Jackie Mercandetti
Vietnamese cuisine in the Valley is nowhere more accessible and toothsome than at Justina Duong's stylish Vietnamese cafe Cyclo. Duong's eatery is no dive, but instead a modern, artsy chow palace with her own spray-painted murals of the home country as well as handmade tin models of the bicycle cabs for which the establishment is named. The food is fresh and authentic: pork short ribs topped with basil; green papaya salad; spring rolls; Vietnamese crepes; and bowls brimming with different types of pho, the hearty and hot Vietnamese noodle soup, made spicy with generous squeezes from a nearby plastic bottle of bright red Sriracha. Duong is usually on hand, joshing with diners, congratulating them for their choices, or warning them about how salty-sour the plum soda will taste. It's a small space, one that often fills to bursting during prime time, and once you eat there, you'll understand why.
Before we lay some knowledge on you regarding the best Thai food to be had in the Valley, be advised: If we hear about you traipsing out to the funky little restaurant we've chosen, where the owner is the chef and they have only one server, and demanding to be waited on hand and foot like you're at Mary Elaine's in the Phoenician, we will hunt your honky ass down and feed it to you for lunch! In other words, don't ruin it for us. That said, despite being located in between a tattoo parlor and a country-western bar that makes the walls throb at night, this small establishment produces the best panang, Thai toast, duck curry, mee grob, laab, papaya salad, and pad Thai in greater Phoenix. It's all because of the lady in the kitchen, Vana Vorachitti, who can easily outcook her fellow Thai chefs, especially those who've gone upscale in Scottsdale and along the Camelback Corridor (you know who you are). You might be able to find better-furnished locales, though we dig the Siamese Kitchen's '60s-style wood-lined, pancake-house-like interior. But you'll not find better flavor when it comes to Thai vittles in this town, no matter what the furnishings.
Visiting Tina Tamrat Hildebrand's cozy Chandler eatery is so intimate an experience that it may seem you're in someone's home, being served by a friend who happens to be Ethiopian. Hildebrand herself is often doing double duty as server and cook, and in the back is an area with couch and coffee table that looks just like a living room. Chances are Hildebrand's hubby Dan will be in, tending to their two kids, David and Daisy. The overall aura of domesticity is comforting, and you can choose to eat your watt, or Ethiopian stew, on a traditional straw table, called a messob, while watching an Ethiopian soap opera or perusing the various travel posters featuring beautiful Ethiopian women. Hildebrand gives you lots of fresh enjera with which to scoop up your chicken, beef or veggie watt. Don't forget to try the house salad, and some of those Ethiopian-style samosas as well. We love all the Ethiopian eateries in the Valley, but right now Tina's is the one where we'd most like to spend an evening.
Who'da thunk it? The best tea in the Valley is not in some hoity-toity, pinkie-in-the-air tea room, but at an Uzbek restaurant in the Avenues called Samarkand, where Iron Mike Tyson has reportedly stopped by for the grub. Otherwise known for killer kebabs, fat, stick-to-your-ribs dumplings called manti, and hearty salads of carrot and mushroom, Samarkand also serves tea that will knock your Nikes right off your tootsies: a blend of black and green teas, prepared with the loose leaves placed in the bottom of the teapot, citrusy and full of flavor. No tea bags here, bubba. Plus you get a big-ass pot of the stuff to drink with Samarkand's homemade sweets -- a sugar-coated football of dough filled with crushed walnuts, or a cake of crushed walnuts sprinkled with powdered pistachios. Hey, Iron Mike, next time you need a break from the gym, the tea's on us, pal! Just give us a buzz!
Try as we might, we've yet to consume better wings in town than we have at Half Moon Sports Grill. These are not traditional Buffalo wings like the kind you'll get at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, the spot where the snack was invented back in 1964 by proprietress Teressa Bellissimo. Still, they're pretty dang scarfalicious, fat and juicy, but with an almost gourmet sauce. The "medium" tastes like barbecue sauce. Not bad, but we suggest the "hot," which is at the threat level of the "mediums" of other spots. It's just slightly sweet, and its spiciness lingers on the tongue for a while after there's nothing left but bone on your plate. As far as dressing goes, you can choose either ranch or the traditional blue cheese, and the celery is nice-sized and fresh. The wings are a little pricier than elsewhere, but that's because Half Moon is slightly upscale for a sports bar. What's in a name? The "half moon" refers to the plumber's crack revealed whenever someone bends over. Unappetizing, we know, but trust us -- the wings at Half Moon Sports Grill kick a full "moon" and then some.
Jamie Peachey
This Japanese-style, central Phoenix nosh shop is better known for its various forms of Far Eastern starch, hence the "Noodle" in the name. But the reality is that nearly everything Cherryblossom serves up is super, including its salads, like the Hot Thai Beef Salad, with a sautéed mix of beef and veggies over leaves of fresh romaine. Or there's the slightly less spicy Yakiniku, with savory, Korean-style barbecued beef over a spring mix. The place has even got a killer shrimp salad, and a unagi, or charbroiled eel, salad.

But our fave is the Shanghai duck salad, with warm duck breast on a spring mix, and sliced peaches. Kudos to Cherryblossom for crafting unique Asian salads -- the perfect complement to a pile of starch.

In the good old days, waiters at Durant's prepared our fave Caesar salad tableside, rather than delivering it done from the kitchen as they do today. But no matter where they mix it up, this is still the hands-down tastiest, most authentic Caesar we've ever eaten -- and believe us, Caesar salads are practically a staple in our diet. Which means we've eaten more than our share of limp, wide-cut romaine doused with bottled dressing, sprinkled with grated (rather than shredded -- can you imagine?) Parmesan and topped with boxed croutons.

But never at Durant's, where we've consumed our weight in homemade croutons and made-from-scratch dressing with just the right combination of egg and anchovy paste. In fact, Durant's is one of the few restaurants in town that will actually top our salad with anchovies if we ask.

One of the best salads ever created is the niçoise, made after the manner of cuisine from the French city of Nice, and containing such ingredients as tomatoes, black olives, garlic, tuna and anchovies. More often than not these days, you'll find this classic cold mixture as the innards of a niçoise sammy, but you can still find places that offer it as a salad, with Carly's Bistro on Roosevelt Street, just east of Central Avenue, being one. As prepared by co-owner Carla "Carly" Wade, there are no anchovies, black olives or hard-boiled egg on this niçoise. But her mix of albacore and capers over mixed greens with haricots verts and sliced tomatoes, bathed in a light, vinegary niçoise dressing, is most refreshing.

And with a bowl of gazpacho, a platter of hummus, and a glass of chilled white wine, doubly so. Because of its location and the links Wade and her partner, MadCaPs musician John Logan, have to the art community, Carly's is packed nearly every First Friday. But listen up to our little secret: Carly's isn't just for First Friday anymore. In fact, we like it best for a midweek lunch, when we can enjoy our niçoise in peace.

It's strange. When we were kids, our moms practically had to cake sugar onto vegetables to get us to eat them. But as our palates have progressed, there's nothing we like more than well-prepared veggies of all kinds. Hence our fondness for James Porter's Tapino Kitchen & Wine Bar, which sits in the same cul-de-sac as Sushi on Shea and Radda. Porter's menu is expansive, with numerous items usually ignored by the competition. In the veggie realm, these include such delights as hearts of palm, sunchokes in aged sherry, Carolina okra, braised rosemary salsify (pronounced "salsifee"), and the braised fennel with tarragon. Of course, Tapino is more than just veggies. Not only is there an excellent wine list, Porter also satisfies us with an array of bruschetta and tapas-like plates such as Kobe beef tips in chimichurri sauce, and Moroccan lamb skewers with mint cucumber raita. Still, it's his veggies we salivate over while remembering our last visit to Tapino.
Jamie Peachey
Bandera is perhaps best known as a chicken and rib joint, but the thing that keeps us coming back to this chain-that-doesn't-act-like-a-chain restaurant is the side dishes. We dream about the peanut coleslaw, the jalapeño corn bread, the garlic mashed potatoes. We know a woman who, for years, tried to replicate the house salad dressing -- to no avail. Now she just goes to Bandera and orders several sides of dressing, to douse her lettuce. We can commiserate. In our dream, we walk into Bandera and order a slab of peanut coleslaw, with a dish of ribs on the side. How about a vat of mashed potatoes to go?

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