Good sushi needn't cost an arm and a tentacle, although it usually does.

Happily, Ichi Ban turns the tide on steep-priced swimmers with its buffet-style sushi spread, a staggering array of Pisces-in-the-raw that will set you back just $13.95 at lunch, and $20.95 at dinner.

Except for the price, there's nothing cut-rate about this all-you-can-eat fish fest that offers more than 50 items. The top quality selections include pale pink albacore tuna, bright red maguro, silky salmon, buttery hamachi, cooked shrimp, flaky kani, red snapper, scallop and eel. Other choices include baked salmon, gyoza, snow crab and tempura, as well as an impressive array of premade hand rolls.

Ichi Ban's sushi buffet? We'll bite.

Flor de Michoacan
It's almost impossible to walk five blocks in any Mexican city on a summer day without passing at least one stand or parlor that specializes in paletas. Paletas are a traditional, distinctly Mexican take on the Popsicle concept: frozen natural-fruit bars that border on a survival necessity in the withering Mexican heat.

So it's a bit ironic that the definitive Valley peddlers of this distinctly Mexican treat are two twentysomething gringo siblings based in Mesa. But Nathan Hatch and his brother Adam spent much of their childhoods picking fruit at their parents' orchards in Chihuahua, Mexico. When they had time off, they hung out at their favorite paleteria and learned the fruit-crunching ropes from the masters.

Their shop, Flor De Michoacán, opened in May, and it's already pulling in the crucial Hispanic crossover clientele, with its authentic paletas, agua fresca drinks and frescas con crema (sliced strawberries mixed in cream). There are a few worthy paleta stands parked on Valley street corners, but if you're looking for a real shop, this is the place to go.

C-Fu Gourmet
C-Fu's got excellent Chinese food, and then some. It's got meals on wheels, and dim sum.

The huge restaurant becomes an autobahn during lunch seven days a week when the dim sum carts come careening out, their drivers dodging giant tanks full of fish, clusters of tables and quick-footed waiters clearing plates and refilling beverages.

Customers wave the carts in like taxis, choosing among the 60-plus items offered. Some ask for explanation; others just point and say, "Bring it on."

Here are some hints: Chow fun noodles, Chinese broccoli, pork siu mai and baked barbecue pork buns can provoke drooling. Any of the dumplings stuffed with meat or seafood are sublime. Fried shrimp balls, sticky rice in lotus leaf, stuffed eggplant and turnip cakes are heavenly, too.

We've sampled in San Francisco, New York, even China -- and C-Fu is definitely sum-thing special.

Chef-owner Norman Fierros has been wowing us for two decades with his offbeat, innovative approach to Mexican food. From a small stand in a dicey south Phoenix neighborhood to his current, tony locale, he hasn't lost the innovative edge that put him on the map.

And when it comes to the culinary map, Fierros isn't afraid to go all over it, ingeniously mixing techniques and ingredients with something bordering on genius.

The addition of epazote, for example, a strong, citrusy herb, to his tacos de pescado, makes the simple fish and tortilla combo sing. Even an uncomplicated endive salad sparkles with queso cotija, the "Parmesan of Mexico," plus roasted Arizona pecans and mesquite honey vinaigrette. When we're looking for something really different, conejo asado gets our hearts thumping with chorizo-rubbed rabbit and grilled sweet corn. And don't even get us started on his sublime tamale hash.

Lon's at the Hermosa
Jackie Mercandetti
Executive chef Patrick Poblete does a Southwestern-accented American comfort cuisine that is pure, rich indulgence with lots of heavenly fat.

This is Arizona luxury at its best, with surroundings to make every meal special. The gorgeous "cowboy" hacienda with its upscale dining room is tucked away at Paradise Valley's Hermosa Inn.

Chef Poblete grows his own fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs, and the menu changes based on what's the best of the season, with entrees that complement. Lon's fresh fish includes swordfish, salmon, trout and more, butter melting slowly on crisp-grilled skin, soaking into pliable fingerling potatoes and nestling with fresh veggies.

Don't turn down the pastry chef's sampler, wickedly fattening with custards, mousses, cakes, gelati, ice creams and fruits.

Old Town Tortilla Factory
Old Town Tortilla Factory has a "connoisseurs guide" to its more than 100 premium tequilas. That's nifty. But even better is that we can upgrade our margaritas with any of their fancy tequilas for just an additional dollar.

The custom option is just one of the things that makes Old Town's margaritas so good. Fresh-squeezed lime juice and the house standard tequila are others. Even the most basic margarita here is spiked with Sauza silver, a bold and assertive favorite of tequila lovers.

Service makes us smile, too. Our marg is brought in a shaker, blended at our table, and left for us to refill our glasses. The setting, finally, makes our cocktails all that more delicious. We think the 75-year-old Scottsdale adobe home is intriguing, too, with its huge flagstone patio surrounded by 100-year-old pecan trees and its central fountain that often is set on fire.

We'll toast to that.

Readers' Choice: Macayo

Tired of paying too much for junk food? Head to Bombay Grill, where, Monday through Saturday, you can enjoy a marvelous, all-you-can-eat feast for just $6.95. The buffet makes it a quick operation to fill your plates, stuff yourself and get back on the road.

Bombay Grill doesn't try to trick you with the typical all-you-can-eat spread of dozens of mediocre dishes -- quantity doesn't do it if the food doesn't deliver. No, the Grill serves daily selections including five vegetable dishes, three meats, soup, rice, breads, salad bar, and two desserts. The manageable selection means ample variety and quality control for the kitchen.

Tandoori chicken and beef curry are always winners. Saag pancer is a delight, blending spinach with Indian-style cheese and mild sauce. For dessert, try kheer, a delicious rice pudding.

Mercado Mexico
In the market for authentic Mexican furniture? No need to head for Nogales; just go south of the Tempe border, down Guadalupe way.

Mercado Mexico quite possibly has the most comprehensive inventory of Mexican home furnishings in the Valley. Statues, fountains, furniture, dishware and, yes, piatas are regularly imported from Guadalajara and Mexico City. And if your tastes run to the outré, you'll occasionally find oddball items like cow skulls, pieces of armor, or a tree-trunk bar.

If this shopping spree somehow lacks the authenticity of an actual trek to Mexico, you can always stop at a convenience market on your way home and pick up some packs of Chiclets.

Friend of pho?

Then you'll find plenty to like in this Third World hideaway specializing in the namesake soup that's a staple of Vietnamese cuisine. The menu lists 15 different varieties -- huge, steaming bowls of broth chock-full of rice noodles, a variety of cuts of beef, bean sprouts, serrano chile, lime and fresh herbs.

Move beyond soup and sample chao gio (spring rolls packed with ground pork, rice vermicelli and mushrooms), mi xao (egg noodles) or tom va bo nuong vi (a wraplike beef, shrimp and veggie dish you cook yourself on a tabletop griddle). Other authentic options include a variety of hot pots, chicken with lemongrass and marinated shrimp with raw vegetables. To wash it down, order from the long list of Asian beers.

If you can tear your eyes off your chopsticks long enough, you just might see presidential woulda-been John McCain. According to a blurb on the menu, Pho Bang is his favorite Vietnamese eatery -- and who should know better than a former POW who spent years savoring the native fare?

Gourmet House of Hong Kong
We admit it: Chinese calligraphy is Greek to us.

That said, that's the part of the menu we immediately go to when feasting at Gourmet House of Hong Kong.

Sure, the funky, fluorescent-lighted, coffee-shop-style restaurant offers the usual "one from Column A, one from Column B" suspects -- moo goo gai pan, kung pao, teriyaki, curry and fried rice. But adventuresome diners live for the thrill of exotic entrees, even when they contain unfamiliar ingredients.

The menu has English translations, of course, but they're often vague -- pork belly with taro; squid with green. Our method of ordering has never failed us, though. Ask for a recommendation or opt for a dish that's been ordered by one of the cafe's many Asian customers.

That's how we've discovered the joy of pork and thousand-year-old egg congee (trust us -- it tastes better than it reads); mouth-watering shark fin soup; hot and sour frogs' legs; and a mammoth plate of whole, head-and-shell-on salted shrimp. And don't miss the Wunan duck -- Gourmet House turns out a near perfect bird and just the tiniest gloss of tasty fat.

The extensive menu lists almost 400 choices, with most entrees priced at $9 or less. During the noon meal, 30 different lunch plates are offered for $3.75 tops, making culinary experimentation easy on our wallets.

Readers' Choice: P.F. Chang's China Bistro

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