the consumer.

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Pho Leo

Anyone searching for Vietnamese food, or really any east Asian cuisine, in Mesa is likely to head to Dobson Road, the corridor where countless restaurants have proliferated over the past decade. The Asian Business District at the west end of Mesa is worth exploring and celebrating for sure, but it’s equally important to recognize restaurants serving Vietnamese food in the central and eastern portions of the city. Pho Leo is one of those few places that break the mold with a location where the tracks in the center of Main Street end and east Mesa begins.

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