Restaurant Culture 2.0

When most people think of Arizona cuisine their mind probably automatically goes to Mexican-American food. You’ve got your nachos, tamales, taco tuesdays, etc. Anything different may have seemed exotic or far out until more recently as new shifts and trends in the food scene have changed the way we eat out in the state.

Brunch is king, avocado toast is literally everywhere, and tacos are now handcrafted delicacies. This is due in part to influence from other parts of the country, and even the world, showing up on our menus.

“When you look at the evolution of our food and restaurant industry here, we’ve really become a culinary destination,” says Steve Churci, President and CEO of the Arizona Restaurant Association. “We’ve come a long, long way and it’s now brought us to the point to hit about $12.6 billion dollars in food sales.”

Phoenix has seen a huge surge in not only restaurants, but a full-service food experience. Think of the downtown area with its multi-purpose industrial spaces complete with yoga studios, galvanized steel and handcrafted chef-driven restaurants. Altogether, there are about 9,500 restaurants throughout the state pulling in $500 million year-over-year growth, according to Chucri.

The Guardian writer Marina O’Loughlin took a trip south by southwest to tour the Phoenix food scene and was blown away by its subtle growth as a landing spot for trendy restaurants. She points out places like Lux Central Cafe, the recently departed DeSoto Central Market, Phoenix Public Market (basically anything with the word “Market” in it will stand out), and Futuro Coffee as bastions of this epic turnaround in the area’s food offerings.

Another area of growth in Arizona that is influenced by other parts of the country is barbecue. While there have always been pits set up in Arizona, the state hasn’t been known as a symbol of the smokehouse. But pitmasters are seeing more interest from diners looking for something smokey and sweet. It’s not just slabs of ribs thrown on a grill; instead, cuts like wagyu are being experimented with, representing the growing and evolving moment for specialty barbecue taking place in Phoenix.

One section of town getting more recognition is the booming downtown district, specifically along Roosevelt Row. What was once known as a sleepy drive-thru section of the greater downtown area has evolved over the years into a thriving arts and culture space. Now, the strip of concrete is home to gourmet coffee shops (Be Coffee + The Dressing Room), taco houses (Taco Chelo), hip barber shops, and, you guessed it, barbecue joints (Trapp Haus).

Phoenix is also home to some of the best exports that are popping up in different parts of the country. You have Postino, Flower Child and, of course, Sam Fox restaurants that are expanding to places like San Diego, Denver and Houston, all established culinary hotspots.

“We are known as a test community meaning that menu items are tested here before they go out elsewhere…Now, we have the most chef-driven restaurants in Arizona than ever before and that includes James Beard Award winners and nominees,” adds Chucri.

To get a taste of the local food scene, check out Arizona Restaurant Week, September 21-30.

Nick Esquer

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