Oregano's
Timur Guseynov
How can you not love a pizza joint where the menu describes the Chicago-style thin-crust pie as "custom cut into tiny squares, like finger-jello"? This is a place that does not take itself seriously except when it comes to the quality of the food, which is always high, even as Oregano's prepares to take over the world or, at least, Arizona. There are now five Oregano's in metro Phoenix (Mesa, Phoenix, Tempe, and two in Scottsdale), one in Tucson, and another in Flagstaff. Really, even though the place doesn't deliver, you can pretty much reach up from the couch and grab a slice there are that many outposts, that close. Or pick up the phone and call; we've found the counter service to be as friendly as the table service. Once you're there to pick up your pie or salad or wings or garlic bread you'll likely want to stay, and soak up Oregano's retro-with-a-flair surroundings, along with the strong scent of garlic. It's all good.
Cave Creek: home of javelinas, biker bars, speed traps and fine dining? Hell, where'd you think all those folks in their million-dollar pads go to graze? To Binkley's Restaurant, of course, a little patch of genteel Napa Valley amidst the giant rocks and saguaros. Chef Kevin Binkley, who once worked side-by-side with Thomas Keller at Keller's much-ballyhooed French Laundry in Napa, commands the kitchen, while Binkley's wife and matre d' Amy works the front. The combination of flawless service and nonpareil grub keeps the small, elegant eatery booked reservation-wise most nights of the week. As the menu changes, the latter might include such French-inspired American cuisine as poached pear stuffed with duck liver mousse or monkfish medallions, with pattypan squash, polenta, and one sublime sliver of monkfish liver. Service, on the other hand, boasts Riedel stemware, serviettes tied with red ribbons, and periodic palate-cleansers to amuse your bouche. Only bad thing about Binkley's is that you have to hoof it all the way to Cave Creek to get there. Is it worth the drive? Well, what do you think?

BEST PLACE TO EAT LUNCH IF YOU'RE HAVING A BAD DAY

Welcome Diner

Welcome Diner
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Welcome Diner is the heart of Roosevelt Row we have friends who swear by the place, not as a good spot to grab lunch but as a mood elevator. Located just east of the gallery action, the diner has quickly become the weekday afternoon hangout for developers, artists and shopkeepers, who gather to eat the hamburgers and fries and catch up on neighborhood gossip. The joint is small the diner is a Valentine original, manufactured in Kansas and the A/C has to work hard to keep up with the hustle on the counter stools as well as behind the counter. Don't miss one of the house specialties, chocolate chip oatmeal cookies baked two at a time in a toaster oven. You'll blow your diet, but we promise you'll leave Welcome Diner in a good mood.
Here's how the conversation went, over the menus at Pink Taco: "Hey," said our dining companion, a Pink Taco fan (actually, Jason Rose, the restaurant's local PR guy), "you've gotta order the Pink Taco." "Oh, no," we replied. "We'll pass. We really don't like fish." That cracked Rose up. Whoops. Our bad. Turns out, the Pink Taco (a.k.a. panuchos) doesn't have any fish in it at all. C'mon, Jason. Who can blame us for assuming? Still, we turned the same rosy shade as the pink pickled onions in the restaurant's signature dish, and after all that, we had to order one. And we've gotta say: It was damn good. A small corn tortilla is filled with beans, grilled chicken, salsa roja, pickled onions and avocado. The chicken is tender and tasty, the tortilla's fresh and the onions are a nice complement. The only problem with the Pink Taco? It was a little messy. We know, we know . . . T.M.I. . . .
Trader Vic's
Like many longtime Valleyites, we have fond memories of the original Trader Vic's. It was located in downtown Scottsdale, and by the time we made it there, the blush was off the rose, the blowfish draped with cobwebs and dust. Still, for us, this was as glamorous as it got. (This was before the Drinkwaters brought liquor and clubs to town, and before we could order a cocktail ourselves, for that matter even with a fake ID.) We're not sure the contents are exactly the same, but one thing from the old Trader Vic's that seems resurrected with some authenticity at the new version swank and stark, tacked onto the edge of the Hotel Valley Ho is the pupu platter. Still aflame, still featuring enough pork and fried items to ensure you won't make it to the next resurrection of Trader Vic's, we love it, particularly alongside several cocktails we're now more than old enough to order.
We weren't surprised to see lavender on Mthode Bistro's dessert list, where it shows up twice in the form of creamy lavender ice cream (which accompanies wood-roasted pineapple and crisp pastry) as well as lavender cookies (paired with a white chocolate and blueberry frozen souffl). Something about its intoxicating aroma gives sweet foods a special twist. But chef Matt McLinn took us off guard with his Mediterranean-inspired dinner menu, where the herb takes a savory turn in a sauce for tender foie gras. It was unusually good, and now we've found ourselves craving this out-of-the-ordinary flavor. We can only hope that this spawns a trend.
Don't ask us to pronounce "aciliezme." Doesn't matter, you can just ask your kind Efes waiter for the Atomic Bomb. Or order the appetizer platter. That's what we did, and while the waiter did warn us that the pile of reddish crumbs he called hot sauce (hardly looks like hot sauce, more like hot crumbs) was a little fiery, we were not prepared for the assault to the lips, tongue and mouth. After a few minutes of gasping and gulping (water or wine, whatever was nearby), we went back for more. The mixture of breadcrumbs, walnuts and seven kinds of pepper (six for taste, one for color, we're told) is irresistible, in an S&M kind of way. Or maybe it's the luxurious pillows and low benches we're invited to lounge on at Efes, where the rest of the appetizer tray including hummus, spinach pie, pita and falafel was all delectable, and just the right temperature.
Lisa G has us by the balls. Sure, the creative salads at this chic, laid-back little wine bar are addictive (especially the steak salad with spinach and blue cheese). And the hefty sandwiches, made on fresh, fragrant MJ Bread (Tammie Coe's hubby), are some of the best in town. But Lisa's Bowl of Balls is what really gets us hot and bothered. Boy, do these meaty marvels ever delight the unabashed carnivore in us. They're made from owner Lisa Giungo's own family recipe using beef, veal, pork, and some secret-but-tasty ingredients, and they come smothered in chunky, homemade marinara sauce. The portion's certainly filling enough to be an entree, but don't be surprised if your friends all want to try them. Our greedy strategy for getting around that? Order them up as a grinder, with melted provolone cheese, and keep the sandwich all to yourself.
For such a ubiquitous salad, the mighty Caesar is sadly botched more often than not. Whether it's from the wrong kind of lettuce (only romaine will do), overpowering, gunky dressing, or too many shakes of straight-from-the-can grated Parmesan, too many restaurants take a heavy hand with this seemingly straightforward classic. Radda's "La Stella" Caesar is a shining star of simplicity. Although it's not prepared tableside, according to tradition (we're hard-pressed to find anyone doing that these days), this plate of large, crisp, artfully arranged heart of romaine leaves, lightly dressed in subtle seasonings and rich olive oil, still satisfies. The croutons, made from grilled focaccia, are deliciously chewy, and fresh shavings of high-caliber Italian Parmesan are generously feathered on top of the masterpiece. It's easily a meal unto itself. Order it with grilled chicken served thinly sliced and warm and you've got all four food groups.
We are well aware that salad is supposed to be diet food, but we're just as aware at how much wink-wink, nod-nodding goes on around many menus in town. Nowhere is this more evident or, we believe, better justified than at Country Glazed Ham, where we recently made pigs of ourselves over the club salad. No grilled chicken here the chicken atop this salad was deep-fried and delicious, accompanied by bacon, cheese, avocado and enough sweet dressing to satisfy our craving for dessert. The salad comes with a side of enough bread to make sandwiches for a week but if you're like us, you'll down that right then and there, too.

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