BEST PLACE TO BUY NASCAR MEMORABILIA

Action

This is the place to get decked out in the latest NASCAR and racing gear while picking up precision models of your favorite race car. Billing itself as the full service racing collectibles retail store, Action has more gizmos with corporate logos than Richard Pettys jump suit. Dressed out in its new Tempe digs, Action features a complete line of precision scale-model stock cars, sales of which are restricted to members of the Racing Collectible Club of America. The individually numbered, die-cast stock car models are a hot item in the collectibles world, sometimes fetching big bucks among the faithful. The centerpiece of the store is a stock car driven by Dale Earnhardt in a NASCAR race. The car has cut-away panels over half the body, exposing the inner workings of the machine, including the $80,000 engine that employees fire up from time to time. But thats not the only car on display. A museum is integrated into the retail store, jammed with full-size cars including hot rods, a 57 Chevy, some vintage Mercurys, driver uniforms, shoes, helmets and other memorabilia. Gentlemen (and women), start your engines, and get on down to Action.

Talk about fashion-conscious. Home to a 972-piece Ethnic Dress Collection, the West Valley Art Museum is the best-dressed museum in the Southwest. Comprising costumes, textiles and ethnographic artworks from more than 75 countries, "The Golden Thread" collection got its start in 1985, when Sun City resident Dorothy Knop donated 356 pieces. (All are illustrated in her book Collections and Recollections: A Search for World Legacies of Ethnic Dress, available in the museum store.) Displayed items rotate periodically; currently, the focus falls on Asia, Africa and Latin America.

If fashion isn't your passion, the museum -- which originated as a satellite of the Phoenix Art Museum -- is an arts destination in its own right, with nearly 3,000 works in all manner of media.

Although production of the feisty and subversive e-zine has been slow this year, Ladmo Park Chicano Chronicle's recent return to cyber-activism is well-appreciated. The e-zine's mission since its inception four years ago has been "to research, inform, advocate, promote, protect and expose by peaceful means in the best interest of Arizona's Chicanos." LPCC's targets include anyone from former Arizona Republic columnist Ruben Navarrete to vigilante border militias, and attacks can be brutal. They're designed to be in order to combat the complacency over social issues, political discrimination, and infuriating stereotypes that plague the Chicano community. "I want us to come out of our shells, stand up and say, Wait a minute, that was fucked up!'" says LPCC's anonymous founder. LPCC's feisty communiqués do just that.

Do we come here for the fresh-baked muffins -- the carrot-ginger, corn-Cheddar and banana? No. Though the bakers pull the trays of treats from the oven and let them cool in a heady fog of aroma that makes us drool, we're not their customers. The real guests are dogs, here to snack on those muffins and to grocery shop for Nature's Variety foods, an all-natural line of raw foods (raw frozen bones, freeze-dried meats, dry kibble and dry roasted treats formulated to USDA standards). Yet we're not suffering -- this "Coffee Bar, Juice Bar and Dog Bar" also serves people-style raw juices, smoothies, caffeinated drinks, bagels and desserts. While Spot visits with his quadruped friends around a patio fountain centered by a bright red fire hydrant, we sip on Hair of the Dog, a stress-relieving combo of apple, carrot and ginger. It's quite the place on weekends, when pets and their owners come in from the local dog park, visiting like moms and their babies. We love In the Raw. Our dogs love In the Rawwwwr.
If you're stuck with relatives or friends in town, especially in the warmer months, it's tough to find inexpensive and "unique to Phoenix" things to do that don't include shopping. But this gem of a museum, dedicated (yes, we're serious) to the American buffalo, is nestled in the strip mall at the southeast corner of Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard. Hardly a stuffy museum, the Buffalo Museum of America is more than just paintings and drawings of buffalo (though there are many of those). We're actually not sure what the exact mission of the place is, we just really like it. There are taxidermied buffalo and wax figures of Wild West legends like Jesse James (you can take photos with them to send to family and friends who don't believe you). Glass cases house Gemmie E. Baker's amazing personal collection of Wild West memorabilia. The Buffalo Bill Room has some of Bill's personal possessions, including one of his original hunting rifles. The best part by far is the animatronic buffalo families, and the prop buffalo that co-starred with Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves. There is, of course, a gift shop, with all the usual suspects, but this is a place you won't get tired of going to, if nothing else just to watch your friends experience it for the first time.

Readers' Choice for Best Tourist Trap: Rawhide Western Town

Hooters
Breast-feeding jokes aside, Hooters is a great place to bring the kids.

On Saturdays, children under 12 eat free all day, from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. (on a kid-per-adult ratio). And every day of the week, youngsters are greeted with balloons, crayons and gifts -- like a Hooters cup, beads or a Frisbee. The offer's good at all Valley locations, but we prefer the Ahwatukee Hooters, where the management refuses to show kid-unfriendly pay-per-view boxing and other rough-and-tumble television.

No worries. There's good scenery elsewhere at this establishment. Just keep the kiddies away from the hot wings.

Readers' Choice: McDonald's

Attention, parents. If you're looking to blow that $400 tax credit from George W., head over to This Little Piggy Wears Cotton.

For infants, we're partial to the Fattamano layettes. There's a full line of Baby Lulu dresses and onesies -- with wonderful hats to accessorize -- for the girls, and Lucky jeans for the boys. We also love the Piggy Brand line of comfy cotton dresses, pants, tees and pajamas -- bright, simple colors and fun patterns, just right for playing and snoozing.

If you've got a few pennies left over, the store also features fun, hard-to-find toys, and our very favorite baby-product-for-Mom, a full line of diaper bags by Petunia Pickle Bottom.

Great Arizona Puppet Theater
Established in 1983, this theater is housed in a beautiful, renovated downtown church. With a repertoire of more than 50 different fairy tales and original puppet plays, the Great Arizona Puppet Theater tours throughout the state, performing shows and teaching workshops for kids and teachers. The troupe serves more than 400 schools and preschools in the state, and offers private parties for groups and birthdays.

We love the theater because of the amazing skills of the puppeteers. Each puppet is meticulously created and manipulated to be incredibly animated and lifelike, often to the point of making us forget that they aren't moving on their own. Our favorite is the Peter Pan series -- the Peter puppet is just about the coolest thing we've ever seen on strings. Yeah, the kids love it, but you'll enjoy it as much as they do.

The theater's on-site gift shop offers a selection of puppets from complicated to simple, as well as how-to videos and books -- in case you get the puppet bug yourself.

The Phoenician, Scottsdale
So you need to get away from it all, but you're not quite ready to leave the newborn home with a sitter? Escape to the Phoenician.

Bring the baby along, but don't bother to take the diaper bag. In your room, you'll find a mini-bar stocked with milk, juice and zwieback crackers, and a crib with a diaper pail filled with essentials like wet wipes and non-essentials like stuffed plush rattlesnakes, coyotes and other animals reminiscent of the Sonoran Desert. The staff will attach an infant bathtub to the room's marble tub, and they'll spell out your baby's name in colorful sponge letters.

Need a jogging stroller? No problem. A portable playpen? You got it. Leave your room and baby can frolic on the playground, which includes a sandbox, jungle gym and picnic tables. Or feed the ducks and koi in the 11 million gallon Necklace Lake.

Leave the jars of Gerber spinach at home, too. The Phoenician's chefs will create a low-fat, high-vitamin menu based on your child's age and personal tastes.

You and baby will never want to leave.

What better place to buy a baby gift -- heck, any gift -- than from the comfort of your own computer chair? We tracked down the ladies at 2littlemonkeys.com after a friend sent us a box of velvet-trimmed burp clothes to celebrate a new arrival. Turns out they're right here in the Valley, running one of the best baby Web sites we've seen. We drooled over the selection of blankies -- including the pastel velvet patchwork number -- and fell in love with brands like Little Giraffe, Icky Products (great splat mats!) and Pashmina Baby. Your loved ones and their bundles of joy will adore the Blue Moon and Babycakes Moses baskets and the personalized birth announcement rugs.

If you're not a Web surfer, call the folks at2littlemonkeys.com and they'll set you up with a private viewing in their Scottsdale showroom. Now that's what we call service!

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