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.

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

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