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A Foodie’s Desert Escape: Phoenix, Arizona

By Susan Benton

With an abundance of new resorts, refreshed hotels, and incredible spas, it’s no wonder so many people call Phoenix an oasis in the desert. Upon my arrival this summer, I was whisked right through the triple-digit temperatures and into a cool cab that took me to the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, a resort known for its Spanish Colonial architecture and AAA Five-Diamond rating.

I love when business and pleasure collide. After settling in my room with a private balcony overlooking lush scenery and a waterfall, I made my way to one of the pools to relax before heading to dinner. The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess is a kid-friendly, pet-friendly spa retreat and golfer’s paradise that offers four amazing restaurants on the property. I was fortunate to dine at La Hacienda by Richard Sandoval on my first night. The modern Mexican cuisine created by Chef Forest Hamrick is in a class by itself, so it’s no wonder La Hacienda was voted the number one Mexican restaurant in Arizona by AZ Business Magazine from 2012 to 2015. The restaurant’s motto, “Old Hands, New Ways,” is definitely reflected in the food. The guacamole, presented three ways, was creative and packed with flavor, and the tequila bar showcased over two hundred varieties. Of course, there is a very knowledgeable—not to mention beautiful—tequila goddess on hand to create tastings and suggest pairings with the menu. The snakebite is a must-try!

drinks in phoenix arizona

Joe’s Farm Grill was my destination the next morning, and I was excited to try it out, having seen it featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Located in the quaint suburb of Gilbert, the restaurant offers a farm-to-table experience where the produce is harvested, prepared, and served all in the same day. Owner Joe Johnston grew up on the property, which was his family’s cotton farm in the 1960s, and the restaurant is currently located in the original house. Although it has been updated, the building keeps the retro architecture of its time—and it’s an incredible environment in which to nosh on a burger topped with a fresh egg from the farm. Make mine a double, please.

The neighborhood surrounding Joe’s Farm Grill is called Agritopia, and it boasts over 160 acres of certified organic farmland with pathways that allow residents and visitors to view the crops. Fruit trees, rows of produce, chickens, and sheep fill the landscape along with more than 450 single-family homes, each with a front porch to encourage conversation. Johnston and his family all reside nearby and work with the farm, the farm stand, and the restaurants on-site. The farm supplies area chefs and purveyors with food and acts as a co-op as well as a place for those who just want their own small plot to tend. A senior retirement community and a charter school are also nearby, making Agritopia a traditional neighborhood for multiple generations.

Joe's farm grill phoenix arizona
Photo courtesy of Joe’s Farm Grill

Next on my agenda: a visit to a family-owned flour mill featured in the documentary The Grain Divide. Here, heirloom wheat is transformed into flour with minimal processing. Hayden Flour Mills at Sossaman Farms in Queen Creek showed me a few trendy pasta-making techniques as well as future products such as artisan breads, wheat berries, bourbon, craft beer, and grain-based oils. I shoved a free bag of ground cornmeal into my purse and used it when I got home to make corn bread; I added a spoonful of rendered Benton’s bacon fat to the batter. The decadent outcome was great alongside a plate of farmers’ market field peas. Keep the folks at Hayden on your radar!

The decadent outcome was great alongside a plate of farmers’ market field peas. Keep the folks at Hayden on your radar!

Another important stop for me was Queen Creek Olive Mill, one of Arizona’s top-five foodie destinations. This impressive farm is the only family-owned and operated olive mill in Arizona. The base of the San Tan Mountains, an area known for its fertile soil, long sunny days, and cool desert nights, provides ideal conditions for the olive trees to thrive. The mill offers tours and tastings, and also ships a variety of oils and gifts. I certainly took advantage. You will not want to leave without indulging in a Tuscan-inspired gourmet sandwich, panino, hearty soup, salad, or gelato at the eatery, not to mention an espresso at Superstition Coffee, their local roastery.

Arizona is famous for microbreweries, but Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. was Gilbert’s first. It opened in 2013 and quickly moved up the ranks to be named top new brewer in the world by RateBeer.com in 2014. The brewery uses ingredients from local farms in its artisanal ales. It also serves great bites such as Bavarian pretzel sticks accompanied by beer cheese and beer mustard, and baskets of hand-cut fries cooked in duck fat and served with house garlic aioli. This is a trendy place to enjoy a refreshing Refuge IPA with friends in the afternoon.

corn dish phoenix arizona grace stufkosky
Photo by Grace Stufkosky

Don’t miss dinner at Blue Hound Kitchen in the heart of downtown Phoenix. Here you’ll find seasonal American fare meant for sharing and pairing with craft cocktails, wine, beer, and the Salt River Valley’s largest selection of brown spirits. The establishment has gastro-lounge food that is tuned to the modern desert lifestyle, skipping heavy creams in favor of lighter methods to bring out the flavors of the ingredient-driven menu. Executive chef Sean Currid uses his top connections with purveyors to skillfully weave together his straightforward cooking style. He serves a variety of brick-oven flatbreads, innovative salads—like the seared Ahi tuna with avocado, cucumber, pickled chilis, and cilantro—and entrées like Arctic char with lemon couscous, black garlic yogurt, oranges, and olives.

Switching things up, I traveled over to the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa for a night. The Westin chain is known for heavenly beds. This particular location, however, is also known for its handsome Scotch Library, which offers a vast selection of Scotch whiskies, and Deseo (“desire” in Spanish), a restaurant that showcases Nuevo Latino cuisine. My evening began with the haunting sound of Scottish bagpipes played at sunset in a tribute to Scottish immigrants. Then it was on to view over a hundred single malts and twenty-five blends imported from all six whisky regions in Scotland. I enjoyed a sip or three of a two-ounce pour assisted by the resort’s Scotch Library Ambassador.

scotch at westin kierland resort in phoenix arizona
Photo by Shawn Parker

Ready to dive into the culinary scene again, I headed to Deseo, the AAA Four-Diamond restaurant also voted one of America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants in 2014 and 2015 by Wine Enthusiast. The pairing of traditional Latin American and contemporary ingredients lived up to the hype; on the menu are a unique range of mouthwatering ceviches, grilled and roasted fish and shellfish, and meats prepared with tantalizing South American–inspired marinades, sauces, and sides. If you want one of the best seats in the house, make your reservation for the Rail at Deseo, which overlooks the open kitchen.

Phoenix residents are quite proud of the Desert Botanical Garden, one of the few accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. Here you will see the world’s finest collection of arid land plants alongside unique art installations and exhibitions. Educational classes, dining experiences, and hands-on workshops are offered. My visit included a healthy cooking class with Chef Jason Wyrick.

Photo courtesy of Visit Mesa

One of the most memorable gastronomic experiences I enjoyed in Phoenix was lunch at Vincent on Camelback, owned by Chef Vincent Guerithault, a pioneer of Phoenix’s culinary scene for more than three decades. He combines his passions for French cooking techniques and Southwestern ingredients—I am genuinely fond of these as well. Chef Guerithault was awarded the first-ever Citation of Excellence from the International Food and Wine Society, a James Beard Award for America’s Best Chef: Southwest in 1993, and many accolades since. My initial attraction was to his authentic European bistro with a chalkboard menu, which changes daily to highlight the freshest selections. Plan to indulge in the lobster chimichanga with goat cheese and basil beurre blanc as well as showstopping desserts such as the raspberry clafoutis with amaretto ice cream.

Positioned in the heart of the picturesque mountains and surrounded by local and national parks, the Phoenix area has a delightful menu offering adventures to thrill seekers, spa lovers, foodies, and families alike.

— V —

Susan Benton is a food and travel writer and the owner of 30AEATS.com, where she shares her passion for cooking and her commitment to promoting farmers, fishermen, chefs, artisans, and restaurants along the Gulf Coast of Florida. Look for her cookbook to be released this year.

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