Real fruit, real juice and non-dairy smoothie mix make chilling combinations like strawberry-banana, peanut butter-banana, pineapple-coconut-orange, blueberry-banana, and raspberry-banana. If we need an extra boost, we can add in such healthful stuff as protein powder, carbo powder, lecithin, wheat germ, bee pollen, ginseng, brewer's yeast, spirulina, wheatgrass, creatine, or multi-vitamin powder. In hot months, we gravitate toward slushies (guava strawberry really rocks), or old-fashioned lemonade with lots of ice. When it cools down, we get an extra kick with the Power Energy Squeeze, a trademark blend of ATP and creatine (when put together, we're told, these ingredients race around inside our body's cells to increase our energy level). Whatever the concoction, it all tastes terrific at Surf City.

Readers' Choice: Jamba Juice

Duck and Decanter
Lauren Cusimano
The list of cheeses available at the Duck reads like a phone book, with more than 60 varieties from around the world. We've been stopping in at the place for years, trying different cheeses each time, and have never been able to catalogue all our adventures -- that's how often the cheese whizzes here update their fresh offerings. Every day, it's something surprising and new, like St. Andre, an extravagantly rich triple-cream cheese with a mild, mellow flavor; or the rare l'Explorateur, an incredible triple cream concoction with 75 percent butterfat. Do we know all of the exotic cheeses? Of course not. We just rely on the Duck's experts, and vow to sample them all.
Many chefs test their creativity on appetizers. ItÕs less risky to get wild with small-portioned dishes, and diners feel more comfortable sampling an exotic plate thatÕs not entree-priced. Chef Gregory Casale is a perfect case in point. WeÕve never seen such fantasy at any other fancy restaurant, with compelling, perhaps a bit crazy, choices like Southern fried frogsÕ legs over leek-tomato fondue with black-eyed peas. Starters are also where Casale lets loose with dynamite delicacies such as Thai lobster bisque with kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass and Thai crayfish cake; hazelnut-encrusted veal sweetbreads over truffle-scented pea risotto in roasted corn broth; and beef tartare with spicy soy vinaigrette and cold sesame noodles. With starters like these, we know our meal is going to come to a most exquisite finish.

The fact that Michael DeMaria is a spectacular chef is reason enough to choose him to cater your next intimate party. The fact that he was trained at some of the Valley's best resorts makes him perfect for large corporate events, too. He handles each occasion with excitement and ease. DeMaria does on-premises catering in his high-tech kitchen studio adjacent to his elegant restaurant (12 to 17 guests) where diners watch the chef in action with Q&A sessions and take-home recipes. Or, you can relax at the Chef's Table (6 to 10), with multiple courses paired with wines. Larger groups of 20 to 60 can take over the private dining room, with glowing fireplaces and views of a pond-strewn garden, or one of the patios (12 to 60), with desert trees, adobe walls, a cascading waterfall and mesquite-burning fireplaces.

For catering at your own location, DeMaria's team arrives equipped for a memorable full-service wedding, private cooking in our own home, party at the property of our choice, and even backyard barbecues and picnics. The dining choice is yours, with tasting menus, custom menus, multi-course services and more, selected from an encompassing arsenal of contemporary, American and Mediterranean specialties. Better yet, let the remarkable DeMaria choose the menu.

Barmouche may be a fancy-looking restaurant, owned by a big-name celebrity chef (Mark Tarbell). It may have upscale dishes like "laitue," organic butter lettuce with Roquefort cheese and walnut dressing. But we go there for the things that everybody loves and understands -- mom's home cooking. Tuesdays through Saturdays, there are Blue Plate Specials (chicken fried steak, spaghetti and meatballs, fish and chips). Every day, there are the cozy basics, like "Mark's Mom's Mac & Cheese," biscuits and country gravy, or baked veal meat loaf. Desserts can't be missed -- chocolate banana bread pudding, ice cream sandwiches, an old-fashioned banana split and peach cobbler hit the spot. Not only cozy, though, this comfort cuisine is gourmet, prepared with loving care and the best ingredients (that cobbler gets its fruit from the local farms of Queen Creek, so we know it's fresh). It's the best of two worlds -- like mother's cooking, if we had grown up in the house of Julia Child.
Cyclo Vietnamese Cuisine Restaurant
Jackie Mercandetti
Cyclo's owner, Justina Duong, loves to chat with her guests. One of her favorite stories to tell is about her chicken noodle soup, a classic comfort food she used to consume by the bucket as a child. It's one of the best sellers on her menu.

Except Duong is Vietnamese, her restaurant is Vietnamese, and her chicken noodle soup is Vietnamese, a dish called mien ga. We assure you, though, this is food that spans any culture. The chicken is tender breast, torn in toothsome shards and grilled. The noodles are delicate, opaque glass variety. The broth is aromatic brew, puffing steam, bobbing with chopped green onions, tears of pungent cilantro leaves and bean sprouts, plus a splash of fermented fish sauce and lime.

The bowl is huge, almost too much to finish, but so captivating that somehow, we always find the room. And at just $5, it's as comforting to our budget as it is to our soul.

We are so pleased to have found exquisite tortilla soup served at a most unlikely place: a restaurant inside the out-of-the-way Fiesta Inn resort at Priest and Broadway. It's a business hotel, a very nice one, but tucked on the edge of an industrial park. That's right, this is the best Mexican recipe we've come across. The rich broth is almost a stew, so packed is it with chicken, onion, bell peppers and chiles (spicy hot!), and capped with lots of fresh avocado, Cheddar and blue-red tortilla frizzles. It's robust, soothing, exciting and in all ways excellent. Way to olé, Fiesta Inn!

Zinc Bistro
David Holden
Zinc could send out merely decent smoked salmon. Lesser quality fish could be hidden when wrapped in such perfect, pillowy crepes as it is here, the feather light batter infused with fresh herbs. Less succulent fish might be forgiven, when dipped in such rich lemon crème fraîche created by Zinc's chefs. Even only okay fish might seem fine when partnered with the most garden-gorgeous shaved cucumber, red onion slivers and aromatic, peppery arugula, hand-picked to best the best of the day. Yet Zinc takes its salmon to a pristine level, smoking only the finest swimmers in-house and presenting it in eyelash-thin ribbons. Silky, succulent, melt-in-the-mouth wonderful, this is the fish of our wishes.

Flor de Michoacan
Ice cream always sounds so good. But sometimes, the anticipation doesn't live up to the experience. What's with the thick, sugary, virtually tasteless artificial pastes some places dare to call the cold stuff these days? Not Flor, though. Here, the frozen treats are handcrafted with real ingredients, for real, vibrant flavor. These are Mexican recipes made with actual fruits and nuts, prepared in-store, and the result is dazzling. Consider creamy coconut, mamey fruit, papaya, dulce de leche caramel, mango, guava, watermelon and nuez (pecan cream). Some 42 flavors tempt, with sweet snacks like coconut cream, mango cream, banana cream and peach cream, or pineapple, cantaloupe and lime. Try the avocado, and the elote (corn) -- you'll be pleasantly surprised. Frankly, with Flor, we're floored.

Readers' Choice: Cold Stone Creamery

The Brazilian Bull
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.

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