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

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

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