Who has the tastiest, most sublime buns in the Valley? Why, chef Johnny Chu does, of course. How do we know, you ask? Because we've tasted them, silly, at Chu's renowned Fate cafe in downtown. The buns in question are not the type you see in a Nelly video. Rather, they are a variation on cha sui bao, or Chinese steamed pork buns. Chu fills them with spinach instead of swine, for an exquisite vegetarian appetizer that even diehard carnivores can appreciate. The exterior is pale white, and may look uncooked to the untrained eye, but bite into the gooey softness, and you'll get a mouthful of Popeye's delight surrounded by warm dough. Chu has more to be proud of than just his buns, of course. Being a wizard with the wok, and every other cooking implement, to boot, his curries and stir-fried noodles are magnifique. And it's all served in the funky, artsy surroundings of the converted house in which Fate is located. We always look forward to our next visit to Fate, but we confess it's those buns we look forward to most of all.

We love your buns, Johnny! And we'll take a bite out of them any day of the week, baby.

A & J Chicago-Style Bar-B-Q
Kyle Lamb
We're slightly ashamed to admit this, but we've got this little cut in the corner of our pie hole that we won't let heal because we're hooked on the barbecue sauce at A & J Chicago-Style Bar-B-Q. That tangy, slightly spicy reddish-brown coulis gently stings our tiny wound, sending us into paroxysms of masochistic glee. The pleasure's all ours, as the lion said to the lamb, since we visit this stark, impeccably immaculate restaurant as often as we can. Abe and Jean Hawthorne are the proprietors, and they've run their business for exactly 20 years now, having brought Chicago-style ribs and 'cue from their original home of Chi-town to their adopted home of P-town. As you walk in the door, the first thing you see is the stainless-steel barbecue pit, glassed in on the sides, where you can witness all manner of meats being readied over a mesquite-fired grill. It provides a captivating sight and smell, a sensory promise that the barbecue itself fulfills once you fork it into your mouth. The pork barbecue is so tender you can literally cut it with a plastic spoon, and the ribs are magnificent, large and succulent. We dare you to eat them without using your shirt as a bib. At this rate, we'll never get that cut to heal. Readers' Choice for Best Barbecue and Best BBQ Ribs: Honey Bear's Bar-B-Q

Bill Johnson's Big Apple
Bill Johnson's Big Apple harks back to a simpler time in American culinary history, an era where the men were men, the sheep were scared, and the women were in the kitchen -- chained to the stove, cookin' up some apple pie. We're not sure who's chained to the stove at BJ's, but whoever that poor schlub is, he's baking up the best durn deep dish apple pies in the Valley. You've heard of individual pizzas, right? At BJ's, they serve individual apple pies, with a golden brown crust, filled to bursting with chubby slices of apple, and topped with a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream. Of course, we're also partial to BJ's faux cowboy decor, the sawdust on the floor, and the pistol-packing waitresses who invariably call you "Hon." Hell yeah, it's cheesy. But in our age of bland, corporate mega-chains that mass-produce bland, corporate eats in a bland, corporate atmosphere, cheesy is cool, mon. Plus, once you get a load of BJ's old-fashioned deep-dish delight, you may even start to believe all that bunk grandpa used to tell you about the Good Old Days.

Havana Cafe
Jamie Peachey
We have a dream, a dream that torments us nightly, and causes us to awaken in hunger. In this night vision, we are poised on a rafter in the America West Arena, overlooking a vast expanse of caramel-covered goo, an immense, yellow field of flan that calls out to us in that secret language of all flan lovers, beckoning for us to leap into the sweet, creamy custard below and become one with it. In a fit of suicidal madness, we jump, hitting the soft crème caramel with a plop and slowly sinking into the mlange of eggs, evaporated milk and vanilla. As we eat our way to the floor, we realize that this is no ordinary flan, but the smoothest, most exquisite flan in all of the Valley, which you can only get at Havana Cafe. The recipe is that of B.J. Hernandez, the executive chef and co-owner of both locations along with hubby Gilbert. One taste of B.J.'s confection, and we predict you'll be having similar dreams, whether they be of flan-filled Olympic-size pools or of football fields of the stuff. B.J.'s flan is consistently silky, and neither too heavy nor too light. Of course, just about everything else on her menu is first-rate, but B.J.'s flan is the only item that should be listed as a lethal weapon against diabetic dictators.

Mary Coyle Ol' Fashion Ice Cream Parlor
No doubt many of you are too young to remember a time prior to reality TV, a world you may only vaguely glimpse in the occasional Leave It to Beaver rerun. You may also not be aware of the fact that in this distant era, not all ice cream came from chains such as Carvel, Baskin-Robbins, or Häagen-Dazs. Some folks actually hand-cranked their own. And there were always plenty of soda shops and ice cream parlors that made theirs on the premises, instead of having it shipped in from parts unknown. One of these parlors is still in existence, Mary Coyle, which has been open since 1951. Here, the Coyle family continues to operate this nostalgic creamery that produces everything from butter pecan to vanilla caramel cinnamon swirl. It's real ice cream with 16 percent butterfat, and proud of it. Scoops and floats are served in classic glassware, the walls boast peppermint-candy pinstripes and Norman Rockwell prints, and the stereo blasts nothing harder than the occasional Neil Diamond medley. Here you can also enjoy one of Mary Coyle's famous "showboats," like the "Cherry Snow," a glorious concoction of burgundy cherry ice cream, with a marshmallow and cherry topping, garnished with coconut; or the "Hot Tin Roof," with vanilla ice cream, a thick hot fudge topping, and whole Spanish peanuts. One of these, and you'll be waddling to the car afterward, dreaming of times past. Readers' Choice: Cold Stone Creamery

So you've been on a bender all week long, you're suffering from a colossal hangover and you'd like a little hair o' the dog -- but you're afraid a shot of firewater will start a chain reaction that will leave you worshiping at the porcelain altar? Well, look no further than Sèamus McCaffrey's Irish Pub and Restaurant, under the proprietorship of publican Frank Murray. See, Sèamus McCaffrey's makes a toe-curling Irish whiskey cake, which we're told is an ancient family recipe from the Emerald Isle. Essentially, it's very similar to a rum cake, but with Jameson's Irish Whiskey instead of Captain Morgan. The result is sweet, delectable, and just full enough of John Barleycorn to steady your hand. Sure, you don't have to be a dipsomaniac to enjoy this mouth-watering dessert, as it makes a delightful post-dinner treat for even the soberest teetotalers. But being heavy imbibers ourselves, we have a special addict -- er, affection for it.
The ratatouille omelette at Vincent's Market Bistro.
Lauren Saria
The ratatouille omelette at Vincent's Market Bistro.
We had just settled into a comfortable chair at a perfectly appointed table at Vincent's one recent afternoon, when we almost spat out our tap water. We're well-accustomed to the concept of the dessert cart, but the water cart? Sure enough, here it was, wheeled with as much pomp as the tarts and cheesecakes -- except on it sat a dozen or so varieties of water. "Sparkling or still?" the waiter asked, running down a list nearly as long as the restaurant's wine selection, and just as complicated. We ordered a Diet Coke instead, but sat back happy, relieved to know that even during one of the worst droughts in our city's history, Vincent and his water cart are here to parch our well-heeled thirst.

Bobby C's Lounge & Grille
Phoenix is full of frickin' wing nuts, and we don't mean the kind who have pinups in their garage of Vice President Dick Cheney buck nekkid on a bear rug. Instead, the Phiddy (i.e., Phoenix city) is wing-nutty about those defeathered and deep-fried chicken appendages, which everyone from Long Wong's to highfalutin chop houses peddle. We've eaten so many chicken wings in this town that we've taken to bobbing our heads and clucking every time someone scrambles an egg. But for our scrilla, no one in the Big P. beats Bobby C's Lounge and Grill for the biggest, meatiest, most satisfying Buffalo wings, just orange enough from the spices to make you think those fryers were Baltimore orioles. These come with a tangy-ass sauce in which to dip them, though as big as these are, you may need a bucket instead of the normal condiment container. Our preferred drink, with wings or anything else? Grape Kool-Aid on the rocks. Can't beat it with a drumstick. Readers' Choice: Native New Yorker

Kona Grill
Meagan Simmons
Most people think the key to a perfect chicken salad has to do with the chicken. Most people are wrong. It's the lettuce. We don't really care what kind of lettuce you use, but it must be finely shredded. Not too fine, just make it about the consistency of coleslaw. Kona Grill has that down pat, and it tops the salad with macadamia nut chicken, a handful of crunchy noodles and a very light dressing. Perfection.
Why is something so apparently straightforward as a Caesar salad so difficult to obtain these days? The classic dish, invented in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1924 by Italian restaurateur Caesar Cardini, should ideally be tossed at tableside, using fresh romaine, grated Parmesan, croutons, a dressing made with lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce, and sometimes anchovies, either on the side, or ground into the sauce. Good luck getting it tossed at tableside in the 21st century, or even with romaine, instead of its ubiquitous and horrid iceberg cousin, the bland bane of foodies everywhere. Usually what you get in restaurants is some bizarre variation on the original, with anything from nachos and corn to seared ahi and "Southwest-style dressing." (Blech!) The one place in the Valley that you can rely on to deliver a solid Caesar is Durant's, the dark, red-velvet-lined chophouse, which since 1950 has fed everyone from John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe to the late senator Barry Goldwater, and the still-kickin' Senator John McCain. At least Durant's uses romaine, and the waiters won't look at you funny if you ask for anchovies. Is that so much to ask from other eateries, we wonder? Apparently so. Readers' Choice: Oregano's Pizza Bistro

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