Best Smoked Salmon Appetizer 2000 | Houston's Restaurant | Food & Drink | Phoenix
Last year, Houston's unceremoniously removed its signature smoked salmon appetizer from the menu for a trial period. The reaction from customers was not a pretty thing. Folks whined and ranted to the waiters. They e-mailed nasty-grams to the corporate powers that be. Some even threatened to boycott the restaurant. They mourned the loss of the silky, melt-in-your-mouth fish flesh Houston's elegantly pairs with toast points and a side of herbed mayo, a combo that, with a glass of good wine, makes a meal in itself.

Apparently, we weren't the only ones disappointed with Houston's wrong-headed marketing decision, so the salmon's back on the menu again in Phoenix. It's the best this side of Seattle.

Got a hankerin' for a real slice of sweet potato pie? Hightail it down to this cozy Cajun hole-in-the-wall where Chef Bubba Stephenson bakes a pie fit for Queen Ida herself.

Bubba lines a delicate homemade pie crust with a hearty, spicy filling made from fresh, not canned, sweet potatoes. Each generous slice (about a quarter of a pie) is served warm and slathered with plenty of whipped cream. After one bite, you'll feel as if you're back in the bayou. Sweet zydeco!

Mention "greens" in Scottsdale and most people will think you're talking about a golf course.

But that was before Marcella's opened for business, dishing out the verdant veggies that are a hallmark of any soul food menu. Kale, cabbage or collard, they're all prepared essentially the same way. Steamed with bacon or ham hocks until soft and tender, the leafy treats kick into high gear with the addition of garlic, and are then served in a steaming bowl of potent pot likker.

Forget chicken soup for the soul -- Marcella's greens will keep you in the pink.

Lauren Cusimano
Honey Bear's owners Mark Smith and Gary Clark started cooking their mouth-watering barbecue out of their apartment almost two decades ago, based on recipes from their grandmother. Later, they moved to their dimly lighted, no-frills digs on Van Buren. A few years back, success led them to open a new location on Central Avenue.

Today, their Tennessee-style barbecue continues to draw in diners, lured by the smells of smoking meat and simmering sauces.

Their slogan: "You don't need no teeth to eat our meat." That's true. Pulled pork, beef and chicken positively collapse before we can gnaw them down. Pork ribs and whole or half-chickens slip from the bone. Hot links -- well, these take a tooth or two to snap their firm casing and get to the spicy sausage within.

Our honey of a meal is a large combo sandwich of pork and chicken. It's not on the menu, but always happily accommodated. The massive mound of meat comes tucked in a soft bun and wrapped in tin foil. The foil's important -- it seals in the heat, keeping the bun warm. Spicy sauce is served on the side.

It's a barbecue we could bear to eat every single day.

Readers' Choice: Honey Bear's BBQ

This is the Southwest. How could we not honor the region's unofficial steak-house side dish? Particularly when they're as seductive as the barbecue pit beauties served at Joe's?

Forget those canned baked beans of backyard weenie roasts of yore. This is a killer combination uniting kidney, lima and navy legumes thickened with shards of cooked-on-site sausage, chicken and beef. They're served blissfully hot, are inexplicably cheap, and are so very satisfying.

Bean there, done that? Not until you've tried Joe's.

Best Place for Coffee and Dessert Under the Stars

Coffee Talk

You can grab an after-dinner latte and biscotti just about anywhere these days. But you'll gladly drive past strip mall coffeeterias and shopping center java joints to relax in this charming little spot.

Located just north of Main Street in downtown Mesa, its sparkling white decorative lights will lure you in. A trellis, framed by fragrant vines and trees, leads you into the lush front yard of a restored turn-of-the-century home. Inside the Victorian-themed house, you will find the usual coffee and tea offerings, as well as homemade muffins, cakes, pies and other pastries. You can browse in the gift shop or enjoy the free entertainment -- singers, musicians and comedians.

But it's better to head outside. Whether you're in a large group or a party of two, there's a spot for you, on the porch or gazebo out front or beside a tinkling fountain among the backyard ficus trees. And as you banter over the biscotti, remember -- it's the coffee talking.

Readers' Choice for Best Coffee House: Coffee Plantation

Tedd Roundy
You haven't eaten chicken-fried steak until you've had it here at this 15-year-old bastion of beef 'n' batter. Smothered in thick, white gravy, this pair of pounded beef patties crackles with crunchy, deep-fried cholesterol nirvana. The chicken-fried chicken is also incredible, as are several other enormously tasty breaded-and-fried items. First-time visitors won't want to miss the wall of chili (hundreds of vintage cans of the stuff from all over the country) or the colorful tribute to Texas cuties The Kilgore College Rangerettes. Ask for Helena, whose cheerful chatter and super-attentive service will make your stay that much more down-home.

Jamie Peachey
Good soup is more than a meal; it's comfort. When the Soup Doctor prepares it, it cures whatever ails you, too. The Soup Doctor is Gilles Desrochers, a wild-haired, rumpled chef who makes some of the most magical soups (72 homemade varieties) we've had the pleasure of slurping.

That's him behind the counter, chopping garden loads of fresh vegetables that grace so many of his broths, and yelling at customers, "Eat more soup! Now!" This guy's not shy, smiling and shouting at guests who take too long to order.

With up to a dozen varieties offered daily, choosing can be a challenge. All the soups are made from scratch with recipes handed down from the Doctor's mother and grandmother. Vegetable beef barley swims with whole mushrooms and tender steak in a rich tomato broth. Chicken noodle is stuffed with shell pasta, cooked to perfectly slimy softness. And pasta fagioli is smitten with soft bean, orzo and celery in a salty base.

Take it from the Soup Doctor: You need more soup. Now!

(The soup -- but not the Doctor -- is also available at Arizona Bread Company, 23587 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-515-9440.)

Fry bread is a part of Arizona's heritage, a symbol of Indian intertribal unity. Unfortunately, however, this obscenely caloric totem is usually found only at state and county fairs.

Or at least that used to be the case before this fry bread fortress pitched tent inside the west Valley's SwapMart.

Angelina's makes pouf-perfect fry bread from a recipe handed down through generations of Native Americans, rolling the dough, working it into ovals, puncturing its middle and dropping it into fryers. The bread emerges glistening, puffy and impossibly light. Topping options include vigorously seasoned red or green chile, ground or shredded beef and shredded white meat chicken, as well as simple shakes of powdered sugar and sticky squeezings of honey.

Alas, the swap mart is only open on weekends, but we're willing to wait: It lends new meaning to TGIF -- Thank God It's Fryday.

Patricia Escarcega
To say that this private party room is a little hole in the wall is entirely accurate. It's hidden, in fact, behind a door set inconspicuously into the paneled wood wall of the tiny bar called Dick's Hideaway. There's no sign anywhere -- not even outside, for the bar itself. You've just got to know where to look.

The search is worth the effort, unveiling a completely charming, comfortable room seating up to 25 people around a grand, copper-topped table and at comfy booth tables lining the wine-bottle-lined walls. Our favorite spot is curled up in front of the kiva fireplace.

As pretty as the place is, the experience is low-key. Dick's Hideaway is brought to us by the folks at Richardson's, and that's the same menu from which we select. That means creative New Mexican dishes like chimayo chicken (stuffed with spinach, sun-dried tomato, poblano chile and asiago cheese); pork tenderloin (marinated and pecan grilled with red and green chile jelly); and even posole (hominy and pork in red chile broth).

Best of all, Dick's Hideaway doesn't stick guests with a fixed menu, like most private rooms do. Everything's flexible -- individual meals, custom requests, open or hosted bar service, even birthday cake.

Now that's casual with class.

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