Best Southwestern Restaurant 2002 | Medizona | Food & Drink | Phoenix
For a place that's about as Southwestern as they come, the Valley sure doesn't have a lot in the way of Southwestern cuisine. Yet when we've got Southwestern along the lines of Medizona, we don't really need any more restaurants than this one. Medizona is where we send every single visitor we know, so proud we are to show off how interesting our cuisine can be. It's not pure Southwestern, touched with Mediterranean influences, but still, it shows how much deeper our heritage is than just jalapeos, tomatillos, tacos and quesadillas.

This is desert with daring, flaunting appetizers like blackened shrimp with white bean hummus, mango-olive salsa and charbroiled tomatillo sauce, or eggplant tacos with lamb, arugula, kasseri cheese, cucumber-radish relish and roasted tomato-garlic sauce. Entrees are edgy, like charbroiled prime tenderloin of beef with potato-leek gratin plus butternut squash, spinach, smoked bacon and provolone-cheese-filled green chile in sun-dried cherry barbecue sauce. And we challenge any out-of-towners to find anything comparable in their burg to Medizona's to-die-for dessert of prickly pear tiramisu in Turkish coffee-pistachio sauce.

When we want to savor the Southwest, we find all the best of Arizona in our very own Medizona.

Just tell that client -- the one who controls whether you make your mortgage -- that you're taking him or her to your favorite little hole in the wall.

Actually, it's more like a hole-in-the-rock, tucked into the Sonoran Desert foothills that make up the fabulous Boulders resort, surrounded by the 12-million-year-old granite boulder formations that dot the landscape. The restaurant's decor is the source of its name, with the main room's ceiling crafted from ocotillo branches (called "latilla," or "little sticks" in Spanish). Your client will be so breathless from the ambiance there'll be no air left to complain about your cost proposal.

And soon, your client's mouth will be too full of sumptuous American-Southwestern cuisine to quibble about anything. Who could argue over foie gras with creamy polenta, beet slices, fresh berries, and port reduction; grilled vegetable muffaleta strudel; seared Chilean sea bass with shrimp pot stickers and crisp chicken in a spicy crayfish broth; an Italian cowboy veal chop with Sicilian green olives, peppercorns, artichoke hearts and pancetta-mashed potatoes; or hazelnut praline ice cream layer cake?

If there's any doubt, after dinner, take your client to the desert-landscaped patio, boasting a fireplace and a huge boulder waterfall. Just remember, once the account is firmly landed, to bill the evening back on your expense account.

When we want to unwind, we head to south Phoenix and park our posteriors at the Farm Kitchen, a bucolic hideaway that operates first as an organic farm, second as a restaurant celebrating the great outdoors. After passing through the ordering line, we sprawl in the rosy sun on a lawn dotted with picnic tables, on a brick patio crisscrossed with a reed-and-daffodil-trimmed stream, or on woven Mexican blankets next to the exotic duck habitat.

When our food is ready, we collect our cute, open-top picnic basket and the feast begins. Dreamy potato leek soup. A fine Greek salad, albacore tuna, and an old-fashioned turkey sandwich on orange bread with a jam-like spread of tangy cranberry relish and chipotle. A curry turkey sandwich makes us happy to be alive, stuffed with currants, red cabbage, celery and shredded carrot in sweet mayonnaise. It's not a picnic without dessert, and the Farm feeds us in fine style. We love dense and chewy chocolate-chip cherry walnut cookie and the berry cinnamon scone. A visit to the Farm Kitchen just seems to melt the stress away.

When it's time to escape to another world, there's no finer midday dark retreat than Bosnian Atmosphere Cafe. There's nothing fancy here, and we're happy to lounge on scuffed purple fabric chairs, taking it slow under wobbly ceiling fans. The windows are blacked out; we first guessed it was a restaurant because of the daily "specials" sign outside (in Bosnian, of course). This means the inside is dark, blissfully womblike, and the service relaxed, since, as our waitress reminds us, everything is made from scratch.

It's quiet, secretly special food, too. Svjeza kupus salata is cabbage salad sprinkled with black pepper, misted with oil, spritzed with lemon juice and capped with ripe tomato. Burek is a football-size phyllo dumpling packed with chunks of chewy beef under a dollop of bright orange paprika purée. And the cafe's signature cevapi is captivating, a thrilling sandwich of sturdy, grilled ground beef sausage links and white onion between lepina, a pitalike bread. It's a feast -- for the stomach if not for the eyes.

Sometimes we enjoy escaping daily craziness to this charming little cafe stuffing ourselves with delightful kik alitcha (warm yellow split peas simmered in a mild sauce of onion, herbs and spices), and tebbs (tender sautéed chopped beef in a sauce flavored with onion, tomatoes, green chile, seasoned butter and spices).

We choose to sit in the traditional Ethiopian section of the restaurant, on intricately carved, swaybacked wooden stools, about half a foot high, clustered around a mesab, a handmade wicker hourglass-shaped table with a domed cover (think of a mini woven Taj Mahal). Eating Ethiopian food is part of the experience. When the mesab cover is removed, the server presents a hubcap-size tray blanketed with injera, an enormous quilt of unleavened bread that is the heart and soul, plus utensils, of Ethiopia. The steamed bread is more like a pancake, fluffy and pocketed with bubbles, tangy with sourdough character. The bread serves as a tablecloth of sorts, adorned with small mounds of food, and we tear off pieces of bread to scoop stews or wrap meats burrito-style.

As we feast here, it's easy to pretend everything in the world is okay. It's a simple case of de-nile.

Yes, folks, it's Arizona's first and only nudist restaurant, parked, appropriately enough, in a nudist resort. Here, bellying up to the bar takes on a new meaning, with men, women, and even children lounging for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the altogether. Chair seats are fabric, but out of courtesy and sanitation, guests are required to park themselves on personal towels. Only bistro staffers are required to remain "textiled" (inside nudist talk for people wearing clothes).

Had we ever noticed before that when we're sitting down, everything personal on anyone walking by is at optimum level? We have now. Yet soon enough, we're so distracted by the high-quality food we could be surrounded by monkeys. Sliced steak and bleu cheese salad. A basket of fine chicken finger nuggets with good, crisp French fries, spicy coleslaw and a ramekin of ranch dressing. Prime rib as a periodic special. And in the morning, three-egg omelets or French toast, partnered with bacon or sausage.

Shangri La welcomes day guests -- the $29 charge is applied to an annual membership if, after the initial three get-to-know-you visits, one decides to become part of the clan. We recommend it. Just be careful of spilling coffee in your lap.

We're the first to admit that dating sucks. Usually it's a waste of time; almost always it's a waste of money when we find out the person across the table from us at dinner should have warned us he or she was a vegetable, not a vegetarian.

There are several reasons we like to test our potential partners with a meal at L'Academie, an important one being the rock-bottom prices. This is a learning restaurant for students of the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, so the trade for our being guinea pigs is a low bill. Appetizers for $2.95. Entrees for $8.95. Desserts for $2.95. At these prices, even if our date is a washout, it won't leave us washing dishes in the kitchen.

We also like to use L'Academie to see how our date deals with potential mishap. Students haven't honed their server skills quite yet, but if our date has a meltdown over minor blips, we know we haven't met our true love.

It helps that the setting is high-class bistro, and the food is really tasty (spinach salad, prime rib, leg of lamb, bread pudding). So, if by chance our date turns out to have potential, we still look good in their eyes.

Heather Hoch
Like all our great Valley restaurants, Cowboy Ciao changes its menu on a regular basis, all the better to keep us interested in its creative cuisine: modern American food influenced by the flavors of Italy, the Southwest and Mexico. But we can always count on something special, manly and cowboy charming. Sometimes it's pesto-crusted elk loin, the strip grilled medium rare and served with pan-grilled vegetables, polenta and Cabernet wild and exotic mushroom ragout. Buffalo carpaccio makes a regular appearance, rolled in a cumin-espresso dry rub, seared, then paired with red onion honey marmalade and chèvre. We find favor with braised duck breast, too, two breasts with poblano mole, chile grits and black currant relish. And the crab-crayfish cakes keep us coming back for more, ladled in smoked red pepper-lobster cream. It's always exciting to come in, flip open the menu, and see what's in store for us at our favorite CC.

Why anyone would want to ruin an evening out by bringing along screaming little monsters who appreciate good food only if they can throw it, we'll never know. Haven't these people heard of baby sitters, or at least closets with locks?

Which is why, if kids must be part of the equation, we appreciate Pei Wei. It's already deafeningly loud, so a few more decibels won't matter. It's ultra-casual, so chucking food isn't too much of an embarrassment. And it's cheap, $5.50 to $9 for a full adult meal, plus just $3.25 for the little ankle-biters. While adults can fill up on P.F. Chang's-style coconut curry shrimp, spicy chicken chow fun, chili-hoisin beef or Mongolian scallops, the rug rats can stuff themselves on a Kid's Wei meal.

Pei Wei doesn't bother with any vegetables (just more artillery, since kids won't eat the stuff). The basics include teriyaki, honey or lo mein chicken on top of egg noodles. Simple. No nonsense. Enough carbs to ensure the kiddies will pass out on the car ride home.

If we had it our wei, kids wouldn't be allowed in restaurants until they could behave politely when released from their cages. In the meantime, we'll feed them at Pei Wei.

We've been fans of Hap's slow-smoked 'cue for more than a decade, since the place started as a cart in front of a family car dealership in south Phoenix (the smoker was the frame from an old GMC truck). This has been a long love affair for us, drawn in by meat that's meltingly tender. This comes from long slow cooking, over low heat, following a loving massage of a special blend of spices and herbs. Sauce is spectacular, but it only gilds the lily.

The new Hap's location is open 24 hours, Monday through Saturday. Oh joy! Full breakfasts (pork ribs or hot links in picante sauce with egg). Drop-dead ribs, chicken, pulled pork and beef brisket, all served in Hap's trademark brown paper sack. One bite and you're in Hap's heaven.

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