The Chuckbox
Timur Guseynov
What makes a burger better? Just good, old-fashioned, tender lovin' care. At Chuck Box, your burger doesn't meet the grill of its dreams until you've lined up in front of the steaming charcoal broiler and asked for it by name.

Try the Big Juan, a one-third-pound beauty named after Chuck Box's "beef engineer." On hungrier days, gravitate to the Great Big Juan, at a full one-half pound. You can add cheese (Swiss, American or Jalapeo Jack) and toppings of guacamole or bacon. Start salivating as the meat sizzles merrily away, next to fresh buns lightly toasting over the mesquite wood flames.

When it's done, your burger is placed gently on a tray, to be taken to Chuck Box's fully stocked condiment bar to be gussied up just a little more.

Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket
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.

Cholla Prime Steakhouse and Lounge
Courtesy of Cholla Prime Steakhouse
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.

Segal's One Stop & Oasis Grill
Big Mac? Ha, that wouldn't even begin to put a dent in our appetites. No, when we want the beef, we want the beef.

Segal's stops us in our tracks, with sandwiches that stretch even the biggest stomachs. The quarter-pound and half-pound burgers are simply warm-ups. The battle burger, a half-pound of meat topped with hot pastrami, starts the competition. But the full one-pound burger has us waving our white flag. It's all juicy, cooked to order, topped with whatever we choose and served with French fries and coleslaw.

We've found the beef, and it's at Segal's.

C-Fu Gourmet
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.

El Conquistador
Beguiling beans. That's the only way to describe the luscious legumes at El Conquistador. It's easy to miss this place, which is hidden from the street, but to find it is to be rewarded. Here, the basic bean is elevated to a fine dish, multi-textured with the perfect balance of a creamy base and tiny bits of chunk. There's no lard in the recipe, and we don't need it, content with the most assertively beany flavor we've found in the Valley. A light gilding of Cheddar, some crispy chips and hot sauce on the side, and we're as happy as can bean.
George & Son's Asian Cuisine
Asian dining is hot these days. The cuisine is now available even at Valley eateries that feature pizza and hamburgers. So how's a China girl to get a second look anymore? George and Son's knows the answer: superior quality, and ample choice. Primarily Chinese, the menu also borrows from Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and Singapore, and spruces things up with an ambitious wine list. Consider the Asian mussels appetizer, steamed and served open-shell in a broth braced with ginger root and lemongrass. Or George's seafood pocket, an ultra-crisp, folded-over pancake studded with scallions and stuffed with finely chopped shrimp, crab, scallops, onion and green pepper. And where else can you get Mandalay Nungyi alongside your egg roll? Udon-style noodles are tumbled with white onion curls, cilantro leaves, and shredded chicken in a mild, charmingly gritty Burmese curry seasoning zipped with lemon, a light sauce and little chunks of roasted garlic. And for value with taste, steamed salmon is voluptuous, easily two pounds of fish in a supercharged black bean sauce. For our money, George and Son's is a chop shop worth hopping to right away.

Tucked away in the back of an antique mall, Serendipity Tea Room offers the perfect respite from the hustle and bustle of the real world. The British tradition of midday tea is honored here Monday through Saturday from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., with a prix fixe menu for $16.95 and more varieties of caffeinated beverages than you thought existed. Start out with a pot of your favorite loose tea (the decaffeinated currant tea is delicious with milk and sugar) and a freshly baked scone spread with sweet Devonshire cream and homemade lemon curd. Plentiful varieties of finger sandwiches can satisfy less dainty appetites, but save room for the other courses -- like cheesy quiche and one of several homemade desserts. A visit to Serendipity Tea Room is like a culinary spa treatment -- one that's become so popular, you'll have to make reservations at least a day in advance.

Joe's Real BBQ
Courtesy of Joe's Real BBQ
What's more way-out West than barbecue beans? No self-respecting cowboy, after all, could make a meal without his trusty sidekick of beans. But they've got to be real beans -- not that canned, bright-orange stuff ladled out at tourist traps. They've got to be treated with respect, as they are at Joe's. Here, the side dish salutes kidney, lima and navy beans, thickened with shards of cooked-on-site sausage, chicken and beef. Insist on sopping up every last bit with Joe's terrific caraway Cheddar bread. Forget those tired old has-beans; Joe's are must have beans.

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