BEST FAST FOOD FOR KIDS 2005 | Taco Del Mar | Food & Drink | Phoenix
Nicole Hoffman
One of our toddler's first words was "Mugget" -- short, of course, for Chicken McNugget. Who knows what's in those things (well, thanks to a certain book and a movie, now we know and want to forget), but let's face it: There comes a time when even the most health-conscious parent needs to feed the kid, and fast. We recommend Taco Del Mar. At first we thought this was not a kid-friendly joint, since the restaurant's motto appears to be "Roll a Fat One." (Burritos, you lowlife!) But then we saw a high chair in the corner, and a kid menu on the wall. For just $1.99, we fed Junior a quesadilla and a drink, more than she could eat and enough for us to snack on, too. Taco Del Mar could probably scare up a few veggies on the side, too, along with a jumbo burrito (pork mole or fish sound good?) for you.

The nice kid behind the counter even gave us a coloring book and pack of crayons, promising that if the kid colors the back, we can bring it in for a free child meal next time. We do have to warn you, though: There's an enormous fake swordfish on the wall at the Mill Avenue location. This led to an uncomfortable conversation:

"Mommy, look at the fish!" "Uh-huh."

"Mommy, remember when the orange Dorothy fish died and Daddy flushed her down the toilet?"

"Um, uh-huh."

"Mommy, why did orange Dorothy die?"

"Um, um. Uh. Um, don't you want some more of that delicious quesadilla, sweetie?"

As a parent, you can't prepare for everything, but at least this way you can prepare to avoid McDonald's.

From a culinary perspective, the only thing worse than "cafeteria" is "hospital cafeteria." Which is why we were so surprised when we visited the cafeteria at Phoenix Children's Hospital in central Phoenix. At first, we thought we were just sleep-deprived and distracted, and that maybe that salad wasn't so fresh, those veggies weren't so tasty, that pizza wasn't so good that we'd consider coming back even when we didn't have a sick kid.

But then we learned that PCH's executive chef is Mensur Duzic, a German-trained chef who has worked in Bosnia and, upon his immigration to the Valley, for resorts all over town, including The Buttes in Tempe and the Sunburst Resort in Scottsdale.

On a recent visit to see someone else's sick kid, we tried the food with a clearer head. Sure enough, Duzic's talents were evident in the roast chicken, and you'd never get away with paying $2.75 for a half chicken at the fancy restaurants where he used to work.

Okay, we admit, the surroundings might be a bit of a downer, even with the colorful artwork on the walls. But once a year, Chef Duzic donates a meal for 10 to a hospital fund raiser. (Check the hospital's Web site for future details.) You can eat well and do good. What could taste better?

It was only a matter of time before the North Central vibe crept into Sunnyslope. Drive along the bridle path on Central Avenue, over a slight hill, and there's Sunnyslope -- you can't miss it, it's marked with a huge "S" on a low mountain, right there. Before you hit the mountain, veer east into Corbins parking lot -- you can't miss that, either, it's painted a bright, obnoxious orange. To be truthful, there's much that's obnoxious about Corbins: It's obscenely loud, clearly no one's done anything about acoustics. The crowd is, um, eclectic. (Don't be surprised if the chick at the next table asks you for a sip of your drink -- and not in an effort to pick up on you, she just wants some.)

But settle in and check out the sleek decor, then look at the menu, and you'll be reminded of AZ 88, the quasi-gay bar in Scottsdale, one of the first cool places to drink and dine in the Valley. Some AZ 88 originals opened Corbins, and it was a smart move -- the place was packed on a Monday night in August.

If we were dining at AZ 88, we would have ordered a salad, natch. But when in Rome, we figured. So we got onion rings. They were very, very good.

We must confess to a certain trepidation whenever our sophisticated Manhattanite friends come for a visit. To hear them tell it, everything in the Big Apple is so fabulous, it's hard to presume that anything here can possibly measure up to their standards. So that's why their reaction to dining at Patsy Grimaldi's charmingly traditional pizzeria is so gratifying. Apparently, New Yorkers wait in line for hours to get Patsy's pizza at its flagship Brooklyn Bridge location, but in Scottsdale, you can often just walk right in. And as our New York friends can tell you, the pizza here is just as good.


Cold Stone Creamery

Even the proudest Phoenician can't help but be a bit deflated walking the Arizona State University campus with a New York visitor and hearing, "Gee, where are all the people?"

That's why we were so delighted to hear a squeal when we passed Cold Stone Creamery. We like Cold Stone's ice cream, sure, but for us, it's no big deal -- we can have it any time, at one of dozens of shops that the Scottsdale-based company runs in town. But our friend was through the door, already placing her order in, well, a New York minute. Turns out Cold Stone's the hottest thing to hit Manhattan since Coors started selling beer east of the Mississippi. But it's still hard to get to, in the Big Apple. There isn't a Cold Stone on every corner -- yet.

We watched our friend gorge on a vanilla/cookie dough mix-in and thought to ourselves, "See? Phoenix isn't so bad after all."

Timur Guseynov
We love Tucson, but we've gotta tell you, sometimes people from Tucson can wear a little thin on the nerves. We're getting sick of hearing how much better the Old Pueblo is than our metropolis, sick of complaints about how much water we waste irrigating our bright green lawns, how no restaurant up here compares to the restaurants down there. The truth is that Tucson is populated with aging hippies, and what really bugs them is that they're under the impression that you can't find a decent vegetarian meal north of Marana.

Next time one of your Tucson homies can't avoid a trip to Phoenix, shut him down and fill him up at Pita Jungle. Every time we eat at the grunge-chic, concrete-floored restaurant in Tempe (or its similar companion in Chandler), we feel the Tucson love. This place is straight off the campus of the University of Arizona, with a wide variety of Mediterranean dishes including a cheese-topped pita "pizza" and a great combination platter of chicken, beans, rice, garlic sauce and pita. The best part of Pita Jungle is the environs -- with groovy local art on the walls and dreadlocked customers kicking back over berry tea, you'd swear you've died and gone to -- yep -- Tucson.

Are you in the mood for some "hog-slopping, field-plowing, hair-on-chest food" just like they done eat in the Hawkeye State? Well, git on down to the Iowa Cafe in Mesa and grub on some good ol' down-home cookin'. The bustling true-blue Iowa-gal-owned restaurant has been serving up diner-style breakfast, supper and dinner all day, every day, to hungry customers since 1983. The inside is adorned with Iowa paraphernalia, including a wall completely covered with license plates from 97 of Iowa's 99 counties. Dessert is a must, with more than 15 types of pies baked nightly, including apple, mincemeat, rhubarb and chocolate peanut butter. After chow time, check out the novelty items in the gift shop, such as rubber ears of corn and John Deere bottle-cap catchers. Ooo-wee! It's more fun than a greased pig contest at the county fair.
New Times Archives
When a friend invited us to join him for dinner at Four Peaks, we went willingly. We've eaten the burgers at Four Peaks before; the prospect of another was a happy one. We didn't wind up with a hamburger, but we were still thrilled. Who would have thought that there, in the back of Four Peaks, with a Suns game blaring in the background, we'd have one of the best meals of the year?

Every so often, the folks at Four Peaks break out and get their culinary groove on, in a big way. In this case, it was with a four-course, five-beer dining extravaganza. We mingled with Cask-Conditioned Mild Ale, then sat down to a first course of lamb won ton soup and a glass of Idle Hands. We kept busy with a second course of buffalo spring rolls and Hop Knot Ale. We have to admit we don't remember much after that, but seems to us a rib eye -- perfectly prepared, brushed with oyster sauce and accompanied by veggies and rice -- appeared next, with our favorite Four Peaks blend, Kiltlifter. We do remember one thing: that dessert, a calzone filled with ricotta and brownie filling, with chocolate and raspberry sauce, would have fed the entire table, it was so big. But we were glad to have one to ourselves, along with a glass of Chambord oatmeal stout.

We can't wait for the next pig-out, er, we mean gourmet dinner at Four Peaks. The Web site promises the next one is coming soon.

We have a dream: Our favorite local chef rings the doorbell, enters our humble home with coolers full of fresh food, and proceeds to cook a five-course meal in our kitchen as we look on, sipping wine, then sit down to dinner in our own dining room. (With more wine, of course.) The chef's kind assistant serves us dish after dish -- gigantic prawns, delicate won tons, sweet chicken and rice. Sated, we stumble into the kitchen to find more wine, and it's cleaner than when the chef arrived.

The dream came true when Johnny Chu, proprietor of Fate, the funky Chinese eatery that's a favorite of the downtown lunch crowd and First Friday scenesters, happened to mention that he moonlights, happily accepting the assignment of cooking in any kitchen. The meal wasn't cheap, but it certainly didn't cost more than a feast at Fate, and the food was even better, if that's possible.

Our compliments to the chef!

Heather Hoch
From the caramels at Pane Bianco to the paintings in the restroom at Pizzeria Bianco, the attention to detail at the Bianco establishments -- run by Chris Bianco with help from his partner Susan Pool -- is exquisite. Bianco and Pool are the most gracious of hosts; diners will happily wait hours for a table at the pizzeria, or roast in the summer sun to enjoy a market sandwich from Pane Bianco. Bianco and Pool wisely leased a building near the pizzeria and opened a perfectly appointed, shabby chic bar, with a beautiful selection of wine and beer, and a first-rate cheese plate to ease the hunger pangs. And the picnic tables outside the sandwich shop are handcrafted, the paper napkins tied with a sprig of rosemary, a chocolate in each perfect brown bag, stamped with the Pane Bianco logo.

We only wish we had such good taste -- at least, for a meal, we can have such good tastes.

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