Pita Jungle
Timur Guseynov
Back in our college days, we hung with the vegan crowd for so long that those damn hippies finally persuaded us to disavow our flesh-eating ways. Eventually, we came to our senses and sold out around the time that one bumper sticker ("If we aren't supposed to eat animals, why are they made of meat?") started making sense -- or maybe it was because Jack in the Box introduced the Ultimate Cheeseburger. Regardless, we're no longer welcomed in PETA, but the peeps at Pita Jungle will still take us in, and we can't wait for our next veggie burger.

Served between two slices of seven-grain bread, the patty is a delectable hodgepodge of soy, sesame bits, and vegetable products that beats Boca Burgers any day of the week. The patty's buried under mounds of chopped romaine lettuce, red onions, sliced roma tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts and a large slice of fire-roasted sweet red bell pepper. A side of tahini is included, thus reducing the potential for a mushy sandwich meltdown.

Whether you like PETA or pita -- or both -- you'll love Pita Jungle's veggie burger.

Fries are one of those sides we all tend to take for granted, and maybe that's why they're usually so forgettable. After all, when's the last time you had memorable pommes frites, people? Well, we don't know about you, but the last time we had an unforgettable frittered tuber was at Blac-a-Zoli Grill, a swankish little Eye-tie joint over on Seventh Street, right across from Hamburger Mary's. At BZ, we're talking about steak fries, thick and hearty, made in house, not from frozen, and, most important, not overfried so you can't even taste the potato like so many other establishments seem prone to doing. Rather, BZ's steak fries are lightly fried, and the perfect accompaniment to the steak of choice, an eight-ounce filet mignon in a citrus red wine reduction that tastes like Merlot syrup, if there were such a thing. Swirl those steak fries around in that sauce, bub, and you'll find out what paradise is (or should be) all about. Kill it with a frosty mug of Stella Artois on tap, and call it a day, week, and year. Unless, of course, you're like us, and make steak-fry noshin' at BZ's a regular gustatory event.

Wally's American Pub & Grill
Wally's promotes a blue plate special nightly that evokes home cooking (provided one of your parents could actually cook). From spaghetti and meatballs to pot roast, each dish is the real McCoy. As you tuck it away, you can't help wondering: Whatever happened to make this kind of food vanish from local menus? Unlike at home, there is a good wine selection by the glass. The atmosphere is so casual that you almost don't notice that Wally himself is always present pressing his relentless vigilance of the details. That's one reason his neighborhood joint hangs with the big dogs.

Pane Bianco
Heather Hoch
Culinary bad boy Chris Bianco is best known for his pizzas, but it's Bianco's other stab at digestive glory that garners our garlands: Pane Bianco, Bianco's sandwich shop next to the cooler-than-thou Lux Coffeebar. Bianco's panini don't taste overly sooty, a nice trick since they are house-made in a wood-fueled oven. The finished product makes for the perfect lunch when you have to go back to work and don't want to feel too heavy. The offerings are limited to three or four sandwiches and a couple of salads, all using superior ingredients such as roasted peppers, aged provolone and fresh mozzarella. The menu changes with the seasons, but the hours usually remain the same: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. We'd love to find the place open more often, and it's tough luck when you visit on a rainy day, as Bianco only offers outdoor seating, but in the case of Pane Bianco, excellence deserves some leeway, and we're more than happy to grant it.

"Best Gourmet Pizza" is a spurious epithet as applied to Patsy Grimaldi's in Scottsdale, as the phrase "gourmet pizza" connotes pizza eaten with pinkie raised, the consumer smug in the knowledge that he or she has chosen the snootiest slice to be had. But there's nothing effete about Grimaldi's coal-fired pies, crafted with house-made mozzarella, sweet tomato sauce, and any of a number of traditional toppings, such as pepperoni, ham, black olives and mushrooms. No, there's no barbecued chicken, fennel sausage, or Arizona pistachios -- none of that frou-frou stuff that the Sex and the City crowd adores. Rather, what you get at Grimaldi's is the sort of pizza Ol' Blue Eyes was proud to push into his pie-hole when he was a regular customer of the Gotham branch. The crust is thin and slightly crisp, singed by the colossal coal ovens, and nothing short of magnìfico. Moreover, the atmosphere is old-school, N.Y. Italian, with red-and-white-checked tablecloths and Dean Martin croonin' on the box. "Best Gourmet Pizza"? Let's just say Grimaldi's has the "Best Frickin' Pizza," and leave it at that. Readers' Choice: Oregano's Pizza Bistro

Slices
Shut up and eat. That's the motto of Valley pie shop Slices, which has two locations, one in Scottsdale and one in Tempe, and we'll be damned if we couldn't say it any better ourselves. Atmosphere, shmatmosphere. This place is all about the pizza-by-the-slice, hence the name, Matlock. So expect nothing more ambiance-wise than stools, paper plates, and a TV set tuned to ESPN. Further, there's no wood-fired, coal-fired, or any other kind of fired oven. It's a regular gas deck oven that produces the best slices in the Valley, such as the baked eggplant with roasted red pepper, or the four-cheese "white" with garlic and sliced tomatoes. And that's gotta make you wonder -- maybe all that crap about what kind of oven you use is BS. After all, Slices' slices melt on your tonsils like they were some doughy form of Breyer's, so even if they were cookin' up those savory triangles in an Easy-Bake Oven, what's the big deal? Isn't it all about how the pizza tastes? Here, the ends most certainly justify the means, and all for $2 to $2.50 a slice. Readers' Choice: Slices

Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe
Jacob Tyler Dunn
Greens are to soul food what tomatoes are to Italian cuisine: a culinary sine qua non. Indeed, every soul food place in existence has its take on this Southern-born side dish, sometimes just using collards and sometimes mixing them with other leafy greens, such as kale, turnip, and/or mustard greens. Our complaint regarding those served at many soul food joints in the Valley is the over-use of salt, which overpowers the savory taste of this boiled vegetation, and kills any delight to be had from the "pot likker," the juice resulting from stewing the greens with a bit of ham added for flavor. Mrs. White's doesn't make this mistake. Its mixture of collards and mustard greens is absent excess sodium, and thus is the perfect accompaniment to its golden yellow cornbread, which crumbles so effortlessly over the pot likker remnants. It's difficult to overestimate the importance of a good mess of greens. For soul food aficionados, it's the one item sure to draw you back to an eatery, over and over again. And it's one of the many reasons we love Mrs. White's. Other soul food purveyors should pay heed! Spare our high blood pressure and ease up on yon salt shaker. Try Mrs. White's, then go and do likewise, ladies and gents. Readers' Choice: Souper Salad

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.

Rokerij
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.

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