"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.

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 Jalapeño 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.

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.

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.
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.

What's there to an onion ring? A little vegetable, a little batter, a whole lot of oil, and there you have it. Unless you're at Dillon's. Then you've got an onion ring that's outrageous, over the top, and oh-so-wonderful.

These are absolutely some of the most delightful crispy critters we've ever chewed on. It amazes us how decadent a stark pairing of vegetable and batter can be; the sweet onion rounds practically float off our polka-dot tablecloth under their joyously greaseless coating. We can dip them in the ancho chile sauce (think spicy Thousand Island dressing) that's served alongside, but these rings don't need gilding of any kind.

"Home of the Windy City Slider," the Chicago Hamburger Company's sign reads, and yes, the shop makes a mighty good burger. But it's worth a trip all the way to Chi-town just for this company's French fries. If you think fries are all the same, you've been sleepwalking through fast-food joints. Wake up and sample these spuds. Magnificent models of potato, these are piping hot, skinless, generously salted and crisp-edged. Like any proud potato, though, they've got to be eaten fresh from the kitchen -- to transport the delicate sticks too far would be tater torture. A generous sackful sets you back a mere $1.29, and for just 50 cents more, you can gild the fries with cheese or chili. Save your two bits, though. Fries this good don't even need ketchup.

What's a cowboy steak, unless it's made by real cowboys? At Rawhide Steakhouse, the place is swarming with 'em -- manning the mesquite broiler, plucking guitars onstage in the dining room, and shooting each other to pieces in faux showdowns outside on Main Street.

We think Rawhide Wild West Town is a kick, with its dirt street, boardwalks, haunted hotel, general store, "widowmaker" mechanical bull, covered wagons, clown days and more. The star of the show, though, is Rawhide's steaks. Surprise -- the kitchen's under the direction of celebrity chef Michael DeMaria (Michael's at the Citadel), and his finesse shines in beefy flavor. Choose your cut: 16-ounce cowboy T-bone, 12-ounce New York strip, 10-ounce top sirloin, 24-ounce porterhouse, 14-ounce rib eye, or the slightly more dainty tender filet. Steaks come with all the fixin's -- tossed garden salad, all-you-can-eat cowboy beans, a daily side dish, and ranch toast. For Rawhide's cowboy steaks, we say "Yeehaw!"

The bar at Eddie's is pretty enough to eat, all fashion and fun in a "Moroccan living room" kind of style, with plush chaises and overstuffed chairs. But much better to chow down on are the best nibbles in town -- sumac-grilled lamb chops with mint hummus, spicy "mo' rockin'" shrimp with chewy honey dough balls, and Sonoran crab cakes with spunky red-pepper aioli, to name a few. But our hearts really beat faster for the horseradish mashed potato-stuffed shrimp with cactus pear and five-peppercorn ranch dip. Our eyes brighten as we alight on crispy chicken-stuffed spaghettini egg rolls with spicy peanut sauce. And we practically melt for golden-toasted seafood ravioli, slicked with apricot-voodoo glaze. With such superb starters, at Eddie's we never want to finish.
When we were kids, we couldn't stand liver. Then we discovered foie gras, and now we can't get enough. Of course, this isn't just your everyday liver, but a type that's been a prized delicacy since Roman times. The goose variety that's served here has been force-fed until the bird's liver weighs as much as two pounds. Bad news for the goose, good news for us.

Though Valencia Lane changes its menus with the seasons, its foie gras shows up regularly, and is always prepared simply. One of our favorite preparations here has it expertly seared, partnered with a few thimbles of flavorful pineapple chutney, dots of tart 100-year-old balsamic, and a little hill of radish sprouts. It's a remarkable explosion of complementary textures and flavors that has us licking the plate. Long live Valencia Lane's liver!

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