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

deseo
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

La Grande Orange Grocery
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.

Fry Bread House
Jamie Peachey
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 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.

Postino Wine Cafe
Are we inside? Are we outside? It can be difficult to tell the difference at Postino. The place is a refurbished post office, and what used to be loading doors are now retractable walls that open up to an expansive patio. Whichever side we're on, it's all beautiful, with walls of wine, royal-toned paint, an opulent mahogany bar and cushy sofas. The music throbs, with jazz, blues and reggae, and we fill our gullets with the best bruschetta around: huge slabs of bread topped with a rainbow of flavors that we pick and choose. What goes with wine (some 200 bottles as an inventory) but cheese? And Postino has it, specialty wedges paired with nuts and fruit. This is definitely a place to see and be seen, even if we're really sitting in a parking lot of an old mail-sorting station. It's still the coolest patio performance anywhere.

Readers' Choice for Best Outdoor Patio: Sugar Daddy's

Greasewood Flat
In its earlier days, Greasewood Flats was known only to a few folks lucky enough to have discovered the little place hidden off a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Those folks included John Denver and Glen Campbell, who would do impromptu performances. Today, the circa-1883 former stagecoach bunkhouse is more widely known, feeding up to 400 people a day. And that includes us. On any given evening, you'll find us cozied up in the rustic bar, or, better yet, at one of the picnic tables outside. We kick back under the canopy of trees, listen to music, and chat with our pals. A cold beer, a grilled-to-order hamburger, and when we time it just right, a spectacular sunset over the mountains soaring to the west -- does life get any better?

Best Of Phoenix®

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