Best Cowboy Steak House 2002 | The Horny Toad | Food & Drink | Phoenix
Courtesy of The Horny Toad
The story of the Horny Toad is pure cowboy yarn: "Sometime during the last century, an old prospector working the area a few miles northeast of the little town of Phoenix, Arizona, came upon a small watering hole. He thought to himself that this here was mighty purty scenery and he'd bet them Easterners would give an arm and a leg for some of this property. They could build them some roads and put up funny names on the street signs and everybody'd be carefree, even if they had to live in caves and drink from the creek.

"His aching feet reminded him not to buy any more of those 2 for $5 boots. As he eased the boots off to soak his tired feet, he saw the many calluses they had given him, and he said to himself, I sure am getting horny toed.'"

Hmm. We seem to remember a more racy yarn a few years back (the restaurant prompted another down the street, the Satisfied Frog), but these days Cave Creek is turning into a family town. Whatever. The Toad still delivers mouth-watering barbecued beef and baby back pork ribs, barbecued chicken, fried chicken and chicken-fried steak. Fancier plates feature things like New York strip steak, top sirloin and prime rib. And in good cowboy tradition, meals include a variety of the fixin's -- soup or salad, potato, cowboy beans, garlic bread and veggies. Yee haw!

She is the Supreme Master Ching Hai, a self-proclaimed reincarnation of Jesus and Buddha, and millions around the world believe her. Phoenix is just one of many cities where the Master's faux-meat recipes satisfy hungry vegetarians who clamor for soy chicken, duck or lobster, brought to your table by followers who wear the Master's image on amulets around their necks. The atmosphere is new-age dental office, the walls Pepto-pink and hung with the Master's mediocre paintings. And then there's the video bar, where you can watch the Supreme Master addressing the masses at her public appearances, and where there are many oh-so-holy items for purchase, including soy jerky, videos, audio cassettes, and large cans of Tuno.
Desert Greens' menu insists that it creates "gourmet culinary creations for your heart and soul." We believe them. Who'd have thought that the dread term "vegetarian" (or, scarier, "vegan") could be so satisfying?

We'd eat this stuff even if it weren't good for us. Oh, the herb polenta grilled golden brown on a bed of brown rice with steamed vegetables and a pool of mushroom gravy (gravy!). Who can resist a green corn tamale with cheese, or dairy-free red bean, topped with green chile sauce, red pepper and black olives? And sautéed artichoke hearts with olive oil, diced tomato, garlic and fresh basil over linguini is a designer dish in any upscale eatery.

There's even a kids' menu, tempting the tots with (soy or dairy) grilled cheese, a bean and cheese burrito in sprouted wheat tortilla, or nachos and salsa. There are desserts, too, like pumpkin cake with cream cheese icing, chocolate with raspberry filling, kiwi, or vegan sponge cake with butter cream icing. Here's to living forever.

Gourmet is much more than complicated, expensive food. It's a symphony of spectacular ingredients, carefully selected and matched for a "wow, what is this gorgeous thing" dish. It's a compound effect, where each course builds on another, like rising drama of theater. That having some knowledge of its workings can be used to impress the hell out of friends and business associates just makes it that much more delicious.

So study up a little before venturing into the gorgeous Gregory's. It helps to know that the best way to order here is in small, three- to five-course tastings, following the order of the menu to build flavors from light to heavy. Practice asking with authority for this appetizer: torchon of foie gras, toasted brioche, Chenin Blanc aspic, sel gris and port wine reduction. Choose with confidence a salad of field greens, duck confit, roasted beets, sour cream dill and buckwheat blini. For a fish course with flair: lion's paw scallop, sweet vermouth, lobster broth, micro arugula and foie butter. And be a meat maestro with grilled Wagyu Kobe beef marinated in Japanese beer with shiitake mushroom potato hash.

Gregory's is complicated. But it's also gorgeous. And that, good friends, is what makes a true gourmet experience.

Christopher's has racked up the awards since opening in 1998 (James Beard, even!). The bistro is a little lower-profile these days, but still a model for magical, traditional, ooh-la-la-inspiring French cuisine. Adding flair is a huge collection of wines, thoughtfully paired with dishes and available for tastings.

Most dishes are prepared in a wood-burning oven, the better to show off their natural flavors. All dishes are sumptuous, like roasted half Sonoma duck, molasses-glazed rack of lamb, classic hanger steak with shallots and red wine, truffle-infused prime sirloin, and the sinful wood-oven-roasted foie gras.

We're usually around for the daily specials, though, toothsome takes on traditional bistro fare like roasted sweetbreads, veal cheeks, sole meunière and rabbit with mustard sauce. For over-the-top luxury, we throw in a side of Oestra caviar.

Un-French as it sounds, Christopher's deserves extra credit for putting a healthful spin on many of his rich dishes. Request the KRONOS menu, and you'll meet the health institute's guidelines for optimal health (meats substituted by vegetables). Vive la France!

The only thing we've got more of than so-so Italian restaurants in this town is mediocre Mexican. Yet until someone can come up with the incredible Italian cuisine that is the baby of Acqua e Sale owner Daniel Malventano, we're just chalking up those other Italian places as average shops hawking everyday pizza, pasta and stuff we've seen a thousand times before.

Malventano, though, travels to Italy virtually every year to check on what's new in one of Europe's oldest cuisines. We're glad he makes the effort, because it means we get to feast on delicacies involving black truffle oil, duck prosciutto, white truffle sauce, top-grade carpaccio and escolar, and such things as a perfect verde e bianca salad -- lacing crystal-crisp Bibb lettuce with thin asparagus stalks, chubby wands of palm heart and bitter grapefruit chunks in extra virgin olive oil.

Yes, Acqua e Sale has familiar favorites like veal lasagna, ravioli del giorno (Maryland crab and truffle oil) and capellini con pomodorino freschi (angel hair pasta in a tomato, basil, garlic and olive oil sauce). But to find better renditions? Why, we'd have to book a flight to Italy.

Every city needs a little pizza and pasta place to call its own -- a hole in the wall where people can cozy up with a masterful meatball, a magical marinara, a perfect penne, a ravishing ravioli, a stunning Sicilian sausage pie. Friendly, robust conversation with the owners and with fellow customers just adds to the flavors. Or we can snag a feast and take it home to eat with our very own family.

At La Famiglia, we are family, too, greeted by name after just a few visits. These folks, transplants from Long Island, don't mess around when it comes to mouth-watering manicotti, fettuccine Alfredo, veal scaloppine. We order at the counter, rarely pay more than 10 bucks for a full-size feast, and always, always, end up fat and happy. It's our own little pizza heaven.

Thai food is all about dynamic flavors -- spice, seasonings, sizzle. And Touch of Thai puts much more than just a touch of that into its dishes. This place is nuts for the fiery chile peppers, but in a very, very good way. The taste always shines through its veil of flame.

We're not looking for apologies, just more food, when our lips, tongue and stomach burn after tucking into such smoky delicacies as tod mahn (spicy fish patties with cucumber sauce), larb (minced meat sautéed in lemon juice, red onion and mint), yahm pla meug (lemongrass squid), gaeng goong (red curry shrimp) or phaht Thai (rice stick noodles with chicken and shrimp).

Sure, we can adjust the heat level, but we'd rather trust the kitchen to send out the very best. At Touch of Thai, there's no doubt that there's perfection behind these peppers.

It's faded powder blue paint on the outside and cotton candy pink on the inside, but all over, it's the most authentic Chinese anywhere in town. Keep in mind that authentic means adventurous, with dishes like duck feet with greens.

The menu of more than 400 items can be intimidating. But order the way we do, filling up lazy Susans on the big tables with lots of varieties, then spinning it among friends to sample and share. With such cheap prices, even if we find that beef belly in casserole isn't to everyone's liking, it's fun to at least taste it. Everything is incredibly fresh, even in the run-down-looking operation, with oceans of fresh seafood, crisp vegetables, friendly service and explosive flavors.

Our short list includes delicacies like deep-fried soft shell crab, frogs' legs with pepper salt, steamed whole head on shrimp in garlic and chile pepper, and new Hong Kong-style cooking like long green pea with red snapper. The fish list is remarkable, showcasing red snapper, rock cod, flounder, clams, whole live lobster, crab, mussels, oysters, squid and shrimp. And vegetarians feast, too (soy bean cake with black mushroom is exquisite).

Gourmet House is the place for lunch, packed with people like us who've discovered the amazing three dozen lunch combos alone for as little as $3.27. Familiar dishes abound, but they're a step above the rest, with expertly crafted kung pao, curry beef, sweet and sour snapper, moo goo gai pan and a dynamite house plate of shrimp, scallop, chicken, pork, snow pea, mushroom, celery, carrot and bamboo shoot (just $5.61).

We're nothing if not completely dedicated to preserving the integrity of our Best of Phoenix picks. Day in and day out, we're pounding the streets, scouting, sampling, checking once and checking twice to make sure our selections are, indeed, the very best. Consider Pho Bang. We check on this Vietnamese restaurant, oh, about 50 times a year. And we've never, ever been let down.

Sure, service can be brusque (good luck getting beverage refills). The interior can be, uh, scruffy. And the communication levels vary (one time we ordered hot and sour fish soup, only to have our server wrinkle her nose and exclaim, "Oh, you no like!" She was really wrong). But the food, oh my Buddha.

Everything is superb, like the refreshing chopped spring rolls and grilled pork over rice vermicelli. We love the tabletop grilled dishes, and the chicken curry dunked with French bread. But our real heart belongs to pho, the staple of rice noodle beef broth. A massive bowl arrives hot and steaming, aromatic with herbs and stocked with lots of thin slippery noodles plus our choice of meat (we love the tender brisket and the raw eye of round in paper thin slices that cook in the broth).

Years of constant supervision guarantee this is the best Vietnamese. We always know what we're in pho.

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