Best Of :: Food & Drink
There are those who still mourn the (d)evolution of Gold Bar Espresso, the funky Tempe coffee house that sprawled in an old bank on Southern Avenue, using the vault for poetry readings and the drive-in to make business boom. Gold Bar moved last year to an old TCBY across the street, a victim of landlord battles, and the regulars swore they'd boycott the replacement. But even some of the most loyal Gold Bar patrons haven't been able to curb their curiosity, and have ventured into the new establishment. Gone are the tchotchkes, the wicker and the posters lining the walls that made Gold Bar more like a lived-in dorm room than a place where you'd want to eat and drink.
In fact, everything funky is gone, and we have to admit we don't mind so much. Xtreme Bean is clean and sleek, with beautiful wood tables and Internet access. The front counter is beautifully appointed and the employees wear headsets. The coffee's even pretty good.
Sometimes, sterile's not such a bad thing.
Readers' Choice for Best Coffee House: Starbucks
It seems so obvious. Arizona's indigenous foods -- delicacies like fresh local fish, wheat, melons, pistachios, olives, chiles, citrus and squash. Yet amazingly, no chef has really tried it here, until this year, with James Beard Award-winning chef Janos Wilder. Wilder, already famous for his innovative French-Southwestern Janos restaurant in Tucson, has brought us fine dining drawn from our state's Native American heritage. How authentic is it? The chef works with Pima/Maricopa Indian farmers to harvest the finest of their 35,000 acres of land and aqua farms on their reservation surrounding Kai.
Dishes come looking like earth and sky, and tasting of heaven. They're inspired all on their own, but made even more magical with Mexican, Pacific Rim and European touches. The olive oil that starts our meal is grown and pressed on-site, and dotted with sesame and pumpkin seeds. We slather it over superb crusty bread, crunchy and sweet-tart with apricots and pumpkin seed, or cranberries and hazelnuts. Rack of lamb comes rubbed in chunky pecan-crust mushroom-infused cornbread pudding, and a mole sauce fashioned from ingredients supplied by Native Seeds SEARCH (a Tucson-based nonprofit that protects and cultivates ancient indigenous agricultural methods). Lobster fry bread is lavish, the thin dough capped with an entire four-ounce Maine lobster tail, roasted corn, avocado and garlic butter.
Beautiful food, straight from Arizona -- that's A-O-Kai with us.
The cooks at Pho Bang continue to craft the most outrageously decadent Vietnamese dishes in town. This long-standing restaurant doesn't get hung up on pretense -- dishes come rapid-fire out of the kitchen, sometimes sloppy on their plates, sometimes with nary a smile from our server. But the prices are so low, and the food so cunning, we never quibble. Besides our favorite pho (15 varieties), there's an impressive array of exotica like canh chua ca (catfish soup with pineapple and vegetables in a spicy lemon sauce), or tom va bo nuong vi.
How cool is it to sit down at our own tabletop grill, and be presented with a large plate circled with whisper-thin slices of lightly oiled raw beef, whole shrimp, sliced onion, chopped scallion and peanuts? On the side is xalach dia, an array of sliced carrot, cucumber, pickled radish, whole scallion heads, mint, cilantro and lettuce, alongside plates of rice paper sheets and butter. In fact, everything at this cozy hole-in-the-wall is remarkable.
Chef Mahmmud Jaafari knows his Persian cuisine. He also knows his Mediterranean, Italian, American, Mexican, Cajun and vegetarian foods, and even a smattering of Oriental influences. The result is one of the most exciting restaurants in this town, with cooking that is defined most simply as Middle Eastern. This is knock-your-socks-off caliber, with appetizers like pourani (parboiled spinach blended with yogurt and deeply perfumed with garlic, onion and olive oil, spooned with homemade whole-wheat pita bread triangles). You'll crave every bit of his from-scratch cooking (even pita is homemade), like the oil-free minestrone dusted with Parmesan, and a salad of angel hair pasta and romaine tossed with feta, Parmesan, scallions, tomatoes, avocado paste and mountains of garlic. There are complex stews, tender lamb gyros and elegant salmon with grilled eggplant-wrapped asparagus topped with dill cream on saffron rice. This is a place you must find for yourself: Persian Garden truly is a magical culinary carpet ride.
Readers' Choice for Best Mediterranean Restaurant: Pita Jungle
We're all for eating healthfully. We just don't want to think about it -- all that balancing of nutrients and calories, and then, does the stuff even taste good? Happily, Soma has done the work for us. Everything on the extensive breakfast, lunch and dinner menu is broken down by protein, carbs, fat, fiber and calories. Everything is fashioned from lean meats and monounsaturated fats, with virtually no oil and lots of good-for-us grains and veggies.
But even better, the chef who created the menu is nationally acclaimed James McDevitt, so all the Asian-American treats taste terrific. This is real food, like a charred filet of soy-garlic marinated top sirloin (just 350 calories), or center cut pork chops with Chinese mustard applesauce, sweet potatoes, spinach and caramelized onions (798 calories for two meaty chops). For breakfast, we can feast on crepes stuffed with apple-cranberry tart, or a pita bulging with apple-sage sausage and scrambled eggs (50 percent egg whites). Lunch might be mahi-mahi tacos with ginger-carrot vinaigrette, or lettuce wraps, with three bundles of moist chicken chunk breast, sliced toasted almonds, string-thin carrots and bean sprouts. For dinner, we can choose thrills like sake glazed chicken with jasmine rice and spinach, or pork tenderloin with ginger-plum barbecue sauce.
With gourmet food like this, in such an upscale, bistro-style setting, we sure don't feel like hippies. And with such body positive food, we sure don't look it, either -- hippy, that is.
Readers' Choice: Pita Jungle
This is the first place to which we direct diners when turning them on to the distinctive cuisine that is Southwestern. Many people think our Southwestern signature is standard Mexican stuff. Some think it's, gasp, Tex-Mex. Many think it's cowboy cookouts. Too many think we're all just sitting out in the desert here munching on cactus and lizards. One taste of the items on Windows' stunning menu, though, and they understand: Southwestern is all about elegance, high style, and dramatic pairings of regional ingredients. Real Southwestern cooking is as intricate, artistic and stunning as the colors of a mountain mesa at sunset.
Start with cornbread-crusted crab cakes spiked with mango, avocado and citrus, or a sweet onion and lobster tamale with roasted corn salsa. Move on to Arizona mixed greens tossed with toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and tangy-sweet prickly pear vinaigrette. Indulge in entrees like grilled veal chop with ham hock hominy cake, vegetable salad and chipotle demi-glacé, or pan-seared trout with yellow corn grits, artichokes, roasted corn and garlic cream sauce. Splurge, finally, with citrus and pine nut cake filled with goat cheese, orange caramel and cajeta ice cream.
Windows wows us with its wine list, including selections from Mexico, Chile and Argentina, and with its specialty margaritas fashioned from boutique mescals and fine tequilas. The decor is as delicious as the food, too, lush in sand-colored furnishings, regional pottery and paintings, panoramic golf course views and the warmth of a carved travertine fireplace.
Food this fine doesn't come cheap, but for something as special as this Southwestern sensation, it's worth every precious penny.
Readers' Choice: Z'Tejas Grill
Chef-owner Daniel Malventano has been knocking our socks off with his spectacular Italian fare for more than a decade. Sometimes it's a little hard to keep up with him, given his penchant for changing the restaurant's name (it started as Il Forno, then became Acqua e Sale, and has just been rechristened Daniel's). Who cares what he calls it, though, as long as he never stops serving up the same level of classical dishes that he travels around the world to research and perfect. There's no one else who serves succulent diver sea scallops in black truffle mousse, duck ravioli in butter-sage sauce with blood orange reduction, or our favorite class act: pork tenderloin roasted in amarone wine reduction, julienne prosciutto, sun-dried plums and crème de cassis with butternut squash-mashed potatoes and baby vegetables. Bellisima!
We've been contemplating taking up the Atkins Diet. That's the only way we can justify the gluttonous meat orgy that is a meal at Drinkwater's. This place is a caloric menace, with massive steaks (33-ounce rib eye chop), veal (a full pound) and pork chops, entire 22-ounce racks of lamb and whole roasted chickens (one and a half pounds).
This isn't just any meat, either, but the best USDA Prime, Midwest corn-fed steer, cut in the in-house butcher shop, wet-aged for 21 to 28 days, seasoned, broiled at 1,800 degrees, slicked with clarified butter and presented on a sizzling, 400-degree plate. We can even get our steak crusted with Gorgonzola for extra impact.
No fancy diet can justify the indulgence of Drinkwater's side dishes -- of table-tilting proportions -- but we can never say no to full-pound baked potatoes drenched in butter and sour cream, soup-plate-size twice-baked spuds, or buckets of broccoli swamped in oceans of melted cheese. They're just too tasty.
We pay for our gorging -- an easy 30 bucks on just a piece of meat (no salad, no potato, no vegetable included, nothing but the plate). And we'll pay again for months as we drag ourselves to our Stairmaster. But we'll keep coming back, because with Drinkwater's, there's just no way to pretend we've got willpower.
The best seafood in the Valley can be found in a dark room, buried in an underground building, across the street from a cemetery. But the owners of the Salt Cellar seem to understand that, when it comes to a fine tradition of excellent food, reasonable prices and a comfortable setting, it doesn't matter where the actual property is. So rather than go for a glitzy, high-profile location, these folks have kept the Cellar pretty much as it was when it first opened in 1981. What they save in rent, they pass on to us in lower prices for exquisitely fresh seafood flown in daily from places like Hawaii, Chesapeake Bay, Alaska, Boston, British Columbia, Idaho and the Gulf of Mexico. The cellar keeps us coming back for its seasonal specialties, too, like turtle soup, and smoked blue marlin. Great seafood, for just a few clams? Who could ask for anything more?
Readers' Choice: The Salt Cellar
We eat a vegetarian diet because we want to feel healthy. But that doesn't mean we don't want deeply flavored, interesting foods. Plaid delivers -- the kick-back, casual den strewn with sofas caters to a hip, multinational college student clientele. We like the salad "plaidders," omelets served all day, the "plaid" Thai noodles, Caribbean jerked tofu and lemongrass tofu served over rice. Some of the most exciting dishes show up as daily specials, like black bean pepper stir fry in Asian brown sauce, and Singapore curry. It's an interesting environment, too, earthy and hodgepodge, full of tree-hugging fellow diners, but with a full bar.
Readers' Choice: Pita Jungle
Japanese restaurants have been proliferating all across the Valley like shiitake mushrooms after a rain. Why, within a mile or two of our beloved Sushi on Shea, there's almost a half-dozen of the ethnic restaurants. Yet as much as we were impressed with the quality of SonS when it first opened in 1994, we're that much more in love with it today.
SonS never lets us down with the basics. This is consistently perfect maguro, hamachi and red snapper sashimi. Salmon melts like butter in our mouths. Tempura emerges from the fryer light and crispy; tonkatsu is the real thing, with moist slabs of pork crunchy in panko and served over crisp green cabbage. No details are missed, either -- the green salad is slicked with dynamite ginger soy vinaigrette, miso soup is always hot and rich, and white rice is always exquisitely fluffy-sticky.
SonS goes the extra mile, offering traditional dishes like shabu-shabu and nabeyaki udon. And the kitchen is always coming up with something new and exciting, like the recent addition of carpaccio, lacy thin strips of raw tuna dressed in a gripping horseradish-hot wasabi cream.
After almost a decade, our romance with Sushi on Shea just keeps getting more passionate.
Readers' Choice: RA Sushi Bar Restaurant
A half-hour north of town, it's worth a jaunt to this old-fashioned saloon with, yikes, honest-to-goodness real cowboys. Rock Springs has a history as delicious as its food, existing since the 1800s as an Indian encampment, a bivouac, a watering stop for miners, and a stagecoach stop. In 1918, it was enhanced to include a general store, hotel, and saloon.
Today, Rock Springs is as rustic as ever, dark, with lots of rough wood, an 1856 Brunswick bar and an antique soda fountain. Cowboy twangers play live music on weekends, and on the last Saturday of every month, there's a Hogs in Heat Barbecue and Nut Fry (yes, Bradshaw mountain oysters, battered and deep-fried, also known as the private parts of calves and lambs).
The old-time menu features lots of mesquite-smoked Midwestern beef and old-fashioned barbecue, catfish, trout, chicken-fried steak and liver and onions. When the rooster crows, cooks dish up breakfasts of steak and eggs, biscuits and gravy, buttermilk pancakes and grits. If a homemade hot buttered cinnamon roll isn't enough, dive into one of Penny's Pies, baked fresh every day. Now that's some gosh-darn honest cowboy cookin'!
Readers' Choice for Best Steak Restaurant: Ruth's Chris Steak House