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Nobody has the seductive selection that Akbar's does, imported loose teas from all over the world, complete with Chatsford tea pots, tea accessories, gift baskets, tins and bags. Every variety we could want is available: black teas of China or India, green teas, oolong teas, blended teas, flavored teas, herbal teas. Essentially, anything leafy and lovely that can fit in a cup can be found here.
The Wine Co. offers free tastings several nights a week, with us relaxed at the cozy bar or kicking back on one of the front-porch-style sofas and chairs clustered in a cradle of boxes. Pretty much any varietal we crave is in stock, but on a night that AZ Wine is out of our preferred Newton Claret, the proprietor suggests Catena, a 2000 Malbec from LunLunta Vineyards of Argentina. It's stunning, with intense aromas of ripe blackberry interlaced with vanilla and tobacco, and just what we wanted. For wines, that's as good AZ it gets.
There's no sugar used in these starchy marvels, and none needed. Instead, Willo relies on fresh fruits and nuts for its sweeter treats, like sun-dried cranberries in the cranberry-hazelnut roll. All the standard favorites are in attendance, too, but these are better breads than even the finest home kitchen could hope to achieve. The list runs the gamut from familiar to fancy: pumpernickel, sesame, earthy rye cut with chunks of real red onion, strong charactered Kalamata olive loaf, the signature Willo loaf (think French baguette), round ciabatta roll, olive focaccia, sunflower-seed, rosemary-focaccia and much more.
Willo is, hands down, our breadwinner.
The only thing small about this place is the shop. It's filled floor to rafters with everything Italian, imported, homemade, fantastically fresh and hardly shy in flavor. Olive oils. Dressings. Pastas. Wines. Fresh breads, cheeses, meats, sweets and savories. Everything our larder could long for.
Step up to the deli case and prepare to be stunned by salads. What a lovely display it is, long and fat with seafood blend (crab, calamari and shrimp in Italian marinade), tortellini primavera, zesty tomato and garlic (more correct would be garlic, tomato, garlic, garlic, garlic salad), marinated artichokes and mushrooms, antipasto, chicken, tuna and loads more. It's plump with prepared dishes, an ever-changing selection like ricotta-stuffed shells, lasagna (cheese, meat and cheese or spinach and cheese), stuffed peppers and cabbage rolls, pizza, homemade Italian sausage with peppers and onions, and pasta trays to take home and reheat. Desserts? Of course. Try handcrafted cheesecake, cannoli or casata cake, moist with layers of cannoli and seasonal fresh strawberries.
Guido's is simply deli-cious.
For our fix, we go to Middle Eastern Bakery & Deli, a legend that's brought the Mediterranean to Phoenix for more than 20 years. The store may be tiny, but that's the only thing restrained about this wonderful place. Spices alone are amazing, spanning shelf after shelf of exotic temptations. The original blends are so special they're actually marketed under chef Mary Karadsheh's name.
There's so much to this eight-table operation, with good-smelling and even better-tasting dishes like spinach pie, baklava, tandoori chicken salad with pine nuts and currants, hummus and avgolemono, a luscious creamy egg-lemon-chicken soup. Now that, anyone can relate to.
Really, if there's something we want, and we can't find it at Lee Lee, we can't possibly actually need it. There are acres of fresh produce, including vast varieties of just cabbages. There are oodles of noodles, like fresh udon, ramen and lo mein. Staples startle with their selection, in a rainbow of hot sauces, soy sauces, chile pastes, dozens of rice varieties, canned goods with exotic names, liquor, frozen foods, jewelry, tapioca, cakes and . . . whew.
If it's fresh we're after, Lee Lee delivers an astounding assortment of exotic and familiar meats, poultry and seafood, including a massive area full of tanks to support live crab, mussels, clams, tilapia, carp and so much more.
The only thing we haven't found at Lee Lee is fresh goat meat. But that's okay. We know exactly where we can get that.
Is it vintage? Is it modern? We can't tell, but we get a kick out of LUX's who-cares approach to stark white walls, mismatched furniture, concrete charisma and bare, gallery-style lighting. The only eye candy is rotating works from local artists, primarily photographers who can preview their displays on one of the light tables scattered around the small space.
The owners know their coffee, returning to Phoenix after operating a caffeine store in Seattle. The stuff is strong and flavorful, including old-fashioned drip brew. The patrons here are part of the scene, too, with wild hair, untamed expressions and deep, quiet countenances. That they're nibbling on snickerdoodle cookies is fun; just as tasty are the fruit Danish, muffins and cinnamon rolls.
Some attitude with your coffee? That's priceless.
Now we've got La Grande Orange, a charming oasis that's open every day, rain or shine (owned by Craig DeMarco, also owner of Postino Winecafé next door). It's an actual store, see, a little commune of the Valley's top food sources, like Tammie Coe Cakes (a former chef of Michael's at the Citadel), Victory Farms produce, wood-fired pizza from ex-Bianco guy Carl Bonacci, artisan breads, designer wines and beers (from neighboring Nonni's Kitchen), and Java Garden, an adjacent coffee stand in a tiny tranquil garden setting.
We come in through the kitchen in back, stopping to watch as staff crafts its pastries, carves its meats, and hustles so we can fill our baskets with fresh asparagus, Genovese basil plucked from tin buckets, sour cream blueberry muffins, a bottle of imported pesto, ciabatta, and a truffle of banana pudding, chocolate mousse and espresso angel food cake. We're low on Cheer detergent and Bounty paper towels, so we grab those, too.
While we've been shopping, the kitchen has been preparing our breakfast order: smoked salmon on an English muffin slicked with cream cheese, capers and onion, with fresh blackberries, raspberries, peach and lemon on the side. We eat it off plastic plates at one of the handful of tables in the front of the store. And by the time we leave, we're feeling grateful to La Grande Orange for not being just another farmers' market.