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?

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)

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.

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

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.

It's so hard to get good help. Sometimes the serfs at our castle revolt against us, and refuse to cater the elaborate dinner parties we like to throw. How gauche.

No matter, we've got a back-up with the ultra-luxe private dining room we can reserve at the Phoenician resort. Happily, it looks just like a castle, replete with Renaissance-era decor, barrel-vaulted ceilings, brick archways, European antiques and a full wall of wines. It's just spacious enough -- we can park up to 16 of our friends' premier posteriors on tapestry-upholstered chairs.

Adjacent to the resort's fabulous Terrace Dining Room, it also serves as the Terrace's working wine cellar. And when it's time to eat, we can have anything we want from the resort's flagship restaurant, Mary Elaine's. The magnificent modern French cuisine and highly polished service are just what we need to take our minds off our employment troubles at home.

It makes for such a peasant -- uh, pleasant -- evening out.

This category reminds us of an old schoolyard gag:

Q: Are you in favor of matrimony?

A: Only with cheese.

But seriously, ladies, when it comes time to tell the folks you're in the family way without the benefit of wedlock, we can't think of a better place to bite the bullet than this clamorous pasta palace.

With dishes clanking, an opera singer wailing and other customers shouting to be heard above the convivial din, your parents will soon be lulled into a state of idyllic catatonia. And when you do break the news, chances are the only reaction will be, "I'm sorry, dear. What did you say?"

And the food isn't bad, either. Dig in -- you're eating for two.

The Palm Court has been around for years, quietly catering to a dedicated clientele of conference and convention guests, plus savvy business lunchers who know a good thing when they see it. It's a little worn around the edges, as any grand old dame is wont to be.

But the lady's got more life than most folks may realize. Without abandoning the classic charm that's carried her all these years, the Palm Court surprises and delights with a very nicely done traditional Continental menu.

As the heavily draped windows, elaborate chandeliers and tuxedoed waiters suggest, the Palm Court relies on tradition. We get a kick out of the steak au poivre, flambéed tableside with cognac and tricolor peppercorns. Dover sole is filleted tableside to be topped with roasted almonds and parsley. And roast tenderloin is carved under our watchful eyes, then doused with béarnaise and Merlot sauces.

Plan to spend some time -- meals are prepared the old-fashioned way, to order. There's no need to rush -- our old friend, the Palm Court, isn't going anywhere soon.

Farmers used to start their days in a big way. Stacks of pancakes as high as a silo. Backhoe loads of bacon. Troughs full of toast, spread thick with jam, butter and cheese. Eggs, ham, waffles.

Of course, nowadays even farmers can't afford to eat like that every day, much less we couch potatoes. But when we're feeling more than peckish in the a.m., we treat ourselves to the fantastic fare found at the Farm House.

The Farm House is part of an old working Arizona farm -- the barn and some working tractors are still out back. Tables are tucked in former bedrooms, plus the original parlor and living room. It's definitely a blast from the past, with jam jars on the tables, hardwood floors and period furniture.

Portions are farm-hand humongous: giant omelets with sausage, bacon and potato, and cinnamon rolls the size of wagon wheels. All our favorites are here -- home-style pancakes, waffles, muffins and more.

It's not fancy, but it's filling. And it tastes mighty fine. It's the good life, down on the farm.

Readers' Choice: The Good Egg

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