BEST FLAN 2004 | Havana Cafe | Food & Drink | Phoenix
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.

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.
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.

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

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.
Tom Carlson
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

We slither all over the Valley, looking for the very tastiest snails -- and always leaving a moist, weary trail of disappointment behind. Or at least we did, until Gregory's World Bistro began serving its mind-bendingly delicious escargot phyllo purses. There's nothing freeze-dried about these garden bandits, which are wisely served with tender wild mushrooms and spiced with tasty basil pesto, then swaddled in garlic butter and wrapped in a teeny clutch of phyllo. At only 10 bucks a pop, we're tempted to make them an entree. Usually, we settle for pairing them with Gregory's seared foie gras and a glass of Pinot and calling it supper.

We confess that we dine at My Florist Caf almost more often than we do in our own home, in part because we find its version of comfort food so, well, comforting. And we're profoundly comforted every time we dip into a plate full of My Florist's tasty baked oatmeal. Who knew that rolled oats, brown sugar, and a pinch of nutmeg could make for such a flavorsome, almost dessert-like breakfast food? Topped with sour apple slices and swaddled in a tart, creamy yogurt sauce, this is a morning meal that puts the rest of the day to shame.

My Florist's baked oatmeal is even better than Mom's. Or would be, if Mom had ever made the attempt.

Resort life can be harsh. First, there's the decision of which one of six pools to swim in. Then, there's the tough call of which one of eight restaurants to dine at. And finally, we've all suffered the travails of finding a good tropical drink by the pool, without having to drip-dry across the courtyard to get it. Luckily, the JW Marriott Desert Ridge caters to convenience. You don't even have to get out of the pool. Just swim on over to the Just A Splash Pool Bar & Grill and order a fuzzy navel or a pia colada. The bar specializes in tropical drinks, but it's got grub, too, including burgers, pizzas, salads, hot dogs and sandwiches, which begs the question: Does the "wait 30 minutes after eating" rule apply if you're already in the pool?

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