Best School Meal 2000 | The Desert OasisScottsdale Community College | Food & Drink | Phoenix
The Desert Oasis makes a mockery of the term "starving student." This restaurant showcases the skills of students enrolled in Scottsdale Community College's Culinary Arts Program, and it offers complete five-course meals for a mind-boggling bargain of just $17.50 per diner.

So maybe the students aren't being treated to the multicourse feasts they prepare, but we'd bet there's a whole lot of tasting going on in the school's kitchen.

This is no cafeteria food. Faculty includes three full-time chefs and three part-time chefs. They take their work seriously, leading students through rigorous training on cooking, presentation and white-tablecloth service.

Hey, we're happy to help the kids with their homework. Especially when it means we get to gorge on dishes like mussels with mango citrus salsa, spinach vichyssoise, poached Seckel pears with prosciutto and wild rice, oriental petrale sole en papillote, daube of lamb, coffee cinnamon flan and pistachio citrus cheesecake.

The dog ate the homework? Hardly. It was us.

Harley-Davidson owners are a special breed. After spending multi-thousands to buy their bikes, and many thousands more customizing their wheels into nothing short of motorized art, it's understandable that they wouldn't want to be separated from their bicycle babies.

Even if it's more of a stripped-down warrior ride, a Harley becomes an extension of its owner on the road. Indeed, it's such a personal friend that most true Harley riders can pick out their bike while blindfolded, guided by their scooter's distinctive potato-potato-potato call. It's just as a mother knows her infant's cry from any other in the world.

The folks at The Hideaway know better than to come between such love. Open just two years, The Hideaway has become the place in town for serious bikers (and jealous gawkers) to gather. On weekend nights, in fact, it's often difficult to hear the piped-in Southern rock, the clicking of pool balls or your conversation with the always-friendly bartenders. That's because of the herd of thundering Harleys parked mere feet out the front door, cozied up like pampered pets to the railing of The Hideaway's wood plank porch.

The best seat in the bar is on this porch, sipping a good, honest pour, and snacking on country-style steaks, fish fry, burgers or sandwiches. Even if you're not lucky enough to own a bike, it's a kick to watch the blessed ones, cuddled up with their charges, caressing the chrome and planting baby kisses on the handlebars (grown men, no less).

Is it fancy? Are you kidding? It's a dirt parking lot, the bar dressed up with concrete floors and walls hung with posters of bra-busting bike rally queens.

Because there's no need for expensive decor -- all eyes are on the beautiful beasts parked outside.

This charmingly messy 'cue joint is doing things a bit differently.

Step up to the counter, order your choice of meat or poultry -- even prime rib and trout -- in whatever quantity you want. As Dusty's menu says, "by the pound or by the slice, how much you order determines the price."

The friendly gent behind the counter hacks off your selections with a glistening cleaver, weighs the meat and wraps it in white butcher paper. He tosses it on a tray with some buns -- plus lots of extra sauce, of course -- and sends you off to a checker-clothed picnic table.

Once settled, you assemble your sandwich or simply dig in. If you're craving sides, pluck beans, creamed corn, coleslaw, potato salad or macaroni salad from an iced-down watering trough near the cash registers.

Soon, you'll be groaning in delight at smoky, fall-off-the-bone baby backs, meticulously fat-trimmed prime rib and melt-in-your-mouth pulled pork. The excellent thin, peppery sauce gets on your face, your hands and usually all down the front of your shirt. But as long as most of it gets in your mouth, you won't be complaining.

Best Place to Have Dinner Pushed Through the Wall

Hart & Soul

Normally, having your meal slid through a small opening in the wall isn't a good thing. It reminds us of a brief time when we had a little, shall we say, less liberty than we do now. Of course, it was all a big misunderstanding, and as far as we know, our records were wiped clean years ago.

Still, there's a definite charm to the jailhouse-style food service, especially as it's practiced at Hart & Soul, a south Phoenix rib shack.

We know the routine well. Step up to the glassed-off ordering counter. Study a brief listing on the wall -- catfish, chicken, pork chops, maybe a barbecue special. Push a doorbell, and wait for a cook to slide open a tall, narrow security slot crossed with heavy black steel mesh. She takes our order, and the slot slams shut. When our food is ready, it's placed into a black kettle mounted in the wall -- the pot's back half is chopped off so that it spins like a revolving door to deliver our goodies.

Like a life sentence, Hart & Soul's initially daunting service will eventually grow on you. The food sure does -- our fave's a mighty fine fried catfish for less than $6, accompanied by two side dishes and a cornbread muffin.

Besides, this time we're on the right side of the wall. We get to walk away when we're done with dinner.

Downtown dining. What's it mean to you? Sports bars galore? Coffee shops? Nondescript pizza parlors and burger joints?

How about top-quality, inexpensive Cuban chow?

Chary's is something special, situated unexpectedly in what's otherwise pretty much a culinary no man's land. From the lighthouse mural called Castillo del Morro La Habana Cuba that's painted on the west side of the building to the creative cooking dished out by owner Chary Castro, this is a treat on the downtown street.

At Chary's, you'll stumble on masitas de puerco, lean pork medallions marinated in citrus juices and herbs. And arroz con pollo estilo cienfuegos, chicken cooked in wine, tomato, red pimientos and criollo herbs. Or try Chary's classic Cuban sandwich, stuffing bread with marinated pork roast, honey ham, Swiss cheese, Dijon and mayo to be baked and pressed.

Must be nice to be rich. We've never gotten a 50th wedding anniversary gift like the one Ada Wrigley received from her husband, William, back in 1929. For his beloved bride, the chewing-gum magnate put a bow on a $1.2 million mansion, perched high atop a hill overlooking the Arizona Biltmore.

But we can pretend we're well-off, since current owner Geordie Hormel found a loophole in regulations that require the home be used as a private club only. Membership in Hormel's club costs only $10 a year (and he donates that to local charities).

The Wrigley Mansion restaurant has terrific food -- delicacies like dark ale poached gulf prawns with peppered papaya cocktail; seared fois gras and lobster medallion on artichoke and asparagus salad; baked salmon scaloppini stuffed with Maine lobster tail; and king crab legs with lemon grass, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sauce.

Just as delicious, though, are the stunning views of this originally named "La Colina Solana" -- the sunny hill. We feel like old Ada must have felt when we dine, taking in the dramatic, 360-degree view of downtown Phoenix, Camelback Mountain, the Squaw Peak preserve and the Valley beyond.

Best Place to Eat If You're Starting a Diet Tomorrow

Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe

Jacob Tyler Dunn
Call it the dieter's bachelor party.

The choice of where to indulge in a final meal before bowing to Jenny Craig is simple: Mrs. White's.

There's no need to get gourmet with descriptions here -- just imagine the best-ever Southern fried chicken, pork chops, smothered chicken, chicken and dumplings, chicken-fried steak and fried fish ever to bless your tongue. Picture great puddles of gravy, black-eyed peas, greens and home-style peach cobbler. Visualize massive portions that crowd every inch of the plate.

The meal is chosen from a menu written on the wall, surrounded by celebrity graffiti. (The Phoenix Suns are said to love this place -- sure, they can work it off on the court.) When you're done, tell the friendly folks behind the counter what you had, and they'll ring you up. They trust you not to cheat.

Now, if you can only trust yourself not to cheat on your diet.

It's the millennium. Babies know how to use computers. Pets have cell phones. Great-grandmothers surf the Net. Sometimes it all seems so crazy.

When we need an escape, we disappear into Somewhere in Time. The clock has stopped in this quaint shop, with creaking hardwood floors, the scent of roses in the air, and a comforting jumble of Victorian furniture, knickknacks and porcelain dolls. Even the shop owner's name makes us think of quieter, gentler days: Mary Alexander.

We take a seat at one of the half-dozen lace-topped tables (elbows off, mind you). It's time for tea, and we take our English Breakfast with just a few drops of milk, the way our grandma used to. Somewhere in Time uses only loose-leaf blend teas, of course, poured from antique pots into delicate china cups.

Lunch is lovely, with a plentiful assortment of classic sandwiches like Black Forest ham with cream cheese; egg salad with fresh chives; cucumber with sweet creamery butter; chicken and tuna salads; cream cheese with olives; and creamery butter with fresh raspberry preserves. There are homemade scones with lemon curd and clotted cream, plus wickedly wonderful cakes.

Pleasures like this never go out of style.

For some folks, a romantic restaurant means being insulated from the world, tucked in a tiny space, preferably sitting in the dark.

That's all well and good, but we can get that at home, especially when we don't pay our APS bill. No, for us, romance thrives in a little more open setting, where we can show off the love of our lives, and catch just a smidgen of adrenaline from the universe. It helps us connect, knowing that through the craziest of times, we always have each other.

Convivo is perfect for us, combining coziness with the camaraderie of our fellow guests, to mysterious success. The cafe is basically a little box, set with white cloth tables. But it's been made romantically slinky, with sensuous, curving carpet-to-tile borders, and serpentine coffered ceilings. The soft flowing layout makes us want to glide.

The lighting is dark, in a soft, filtered kind of way. It makes us feel gentle, sultry. There's a quiet hum of people talking all around us, but it's a respectful restraint that's somehow soothing.

And the food -- it swells our hearts with passion for life and each other. Northwest Golden Chanterelle mushrooms in porcini tarragon cream are luxurious. Even a simple chicken breast rises to grace, grilled with balsamic onions and mustard butter, creamy Yukon Gold potato and goat cheese gratin.

Love is a many-splendored thing. For us, it's Convivo.

Readers' Choice: Mary Elaine's

Newcomers may find it hard to believe, but there once was a time when the Valley offered more than stucco-wrapped pink houses with red-tile roofs. It's true. Once upon a time, we had a lovely landscape of eclectic, Victorian-inspired homes.

You can still see one of those relics, a charming, 1920s cottage that now houses some of the Valley's most satisfying contemporary American food.

The visual tour starts in a relaxed, trellised garden leading to the bungalow with wrap-around veranda. Inside is a virtual Victorian revival of lace curtains and antiques. The floor plan hasn't been disturbed; a dozen or so tables nest in hallways and two small rooms.

It's not exactly grandma's cooking -- unless she was a whiz with grilled shrimp with Thai pesto and curried pecans, roast duck breast and pears in port, or stuffed eggplant lasagna with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes.

House of Tricks is a perfect mix: a cuisine that speaks of Phoenix's modern pleasures, in a setting that lovingly embraces its past.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of