BEST SALAD BAR 2003 | Fogo e Brasa | Food & Drink | Phoenix
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.

We were standing in line, waiting for the clerk to wrap up our cake, explaining to a fellow customer that the decadent "zebra" confection we had selected was for our special someone's birthday. Another customer nearby suddenly shrieked, "Oh my God! I just bought one of those cakes for my husband's birthday last week! It was the most amazing thing ever!"

So true. Tammie's pastries are nothing short of wondrous, pieces of edible art handcrafted fresh daily. They're beautiful to look at, in swirling shapes of molded ganache, studded with fresh berries, wrapped with ribbons, and decorated with piping and florals so elaborate they almost look like pieces of expensively upholstered furniture. The flavors are incredible -- like our zebra, white chocolate mousse layered with chocolate cake and raspberries, or banana pudding and chocolate sponge cake layered with chocolate Frangelico mousse and toasted hazelnuts. With 72 hours' notice, Tammie will make a custom cake with all our favorite flavors, though we're happy as can be with the standard stuff, like strawberry shortcake, a beautiful pink and white round with vanilla custard, strawberries and vanilla sponge cake. There are always tarts, bite-size cream puffs, cookies, scones, muffins and pop tarts, too. Such a sweet life!

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.

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