The shrimp here are served in a molcajete, a large bowl carved out of lava rock and sent to the table bubbling hot and furious.

The dish is called Camarón Azteca, and the volcanic container keeps the fresh-from-the-oven meal wickedly warm. It's a good thing, too, because it takes us a long time to work our way through the Vesuvius-size mound of Guaymas shrimp; in any other dish, the shrimp would get cold.

Much of the magic in the bowl comes from its voluptuous sauce, essentially chunky, chile-rich salsa blended with Mexican white cheese. We're told there's no butter involved, but it sure tastes of it -- a reaction of the milky cheese melted at such high temperature, we suppose.

Duck and Decanter
Lauren Cusimano
Tired of cheese choices at your local grocery store being limited to Cheez Whiz, Velveeta and boursin-in-a-box? Cheeselike food substances are conspicuously absent at Duck & Decanter, whose long list of not-for-the-lactose-intolerant dairy specialties would turn the head of even a hardened Wisconsin Cheesehead.

This place is the only one we've found around town that seems to always stock manchego and mahon, two nutty, semi-hard Spanish cheeses craved by hard-core cheesephiles. They've also laid in a good store of Old Brugge, chevegne and Père Joseph, all made by Belgian Trappist monks -- and don't pass up the double-crème Brie layered with pesto and toasted pine nuts. Duck & Decanter's helpful cheese-department head, Christopher LaFollette, is known to pass out samples, so there's no question as to what you're buying. The only thing Duck & Decanter doesn't stock is Metamucil, which you will certainly need if you shop here on a regular basis.

K-Rico Cafe & Bakery is tiny, but those with a nose for things sweet should keep sniffing 'til they find this tropically appointed strip-mall storefront. Owner Elsie Lara, a native of Puerto Rico, packs a lot of fabulous Caribbean-style pastries into her shop. It's worth a cross-town trek to bite into one of K-Rico's flaky quesitos, made of buttery puff pastry and stuffed with sweetened cream cheese; or a tembleque, a cinnamony Puerto Rican coconut pudding that's a Caribbean classic.

Restaurant Oceana prides itself on serving just-caught seafood on a daily changing menu. For us, this means sparkling ahi, Maine day boat scallops, Atlantic salmon, Hog Island oysters, Dungeness crab, Alaskan halibut and more. And though such seafood is available at many other places around town, Oceana gets highest marks not only for its unparalleled freshness, but also for creative preparation.

Billed as American cuisine with Asian and French overtones, the menu boasts dynamite dishes like miso-marinated Chilean sea bass with bok choy, shiitake, and jasmine rice, plus our absolute favorite: mustard crusted trout with leek whipped potatoes, snap peas and grilled red onion pan sauce.

We're especially hooked on Oceana's tasting menus, bringing us four-, five- or six-course feasts, paired with wines if we like. The experience makes relaxing in this elegant place easy, lounging under portraits painted by such greats as local artist Frank Ybarra, fiddling with the colorful fish figurines decorating our table, and watching what's up in the exposed kitchen.

There's always another fish in the sea, so the saying goes. We're happy enough with what we've found at Oceana.

Readers' Choice: Red Lobster

Most people go to Wild Oats for the organic fruits and vegetables. We go for the potato chip samples.

During a recent visit, five different flavors were presented for our gustatory inspection: sweet potato chips, cheese puff chips, garlic-flavored chips, blue chips and corn tortilla chips, all proffered with a generous helping of sample salsa. Which should we buy? Hmmm, better have another chip.

But if there's really a judgment day, rest assured the honor system gang upstairs will know when you've made unnecessary third and fourth visits to the vinegar-flavored chip bowl in aisle two and they have the incriminating store video footage to prove it.

Betcha can't eat just 27!

When the dinner hour is approaching and we have to stop off at a grocery store to pick up a few things anyway, we welcome the grab-and-go meal ideas designed to make our hectic lives easier. But since discovering that some AJ's feature hand-tossed cooked-to-order pizzas, we have taken those other plastic-wrapped pizzas off our in-a-pinch menu list.

At AJ's you'll pay more, but those hot, gourmet-style pies are well worth it. For the traditionalists, the stores offer tasty pepperoni, sausage and the like. Those with more discriminating palates (why else would you be shopping at such a chichi store?) will love the delectable specialty pies, like spinach feta, garlic chicken and the Monte Carlo, featuring artichokes, goat cheese, red onions and fresh basil.

Another plus? Call your order in ahead of time, and your pizza will be ready when you're finished shopping.

Lulu's Taco Shop
Should soup be served in a wine goblet? Only if it's as special as the cocido crafted by Israel and Lourdes Aviles, owners of Lulu's. For more than a decade now, the Avileses have been tempting us with their authentic, Guadalajara-style cooking, including dreamy cocido, a traditional beef stew.

Thinking Dinty Moore? Don't. Cocido is more like soup -- but soup with an attitude. The clean broth boasts flavor much too intense for its light character. It looks like pale bouillon laced ever so slightly with orange oil, but explodes in beefy force, underpinned with cilantro and just enough salt to tingle our taste buds.

Its body makes it more like stew. Certainly it's as full-figured as the voluptuous seorita mural on Lulu's wall, the broth gorged with soft zucchini, celery, green pepper, fall-apart-tender beef, onion, and corn-on-the-cob halves.

This soup makes a meal. Served with soft, corn-studded rice, smoky refried beans and a tortilla, Lulu's cocido is one awesome comida.

Fish don't get much fresher than when they're flopping around in a tank of water, like they do at 99 Ranch Market. This upscale Asian supermarket's large aquarium tanks virtually teem with live catfish, tilapia, freshwater blue eel and Dungeness crab.

And if you just can't bear the thought of ending one of our piscine pal's lives prematurely, there's always the option of choosing something already caught and packed in ice, like red snapper, robalo, carp and sheephead. But no matter what creature from the deep you end up selecting, 99 Ranch Market's experienced fishmongers will clean and prepare (and even execute) your finny favorite with samurai-like skill -- all at no additional cost.

Go, fish!

In Season Deli
We were good kids and always ate our vegetables. We'll never refuse a radish, sneer at a squash or thumb our noses at a tomato.

Particularly not when they're crafted into such decadent creations such as the blue corn tamales served at In Season Deli. Seven different garden-fresh veggies are blended with three kinds of ground corn and spices, formed by hand and steamed to a mellow finish. Paired with a side of pinto or black beans, they're as nutritional as they are delicious.

The veggie sandwich, too, reminds us why we had no problem growing up big and strong. We like stuffing our toasted pita with hummus, tomato pesto, cucumber, tomato, bell pepper, sprouts, lettuce, red onions and carrots.

And for those who think a salad isn't substantial, we suggest In Season's five-salad sampler, with different choices prepared daily. We're particularly smitten by Caroline's Tomato Pasta, the arroz ole and the garden rotelli.

Vegetarian food can be sinfully tasty, too -- as one bite of the deli's homemade rice pudding proves.

We're believers. It's always the right time for In Season.

You're planning on throwing an important dinner party for a bunch of fussy gourmets. They're snobs -- you know the type. "Oh, grilled swordfish and Gulf prawns over smoked mussel fried rice and mango papaya relish again?" they sniff.

An order from Gourmet Imports will shut their mouths -- at least until it's time to chew. But you have to pick up the phone to buy anything here; the enterprise doesn't take walk-in trade.

Gourmet Imports brings virtually any exotic meat you can imagine, often within a day or two of placing an order. Camel meat? Giraffe? Hippopotamus? Alligator? Kangaroo?

Gourmet Imports has it all -- zebra, beaver, llama, caribou, goat, Scottish hare, African lion, musk ox, raccoon, Rocky Mountain oysters, turtle and emu (all farm raised, of course.) This purveyor serves many of Arizona's finest resorts and restaurants, and can cater to your kitchen, too.

It's food that will drive even the most jaded gourmet completely wild.

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