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

Forget about red lanterns, lacquered screens and laughing Buddhas. True to its adage, Flo's is "an experience in Chinese cuisine" -- and one unlike any other in town.

Instead, this high-tech eatery turns the stereotyped notion of a Chinese restaurant on its head with gray varnished concrete floors, gray sponge-painted walls, rows of blond wood tables and an innovative menu that will have the "with six, you get egg roll" crowd scratching its collective heads.

Meanwhile, diners with a yen for adventure will think they've died and gone to, well, Flo's.

Tossed salad in a Chinese restaurant? That's just the first surprise. "Chips and salsa" -- in reality, fried won ton with a chopped chicken "salsa" -- make a unique appetizer.

Entrees include an imaginative variety of shrimp dishes; other favorites include two-pepper chicken and honey beef. And leave room for dessert: fried won ton wrappers, wrappers stuffed with chocolate, fried and served warm with powdered sugar. With a menu like Flo's, it's always The Year of the Pig.

Some Mexican restaurants have great chips. Some have great salsa. The red and green neon lighted salsa bar at Pica Poco Taco has them both.

The chips here are homemade, stacked high in a large bin atop the bar, where they're kept warm and replaced constantly through the day. They're thick and crisp, and customers are free to scoop to their heart's content.

Salsas, too, are homemade and fresh. Mild, traditional salsa is powerful, rich with tomato juices anchored by chunks of tomato, onion, chile and cilantro leaves. Sweet tomatillo salsa packs a one-two punch with marvelously tangy vinegar tones. A sign warns that the bright orange salsa Pica Poco is hot, and it is -- a smoldering purée hides heat that grips and won't let go.

Plunk some of each into the little plastic cups at the bar. Taste them all. But remember, as the sign above the bar requests, take only what you can eat -- "This salsa is too precious to waste." We'll say it is.

Readers' Choice for Best Salsa: Macayo

Altos Latin Bistro reminds us that authentic Spanish dining is a romance of flavors; a cuisine built on vibrant spices; a food celebrating the bounty of the Mediterranean. How do we know? Hey, it says so right on its decorative, leather-bound menu.

Not that you'll have any doubts after delighting in this colorful eatery's mouthwatering tapas, paellas, crema de mariscos (creamy seafood soup) and serrano ham-wrapped, Manchego cheese-stuffed shrimp. This is the type of stuff that makes us wonder what Christopher Columbus was thinking when he left Spain in search of a more exciting world.

Lamb chops, for example, practically dance under a "drunken" sauce of chile negro, garlic, beer and spices topped by cotija cheese. Wild mushrooms and guajillo peppers are rarely so well-respected as when they're served in Altos' soup touched with fennel and dry Spanish sherry. And what more could we want from beef than Altos' signature juicy filet mignon, topped with guajillo peppers, garlic, almonds and warm cabrales cheese?

Hello, Columbus!

We like this spicy Cajun stuff. Like grilled shrimp dipped in rémoulade, an infernal mix of mustard, mayonnaise and horseradish. Or hot boiled Louisiana crayfish, bobbing with new potatoes and corn in fiery spiced broth.

Other Cajun places around town may not believe how much we like the heat -- why else would they be so timid in turning it on? Not so at Justin's, where the good times roll in a heat wave of assertive flavors, always-fresh ingredients and creative menu choices.

Confederate catfish is a treat, blackened or grilled with shrimp in herb beurre blanc. So is Mardi Gras meat loaf, alligator tail meat ground with Cajun spices. And only Justin's can tempt us with palmetto chicken, encrusted with pecans in a roasted red bell pepper coulis, or Terrebonne tournedos, tenderloins in Creole mustard au jus.

The party never ends at this French Quarter playhouse, flocked with photos of the New Orleans Saints and a mural of street musicians. The joint rocks with zydeco music, and we eat to the beat, spooning brandy and chocolate bread pudding in a boisterous strawberry sauce.

Justin's is our best buy for a bit of the bayou.

Readers' Choice: Voo Doo Daddy

El Norteno
Chris Malloy
Don't feel like cooking? El Norteo has been a Valley takeout favorite for years.

The small space is nothing fancy, but the food is. El Norteo's kitchen cranks, even producing menudo on weekends. The staff has you fed morning to night: Breakfast on spicy, homemade chorizo-and-egg burros; lunch on green enchiladas, red tamales and tacos; and return to pick up dinner -- killer machaca, green chile stew, cheese crisps and chicken tostadas.

El Norteo, we'll take you anytime, anywhere!

San Diego Bay Restaurant
Jackie Mercandetti
Anyone who's spent time in Mexico knows that the food there isn't what we're used to seeing on our chain restaurant menus around town. All it takes is a four-hour drive to Puerto Peasco to discover that authentic-style Mexican food is lighter, more crisply flavored than we might expect, and highly reliant on fresh herbs, spices and vegetables. There's also a lot more seafood than just fish tacos.

A faster way to figure this out is to visit our favorite local taste of Mexico, San Diego Bay.

Don't expect ambiance -- there isn't any. But we don't care, not when we're contemplating Pescado Veracruzano, a Mexican specialty that indulges moist red snapper with a luscious coat of tomatoes, onions, chiles, capers and olives. Or when we slide that first joyous bite of camarones verdes past our lips. Food doesn't get much better than this, with shrimp tossed in sour cream, coriander, small green tomatoes, jalapeos, garlic and onion, sautéed in butter and covered in cheese. These spices sing like an opera.

For a true south-of-the-border fiesta, San Diego Bay's the real thing.

Readers' Choice for Best Mexican Restaurant: Macayo

Sometimes we crave a good meal but don't want to put up with overly chipper waiters, bright interiors and hostesses telling us to have a nice night.

That's when we head to Hacienda Mexican Restaurant and the tiny taco stand hunkered in the shadows outside the kitchen door. The cart's an extension of the sit-down, full-menu restaurant, but operates only at night. We grab our food, climb in our truck bed and stretch out under the stars for a private, late-night feast.

Here, the cinema of life plays around us without invading our personal space. Low riders without mufflers rumble by, thump-thumping with rocket-powered radios. Headlights bounce off the corrugated metal wall flanking the restaurant, illuminating the shadowy creep of a street citizen just a few feet away.

Every night except Monday, as soon as dusk falls, the taco-hungry masses converge until the stand shuts down at midnight. Like us, they're here for wonderful charro beans (spunky with spice, bacon fat and veggies) and the wallet-friendly tacos. For just $1.25 each, the corn tortilla parcels include shredded, onion-stabbed pork adobada; carne asada; lengua (tongue); and cabeza (head meat). Everything is fresh, topped with splashes of red or green hot sauce, spoonfuls of puréed avocado and salted radishes.

Tacos De Juarez
Kyle Lamb
At Tacos de Juarez, the cooks stuff their soft tacos with generous portions of mild-mannered tripes de leche (chunks of beef small intestines), pork, cabeza (beef cheek), carne asada and chicken. Hard tacos -- slicked with just enough oil to leave the slightest sheen on our fingers -- are crunchy vessels for moist carne desebrada (shredded beef), chicken and carne molida con papas (ground beef and potatoes), draped with Cheddar. Add the extras like crisp radish coins and fresh shredded lettuce, or sides of pico de gallo, electric green sauce and fiery red sauce.

Don't be swayed by the run-down exterior of the restaurant, partly hidden by a bus station for people traveling to Mexico. And just step over those folks stretched out on the sidewalk or in the parking lot behind the building.

Inside you'll find a bright and comfortable dining room packed with a workday lunch crowd that often includes a table of sheriff's deputies, a booth or two of City Hall staffers, and other taco aficionados.

Ordinarily, the prospect of paying $12.50 for a single taco would be enough to send even the most ardent Mexican-food lover into, well, shell shock.

But that's before beholding Golden Swan's majestic model, a saffron-infused corn tortilla about the size of a tea saucer. Presented on a bed of creamy corn spritzed with yellow and red pepper oil, the pricey gem is stuffed with two moist and meaty lobster cakes. To the side rests a crisp chayote slaw of jicama, carrot and zucchini in a cumin-spiked sweet vinaigrette.

Washed down with imported Panna water from Italy (go figure), this tony take on the lowly taco is enough to render a certain talking Chihuahua speechless.

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