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Tucked into a strip mall a ways east of Tempe's beaten path is a charming little alternative to the noisy Mill Avenue chain coffee-house scene. It has all the prerequisites for a good coffee-house experience: lots of parking, plenty of comfortable seating inside and out, and (of course) a wide selection of hot and iced coffee drinks.

But it's the little extras that keep us coming back. The Muse offers freshly baked pastries and muffins (try the Morning Glory) as well as salads, bagels, sandwiches -- even milk shakes. The decor (photography by local artists, sponge-painted walls) is crunchy without being too hippie-dippy, as is the clientele. A favorite feature: a calendar of events for almost every evening, including what must be a unique Valley offering: Lesbian Scrabble on Tuesday nights.

With laptop plug-ins, we certainly know where to go to find our muse -- and a good latte, besides.

It's called "the French paradox": Even with diets high in saturated fat, the French tend to live longer. Experts think part of it has to do with tossing back two or three glasses of wine a day, which apparently combats heart disease and cancer.

Au Petit is the perfect place to test this theory, kicking back with a mouth-watering selection of fancy French pastries, sandwiches, salads and quiche. And while there's no wine served, stop in at Vintage Grape just a few doors down in the Biltmore Fashion Park, and pick up a bottle of your own. (Bring your own glasses and corkscrew, too.) Sip your favorites, and save money, too, by not paying restaurant markup as you match beverage choices with golden flaky croissants, apple turnovers, palmier and scones with Arizona Harvest organic jam and butter. Dessert wines go beautifully with eclairs, fudge cakes, fruit tarts, Napoleons, slabs of Bavarian flan or custard cream. And a nice, dry white lends even more class to an elegant quiche.

We love Au Petit Four. So it doesn't have a liquor license? You won't hear us wine-ing about it.

"Hapa" is Hawaiian slang for "half." This describes the Japanese-American background of chef-owner James McDevitt, who -- along with wife Stacey -- brings us American classics infused with Asian electricity. Asian fusion is everywhere these days, with one local place we know of even mixing French foie gras with Chinese five-spice -- how weird is that? But Hapa knows when to exercise restraint, from its simple, refined decor to dynamite delicacies such as seared California squab with kabocha squash purée, Chinese broccoli and Thai basil oil, to New York steak dressed simply with caramelized Chinese mustard and served with Japanese sticky rice and Chinese long beans. For dessert? Sweet dim sum such as chocolate parchment pot stickers, and banana crème brûlée with toasted coconut. Both have us hapa to be alive.
It has taken owner Daniel Malventano eight years to bring his restaurant into the honest-to-goodness big leagues, but today he's making gnocchi with the best of them. Acqua e Sale has evolved from a casual bistro (with black-and-white checkerboard floors, no less), and now sports sleek cherry wood and stylish, ornately framed black-and-gold prints.

But the real revelation here is the food -- including prosciutto d'anatra (whisper-thin duck breast edged with truffle oil), black truffle-spread crostini, and buffalo mozzarella. The traditional Italian fare holds up, too, with such choices as capellini con pomodorino freschi (angel hair pasta in a tomato, basil, garlic and olive-oil sauce), or osso buco mounded over fettuccine in a deep brown vegetable sauce. Even the simplest della campagna salad is magic, a minimalist marvel of field greens and organic tomatoes tossed in olive oil and squeezed with fresh lemon.

A pretty place, plus beautiful food? To that, we say, chow bella!

We love Italian food in New York -- its unpretentious recipes, its massive portions, its bargain prices. But we'd rather pass on the other part of the experience: gruff service and tables jammed too close together. No, we're happy as bugs in a desert rug to stay in the Valley, especially when we can find the same East Coast food experience at New York's Best without any of the hassle. The setting is friendly, with its choice of polite table service or quick-order counter help. This is like-mama-used-to-make stuff, including spaghetti and meatballs, baked ziti, chicken parmigiana and homemade sausage, as well as excellent calzones, pizzas, cold subs, hot subs and cheese steaks. At dinner, we can get a little more dressy -- orecchietti alla vodka, shrimp scampi linguini, gnocchi pomodoro. Let the Gotham city folks grump their way to good eats. Here in the Valley of the Sun, we can get the same stuff with a smile.

This bright and shiny little convenience store feels like it was transplanted straight out of Tokyo. The greasy hot dogs, sickly-sweet snack cakes and gargantuan Big Gulps are markedly absent. In their place, you can grab a salmon o-bento (a pretty arrangement of grilled salmon, rice and vegetable side dishes), some pastel-colored daifuku rice cakes filled with sweet red bean paste, or a six-pack of miniature Sapporo beers. And unlike its American counterparts, Fujiya carries a huge range of ingredients for making a tasty home-cooked meal, Japanese-style, including frozen octopus, dried seaweed, udon noodles and a different sauce for every possible dish. It even has hard-to-find items like enoki mushrooms and fresh quail eggs. After we pick out shampoo from the toiletries, snag some cute lacquered chopsticks and rent a videotape of a Japanese television drama, the only stop left on our little consumerist tour of Japan is the corner shelf of good sake. Kampai!

Toss in a few rickshaws streaking through the aisles, and visiting Lee Lee would be as authentic an experience as any of Asia's bustling open-air markets. Weekends are a zoo here, as happy cookers claw over piles of fresh produce, exotic meats, seafood, herbs and spices. What an incredible selection: bitter melon, long beans and Asian pear, plus an endless array of bok choy, eggplants, tofus and noodles.

Some things are acquired tastes, like the three-color dessert fashioned from cassava, sweet potato, mung bean, seaweed, peanuts, coconut and sugar. And it takes a confident cook to bring some of the meats and fish into the kitchen: salmon belly and head, gaspergou, barracuda, goat, duck feet and pork uterus.

But we never hesitate over such hard-to-find items as live crab, mussels, clams, tilapia, catfish and carp, or on-ice critters including squid, cuttlefish, massive shrimp, rabbit loin, filet and deer flank. Whatever we need, it's here -- fresh banana leaves, rice steamers, incense, oyster sauce, Thai iced tea, avocado ice cream and pickled lemon.

We love ya, Lee Lee.

The most we've ever won gambling is a free drink or two. But our luck definitely turned when we discovered this hidden treasure tucked in the far back of a local gaming hall. Cholla is an upscale restaurant with all the elements of a sure bet: complimentary valet parking, a comfortable setting, polished, unobtrusive service and noteworthy cuisine. After dinner, there's another bonus: live entertainment in the cushy lounge adjacent to Cholla.

Appetizers are awesome, such as crispy fresh-grilled asparagus with prosciutto and shredded phyllo napped in a zippy citrus vinaigrette; sweet lobster and shrimp puff pastry on a lush fire-roasted red-pepper cream; or fat chile rellenos with forest mushroom duxelles and smoky Gouda corn sauce.

Entrees challenge our established "name" restaurants, with specialties like pan-roasted pheasant married with cabernet cassis (black currant), roasted shallots, cranberry-apple conserve and vegetable couscous. The veal chop is out of this world.

Kicking back with coffee and sinful desserts, it's almost impossible to believe we're just a few feet from frenzied gamblers in this clubby dining room (just 10 tables or so), with a soaring, leaded-glass wall that separates us from the slots.

Oh, and the final score? The casino doesn't charge any tax. On a meal that averages $85 for two -- an easy tab at Cholla -- we figure we've won an extra glass of Teifen Pinot Grigio. Now that's real luck.

A lot of the dishes at Cafe Istanbul are really healthful, fat-free and low-calorie. But don't hold that against them. Lay into the lamb appetizer, layered with creamy hummus and pine nuts, or the tender, tangy, stuffed grape leaves. And on a warm day, nothing soothes as much as labni, a velvety yogurt cheese dip garnished with cucumber, tomatoes, olives and pure olive oil to be scooped with pita.

Cafe Istanbul offers endless variety in entrees, and excellent value, too. Meals are served with soup or salad, rice or vegetables and pita bread. The shrimp scampi is stellar, sautéed in special Lebanese seasonings, as is the vegetarian dinner of zucchini, eggplant, spinach, carrots, banana squash and sweet potatoes in a luscious white sauce. Or just taste it all in a huge platter: The Al Amir combo brings a bounty of hummus, tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves, feta cheese, baba ghanouj, mjadara, loubyeh, falafel, lamb, chicken and kafta kebab.

We love meals on wheels. As long as the meals are prepared by C-Fu, and the wheels belong to the dim sum carts careening around the warehouse-size dining room seven days a week. Just sit tight and wait for a cart to bring you more than 60 choices to tempt your taste buds. Chow fun noodles, Chinese broccoli, pork siu mai and baked barbecue pork buns are must-eats. Delectable dumplings stuffed with meat or seafood, fried shrimp balls, sticky rice in lotus leaf, stuffed eggplant and turnip cakes are winners, too. Weekends are particularly delightful, offering sum-thing special with contemporary plates starring seafood.

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