Best Of :: Food & Drink
Phoenix would be a much more neighborly city if only there were more restaurants like Lola Tapas. Spending so much time in our cars, in a land where pedestrians are few and far between, we won't just stumble on a sense of community unless we frequent the same places over and over or unless we stop by Lola for an intimate meal with our best friends and a whole bunch of sociable strangers. Aside from a small wine bar in the back of this adorable, saffron-colored eatery owned and operated by Daniel and Felicia Ruiz Wayne, the former owners of Lux Coffeebar it's all table seating, thanks to a couple of dark, sleek communal tables that run the length of the room. Don't worry, your neighbors won't butt in on your conversation, although they just might inquire about that yummy-looking thing you're eating. From delectable jamon serrano with mahon and manchego cheeses, to garlicky garbanzo beans with sautéed spinach, to skewers of grilled marinated pork, the tapas here are certainly as appealing to the eye as to the taste buds. After a glass or two of thirst-quenching homemade sangria, filled with soft chunks of fresh fruit, you'll be schmoozing like an old pro.
Don't get us wrong we adore the savory dinner options at Sweet O Wine & Chocolate Lounge. From cheeses and dips, served with excellent grilled bread from Simply Bread, to fresh salads and creative panini, there's plenty on the menu that we're happy to fill up on. But why try to save room for dessert when that's the star attraction of this sleek little eatery? Better to start off with exactly what you came for exotic chocolate pastries, chocolate fondue, chocolate hazelnut panini with crme fraîche and crispy hazelnuts, and petits fours galore. Once you get a glimpse of the chocolate treats in the display case, you won't be able to wait 'til after dinner to indulge. From macadamia toffee and milk chocolate caramel to fleur de sel truffles and butter ganache pralines, Sweet O can deliver your chocolate fix in just about any form you like. Even the eclectic wine selection is geared toward cacao consumption, with a generous selection of dessert wines and fortified wines. And if you'd rather let the experts guide your palate, pick one of the chocolate flights, where three different bonbons are paired with an appropriately decadent drink. Sweet O's proprietors say the "O" stands for "origine" (French for "origin," sort of the terroir of chocolate). But after flooding our brains with blissful endorphins and alcohol, all we feel is sweet oblivion.
We sure love hot chocolate, although in the warmer months (when we'll only drink iced lattes) we can hardly stand the thought of it unless it's Cowboy Ciao's unforgettable take on the classic cold weather treat, the Cuppa Red Hot Chocolate. Here, pastry chef Tracey Dempsey interprets it as a cool, utterly decadent dessert: a rich chocolate-cinnamon pot de crme that's almost as thick as fudge, served in an oversized cup fit for cocoa. The only thing "hot" about it is a froth of oozy chipotle cream on top perfect to scoop up with the spicy ginger cookie that comes with it. We'd happily splurge on a cuppa that any day, no matter the season.
We usually order dessert when we're out somewhere fancy, when the conclusion of a multicourse meal calls for something sweet to go with our after-dinner cup o' joe. But after lunch at a sandwich shop? Hardly ever unless we're at Bertha's Café, where it's a given. At this friendly, inconspicuous little eatery, desserts are impossible to resist, appealingly displayed in a big case right next to the front counter. From cookies and muffins to malted brownies, it's all good, but we're particularly fond of their rich, creamy, homemade cheesecakes. Sometimes it's actually hard to choose from the daily assortment of just-made mini-cakes, with creative concoctions like s'mores, baklava, and banana cream. Bertha's flavors are anything but plain Jane.
Check your guilt at the door. From buttery grits and mac 'n' cheese to the famous fried chicken served with a hot stack of waffles, everything at Lo-Lo's is stick-to-your-ribs delicious. So it only makes sense that dessert here would be a luscious affair, worth every calorie-laden bite. And, boy, does the red velvet cake deliver. One slice of this sweet, red-tinted chocolate cake slathered in buttery cream-cheese icing that we could just eat with a spoon is thick enough to feed two people. Still, we'd rather get one all for ourselves. We figure, if we're gonna blow our diet, we might as well do it with gusto.
We love olive oil drizzled on salads or soaked up with a soft piece of bread, but in dessert? Admittedly, the sound of olive oil cake turned us off at first. But we were very pleasantly surprised when curiosity got the better of us at radioMILANO, and now it's our favorite choice for sweet satisfaction at the end of the meal. Here, the thick slice of cake is so moist and velvety that it's hard to eat just a bite or two. It's served with a huge, smooth dollop of thickened cream (you'll never be able to eat Cool Whip again after tasting it) and a nice blob of blackberry jam, although we'd gladly eat it plain. And here's a word to the wise: Get your own piece. The rest of the menu might be full of shareable small plates, but when it comes to olive oil cake, we gotta look after ourselves.