Uncle Sam's
We've been going to the original Uncle Sam's on Shea as long as we can remember, after it replaced a grimy Pizza Hut at least 15 years ago. After all this time, though, we have yet to find any other shop approaching the magnificence of these extraordinary cheesesteaks.

The secret's in the meat, imported beef thinly sliced/chopped, tossed on the grill and heaped in insanely high portions on a soft Italian roll (wheat is available, but c'mon, white's the only way to go). There are 11 steaks to tempt us, ranging from just meat, to pizza, to our choice, the model loaded with juicy grilled mushrooms, peppers, onions and lots of gooey cheese. Sometimes we get hot or sweet peppers (free add-ons), but lately, since a friend turned us on to the treat, we've been asking for a swab of mayo. It's rich and wicked. Toss in a stack of crispy hot crinkle fries and we're ready for a blissful nap.

The steaks are available in chicken, too, and it's lovely, tender breast to be sure. But is chicken really steak? Who cares?

We don't turn our snouts to the sky over fast food. Hey, the idea is great. It's just that so much of the actual eats are so awful. Greasy burgers, limp tacos, stale sandwiches and watery rice bowls aren't worth it, even if they allow us to shave a few seconds off our busy day.

Then there's Maxie's World Grill, a little heaven on Earth owned and staffed by people who don't seem to realize they're operating a fast-food joint. Servers and line cooks actually smile at the customers. Prices are low, service is speedy, but there's not a drop of grease to be found. There's even a drive-through.

The menu has it all: barbecue, burritos, deli sandwiches, panini, pitas and salads. Owner Jeff Lee isn't going for ordinary, however. Service is quick, but dishes are cooked strictly to order on a wood-burning charbroiler. All salsas, dressings, sauces and soups are made from scratch. Fries are hand-cut from Idaho potatoes. Ingredients boast top names, with meats from Boar's Head, bratwurst from top Valley sausage shop Schreiner's, gelato from Phoenix's renowned Berto's, and tortillas crafted by Phoenix's famous Carolina's. Burgers are hand-formed Angus beef, and flank steak is USDA choice.

Homemade empanadas are crafted with chicken or spicy beef. Clam chowder swims with actual clams. Cookies and brownies are homemade; lemonade is fresh-squeezed. There's even a fresh salsa bar, with a rainbow array of mild, hot and fiery styles.

In the fast-food game, Maxie's is a brave new world indeed.

Classic Italian Pizza
Kyle Lamb
Classic Italian owner Halim Nefic notes that some call this comfortable rustic spot the Pizzeria Bianco of the East Valley. That a place as terrific as Classic Italian competes with one of our Valley's greatest pizza shops says a lot. That we agree says even more. We love Bianco, but have to give bonus points to Classic because sometimes we can actually get in. It's always busy, but at least we don't get stampeded by ravenous diners like we do at Bianco.

It's impossibly good, this thin-crust pizza baked in a wood-burning oven. Pies are 12 inches and serve two, though we've been known to finish more than a few all by our lonesome. Simple is stunning with the traditional basil and garlic, a white pizza with olive oil and fresh mozzarella cheese. The Capricciosa is a complicated thrill, uniting tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, the finest lean ham, Toscano salami, wood-roasted mushrooms, slices of fresh tomatoes sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, black olives, artichoke hearts, red bell peppers and pepperoncini. And nothing compares to the spinach pie, zingy rich with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, wood-roasted spinach and mushrooms, zucchini, artichoke hearts and garlic.

We remember the days of straightforward chicken. No vertical presentation, no poke-in-the-eye spears of rosemary, just honest, nice poultry. Of course, the chicken we reflect back on wasn't all that great. The plain Jane bird rarely gets enough respect, hence the phrase (shrug required) "it tastes like, well, chicken." And usually, greasy chicken.

Leave it to Nonni's to make the best of both worlds. This is a grandma's cooking, yet only if your grandma were an insanely talented chef versed in charming, Italian-edged American cuisine. Everything here is superb, the carpaccio, the Sicilian sausage, the seasonal vegetable antipasto. It takes real talent to make a chicken sing, though, and for this, we have to look past everything else fabulous in this kitchen.

Fans of Rancho Pinot (same owners as Nonni's) will recognize the signature Sunday chicken, a tender bird braised in a savory broth of white wine, mushrooms, herbs and onion with thick, toasted polenta triangles alongside.

Our star is the crispy flattened hen. This is the chef's version of a traditional Italian dish that grills chicken under a brick -- here the kitchen sears its poultry in a cast-iron skillet with another skillet weighing it down. The result is a beautiful bird with a crisp crust. It lounges on snowy banks of mashed potatoes kissed with olive oil, plus Christmas-green fresh spinach cooked wet and juicy with just enough garlic to give it guts. It's a perfect pullet.

La Parrilla Suiza
A while ago we didn't feel well. We felt really sorry for ourselves. We figured we were going to die, and summoned all our last strength to dial the phone. Please, we whined to a friend, Parrilla Suiza, puhleez. This is a good friend; he knew what we meant and made haste to the restaurant, picked up a giant bowl of consommé de pollo, and whisked it to our bedside. The first spoonful trembled in our tiny, feverish hand. The second burned our lips. By the third, that rosy glow had returned to our cheeks, and as we licked up the last bit of rice, celery, shredded breast, carrot and slinky broth, a little bluebird landed on our windowsill and began to sing. Now that's some soup.

We love steak. But perfectly prepared prime rib is like a drug to us, exhilarating down to its every last silky horseradish-slathered, salty jus-dunked, juicy-firm bite. It's got to be the real thing, the highest USDA grade available.

At Harris', they're so proud of their meat that they display it in aging coolers off the restaurant's entry. It's Certified Angus Beef exclusively, and dry-aged on the premises for 21 days. While virtually no fat arrives on the finished product, we suspect some is there during the cooking process -- a creamy ribbon of fat is critical to the beef, soaking its velvety richness into the meat as it slowly roasts.

Our sumptuous slab is pricey, $28 to $32 depending on the cut, but well worth the investment for its quality. That it includes sides of perfect potato and premium vegetable like crisp snap peas (freebies unheard of in top steak houses these days) makes it all the more delicious. At the end of dinner, we stuff our cheeks with complimentary peanut brittle from a tray in the lobby.

When it comes to prime numbers, the only one we need is Harris' on our speed dial -- reservations are strongly recommended.

Texaz Grill
Tedd Roundy
Since 1985, Texaz Grill has been making good, old-fashioned Texan-style grub "one meal at a time." Well, as the restaurant celebrated this year its 500,000th chicken-fried steak sold, that's an awful lot of meat pounding, hand-battering, fried to crispy golden work.

There's simply no better substantial lunch than the chicken-fried steak, cubed beef double dipped and served with fluffy mashed potatoes, oceans of rich gravy, corn and a biscuit for just $5.50. The only thing that beats it is the supper, where for just $9.95 we get a double portion of steak, paired with a garden salad (love those pimientos), potatoes, even more gravy and a biscuit.

The meat is cut on site from USDA choice aged beef. The potatoes are homemade, but then so are the biscuits, the gravy, the salad dressing, the batter, well, everything.

Hey, if our childhood home had cooking like this, we never would have left it.

The Barbecue Company Grill and Cafe
We like the Barbecue Company because, while its silky, smooth barbecue sauce is topnotch, it doesn't rely on it to hide lesser-quality meat. There's a lot of work that goes into cooking here, like its rib tip plate, one full pound of rib tips that have been dry rubbed, slow smoked and grilled with just a touch of Q-Sauce (more on the side for dipping).

All the classics show up in style: St. Louis-style pork ribs, smoked chicken, pulled pork, smoked brisket, or Q-turkey. A sampler brings a bit of everything, served with two ribs and choice of two side dishes plus bread. And we love the specials -- grilled ancho barbecue meat loaf, the Smokin' Bleu (pulled pork topped with bleu cheese coleslaw), or the Dynamite (hot peppers, chiles, onions and jalapeos, sautéed with Red Diamond marinated brisket on a jalapeo roll with melted pepperjack). The only complaint we have for this Southwestern-style 'cue company is that it's open only for lunch and only on weekdays. But still, this 'cue is a coup.

Rula Bula
The shepherd's pie at Rula Bula Irish Pub and Restaurant comforts us as much as the soft sheepskin blankie we had when we were wee ones. This version rules, the loose pot pie stocked with ground sirloin, carrots, potatoes, parsnips and peas in a rich broth of red wine and a garden full of fresh herbs. The blend bubbles under a cap of champ -- essentially firm mashed potatoes spiked with scallion and no shortage of butter, baked to a crispy finish. It's an old world dish that's entirely welcome in the modern world.

Rancho Pinot
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Another upscale, contemporary American restaurant might be puzzled, or even insulted, that we decided the best thing about it was its vegetables. True, the entrees are wonderful at Rancho Pinot. But what really gets us going is the garnish. Nobody has a better eye for selecting, and a better hand at preparing, nature's finest bounty of garden goods than does chef-owner Chrysa Kaufman.

Who needs anything else, when we can get our fill on brilliant veggie creations like roasted beets tossed with spicy greens, toasted almonds and sheep's milk feta, or a savory tart of green garlic, leeks and spring onion with ricotta and manchego? And while other places may make do with steamed broccoli, carrots and potatoes, Kaufman conquers new ground with sides like Tuscan kale, rapini, artichoke-bacon-potato hash, flageolet beans with caramelized garlic, squash blossoms, and garlic spinach that's so good we want to curl up in bed with it.

When we're at Rancho Pinot, you can't make us not eat our veggies.

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