Pretzel carts are the first things we leap upon whenever we hit Manhattan; at a buck, pretzels are the only remaining bargain to be found in the big city.

So imagine our glee at the opening of Walker's, a shrine to handmade soft pretzels. Don't be confused; Walker's is an entire cafe, with a full, impressive menu of soups, salads, sandwiches, pizza, etc. But its specialty, and rightly so, is the perfect pretzel. They're steamy hot, cloaked with coarse salt and pulled in pliant, chewy mouthfuls. We can get them plain or salted. We can get a side of cheese dip (Velveeta, it has to be). And we can get a superb pretzel dog -- the frank juicy with beef liquor, wrapped in a golden bundle of dough.

Walker's even has a dessert pretzel, lavishly sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. What a delicious deal.

We actually hate the term "comfort food." It's been used so much over the last year that it makes us think the world is full of babies needing their blankies. But the truth is, some dishes invite us to curl up and cuddle more than others. When we miss our grandma and grandpa, we head to Weather Vane, where we can always count on those down-home dishes that fit us as close as flannel PJs.

Sweet, tart blackberry cobbler with buttery fluted crust. Fresh baked biscuits from scratch. Light-as-air strawberry shortcake. Creamy cheesecake. Oh, my. We're getting ahead of ourselves in our lust for dessert. First, we should start with dinner, tucking in to center cut pork chops, meat loaf swimming in gravy, or a Reuben. These are full meals, partnered with soup, salad or coleslaw, vegetables, biscuits and potatoes.

We're feeling awfully warm and cuddly.

Focaccia Fiorentina
We start thinking about lunch around, oh, 9 a.m., pretty much as soon as we've finished our breakfast bagel. On some days, our lunch escape is the only thing that makes slaving in an office bearable. Yet, in downtown Phoenix, it can be hard to find something quick, inexpensive and relaxed that's more interesting than just another sandwich.

Which is why, several times a week, you'll find us taking our noon repast at Focaccia Fiorentina. The cute Italian cafe keeps us coming back for its remarkably fresh sandwiches, salads, pastas and desserts (imported meats, cheese and vegetables are delivered fresh each morning; tiramisu and cheesecake are homemade). Nothing costs more than $7.50, with a half-dozen gorgeous pasta plates brimming with gutsy flavor for just $6.25.

This is tasty Tuscan fare, like the valtellina, a hearty hot sandwich of bresaola (air-dried beef), fresh basil, mozzarella, lettuce, lemon and extra-virgin olive oil on focaccia. We adore the classic rigatoni al ragu, loaded with lean ground beef, zesty marinara, fresh parsley, a touch of cream and Parmesan. The caesar is the real thing, too.

We may be just office peons, but we're very well-fed office peons.

Kincaid's Classic American Dining
If ever a restaurant looked like it was built for the noontime spirits and cigar set, it's Kincaid's. Sure, it's a chain, but a mighty fine one, and if it takes corporate money and vision to bring such a class act to our barren downtown dining scene, we're all for it. Rich cherry woods, acres of sparkling glass, gleaming brass fixtures, vintage scenes of Phoenix on the walls and servers decked out in authentic old-time steak-house whites all lend classic flair.

Food is as delicious as the decor, with carefully selected staples like wild Copper River king salmon from Alaska; handmade, small-batch Maytag blue cheese from Iowa; fresh tropical Pacific game fish from Honolulu; and flavorful, juicy beef from Omaha's best stockyards. It's difficult to think about returning to work after such a feast as rock salt roasted prime rib with seasonal vegetables, red jacket mashed potatoes, natural jus and fresh Oregon horseradish. So sometimes we go a little lighter, with seared Northwest Dungeness crab cake atop sweet-and-sour and beurre blanc sauces, Asian slaw, sushi jasmine rice and pickled red ginger. We always hope our lunch companion, though, orders the center-cut top sirloin steak with martini butter and juniper seasoning so we can pick bites off his plate.

Desserts bring the final decadent blow: superb renditions of crème brûlée, Key lime pie, chocolate cake and apple tart. Meeting adjourned.

The folks at El Camino Cafe have a sense of humor. Here's how they tell us to find their restaurant: "Drive around aimlessly while parched and hungry and then call us up blabberin' about some road we've never heard of until we hang up on you."

Yet then, once we arrive, the laughter fades. They call their cuisine "Western ranch cooking," but unless tequila is considered a major food group, we're not leaving here walking straight. Consider the Tombstone Businessman's Special, promising heartburn on a plate, bringing a combo of spicy beef jerky, a jalapeo-pickled egg, a seven-ounce beer and a shot of tequila. Sandwiches from the grill come with a choice of sides: steak fries, potato salad, or a shot of tequila. For dessert there's, imagine this, a shot of tequila Sauza Hornitos served with an orange wedge and cinnamon.

All this before noon. If this keeps up, we won't make it to happy hour.

Arcadia Farms
Jamie Peachey
We love homemade treats, but who has the time? Martha Stewart's been one-upped once again, with the discovery of Arcadia Farms' granola. One of the Valley's best little cafes rolls oats, roasted pecans, dried apricots, pumpkin seeds and brown sugar to make the perfect breakfast cereal or anytime snack. You can buy the granola at Arcadia Farms, or call and order it ahead. It's also for sale at the Willo Baking Company in Phoenix -- enough to turn anyone into a serial granola eater.
Jilly's American Grill
No snack has fallen harder victim to the chauvinism of body-conscious health nuts than the potato chip. All that starch and fat, you know. But no one around here does them better than Jilly's. You can keep your fat-free pretzels and (unhh) veggie platters -- these chips are the phattest fattening snack you could hope for. Paper-thin, crisp as communion wafers and so generously salted and deeply cooked that no dip is required, or even offered. And to top it all off, a giant plate of them is only a buck. Take that, personal trainer.
Miracle Mile Deli
No one makes everyday meats and cheeses as exciting as Miracle Mile. The Mile doesn't mess around, carving up towering portions of roasted turkey breast, honey cured ham, rare roast beef, pastrami, corned beef, brisket, barbecued chicken, even liverwurst and kosher salami. These are honest deli delicacies -- homemade albacore tuna, seafood, chicken or egg salad. It's impossible to leave hungry; the monster plates are paired with a mountain of French fries, potato salad or coleslaw, and a fat dill pickle.

We've experimented with our own fair share of sandwich recipes (hint: chocolate frosting on toast doesn't work). Yet leave it to the master at Miracle Mile to send out real winners. Specialties include the Straw (hot pastrami, melted Swiss, hot sauerkraut), the New Yorker (hot pastrami, coleslaw, Miracle Mile dressing) and the Triple Decker (two layers of hot pastrami on rye, imported Swiss, lettuce and Miracle Mile dressing).

Sandwiches this good truly are a miracle.

A tuna salad sandwich is a peculiar thing. It can be pretty basic -- fish, mayo, bread. But for some people, including us, it approaches an art form where we're mighty particular indeed. No dark meat tuna. No Miracle Whip. No fancy throw-ins like capers or balsamic. No soggy bread. Yet then, it's hard to please all the people all the time.

We'd be surprised if the Desert Grind had too many complaints about the tuna it crafts. Rather than one sandwich, this casual place offers four, each just different enough to satisfy individual cravings. The first is, of course, the classic, whole white albacore mixed with celery, jicama, dill and mayo with tomato, red onion, lettuce and more mayo on wheat. Then there's the Amy's Favorite, with salad, red onion, bean sprouts and honey Dijon on wheat bread. Not enough? Maybe the Mom's version will get you -- salad, dill pickle relish, tomatoes, lettuce and mayo on wheat. Yet there's still one more, the tuna melt, topped with provolone, marinated tomatoes, red onion and Dijon on toasted wheat.

If there's a Greater Tuna, we haven't found it yet.

It's without doubt the crowning achievement of the art of sandwichery: the club. It takes slabs of turkey -- one of the most healthful meats around -- and slathers it with layers of mayo and a ration of bacon. Lettuce and tomato are added not as mere garnish but as actual food, and a third slice of bread is oftentimes wedged in just to show off. And it's piled on so high that the very creation requires -- no, demands! -- toothpicks to keep it together. No self-respecting sandwich shop doesn't have a club on its menu. So why is a good one so hard to find? Well, we looked, and for our money, the best so far is at Buckets. The turkey is breast meat sliced thin and stacked high, and the bacon is crunchy like the whole sandwich depends on it, which it does. And the wheat bread is toasted just enough to support the whole concoction. There are some places out there that may do it better, but most of them are in Manhattan. So dig in. Just remember to remove the toothpicks first.

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