Greekfest Restaurant
Diana Martinez
Greekfest owners Tony and Susan Makridis wish us "kali orexi" -- have a good appetite. And man, we're going to need it, because with one look at their expansive menu, we know we've got to have it all. This is a taverna absolutely brimming with good times (yes, the cheerful waiters yell "opa!" when they flame our saganaki cheese), and great food. Steaming ceramic crocks of moussaka, pastitsio and youvetsi are sublime pasta-meat casseroles. Lamb and chicken turn on a souvla over crackling fires. The desserts are prepared with ritualistic family tradition, like natural yogurt and honey with walnuts. Hey, if this stuff is good enough for the Olympian gods, then it's good enough for us.

Readers' Choice: Greekfest

One of our friends is a chef, living in that fresh food capital, Berkeley. She came to visit, and we took her to dinner at Christopher's. Months after that meal, she still raves about the incredible truffle-infused prime sirloin she ate, the tender meat served with fareki (a Middle Eastern grain), shallot confit and rich red wine bone marrow sauce. She still swoons over the decadent soup of wild mushrooms and foie gras, the frisée salad with lardons, poached eggs and sherry vinaigrette. If there were a restaurant like this in her hometown, she keeps repeating, she'd eat there every day.

So how lucky are we, because we can eat this fantastic French food every day, for lunch, dinner, and even late night (the place serves until midnight seven days a week). Christopher's has kept us thrilled since chef Christopher Gross first opened this comfortable, elegant bistro in 1998, and we swear, he just keeps getting better. Chalk it up to the simple grace of his Gallic classics, emphasizing artisan ingredients from local and regional farmers. Salmon is smoked in-house, most dishes are prepared in a wood-burning oven, and the traditional French touches are all there (fantastic wine list, an extensive cheese program).

And ooh la la -- the desserts! Parnassienne of chocolate mousse has no equal. Christopher's, c'est magnifique.

Readers' Choice: La Madeleine French Bakery & Cafe

Tao Garden
The only problem we have with Tao Garden is deciding what to eat: Everything on the restaurant's 210-plus-item menu is spectacular. Sometimes we're in the mood for mainstream, so we fill up on perfect pot stickers, fiery kung pao chicken and black beef chow mein. Other times, we're craving adventure, so we order authentic Cantonese or Mandarin specialties like fish maw with crab soup; salted fish, chicken and tofu hot pot; sautéed squid with preserved greens; and prawns with crispy fried milk. We're always up for a dive into Tao's fresh fish tanks, stocked with live lobster, crab, tilapia, rock cod, flatfish, catfish, scallops and clams. The kitchen has ingenious ways of preparing its catch, and we're sure to ask about the daily specials (printed in Chinese but cheerfully translated by a friendly staff). At least one dining decision is simple -- for best Chinese food in the Valley, we choose Tao Garden.

Readers' Choice: P.F. Chang's China Bistro

Tabletop Grill & Sushi
The last time we tried cooking at home, we caused a fire (okay, so flaming dishes don't belong on wooden tables). Then, we went to Tabletop, where the staff actually encourages us to play with flames, because we cook our own food at the table, on centerpieces of shiny stainless-steel grills. We can grill our own bulgogi, thin slices of rib eye marinated in sugar, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil and possibly kiwi (the fruit's acidity acts as a tenderizer). The thin slices cook in minutes, and under the careful supervision of our server, no one gets hurt. There's so much to love about Korean food, and it's all found here: dozens of kimchee snacks, and ginseng kalbi (marinated barbecued beef short ribs on a sizzling platter to be rolled with thick red-chile paste, onions and sliced jalapeos like a Korean taco). Unless we're Korean, this is a place where it's expected to ask questions -- why do some dishes come with scissors, for example. But the staffers are always happy to answer, happy to demonstrate, and discreet enough with their handling of the fire extinguisher that we feel no shame.

Sapporo
We could gush over the hip-happening ambiance of Sapporo, packed to the rim with beautiful people sipping beautiful cocktails in a beautiful atmosphere. We love the sushi and teppanyaki. But it's the Pacific Rim menu items that get our hearts pattering like chopsticks drumming on a table. From the katsu fried calamari with sambal chile and rice vinegar to the crispy shrimp stuffed with lobster mousse and spicy Japanese butter, all dishes are spectacular, crafted with the freshest ingredients by chefs who are willing to take the risk to bring Valley diners something different. It's all just soy, soy great.

Haus Murphy's
Jennifer Goldberg
Schnitzel! We love that word. But more than saying it, we love eating the tasty meat cutlets, dipped in batter and fried. At Haus Murphy's, we fill up on fine varieties including Wiener schnitzel, jäger schnitzel, Balkan schnitzel, paprika schnitzel, Holstein schnitzel, prager schnitzel, schweizer schnitzel and chicken schnitzel. Sausages! We adore sausages, and no one presents the wide variety found at Haus Murphy's, like nurnberger bratwurst, knackwurst, krakauer wurst, thuringer bratwurst, weisswurst and spicy bratwurst. Sauerbraten! Szegediner gulash, kassler kotelett, hackbraten! We love all that, too. No, we're not going to detail all those specialty dishes for you. Just trust us. Go. Order something. Anything. Get one of eight German drafts, and enjoy the strolling accordionist. We promise that, though you may not be able to pronounce what you're eating, you will love it.

Sometimes Cajuns and Creoles like to fight over food. Cajuns tend to think Creoles are stuck-up, what with their French-inspired cuisine and fancier ingredients. Creoles tend to believe that Cajuns are at best bourgeoisie, given to snacking on such lower-level swamp critters as alligator, crawfish and, yes, even squirrel. Voodoo Daddy's doesn't have squirrel, and it doesn't have luxe dishes like deep-dish rabbit and foie gras pie. But it does have an impressive enough selection of New Orleans-style dishes to keep even the most orthodox Cajuns and Creoles happy. We appreciate the casual but excellent fried green tomatoes, the gator bites (marinated chunks of alligator dusted in corn meal and fried in peanut oil), and the fragrant frog legs piquant (sautéed in peppery tomato-based sauce, simmered with andouille sausage and green olives over long grain white rice). When we're feeling a touch fancier, we go for the Oysters Bienville (a dozen fresh shucked Louisiana gulf oysters topped with cheese, breadcrumbs and herbs, broiled until golden on top), or duck confit salad (sautéed duck mixed with salad greens, onions and a warm balsamic vinaigrette topped with duck cracklings). We always finish up with a fine dessert: French bread pudding with raisins, pecans and whiskey sauce. Let the two camps duke it out; all we can say is, ooh wee, these vittles are all good.

Readers' Choice: Voodoo Daddy's

Cowboy Ciao Wine Bar & Grill
Heather Hoch
What, exactly, is New American food? Nobody really knows. But ultimately, it seems to come down to presenting diners with dishes they think they might know, but then, surprise! There's some crazy twist to keep you scratching your head. Often, it's delicious in an exciting kind of way; at Cowboy Ciao, the surprise is always spectacular. Executive chef Bernie Kantak has come up with dishes like chile gratin (elk, beef loin, white beans, smoked Cheddar and Gouda); rare tuna with ground hops and chamomile over curried chow-chow and mango soy; or peppercorn ostrich tenderloin with blackberry compote and cocoa-nib mashed Yukon golds. You may think you know what you're in for with grilled duck breasts, but then Kantak sideswipes you with apple-chipotle marinade, ancho-pecan chutney and smoked Gouda grits. You may not always recognize the dinners at Cowboy Ciao, but you're going to love them.

Giuseppe's on 28th
Jamie Peachey
This no-frills joint stuck in a strip mall between stores that sell cheap water and cigarettes has a devoutly loyal following, and with good reason. It's the place to go for happily inexpensive southern Italian fare, lunch or dinner. The owner, a Jewish Italophile who is the principal cellist for the Phoenix Symphony, is apt to greet you at the door and recommend his special of the day before you order at the front counter. The venerable staff (some of them have worked there for years) will fix your meal any way you like it. These days, with everyone and his mother on some kind of diet, that can mean an awful lot: If you ask, the guys will whip you up an antipasto that the late Dr. Atkins would appreciate from low-carb, high-protein heaven. A meal at Giuseppe's isn't complete without the sampler plate of bruschetta. It starts with a toasted piece of Italian bread topped with tomato, garlic and herbs, and goes from there (cheeses, meats and grilled vegetables). Three pieces for five bucks is an eminently fair price.

Readers' Choice for Best Italian Restaurant: Olive Garden

Rancho Pinot
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
At some point, the meaning of "gourmet" has been lost. It's come to mean crazy, wild concoctions, with bizarre foods and even weirder combinations. But actually, gourmet means "a connoisseur of fine food and drink." So there's no better restaurant to celebrate fine food and drink than at Rancho Pinot. Co-owner Tom Kaufman is a wine genius, with a hugely clever and creative wine list (love the illustrations!). Co-owner Chrysa Kaufman is a food genius, and leader of the Phoenix chapter of Slow Food, an international group that cherishes farm-fresh foods, natural ingredients, and the joy of relaxing over a meticulously prepared meal.

The Kaufmans can get a bit wacko in their intense drive to prepare the most perfect food (don't ask for substitutions). But it's only from their obsession for the best in every bite of food, every sip of drink. The menu changes constantly, depending on what is the best available from organic farms and local artisans, and by what Chrysa deems acceptable to her creative skills.

Try this place once, and learn the difference between just food, and true art.

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