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Best Of :: Food & Drink

House of Tricks Critics' Pick
Best Old Arizona Charm
House of Tricks
Jackie Mercandetti

Newcomers may find it hard to believe, but there once was a time when the Valley offered more than stucco-wrapped pink houses with red-tile roofs. It's true. Once upon a time, we had a lovely landscape of eclectic, Victorian-inspired homes.

You can still see one of those relics, a charming, 1920s cottage that now houses some of the Valley's most satisfying contemporary American food.

The visual tour starts in a relaxed, trellised garden leading to the bungalow with wrap-around veranda. Inside is a virtual Victorian revival of lace curtains and antiques. The floor plan hasn't been disturbed; a dozen or so tables nest in hallways and two small rooms.

It's not exactly grandma's cooking -- unless she was a whiz with grilled shrimp with Thai pesto and curried pecans, roast duck breast and pears in port, or stuffed eggplant lasagna with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes.

House of Tricks is a perfect mix: a cuisine that speaks of Phoenix's modern pleasures, in a setting that lovingly embraces its past.

114 E. 7th St., Tempe, 85281
MAP
480-968-1114
Best Gourmet Mexican Restaurant
La Hacienda

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.

7575 E. Princess Dr., Scottsdale, 85255
MAP
480-585-4848
Best AZ-Mex Restaurant
El Bravo

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!

8338 N. 7th St., Phoenix, 85020
MAP
602-943-9753
Best Chorizo

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.

Best Fish Taco
Rita's Mexican Food

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.

1402 N. 35th Ave., Phoenix, 85009
MAP
602-278-7376
Best Mexican Seafood
San Carlos Seafood Restaurant

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.

1901 E. McDowell Rd., Phoenix, 85006
MAP
602-340-0892
Best Green Corn Tamales
Carolina's Mexican Food
Sarah Whitmire

Had Fannie Flagg, author of Fried Green Tomatoes, grown up in south Phoenix and not Alabama, she might have written Green Corn Tamales instead.

And if she had, her inspiration couldn't have come from a more mouth-watering specimen of the titular delicacy than the steamed fluffy packets offered up at Carolina's.

Long famed for her tortillas, Carolina really shows her culinary flair with these heavenly blankets of golden masa wrapped around a few green chile slices, a sprinkle of fresh corn kernels and a molten glob of cheese. The bundles of joy are then wrapped in a corn husk, steamed and served piping hot at $1.20 a pop.

And maybe it's a good thing Fannie never got around to writing the book on green corn tamales. Looks like Carolina already beat her to it.

1202 E. Mohave St., Phoenix, 85034
MAP
602-252-1503
Best Carne Adovada
Blue Adobe Grille
Courtesy of Adobe Grille

Chile experts warn us never to touch any sensitive part of our body after handling spicy peppers. The Blue Adobe Grille's carne adovada will remind you why.

Red chiles grown in New Mexico are notorious for their wicked heat -- a fact that the chefs here adroitly exploit in their torrid sauce of this incendiary pork chili.

Dig pain? Drip some of the thick sauce straight onto your tongue. It's so fiery in the back of your throat you'll actually cough.

But even the most masochistic Mexican food buff will probably admit that the potent pork-and-pepper concoction is best enjoyed when wrapped in a flour tortilla, then tamed a bit with whole beans and rice.

But whatever you do, don't rub your eyes. You don't want to go blind, do you? Just eat enough until you need glasses.

144 N. Country Club Dr., Mesa, 85201
MAP
480-962-1000
Best Gourmet Restaurant

We know we're in for a fancy meal when our server brings cute little stools on which our purses can rest. We've got a hint of fine things to come when we peruse a multi-course chef's tasting menu, ambitiously priced at $110 per person, plus $55 additional if we'd like paired wines (and of course we do). A "starter" sampling of Iranian Karaburun, sevruga, ostera and beluga caviar commands our respect with a price tag of $210.

Even a salad of romaine and aged Parmesan with cured lemon, walnuts and golden raisins sets us back $20.

High prices do not guarantee a wonderful meal, especially in a time when, anymore, even a marginal meal can set us back $30 an entree.

No, we're not quite convinced until our server presents us with an absolutely flawless amuse-bouche of perfect tuna tartare, complemented by gratis champagne. Or until the first jewel of buttery carpaccio of Black Angus beef dissolves on our tongue, and the last nubbin of Hudson Valley foie gras melts in our mouth.

Nothing served here is less than perfect. Even a deceptively peasant-looking cream of lobster soup startles with its superior character, lush as it is with medallions of seafood and seasonal mushrooms. By the time we're finished with an unspeakably elegant Earl Grey and chocolate cream pudding, we're true believers.

Mary Elaine's has long had the dubious distinction as the most expensive restaurant in town. These days, it's got plenty of contenders in the high-priced category. But for a truly gourmet, first-class evening out, there's still no competition.

Best English Pub
George & Dragon Pub & Restaurant

Christened after the allegorical tale of dragon slayer St. George, a man who later became the patron saint of England, the George & Dragon pub does well upholding the honor of a contemporary English tavern. Its wood-framed walls, high ceiling and massive beams affect a Tudor-style English pub of yore (who'd-a thunk this was once a Shakey's Pizza parlor?) and billiards, soft-point dartboards and interactive, big-screen games fashion a more up-to-the-moment scene. Football colors, military memorabilia and coats of arms decorate walls, and roomy leatherette booths form 'U'-shaped divans. There's a cozy dining room and a menu of reasonably priced yet palatable English fare. Crowning the carte du jour is the pub's authentic fish and chips.

The Dragon's vast array of ales, lagers and ciders will often spur pub-nostalgic Brits and pint-converted Yanks to a merry clamor sufficient to muffle the jukebox's rock-steady throb. After a potent pint or two, the George's brazen Britishness can make it seem as though you are actually on Queen soil.

But a word of warning, mate: In the event that you are unmindfully sloshed upon exit, just remember that it's five thousand miles to the nearest tube stop.

Readers' Choice: George & Dragon Pub & Restaurant

4240 S. 48th St., Phoenix, 85040
MAP
602-470-0018
Best German Restaurant
Haus Murphy's

Tagessuppe? Bratkartoffel? Szegediner gulasch?

Nein, these only look like a bunch of bum Scrabble racks. In reality, they're soup of the day; German fried potatoes; and pork and beef with pepper, sauerkraut and spätzle -- all specialties of the haus.

Haus Murphy's, that is.

But instead of worrying about the correct pronunciation of these Deutsch tongue-twisters, simply dig into some of the best German food you'll ever run into without having to produce a passport.

Try the hearty hackbraten, an exquisite beef and pork meatloaf flooded with gravy. Or the kassler kotelett, two huge, smoked pork chops over a bed of sauerkraut. Whatever your choice, at least try to save room for Murphy's baked-on-site desserts -- the apple strudel and Black Forest cake are particular standouts.

Auf Wiedersehen!

5739 W. Glendale Ave., Glendale, 85301
MAP
623-939-2480
Best French Restaurant

It's an inaccurate stereotype that the French are rude to Americans. Look at how they treat Jerry Lewis.

Need further proof? Just drop into the 6th Avenue Bistrot, where chef-owner François Simorte will be on you like a flash, greeting you warmly, shaking your hand, inviting you into his cozy little cafe. Sacrebleu! One can only guess how he treats his regulars.

If you're smart, you'll treat yourself to Simorte's specialties like scallops with lobster beurre blanc -- fresh, firm and succulent. Sautéed escargots in garlic butter are simply scrumptious, as is the coq au vin, which is as fine as you'll find in the French countryside. Cassoulet toulousain is a pure knockout, bringing a creamy stew of white beans, duck confit and sausage. And after dinner, Simorte will undoubtedly try to interest you in his luxurious mousse au chocolat.

Oui, surrender.

Readers' Choice: La Madeleine French Bakery & Cafe

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Best Old Arizona Charm: House of Tricks

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