Best of Phoenix®

Best Of 2002

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Best Of :: Food & Drink

Best New Valley Charm
Paisley Violin
Molly Smith

It was just seven years ago that downtown Phoenix welcomed its first McDonald's. Given the frenzy stirred up by the media, we must have thought we'd finally joined the ranks of downtown Manhattan or Los Angeles. How embarrassing. Then, last year, there came Paisley Violin. And finally, we wiped the sleep from our ennuied eyes and thought, Yes! Phoenix truly is on its way to having an honest-to-goodness downtown we can be proud of.

The area is no stranger to eclectic art houses, coffee shops, performance theaters, music venues, funky little restaurants and hangout spots. The difference is, Paisley Violin is the first to package them all together, and to actually be successful doing it. It's refreshing to stop in the little spot and see it rocking as a center for poetry slams, live music, ambient art, open-mike slots, after-hours grooving, DJ spinning and even chess tournaments.

There's a full menu offered with refreshingly well-executed appetizers, salads and sandwiches. Just as pleasing, the beer and wine policy is BYOB. And this is bargain culture: Cravings for art and appetite can be satisfied for $7.50 or less. Choose from light bites like imported olives, a plate of assorted cubed cheeses, fruit and baguette, hummus with grape leaves, panini or lox and capers with jalapeo cream cheese and greens on a sourdough baguette.

Welcome to the modern world, Phoenix. We're so glad to see you.

1030 Grand Ave., Phoenix, 85007
MAP
602-254-7843
Readers Choice

BEST SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
Salt Cellar Restaurant
550 North Hayden, Scottsdale
480-947-1963

BEST CHINESE RESTAURANT
P.F. Chang's China Bistro
several Valley locations

BEST FRENCH RESTAURANT
Sophie's French Bistro
2320 East Osborn
602-956-8897

BEST MEDITERRANEAN RESTAURANT
The Persian Room
17040 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
480-614-1414

BEST INDIAN RESTAURANT
Delhi Palace
several Valley locations

BEST ITALIAN RESTAURANT
Olive Garden
several Valley locations

BEST JAPANESE RESTAURANT
RA Sushi Bar Restaurant
several Valley locations

BEST BARBECUE JOINT
Honey Bear's Bar-B-Q
5012 East Van Buren
602-273-9148
and
2824 North Central
602-279-7911

BEST BAKERY
Vie de France
14202 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
480-483-5656

BEST PLACE TO POP THE QUESTION
The Melting Pot
8320 North Hayden, Scottsdale
480-607-1799
and
3626 East Ray, Ahwatukee
480-704-9206

BEST JUICE/SMOOTHIE SHOP
Jamba Juice

BEST VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT
Pita Jungle
1250 East Apache, Tempe
480-804-0234
and
1949 West Ray, Chandler
480-855-3232

BEST COFFEE HOUSE
Starbucks

BEST NEW RESTAURANT
Vie de France
14202 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
480-483-5656

BEST OUTDOOR PATIO
Zipp's Sports Grill
7551 East Camelback, Scottsdale
480-970-9507

Best Superhero Restaurant

The fact that Cafe ah Pwah boasts a beautiful, contemporary European menu in a charming, cozy bistro setting is deserving of an award in itself. The fact that its owner Karen Kapraszewski was brave enough to set it in the tiny country center of main street Gilbert makes her our restaurant hero.

This place could be kicking butt among the best in Scottsdale, but here it is, nestled among antique stores, barbecue shops and farm tool rental yards. Chef Mark Rubin is blazing new paths in a strange new world, and for that, we salute him.

He's got great cuisine under his cape. Grilled hanger steak (French) goes Southwest with marinated onions and smoked Gouda in a tortilla. Pork takes an Asian influence with hoisin glaze, wasabi-dusted focaccia, napa cabbage slaw and sweet potato crisps. And skillet-seared sea scallops have rarely been so well-treated as they are here with goat cheese polenta, tomato confit and saffron jus lie.

Faster than Superman, Kapraszewski takes us on an edible voyage around the world. That's pretty super stuff.

Best Steak House
The Grill
Jackie Mercandetti

Beef. It's what's for dinner. Particularly if it's dinner at The Grill, the Valley's shrine to prime, dry-aged meat. The restaurant is part of an AAA Five Diamond Resort, and looks it, complete with breathtaking views of the 18th hole of the emerald green Tournament Players Club of Scottsdale stadium golf course. Cigars? Martinis? Of course. But we're here for our favorite entree on the hoof: the classic grilled prime, dry-aged rib eye, paired with "Yorkshire'' mushroom waffle and baby broccolini. It's toothsome, buttery tender, and spills luscious golden red juices when cut. Sure, it's an expensive investment, but worth it. Because when it comes to the best beef, the steaks are high.

7575 E. Princess Dr., Scottsdale, 85255
MAP
480-585-4848
Best Cowboy Steak House
The Horny Toad
Courtesy of The Horny Toad

The story of the Horny Toad is pure cowboy yarn: "Sometime during the last century, an old prospector working the area a few miles northeast of the little town of Phoenix, Arizona, came upon a small watering hole. He thought to himself that this here was mighty purty scenery and he'd bet them Easterners would give an arm and a leg for some of this property. They could build them some roads and put up funny names on the street signs and everybody'd be carefree, even if they had to live in caves and drink from the creek.

"His aching feet reminded him not to buy any more of those 2 for $5 boots. As he eased the boots off to soak his tired feet, he saw the many calluses they had given him, and he said to himself, I sure am getting horny toed.'"

Hmm. We seem to remember a more racy yarn a few years back (the restaurant prompted another down the street, the Satisfied Frog), but these days Cave Creek is turning into a family town. Whatever. The Toad still delivers mouth-watering barbecued beef and baby back pork ribs, barbecued chicken, fried chicken and chicken-fried steak. Fancier plates feature things like New York strip steak, top sirloin and prime rib. And in good cowboy tradition, meals include a variety of the fixin's -- soup or salad, potato, cowboy beans, garlic bread and veggies. Yee haw!

6738 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek, 85331
MAP
480-488-9542
Best Cult Restaurant

She is the Supreme Master Ching Hai, a self-proclaimed reincarnation of Jesus and Buddha, and millions around the world believe her. Phoenix is just one of many cities where the Master's faux-meat recipes satisfy hungry vegetarians who clamor for soy chicken, duck or lobster, brought to your table by followers who wear the Master's image on amulets around their necks. The atmosphere is new-age dental office, the walls Pepto-pink and hung with the Master's mediocre paintings. And then there's the video bar, where you can watch the Supreme Master addressing the masses at her public appearances, and where there are many oh-so-holy items for purchase, including soy jerky, videos, audio cassettes, and large cans of Tuno.

Best Vegetarian Restaurant

Desert Greens' menu insists that it creates "gourmet culinary creations for your heart and soul." We believe them. Who'd have thought that the dread term "vegetarian" (or, scarier, "vegan") could be so satisfying?

We'd eat this stuff even if it weren't good for us. Oh, the herb polenta grilled golden brown on a bed of brown rice with steamed vegetables and a pool of mushroom gravy (gravy!). Who can resist a green corn tamale with cheese, or dairy-free red bean, topped with green chile sauce, red pepper and black olives? And sautéed artichoke hearts with olive oil, diced tomato, garlic and fresh basil over linguini is a designer dish in any upscale eatery.

There's even a kids' menu, tempting the tots with (soy or dairy) grilled cheese, a bean and cheese burrito in sprouted wheat tortilla, or nachos and salsa. There are desserts, too, like pumpkin cake with cream cheese icing, chocolate with raspberry filling, kiwi, or vegan sponge cake with butter cream icing. Here's to living forever.

Best Gourmet Restaurant

Gourmet is much more than complicated, expensive food. It's a symphony of spectacular ingredients, carefully selected and matched for a "wow, what is this gorgeous thing" dish. It's a compound effect, where each course builds on another, like rising drama of theater. That having some knowledge of its workings can be used to impress the hell out of friends and business associates just makes it that much more delicious.

So study up a little before venturing into the gorgeous Gregory's. It helps to know that the best way to order here is in small, three- to five-course tastings, following the order of the menu to build flavors from light to heavy. Practice asking with authority for this appetizer: torchon of foie gras, toasted brioche, Chenin Blanc aspic, sel gris and port wine reduction. Choose with confidence a salad of field greens, duck confit, roasted beets, sour cream dill and buckwheat blini. For a fish course with flair: lion's paw scallop, sweet vermouth, lobster broth, micro arugula and foie butter. And be a meat maestro with grilled Wagyu Kobe beef marinated in Japanese beer with shiitake mushroom potato hash.

Gregory's is complicated. But it's also gorgeous. And that, good friends, is what makes a true gourmet experience.

Best French Restaurant

Christopher's has racked up the awards since opening in 1998 (James Beard, even!). The bistro is a little lower-profile these days, but still a model for magical, traditional, ooh-la-la-inspiring French cuisine. Adding flair is a huge collection of wines, thoughtfully paired with dishes and available for tastings.

Most dishes are prepared in a wood-burning oven, the better to show off their natural flavors. All dishes are sumptuous, like roasted half Sonoma duck, molasses-glazed rack of lamb, classic hanger steak with shallots and red wine, truffle-infused prime sirloin, and the sinful wood-oven-roasted foie gras.

We're usually around for the daily specials, though, toothsome takes on traditional bistro fare like roasted sweetbreads, veal cheeks, sole meunière and rabbit with mustard sauce. For over-the-top luxury, we throw in a side of Oestra caviar.

Un-French as it sounds, Christopher's deserves extra credit for putting a healthful spin on many of his rich dishes. Request the KRONOS menu, and you'll meet the health institute's guidelines for optimal health (meats substituted by vegetables). Vive la France!

Best Italian Restaurant

The only thing we've got more of than so-so Italian restaurants in this town is mediocre Mexican. Yet until someone can come up with the incredible Italian cuisine that is the baby of Acqua e Sale owner Daniel Malventano, we're just chalking up those other Italian places as average shops hawking everyday pizza, pasta and stuff we've seen a thousand times before.

Malventano, though, travels to Italy virtually every year to check on what's new in one of Europe's oldest cuisines. We're glad he makes the effort, because it means we get to feast on delicacies involving black truffle oil, duck prosciutto, white truffle sauce, top-grade carpaccio and escolar, and such things as a perfect verde e bianca salad -- lacing crystal-crisp Bibb lettuce with thin asparagus stalks, chubby wands of palm heart and bitter grapefruit chunks in extra virgin olive oil.

Yes, Acqua e Sale has familiar favorites like veal lasagna, ravioli del giorno (Maryland crab and truffle oil) and capellini con pomodorino freschi (angel hair pasta in a tomato, basil, garlic and olive oil sauce). But to find better renditions? Why, we'd have to book a flight to Italy.

Best Neighborhood Italian Restaurant
La Famiglia

Every city needs a little pizza and pasta place to call its own -- a hole in the wall where people can cozy up with a masterful meatball, a magical marinara, a perfect penne, a ravishing ravioli, a stunning Sicilian sausage pie. Friendly, robust conversation with the owners and with fellow customers just adds to the flavors. Or we can snag a feast and take it home to eat with our very own family.

At La Famiglia, we are family, too, greeted by name after just a few visits. These folks, transplants from Long Island, don't mess around when it comes to mouth-watering manicotti, fettuccine Alfredo, veal scaloppine. We order at the counter, rarely pay more than 10 bucks for a full-size feast, and always, always, end up fat and happy. It's our own little pizza heaven.

1859 W. Guadalupe Rd., Mesa, 85202
MAP
480-722-1777
Best Thai Restaurant
Touch of Thai

Thai food is all about dynamic flavors -- spice, seasonings, sizzle. And Touch of Thai puts much more than just a touch of that into its dishes. This place is nuts for the fiery chile peppers, but in a very, very good way. The taste always shines through its veil of flame.

We're not looking for apologies, just more food, when our lips, tongue and stomach burn after tucking into such smoky delicacies as tod mahn (spicy fish patties with cucumber sauce), larb (minced meat sautéed in lemon juice, red onion and mint), yahm pla meug (lemongrass squid), gaeng goong (red curry shrimp) or phaht Thai (rice stick noodles with chicken and shrimp).

Sure, we can adjust the heat level, but we'd rather trust the kitchen to send out the very best. At Touch of Thai, there's no doubt that there's perfection behind these peppers.

16816 N. 35th Ave., Phoenix, 85053
MAP
602-896-9009
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Best New Valley Charm: Paisley Violin

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