Best of Phoenix 2020: People of the Valley Food and Drink World

The talented people of the Phoenix dining scene deserve all the recognition we’re about to throw at them. We’ve got the best chef, the best bartenders, and even the best chiltepin mastermind.

Here are our Best of Phoenix 2020 winners in the Valley food and drink world.

Best Chef

Sacha Levine

Last year’s Best Vegetable Wizard has graduated to this year’s Best Chef. Sacha Levine was born in Chicago but raised in Bullhead City, eventually relocating to the Phoenix area to cook for spots like FnB, Rancho Pinot, Ocotillo, and Singh Meadows. At Singh, Levine plated a colorful falafel sandwich, a Moroccan carrot and sweet potato pita, and an heirloom bean and ham bowl. Most recently, at the cocktail haven Century Grand, she gave the food range and history, especially with her reimagined beef Wellington, the radicchio-heavy Treviso dish, and ultra-creative dim sum options. Before Century Grand shifted to a cocktails-only operation, Levine had been focusing on creating pickup-able meal kits for the COVID era. Now that its kitchen program has been nixed, we wait for our garnish empress to reveal her next project.

Sherpa Kitchen's chef and owner Subash Yadav grew up in Kathmandu, Nepal.EXPAND

Sherpa Kitchen’s chef and owner Subash Yadav grew up in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Best New Chef

Subash Yadav
Sherpa Kitchen
1533 West Elliot Road, Gilbert

A year ago, when Subash Yadav was selling momos out of a food truck, those lucky enough to snag these thick-doughed dumplings fragrant with curry sauce glimpsed something special — a doorway into a fresh, beautiful cooking style. At Sherpa Kitchen, Yadav’s intimate new restaurant in Gilbert, you get a fuller sense of his singular cooking. Though he prepares Nepalese food, this isn’t what makes Yadav unique — it’s his approach, his flavors, and the feelings they create. Yadav uses the bounty of local farms, like Rhibafarms in Queen Creek. He goes to extravagant lengths to realize the freshest, most artful version of dishes. He spends 10 days making a $6 soup. He fries lalmohan, a syrupy Nepali doughnut, to sidekick a basic order of chai. Plates are brilliant. So is the restaurant — a place that never fully leaves your hungry mind, a place you could visit three times and still find new things to try.

Chef Rene Andrade of Ghost Ranch is our favorite chiltepin pusher.EXPAND

Chef Rene Andrade of Ghost Ranch is our favorite chiltepin pusher.

Chris Malloy

Best Chiltepin Mastermind

Rene Andrade
Ghost Ranch
1006 East Warner Road, #102 and #103, Tempe

Like a superhero, the chef of Ghost Ranch in south Tempe has another identity: distributor of phenomenal peppers to lucky Phoenix chefs and customers. These aren’t your workaday jalapenos or habaneros — the chiltepin is a tiny, round chile native to the Sonoran Desert that, when picked wild, bursts with a fruity heat. Rene Andrade, who goes by “Chito,” gets the peppers from his family’s ranch in Sonora, Mexico. They bring a measured fire to everything from aguachiles to eggs to cookies. One day, if there is any justice in our chile-loving corner of the world, chiltepins will supplant the comparatively insipid alternatives as local king of all peppers. If Andrade keeps on, this might just happen.

Greg Peterson is the farmer behind Urban Farm in north Phoenix.EXPAND

Greg Peterson is the farmer behind Urban Farm in north Phoenix.

Urban Farm

Best Farm Educator

Greg Peterson
The Urban Farm

A Renaissance man of urban agriculture, Greg Peterson’s list of roles goes on for about as long as the morning cry of a backyard chicken. Peterson, a founder of GrowPHX and teacher of permaculture-focused farming methods through the Urban Farm, wants folks to “embrace their own greenness.” He instructs on subjects as varied as seed-saving, fruit trees, compost, and water-harvesting. Urban agriculture, he believes, is our future. His north Phoenix property, also called the Urban Farm, contains dozens of fruit trees festooned with juicy loquats, plums, elderberries, citrus, and just about every fruit that grows in Arizona.

Matthew and Sarah Stubbs find the intersection between nerd culture and foodies with Geeks Who Eat.EXPAND

Matthew and Sarah Stubbs find the intersection between nerd culture and foodies with Geeks Who Eat.

Benjamin Leatherman

Best Local Food Blog

Geeks Who Eat

It’s a scientific fact: Like every carbon-based life form, geeks need to eat, too. Good thing Sarah and Matthew Stubbs are here to help satisfy the hunger pangs of nerds seeking sustenance. Over the past few years, the Scottsdale couple have served up food and drink recipes with a pop culture bent on their website, Geeks Who Eat. Several times monthly, the Stubbses post fantastic creations based off of movies, gaming, comics, and other subject matter. One day, it’s directions on how to whip up a cocktail in the spirit of cult slasher flick Pumpkinhead. The next, it’s a recipe for Hårgan Meat Pies inspired by Midsommar. Scroll through the archives and discover fare like Eleven’s Eggo Sliders, Hulk Smash Potatoes, or the Frozen-themed Arendelle Spice Cake. They also offer culinary tips and tricks for those who aren’t as adept in the kitchen as Remy the Rat and dining guides for events like Phoenix Fan Fusion. Now, if they could only conjure up a decent Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.

Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza inside her restaurant Barrio Cafe.EXPAND

Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza inside her restaurant Barrio Cafe.

Lynn Trimble

Best Hero

Silvana Salcido Esparza
Barrio Café
2814 North 16th Street, #1205

Silvana Salcido Esparza was planning on retiring in a couple of years. Then COVID hit, upending life — and especially restaurant life — as we all knew it. “Guess what?” she told us in March. “You’re going to have to put up with my annoying ass for a lot longer than I thought.” No complaints here. The always-quotable Esparza is not only a star of the local dining scene (we’ve lost track of how many times she’s been nominated for a James Beard Award); she’s also an essential moral figure in Phoenix. When the virus arrived, Esparza closed her flagship restaurant, Barrio Café, and converted it into a community kitchen, preparing red chile burritos and barbecue pork, and giving it all away for free. It wasn’t the first time she shouldered her community. In 2019, she comped meals for furloughed workers after the federal government shut down. And as Esparza prepared for the reopening of Barrio Café this summer, she hired several artists to transform the restaurant with new murals and wall art, helping them weather tough economic times caused by the closure of the gallery scene. “I look out for these artists,” Esparza told us. “They’re my family.” For Esparza in Phoenix, it seems, that’s true of just about everybody.

Juan Cornejo and Juan Cornejo Jr. run Taco Boy’s in downtown Phoenix.EXPAND

Juan Cornejo and Juan Cornejo Jr. run Taco Boy’s in downtown Phoenix.

JM Photo

Best Father-Son Duo

Juan Cornejo and Juan Cornejo Jr.
Taco Boy’s
620 East Roosevelt Street

Juan Cornejo and Juan Cornejo Jr. have brought their fun, flavorful, intensely personal brand of Sonoran backyard cookout to Roosevelt Row. The elder captains the kitchen, where barbacoa softens, vampiros crisp on the plancha, and ruby sheets of carne asada sizzle like mad on charcoal grills. A perfume fills the restaurant. The salsa bar beckons. Soccer plays on the corner TV. It’s all comfortable and welcoming, and that’s before you even get to the food. It’s some of the best Sonoran-style eating in town, even some of the very tastiest Mexican. Sleepers like cabeza and tripa can star. So, too, can a simple carne asada burro or humble side of beans. The Cornejos have an amazing thing going.

Jason Asher and Rich Furnari of Barter & Shake.

Jason Asher and Rich Furnari of Barter & Shake.

New Times Archives

Best Bartenders

Jason Asher and Rich Furnari
Multiple Locations

Late last year, across the parking lot from their clandestine underground tiki lair UnderTow, Jason Asher and Rich Furnari opened Century Grand. This is certainly the Barter & Shake duo’s most ambitious concept yet. The level of experimentation driving cocktails at Century Grand is astounding. You see kefir and lacto-fermented blueberries and smoked tea, a slew of ingredients that tell the drinker, from the first menu glimpse, that the old fashioneds and daiquiris of yesteryear are ancient history. National experts agree, as Century Grand was recently named a finalist for Best New Bar by Tales of the Cocktail. Amazingly, even the most Seussian ingredient combinations work at Century Grand. Imbibing the potions of Asher and Furnari is drinking in a brave new world of cocktails.