Best Thai Restaurant 2002 | Touch of Thai | Food & Drink | Phoenix
Thai food is all about dynamic flavors -- spice, seasonings, sizzle. And Touch of Thai puts much more than just a touch of that into its dishes. This place is nuts for the fiery chile peppers, but in a very, very good way. The taste always shines through its veil of flame.

We're not looking for apologies, just more food, when our lips, tongue and stomach burn after tucking into such smoky delicacies as tod mahn (spicy fish patties with cucumber sauce), larb (minced meat sautéed in lemon juice, red onion and mint), yahm pla meug (lemongrass squid), gaeng goong (red curry shrimp) or phaht Thai (rice stick noodles with chicken and shrimp).

Sure, we can adjust the heat level, but we'd rather trust the kitchen to send out the very best. At Touch of Thai, there's no doubt that there's perfection behind these peppers.

It's faded powder blue paint on the outside and cotton candy pink on the inside, but all over, it's the most authentic Chinese anywhere in town. Keep in mind that authentic means adventurous, with dishes like duck feet with greens.

The menu of more than 400 items can be intimidating. But order the way we do, filling up lazy Susans on the big tables with lots of varieties, then spinning it among friends to sample and share. With such cheap prices, even if we find that beef belly in casserole isn't to everyone's liking, it's fun to at least taste it. Everything is incredibly fresh, even in the run-down-looking operation, with oceans of fresh seafood, crisp vegetables, friendly service and explosive flavors.

Our short list includes delicacies like deep-fried soft shell crab, frogs' legs with pepper salt, steamed whole head on shrimp in garlic and chile pepper, and new Hong Kong-style cooking like long green pea with red snapper. The fish list is remarkable, showcasing red snapper, rock cod, flounder, clams, whole live lobster, crab, mussels, oysters, squid and shrimp. And vegetarians feast, too (soy bean cake with black mushroom is exquisite).

Gourmet House is the place for lunch, packed with people like us who've discovered the amazing three dozen lunch combos alone for as little as $3.27. Familiar dishes abound, but they're a step above the rest, with expertly crafted kung pao, curry beef, sweet and sour snapper, moo goo gai pan and a dynamite house plate of shrimp, scallop, chicken, pork, snow pea, mushroom, celery, carrot and bamboo shoot (just $5.61).

We're nothing if not completely dedicated to preserving the integrity of our Best of Phoenix picks. Day in and day out, we're pounding the streets, scouting, sampling, checking once and checking twice to make sure our selections are, indeed, the very best. Consider Pho Bang. We check on this Vietnamese restaurant, oh, about 50 times a year. And we've never, ever been let down.

Sure, service can be brusque (good luck getting beverage refills). The interior can be, uh, scruffy. And the communication levels vary (one time we ordered hot and sour fish soup, only to have our server wrinkle her nose and exclaim, "Oh, you no like!" She was really wrong). But the food, oh my Buddha.

Everything is superb, like the refreshing chopped spring rolls and grilled pork over rice vermicelli. We love the tabletop grilled dishes, and the chicken curry dunked with French bread. But our real heart belongs to pho, the staple of rice noodle beef broth. A massive bowl arrives hot and steaming, aromatic with herbs and stocked with lots of thin slippery noodles plus our choice of meat (we love the tender brisket and the raw eye of round in paper thin slices that cook in the broth).

Years of constant supervision guarantee this is the best Vietnamese. We always know what we're in pho.

There are only, like, a gazillion Japanese restaurants in the Valley these days. But as many new, exciting places open up, we find ourselves returning each time to Sushi on Shea. We've been darkening its doors since it first opened in 1994, and have yet to find anything but a perfect experience.

Under the direction of chef Fred Yamada, the energetic bar/restaurant rocks with a fun crowd gathering to gorge on fresh fish, beef udon, tempura soba, katsu, salmon teriyaki, or shabu-shabu and sukiyaki prepared tableside. On the nights we can't decide, we go for the bento box, combining chicken teriyaki, shrimp and vegetable tempura, tuna sashimi, pickles, miso soup and rice. Sushi, of course, is always on the table in front of us -- albacore tataki, flying fish roe, uni with quail egg and endless rows of sparkling fresh tuna.

We love taking newbies to Korean restaurants. It's so fun to casually mention that Korean cuisine contains pickles. Then to watch our guests' eyes bug out when, like at Tabletop, some 13 little plates arrive, each bearing a different type of vegetable, marinated and spiced to varying heat levels (ranging from mild puckery to call the fire department).

At Tabletop, the pickles, and everything else, stand out because they're so incredibly fresh. Everything sparkles with obvious pride from the kitchen. These are authentic dishes, too, not toned down for wussy American taste buds. That pan-fried shrimp in spicy chili sauce requires great gulps of Asian beer to soothe the burns. Cornish hen is not your typical poultry on a plate, but a hearty soup of whole bird swimming with medicinal herbs, spices and real, potent Korean ginseng. The waiter cuts up the carcass with scissors, and we roll pieces of flesh in salt-pepper mix or coarse rock salt. There's tabletop cooking, too, of course, working with a grill set in the table's center. We like the beef short ribs, wrapping the tender beef in crisp romaine leaves and wrapping it with thick chile paste and jalapeos.

It's impossible to leave hungry, or without change in our pockets. While Tabletop specialties run from $12.95 to $15.95, portions are for two. Now that's pretty tasty.

Jackie Mercandetti
If a food has thrived for some 5,000 years like Indian cuisine has, we've got to believe there's something pretty special about it. For proof, all we have to do is stop in at Maharaja Palace, home to the Valley's most exciting display of what makes Indian so interesting. Here, we find how sublime the food can be, involving an elaborate labyrinth of color, texture and flavor. Tastes are layered and complex, often including ghee (clarified butter) for a creamy finish that's incomparably rich. Spices come in rainbow reflections, applied lavishly in tiers of turmeric, ginger, garlic, fennel, coriander, cumin, chili, mint and more. Playing the riff is garam masala, an intense, aromatic mixture that has no set recipe but often includes cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and black cardamom.

We're stunned by the kitchen's take on classics like mulligatawny, a from-scratch curry-kissed soup floating with chicken, lentils and fresh herbs. Lamb jalfraizee is luscious, a tender, meaty toss of tomatoes, onion and green pepper in a vinegary, ginger-imbued gravy served on a sizzling platter. And while Indian food has a reputation for causing sweaty brows and gasping breath, lamb korma is a jewel of delicate meat blended with tangy yogurt and nuts.

Jackie Mercandetti Photo
The past 12 months have seen the introduction of not just one incredible destination, but several. What happened? Did serious chefs finally wake up and realize how many Valley folks have lots of cash to spend on their evenings out (not us, but we've heard of such people)? For once, it was hard to choose the best new restaurant.

Yet there's something just a bit extra special about Atlas Bistro, a tiny cafe with a big-city mood. It's BYOB, always a nice touch to lower the dinner tab, but it's connected to the terrific AZ Wine Co., meaning it's almost as good as having a personal sommelier (just let the proprietors know what you're thinking of eating for dinner, and they'll help you choose the perfect wine. Plus, if you buy your grapes from AZ Wine, there's no corkage fee).

We love the sleek, elegant ambiance of white cloth capped with white butcher paper. But we love the menu even more, celebrating seasonal selections in simple but sophisticated dishes. The bruschetta are brilliant, six dainty crostini individually capped with things like chopped tomato and olive oil, white beans with hummus, and briny mushrooms over goat cheese and mascarpone. A quesadilla is special, a sun-dried tomato tortilla encasing white cheese and nubs of smoked salmon atop a peanuty-charactered bay scallop and crayfish sauce studded with corn and pearl onions. And it's hard to improve on an enormous Niman Ranch pork chop, exquisitely thick and moist, sided with an earthy wet heap of roasted corn, plump barley and black beans. What a beauty of a bistro.

What do we love best about House of Tricks? It must be the setting, a small 1920s cottage with just 12 tables and an old river rock fireplace. Or maybe it's the patio, feeling like someone's front porch under a canopy of grapevines. Even as the restaurant has grown -- the property now includes a 1903 brick and adobe house next door -- the place has never lost its charm.

We think it's the wine list we love the most, selected from a temperature-and-humidity-controlled cellar holding more than 2,500 bottles. Surely, though, it's the food, a compelling blend of seasonal American accented with touches of Asia, Europe and the Southwest. Our favorite dish is lavender-and-herb-crusted ahi tuna seared rare with red curry sauce, risotto cake and sautéed greens. No, wait, we really adore the tenderloin au poivre, with sautéed potatoes and shiitakes in an herb butter sauce.

Okay, so it's simple. We love absolutely everything about this place. Nothing too tricky about that.

We're not the only ones enchanted with this amazing experience -- the resort's signature restaurant is rated AAA Five Diamond and Mobil Four Star. The decor alone is mouth-watering, rich in the colors of the Mediterranean region with polished marble, soft leather and 16th- and 17th-century Spanish Colonial antiques and paintings. A garden patio with a fireplace overlooking the McDowell Mountains invites us for luxurious alfresco dining. But we can't eat awards or ambiance.

Fortunately, the menu is as impressive as the setting -- exquisite seafood, meat, poultry and produce radiantly seasoned with provincial herbs, garlic and other flavors indigenous to the European region. We've been wowed by such temptations as cheese-filled pansotti with truffle oil scented sbira; buttered scalded chanterelles and truffles with sweet beet emulsion; and roasted veal loin pistou with crispy sweetbreads, cannellini beans and white almond pistou.

But what's most Mediterranean? Perhaps paella, and here it's pure luxury, stocked with lots of lobster, chicken, pork, frogs' legs, chistora, mussels, escargot, cockles and shrimp.

Vive la Riviera.

Sabuddy is well-versed in the art of Middle Eastern cooking. There's a little bit of everything European on this lengthy menu -- baba ghanouj, chicken liver pâté, Russian potato salad, matbuha (North African tomato salad), shish kebabs, schnitzel and goulash.

No matter what we order, we know it'll arrive fresh, homemade, hearty and impossibly cheap. Soups are particularly mesmerizing, the lentil thickened with potatoes; the white bean and tomato broth robust; the gazpacho brilliant and singing with tomato. We like to sample from each section -- a salad (the Greek eggplant is divine, grilled, chopped and blended with fried onion, garlic, parsley, olive oil and lemon juice to be spread on pita), any of the soups, and an entree (try the ground beef kebab, rich with Middle Eastern seasonings, skewered and grilled to a juicy finish).

When we're craving topnotch Middle Eastern food, we know exactly what to do. We rely on our Sabuddy system.

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