It's funny to think that the Valley's best wine purveyor started in the '50s as a neighborhood liquor store, the kind of place where folks stopped to pick up a six-pack, and maybe a fishing license.

Sportsman's, you've come a long way, baby! Of course, the place has long since gone upscale, and in recent years, its empire has expanded to three more locations. Boasting the state's biggest selection of bottles — with an astounding variety of vintages from both the world's most established Old World wine producers, as well as up-and-comers like New Zealand, Israel, and South Africa — Sportsman's can hook you up with whatever you're looking for. And don't worry if you have no clue what you're looking for — the salespeople here are more than happy to share their insights, make recommendations, and guide you to the perfect bottle. Take a seat at the bar for some tastings, and they'll be happy to get you tipsy, too.

Time was, convenience stores were good for a cold six-pack, some Gatorade, and maybe a bag of chips for the road. But as far as grabbing a decent bottle of wine this side of Ripple to take home for dinner, forget it.

That's changed — at least at this unexpected little find on the border of Phoenix and Scottsdale. Whoever "Pam" (of wine rack fame) is, she offers a small, but impressive selection of white and red vinos ranging from about $8 to $30, and you can't miss seeing them when you walk into the store. We recently found a nice Pinot Noir from Napa Valley for an eminently reasonable $15 that Miles — the memorable Paul Giamatti character from Sideways — would have adored. The store also sells wine "accessories," such as corkscrews, glasses, bottle plugs, and other extras. Next thing you know, this joint will be offering sushi along with the pork rinds.

When we're heading over to the West Valley to catch a Cardinals game or shop at Arrowhead Towne Center, one of our preferred pit stops to reload on carbs and refuel the car is this former Exxon Food Mart that's become an independent petrol depot, staffed by super-friendly cashiers and stocked with a full selection of salty and sugary snacks.

Plus, there's the name of this gas-and-grub joint: It makes us chuckle every time we drop by to, err . . . pump and munch (heh). Our gutter brains go into overdrive with all manner of double-entendre as our inner 13-year-old gets in a good giggle or two. It's almost as fun as visiting Rapid In-and-Out Gas in downtown Phoenix (snicker).

From the outside, Tops looks like an ordinary neighborhood booze purveyor, but as soon as you take a stroll down the narrow aisles — where shelves are stocked high with a jaw-dropping variety of beers from around the world — you'll understand why beer connoisseurs can't resist this place.

First of all, the inventory is divided by regions and countries, so things are easy to find. The refrigerated section has a sizable selection of cold ones, and the list of kegs is impressive, too. And then there are the obscure brews — harder-to-find stuff like Dogfish Head 120-Minute IPA — that get the beer geeks riled up. But just because enthusiasts love Tops doesn't mean it's a pretentious place to buy brewski.

In truth, it's so laid-back here that the staff can seem indifferent at times, so you're on your own, buddy. Still, if you know what you're looking for (or are adventurous enough to take a chance on some unusual suds), Tops is the place to come.

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?

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