Best Of :: Food & Drink
Maria Ranieri charmed us back in the '80s, when she evolved as the magic behind the award-winning pasta at Tomaso's restaurant. Then she bought another Tomaso enterprise, When in Naples. That was more than a decade ago, and since then, Ranieri has developed her restaurant brilliantly.
Recently renovated to add a gardenlike enclosed terrace, the sumptuous space is decorated with seaside murals, red brick walls and a copper-domed, exposed kitchen. Very Italian.
But it's the food that gets the heart pounding, celebrating Ranieri's now-famous handmade pastas, and a signature antipasto display in the eatery's foyer. Some of our all-time, flat-out lusted-after creations are the ravioli di Zucca (butternut squash filled, in a four cheese sauce) and Vitello alla Maria (veal sautéed in lemon butter with wild mushrooms, capers and artichokes).
Gourmet magazine has named Maria's to its list of America's Top Tables. Save us a seat.
Readers' Choice: Olive Garden
Don't expect to find any piatas, colorful serapes or beer-touting sombreros here. This reproduction of a 19th-century Mexican ranch house is impeccably tasteful, down to the last carved, dark wood chair, white linen tablecloth and soaring silk flower arrangement.
But the lavish decor is just visual garnish for the most upscale Mexican food the Valley has to offer. Chips? No way, José! Instead, opt for high-end appetizers, like pasteles de jaiba (plantain-crusted crab cakes with chipotle oil) or tamal de pato (braised duckling tamale with orange honey masa and tomato nixtamal sauce). And don't even think of combo plates with entrees such as cochinillo asado (spit-roasted suckling pig stuffed with chorizo) and mero al sartén (pan-seared grouper with grilled cucumber pico and veracruzana sauce).
Whatever your choice, save room for dessert -- like La Hacienda's signature capirotada (fried three-milk bread pudding with port macerated berries and star anise ice cream).
When the weather's nice, request a table near the French doors, which collapse together for calming views of a courtyard dotted with palm trees, a bubbling fountain and strolling mariachis.
A glance at El Bravo's menu is deceptively ho-hum -- beef burros, chicken tacos, chimichangas, combo plates.
Don't be fooled. This food may sound like Taco Bell, but it tastes authentic. Everything is made fresh in the restaurant's open kitchen, and owner Carmen Tafoya isn't shy about sneaking in the spices where appropriate -- her red chile beef packs a mean left hook. The tanker-size tamales are fluffy; the chicken green corn positively floats off the plate, studded with lots of fresh kernels, peppery white-meat chicken and cheese under green chile sauce.
Both sides of the border can rejoice!
We're not morning people. We admit it. If God had meant for people to be awake in the morning, he wouldn't have had to create alarm clocks.
There's little that can convince us to leave our warm bed at the crack of dawn (has anyone else noticed that a mattress never fits so perfectly as it does just before we're forced to leave it?).
Good chorizo is one of those things, though, that rouses our head from the pillow, summons us to our slippers, and gets us to greet the day with a smile.
That's a pretty big accomplishment for just $4.50, but La Cabana pulls it off with its huevos con chorizo meal (to be accurate, the dish should read chorizo con huevos, such is the generous ratio of highly spiced chile-vinegar-garlic sausage to egg). The sausage is a wonderful jump-start to the day -- dry, salty, smoky -- and only gets better when we fold it into a corn tortilla spread with gorgeously runny refried beans.
Sometimes we mix it up, adding thin guacamole from the on-ice salsa bar, alternating munches with bites of cool lettuce, radish, and cucumber drizzled with lime. A cold horchata drink is just the thing, too, tasting comfortingly like wet tapioca and soothing some of the chorizo burn.
The only problem? After finishing the plate, we're so stuffed, we want to go right back to bed.
Who'd have thought that something so simple could be so good?
While other places may fry their fish in batter and pile on the sauces and cheese, chef-owner Rita Aramburo leaves the Mrs. Paul's approach to seafood tacos to others.
The catfish here is remarkably flavorful, sautéed in chunks with tomato, onion and a touch of seasoning. The vegetables are soft, warm, and cooked down so their juices blend with the firm fish -- so savory, and much better than the cold veggie chop we find in other tacos around town.
The uncomplicated mix is wrapped in a grilled corn tortilla, with nothing more to add than a squeeze of lemon and a splash of Rita's killer spicy salsa.
Rita's fish tacos? We're hooked.
Sure, we could tell you that the seafood cocktails here are so fresh that you'll swear you can hear sea gulls overhead.
Or that the Sea of Cortez cookery (try the garlic shrimp with rice and beans) is so authentic that you'll actually think you can smell the salty ocean air.
Or that a visit to San Carlos Seafood is so enjoyable that you'll believe you've been magically transported to a cantina on a south-of-the-border shore.
Instead, we'd just like to steer you to the most delicious Mexican-style seafood the Valley has to offer, served up in a no-frills joint on a seedy stretch of East McDowell. But if you want to pretend that freeway overpass right down the road is an Aztec temple, be our guest. As for us, we'll have another ceviche tostada.