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  • Resturants: Ethnic and Specialty
We were good kids and always ate our vegetables. We'll never refuse a radish, sneer at a squash or thumb our noses at a tomato.

Particularly not when they're crafted into such decadent creations such as the blue corn tamales served at In Season Deli. Seven different garden-fresh veggies are blended with three kinds of ground corn and spices, formed by hand and steamed to a mellow finish. Paired with a side of pinto or black beans, they're as nutritional as they are delicious.

The veggie sandwich, too, reminds us why we had no problem growing up big and strong. We like stuffing our toasted pita with hummus, tomato pesto, cucumber, tomato, bell pepper, sprouts, lettuce, red onions and carrots.

And for those who think a salad isn't substantial, we suggest In Season's five-salad sampler, with different choices prepared daily. We're particularly smitten by Caroline's Tomato Pasta, the arroz ole and the garden rotelli.

Vegetarian food can be sinfully tasty, too -- as one bite of the deli's homemade rice pudding proves.

We're believers. It's always the right time for In Season.

Chef Vincent Guerithault long has reigned supreme as master of high-end Southwestern cuisine. When he first introduced the concept in the mid-'80s, he was considered radical for his innovative combination of classic French cooking and flavors of Mexico and the American Southwest.

A decade and a half later, little has changed about his menu, cooking philosophy, or his well-deserved status as one of the Valley's most recognized chefs.

As always, the Southwestern influence takes center stage at Vincent's, showcasing chiles, native corn, and flurries of fresh herbs. Time-tested favorites include a rapturous salmon quesadilla, duck tamale with Anaheim chile, lobster chimichanga with basil pesto, and house-smoked fish, laid over a thin, phyllo-like crust dabbed with dill and horseradish cream.

Under Vincent's inspired direction, it's Southwestern with style, a region to believe.

Coyote Grill shows us why good Southwestern food will never be the flash-in-the-pan trend critics thought it would be back in the '80s. Who could turn their nose up at citrus-crusted catfish in spicy orange chipotle sauce; or Southwestern beef Wellington, stuffing filet mignon in puff pastry with mushrooms and hot cascabel chile sauce? Not us, certainly.

No, we've got our schnozzes firmly buried in executive chef Farn Boggie's steaming-hot onion soup, the rich beef stock splashed with Corona beer, soaking with thick croutons that taste of Pumpernickel, capped with melting Swiss cheese and served in a ceramic crock.

We're happily face-first in a plate of decadent salmon, overflowing with huge chunks in puff pastry with mushrooms, spinach and parmesan cream.

The grill's setting is pure Southwestern style -- sleek with inset stained glass, copper accents and a big, inviting bar. After a few margaritas, we feel rowdy and ask to try Boggie's "adventurous" selection -- "Let the chef pick something for you. May or may not be from the menu (your waitperson does not know what it is, either)."

We've never been disappointed. Now that's what gives a cuisine staying power.

Readers' Choice for Best Southwestern Restaurant: Z'Tejas Grill

Good sushi needn't cost an arm and a tentacle, although it usually does.

Happily, Ichi Ban turns the tide on steep-priced swimmers with its buffet-style sushi spread, a staggering array of Pisces-in-the-raw that will set you back just $13.95 at lunch, and $20.95 at dinner.

Except for the price, there's nothing cut-rate about this all-you-can-eat fish fest that offers more than 50 items. The top quality selections include pale pink albacore tuna, bright red maguro, silky salmon, buttery hamachi, cooked shrimp, flaky kani, red snapper, scallop and eel. Other choices include baked salmon, gyoza, snow crab and tempura, as well as an impressive array of premade hand rolls.

Ichi Ban's sushi buffet? We'll bite.

C-Fu's got excellent Chinese food, and then some. It's got meals on wheels, and dim sum.

The huge restaurant becomes an autobahn during lunch seven days a week when the dim sum carts come careening out, their drivers dodging giant tanks full of fish, clusters of tables and quick-footed waiters clearing plates and refilling beverages.

Customers wave the carts in like taxis, choosing among the 60-plus items offered. Some ask for explanation; others just point and say, "Bring it on."

Here are some hints: Chow fun noodles, Chinese broccoli, pork siu mai and baked barbecue pork buns can provoke drooling. Any of the dumplings stuffed with meat or seafood are sublime. Fried shrimp balls, sticky rice in lotus leaf, stuffed eggplant and turnip cakes are heavenly, too.

We've sampled in San Francisco, New York, even China -- and C-Fu is definitely sum-thing special.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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