Aloha Kitchen
Lauren Cusimano
Sometimes, we're surfing for a fast, simple, inexpensive supper. That's when we say "Aloha!" to the Hawaiian-themed kitchen of the same name.

Short of the slow-roasted sow you'll find at a South Pacific luau, there's nothing better than the luscious Kalua pig served here -- tender, subdued and tossed with steamed cabbage. Breaded fish fillet and charbroiled salmon are definitely fast-food menu upgrades, served plain and fresh.

But our favorite is saimin, a ramenlike noodle created by islanders. We love the skinny, crinkly noodles in a yummy, warm toss of slender Japanese fish cake strips, char sui bits, chopped cabbage and shrimp sauce; or in soup with won tons, bok choy, char sui dumplings and fish cake.

Aloha Kitchen -- it's a shore thing.

Best Place for Old-Fashioned Tableside Preparation

Le Sans Souci

Le Sans Souci
Sans souci is French for "without a care." That may be true for us, the lucky diners relaxing in this elegant French chateau, but not for the servers concentrating on preparing our elaborate meals right next to our tables.

These professionals, under the watchful eye of legendary Valley restaurateur Louis Germaine, are dedicated to making sure every tableside trick results in a memorable, classical French meal (longtime residents will remember Germaine from his 35 years owning Chez Louis in Scottsdale).

Something about seeing -- and smelling -- our dinner as it's prepared makes it taste even better. We watch as our server rolls up his geridon (carved wood cart), sets out his rochard (small propane burner), and arranges his mis-en-place (ingredients) to make our spinach salad for two. He sizzles chopped bacon in Worcestershire, mustard and red wine vinegar in sugar, then dumps it all over a big wooden bowl of fresh greens.

As we eat, he works up our entrees, steak Diane, and les tresors de la mer (seafood). Pounded flat filet mignon cooks in bubbling butter, mushrooms, garlic, onions and capers added from little ramekins on the cart. Then our server splashes the pan with brandy and sherry, inciting great flames that leap as high as his eyebrows. A dab of Grey Poupon and the steak is complete. Shrimp, lobster tail and scallops take barely a minute to cook, soaking up lots of sherry and brandy.

Bananas Foster bring more fireworks, torching crème de banana, sherry, butter, cinnamon and brown sugar that spits out sparks when tossed to the flames.

Is it polite to applaud in a fancy restaurant?

It's a kinder, gentler Arizona these days, where upscale restaurants don't limit themselves to impressing us with exotica from faraway lands.

The new fine dining experience celebrates the products born and raised in our own Valley of the Sun. Chefs like Rancho Pinot's Chrysa Kaufman insist on using locally grown or raised organic produce, eggs and dairy products as much as possible.

That's why we can usually be assured that the produce we're enjoying in Kaufman's dishes, such as wood-oven roasted vegetables with crispy risotto-wheatberry cake, came from a local grower. Or that the quails we're feasting on were raised at a local farm.

Rancho Pinot celebrates Arizona heritage in the 21st century, with its funky cowboy-chic interior. It celebrates the take-it-easy Western past, with Kaufman's commitment to "Slow Food," an international organization that promotes cooking from scratch, using the freshest, artisan boutique ingredients.

Of course, everything tastes magical, from roasted beets with toasted almonds, sheep's milk feta and spicy greens to Nonni's Sunday Chicken, braised with white wine, mushrooms, herbs and onion over toasted polenta.

Can't face another drive-through meal of burger and fries?

No problem. Latino Express comes to your rescue with gourmet, South American treats created by local chef Erasmo "Razz" Kamnitzer, owner of the upscale Razz's in Scottsdale.

Housed in a former Jack in the Box, the drive-through accommodates gourmet motorists with a decidedly un-fast-food menu featuring the likes of grilled ostrich, mofongo (charbroiled chicken and beans) and tostones (fried plantains). Traditional grease 'n' go fare, this isn't. The few fried items are virtually oil-free, and many dishes (most dinners are priced at $7 or less) are healthful combinations of fresh grilled meats, veggies, rice and beans in light sauces.

Say, you wanna supersize that mofongo?

The status of appetizers has changed in American restaurants. It used to be that most starters were mild-mannered offerings, designed to keep diners quiet while the kitchen had time to work on the main event. Appetizers used to be little more than tossed salad, soup, deep-fried veggies and, in a nice place, perhaps a shrimp cocktail.

Today, in good restaurants, appetizers are works of art. They're prepared as meticulously and creatively as entrees -- sometimes even more so.

At Ridge Cafe, however, appetizers aren't just as elaborate as entrees, they're almost as big -- at half the price of a full dinner.

The chefs here serve up a generous asparagus and shrimp combo, with beautiful veggies served cool and crisp under two truly jumbo shrimp in a tidy, red onion and dill vinaigrette. What could be better than a massive chile relleno, a pristine pasilla pepper in lacy batter stuffed with whole mushroom, chicken breast and jack cheese? And how about a mussel appetizer, bringing a generous baker's dozen of bivalves in a savory white wine, tomato, garlic and fennel broth?

A few slices of bread, a glass of wine, and there's simply no room left in our bellies. Change is good, we've been told. We have to agree.

It's all a matter of priorities. Do you want to live 90 years eating Dairy Queen, or 40 years eating Ritter's? When given the choice to Live (fat) Free or Die, we and our Dionysian fat friends invariably choose the latter. Ritter's gourmet custard (glorified ice cream) is sumptuous, voluptuous and fat on rich flavor. This strangely retro little malt shop in Gilbert offers daily specials that, cumulatively, are now referred to by area residents as "Murderer's Row."
Bravo Bistro
All couscous is not created equal. Some are achingly dry, like herby dust. Some are sadly sodden, like seasoned moss. Some, like the kind served at Bravo Bistro, are spectacular.

Bravo's couscous is Moroccan, which means it's larger and moister than the tiny seffa variety served around town. These caper-size beauties pop in the mouths, exploding with wholesome, grainy goodness. Bravo serves this dish with sautéed grilled chicken and fresh vegetables in an aromatic herb broth.

It's the couscous we choose.

Persimmon Bar & Grille
It's a hefty drive -- some 35 miles north of downtown Phoenix -- and there's not a lot to look at on the lonely stretch of highway leading to this massive master-planned community in the middle of nowhere.

But that's exactly what makes the final destination so spectacular. Once parked on the patio at Persimmon, there's nothing to compete with the views of Daisy Mountain, soaring almost 3,200 feet above the desert floor. No towering buildings. No sense of the pulsing, gasping rat race we've left at the far fringes of Phoenix. Once the sun goes down, there aren't any city lights to compete with the twinkling stars above -- just a few muted porch bulbs from homes tucked across the yawning golf course that serves as Persimmon's backyard.

The grill faces west, meaning we're in for spectacular sunsets. The country club has yet to be overrun with residents, meaning we're able to enjoy some peace and quiet with our Pinot Grigio. The outdoor furniture is fancy, cushy and clumped in private tête-à-têtes.

And for now, the view is free. The grill is open to the public. Now, that's worth a toast.

Readers' Choice for Best Outdoor Patio: Dos Gringos and The Grapevine (tie)

Why are pizzas in New York so insanely large? It's not like there's a lot of spare room in this crowded city. The typical Gotham City pie is so immense that even someone the size of the Statue of Liberty would have difficulty scarfing down more than a few slices.

But the real head-scratcher is why many of the pizzas found in the Valley are such dainty little numbers. This is the land of wide-open spaces, where tough-talking cowboys cuddle with rattlesnakes and keep company with scorpions. Yet here, thin crust rules, slices require just one hand, and many places top their pizzas with -- gasp! -- designer stuff like barbecue sauce, feta, goat cheese and shrimp.

When we're craving good, old-fashioned New York-style pie, we pick Pizzafarro's. There's nothing shy about these servings -- the 16-inch large is enough to feed a family of four. Pillowy-crusted slices are enormous. We can fold them for easier eating, but if we don't want delicious pizza oil dripping down our fronts, we're looking at using a knife and a fork.

Pizzafarro's doesn't believe in frou-frou, either. All our favorite toppings are there (even fresh anchovies), but the only nods to contemporary cuisine are artichokes and green chile.

Back up the SUV and fold down the seats. We're going to pick up a pie from Pizzafarro's.

Readers' Choice for Best Gourmet Pizza: Pizzeria Bianco

Readers' Choice for Best Classic Pizza: Pizza Hut

At a time of night when other restaurants along Camelback's gourmet row have long since rolled up the kitchen, Barmouche sizzles with its first-rate, creative French cuisine. Midnight munchies include portobello lasagna with made-on-site mozzarella, ricotta, parmesan, goat cheese and spinach, an 18-ounce New York sirloin with choice of sides (Belgian frites and sweet-pea mashed potatoes are sublime) and a Scotch beef fall-apart steak in red wine gravy.

Even the sleepiest snacker will come wide awake with Barmouche's croque monsieur, combining hot ham, Gruyère cheese and Béchamel sauce in thick French bread. It's our pick, paired with a side of crisp, garden-fresh asparagus sautéed in butter.

Barmouche's restaurant is open until midnight seven days a week; the bar, which also serves food, remains open until 1 a.m.

You snooze, you lose.

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