BEST CHEESE SELECTION 2007 | AJ's Fine Foods | Shopping & Services | Phoenix
Jackie Mercandetti
It's great to order the cheese course after a meal at a nice restaurant, but these days, you don't need to rely on the whims of the kitchen to try an interesting cheese. Actually, it's much more fun to find your own fromage and serve it at home, where you can take your time enjoying it. Over the course of the evening, as it eases into room temperature, the cheese will become deliciously soft, perhaps even runny, and its flavors will become more intense. There's nothing to it, really. Just pick out a few kinds, put them out on a cutting board, and watch your friends devour it. (Trust us, it's one of the most rewarding and least labor-intensive ways to entertain guests.) For the best variety, head to AJ's, where the cheese counter is stocked with all the same boutique and imported cheeses you'd find at an upscale eatery or your favorite swanky wine bar. Service here is friendly and knowledgeable, and if they don't have what you're looking for, chances are, they'll gladly get it. Now you never need to go without your Humboldt Fog.
Our idea of spicing things up is to throw on some cinnamon if it's sweet and some garlic if it's savory. So we got quite a lesson at Penzeys, a shop with more than one kind of cinnamon (have you ever heard of cinnamon chunks?), several kinds of garlic, and an entire section devoted to curry. (And another to extracts!) We love the presentation: Each spice is offered up in a jar for tasting or smelling, with a history and potential uses printed right there for neo-spicers like us. We also loved the "cheater spices" like the Chip & Dip Seasoning, and the Sandwich Sprinkle, originally created to spice up croutons but now a popular sandwich topping. We left with a full bag, and a promise to ourselves to spice things up.
Evie Carpenter
Like wine, cheese, and more recently, chocolate, the humble olive has undergone a gourmet makeover. Years ago, we thought of olives as either pimiento-stuffed martini garnishes, or something that went straight from a can onto our nachos.

But those days are long gone, especially now that Queen Creek Olive Mill's on the scene. Known for its extra-virgin olive oil, made from Spanish and Italian varieties grown in its own groves, the Mill also sells the best variety of olives around — plump green ones filled with garlic and soaked in vermouth, marinated in balsamic vinegar and Tuscan spices, or stuffed with different kinds of cheese, including Maytag blue, feta, and Asiago. We're especially keen on the mesquite-smoked, almond-filled olives, which we couldn't get enough of when we visited Queen Creek Olive Mill's facilities. There, visitors can sample everything that's for sale in the on-site retail shop.

If a trip to the far reaches of Maricopa County isn't in the cards for you, don't stress. You can get your fix online, or from gourmet retailers around the Valley.

We can't get enough of the Sweet Sonoran Heat at The Barbecue Company, so we drive across town without complaint and load up on several bottles at a time of this heavenly sauce, then go home and pour it on everything in sight. We've been known to attract ants, but trust us, the Sweet Sonoran Heat is worth any inconvenience.
For 12 years, chef Eugenia Theodosopoulos and partner Gilles Combes have made parties tasty with their menu of stylish finger food and classic European dinners. And even though they've recently opened a bakery and cafe in Tempe, we still prefer the magnificent decadence of eating their treats on our patio or in our dining room. Our guests are still raving about their roast beef tartelettes. The tartelettes' melt-in-your-mouth roast beef is chilled, folded into a perfectly flaky mini-crust and topped with a dollop of sour cream — delish! And be sure to get the mini-croque monsieurs. Another plus: Theodosopoulos and Combes couldn't be easier to work with.
If we had to guess where Parisians get their joie de vivre, we'd say it's the smell of freshly baked croissants wafting through the streets of every arrondissement. With such an abundance of bakeries and pastry shops, those lucky French can indulge at whim, even making croissants part of their daily diet. (Of course, how they stay so slim with so many temptations is beyond us.) Here, it takes a little more strategy to get a taste of La France, but it is possible, thanks to Au Petit Four, a lovely French cafe and bakery tucked amid the shops at the Camelback Esplanade. Everything on the menu is magnifique, from creamy scrambled eggs and plump omelets for breakfast, to authentic quiches, baguette sandwiches, and colorful salads later in the day. But no matter what we order, we can't walk away without one of Au Petit Four's first-rate croissants. They're glossy and golden outside, and delicate and flaky inside, with a heavenly buttery flavor. The Concorde to France isn't an option these days, but who cares, as long as we can get our croissants so close to home?
European vacations used to haunt us in the worst possible way. You know how you get hungry for something you've had somewhere far away, and can't satisfy your craving until you go back? That was us, with the amazing artisan bread we'd find at traditional bakeries in Paris. The crisp, golden crust, the remarkably sweet flavor, the moist, delectable crumb — it all seemed so unobtainable, so distant, until we discovered Simply Bread. Nowadays, we can get our bread fix anytime, thanks to this year-and-a-half-old local bakery that prides itself on primo ingredients and the long, slow fermentation process that makes European bread the envy of the world. Even better, head baker Jeffrey Yankellow beat the French at their own game back in 2005, when he was on the USA team that won the gold medal at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie. One taste of Simply Bread's outstanding baguette or, perhaps, a bite of the delicate rosemary and sea salt-flavored focaccia is all it takes to fall in love with this place. Not to mention, you'll be in good company — the top chefs in town buy their loaves here.
In theory, the humble bagel should be an easy thing to make. After all, it's just a big ol' roll with a hole, right? Wrong. For anybody who's ever gotten a taste of real-deal New York bagels, there's just no tolerating the bready rounds that some stores try to pass off as authentic. In truth, good bagels are hard to come by, because so few places make them the old-fashioned way: by boiling the dough before baking it, which results in a distinctively thick, sturdy crust and a dense, doughy middle. That's exactly how New York Bagels 'N Bialys makes 'em. Take one bite of their classic version — preferably toasted, with a schmear — and you'll understand why this deli cranks out bagels that could fool any die-hard Manhattanite in a blindfolded taste test. New York Bagels 'N Bialys does the Big Apple proud.
After a trip to Lee Lee, your neighborhood grocery store will be a bore. At most supermarkets, the "Asian" ingredients get meager shelf space, taking up a fraction of an aisle.

That's pretty poor representation for the culinary traditions of an entire continent, dontcha think? Yeah, we do, too. Which is why we head to Lee Lee when we're in the mood to cook something more exotic than a no-brainer stir-fry.

Who knew there were so many kinds of tofu, so many varieties of noodles? And better yet, a seafood department that looks like an aquarium, with fish so fresh they're still swimming? We're not sure what's more appealing about Lee Lee — the novelty (quirky candies, snacks, and drinks), or the sheer variety of goods from Vietnam, China, Japan, Korea, India, and beyond. The à la carte foods aisle is a feast of sights and smells, while the produce section is a gorgeous sea of green, with heaps of leafy greens, sprouts, peppers, and unusual vegetables that you definitely won't find at your corner market.

It's hard to shop for groceries on an empty stomach, so we're glad we can fill up on tabbouleh, kebabs and shish taook (grilled chicken) before hitting the aisles at Baiz Market. Once you've found the place (off the beaten path, just north of Van Buren), it's hard to miss the in-house restaurant, tucked into a corner near the front of the store, with a wood-fired oven, counter service, and a scattering of tables for eat-in customers. From there, we like to relax and nibble on hummus and fresh pita while we jot down a lengthy shopping list of ingredients for an authentic Middle Eastern feast.

Baiz has everything we need — aisle after aisle of grains, nuts, exotic spices, and an incredible selection of imported olive oil that fills a section from floor to ceiling. In the back, there's a small produce section, an impressive deli featuring halal meats and a variety of cheeses and olives, and a dazzling case full of cookies, pastries, and an assortment of goods from the in-house bakery.

By the time we circle around to the housewares and cooking utensil aisles on the far side of the room, our cart is overflowing and we're ready to empty our wallets. But if we'll make room for anything, it'll be one of the fancy-schmancy hookahs on display.

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