Dish Jockey: When you eat out as often as I do, a dish has got to be pretty good to make you sit up and notice. Here are some that have caught my attention over the past few months:
Ahoi phannee at Malee's on Main, 7131 East Main, Scottsdale--This addition to the menu should become a permanent feature. A mix of seafood is served inside a bamboo leaf "bowl," bathed in an aromatic Thai red curry sauce flavored with coconut, lime leaf and hot basil. If your taste buds are dormant, this dish will wake them up.
Artichoke lasagna at Oregano's, 3622 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale--This Chicago-style pizza joint whips up a dynamite lasagna that bears little relation to the noodle-cheese-tomato-sauce model you find in most Italian restaurants. The kitchen uses whole-wheat noodles, and layers them with cheese and thick chunks of artichoke, moistening the ingredients with a cream sauce.
Fondue at Such Is Life, 3602 North 24th Street--This appetizer not only gets you ready for dinner, it's good enough to substitute for it. Melted Mexican cheeses are combined with sausage and mushrooms, served with homemade tortillas and three of the best salsas in the Valley. This starter is so good you don't even miss the chips that Such Is Life refuses to serve.
Shawarma at Cafe Istanbul, 903 South Rural, Tempe--This is the genuine Lebanese article, layers of beef and lamb slowly cooked on a spinning rotisserie, and Cafe Istanbul is the only place in the Valley I know of where you can find it. It may look like a gyro, but one taste will tell you there's no processed meat stuffed in this pita bread.
Pupusas at Eliana's Restaurant, 1627 North 24th Street--The menu has grown, but the pupusas remain a favorite. They're corn masa patties--like stuffed tortillas--filled with pork, cheese, refried beans and green pepper. At $1.50 each, a couple of them can make a cheap, fragrant lunch.
Liver and onions at Rolands, 4515 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale--Definitely not the same liver that turned you off when you were a kid. It's a hearty, pan-seared dish that's both comforting and satisfying.
Grilled confit combo at RoxSand, Biltmore Fashion Park, 2594 East Camelback--Another astonishing creation from one of this town's best chefs. This entree features two outstanding confits (preserved meats) sharing the same big plate: duck and rabbit. If you've got the slightest sense of adventure and a taste for animal protein, give this dish a try.
Una-ju at Sushi on Shea, 7000 East Shea, Scottsdale--It's broiled freshwater eel, with a delightful smoky taste, served over seasoned rice. The Japanese like it because eel is supposed to be an aphrodisiac. I'm fond enough of this dish to eat it even if it proved to have the opposite effect.
Khoresht bademjan at Tasty Kabob, 1250 East Apache, Tempe--This is Persian eggplant stew, flavored with lamb and served over fragrant basmati rice. Ask for some ta'dik, too. It means, literally, "bottom of the pot," and it's the oily, crusty rice scraped off from there. Iranians think it's a special treat, and so will you.--
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