Barb's Bakery
Diana Martinez
There's nothing fancy about the inside of Barb's Bakery -- except the baked goods. We love to ooh and aah over the fake wedding cake samples, and we buy the iced sugar cookies (the house specialty is flowers, but they'll make any shape you want, if you bring them a cookie cutter, and we've never come up with a color scheme they won't accommodate) by the dozen. The cupcakes are perfect specimens, as are the tarts, and if you don't want fancy, Barb's will accommodate you with the basics, like chocolate chip cookies.

About the only thing Barb's doesn't do is low-carb. And thank goodness for that!

Readers' Choice: Brownie Connection

If you've ever visited Japan or lived in a city with its own Japanese enclave, then you may be familiar with the delights of a Japanese bakery, wherein one can experience the uniquely Japanese take on certain Western baked goods as well as more traditional Japanese pan, or bread stuffed with any number of items. Arai Pastry is a perfect example of one of these, and is a terrific addition to the strip mall at the southeast corner of Priest and University in Tempe that also includes the Fujiya Market, the Japanese grocery store where you can rent a Japanese-language TV show on video while you're stocking up on sake. Arai mostly does takeout or pre-orders, but it does have a couple of tables where you can sit and drink espresso or iced coffee with your green-tea mousse or Japanese-style flan (more like a pudding than the Mexican cr'me caramel). Also for sale are loaves of Japanese bread (sliced extra-thick), crepes, clairs, cookies, cheesecakes, wedding and birthday cakes, an pan (a bun filled with sweet red beans), niki pan (filled with cooked pork), and UFOs, a pastry made of melon bread and filled with custard.

Bandera
Jamie Peachey
We called, we drove, we'd barely stopped the car when a cute guy with a big bag emerged from the back door of Bandera, and plunked an entire chicken in our laps. We love Bandera for the peanut coleslaw and the grilled artichokes, but mostly, we love the flying chicken park-and-pick-up system. Screw the Colonel. Pass the cornbread.
We can't help but hate Sofia Coppola. Not only is she one of the hottest young film directors around, she gets to date all the cool guys. And her dad is Francis Ford Coppola, which was neat to begin with, but then he started a winery, and that was nice, but now the coup de grâce: He's named a wine after her. And not just any wine, a sparkling wine (technically you can't call it Champagne, since it doesn't come from France, but still). The best part, for us (and let's be honest, isn't it always?), is the packaging. This wine comes in a bottle with pretty pink cellophane, but our favorite way to drink Sofia is in a can -- a raspberry pink can that comes complete with a bendable straw.

Ah, but we digress. We can't be Sofia Coppola (although we wonder what Spike Jonze is doing at the moment), but at least we can find her in a can, even in Phoenix.

Cost Plus may be a chain, but it's a chain worth celebrating. The store features cases of canned Sofia -- along with an admirable selection of "real" wine for those of us too shy to venture into a "real" wine shop. The cavernous place also features the best collection of baskets in town, gifts and great snack items.

Now you'll have to excuse us. We have a date with a copy of Lost in Translation and a case of Sofia.

Cheuvront Wine & Cheese Cafe
Unbridled turophilia, otherwise known as the love of cheese, knows almost no bounds. There seems to be an endless line of cheeses, endless variations upon variations, thereby proving the truth of what writer and critic Clifton Fadiman said when he called cheese "milk's leap toward immortality." Milk is milk, and can't change much while still remaining so. Cheese, by comparison, is almost an open-ended concept, and yet we come in contact with so few types in our everyday grocery runs. Leave it to a public servant to give us a choice of an array of cheeses, everything from Spanish goat cheese and blue French fromage to English Cheddar and Humboldt Fog from California. The servant in question is state Senator Ken Cheuvront, whose wine and cheese bar gets our vote for the best cheese selection. With scores of gourmet Artisanal cheeses on offer and an equally impressive list of vino, Senator Cheuvront's nosherie is a significant contribution to the local restaurant scene. Long may you cut the cheese, Senator! And may you forever be known as Phoenix's King of Curds.

Guadalupe not only has the distinction of being Phoenix's smallest suburb, but it's also the East Valley's favorite barrio. Residents from Chandler and Tempe come to the town for its shops and restaurants -- or maybe just to see how the other half lives. In any case, one of the more popular destinations is this rustic produce depot, with its bountiful piles of fresh fruits and vegetables with choices ranging from the more vanilla standards of a one-stop harvest shop -- such as Granny Smith apples or golden peaches -- to more obscure selections, like yucca root. Suburbanite gringos arrive in their SUVs, clad in D-Backs wear, bragging on their cell phones about the great deals they're getting on the different kinds of chiles for sale -- from habaneros to serranos -- some of which are roasted outside in a rotating grill. Others inspect the crisp leaves of bunches of cilantro and organic herbs, looking for any sign of wilt or wither.

Frankly, at night this 'hood's not so safe. But in broad daylight, on any given weekend, it's only a threat to your local supermarket.

Pizza is not what it used to be. At least, not since pizza delivery chains introduced the conveyor oven, which may churn out more pizzas per hour than traditional pizza ovens, but reduces the quality of the pizza because of all the openings in the oven that prevent a good, even heat. We recommend you make it at home -- and we don't mean by opening the freezer. Get yourself a pizza stone, which will ensure even heating. And then get yourself over to Riccobono's Italian Bakery and pick up a batch of pizza dough. The Riccobonos, a Sicilian family from Brooklyn, prepare the dough every morning at their Chandler bakery, using a recipe that is a cross between New York-style pizza and pizza from the old country. Pick up a pound, about all you'll need to make a large pizza. You'll be so happy, you'll forget the number to Domino's. And you won't even mind doing the dishes.

Our hands are stained with the amazing flavor dust (well, that's what we call it, anyway) that the geniuses of this wonderful snack spot sprinkle all over their delicious popcorn. We can't stay away from Pass the Popcorn, where we buy a daily bag of zesty seasoned kernels and sometimes eat the whole thing for dinner. When we're not glomming on the amazing caramel corn, we're buying tins of cheese popcorn (they come in several sizes and holiday themes) and giving them as gifts. Even the plain popcorn is unlike anything we've had anywhere else -- crisp and buttery and oh-so-slightly salted. (Try it with one of Pass the Popcorn's yummy Madagascar Vanilla Icees. No, really!) Can't make up your mind? Start with our personal favorite, the Cheezy Caramel Corn, which combines all the best flavors perfected by these local popcorn purveyors.

There are thousands of low-carb products on the market, which is a good thing, because most of them taste horrible. If you're looking for a little something to go with that plate of bacon and eggs -- maybe a low-carb tortilla or some chocolate for dessert -- it's all trial and error, 'til you find something edible. That's why we're so happy to have the Low Carb Mall. We have to chuckle at the name. It's a little ambitious, but then again, this shop is the Metrocenter of Atkins-friendly foods. You'll find rows of Atkins products, along with just about everything else on the market -- low-carb brownies, pasta, spaghetti sauce, margarita mix, peanut brittle, Gummi Bears, even something called "popped cheese" -- as well as vitamin supplements, books and anything else you might need to do the protein thing.

Bon appètit! Just don't mind the after-taste.

A few years back, some New Ager ruined the simplicity of fruit and ice by calling it a smoothie and adding enough supplements to choke a steroid addict.

But at AJ's Scoops, the art of the smoothie is returned to its essentials. You tell the nice folks behind the counter what fruits you like, and they'll purèe fine specimens of those fruits into a delicious drink topped, if you so choose (and you should), with gourmet whipped cream. Don't mention protein or echinacea or fiber boosts. It's all femme Greek to them. Just the fruits, ma'am.

Then sit down in one of the plush leather chairs and stare out the large corner-store windows at the bustlings of Second Street and Washington -- one of the most cityscape-ish scenes in the Valley -- and celebrate the fact that you're supporting a small independent business.

If AJ's smoothies aren't health-supplemented enough for you, think of it this way: The place has the ambiance of an intimate little pub. You'd be smoking cigarettes and drinking Irish whiskey in a real pub. Instead, you're having fruit.

Isn't that enough health for one day?

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of