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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.