How is it that some of the world's strangest-looking critters happen to be some of the tastiest, too? Because on looks alone, alligators seem like they'd be about as tough to eat as an old lady's handbag. In truth, gator meat is surprisingly delicious — tender, mild white flesh that's as juicy as chicken after a good dunk in the deep-fryer. Of course, you'd never know it, seeing how hardly anybody serves it in these parts, although there is one place where we're sure to find it: Twisted. Chef-owner Carlos Manriquez — the globe-trotting culinary adventurer behind Atlas Bistro (just a few doors down, in the same Scottsdale strip mall) and Tempe's Mucho Gusto Taqueria — serves his golden, batter-dipped alligator bites with cornmeal-crusted calamari, butternut aioli, Cajun remoulade, and curry-pickled Asian pear. A friend had to twist our arm to taste it at first, but we're glad we took the leap of faith. Now we're the ones daring newbies to try it. Aw, c'mon — you'll like it!
Leave it to the Japanese to come up with yet another clever, interactive way to cook your own food with friends: Ishiyaki, which uses a smooth, superheated black river stone for sizzling up delicate slices of raw meat. The folks behind Taneko aren't Japanese — no doubt you're already familiar with their other restaurants, P.F. Chang's and Pei Wei — but they've embraced ishiyaki as a house specialty at their newest venture, which was inspired by Japan's ubiquitous izakaya (pubs). Here, they call it Hot Rock, but the idea's the same. They bring said rock to the table in a dish full of salt, which isn't affected by the heat. (Don't even think of touching it, lest you're ready turn your fingertips into tataki.) Next comes a platter of raw American Kobe beef, cut into perfect bite-sized pieces. Drop one onto the rock, watch it quickly cook, and then dip it into a garlicky, gingery sauce made with ponzu (a tart Asian citrus fruit). It's juicy, flavorful, and downright fun. But beware — if you overcook your pricey piece of meat, you only have yourself to blame.
La Grande Orange Grocery
Courtesy of La Grande Orange
We're convinced that Arcadia's premium real estate values have something to do with the cachet of La Grande Orange. After all, who wouldn't want to live near this place? It's that perfect corner cafe we've always dreamed of, where we can settle in with the New York Times and a latte at a table in front, or bring along a friend for salads on the shady patio and some chit-chat about the eye candy all around us. (As you might've guessed, there's no way we'd stop by on a bad hair day.) The grocery selection is more about gourmet treats than pantry staples, but whenever we're at LGO, imported cheeses, fancy crackers, and squid ink pasta suddenly seem essential. It's supposed to be dangerous to shop on an empty stomach, but even after we fill up on a tuna melt or a Tammie Coe Ooey Gooey cupcake, we can't help it when we fill our shopping basket with impulse buys. For one thing, there's the wine aisle, stocked from floor to ceiling with boutique-y labels. And then there are all the inedible must-haves, like stationery, magazines, and upscale pet toys. We want it all, we want it bad, and we know we're not alone in wishing LGO was in every 'hood. You'd be surprised at how many miles your fellow shoppers drove just to "drop by" this casual hot spot.

BEST INDEPENDENT RESTAURANT WE'RE GLAD IS A CHAIN

Wildflower Bread Company

Wildflower Bread Company
It's always weird when a favorite local spot suddenly goes global. We like to support independent businesses. Does that mean that now that Wildflower has locations all over town, we should stop going? No way, we say! It just means we can find one most anywhere we happen to be. We love the variety of fresh bread at this little cafe (have you tried the soft pretzels?), and the salads are always super-fresh. On a recent visit, we were particularly impressed by the fact that although it was a busy Sunday morning, the guy who took our order at the counter was more than happy to accommodate all of our odd requests (which included eliminating certain vegetables from one dish, adding fruit to another, and making the whole damn thing fat-free). That's the kind of service we expect from a small guy, and we're glad to see Wildflower still providing it, even as business booms. Or should we say blooms?
Lon's at the Hermosa
Jackie Mercandetti
Do you ever wonder what the Valley used to be like before it was a sprawling web of highways and strip malls? Head to Lon's, the fine-dining establishment at the Hermosa Inn, to get a taste of tranquility in the great outdoors. The elegant adobe dining room, part of the historic hacienda that once belonged to artist Lon Megargee, is a lovely place to visit year-round, but right around the time you start bragging about how you don't have to shovel sunshine, the patio's the best place to enjoy executive chef Michael Rusconi's rustic American cuisine. Pepper-crusted pork tenderloin with prickly pear braised cabbage, and wood-grilled buffalo strip steak are just a couple of the outstanding options. Surrounded by trees and gorgeous landscaping, with Camelback Mountain in the distance, Lon's outdoor seating area is relaxing and romantic, with the warm, enticing aroma of mesquite wafting from a nearby chiminea. Around sunset, when all the candles are lit, it's the most magical place to experience the desert scenery.
Luke's of Chicago
Let's face it: You won't be fooled into thinking you're back in Chicago just from the looks of Luke's. Sure, there's plenty of nostalgia in the place, from the panorama photo of the downtown skyline on the back wall to the old bus stop signs and pictures of Windy City sports heroes hung behind the counter. But just outside the window, the intersection of 16th Street and Indian School would be hard to mistake for the Magnificent Mile. As for the menu, though, it's the real deal — just close your eyes and taste. And stopping by this no-frills shop is definitely an easier (and cheaper) way to satisfy a craving than hopping a flight to O'Hare. Hefty subs, fat meatball sandwiches, juicy bratwurst and Italian sausages are just a few of the highlights. Luke's does a great Chicago-style hot dog (get "The Works," a sloppy delight with ketchup, mustard, onions, tomatoes, hot peppers, pickles, green peppers, and celery salt), and their Italian beef has a cult following. Stuffed into a huge sub roll soaked with beefy juices, and topped with plump, sweet peppers and melted provolone cheese, the thinly sliced meat is tender, full of flavor, and totally irresistible — even if you're not a Chicago native.
Tarbell's
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
There are plenty of fine tables around the dining room at Tarbell's, but we come here just for the fun of eating rock shrimp ceviche or Scotch beef sliders at the bar. It's a long, lovely swoop of glossy blond wood, the perfect vantage point for the bustling, open kitchen. Service at Tarbell's is friendly and attentive (our wine glass never goes empty when we're perched on one of the streamlined bar chairs), no doubt inspired by personable chef-owner Mark Tarbell's example. Sooner or later, we inevitably get a visit from him, and no, we're not all that special — he makes everybody feel like a million bucks. Since Tarbell's appearance on The Food Network's Iron Chef America earlier this month, we're worried that we'll have a hard time getting in here, kind of like when Oprah turned the nation's attention to Pizzeria Bianco. But that's okay. While Tarbell basks in the attention, we're happy to stake out our rightful place at the bar.

BEST PLACE TO MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME

Palatte

We're not exactly sure when it started, but cute eateries setting up shop in old homes is a full-on phenomenon in central Phoenix. Coronado Café, Lisa G Wine Bar, Fate, Cibo, The Roosevelt Tavern — they're all unique spots made even more appealing by the charming structures that house them. The latest to join in on this downtown trend is Palatte, a new breakfast and lunch destination that opened this summer in the William E. Cavness house. Constructed in 1914, the historically designated building has been beautifully maintained, such a rarity in a city where old and quirky places don't often avoid the wrecking ball. Whether we're feasting on scrambled eggs and griddle cakes in what we imagine is the old living room, or nibbling on a tart out on the patio, we can't help but think that spots like this are the perfect antidote to strip mall fatigue.
Kai
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
For über-foodies turned on by menus with highly unusual combinations of exotic ingredients, Kai is a gourmet mecca. Executive chef Michael O'Dowd and chef de cuisine Jack Strong masterfully combine familiar haute cuisine elements like foie gras, fennel pollen, and lobster tail with things you've probably never eaten, or even heard of — cholla buds, huitlacoche mojo, toasted saguaro seeds, and nopalitos are just a few of the ingredients that'll fire up your imagination (or maybe make you wish you'd brought a dictionary). Indeed, the descriptions of each dish can veer into the esoteric, but, rest assured, it's all delicious. Tres Pescado Ceviche — presented with a flourish of mesquite smoke — makes a memorable appetizer, and juicy grilled buffalo tenderloin with smoked corn purée is just one of the inventive, Native American-inspired entrees. Even the cocktail menu plays with the concept, from the spicy, lemony Skocu Thu (with ancho chile) to the fragrant mesquite bean martini. By the end of the meal, desserts like Mexican chocolate soufflé with wattleseed crme anglaise hit the sweet spot between high-concept and primal satisfaction. A few bites into it, when your foodie friends sigh softly and get a faraway look in their eyes, take it as a sign of approval.
Quiessence Restaurant
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
These days, hardly a restaurant opens up without some fanfare about its local organic produce or seasonal dishes. That's great and all — the more the merrier, when it comes to sourcing great ingredients — but still, we know a trend when we see it.

At Quiessence, though, they don't just talk the talk. They walk the walk every single day, when chef de cuisine Greg LaPrad and sous chef Anthony Andiario put their heads together and come up with a new menu that makes the best use of the freshest produce, seafood, and meats. That means organic vegetables grown right next door, at Maya's at the Farm, meats from local herdsmen, and other ingredients from Phoenix purveyors. Both LaPrad and Andiario have spent time working in Italy, where the Slow Food Movement was founded, so they're huge believers in the philosophy behind the food. On any given day, the menu might feature braised pork tenderloin with roasted peppers and wilted mizuna; buckwheat tagliatelle with duck confit, fava beans and sage; or pan-seared sole with shrimp, baby fennel, and sweet potatoes. More likely, you won't find any of the above due to the truly seasonal menu, but you get the picture. Housemade charcuterie, pâtés, and salads are ever-changing as well.

The beautiful thing about Quiessence, aside from the pastoral setting, is how it never gets old. We can't think of anywhere else in Phoenix where repeat visits are such a pleasure.

Best Of Phoenix®

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