BEST CATERER 2003 | Michael's | Food & Drink | Phoenix
The fact that Michael DeMaria is a spectacular chef is reason enough to choose him to cater your next intimate party. The fact that he was trained at some of the Valley's best resorts makes him perfect for large corporate events, too. He handles each occasion with excitement and ease. DeMaria does on-premises catering in his high-tech kitchen studio adjacent to his elegant restaurant (12 to 17 guests) where diners watch the chef in action with Q&A sessions and take-home recipes. Or, you can relax at the Chef's Table (6 to 10), with multiple courses paired with wines. Larger groups of 20 to 60 can take over the private dining room, with glowing fireplaces and views of a pond-strewn garden, or one of the patios (12 to 60), with desert trees, adobe walls, a cascading waterfall and mesquite-burning fireplaces.

For catering at your own location, DeMaria's team arrives equipped for a memorable full-service wedding, private cooking in our own home, party at the property of our choice, and even backyard barbecues and picnics. The dining choice is yours, with tasting menus, custom menus, multi-course services and more, selected from an encompassing arsenal of contemporary, American and Mediterranean specialties. Better yet, let the remarkable DeMaria choose the menu.

Barmouche may be a fancy-looking restaurant, owned by a big-name celebrity chef (Mark Tarbell). It may have upscale dishes like "laitue," organic butter lettuce with Roquefort cheese and walnut dressing. But we go there for the things that everybody loves and understands -- mom's home cooking. Tuesdays through Saturdays, there are Blue Plate Specials (chicken fried steak, spaghetti and meatballs, fish and chips). Every day, there are the cozy basics, like "Mark's Mom's Mac & Cheese," biscuits and country gravy, or baked veal meat loaf. Desserts can't be missed -- chocolate banana bread pudding, ice cream sandwiches, an old-fashioned banana split and peach cobbler hit the spot. Not only cozy, though, this comfort cuisine is gourmet, prepared with loving care and the best ingredients (that cobbler gets its fruit from the local farms of Queen Creek, so we know it's fresh). It's the best of two worlds -- like mother's cooking, if we had grown up in the house of Julia Child.
Jackie Mercandetti
Cyclo's owner, Justina Duong, loves to chat with her guests. One of her favorite stories to tell is about her chicken noodle soup, a classic comfort food she used to consume by the bucket as a child. It's one of the best sellers on her menu.

Except Duong is Vietnamese, her restaurant is Vietnamese, and her chicken noodle soup is Vietnamese, a dish called mien ga. We assure you, though, this is food that spans any culture. The chicken is tender breast, torn in toothsome shards and grilled. The noodles are delicate, opaque glass variety. The broth is aromatic brew, puffing steam, bobbing with chopped green onions, tears of pungent cilantro leaves and bean sprouts, plus a splash of fermented fish sauce and lime.

The bowl is huge, almost too much to finish, but so captivating that somehow, we always find the room. And at just $5, it's as comforting to our budget as it is to our soul.

We are so pleased to have found exquisite tortilla soup served at a most unlikely place: a restaurant inside the out-of-the-way Fiesta Inn resort at Priest and Broadway. It's a business hotel, a very nice one, but tucked on the edge of an industrial park. That's right, this is the best Mexican recipe we've come across. The rich broth is almost a stew, so packed is it with chicken, onion, bell peppers and chiles (spicy hot!), and capped with lots of fresh avocado, Cheddar and blue-red tortilla frizzles. It's robust, soothing, exciting and in all ways excellent. Way to olé, Fiesta Inn!

David Holden
Zinc could send out merely decent smoked salmon. Lesser quality fish could be hidden when wrapped in such perfect, pillowy crepes as it is here, the feather light batter infused with fresh herbs. Less succulent fish might be forgiven, when dipped in such rich lemon crème fraîche created by Zinc's chefs. Even only okay fish might seem fine when partnered with the most garden-gorgeous shaved cucumber, red onion slivers and aromatic, peppery arugula, hand-picked to best the best of the day. Yet Zinc takes its salmon to a pristine level, smoking only the finest swimmers in-house and presenting it in eyelash-thin ribbons. Silky, succulent, melt-in-the-mouth wonderful, this is the fish of our wishes.

Ice cream always sounds so good. But sometimes, the anticipation doesn't live up to the experience. What's with the thick, sugary, virtually tasteless artificial pastes some places dare to call the cold stuff these days? Not Flor, though. Here, the frozen treats are handcrafted with real ingredients, for real, vibrant flavor. These are Mexican recipes made with actual fruits and nuts, prepared in-store, and the result is dazzling. Consider creamy coconut, mamey fruit, papaya, dulce de leche caramel, mango, guava, watermelon and nuez (pecan cream). Some 42 flavors tempt, with sweet snacks like coconut cream, mango cream, banana cream and peach cream, or pineapple, cantaloupe and lime. Try the avocado, and the elote (corn) -- you'll be pleasantly surprised. Frankly, with Flor, we're floored.

Readers' Choice: Cold Stone Creamery

A salad bar is vegetables, right? Sure, unless you're in Brazil, where it's everything and anything that a creative chef can fit onto a long, self-service table. Or unless you're at Fogo e Brasa, a Brazilian restaurant where the lavish salad bar spans more than two dozen exotic dishes. Yes, there's traditional lettuce and such. But there are also king crab legs, shrimp, octopus, mussels, crab, pastas, exotic cheeses (feta with red and yellow tomatoes, or expensive Parmigiano-Reggiano) and anchovies. Calamari are a marvel in themselves (they're served in marinated rings, and as rolled steaks stuffed with peppers or tuna). When it does come to veggies, Fogo e Brasa doesn't cut any corners. There are lots of high-end options, like artichoke hearts, vibrant wild mushroom salad, marinated and grilled Portobello mushrooms, marinated green beans, grilled asparagus and hearts of palm. Several hot dishes make this buffet a complete meal, changing per the chef's whim, but perhaps including something like swordfish in coconut sauce, and always featuring a complimentary basket of fresh-baked mini-cheese rolls. The display is included with dinner, but now can be purchased separately, too. When it comes to salads, Fogo e Brasa is raising the bar.

Jacob Tyler Dunn
Okay, so sometimes we're completely old-fashioned. We yearn for the days when we could order a meat dinner at a steak house and get . . . a meat dinner. Just a nice, normal cut of beef, with potatoes, salad, and maybe some veggies. None of these frou-frou 400-degree plates seen at high-end chop houses now, no sizzling butter splattered about, no impossible-to-manage half-a-cow portion, and no $40 price tag that includes nothing on the side but a fork and knife. At the Stockyards, cooks have been serving the same honest meat since 1954, culled from prime aged beef. Our favorite, prime rib, comes in a lovely eight-ounce size, or the more manly 20-ounce bone-in model. It's exquisitely juicy, tender, and hits the spot with creamy horseradish, homemade jus, a relish tray, soup or tossed green salad, baked potato or cowboy beans, hot biscuits and honey butter. There are no surprises, and no sticker shock. At lunch, this prime rib sets us back just $13.95; at dinner, the priciest big cut is just $25.95. At the Stockyards, you can just brand us happy.

We're thinking the reason Crackers is located in such an odd spot -- in an industrial park hidden behind a Holiday Inn and a Home Depot -- is that its owners need warehouse space to inventory the huge selection of desserts offered at this charming breakfast and lunch hot spot. On any given day, the Victorian-ambiance restaurant serves up at least 16 mouth-watering marvels of sugar. They're all homemade, too, so we imagine fork lifts of carrots coming in for the dreamy carrot cake, kegs of Kahlúa for the brownies, and swimming pools of sour cream for the praline cake. Of course there would be pallet after pallet of chocolate for the fudge cake, German chocolate cheesecake squares, German chocolate cake, chocolate bread pudding, and éclairs. Perhaps these guys have their own farm as well, to provide fruit for delights like strawberry cheesecake, coconut-chocolate cheesecake, orange rum cheesecake, lemon coconut cake, lemon bars and raspberry cheesecake. We'd have to be crackers to go anywhere else for our sweet-tooth fix.

Readers' Choice: Cheesecake Factory

Chef Giovanna Fox isn't making money on volume. Not with just two ovens that bake only three cheesecakes at a time. But her fabulous creamy cheesecakes, each crafted with special care, are the best. We were believers after the first bite of her basic New York model, traditional and entirely decadent. But now we like to stop into her cute little cake parlor and sample slices of the more than 20 other varieties she sculpts. Try the white chocolate and amaretto, on a shortbread-almond crust topped with whipped cream, slivered almonds, and drizzled caramel. Or cookies 'n' cream (vanilla filling blended with sandwich cookies on a chocolate cookie crust, topped with whipped cream, crumbled cookies and drizzled hot fudge). Maybe the kiwi lime (real Key lime juice and sliced kiwi on a vanilla cookie crust topped with whipped cream and kiwi purée). Day after day, whatever the flavor, Giovanna's takes the cake.

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