BEST AZ-MEX 2003 | Carbajal�s | Food & Drink | Phoenix
The love affair with simple, satisfying Sonoran-style gringo food starts with the chips. They're spectacular, crispy light, warm, and sprinkled with lots of salt. The chunky salsa purée is flamed with just enough chiles to add spark without pain. It's tempting to eat an entire basket all by our lonesome. But we resist, knowing that owner Marina Carbajal is in the kitchen, crafting her family recipes to feed the crowds at her tiny cafe (five red-tile-topped tables plus five booths).

These are fantastic favorites -- tacos with juicy rich shredded beef layered in lacy thin shells, enchiladas in spicy, fork-licking sauce, and burros bursting with luscious stuff like green chile beef in oceans of thick grayish gravy. We feast on the magical machaca, the shredded beef blended with vibrant spices, tossed with scrambled egg, onion and tomato, slathered with soupy-soft refried beans, cheese and rice, then wrapped in tears of warm flour tortillas. Carbajal's has topnotch menudo, too, bobbing with soft tripe and al dente hominy mixed with chopped red onion, minced cilantro or lemon, plus exquisite albóndigas, a kiddy-pool-size portion of rich tomato broth, rice, carrot, potato, white onion, squash and highly herbed meatballs.

This is the best there is of comfort food, Mexican style.

Courtesy of Los Sombreros
When is something old actually something new? When it's old as in authentic, but when it's new to Valley taste buds. And the Mexican food served at Los Sombreros is excitingly new. This isn't the typical gringo ground beef taco with Cheddar cheese, but the regional cuisine of and around Oaxaca. That means some exotica in ingredients, like cotija (dry crumbly white cheese), rajas (poblano chile strips), string-style white Oaxacan cheese, and cilantro crema. That means deep ethnic food, with things like mole poblano, a Puebla dish incorporating some 30 ingredients. That means high-class staples, like free-range chicken from Young's Farm in Dewey.

Often, dishes are unexpected, like tacos de birria de chiro (braised goat), and chilaquiles de camarónes (a comfort casserole of corn tortilla strips and shrimp simmered in salsa verde, jack cheese and crema). Even dessert is different here, so old, so new, with homemade vanilla ice cream spiked with toasted pumpkin seeds. It's a brave, nueva frontier here at Los Sombreros.

This is the fanciest fast food to be found. Everything here is prepared to order, with fresh ingredients, and with sauces and dressings made from scratch. The family-run cafe keeps it simple but satisfying with a Hawaiian-Asian menu, meaning stir fries and rice bowls (no extra charge for white meat chicken!), teriyaki-pineapple-chicken salad, or a Big Kahuna burger, bringing a third of a pound layered with American and provolone cheeses, Canadian bacon, a pineapple ring and mayo. Milk shakes are handmade, and instead of plastic-toned soft-serve, thereÕs the premium BertoÕs gelato, in coconut-lime or mango-raspberry. Still, everything costs less than $6 for an entire meal, including sandwich, cooked-to-order shoestring French fries and a soda.

Food of this caliber requires some patience. It takes a few minutes to get fed, since the cook actually prepares dishes instead of sliding them prewrapped from a warming tray. But when weÕre in a rush, we just call ahead, and CJÕs has our order waiting at a drive-through window (where we push a button under the window to let staff know weÕre there). Such luxury, without even leaving our car. Makes our heart go vroom!

Sometimes, even before we rub the sleep from our eyes, we've already decided what we'll be having for breakfast. That's because the early morning fare served at New York Bagels 'n Bialys visits us in our dreams. The selection offered in this Jewish deli is mind-boggling, with almost three dozen delectable dishes. The Rabin family uses recipes handed down for more than 100 years. We love the traditional dishes -- real Brooklyn lox scrambled with onions and eggs; a deli omelet groaning with corned beef, pastrami and melted cheese; or homemade corned beef hash with three eggs. We appreciate the offbeat, too -- the Reuben omelet with corned beef, grilled sauerkraut and Swiss; or the filling Philly beef omelet, packed with steak, onions, peppers, mozzarella and mushrooms. Whatever we get, we're not going away hungry, since each plate comes with a heap of crisp-skinned home fries, choice of tomatoes or cottage cheese, and a bagel or bialy. Bagels are made fresh from homemade dough, fat-free and sugar-free, with no additives or preservatives. Then they're boiled, and baked on both sides for optimum chewy-crustiness.

Readers' Choice: The Good Egg

Courtesy of Deseo
The credit begins with Douglas Rodriguez, celebrity chef from back East, and father of the unique cuisine now known as Nuevo Latino. He's the big name behind Latin-influenced Deseo. But the award goes to Deseo's actual chef de cuisine, Mark Dow, who is flawlessly crafting Rodriguez's recipes and bringing brand-new excitement to the Valley's dining scene.

We rarely see arepas locally, and never like this, the Cuban corn cakes lavish with raw quail egg, caviar and crème fraîche. We've never had such spectacular ceviche, either, such as a "rainbow" presentation of sashimi-grade slabs of layered halibut and salmon, and of ahi with red and green chiles in a brilliant marinade of soy sauce, citrus juices, red onions and cilantro. And there's true genius behind a clever plate of plantain-crusted halibut, pan-seared with sliced banana, sautéed spinach, bacon and cherry tomatoes.

Deseo is Spanish for "desire." With a ravishing menu like this, there's no question we do.

Readers' Choice: Bar Nun

Courtesy of La Grande Orange
Time was, not so long ago, that it was difficult to find even basic ingredients like cilantro in local grocery stores. Fennel was a plastic doohickey we used to change our car's oil, "greens" meant iceberg lettuce, and pizza came from Domino's. But Craig and Kris DeMarco have taken our fair Valley into the big leagues, with La Grande Orange, a Berkeley-esque grocery/deli/pastry shop/sit-down cafe/coffee house/wine store and pizzeria. They've divided the shop into a culinary co-op of independent local food artisans (a pastry and cake wizard, a master bread baker, a produce expert, a fruit genius, etc., all share the space). A highlight is the on-site pizza god, handcrafting pies from natural sourdough fermented crust; organic, seasonal vegetables brought in daily by local growers; homemade meats and cheeses; and herbs so fresh they're plucked in bunches from silver tubs in the store's produce section.

We can buy retro candy (Pop Rocks!), and select from a dizzying array of olive oils or pestos. We can feel oh-so cosmopolitan lounging with our pooch on the patio of the adjacent Java Garden coffee shop. We no longer even blink to find simple breakfast fare composed of once considered ultra-luxe smoked salmon on an English muffin with cream cheese, capers and onion. Lunch is modern and magnificent with a croque monsieur, layered with ham, tomato, spicy mustard, Gruyère and egg. Dinner, of course, is pizza, perhaps Wednesday's special of fennel, organic greens and goat cheese.

This is the new, cutting-edge Phoenix we know and love, and we say thanks to the Orange for making our lives so grande.

Lauren Cusimano
Fry bread actually isn't an authentic Indian dish (trust us). It comes from the time that white settlers arrived in the Valley hundreds of years ago. Two cultures have come together in a most marvelous fashion, and fry bread has become a favorite taste of Arizona. For all its history, there's only one place in town that truly does the treat justice in our book, and that's Fry Bread House. The creations are hot and fresh, virtually greaseless, a pillowy puff peeking through the lightest veil of vegetable oil. Meals come as golden brown taco-style pockets, stuffed with delights like red chile, vegetarian (smoky beans, green chiles, produce and sour cream) or a wickedly spicy chorizo beef combo.

Kazimierz Wine & Whiskey Bar
Kazimierz is such a fun, upbeat place that instead of a typical happy hour, it features "early evening hours of joy." Who couldn't have a great time at such a stylish hideaway as this, a dark, intimate cave decorated like a castle with lots of wood, stone and stained glass? Your date will think you're totally hip, just knowing how to find the joint. There's no sign, and the front door is hidden within a breezeway. You can toast your potential beau with exotic wines, chosen from a menu brimming with some 1,300 labels (the indecisive will appreciate the flight samplings). Cozy sofas lend themselves to comfortable snuggling; if things are going well, you can retreat to one of the private tables hidden behind red velvet drapes. In case you find you're so smitten you get tongue-tied, you can hide under the cool tones of live jazz, or KazBar's playful CD mixes. And how cute is the menu, with "global" plates designed for snacking and sharing: things like two-cheese fondue pot with apple slices and bread, or flatbread of house-made focaccia rock shrimp, smoked Gouda, buffalo mozzarella and pumpkin seeds.

Who says experiencing a "foodie fantasia" has to be some high-priced, completely complicated, rich and crazy (and expensive) undertaking? Fate chef Johnny Chu proves that the magic of fine food comes in complete respect for the most simple ingredients, left to their pure flavors and nudged to excitement by lightly applied but highly creative sauces. His Asian cuisine doesn't require elite recipes, fashioned primarily from vegetables. We can add in our choice of tender chicken breast, quality beef, shrimp or terrific deep-fried tofu, then select our sauces. Chu, born and raised in Hong Kong, does more with sauces than many of our best Valley chefs.

Real foodies like funky, of course, and Chu serves that up and more. His restaurant is also an art gallery and music salon, set in an old house in a questionable neighborhood. What's not to love?

Wow, if we had way, way too much money to burn, this is where we would do it. This concept is a full restaurant, with a full staff and a full gourmet menu, but it's designed for just a single party. As in one table, seating just two to 12 guests. We like to think of it as our own private Mary Elaine's, complete with fancy Reidel stemware, fresh custom flowers, a live baby grand player or any custom music we desire, custom scented candles, and stunning views from atop Eagle Mountain. Our evening brings six-course designer dinners of cheese, appetizer, salad, soup, entree and dessert (perhaps oysters with saffron, habanero oil, spinach and Parmesan; then prime New York strip pan-blackened with chile garlic butter, garlic-red jalapeo mashed potatoes). Our private (of course) sommelier helps us select from 300-plus bottles of wine, or 125 choices by the glass. And for the privilege, all we need to do is shell out $195 (for a basic dinner for two), up to $1,775 for a seafood indulgence, including wines and champagnes, for 12. The rich truly are different from us, and this is why.

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