BEST PLACE TO LOW-CARB 2004 | Low Carb Mall | Food & Drink | Phoenix
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?

These flowers won't wilt, but we can't guarantee they'll be around long. Cookies in Bloom will deliver your loved one a lovely bouquet of iced cookies for any occasion. We like to challenge the folks at this little shop to get really creative, and they never disappoint -- they can decorate a cookie with anything!

Cookie monsters, this bud's for you.

Many a wayward Gothamite has found himself or herself in the Valley thinking, "What the hell have I done?!" Sometimes you find them hyperventilating, in a state of shock that they can't find the Village Voice and the Daily News on every corner of P-town. There's even a special ward at the Mayo Clinic devoted to ex-New Yorkers who've never recovered. They lie around all day watching Seinfeld reruns with glazed eyes, muttering, "All I wanted was a matzo!" Poor sods. Someone should've told them about Chompie's. With locations in Tempe, Phoenix and Scottsdale, Chompie's is so close to the real deal, you'll think you hopped the F train to Kew Gardens. That's because these kosher-style delis are run by the family Borenstein, who themselves moved to the Valley from Queens back in the late '70s to establish an outpost of Gotham in the desert. Sure, they've got classic American and Italian fare, but we go for the bagels and bialys with a schmear, the kasha varnishkes and kreplach, the matzo ball soup and the brisket au jus, the stuffed cabbage and plates of pickles that come with each order. And if we're feeling especially sinful, we'll order a side of the chopped liver, the best in the Valley, which comes in ice-cream-like scoops and is so smooth and rich we think Ben & Jerry's should consider adding a pint of Chompie's chopped liver sorbet to its repertoire. So next time, if you see an expat New Yorker going into convulsions, send him to Chompie's. He'll survive.

Readers' Choice: Chompie's Deli

Jamie Peachey
There are several competing stories as to where the first margarita was mixed and by whom, and Lord knows, we're not going to do a tango with that tar baby. Still, most folks can agree that the traditionally tequila-and-lime-based concoction has been around for more than half a century. So you can pretty much bet the hacienda on the fact that the initial margarita, despite its disputed origins, was not served frozen but rather on the rocks. There are plenty of purists who turn up their nostrils at these alcoholic Icees for just this reason. But we don't give a roadrunner's patootie about tradition. What we want from a margarita is salt, blended ice, a bowl-shaped glass big enough to eat Froot Loops out of, and enough tequila to subdue a snarling bobcat. That's why we pick Scottsdale's Salty Se--orita as the purveyor of the Valley's best margaritas. Not only do SS's margaritas meet all our basic criteria, they're like the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of Mexican cocktails, mocking those served elsewhere in the Valley as "girlie margaritas." The SS has 100 different brands of tequila to get you effed up on, and, as an added plus, on any given night of the week, the place is wall to wall with hot dudes and dudettes loudly pounding those jumbo, high-proof Slurpees like there's no tomorrow. Hey, what better way to hook up while downing your favorite, icy-cold beverage? Love or Cuervo, we don't care, as long as they're willing.

Readers' Choice: Z'Tejas Grill

You've probably heard many a Phoenician rave about Mariscos Ensenada's seafood pastas, like the bay scallops with cream chipotle sauce, or the prawns with spaghetti, olive oil, tomatoes and wine. Or maybe you've heard someone go on and on about Mariscos Ensenada's octopus, shrimp or sea snail tostadas. And some folks just can't shut up about the ceviche verde de camarn (shrimp marinated in a spicy green sauce) or the pescado relleno de jalba con crema (fish fillet stuffed with crab). But what rocks our boat at this no-frills mariscos is much simpler: the chips and salsa. We're not sure what's in that brown, peppery elixir, but it's just piquant enough to whet our palate for another frozen margarita without burning off the first layer of tongue. The chips themselves are fresh and not too salty, and just one dunk into that Mexican ambrosia is enough to give you a jolt. Really, now, how often does a salsa stick in your memory and make you want to slurp it like a high-octane smoothie? Okay, perhaps we're slightly obsessed, but that salsa freakin' rocks.

Jackie Mercandetti
Lunchtime at La Tolteca is as busy as Van Buren gets -- during the day.

La Tolteca is a bright and cheery superstore, a bakery, restaurant, butcher shop and supermarket where you can buy tamarind candies, dried Jamaica flowers, beer, fresh cucumber juice and beef tongue. But the way La Tolteca is designed, it's the panaderia, or bakery section, that customers must file by first -- gleaming glass cases with pan dulce, multicolored cookies and fresh fruit, guava-filled empanadas, churros, plastic cups filled with tricolored flan, and La Tolteca's supreme delicacy, its tres leches cakes, creamy white sponge cake drenched in sweetened milk, fruit filling slathered between the thick layers, and topped with whipped cream. The tres leches cakes are available in individual slices, or in massive sheets the size of a boogie board.

Now, that gives new meaning to the phrase "sugar rush."

Timur Guseynov
If you're craving a foodie fiesta, look no further than either of the Phoenix Ranch Markets. With myriad Mexican meals available from any of the varied food stations -- offering up everything from freshly made-right-in-front-of-you shrimp tacos to the hangover-curing menudo (on weekends) -- your taste buds will forgive you for all those trips to the Del Taco drive-through. In fact, visiting these enormous supermercados is a very sensual experience. Whether your eyes are accosted by the vibrant decor, or your ears are introduced to the lively salsa music blaring over the PA system, every sense gets a workout. While the proboscis will definitely get some action with all the aromas, see if it can also pick out the smell of love in the air, as the expansive carniceria isn't the only meat market on the premises. Duded-up caballeros flirt up a storm with gorgeous chicas near the canned goods, and a young couple nuzzles near the crowded cafeteria-style El Cocina. The place is pretty popular on the weekends among the Hispanic crowd and even takes on a discoteca-like feel (especially given the color scheme and soundtrack), and one mother is seen dancing down an aisle with her toddler. But that kind of responsibility comes much later in life, and any potentially amorous pair that hooks up here may want to head to the panaderia to pick out a wedding cake first.
In a place like Phoenix, where Spanish is the only language in some sections, there is no shortage of Mexican dives. But we suggest you try Birrieria El Gordo on 27th Avenue, about a block north of Indian School. The decor is sparse, and if your Spanish is rusty, you may have to get by with goofy white-boy sign language, but the tacos are delicioso, with tortillas made from scratch on site every day, and some of the best patrn, cabeza and barbacoa-style meat we've ever pushed past our lips. Don't forget to hit the sauce cart with its little limes, finely chopped cabbage and a half-dozen types of salsa. And they also make a great bowl of menudo on the weekends, if you happen to be hung over from too much tequila the night before.

The youngster's B-Day is drawing nigh and he's been clamoring for a fancy-pants piata, but no rainbow-colored donkey or bull will suffice this time around (especially after that Juicy Fruit commercial had him sleeping in your bed for weeks). He's already prepped a short list of the usual suspects -- Batman, Clifford, Yu-Gi-Oh!.

So you head to Sanchez & Sons Printing, where the kindly shopkeeper gives you the option of a custom-made creation or choosing from their vast selection of cartoon heroes. You consider an impressive Nemo-esque clownfish or a badass-looking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, before settling on a SpongeBob effigy.

The good news: SpongeBob won't be around for long -- at least, not in his current form. The bad news: You'll be picking pieces of him off the lawn for months.

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