Best Party Platters 2001 | Flancer's Cafe | Food & Drink | Phoenix
Lauren Saria
To look at this simple little storefront, you'd never think that its chef-owner, Jeff Flancer, is a graduate of the renowned Culinary Institute of America. All doubts will be put to rest after one bite of any of his creative, full-flavored creations. Just as surprising is the fact that his party platters, which each feed 25, cost an incredibly low $39.99 to $43.75.

That's only $1.59 to $1.75 per person for such delights as green chile mushroom phyllo pockets, baked pesto Brie en croûte, smoked salmon with artichoke hearts and cream cheese, and cold noodle sesame ginger chicken with oriental vegetables. Healthful platters abound, such as salads -- chef, Caesar chicken, albacore tuna, Greek, antipasto or crispy Parmesan chicken. Then there are balsamic portabella mushrooms and sherry-glazed roasted onions with rosemary flatbread, or crispy scallion shrimp won tons with tamari dipping sauce.

Why take a chance on the perfect party? Just order the perfect platter from Flancer's.

Our time is valuable. We don't always have the luxury of a relaxed, hourlong lunch. (Okay, actually we do -- but our bosses are reading this.) But no way, no how, are we going to waste our greenbacks (or our guts) at most drive-through grease pits. Why would we, when we have Miracle Mile delicatessens, where the time between ordering and eating never surpasses five minutes? You can get to-go service, but sit down. Pick the pastrami. Lean and luscious, it's partnered with melted Swiss and hot sauerkraut for the Straw sandwich; with red bell pepper and carrot-spiked coleslaw and Thousand Island dressing for the New Yorker; and with Swiss, lettuce and dressing for the triple-decker. These two-fisters come complete with French fries, potato salad, macaroni salad or coleslaw and a hefty pickle spear, all for about six bucks. Daily specials such as meat loaf and chunky mashed potatoes are priced the same and equally delicious. Fast food, this cheap and this wonderful? That's a miracle.

As Scottsdale has grown up around it, the Pink Pony, owned by the same couple for 50 years, has stayed firmly in its past -- from the large, rose-colored ceramic pony behind the bar, to the comforting retro menu that has long charmed spring training baseball camps -- the Cubs, the Angels, the A's, the Mariners and the Giants.

There's real Arizona history here, with black booths that once seated stars like Billy Martin, Harry Caray, John McNamara and Stan Musial. The jerseys on the walls are from the greatest players, autographed by the best, and hung alongside World Series-issue bats signed by modern-day teams.

There's also welcome value at lunch and dinner: The Pink Pony Special, a hefty sirloin steak complete with soup or salad, baked or French fried potatoes or rice pilaf, hot biscuits and honey, is just $15. Main courses remind us of Sunday dinner at Grandma's: golden pan-fried chicken, genuine calf's liver with bacon and onion, and -- for a fancy treat -- prime rib or barbecued pork ribs.

When you want to remember old-time Arizona, ride on over to the Pink Pony.

Patricia Escarcega
The views from this place are pretty enough to eat. We're standing on the patio, mesmerized by the panorama of the Valley from 1,800 feet above the desert. When we move inside for dinner, we take the beauty with us, seated next to floor-to-ceiling windows framing a stunning Arizona sunset. After dinner, we collect for drinks on a gorgeous patio, decorated with a fire fountain and scads of flowers, the flames sending shadows dancing across the virgin mountainscape that cradles the resort property.

The menu offers some notable Mediterranean-influenced favorites: jumbo shrimp slicked in a delightfully wicked lemon-habanero glaze, teamed with glazed mushrooms and roasted pancetta sauce; or ravioli stuffed with ample butter-braised lobster and caramelized shallots in a ghostly rich beurre blanc. Fish, too, is fantastic, such as buttery Coast Chilean sea bass sided with cranberry beans, pequillo peppers and a smoked bacon-lobster jus. Still, in this setting, food is almost an afterthought. Surrounded by such natural, pure Arizona beauty, even cardboard would taste good.

Meagan Simmons
What is it with casual Valley restaurants putting us on a patio where we're face-to-face with the car bumpers that crowd strip malls? Carlsbad Tavern is having none of that. This funky, New Mexican eatery had adapted its building along busy Hayden Road to take advantage of its virtues.

Originally a seafood restaurant, the property wraps around a Disney-style "pier" overlooking an "ocean" that's more blue-painted concrete moat than splashing shore. Thick, tall stucco walls seclude the patio in a cozy, quiet courtyard decorated with wagon wheels, hanging chiles and a fountain.

It's a fine, fair-weather spot to kick back and sip on a major margarita and enjoy specialty dishes like Santa Fe duck ravioli (crispy chipotle pasta with smoked duck and Brie cream sauce), carne adovada or a searingly spicy habanero cheeseburger (with a free glass of milk to extinguish the flames). For a comfortable price -- about $8 at lunch, $15 at dinner -- and a laid-back outdoor experience, park it at Carlsbad Tavern.

We'll gladly pucker up for the pancakes served at Kiss the Cook. We'll surrender a smooch for the seafood omelet, brimming with bay shrimp, crab and broccoli in a smothering of Cheddar cheese. And we'll bust a buss for biscuits, homemade, drowning in country gravy and teamed with our choice of bacon, sausage or country ham. We won't even tell you what we're willing to do for French toast, swimming in real butter and hot syrup, with free seconds.

Once we're stuffed, we summon strength for a quick shopping spree through this wood-floored, cottage-decorated eatery, filling our bags with cozy antique knickknacks. Then, it's home for a nice, long nap.

For breakfast, Kiss the Cook smacks of the best.

When the sun breaks over the horizon, we're inclined to groan and stuff another pillow over our head. We know we need to snack on something to regain our strength, but eggs, bacon, home fries and toast will simply send us back to bed. Day breaks more gently at Café Soleil, a tiny, colorful cafe that's blissfully quiet and stocked with a luxurious selection of homemade goodies, plus a wide assortment of coffees, juice smoothies, creamy chais, espressos, cappuccinos, mochas and iced drinks. The aroma of fresh-baked breads lures us in, where we linger in front of a glass case, admiring beautiful croissants, rolls, pastries, cookies and muffins. There are breakfast bagels, heaped with our choice of lox, tomato, cream cheese, Swiss, American or mozzarella cheeses. On Sundays, we wake up a little later, and select from five special breakfast entrees -- omelets and such -- that change weekly. At Café Soleil, we don't mind that the sun shines in.

It's too difficult to decide what to order from Marquesa's amazing menu. This Mobil Four-Star restaurant is also one of two AAA Five-Diamond restaurants in Arizona, and serves cuisine from one of Spain's best-kept secrets: Catalan, blended with Italian and French influences. The feast never ends at this market-style brunch, with highlights like sautéed shrimp with saffron potatoes and truffles cradled in licorice mustard-seed sauce; fire-roasted couscous; paella Valenciana with lobster, chicken, pork, shellfish, chistora and saffron rice cooked in clay casuelas; braised quail; veal empanada; turkey with hazelnut polenta; and duck with cauliflower purée, lentil and sausage. And, of course, caviar. Our single lament? The open-air extravaganza is served only from mid-September through June.

Marquesa is definitely the best of the brunch bunch.

It's another one of those days. The boss is being completely unreasonable, expecting us at work before noon, when we only get up at 11 a.m. so we won't be late for our lunch break. So we soothe our ruffled dignity by hiding in the cozy heart-of-downtown darkness that is Monroe's. Descend weathered wooden stairs to reach the dim, candlelit and red-light-bulbed interior of this live jazz club/cafe. Once we can see, we find dark wood walls with brick, with some Christmas lights twinkling in the black, low-slung ceiling.

This place has excellent bar food, most items priced at less than $6. Onion soup is a smooth starter, the beefy, not-too-sweet broth buried under mounds of soft, hot provolone. A cheese steak is terrific, too, packed with quality, lacy-thin beef and buckets of melted provolone on a soft hoagie roll that's been grilled to a wonderful crust.

Ah, now that's what we need to cure those big boss blues.

The new El Portal hasn't been in business long, but this little house turned eatery has become a fast favorite among the downtown crowd, with some of the best Mexican food anywhere in metro Phoenix. Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox and her politico husband Earl refurbished the old, long-shuttered facility last year with simple booths and tables, accented with terra cotta tile. Parking is plentiful, but the place does fill up, and beware -- it closes at 2 p.m.

An early arrival is well worth it. (The cafe opens at 7:30 a.m., and breakfast, by the way, is served all day.) Service is quick and the menu complete -- from complimentary chips and salsa, through à la carte regulars such as tacos, burros and tostadas and combination plates with treats such as beef machaca. Drink refills arrive before you even ask, and if you're lucky, Mary Rose herself will bring your meal to the table.

Now that's what we call a good public servant!

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