This is the Southwest. How could we not honor the region's unofficial steak-house side dish? Particularly when they're as seductive as the barbecue pit beauties served at Joe's?

Forget those canned baked beans of backyard weenie roasts of yore. This is a killer combination uniting kidney, lima and navy legumes thickened with shards of cooked-on-site sausage, chicken and beef. They're served blissfully hot, are inexplicably cheap, and are so very satisfying.

Bean there, done that? Not until you've tried Joe's.

Best Place for Coffee and Dessert Under the Stars

Coffee Talk

Coffee Talk Cafe (Inside The Bungalow)
You can grab an after-dinner latte and biscotti just about anywhere these days. But you'll gladly drive past strip mall coffeeterias and shopping center java joints to relax in this charming little spot.

Located just north of Main Street in downtown Mesa, its sparkling white decorative lights will lure you in. A trellis, framed by fragrant vines and trees, leads you into the lush front yard of a restored turn-of-the-century home. Inside the Victorian-themed house, you will find the usual coffee and tea offerings, as well as homemade muffins, cakes, pies and other pastries. You can browse in the gift shop or enjoy the free entertainment -- singers, musicians and comedians.

But it's better to head outside. Whether you're in a large group or a party of two, there's a spot for you, on the porch or gazebo out front or beside a tinkling fountain among the backyard ficus trees. And as you banter over the biscotti, remember -- it's the coffee talking.

Readers' Choice for Best Coffee House: Coffee Plantation

Texaz Grill
Tedd Roundy
You haven't eaten chicken-fried steak until you've had it here at this 15-year-old bastion of beef 'n' batter. Smothered in thick, white gravy, this pair of pounded beef patties crackles with crunchy, deep-fried cholesterol nirvana. The chicken-fried chicken is also incredible, as are several other enormously tasty breaded-and-fried items. First-time visitors won't want to miss the wall of chili (hundreds of vintage cans of the stuff from all over the country) or the colorful tribute to Texas cuties The Kilgore College Rangerettes. Ask for Helena, whose cheerful chatter and super-attentive service will make your stay that much more down-home.

Arizona Bread Company
Jamie Peachey
Good soup is more than a meal; it's comfort. When the Soup Doctor prepares it, it cures whatever ails you, too. The Soup Doctor is Gilles Desrochers, a wild-haired, rumpled chef who makes some of the most magical soups (72 homemade varieties) we've had the pleasure of slurping.

That's him behind the counter, chopping garden loads of fresh vegetables that grace so many of his broths, and yelling at customers, "Eat more soup! Now!" This guy's not shy, smiling and shouting at guests who take too long to order.

With up to a dozen varieties offered daily, choosing can be a challenge. All the soups are made from scratch with recipes handed down from the Doctor's mother and grandmother. Vegetable beef barley swims with whole mushrooms and tender steak in a rich tomato broth. Chicken noodle is stuffed with shell pasta, cooked to perfectly slimy softness. And pasta fagioli is smitten with soft bean, orzo and celery in a salty base.

Take it from the Soup Doctor: You need more soup. Now!

(The soup -- but not the Doctor -- is also available at Arizona Bread Company, 23587 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-515-9440.)

Fry bread is a part of Arizona's heritage, a symbol of Indian intertribal unity. Unfortunately, however, this obscenely caloric totem is usually found only at state and county fairs.

Or at least that used to be the case before this fry bread fortress pitched tent inside the west Valley's SwapMart.

Angelina's makes pouf-perfect fry bread from a recipe handed down through generations of Native Americans, rolling the dough, working it into ovals, puncturing its middle and dropping it into fryers. The bread emerges glistening, puffy and impossibly light. Topping options include vigorously seasoned red or green chile, ground or shredded beef and shredded white meat chicken, as well as simple shakes of powdered sugar and sticky squeezings of honey.

Alas, the swap mart is only open on weekends, but we're willing to wait: It lends new meaning to TGIF -- Thank God It's Fryday.

Dick's Hideaway
Patricia Escarcega
To say that this private party room is a little hole in the wall is entirely accurate. It's hidden, in fact, behind a door set inconspicuously into the paneled wood wall of the tiny bar called Dick's Hideaway. There's no sign anywhere -- not even outside, for the bar itself. You've just got to know where to look.

The search is worth the effort, unveiling a completely charming, comfortable room seating up to 25 people around a grand, copper-topped table and at comfy booth tables lining the wine-bottle-lined walls. Our favorite spot is curled up in front of the kiva fireplace.

As pretty as the place is, the experience is low-key. Dick's Hideaway is brought to us by the folks at Richardson's, and that's the same menu from which we select. That means creative New Mexican dishes like chimayo chicken (stuffed with spinach, sun-dried tomato, poblano chile and asiago cheese); pork tenderloin (marinated and pecan grilled with red and green chile jelly); and even posole (hominy and pork in red chile broth).

Best of all, Dick's Hideaway doesn't stick guests with a fixed menu, like most private rooms do. Everything's flexible -- individual meals, custom requests, open or hosted bar service, even birthday cake.

Now that's casual with class.

Hearty Hen Cafe boasts that it serves home-cooked meals. Perhaps, if your home includes a huge brick oven, speared by gleaming steel rotisserie wands stacked with a dozen twirling chickens over a roaring, gas-fed fire.

The birds are lightly rubbed with paprika and spices, then roasted in their glass-fronted coffin for up to three and a half hours. The fat drips through the skin, touching the chicken with its rich flavors, then drips harmlessly into a metal pan below.

The result? A tender, juicy fowl so near-greaseless (and Heart Smart Restaurant endorsed) that we may never eat chicken out of a bucket again.

Being an Israeli restaurant, this exceedingly cool little place features, logically enough, a variety of European dishes rethought in Middle Eastern terms. It's very likely the only place in town where you can find schnitzel and falafel on the same menu. You can also find our favorite riff on the picnic lunch staple: Russian-style, fresh and zingy, loaded with carrots, green peas, eggs, mayonnaise and pickles. As good as are Sabuddy's other sides, which include baba ghanouj, tabbouleh, labne and a Greek-ish eggplant purée, the spud salad is the best.

Like all other salads, it can be ordered in small or large portions ($2.45 and $3.45, respectively), or by the pound ($5.95) as carry-out.

Tuber or not tuber? At Sabuddy, that is not the question.

It's so hard to get good help. Sometimes the serfs at our castle revolt against us, and refuse to cater the elaborate dinner parties we like to throw. How gauche.

No matter, we've got a back-up with the ultra-luxe private dining room we can reserve at the Phoenician resort. Happily, it looks just like a castle, replete with Renaissance-era decor, barrel-vaulted ceilings, brick archways, European antiques and a full wall of wines. It's just spacious enough -- we can park up to 16 of our friends' premier posteriors on tapestry-upholstered chairs.

Adjacent to the resort's fabulous Terrace Dining Room, it also serves as the Terrace's working wine cellar. And when it's time to eat, we can have anything we want from the resort's flagship restaurant, Mary Elaine's. The magnificent modern French cuisine and highly polished service are just what we need to take our minds off our employment troubles at home.

It makes for such a peasant -- uh, pleasant -- evening out.

One of our favorite Lost in Space episodes of all time is when Dr. Smith is turned into a stalk of celery by an unfriendly planet dweller. When his space shipmates come to his rescue, he demurs, waxing on how lovely it is to be a vegetable -- "so cool, so green."

After tasting the produce of Quiessence chef-farmer Hallie Harron, we're right there in the dirt with him.

These are veggies of uncompromising virtue, grown under Harron's own hand in pretty little beds scattered across a 12-acre farm. The focus of her family-style meals, they're selected based on what the garden offers each day.

The only thing better than being a stalk of celery would be to exist as Harron's fennel, braised al dente and glossed with a thin red pepper marmalade. Or as her albino beets, roasted shallots, gloriously sweet and sour roasted onions, rich flavored grape tomatoes, or a curl of earthy daikon radish.

Finish our vegetables? Just try to stop us.

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