Havana Patio Cafe
We love the concept of tapas: little bites of exciting foods that give us a full spectrum of flavors without filling us up too much. Havana Patio Cafe takes tapas to the top, with a stunning selection of more than two dozen petite plates. Often, the merry place hosts tapas with Spanish wine tastings, too. And there's a daily happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m., with half-price tapas and drink specials.

These bites are bargain-priced already, most around $4. Which is good, because we order a lot: tortilla Espaol (potato pie with tomato sherry sauce), zesty black bean fritters with Calypso avocado dip, a gorgeous tamal Cubano stuffed with corn, pork and sofrito seasoning, and chicken empanaditas with mushrooms, peppers and onions. We're also smitten with shrimp pancakes, escabeche (tuna pickled in savory Spanish olive oil, cider vinegar with sweet peppers and pimento-stuffed olives), and papa rellena, a potato croquette stuffed with picadillo and topped with tangy cilantro sauce.

As its name suggests, Copper Kettle is a melting pot of the best of its region, with cuisine spanning Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India in this cozy, casual place. These chefs are talented, firing up a sizzling tandoori grill for clay-oven-cooked marinated meats, poultry and seafood that are moist and rich. Curries bring a subtle blend of meat and herbs simmering in a broth of onions, tomatoes, ginger and garlic. And there's nuttin' better than mutton, mounded on basmati rice gilded with saffron and spices. Now that's a fine Copper Kettle of fresh.
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.

Arcadia Farms
Jamie Peachey
If you're talking turkey, there's no better name than Young's Farm, a poultry ranch in Dewey, Arizona. Of course, such quality meat is expensive, but Arcadia Farms doesn't worry about these things. This country-cottage cafe buys its turkey from Young's, then piles it mile high on its sandwiches, layering thick slabs of real, Thanksgiving-style roasted breast on homemade bread with mayo, roma tomato, sliced cucumber, pea shoots and baby lettuce. It's served with a side of potato salad, a plateload of red, skin-on chunks dotted with dill, bits of fresh bacon, parsley and scallion on a bed of greens.

We admit it: We're gluttons for Arcadia Farms' gobblers.

Au Petit Four
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.

Nick's Italian on Frank Lloyd Wright
Jamie Peachey
"On top of spaghetti/All covered with cheese/I lost my poor meatball/When somebody sneezed." The tragedy of this childhood parody of "On Top of Old Smoky" never quite resonated with us until we discovered the meatballs at Nick's. Now, if somebody sneezes on our supper, they're going to lose a schnozz. Nick's is gangbusters on primo meatballs, rolling them by hand with fresh herbs and fennel seeds. We could eat them plain, but in a sandwich, they're hog heaven. Picture four hefty orbs, swimming in tangy marinara, draped in mozzarella, then slid into a hot oven until they go crisp on the edges and the cheese melts to a rich, chewy blanket. It takes balls to be named the best, and in our book, Nick's has got 'em.

"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.

Fujiya Market
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!

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