BEST USE OF A PEANUT 2004 | The Thai Dipping Sauce at Plaid Eatery | Food & Drink | Phoenix
As repulsive as it initially sounds -- dipping corn chips into a thick glob of peanut sauce one step away from Jif -- the taste of Plaid's Thai sauce is irresistible. The "Thai" part of the moniker is a little misleading. At least, we've never had a peanut dipping sauce with any satay in any Thai restaurant that was quite this glutinous, nor quite this spicy, either. It's almost as if the cook mixed a bottle of Sriracha with a jar of Skippy and stuck it in a bowl to accompany the chips. But even if the recipe were so simple, would it detract from the sheer genius of it all? The cross-cultural creativity of combining American, Thai and Mexican elements into a side nosh that most likely has more fat than Star Jones' booty and more calories than China has chopsticks? Yes, Plaid offers an extensive menu of salads, sandwiches and Indian-inspired entrees, but only the chips with Thai dipping sauce rises to the level of culinary greatness, elevating the lowly peanut to undreamt-of heights! And for this we say, "Bravo, Plaid!"

Oh, how we adore aubergines, whether in eggplant Parmesan or in that Mediterranean eggplant dip known as baba ghanouj -- but in a cheesecake? Actually, it's not so odd, as a cheesecake can be either sweet or savory, and the eggplant cheesecake served at Zest is an example of the latter. The creation of chef/co-owner Rich Rathert, who has run restaurants in Colorado and the Virgin Islands as well as here in the Valley, it's a creamy concoction of roasted eggplant mashed into a bowl of cream cheese, eggs and so on, with the resulting "cake" bathed in a roasted tomato-eggplant-balsamic vinaigrette sauce. It makes an outstanding appetizer for this quaint new eatery just north of Indian School Road, and if Rathert could figure out a way to make one the size of Tempe Town Lake, we'd be more than delighted to wade right in, face-first. Yum.

Diana Martinez
All apologies to fans of the late ventriloquist Shari Lewis, but we love lamb chops, and not while they're still on the lamb. A lot of places in town make great lamb chops, but these days, you practically have to beg your server to bring you a side of mint jelly when you order them. Or you might have to sneak in your own. But at Richardson Browne's swanky new surf and turf spot Rokerij, no such subterfuge is required. Rokerij's lamb chops come smothered in a glaze of mint jelly sauce, and devouring that tender meat, you realize that mint and lamb is one of the greatest food combos ever -- right up there with chocolate and peanut butter, or champagne and caviar. Why restaurants ever ceased this old-school culinary touch is beyond us, but at least Browne's Rokerij knows what it's doing, as is also apparent by the elegance of the interior and the superb service given by the wait staff. Rokerij's lamb chops are wunderbar, and we'd return just to lick one more of those bones clean.

Co-owners/chefs/cousins Rasul Alramahy and Ali Alhachami put every other restaurant in Phoenix to shame with their lamb and rice plate. For about the same as it costs to eat at some fast-food grease factory in town, their Iraqi eatery will serve you a heaping plate of rice, topped with a shank of lamb that can best many a plate of osso buco. The lamb falls off the bone if you as much as look at it cross-eyed, and the bone's marrow is soft and delectable. The lamb meat itself is savory and moist, and along with the meal comes a serving of round Iraqi flatbread, similar to Indian naan. A cup of chicken/lentil soup akin to Indian daal is also free with the combo. What else could you ask for in an Iraqi joint? Terrific baklava? Chicken kebabs that kick butt? Well, they've got that covered too, buddy. So get your fanny over there, pronto.

How now, browned cow? Delicious, if it's at Deseo. The Westin Kierland Resort's signature restaurant preps its 10-ounce Kobe sirloin with some surprising seasonings -- cinnamon and ground ginger among them -- then adds gourmet garnishes: sliced heirloom tomatoes, caramelized onions, blue cheese dressing and oregano oil. A mouth-watering example of multiculturalism, Deseo's "American-style" Kobe beef is a cross between Japanese Wagyu cattle and premium American Black Angus -- and is so tender, a butter knife slides right through it. For committed carnivores, the $30 price tag is worth the splurge. Meat us at Deseo.

Jamie Peachey
It doesn't pay to think about where veal comes from. After all, what did that poor little three-month-old bovine baby ever do to you? But then the veal pasta over at Giuseppe's tastes so heavenly. Those extra-tender nuggets of meat bathed in a light tomato sauce with carrots mixed into al dente spaghetti could turn even the most vehement vegan into a bloodthirsty carnivore. Blame it all on Richard Bock, the Valley restaurateur who has made Giuseppe's into a must for lovers of affordable, high-quality Italian fare. His "day job," so to speak, is as first cellist for the Phoenix Symphony, but his other passion is Italian food, and man, does he kick culinary keister. For less than $20, any peon can eat like Luciano Pavarotti, as Giuseppe's serves primo ravioli, meatballs, gnocchi, baked ziti, lasagna, penne with sausage, prosciutto with melon, and so on. But our preferred platter is the heretofore mentioned veal pasta, which is as good as anything you'll get at Daniel's or Nonni's, and for a very reasonable $11.95. True, Giuseppe's, though quaint, may not have the atmosphere of some other, higher-priced joints. But what you lose in atmosphere, you gain in taste, capisce?

Not only is Rosie McCaffrey's the coolest Irish pub in P-town, it makes a smashing plate of Harp-battered Gadus morhua and thick frittered sticks of pommes de terre. Confused? Well, let us get down off our high horse for a moment to let you know that this august establishment crafts the best fish and chips in the PHX: two fat slabs of cod cooked a golden brown served alongside coleslaw and a pile of steak fries. The kitchen staff is careful to keep the consistency of the batter from getting too thick, thereby allowing the flaky deliciousness of the cod to shine through. Of course, it doesn't hurt to wash down the lot of it with one or two (or even three) perfectly poured pints of Guinness, and maybe a shot or two of Irish whiskey for dessert. Moreover, at Rosie's, one's lucky to be able to dine in the company of a number of legendary Irishmen, whose portraits line the walls -- everyone from Oscar Wilde to James Joyce. Thanks be to Samus McCaffrey for building the place to begin with after selling his old place downtown to barman Frank Murray. And thanks also, Samus, for a lovely platter of fish and chips. Readers' Choice: Pete's Fish and Chips

Tirion Boan
There are a number of great spots for traditional sushi in the Valley. But owner Yoshio Otomo's Shimogamo has the wow factor others lack. Maybe it's the energy that comes from being the new guy on the block, because, interestingly, this is Otomo's first venture into the restaurant biz. Prior to opening the upscale new eatery with its sleek black-and-gray interior, Otomo worked for a large Japanese import company, and as Japanese businessmen are wont to do, he spent a lot of time in Japanese restaurants. Though he's quick to tell you that he's no good in the kitchen or behind the sushi counter, like most of us, he knows what he likes, and Shimogamo reflects his experienced palate. Shimogamo's "traditional" sushi, or what we think of as being traditional for a sushi bar in America, is excellent, whether it's a spicy tuna roll, yellowtail roll, or octopus nigiri (the finger-size portions with the rice on the bottom). But where Shimogamo really shines is in its old-school Japanese appetizers like conch shell boiled in sake, or whole, pregnant smelt, which look like silvery sardines, their bellies filled with roe. Shimogamo's own innovations are equally impressive, whether it be teriyaki-drenched beef rolls wrapped around tofu, portabella mushrooms, and shishito (a mild Japanese chile pepper), or black cod topped with a persimmon chutney. One visit to Shimogamo, and you'll agree: As far as trad sushi goes, Shimogamo reigns supreme.

These days, Chandler's about as close as the Valley comes to having its own "Chinatown," and we mean that term broadly, in the most Pan-Asian way possible. Not only can Chandler boast of having Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket, Restaurant Cyclo, Swaddee Thai, and Lotus Asian Cafe and Grill, but the diamond in its culinary crown is C-Fu Gourmet, where you can enjoy dim sum that's as good as any you'll get in, say, Monterey Park, California (known as Cali's "Little Taipei"). Dim sum is Cantonese for "heart's delight." True to that name, at C-Fu, as in every other dim sum house, a team of waiters and waitresses circles through the restaurant's many tables with carts and trays filled with myriad traditional offerings such as pork dumplings, sugar cane shrimp, barbecued pork buns, shrimp rice noodle rolls, mango pudding, egg custard tarts, and on and on. One obvious sign that C-Fu offers the real deal: the overflow of Asian customers at this immense establishment, something rarely seen anywhere else in the Valley, save perhaps at Lee Lee. Dim sum is served daily from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and though C-Fu is also known for its seafood menu, it's the dim sum that hastens our return.

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.

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