BEST TAPAS RESTAURANT 2006 | Sol y Sombra | Food & Drink | Phoenix
We're not sure we're totally with this whole tapas thing. Sure, if you're some Andalusian alkie hitting the booze parlors in Granada, the quality's guaranteed. Plus, in Spain, these bar snacks often come free with the drinks. Here in Ameri-duh, they make you pay through the nose, sometimes $13, the price of an entree, for a portion of food that barely takes up the better half of the palm of your hand! But at least at DC Ranch's Sol y Sombra, you seem to get your ducat's worth most of the time. We attribute this success rate to the presence of chef Aaron May, who once worked for Food Network overachiever and obsessive clog-wearer Mario Batali. May can whip up patatas bravas that'll make you sing, and gazpacho that'll make you dance like them fools on Fuse TV's Pants-Off Dance-Off. This being Scottsdale, there's a floor show of sorts with all the MILFs showing off their new implants to one another, so you have something to watch while you nosh.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
Got a hankering for some truly authentic Vietnamese food? Da Vang's got the real thang. On a chilly winter day, we'll go with pho (a steaming bowl of beefy rice noodle soup) or one of countless filling stir-fry dishes. And during the summer, we'll start with the obvious hello, summer rolls! and then move on to some bun (cool rice noodles topped with barbecued pork, fried spring rolls, or shrimp) or a hot-off-the-griddle banh xeo (pork and shrimp crepe with sprouts) wrapped in fresh lettuce and dunked in salty-sweet nuoc cham. Truth be told, we could eat this stuff any time of year, regardless of the season. Da Vang's the kind of no-frills neighborhood joint where we feel just as welcome stopping by for a quick solo bite as we do relaxing with a bunch of hungry friends. The price is always right, too.
Korean barbecue is just the sort of ethnic food more Americans would love if they tried it. That's because the Koreans love charred meat, just like we do. So when you visit a Korean restaurant like Takamatsu, you not only have a variety of sushi, casseroles, kimchi, and even more exotic fare to choose from, there are also all kinds of marinated beef and pork, which you can grill up on the nifty gas grill built into your table. Eat it up with the half-dozen or more condiments that come with the order. And suck it down with a big bottle of Korean brew, and soju, a liquor made from sweet potatoes that's not quite as strong as vodka. Takamatsu draws its share of Korean celebs when they're in town, like pro-golfer babe Michelle Wie, which should tell you something. The place has a ski-lodge feel to it because of the wooden exterior and interior, so it's not devoid of atmosphere. Now if we could only run into Wie while we're there, and perhaps share a drink with her. A plate of beef, a jug of shoju, and thou, sweet Wie. That's all we really want.
The Valley can always use a new Thai spot, but what Sala Thai brings to the table isn't just more of the same; rather, it brings a different type of Thai cooking altogether one that's not as heavy, relies more on fresh veggies, and can strip the paint off a fire hose in its most potent form. Best order the mild or medium version of everything, if you can't stand the heat. But if, on the other hand, your sinus cavities are lined with flame-retardant metals, have at it! The clear noodle salad served at the hot level can mimic the surface of the sun, and the beef salad might just be that alternative fuel we need to power our cars without gasoline. The Thai omelet is on the cooler side, as is the "son-in-law egg," a mildly fried hard-boiled egg, sprinkled with fried garlic, which makes for the perfect pre-din-din nosh. Hot or not, Sala Thai's preparations are unique, and offer a different perspective on Thai cuisine, which is why it's earned this year's Best Of nod.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
So here's one place where adults can eat with their hands with complete impunity: Tempe's Cafe Lalibela is a classic Ethiopian eatery where traditional stews called wat are served on large pancakes of spongy injera, a bread made from the grain teff, which is native to northeastern Africa. Along with your stew of beef, lamb, fish, and any number of veggies, like collards, lentils or cabbage, you get a hopper of folded teff. You tear off a bit, scoop up the food from platter to mouth, and munch out. No fork needed! Brilliant, eh? Also, the wat lends itself to endless Abbott and Costello-like discussions, such as: "What's on my plate?" "That's right." "What?" "Yes, wat." And so on. Great for hours of amusement as the proprietors wonder when your party's finally gonna vacate the premises.
The scrumptious South Indian eats at Udupi Cafe prove once and for all that vegetarian/vegan food doesn't have to taste like plywood. After all, residents of the Indian subcontinent have been practicing Hindu-based vegetarianism for thousands of years, so you could say they're the past masters of making fleshless feasts tummy-worthy. The menu here is only about 80 percent vegan, to judge by the menu's identifying marks, but it's 100 percent vegetarian and delicious. This ain't the North Indian fare most of us are used to; rather, there are giant rice crepes rolled around saffroned potatoes, fried lentil doughnuts smothered in yogurt, fat dumplings of ground rice and lentils, deep-fried cauliflower, great bowls of lemon-flavored rice topped with Spanish peanuts, gooey okra in a tangy red paste, thick paratha bread stuffed with garlic, and on and on. Udupi is one of the few places in town where you can eat like a vegetarian and a king at the same time. And that's the poopi on Udupi.
Courtesy of Green
Let's be honest: Vegans are a major pain in the tuchis. Never mind abstaining from eggs, milk and cheese; they won't even eat honey, people, lest the bees be exploited by man. This is why most vegan-friendly fare bites. Customers for this cuisine are more concerned with their own hairsplitting ethics, and don't mind punishing their palates for the cause. So flavor falls victim to morality. Unless you're talking about Tempe's Green, where they at least make an effort to craft vegan vittles that are a joy to nosh. Hey, you try cooking without any animal products whatsoever. You'll be lucky if everything doesn't end up tasting like sand. Green overcomes this handicap most of the time, with cheese, milk and egg substitutes, well enough to please even the occasional carnivore who wanders into Green unprepared. Green's vegan pizzas and Asian-style bowls are actually tasty. And the chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter bars truly kick some skinny vegan fanny.
By now, you downtown dweller, you've no doubt discovered City Bakery, over the tracks in south Phoenix, just beyond the baseball stadium, adjacent to the cavernous Bentley Projects. We love that the Arcadia Farms people have spread south from their Scottsdale outpost, and we love the chicken and strawberry salad they serve for lunch. But did you know that City Bakery is open for breakfast? We're not sure many do, because when we've been, the place has been blissfully empty. So we're making the sacrifice, sharing the knowledge, knowing that soon we'll be rubbing elbows with you at breakfast, too. That's fine; this secret is too good to keep, and we want to keep City Bakery in business. Try the fluffy eggs and thick toast, along with a French press coffee. Or grab a cupcake. We promise not to tell.
Heather Hoch
We don't blame Chris Bianco for closing his pizza shop at lunch, as long as he keeps Pane Bianco open. This super-cute, straight-out-of-Brooklyn (as long as you're picturing Park Slope) sandwich shop elevates the term "sandwich" to levels heretofore unimagined. We prefer the simple mozzarella, tomato and basil on ciabatta, although we have friends who swear by the tuna. And if you prefer to skip the carbs, try the tuna salad. Or blow the diet entirely and try the pizza. Part of the charm of Pane Bianco is the seating: It's only outdoors, so you'll be having a picnic at big, gorgeous hand-carved tables. Or sneak into Lux Coffeebar next door. If you buy a coffee drink, no one will mind if you pull out your sandwich although someone might ask for a bite.
One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do unless you do it at Pugzie's. This lunch spot embraces the hungry single, providing open seating so you never have to answer the dreaded question, "How many?" Super tasty sandwiches, salads and soups are ordered and paid for up front so you can retreat to one of the small booths without interruption from the wait staff. To top it off, Pugzie's has a gigantic communal magazine rack. No need to raise your freak flag by reading at a restaurant; it's completely normal here. Feel free to indulge with a fresh-baked cookie and a trashy celeb magazine . . . no one's watching.

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