Best Chicken 2002 | Nonni's Kitchen | Food & Drink | Phoenix
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A potato is no simple spud. There are hundreds of varieties grown around the world, each with a distinct shape, skin, color, texture and taste. There's a different potato that's best for different uses, such as mashed, French fries, chips, salad, boiled.

But we're not concerned with what type of potatoes the kitchen uses at Peruanitos, an outrageously delicious Peruvian restaurant where absolutely everything on the long menu sparkles. Picking potatoes is the chef's job. Still, we are smitten with the spuds that arrive at our table, one glorious creation after another.

We could live on this stuff -- papas a la huancaina (in creamy, spicy queso fresco with palillo herb), papa rellena (spicy beef wrapped in a mashed potato shell with red onion salsa), causa rellena de atun (layers of mashed potato stuffed with tuna and Peruvian spices), sopa de leche (potato soup), papa a la diabla (potatoes with a creamy salsa of onion, queso fresco and boiled egg), and carapulcra (mashed and sun-dried potatoes with pork, peanuts and spices).

Peruanitos changes its potato dish selections periodically, but we've found that a woeful stare at our server works wonders with special requests. Any way you slice it, these tubers are tops.

Timur Guseynov
We've dreamed of being trapped in a sushi restaurant. We try to run, but everywhere we turn, there teems more maguro, hamachi, tako, uni, ebi, sake, tobiko. The problem is not in escaping, it's in catching the slippery fish and shoveling it into our mouths before we wake up.

Now we're living the dream at Sushi 101, where there's an all-we-can-eat special for $19.95, no chasing required. There are some restrictions: Leftovers are charged at full price, including rice. This means that diners who bite off more than they can swallow face penalties on their bills. If we can't finish our shrimp tempura roll, or try to sneak in more value by not eating the rice on our nigiri sushi, we'll be charged the full per-piece sushi price on top of that $19.95.

We have no problem with that. We know, down to the grain of rice, exactly how much sushi our stomach holds (years of practice). And Sushi 101 servers warn us up front that this is not a buffet. We can order as much as we want, in as frequent intervals as we want, but we'd really better mean it.

A big part of popping the question is the style of how it's done. None of that "Well, we might as well get married, I guess" kind of stuff.

The thing about El Encanto is that it's centered on a beautiful lake, bobbing with graceful ducks and geese. While we're getting fed truly delicious Sonoran food (viva la margarita!), the waterfowl are hoping we'll spring a quarter into one of the grain-filled gumball machines. Turn the knob, fill a little paper cup with delicious goose chow, and the birds come flapping over.

Now here's our idea: Put the quarter in the machine. Fill the cup with grain. Then, take that expensive rock and stick it down into the bird seed. Hand the cup to your sweetie. Just be sure she doesn't toss the whole kit and caboodle in the pond. Isn't that romantic?

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