Best Of :: Shopping & Services
Birthday parties are one of the little joys of childhood, and one of the big pains in the butt of parenthood. The pressure to find just the right gift one that little Lily will ooh and ahh over in front of all her friends is tough. We've all been there watching little Logan open the remote control speedster, only to announce loudly, "Mom, look, this is just like the one I have at home!"
Avoid the birthday blues with Learning Express. Yes, it's a big national chain, which is exactly why we're recommending it. Do you really want to drive across town to buy your fifth birthday gift of the month, or would you rather shop at one of Learning Express' four convenient Valley locations?
We're never disappointed here: The selection includes Groovy Girls dolls, Klutz art books and those elusive Webkins. Per the name, there are plenty of science experiments and other IQ-building projects, but we've found plenty of guilty pleasures, like a cute pink poodle in a purse and those charms you poke through the holes in the kids' Crocs.
You'll still have to deal with the post-party sugar rush, but at least with Learning Express, the gift is in the bag.
We've been shopping at ABC Baking for years, and have yet to walk in the place and not have our deepest wish fulfilled and we have some odd wishes, including a need for pink bakery boxes in assorted sizes, sugar violets, and tiny plastic ballerinas that dance on the tops of cupcakes. If you're a serious baker, you're in luck these folks know what they're doing, and will provide you with all the hard-core tools of the trade, from pastry tubes to cake pans in shapes you never imagined. This year, we had a special desire for sprinkles (see our cover) and we knew right where to go. ABC has an entire section devoted to nothing but both the nonpareil and sugar varieties, in every hue imaginable. As you noticed, we chose classic rainbow.
This candy company doesn't sell prickly pear jellies or candy rocks. (Thank goodness have you ever tried to eat a candy rock?) They're much more creative than that. Instead, you can order small bags of treats, including Arizona Great Fruits (hard candies in citrus flavors), Margaritas on the Rocks (flavored like tequila, lime, and salt) and Hot Chocolate (again, hard candy, flavored with New Mexico chile, chocolate, and vanilla). Our personal favorites are the Fortune Tamales, cinnamon candies wrapped like tamales, including "spicy sayings" in Spanish and English. All clever twists on old favorites, but not too icky sweet. Yummy!
Finally a place where we can let our chocolate freak flags fly, and nobody will give us a funny look. On the contrary, it's de rigueur to gush about cacao confections here, and the more exotic, the better. The proprietors are so enthusiastic that they're like gourmet chocolate cheerleaders. How about the marzipan filled with rum and spiced poached black mission figs, dipped in chocolate, and encrusted with crushed almonds? It's divine. Dark chocolate filled with caramel and sprinkled with pink sea salt? Exquisite. Or the lavender and peppercorn-infused dark chocolate ganache with candied violet petals? Totally freakin' mind-blowing. (Okay, that last one is our description, not theirs.) With about 270 individual pieces of chocolate from more than a dozen artisan chocolatiers plus the biggest selection of fancy chocolate bars we've ever seen this bonbon-sized boutique is just the place to go to break out of your Hershey's shell.
Chocoholics, take note: The shop just moved from Scottsdale to Phoenix, where it reopens in early October.
There are lots of ways to satisfy your craving for sweet/salty (and don't act like you don't know what we're talking about), but our favorite is with a caramel-dipped, chocolate-covered pretzel rod from Granny's. We've spotted Granny's rods at Starbucks in Seattle and closer to home, at MADE art boutique and at Granny's quaint HQ in Gilbert where, if you're particularly kind to the owners, you might just get a behind-the-scenes tour. We've seen the vat they heat that caramel in, and let's just say we wouldn't be surprised if lives have been lost. We're here to tell you, it's well worth the sacrifice.
Falling for the gelato at Arlecchino is kind of like finding religion.
At first, you try to be rational. (There are new gelato places cropping up all over town. I can find gelato a lot closer to home.)
Then, some healthy skepticism kicks in. (What's all the fuss? How can it really be that good?)
Pretty soon, you admit that you're curious. (Man, my friends won't shut up about Arlecchino. I think I need to try it.)
You educate yourself. (Wow. Arlecchino's owner trained with a gelato master in Italy, and he makes every pan of gelato from scratch...) Next, you do some soul-searching. (Chocolate, pistachio, or strawberry?
Finally, you take a leap of faith, and dig in. Within a bite or two, the potent flavors and dense, creamy texture overwhelm your taste buds. You've never tasted gelato this good anywhere, ever. It's so delicious, it's almost hard to explain the sensation. Like fireworks, or ecstasy, or... (Heaven!)