Best Of :: Food & Drink
From Central Avenue, Autumn Court looks like some funky gingerbread house, but stepping inside is like walking into the fog-draped Chinatown of San Francisco in the 1940s. The main dining area is designed like a faux autumn arbor, with a tree's amber-tinged limbs overhead and a waterfall that gurgles over fake masonry. Dining areas are walled in by dark, wooden paneling and glassed-in shelves with all manner of wax and plastic fruits, veggies and dry goods. Paper lanterns hang overhead, and the tables are set with kitschy ceramic glasses filled with chopsticks.
And the food? A grab-bag of reliable, old-school faves, like pot stickers, crispy aromatic duck, sizzling rice soup for two, moo shu pork, moo goo gai pan, spicy Szechwan chicken, and many others. Not as exotic as some other places in the Valley, but 100 times better than what you'll get at the mundane, prefab chain joints.
When the phrase "casino buffet" passes through your cranium, your gray matter is instantly populated with scores of classy folk chain-smoking Parliament Lights 100s and hoping for a big win at bingo. But Fort McDowell Casino, operated by the Yavapai Nation, actually makes an effort to do things a little differently from other gambling spots, and this extends to its international buffet, which eschews the usual not-ready-for-prime-time rib and rubber chicken Parmesan for authentic Indian, French, seafood and Italian selections.
The Indian section -- as in the country, not America's original inhabitants -- is the most surprising and rewarding, with rotating selections like a stew of lamb, fenugreek and green peas that would not be out of place at a buffet in a South Asian eatery. And there's the spicy "okra in yogurt" that's just as tasty. The Italian section might offer veal Milanese or spaghetti and clam sauce. The French? Pork loin in sherry and/or lyonnaise potatoes. There are also crab legs in butter, fried catfish fillets, a near-pristine salad bar, and a dessert section with bread pudding, cinnamon cake and cream puffs. Yeah, thanks to "The Fort," casino buffets aren't just for geezers anymore.
So you just won a small bundle on the Addams Family slot machine, parlayed that into a larger bundle on an Austin Powers slots, moved your way up to the dollar machines, and finally hit it big playing blackjack in Wild Horse's Vegas-style gaming emporium. That's when a pair of high-class call girls escort you to the limo waiting outside for a night of Beluga caviar, Dom Perignon, and the sort of unbridled wickedness that we can't even begin to allude to here.
Then your wife nudges you and awakens you to reality: You're down $20 after playing the same machine for eight hours straight. Hey, it's not a total loss. At least you can dine like a winner at Wild Horse Pass' Wind Dance Restaurant. Just go for the filet mignon or the surf 'n' turf, dood. Spoil yourself. After all, your gold card isn't maxed out yet, and you can always play keno while you chew. Sure, we've never heard of anyone winning the mother lode with keno, but for God's sake, let a man dream, will you!
We're suckers for excellent Southwestern fare, especially when served in a classic Southwestern ambiance. So it may be no great surprise that our pick for the best new restaurant of the year is the Sierra Bonita Grill, formerly a bar known as the Copper Queen.
After much work by Sheldon Knapp, the SB's owner and also the owner of the Phoenix City Grille, the new eatery is a gorgeous salute to the ranch-houses of old, with ceilings of dark wooden beams, Cherokee red flooring, and walls inside and out that have that charming adobe look to them. The food is the perfect companion to the eatery's aura: buttermilk chicken with mashed sweet potatoes; cowboy stew, featuring chunks of beef in a piquant brown mélange; rainbow trout in a maple-butter sauce; green chile posole; and for dessert, a Oaxacan chocolate soufflé with roasted banana ice cream.
We doubt the cowboys of yore ate this well. Tough luck for them.
El Chorro Lodge is cool. Barry Goldwater cool. ¿Comprendes? We'd call it old-school, if it wasn't still cool, an adobe grande dame that can seat 165, with copper lamps on the tables, a copper-topped bar in the lounge, juniper-burning fireplaces, and that hint of Sonoran Desert decadence that still has the power to seduce. The menu is a class act, too: lamb chops with mint jelly; sautéed chicken livers; beef stroganoff; fried lobster tails; a pre-dinner relish tray; and El Chorro's famous "sticky buns" as your dinner's bread. El Chorro even has brandy Alexanders and pink ladies on its drink menu, as well as blended margaritas that'll put your knickers in a twist. For dessert, there's pecan pie, caramel custard flan, and El Chorro's pièce de résistance, chocolate ice box cake made with Belgian chocolate, and walnuts, and topped with fresh cream. Cool? It doesn't get any cooler, baby.
It's probably a given that wunderkind chef William Bradley at the Vu restaurant in Scottsdale's Hyatt Regency is a genius of gastronomy. After all, isn't it a foodie rule of thumb that the bigger the culinary brain, the smaller the portions? Why, we can even foresee the day when highfalutin hash-slingers of the future, empowered by genetically engorged cerebellums, will offer us a mere whiff of their creations, bottled fresh for sniffing, so we need not even open our yaps, save in praise of the kitchen's commandant. True, Chef Bradley's entrees could be smaller, and his sides are even of near-normal size. (Shocking!) But we wonder about the extra-long dinner fork one's given at Vu. Could this be an attempt to make us believe that the servings are smaller than they actually are? Or maybe he's just expecting Shaquille O'Neal to stop by for din-din one of these days. Either way, it makes for the perfect back-scratcher for those hard-to-reach areas. All we want is a spoon large enough to change our contacts in, and we'll be happier than Ron Popeil with a new set of steak knives.
Everyone loves pandas. And a panda dressed up like Pancho Villa -- with a big mustache, a sombrero, a pistol on his hip, and a bullet belt strung across his chest? Now that's a winner, and one that can turn Panda Express' wimpy, two-tone bear into beef with broccoli any day of the week. "Pancho Panda" is the mascot for the PHX's Chinese-Mexican fast-food restaurant Chino Bandido Takee-Outee, and Chino pictures the fun-lovin' critter seated on the floor with legs spread wide, a huge grin on his kisser as he's about to dive chopstick-first into a bowl of wok-prepared eats. A giant stone version sits in Chino's otherwise spare dining hall at the 19th Avenue location, and his rascally image fills tee shirts and murals.
But the 15-year-old Chino is more than a mascot. Chino Bandido offers a unique combo of Mexican and Chinese creations atop rice, everything from chile relleno and Chinese barbecued pork to the spicy jade red chicken and pollo diablo. Burritos and quesadillas are also available, and for dessert -- cinnamon-sprinkled snickerdoodle cookies like the kind you used to get in grade school. Chino's opened another location this year in Chandler, but we think there should be a Pancho Panda on every block from sea to shining sea, or at least throughout AZ. Then it'd be a heckuva lot easier for us to quell our jade red chicken jones.
Tired of waiting for two hours for a frou-frou pie? Then head over to Cibo (pronounced "chee-bo") for pizza that's better than that other guy's, and in even classier environs, a restored 1913 bungalow with hardwood floors, stained-glass windows, a wood-burning pizza oven, and a wine bar. It's the work of proprietors Karen and Tony Martingilio, who've brought in Italian pizza chef Guido Saccone to deal with the comestibles, while they work the front rooms. Not only is Cibo more expansive than that other ballyhooed bistro, the pies taste better. Try the marinara, with tomato sauce and anchovies, or the capricciosa, with sauce, prosciutto cotto, mushrooms, artichokes and black olives. This is the pizza place we've been longing for, the one that blows all the other gourmet pie shops away. Long may it reign.
In the past, the term "personal pizza" meant a late-night delivery from Pizza Hut. Welcome to Pie Zanos -- they don't deliver, but who cares, when you can order up a small pie, made with a two-tiered pizza toaster that could fit in the trunk of your Toyota! Yes, the pizza paisanos at Pie Zanos take out the competition with a slingshot, some foodie can-do-ism, and more than a little inventiveness. Co-owners Jayce Elliston and Mike Curtiss serve some scrumptious pies in a kick-back cafe environment. Specialty pizzas range from The Cheeseburger, with ground beef, sliced pickle and mustard, to The Bordertown, featuring enchilada sauce, jalapeños, ground beef and salsa, sprinkled over with chili-cheese Fritos. You can also craft your own pizza from the scores of toppings, or enjoy a salad, frittata, or the soup du jour, all better than at most fancy-pants joints in town -- or Pizza Hut.
You were at Barcelona earlier, but the scandalous Scottsdale ho you were with started making out with this gross bald dude after you left her for five secs to go hit the head. Well, eff that beeahtch! And to think you wore your new Sean John for the outing, too. So you hop in the whip, and decide to call it a night, but Five-O gets on your tail and stays on it all the way to Old Town. You'd had a few monster-size mojitos back at Barcelona, and it's like the pigs can smell it on your breath a mile away. Somehow, you ditch 'em and you need some grub, maybe a slice of pepperoni pizza or sausage with black olives, just to help soak up the Bacardi, so you head over to the Slices on East Fifth Avenue, around the corner from Next. There's a serious scene there, with loads of fly squalies to eyeball as you munch your pizza and get sober. You hook up with your boy Tiny who just got out of ACME and smells like well liquor. Then Trina, who you left at Barcelona, texts you, wondering where you're at. But you don't even pay her no mind, and take another bite of your pizza and smile at one of the chickalinas next to you.
Ha! Damn, this pizza rocks!
You'd think spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna and all that classic Eye-tie stuff that's as common in Brooklyn as drive-through liquor stores are here would be a no-brainer. Apparently not in the PHX, where there are too many crappy Italian joints to count, with pasta like rubber and marinara fresh from the can. Chef Anthony Redendo puts them all to shame with the aid of his gorgeous wife Carolyn by serving bowls of the best pasta and meatballs in town, Brooklyn-quality Bolognese, and calzones that'll have you crooning standards à la Frank Sinatra. He's got garlic knots like you get in Bensonhurst and pizza like in Brooklyn Heights. His establishment is small, but he's decorated it with memorabilia of New York in the '40s, and added brick walls to make the Gotham expats feel at home. We like your style, Anthony. Not only have you got a lot of talent as chef, you've got a lot of heart as a restaurateur.
You will not nosh better pasta in town than at Marcellino Ristorante. Period. End of story. Yes, there are plenty of other high-class Italian joints in the Valley; maybe too many, if you catch our drift. And, yes, you can get your fill of semolina sticks elsewhere and feel satisfied with yourself for not spending too many ducats, but if you experience the handmade pastas at Marcellino's, what you eat elsewhere will seem like Chef Boyardee by comparison. That's because Chef Marcellino Verzino is a true maestro who began cooking at age 11 on his father's farm in Italy, and has since performed culinary magic in acclaimed restaurants in Rome and New York. He and his enchanting bride Sima decided to start over in Phoenix in 2003, and our lives have been the richer for it. Verzino's gnocchi, linguini, strozzaprete and capellini are unforgettable. And if you're not in the mood for such heavenly starchiness, Verzino's non-pasta entrees are equally gustable, like gamberi affogati, jumbo shrimp sautéed with white wine, or fegato all'uva, calves' liver sautéed with grapes, then flambéed with cognac. And if it's pricier than an evening at a mom-and-pop pasta shop, remember: You get what you pay for, bucko.