Best of Phoenix®

Best Of 2008

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Best Of :: Food & Drink

Best Place to Meet the Chef

We've been infatuated with this classy neighborhood Italian restaurant from our very first bite of gnocchi draped in pesto cream sauce. Food like that makes us fall in love, fast. But there's something else that's endearing about Aiello's — the personal service. This is a family operation, and it shows, especially when chef-owner Joe Aiello makes his rounds in the dining room.

We've never been here when he didn't step out of the kitchen to schmooze with regulars and dote on first-timers. He's a larger-than-life personality, and he likes to keep his customers fat and happy. His wife, Myrah, is an equally welcoming hostess, sometimes stopping by each table to let diners pick a chance to win a free dinner. Yep, these folks will do anything to keep you coming back — although in truth, the food alone is enough to get us in the door.

5202 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 85012
MAP
602-277-8700
Best Merry-Go-Round with a Meal
Compass Restaurant

Who says kids get to have all the fun? The best merry-go-round in Phoenix just happens to be a grown-up playground, a place where you can eat an upscale dinner while watching the world go by. It's the Compass Restaurant, a revolving eatery at the top of downtown's Hyatt Regency. There are 360-degree views to go along with executive chef Troy Knapp's Southwestern-tinged contemporary menu. Highlights include grilled bison and garden gazpacho with cornbread croutons; smoked salmon "enchiladas" with Vidalia crema, savory lemon curd, and micro basil; and baked chilaquiles with grilled nopales, roasted peppers, and smoked tomato butter. We promise the Compass spins so slowly that you won't experience vertigo. Go crazy with the award-winning wine list, however, and all bets are off.

122 N. Second St., Phoenix, 85004
MAP
602-440-3166
Best Circus Animal Tale
Harold's Cave Creek Corral

Harold's Cave Creek Corral has long billed itself as "the original Wild West Saloon and Restaurant," but back in the day, the proprietors took the roaring good time in a whole different direction.

Harold and Ruth Gavagan, who'd bought Cave Creek Corral in 1950 and added "Harold's" to the name, held daily a cowboy show in front of the restaurant for years, but decided to switch things up when a guy named Carl Mulhauser started working for the restaurant in the late '60s. Turns out, Mulhauser was a former circus lion tamer with connections to obtain some animals.

The Gavagans' daughter, Janet, was a teenager at the time and recalls her late parents' decision to let Mulhauser buy two or three lions and do a circus-style performance every afternoon. The animals lived in a cage right behind the restaurant.

"Prior to that, there was no thought of having lions or tigers, but it was a way to stand out from the other steakhouses in the Valley at the time," she says. "My dad was very inventive when it came to hiring people."

Mulhauser took care of the animals and did the shows for a couple of years, but when he moved on, so did the lions. A few years later, in the mid-'70s, he came back, this time performing with tigers. It was all over by the end of the decade, and nobody's quite sure whether the lions and tigers ended up in a zoo or a flashy Las Vegas show. But for some locals, it made a lasting impression.

Michael Seitts, a Scottsdale native who's spent plenty of time at Harold's over the years, says he's still amazed that anybody pulled it off.

"It was crazy," he says. "Like something out of Monty Python."

The animals are gone, but the restaurant's still around.

6895 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek, 85331
MAP
480-488-1906
Best Corn Dog
Al's Chicago Style

A carnival ain't a carnival unless your dining options include some manner of foodstuff that's been placed on a stick. In fact, on our last visit to the midway, our repast consisted of individually skewered deep-fried Twinkies, tasty egg rolls, and the undisputed king of impaled edibles, the corn dog. And outside the carnival circuit, the best place we've found this deep-fried delight of a flavorful frank covered in cornmeal is at the Gilbert location of Al's Chicago Style. We've forgone the kind of middling corn dogs available at places like Sonic or am/pm in favor of a juicy, all-beef Chicago-style wiener covered in crispy and delicious batter that just melts in our mouth. If you're feeling daring, try adding a few helpings of jalapeño pepper hot sauce or Tabasco onto your dog instead of the usual ketchup and mustard, but keep a cool drink handy.

53 N. Val Vista, Gilbert, 85234
MAP
480-545-3267
Best Fry Bread
The Fry Bread House

Besides corn dogs, funnel cakes, or any other foodstuff that's been cooked in an unhealthful amount of grease or lard, a longtime staple of local carnivals, fairs, or street festivals has been Indian fry bread. And much to our doctor's chagrin, we've eaten more than our fair share of this doughy, deep-fried Native American specialty, and it's usually been covered with such toppings as honey and powdered sugar or sumptuous meats and chilies. So whenever we've got a hankering for this debaucherous deliciousness (and a fair or carnival isn't readily available), we head for the Fry Bread House, where owner Cecelia Miller has been clogging our arteries for more than 15 years. Miller and company offer a variety of flavorful fillings atop their chewy and flaky fry bread (which is the size of a LP record), ranging from the standard "Indian taco" (homemade refried beans, lettuce, and cheese) to chorizo, chilies, and ground beef. We've noshed there twice this week alone, but we swear, doc, we'll atone for it with a few extra rounds of cardio this week at the gym. Promise.

1003 E Indian School Rd., Phoenix, 85013
MAP
602-351-2345
Best Funhouse
House of Tricks

You won't find any wacky mirrors in this funhouse, although House of Tricks does have a way of skewing one's perspective — in a good way. Once you set foot into the outdoor patio, sheltered by huge leafy trees and decked out with tiny white lights, all feels right with the world. Your mood is bound to improve even more once you find something on the interesting wine list. Inside, the charm of this 1920s cottage starts to work its magic on you, and expert service only heightens the feeling that life is grand, indeed. As for the New American menu — well, that will make you smile, too. Options run the gamut from black tea-spiced ahi tuna to pistachio-crusted rack of lamb to smoked chile-glazed hanger steak. Nope, House of Tricks isn't the typical funhouse. But, hey, it's a restaurant in an old house — and eating here sure is fun.

114 E. 7th St., Tempe, 85281
MAP
480-968-1114
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Best Place to Meet the Chef: Aiello's Fine Italian Dining

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