Best Sandwiches 2008 | Pane Bianco | Food & Drink | Phoenix
Heather Hoch

Chris Bianco and Susan Pool's downtown pizzeria gets all the glory, but it also gets all the crowds. Meanwhile, their midtown sandwich shop is still all about the locals, a casual spot where the lines are never too long for a quick lunchtime pit stop. It's counter service only, with everything wrapped to-go, although you're welcome to chill at picnic-style seating out front. The menu's minimalist (just a handful of sammies and salads), but every item is craveable, from housemade mozzarella, basil, and tomato to a distinctive take on tuna salad. The ever-changing market sandwich — perhaps with jamón serrano, or maybe roasted lamb and arugula — is worth a try as well. As you'd expect from Bianco, the James Beard Award-winning pizza guru, the bread is a highlight, served fresh from the wood-fired oven. Grab a loaf to take home, while you're at it.

It's really sad how often we go a little hungry when we're just not in the mood for a sandwich or a meat-and-potatoes entrée. Who says salads can't have substance? Thankfully, there's a restaurant where we can actually fill up when we're craving a good salad: Lisa G. This place is the bomb, whether for an uplifting workday lunch, a mellow dinner, or a late-evening glass of wine with friends. Indeed, we love everything here, from the killer homemade meatballs (that's "balls" on the menu) to scrumptious sandwiches on soft MJ Bread. But lately we find ourselves coming back again and again for the salads, as there's one for every mood. At lunch, we love the tuna salad, a luscious niçoise-inspired concoction with fresh greens, albacore tuna, white beans, roasted red peppers, capers, red onion, and Kalamata olives, tossed in the best Dijon vinaigrette we've ever had. Off the dinner menu, we love the frutti di mare, chock-full of seafood, and the surprisingly hearty vegetarian, laden with balsamic-tinged roasted vegetables and goat cheese. And then there's the steak salad, a filling spinach salad topped with blue cheese and juicy slices of strip steak. We're happy to make a meal out of that anytime.

From fine-dining spots all the way down to budget sandwich joints, the caesar salad is one menu item that spans cooking styles and price points. Obviously, the caesar has a devoted following. But why, then, do so many restaurants treat it like a token dish? Seriously, the caesar could be so simple and delicious, but the way most restaurants serve it, it's just plain boring. Not at radioMILANO, though. We could tell these folks appreciate a good caesar just by the way they've given it a creative spin. Here, it's not just a pile of romaine lettuce with some generic creamy dressing. It's ultra-fresh romaine tossed with crisp, thin slices of celery, Parmesan croutons, and a delectable dressing perked up with lemon juice. On top, there's plenty of shaved Parmesan, too. This is a caesar salad to crave — and ever since we've discovered it, we crave it all the time.

A lot of dishes are award-worthy at Cork, the south Chandler eatery opened by co-owners Robert Morris (sommelier), his wife Danielle Morris (pastry chef), and Brian Peterson (executive chef) earlier this year. But we think the banana cream pie says it all. What you might visualize when you order it is nothing like what you actually get. Instead of a simple slice of traditional pie, you get an edible work of art, with the chocolate-painted plate as a canvas. Brûléed banana slices and a roasted baby plantain accompany the "pie," whose tasty round Oreo crust supports a pale cylinder of delicate banana cream. On top, there's an ethereal cloud of brûléed homemade marshmallow. All together, this is one of the most memorable desserts we've had in a long time, and definitely a fitting way to wrap up a dinner that might include creative dishes such as seared foie gras with banana bread, or ostrich crudo with limoncello, heirloom tomato, and tortellini.

It's a pretty easy rule of thumb: Eat ethnic food at places frequented by people of that ethnicity. That's usually a good sign, no matter what kind of restaurant you're checking out. On weekends, Chandler's China King transforms into a culinary mecca for homesick Chinese, who show up in groups with three generations in tow. Squint hard enough, and you may almost convince yourself that this is Chinatown in San Francisco or New York. And besides, if this dim sum gets the approval of Chinese grannies, we think it deserves a try. Truly, the offerings here (more than 50 in all) are delicious. Flag down one of the waitresses pushing metal steam carts from table to table, and you never know what you'll find. It could be something for the hardcore dim sum fan — say, sweet steamed chicken feet — or something more accessible, like sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves, or barbecued pork buns. There's no pressure, of course. Feel free to wait it out for the next cart, or to help yourself to as many plates as you can handle. You'll go from dim sum dabbler to devotee in no time.

A little sangria, a few plates of goodies to share with friends, and a dark, cozy nook to enjoy it all — ah, those Spanish really know how to live, don't they? We stressed-out Americans could definitely learn a thing or two from our laid-back European friends. Who knows, maybe a little more wine and a little more olive oil would help us live longer. At least, we'd probably live better. Thankfully, there's a place in Phoenix where we can let our cares melt away and settle in at one of the most intimate dinner spots in town: Lola Tapas. When we say intimate, we mean it — two long, dark-wood communal tables line the compact, saffron-hued dining room, meaning you'll dine with your dearest and your nearest, whether they're strangers or not. It's a very friendly place and, fittingly, they serve dishes that are perfect for sharing, including marinated olives, jamón serrano, and Mahón cheese; garlicky sautéed shrimp; and mouthwatering grilled pork skewers. And, yes, the fruit-filled sangria is awesome, both the red and the white versions. It might be only a tiny taste of Spain, but it goes a long way when we're ready to relax.

Order off the à la carte menu if you like, but if you really want to understand why chef Nobuo Fukuda earned his James Beard Award, give in to Sea Saw's seasonal omakase. That's the premium tasting menu at this jewel box of a restaurant, a series of exquisite creations that Fukuda and his team of chefs assemble right before your eyes (that is, if you reserve one of the counter seats that encircle Sea Saw's open kitchen). Although the cuisine here is decidedly Japanese, it's imaginative and cutting-edge, with some unique European flourishes. Every bite is an exhilarating flavor combination, from tuna tataki drizzled with pinot noir reduction and roasted beet purée to seared, miso-marinated foie gras so sweet and rich that it's almost more decadent than dessert itself. Expert sake and wine pairings are yet another reason to look forward to each course. If there's one place in town where it's worth letting go of your Type A tendencies, it's Sea Saw. You'll be in good hands.

Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Want to know why we just stifled a yawn? Well, the menus hardly change at some of the Valley's top fine-dining spots, while other places might tweak their offerings every few months. If it weren't for that, we might visit some of them more often. But there's no getting bored at delightful Quiessence, where chef Gregory LaPrad and sous chef Anthony Andiario are Phoenix's most dynamic kitchen duo. Every day brings something different, based on whatever's fresh, in season, and available from local purveyors, including Maya's at the Farm, the organic farm located right next door. But no matter what time of year it is, you can count on exquisite homemade pastas, succulent meats and ripe vegetables roasted in the brick oven, homey desserts, and the city's most intriguing selection of artisan cheeses. If there's any restaurant worthy of repeat visits, it's Quiessence.

Although the juicy, perfectly grilled lamb chops come in a close second, our first pick for favorite dish at Bombay Spice is the unforgettable chickpea ceviche, a dish that turns a humble ingredient into a dazzling one. This heap of tender chickpeas is tossed with diced tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers, with a tangy-sweet sauce of yogurt, tamarind, and mint. Served chilled, it's summery and refreshing, a satisfying way to fill up without feeling bogged down (you could say the same about a lot of the healthful dishes at Bombay Spice, where Indian food gets a lighter spin). You can share a plate of chickpea ceviche with friends, or scarf it down as an entree, but no matter what you do, you'll find yourself craving it long after you've left the restaurant, and you'll never think of chickpeas the same way again.

You know, we're not sure we've ever seen Grape-Nuts on a menu anywhere, and we're definitely certain we've never eaten them past breakfast time. Who'd have guessed they'd make such a splendid dessert? At The Breadfruit, a bright, cheery Jamaican restaurant that opened downtown earlier this year, a dessert called "Gret's Grapenut Ice Cream and Jell-O" sparked our curiosity, if only for its unusual ingredients. It's quite an ice cream novelty, with Grape-Nuts and raisins stirred into soft Häagen-Dazs vanilla, then scooped into a parfait glass with blobs of cherry Jell-O. Simultaneously creamy, crunchy, and chewy all at once, this sweet and refreshing treat also happens to be the perfect way to cool your taste buds after eating spicy jerk chicken or fiery escovitch fish.

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