Best Gazpacho 2002 | Iguana Lounge | Food & Drink | Phoenix
Gazpacho may be a summertime soup. Yet in the Valley of the Sun, it's summer almost year-round. So in our minds, gazpacho should be Arizona's state soup -- it symbolizes everything the shimmering hot Southwest needs. Chilled relief. Vibrant flavors that grip us by the lapels and send sparks to break our sweat. Enough substance that, when paired with a piece of good crusty bread, it's a meal.

For that state staple, we nominate Spyros Scocos' recipe. As owner of Iguana Lounge, he has taken a classic and infused it with funky Cuban charm. This soup arrives in a large parfait glass, tumbled in bright broth so sparkly we suspect carbonation. It bobs with sharp fresh tomato, red pepper, avocado, celery, scallion and onion. Even in its oversize portion, it disappears all too quickly.

Courtesy of Chicago Hamburger Co.
It seems kind of sacrilegious to honor a hamburger shop for its hot dogs, but the two go together like baseball and, well, hot dogs. And when the dogs are as topnotch as the ones served at the Chicago Hamburger Co., it only makes too much sense to us.

The dogs in question are all-beef Viennas imported from Chicago. Our favorite style is the traditional, tucked in a bun and dressed with mustard, relish, onions, pickle, tomatoes and sauerkraut. Just one is a full meal at just $3.15, partnered (for free) with hot, mealy French fries or soupy coleslaw. But sometimes we want to step out a little, and for that, we turn to the Cheddar dog, the chili dog or the ultimate, the chili/cheese dog. The Chicago Co. doesn't disappoint with fans of Polish dogs, fire dogs or bagel dogs, either. Once, when we were feeling really macho, we tried to take on the massive "Dave Jantz Double Dog." It bit us back.

How much do we love these dogs? We still smile when we think of the Valentine's Day note posted once on the daily special board. It read, "Vienna Hot Dog w/fries 2.25. Nothing says I love you' like a steamin' weenie." We couldn't have said it better ourselves.

Jackie Mercandetti
Why on Earth would anyone bother with a Big Mac when for about a buck more they could have one of the most glorious, juicy burgers known to man? Harvey's isn't about ambiance -- it's dark and grungy, and on any given lunch hour we can bet we'll find more than a few beer-suckers at the bar. But those burgers, man!

Here, the beef is doused with Burgundy as it cooks on a special, extra-thick grill (to keep the wine from evaporating too fast). It's drenched not just once, but four times, then topped with cheese if we like, and drenched two more times. Big Mac, ha. Our basic burger is a whopping one-third pound, with no special sauce needed -- this big, beefy taste doesn't hide. Toppings include fresh, crisp lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle. If we want more, we can add beef chili with beans and more onion. When we're super hungry, we pig out with the super wineburger, a full two-third-pounder with cheese.

Sorry, Ronald, but our favorite burger chef goes by the name of Harvey.

We went to Chicago recently, and while we were there, we made it our personal mission to sample as many Chicago beefs as humanly possible. We never knew our bellies could handle such massive quantities.

Interestingly enough, we had originally fallen in love with the Windy City's signature sandwich right here in Phoenix, when one of our friends, a Chicago transplant, introduced us to Luke's.

So simple a recipe, but so often other places cut corners and it comes out all wrong. At Luke's, the meat is premium, thinly sliced and so tender it's almost lace. The jus is critical -- it's got to be all natural, thick, peppery and so generously applied that the French roll supporting it gets soggy down to its deepest ends. It's got to be a mess, with beef falling off the edges of the bread, reined in only by an optional cloak of melted provolone.

Luke, the Chicago beef force is definitely with you.

We'll never be able to go back to Ore-Ida. Our heart is taken with Roti-Joe's fabulous fries. These deep-fried beauties come in a woodpile serving of hand-cut Belgian-style spuds, enormous steak-fry logs of primo potato spiced to high heat and dipped in Bohemian mayo dip (lots of hot, hot pepper).

Sometimes we get them with rotisserie prime rib or chicken. But often enough, we simply sit at the bar, sipping a glass of Penfolds Shiraz/Cabernet, slowly munching the hot, mealy slabs like cocktail nuts. After a few salty handfuls, we're almost sloppy in our happiness. It's Roti-Joe's, for when we just want to fry, fry away from this hectic world.

Timur Guseynov
How could such deceptively simple food -- "smashed" potatoes, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic -- be so utterly addictive? That's the question we attempt to answer every time we frequent Pita Jungle for a garlic dip fix. Cheap, delicious pita sandwiches and salads have always been reason enough to visit this artsy cafe, but once we discovered the strong, tongue-tingling garlickiness of this creamy alternative to hummus, nothing else would satisfy when an extreme garlic craving kicked in. Served with a warm plate of -- what else? -- pita bread, the dip is a delectable appetizer. Funny thing is, we love it so much that we have to force ourselves to save room for dinner.
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.

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.

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