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Pastry chef Richard Ruskell could impress us with just his star-quality résumé: award after pastry award in eight years at our Valley's world-class Mary Elaine's. He could win us over with the clever hiring of Scott Fausz from Scottsdale's stellar Pierre's Pastries. Ruskell certainly gets our warm thoughts for naming his shop after his beloved Dalmatian, whose photos are proudly displayed on the wall.

But it's Ruskell's breakfast pastries, desserts and chocolates that bring us to our knees in genuflection. Flaky croissants -- plain, cinnamon, chocolate -- burst with butter. Soft brioche are gorgeously fat with custard, almond cream and orange, cinnamon and almonds, cream cheese and fresh blackberries, or lemon cheese.

And what can we say about his hand-sculpted pastries, except, "Wow!" Our favorite is the light-as-air Tuzigoot, with vanilla Bavarian, fresh fruit and mango gelée.

Ruskell also designs custom chocolates in the winter months, adding such sensations as tangerine/caramel mousse to chocolates from Michel Cluizel, a family-owned chocolatier in Normandy. Oh, Maxine, we're not worthy. But we'll come anyway.

Charles Taylor -- "Sir" to his friends -- has changed his location since he started barbecuing in the Valley in 1969, but not his food -- out-of-this-world pecan-smoked meats, tangy sauce and a dazzling display of belly-filling side dishes. Sir Charles' edge-charred pork ribs fall off the bone at our softest tooth-tug. Beef ribs and brisket are beauties, juicy pulled pork is perfection, and smoked turkey remains moist under its deep, woody flavoring. Texas-style sauce, mild or hot, is good enough to be sipped straight, with a hint of tomatoes and no thick, sugary glop we too often find elsewhere. Sir Charles' sides are meal makers: greens, soupy Texas beans, black-eyed peas, garlic mashers, sweet potatoes and, best of all, green beans and cabbage, with lots of salt, butter and pork. Need more to stick to your ribs? Sweet-potato pie or peach and apple cobblers will leave you feeling like royalty.
Neither of these carne asada emporiums is in any upper-crust neighborhood. There's not much to impress from the outside. But we're not going in anyway; we're barely slowing down, even, pausing just long enough to place our order at the speaker and, within minutes, make off with our booty of remarkably inexpensive, tasty Mexican food.

Vaquero's is open 24 hours a day -- a big bonus. There's an awesome selection, so we never get bored -- an even bigger bonus. Its meats are grilled to order, and paired with fresh extras -- the biggest bonus yet. Count 'em up: 23 combination plates, 12 taco choices, five tostadas, 10 tortas, four enchiladas, five shrimp dishes, and 20 burritos. Breakfast is served around the clock, with 11 options, and on weekends, there's homemade menudo.

Muy impressive, no? .

Good food, just like llama used to make. That's the inspiration behind Peruanitos, owned by the de Arriola family, a group of talented chefs relocated from Peru. The charm is visible in the decor, bright and cheerful, and yes, decorated with giant stuffed toy llamas. It's even more apparent in the food, a celebration of one of the world's oldest, most sophisticated cuisines.

Peru is about potatoes, and Peruanitos showcases the spuds. We adore papas a la huancaina, layering thick slabs of boiled potato and onion strips with a neon-yellow, creamy cheese sauce, topped with sliced hard-boiled egg, black olives and a whole lot of heat from fiery rocoto or aji amarillo chile sauce dashed in. It's the perfect appetizer to lead us into carapulera, a classic Incan dish of papseca (freeze-dried potatoes) with large chunks of pork in velvety, mildly spiced, orange-colored sauce with nuts. And we lust after adobo de chancho, a succulent concoction of marinated, slow-cooked pork with an electric, spicy undercut of serious chile heat. It's moist and meaty, and cools down a touch with fluffy rice and chilled sweet potatoes.

It's easy to become bored by same-old, same-old classic American food. Yet we've become overwhelmed by chefs conjuring up crazy concoctions like wasabi-glazed truffles in caramelized cognac with anchovy chutney. That's why we're so taken with the Asian-influenced American cuisine served at Elements. Rather than shtick, Chef Chuck Wiley wisely keeps Asia to an accent, focusing on the beauty of fresh ingredients and carefully honed flavors. Wiley changes the menu monthly, and offers unusual delicacies such as devil-fried oysters, breaded panko-style and served on the half shell atop a massive bowl of rock salt with tangy baby spinach and cucumber slaw. He wakes up sleepy salmon, crisp-edged from the grill, salt-and-peppery skinned, lounging on a nest of tangy braised greens, snow peas, sesame, ginger and somen noodles. Even traditional favorites have energy, such as the hefty filet mignon, paired with garlic mashed potatoes topped with melted bleu cheese and sweet soft onion strips. With its plush Camelback Mountain address and fabulous views of Paradise Valley below, Elements has everything it needs to be a special experience.

The word "chain" conjures up images of cookie-cutter chow and surroundings, unimaginative stuff created to appeal to the masses. That's why Chart House breaks the chain for us. The place is too pretty to be prefab, with lots of dark woods, a clubby, upscale style and unparalleled lakeside views, particularly at sunset.

The cuisine isn't chain-style, either. The fish is always market-fresh, and you can always get Pacific swordfish, Hawaiian mahi-mahi and yellowfin ahi, or California bluenose bass, served grilled, baked or blackened. Other preparations are more creative, like pan-seared sea scallops in ginger-soy broth, ginger-crusted miso halibut, or sesame-crusted salmon with coconut peanut sauce. Meats are a marvel, too, particularly the succulent prime rib, rack of lamb and filet mignon. Nothing beats the salad bar, either, groaning with a huge, gorgeous collection of things like fresh-tossed caesar with real anchovies, hearts of palm, marinated vegetables, and two kinds of rich, salty caviar.

Chain or not, we're charting our course to Chart House.

Think you've had a mixed green salad? Not until you've experienced this one, stocked with sprouts, carrots, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, tomato wedges and cucumber slices. Stir-fry shines, too, like the saguaro sesame tofu, tossing baked bean curd with steamed broccoli, carrots, zucchini, napa cabbage and ponzu vinaigrette over brown rice. We also love the Southwestern green corn tamale, studded with dairy-free black beans and topped with red pepper slices, black olives and parsley, all served over rice. Partaking of pizza? Go for the Arizona native, an herb crust piled high with soy mozzarella, green chile sauce, tomatoes, black olives, roasted red bell peppers, avocado, red onion and cilantro. For health food that makes us happy, nobody pleases us more than Desert Greens Cafe.

This place desperately needs to edit down its name to something you can say without taking a breath in the middle, but that's okay. Its noble intentions make up for it. As the menu says: "With respect for all life, we proudly serve all dishes free of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and MSG." (We always knew MSG was a living parasite; now it's confirmed.)

What makes this vegetarian house so interesting is that it seeks to replicate the taste of animals instead of killing them for it. Substitutions are carefully crafted of soy and other mysterious ingredients to mimic meats, including veggie beef, veggie eel, veggie pork, veggie goose, veggie chicken, veggie squid, veggie shrimp, veggie fish, veggie duck and veggie meatballs. Some presentations are actually molded into shapes that look like the real thing. And, surprisingly enough, Supreme Master carries off this unusual concept with winning cuisine.

The cuisine at Mueller's can be difficult to pronounce -- gebackner camenbert mit preiselbeeren, for example -- but it's easy to swallow. Gebackner is a small baked round of Camembert served with sweet-sour lingonberries. Along with cream of carrot soup or herring in cream sauce gussied with apples and onions, it makes for an appealing appetizer.

Entrees are just as energetic, including altburger töpfle (pork tenderloin in a rich mushroom gravy over homemade spätzle noodles), Wiener schnitzel (breaded veal sautéed in butter), rinderfilet mit pfifferlinge (beef medallions with chanterelle mushrooms), and tunnes potz (pork tenderloin on a bed of spinach topped with a zesty tomato sauce).

Desserts? But of course. Try Black Forest cake or apple strudel.

Great German food, served in a great German setting, by owners with great German accents -- it doesn't get any better than this.

Chef Vincent Guerithault's eponymous eatery, tucked into an (who would believe it?) office park between a gas station and a massage parlor, celebrated its 15th anniversary this year. When he first introduced his menu, people scoffed: a combination of classic French cooking with flavors of Mexico and the American Southwest -- in a town that didn't even stock cilantro in its grocery stores? Now that exotic herbs are available even at Safeway, the James Beard-celebrated Vincent's is still at the top of its class. We pray he never deprives us of his duck tamale with Anaheim chile, lobster chimichanga with basil pesto, and salmon quesadilla -- house-smoked fish laid over a thin, phyllo-like crust dabbed with dill and horseradish cream. Trends come and go. With Vincent's, however, superb Southwestern is here to stay.

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