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.

The first time we heard about "the jerk in the restaurant" 10 years ago, we thought we were being told about some lout on a cell phone. But it was a dish new to the Valley, Jamaican jerked rabbit, served at RoxSand.

Today, jerk is available on many menus, usually involving chicken. Basically, it involves rubbing meat, fish or vegetables with a spicy marinade, then grilling or roasting it. But jerk is nothing without the jerk sauce. It's got to be torridly hot, enough so our eyes water, and we'll lick carpet if we have to, just for relief.

There's no better jerk sauce we've found than the infernal number sold at Kim Bong. It's called Walkerswood Traditional Jamaican Jerk Seasoning, and the colorful, reggae-themed bottle warns us it's "hot and spicy."

We say ya, mon, and how. This is the real thing, packed with scallions, black pepper, salt, allspice, nutmeg, citrus, sugar and thyme. The active ingredient? Scotch Bonnet peppers, a vegetable so evil that cooks are advised to wear gloves when cleaning them.

Chef Vincent Guerithault long has reigned supreme as master of high-end Southwestern cuisine. When he first introduced the concept in the mid-'80s, he was considered radical for his innovative combination of classic French cooking and flavors of Mexico and the American Southwest.

A decade and a half later, little has changed about his menu, cooking philosophy, or his well-deserved status as one of the Valley's most recognized chefs.

As always, the Southwestern influence takes center stage at Vincent's, showcasing chiles, native corn, and flurries of fresh herbs. Time-tested favorites include a rapturous salmon quesadilla, duck tamale with Anaheim chile, lobster chimichanga with basil pesto, and house-smoked fish, laid over a thin, phyllo-like crust dabbed with dill and horseradish cream.

Under Vincent's inspired direction, it's Southwestern with style, a region to believe.

Hacienda Mexican Food Restaurant
Jamie Peachey
Only a supernatural being would have thought to combine more ingredients than those which make authentic mole.

There are as many recipes for mole as there are regions in Mexico. But our local favorite -- a rich, velvety sauce containing a dozen types of dried chiles, nuts, seeds, vegetables, spices, plantains and chocolate -- can be found at Hacienda.

You'll have to look carefully for the dish -- it's hidden under the à la carte offerings as enmolada de queso con carne o pollo. And don't be misled by the unbelievably low $3.95 price tag -- you can easily make a meal of these two corn tortillas, stuffed with gooey jack cheese and chicken or beef, then covered with a creamy blanket of the dark addictive mole.

Mole? Olé!

Coyote Grill shows us why good Southwestern food will never be the flash-in-the-pan trend critics thought it would be back in the '80s. Who could turn their nose up at citrus-crusted catfish in spicy orange chipotle sauce; or Southwestern beef Wellington, stuffing filet mignon in puff pastry with mushrooms and hot cascabel chile sauce? Not us, certainly.

No, we've got our schnozzes firmly buried in executive chef Farn Boggie's steaming-hot onion soup, the rich beef stock splashed with Corona beer, soaking with thick croutons that taste of Pumpernickel, capped with melting Swiss cheese and served in a ceramic crock.

We're happily face-first in a plate of decadent salmon, overflowing with huge chunks in puff pastry with mushrooms, spinach and parmesan cream.

The grill's setting is pure Southwestern style -- sleek with inset stained glass, copper accents and a big, inviting bar. After a few margaritas, we feel rowdy and ask to try Boggie's "adventurous" selection -- "Let the chef pick something for you. May or may not be from the menu (your waitperson does not know what it is, either)."

We've never been disappointed. Now that's what gives a cuisine staying power.

Readers' Choice for Best Southwestern Restaurant: Z'Tejas Grill

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.

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