Divorce? Death in the family? Nothing that a little meat loaf and mashed potatoes can't fix. Because we turn to comfort food during difficult times, it had better be nice food. No hard edges, nothing challenging, no effort involved. Nonni's Sunday Chicken, which is always on the menu at Rancho Pinot Grill, is a hearty, soul-satisfying bowl of love. To describe it as wine-braised chicken and vegetables served over crunchy polenta cakes doesn't capture the most comforting aspect of this dish: its texture. This chicken asks nothing of you -- it just helpfully falls off the bone, as though it knows you've had a hard day. Or perhaps it senses that you shouldn't be trusted with a knife.
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? .

Best Place To Fulfill Your Apple-a-day Quota

Candy's Apples

Whoever coined the phrase "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" never considered the sinful creations that Candy's turns out. Candy's starts with immense, hand-selected Granny Smith apples of unparalleled crunch and flavor. Then it mounds this gift of nature with various combinations of ingredients, ranging from traditional caramel to peanut butter, macadamia nuts and Heath Bar pieces, completely obliterating any nutritional value that might have originally existed. It's a challenge to figure out how best to eat one of these delectable monsters (we used a knife and fork), but it's a challenge well worth meeting.
Yusef's Middle Eastern Restaurant, Grocery and Deli
If Yusef's doesn't have it, you don't need it. That's our thought, anyway, after browsing through hundreds of Middle Eastern and North African items stocked on the shelves of this delightful shop.

All the basics are covered: powdered sumac, Turkish coffee, teas, zaatar (thyme and sesame seeds to be blended with olive oil and dipped with pita), and kadaifi (phyllo dough). The store's got the fancy stuff, too, like Israeli olives, Lebanese green beans, Bulgarian eggplant dip and a tasty variety of feta cheeses. And Yusef's has got novelties, like a must-have tobacco water pipe called a hubba-bubba.

Yusef's? You said it.

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.

Pop rocks!

And nowhere in town will you find a wider selection of the bottled bubbly (non-alcoholic variety) than at this fizz fanatic's paradise, a soda supermarket that stocks hundreds of hard-to-find carbonated potables.

Specializing in regional and imported sweetened swills you either haven't tasted in years or never knew existed, the inventory (some 300 brands) includes such arcane quaffs as Mexican Coca-Cola (despite Coke's official company line, it's far zingier than its domestic cousin), Dr Pepper from a maverick Texas bottler that still uses pure cane sugar, and Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray, which tastes a lot better than it sounds. In short, enough effervescent nectars to finance your dentist's Malibu beach house.

Burp!

Maybe your house was filled with the smell of fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies every week when you were a kid. Or maybe your mom's idea of making cookies was opening a package of Chips Ahoy!. Whether you're reliving your childhood or compensating for it, you'll want to drop in on Fat Cat Cookies. Every morning finds owner Linda Schneider up to her elbows in delicious cookie dough. She and hubby Kem make 18 varieties, from basic chocolate chip, peanut butter and sugar cookies to whisker-lickin'-good specialties such as "cat's meow" (white chocolate and macadamia nut), "purr-fect pineapple" (crushed, unsweetened pineapple in a soft, cakelike cookie), "cat's whiskers" (white chocolate chips, pecans and a touch of rum flavoring) and the "original fat cat" (chocolate, walnuts and peanut butter chips). If you're lucky, you might even get to meet Boston, the "boss cat" of the operation.
Jamba Juice
How can something so simple go so wrong so often? Phoenix is a veritable citrus mecca, yet drinks bearing no trace of lemon get passed off as lemonade here every day. And don't get us started on how people have served us Crystal Light with a straight face, as if we wouldn't know the difference. Lemonade is simple; there's no need for creativity, tricks or gimmicks. Or artificial sweeteners. If you like your lemonade tart and straightforward, Jamba Juice does it just right. Buried amidst a lengthy menu of smoothie combinations, it's easy to overlook the almost quaint listing of lemonade. But it's there -- so satisfyingly sour, with just a little sweetness, and chilled with plenty of slushy ice. Pucker up.

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