Best Of :: Food & Drink
There are times when just another meal of mainstream Italian, Mexican or American just won't do. We live on the edge, darn it, and our dinner needs to celebrate our daring, dashing nature.
Food doesn't get any more exciting than at Manila Cafe. It's Filipino, a dramatic blend of Malay, Chinese and Spanish, with hints of Indian, Mexican, Arab and American influences. For real adventure, we often leave the ordering up to the friendly family that owns the place. Just bring us what's best today.
This means we sit at our table in the tiny store for hours on end, nibbling at plates of things that we can't pronounce but that are mesmerizing with multilayered flavors of vinegar, black pepper, garlic, anchovy and ginger. Perhaps we'll sample bulalo (beef kneecap with vegetables), binagoongang baboy (sautéed pork with fish sauce, tomatoes, onion and garlic) and pritong bangus (fried milkfish). If we're a bit frightened of an unfamiliar fare, we're offered freebie taste spoons of dishes like afritadang manok (juicy sautéed chicken with tomatoes, onion and bell pepper), or dinuguan (a surprisingly tasty dish of pork with pork blood sauce, pork ear, vinegar, black pepper and jalapeo over white rice). We'd never have imagined the charms of pinakbet otherwise, bringing a wicked stew of string beans, tart bittermelon, okra, meaty eggplant and chunks of skin-on pork boiled in anchovy sauce.
There's no doubt our madcap side is well-fed here, with far-out but fantastic assemblies like pochero, a plate of pork, beef or chicken sautéed in tomato sauce alongside Spanish sausage, bananas, potatoes and cabbage. Wild thing -- Manila Cafe, that is -- we think we love you.
It seems so obvious. Arizona's indigenous foods -- delicacies like fresh local fish, wheat, melons, pistachios, olives, chiles, citrus and squash. Yet amazingly, no chef has really tried it here, until this year, with James Beard Award-winning chef Janos Wilder. Wilder, already famous for his innovative French-Southwestern Janos restaurant in Tucson, has brought us fine dining drawn from our state's Native American heritage. How authentic is it? The chef works with Pima/Maricopa Indian farmers to harvest the finest of their 35,000 acres of land and aqua farms on their reservation surrounding Kai.
Dishes come looking like earth and sky, and tasting of heaven. They're inspired all on their own, but made even more magical with Mexican, Pacific Rim and European touches. The olive oil that starts our meal is grown and pressed on-site, and dotted with sesame and pumpkin seeds. We slather it over superb crusty bread, crunchy and sweet-tart with apricots and pumpkin seed, or cranberries and hazelnuts. Rack of lamb comes rubbed in chunky pecan-crust mushroom-infused cornbread pudding, and a mole sauce fashioned from ingredients supplied by Native Seeds SEARCH (a Tucson-based nonprofit that protects and cultivates ancient indigenous agricultural methods). Lobster fry bread is lavish, the thin dough capped with an entire four-ounce Maine lobster tail, roasted corn, avocado and garlic butter.
Beautiful food, straight from Arizona -- that's A-O-Kai with us.
The cooks at Pho Bang continue to craft the most outrageously decadent Vietnamese dishes in town. This long-standing restaurant doesn't get hung up on pretense -- dishes come rapid-fire out of the kitchen, sometimes sloppy on their plates, sometimes with nary a smile from our server. But the prices are so low, and the food so cunning, we never quibble. Besides our favorite pho (15 varieties), there's an impressive array of exotica like canh chua ca (catfish soup with pineapple and vegetables in a spicy lemon sauce), or tom va bo nuong vi.
How cool is it to sit down at our own tabletop grill, and be presented with a large plate circled with whisper-thin slices of lightly oiled raw beef, whole shrimp, sliced onion, chopped scallion and peanuts? On the side is xalach dia, an array of sliced carrot, cucumber, pickled radish, whole scallion heads, mint, cilantro and lettuce, alongside plates of rice paper sheets and butter. In fact, everything at this cozy hole-in-the-wall is remarkable.
Chef Mahmmud Jaafari knows his Persian cuisine. He also knows his Mediterranean, Italian, American, Mexican, Cajun and vegetarian foods, and even a smattering of Oriental influences. The result is one of the most exciting restaurants in this town, with cooking that is defined most simply as Middle Eastern. This is knock-your-socks-off caliber, with appetizers like pourani (parboiled spinach blended with yogurt and deeply perfumed with garlic, onion and olive oil, spooned with homemade whole-wheat pita bread triangles). You'll crave every bit of his from-scratch cooking (even pita is homemade), like the oil-free minestrone dusted with Parmesan, and a salad of angel hair pasta and romaine tossed with feta, Parmesan, scallions, tomatoes, avocado paste and mountains of garlic. There are complex stews, tender lamb gyros and elegant salmon with grilled eggplant-wrapped asparagus topped with dill cream on saffron rice. This is a place you must find for yourself: Persian Garden truly is a magical culinary carpet ride.
Readers' Choice for Best Mediterranean Restaurant: Pita Jungle
We're all for eating healthfully. We just don't want to think about it -- all that balancing of nutrients and calories, and then, does the stuff even taste good? Happily, Soma has done the work for us. Everything on the extensive breakfast, lunch and dinner menu is broken down by protein, carbs, fat, fiber and calories. Everything is fashioned from lean meats and monounsaturated fats, with virtually no oil and lots of good-for-us grains and veggies.
But even better, the chef who created the menu is nationally acclaimed James McDevitt, so all the Asian-American treats taste terrific. This is real food, like a charred filet of soy-garlic marinated top sirloin (just 350 calories), or center cut pork chops with Chinese mustard applesauce, sweet potatoes, spinach and caramelized onions (798 calories for two meaty chops). For breakfast, we can feast on crepes stuffed with apple-cranberry tart, or a pita bulging with apple-sage sausage and scrambled eggs (50 percent egg whites). Lunch might be mahi-mahi tacos with ginger-carrot vinaigrette, or lettuce wraps, with three bundles of moist chicken chunk breast, sliced toasted almonds, string-thin carrots and bean sprouts. For dinner, we can choose thrills like sake glazed chicken with jasmine rice and spinach, or pork tenderloin with ginger-plum barbecue sauce.
With gourmet food like this, in such an upscale, bistro-style setting, we sure don't feel like hippies. And with such body positive food, we sure don't look it, either -- hippy, that is.
Readers' Choice: Pita Jungle
This is the first place to which we direct diners when turning them on to the distinctive cuisine that is Southwestern. Many people think our Southwestern signature is standard Mexican stuff. Some think it's, gasp, Tex-Mex. Many think it's cowboy cookouts. Too many think we're all just sitting out in the desert here munching on cactus and lizards. One taste of the items on Windows' stunning menu, though, and they understand: Southwestern is all about elegance, high style, and dramatic pairings of regional ingredients. Real Southwestern cooking is as intricate, artistic and stunning as the colors of a mountain mesa at sunset.
Start with cornbread-crusted crab cakes spiked with mango, avocado and citrus, or a sweet onion and lobster tamale with roasted corn salsa. Move on to Arizona mixed greens tossed with toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and tangy-sweet prickly pear vinaigrette. Indulge in entrees like grilled veal chop with ham hock hominy cake, vegetable salad and chipotle demi-glacé, or pan-seared trout with yellow corn grits, artichokes, roasted corn and garlic cream sauce. Splurge, finally, with citrus and pine nut cake filled with goat cheese, orange caramel and cajeta ice cream.
Windows wows us with its wine list, including selections from Mexico, Chile and Argentina, and with its specialty margaritas fashioned from boutique mescals and fine tequilas. The decor is as delicious as the food, too, lush in sand-colored furnishings, regional pottery and paintings, panoramic golf course views and the warmth of a carved travertine fireplace.
Food this fine doesn't come cheap, but for something as special as this Southwestern sensation, it's worth every precious penny.
Readers' Choice: Z'Tejas Grill