BEST UPSCALE DINER 2004 | Welcome Diner | Food & Drink | Phoenix
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
The Welcome Diner is such a quaint little place, painted white with red trim on the outside, that it looks like Matchbox made it and you could pretty much pick it up and stick it in your pocket if you wanted. The interior is essentially a short-order kitchenette and a red counter surrounded by nine -- count 'em, nine -- blue stools in a space that's so tiny we have to grease our love handles with lard to get to the stool in the far back. Well, people were a lot thinner back when this lovingly restored 1930s eatery was in use. (They didn't call it the Great Depression for nothing, boyo.) And it's worth greasing our pear-shaped hips for one of chef Peter Deyo's egg sandwiches, hot dogs, burgers or BLTs. For dessert, his deep-fried fritters are a must, but with all that powdered sugar on top of them, just how the heck do you expect us to squeeze out of that dainty diner? Pork fat can only do so much, people. Guess that's why the W.D. has a to-go window, huh?

Jackie Mercandetti
When we're not at home watching Aqua Teen Hunger Force with a bong full of Humboldt County's finest, you'll find us in Tempe enjoying a chronic blunt at Cheba Hut Toasted Subs. See, Cheba Hut calls its sub sizes nugs (4-inch), pinners (8-inch) and blunts (12-inch), and "chronic" is the name for a barbecued-beef sub. Thus to the staff of Cheba Hut, a "chronic blunt" is something you masticate rather than inhale. Other smokin' sandwiches include Jamaican red (spicy grilled chicken), magic mushrooms (portabella mushrooms with Monterey Jack cheese), and Dr. Dre's fave, the Endo (essentially, a classic Reuben). A case of the munchies can also be addressed with Cheba Hut's homemade Rice Krispies bars, or the deliciously moist hemp brownies, the hemp part essentially consisting of seeds sprinkled on top. Cheba's motto is, "Where the only thing fried is the occasional customer." So, not surprisingly, the walls are decorated with plenty of pothead memorabilia such as giant (and, alas, fake) spliffs, Grateful Dead posters and the like. One wonders who Cheba Hut's celebrity spokesperson should be. Woody Harrelson? Whitney Houston? Snoop Dogg? Our pick: Towelie from South Park, who's always saying, "Anybody wanna get high?"
Though there are a number of great Mediterranean restaurants in the Valley, sometimes you have to give it up for the newbie, and that's the way we feel about Efes Turkish Cuisine in Tempe, which has been open for less than a year. Efes is Turkish for Ephesus, that ancient city of Roman ruins and Christian shrines, and the name evokes the mystery of foreign lands, as does Efes' traditional Turkish decor, its colorful rugs and pillows, and its good-luck charms to ward off evil, shaped like large, blue eyes. The menu is equally enchanting, with spiced and marinated chicken and lamb kebabs that are juicy and savory, and stuffed grape leaves that are as plump as Cuban cigars.

True to the Turkish palate, Efes offers about a half-dozen ways of eating eggplant, perhaps the most delightful being the imam bayildi, or baby eggplants filled with tomato, onion and peppers. The arnavut ciger, a dish of seasoned, fried cubes of calf liver, is outstanding, as is the very non-Turkish cheesecake, made extra-fluffy by the addition of ricotta, and flavored with a touch of lemon, orange and vanilla.

If we never make it to Istanbul, at the very least, we'll always have Efes. Readers' Choice: Taste of Mediterranean Restaurant

The best Indian restaurants not only serve fantastic Indian cuisine, but they transport you for an hour or two to some mythical Delhi or Bombay that you may otherwise only experience in films or picture books. Royal Taj facilitates this flight of fancy for us with its elegant furnishings, its tchotchkes from the Subcontinent, and its Saturday nights featuring live Indian music and dance. Indian patrons often arrive in colorful saris, adding an additional touch of authenticity. And then there's the food itself, which is nothing less than excellent: crispy samosas filled with veggies or meat; mulligatawny soup, that fave of the Anglo-Indian upper class; a tandoori mixed grill, or any number of curries and masalas available; spicy kormas and vindaloos with lamb, chicken or both; and those splendid biryanis, the Indian equivalent of fried rice, with a mixture of lamb, chicken, nuts and raisins. Royal Taj offers a full bar, and doting service from its personnel. It's been in that same far corner of that same little shopping center since 1992, but new ownership has reinvigorated this establishment and made it shine like a pearl from the Bay of Bengal. Readers' Choice: Indian Delhi Palace

We may be as agnostic as an ACLU weenie roast, but we have to give it up to that big beatnik in the sky and say a collective "God bless you" to Lo-Lo's Chicken and Waffles, the best thing to hit Phoenix since our pioneer forebears gave up eating beans seven days a week. Lo-Lo's is actually a riff off Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles in L.A., made famous by Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, but that's okay. Roscoe's is a riff off the chicken-and-waffles combo that Wells Restaurant in Harlem made popular during the Harlem Renaissance. Larry White, grandson of Elizabeth White of the venerable Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe, is the fella responsible for bringing the bird-and-battercake concept to P-town, and as a result, he's the fella responsible for the fact that our britches no longer fit. Of course, Lo-Lo's also serves slightly less decadent fare, like salmon croquettes, chicken omelets, catfish, and red velvet cake for dessert (well, that might be equally decadent). But let's be honest, the reason we hoof it down to Central and Yuma is to pour syrup all over our waffles and fried fowl and dig in. Of course, we'll probably stroke out one of these days after doing so, but at least we'll die happy, people.

If you've never had fried okra before, you're in for a true, Southern-styled treat, especially if you stop by Lil' Mama's Soul Cafe. The green, pod-like plant is believed to have originated in Africa, and was first brought to the American South by slaves, who also introduced the word "gumbo," the stew-like okra-laden dish with which it's associated. When boiled, okra is as viscous and slimy as a TV evangelist on the make, but when cut up and fried, okra is sweet and delicious, one of the South's great gifts to American cooking. Now, we've eaten a lot of okra in our time, and we've sampled the okra at every soul food spot in the Valley, but the best fried okra to be found, by far, is at Lil' Mama's Soul Cafe. At Lil' Mama's there's no attempt at making fried okra healthful. Here, it's brownish, crusty and a tad on the greasy side. Lil' Mama's also prepares a mean plate of catfish, some truly inspired fried chicken, and desserts such as 7UP cake and blueberry cobbler. But just give us a huge bowl of that fried okra, a case of Mountain Dew, and the first season of The Dukes of Hazzard on DVD, and we'll be as happy as Kirstie Alley with a bucket of KFC, people.

Lauren Cusimano
Now pay attention, biahtch, we're only going to explain this once. We know you just got finished watching Troy, with all that business about Greeks bearing gifts, yadda-yadda-yadda. But there's one Greek present you can enjoy without opening it, and it doesn't look anything like a wooden horse. Stumped, oh ye of little gray matter? We're talking about stuffed grape leaves, or dolmades as they're known to your intellectual superiors. Actually, dolmades comes from an Arabic word meaning "something stuffed," and they're common throughout the Mediterranean region. But the best dolmades we've ever had were served to us by chef/owner George Vassilou at his lovely Greektown Restaurant on North Seventh Street. Vassilou's dolmades are served warm, in a rich avgolemono sauce made from chicken broth, lemon juice and egg yolks. And he prepares each one just like his mom did, filling the grape leaves with a mixture of ground meats, rice and herbs. Everything on Vassilou's menu is first-rate, but his dolmades are practically Olympian, baby. If the Greeks had offered up these to the Trojans back in the day, both sides could have avoided 10 years of fighting and gotten down to some serious peacetime eatin'.

Courtesy of Roaring Fork
Okay, we'll come clean. We'd kiss Robert McGrath's stinkiest pair of cowboy boots for one of those little cast-iron pots of green chile pork stew that he serves at his Southwestern-styled Roaring Fork restaurant. And dagnabbit, you may feel the same after a visit to one of the best restaurants in the Valley for a bowl of this desert ambrosia with a side of flour tortillas. Actually, screw the tortillas, all we want is the stew, hoss, with its generous chunks of pork, and its New Mexico chiles, hominy, poblano, and loads of butter. Old-school foodies may balk at us referring to anything with pork as "chili," but the concept is the same, and one spoonful of this stuff will make you forget all about semantics. McGrath is an example of one Valley chef for whom all of his plaudits are deserved, so we bow down to him, Wayne's World-style, and cry, "We are not worthy!" And of course we will, as promised, kiss his freakin' boots. But please, not while we're eating. Readers' Choice: Wendy's

Chef Georges Venezia of Scottsdale's Mes Amis Bistro and Bar whips up a mess of Provenal-style frogs' legs that would turn Kermit into a cannibal. According to Venezia, the frogs' legs were added only after a regular customer began to ask for them. So Venezia, who hails from Nice, began to prepare them as they do in southern France, in a sauce of white wine, butter, garlic, tomatoes and Pernod. Very quickly, Venezia's frogs' legs began to sell out every night he offered them as a special, so he did the wise thing and added them as a permanent part of the menu. Do they taste like chicken? Yes and no. They taste more like a cross between chicken and something aquatic, with a sweetness to the meat no doubt enhanced by the Pernod.
Courtesy of Roaring Fork
Roaring Fork chef Robert McGrath has achieved something we didn't think possible, something long sought after by cooks high and low, the Holy Grail of American grilling, if you will. That is, he's built a better burger. That's a 12-ounce Big Ass Burger, to be exact, one that you can only enjoy during dinner hours in the saloon area of his popular Scottsdale restaurant. We know what you're thinking: All hamburgers are pretty much alike. And so we thought until we saddled up to the bar at McGrath's Southwestern-themed establishment, and bit into that ground hunk of primo cow flesh, topped with roasted green chiles, longhorn cheese, grilled onion and bacon. Eaten medium rare, with a glass of Pinot Noir as accompaniment, there's no better way to massage the pleasure centers of your brain, unless of course you happen to have a bikini-less Lindsay Lohan waiting for you in a Jacuzzi somewhere (or a Speedo-less Jake Gyllenhaal, depending on your preference). In which case, we strongly suggest that you eat McGrath's piéce de rèsistance as quickly as possible. Readers' Choice: Fuddrucker's

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