BEST HUMMUS 2003 | Caspian | Food & Drink | Phoenix
We still remember the first time our mom brought home some hummus. She was on her health food kick, and had been frightening us small children with strange "foods" like tofu, bean curd, and soy milk. Really, she promised, this time we would like it. We wrinkled our nose at what looked like beige baby food, tentatively dipped a carrot stick in the goo, and tasted. The rest is history. Since then, we have hummus at every opportunity, dipped with vegetables, pita bread, toast, crackers, even on pizza.

Caspian has the best hummus we've ever found. The garbanzo bean dip is thick and silky like mousse, sprinkled with paprika and a joy to slather on warm pita. Why, we've even called in a takeout order of a pint, and then eaten it all by ourselves. After all, if mom says it's healthful, more must be better than less.

Jackie Mercandetti Photo
We love eating our veggies, especially when they come from Quiessence, a garden-to-table experience of contemporary American farm cuisine. Housed in a converted home amid the lush greenery of the Farm at South Mountain, the quaint cafe is open limited seasons, just Fridays and Saturdays, with one dinner seating each evening, and with reservations required (we recommend a month in advance). Why all the fuss? Because each menu is uniquely crafted, selected from what's the most fresh and flavorful from the farm's Happydirt Veggie Patch organic gardens, and picked just hours before our meal. First, there's a chef's tasting in front of the cafe's wood-burning fireplace. Then, it's a five-course carpet ride -- perhaps warm Wilcox goat cheese and tomato galette, petite herb salad and hazelnut pesto drizzle; then pan-seared sea scallops with wilted farm greens and gingered carrot sauce. We select our entrees: maybe pan-seared halibut fillet with green whipped potatoes and caramelized baby fennel; free-range chicken breast saltimbocca stuffed with prosciutto and fontina cheese atop wilted baby spinach and wild mushroom sauce; or asparagus and spring pea risotto with spearmint and shaved Reggiano. Next, it's a cheese course, like Cyprus Grove Midnight Moon with glazed cipollini onions. Finally, it's on to dessert, which might be lavender-scented crème brûlée alongside a strawberry-rhubarb tart. We bring our own wine, and cheer our good fortune. Such incredible vegetables sure do our bodies good!

We've eaten a lot of gyro sandwiches during our search for The Best, wondering if somewhere some eatery might be able to create something better. And now we're eating another gyro from Gyros Express, just to confirm that, yes, Gyros Express is absolutely the best in town. What's the secret? We don't know. We can just guarantee that there's no better pressed beef and lamb, looking like a huge fat log of juicy goodness, carved from a rotisserie and tasting of deep savory meat. Great generous portions come tucked in a comforter of freshly grilled pita, layered with tomato, onion and cucumber yogurt sauce on the side (crucial for dipping). The diet-minded can get gyros meat over a Greek salad, with lettuce, green pepper, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, Greek olives, feta and Italian dressing. Any way, and no matter how much we get it, we always want more.

We know, we know: Technically, sushi needs to be paired with sweetened rice to be sushi. And there isn't a speck of rice to be found on Sea Saw's menu. But we're going with the looser definition of sushi being tiny Japanese appetizers with fish as a starring role -- partly because there's no other way to describe the unique, global dishes Sea Saw chef Nobu Fukuda creates, and because this food is so good we'd call it anything just to get it into our mouths.

Think of it as Japanese tapas. Each dish is individually prepared to order, so plan on spending some time at the intimate bar. It's a thrill seeing Nobu whip and turn in his tiny work space, describing each ingredient as he plates it like art. We can select our own choices of "warm" or "cool" dishes, like shinshu mushi (sea bass and green tea soba in scented mushroom broth), or tako and tomato (sliced octopus, organic tomato, buffalo mozzarella, micro arugula, vintage Turley olive oil, citrus and wasabi aioli). Chilled edamame soup is a must, the soy beans puréed and drizzled with crème fraîche.

But the best way to experience this sushi is to put ourselves in Nobu's talented hands. We embrace the omakase, a tasting menu that changes nightly depending on what's best in the market. Some eight courses may appear, each paired with an exciting sake, champagne or wine. Blue fin toro tartare, hamachi with grapefruit and avocado, seared tuna tataki with roast beet purée -- these are just a few of the delicacies that may be in store for us.

Sea Saw, we salute your "sushi."

Chef-owner Michael Mishkin isn't yet 30, which may be partly the reason he's not hung up on the old-fashioned, tried-and-true of cooking. This creative guy has taken a new approach to the classic caesar, and bravo. His traditional toss of crispy romaine comes currant with spunky green chiles, crunchy frizzled tortillas, and cotija cheese, a salty white Mexican variety with a dry, crumbly texture. Add roasted chicken or grilled shrimp to make it a full, magnificent meal.
Kyle Lamb
At Classic Italian, we never have to wonder whether any pie we order will be less than perfect -- we can watch it baking right in front of us in a wood-burning brick oven. The personal-size pies are made with from-scratch dough daily, fresh yeast and no preservatives. Whole tomatoes are hand-crushed and blended with spices, then draped with homemade mozzarella. The crust is cracker thin; the toppings are primo, just like in Italy. There's a plentiful list of pies, and custom creations are welcome. But we're delighted with two standards, thank you very much. The Capricciosa combines tomato sauce, mozzarella, lean ham, Toscano salami, wood-roasted mushrooms, sliced fresh tomato sprinkled with Parmesan, black olives, artichoke hearts, red bell peppers, pepperoncini and oregano. Bliss! The Italian sausage is another jewel, with tomato sauce, mozzarella, homemade thin-sliced pork sausage, wood-roasted mushrooms, onions, green bell peppers and oregano. It's amore!

Readers' Choice for Best Gourmet Pizza: Pizzeria Bianco

Readers' Choice for Best Classic Pizza: Nello's

We've got a little secret. We like mayonnaise on our cheesesteaks. It may seem like overkill, seeing as Uncle Sam's sandwiches are already the best on the planet, enormous torpedoes brimming with so much thinly sliced imported meat that we can't finish even half of one. These juicy beauties are draped in lots of gooey cheese, and our choice of extras: pizza sauce, mushrooms, peppers, onions, lettuce, tomato and hot or sweet peppers. Everything is plopped on a squishy Italian roll (white or wheat), and we always ask for a fork so we can spear every last bit when the overambitious package falls apart. There's a reason this place has been packing people in for more than 20 years. The only thing that could make these steaks better is, you guessed it, mayo. Try it. See if you agree.
Molly Smith
This is a true story: Once we were in Guido's waiting in line behind an ancient, impossibly tiny lady. She might have weighed 80 pounds, and could barely see over the top of the counter. She ordered a capocollo and provolone sandwich. When the deli server slid the plate to her, she gasped. This monster sandwich was so huge, so bulging with meat and cheese, she literally couldn't lift it. The server had to come out from behind the counter and carry the plate to her table.

Yet there's more than size to impress. Guido's uses only the most premium ingredients for its sandwiches -- Boar's Head, and the finest imported Italian brands. Meatballs, sausage and tomato sauce and all the salads are homemade. A hot roast beef is heaven, layered with soft grilled onions and green peppers with lots of Italian herbs, thinly shaved meat and ladles of juices so rich and savory, we actually slurp as we bite. It's hard to choose: Sometimes it's the chicken focaccia, with spinach, roasted peppers, grilled onions and provolone, baked until the cheese melts to bubbly goo. Other times, we go for the Italian sub, a massive masterpiece of salami, mortadella, pepperoni and provolone with lots of fresh lettuce, tomato, onion and Italian dressing.

Guido's sandwiches span nine inches long, and we've measured them four inches tall. But still need convincing that these are the best around? Well, as we stole one final glance at the miniature old lady, she was wiping her chin with a napkin, and there wasn't a speck of food left on her plate.

Readers' Choice for Best Sandwiches and Best Sandwich Shop: Subway

Jackie Mercandetti
Sophie's calls this plate Les Frites – la Parisienne. It sounds completely intimidating until you realize that, hey, this is just a fancy name for French fries. But mon Dieu, these are not just any fries. For less than five bucks, you get a soup bowl full of exquisitely fresh-cut shoestring potatoes, perfectly deep fat fried to be crisp-skinned with a succulent hot interior. They're dusted with fresh herbs, ever so gently salted, and served with roasted tomato aioli (think sweet, chunky purée, much more interesting than ketchup). It's not uncommon to simply order a plate of these fantastic fries and some fresh-brewed iced tea. For lunch, nothing more is needed.

(and 19900 North Remington, Surprise, 623-584-8494) Who says real barbecue has to be served in a dive, usually on paper plates, with plastic forks and nothing but reams of flimsy napkins to sop up the mess? The folks at Dillon's have figured out that, while we demand the best in our meat, we also don't mind some civilized surroundings while we gnaw.

Dillon's is a cute, converted old house that looks like grandma's parlor. It's got fancier staples than many places, like prime rib, turkey, and Northern Atlantic salmon. But this 'cue is as honest as any rough-and-tumble, smoke-spewing joint. Large portions and reasonable prices shout of authenticity. We can't go wrong with traditional slow-smoked St. Louis-style seasoned pork spare ribs, or tender baby back pork ribs. A half chicken is slow smoked, too, sealing in its juices, while turkey practically melts in our mouths. Juicy choice cut beef brisket, pulled pork in spicy vinegar sauce, smoked sausage, or burnt ends marinated in Cajun or sweet-mild barbecue sauce have us salivating just thinking about them. Sometimes we go for a kick: the Southwestern smoked stew, a comforting dish of smoked beef, pork, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, peppers and corn in a robust sauce. Sometimes we go for the kill: The Brontosaurus beef rib platter could fell a WWE champion, with its huge, full rack of meat. Take a 'cue from us: Dillon's is the best all the way to the bone.

Readers' Choice: Honey Bear's Bar-B-Q

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