Essence Bakery Cafe
Courtesy of Essence Bakery

One Friday morning, after a few hellacious days of office drama, a dear co-worker showed up bearing tiny cardboard boxes adorned with Essence Bakery stickers. Passing one to us, she said, "I thought we all needed to end the work week on a sweet note."

We peeked inside and could barely contain our glee at the sight of five freshly baked miniature treats — and we promise you, it wasn't just because we'd just been staring at the computer and listening to the steady rumble of our empty stomach. But still, those desserts were quite a sight, and we couldn't resist nibbling on them immediately.

What was inside?

A Mexican wedding cookie, coated with confectioner's sugar; a chocolate cookie; a chewy white chocolate and macadamia nut cookie; a creamy little square of chocolate cake; and a Lilliputian pound cake sprinkled with sugar. Before we knew it, we'd gobbled them all up — and we couldn't think of any better way to usher in the weekend.

Sweet Republic
Courtesy of Sweet Republic

If Phoenix in the summertime is hell, then Sweet Republic is pure heaven. So don't be surprised to find us at this cool, tangerine-colored ice cream shop, blissfully Web surfing (hey, we can't pass up the free Wi-Fi!) and nibbling at fresh, made-from-scratch artisanal ice creams. Owners Jan Wichayanuparp and Helen Yung opened their doors this summer — not a day too soon, we say — and quickly made a name for themselves with unusual flavors and premium ingredients, such as rBST-free milk.

We're keen on the salted butter caramel ice cream, lime-basil sorbet (so refreshing), and the addicting blue cheese ice cream. No, it's not as weird as it sounds; think sweet and seductive, like really good cheesecake.

Why is there often a line out the door of this pint-size gelato shop? Well, if you have to ask the question, you probably haven't stopped by yet. That's okay, though — it usually only takes a bite of this creamy, heavenly stuff to join the initiated. Owners Moreno and Marina Spangaro are natives of Trieste, Italy, and their homemade gelato is an authentic taste of the Old Country. Most places hawking gelato these days can whip up any flavor imaginable (bubblegum, anyone?) with the help of canned flavor pastes, but at Arlecchino, everything is made from scratch. That means melon and blood orange come and go with the seasons because they're made with organic, locally grown fruit. The dense, heady chocolate gelato is made from a secret blend of top-shelf cocoa, and the intense pistachio is flavored with pure Sicilian pistachios. Are you hungry yet? We thought so. Go ahead; get in line.

Who cares if the über-popular Pinkberry — a trend-setting frozen yogurt empire in Southern California and beyond — still hasn't opened a shop in these parts? Certainly not us, now that Ice Tango's on the scene. This homegrown enterprise is hip in its own right, a brightly colored, retro-modern hangout hawking the fro-yo that makes our toes curl. They call their plain yogurt flavor "twangy," and it's surprisingly good — light, tangy, and just sweet enough to make you eat more than you think you will. Ice Tango also offers frozen yogurt in half a dozen fruit flavors, from luscious mango to tart, refreshing pomegranate. They're all delish, and did we mention they're fat-free? Of course they are — how else could we justify topping our yogurt with everything from bananas to mochi to chocolate sprinkles?

Poppa Maize Gourmet Popcorn

The ghost of Orville Redenbacher may haunt us the rest of our days for admitting this, but for a while, we got pretty damn bored with popcorn. Don't get us wrong, we've definitely eaten our fair share of freshly popped kernels over the years, whether relaxing at the cinema, hanging out at the state fair, or scarfing down a bag at our desk at work. But frankly, after a while, our tongue was weary of the usual butter-and-salt seasoning, which is why a visit to the Poppa Maize was in order.

Our tired taste buds needed reviving by way of the staggering selection of almost two dozen flavored-popcorn selections the shop cooks up, and we weren't disappointed. It's like popcorn porn in a way, with such zesty and wild signature recipes as chili y lime, cheesy chipotle, and pineapple jalapeño. Want something sweeter? The Poppa Maize peeps gladly serve you such tasty popcorn concoctions as strawberries-and-cream, white chocolate, and apple-cinnamon. If you aren't in the mood to make the drive to their north Phoenix location, tins and bags (including ginormous, three-foot party bags) of each of their 22 flavors is available for purchase on the store's Web site. Our tongue sends us love letters every time we log on and place orders for more and, we're sure, yours will, too.

Poore Brothers

TastyKake reps their Philly 'hood in baked goods. Utz is the salty-snack beast of the Northeast. Where do you turn if you want to throw your A'z up and want local munchies to rise up? Enter Poore Brothers. Since '86, the Goodyear-based company has kettle-cooked their potato chips full of crunchiness and amazing flavors. Their dill pickle and guacamole varieties are gone, but they still rock with salt and cracked pepper, sweet Maui onion, and triple cheese jalapeño. It's easy to proclaim, "We the best!" on behalf of the home team when it's actually true.

Carl's designer vegetables are pure art. Heirloom seed stock, some near extinction, groomed and grown to produce some of the most tender and tasty tomatoes, greens, and herbs with an attention to detail that rivals Italian designer goods. With varietal names like Black Russian, Cherokee Purple, and Snowbell, these are no ordinary tomatoes, which show in a palette of colors that rival the spring collections in Milan. Even better, Carl's putting his design skills to use by cultivating a couple of signature tomatoes, which will include a Cherokee Orange. Ever seen purple haricots vert? They're our new favorite, thanks to Carl. His attention to gardening detail and creation of high-end and fragile foodstuffs has earned him the nickname "the Gucci gardener."

But unlike designer showrooms featuring evening gowns, these tasty bits won't cost an arm and a leg. Carl's got good taste, that's for sure, and so does his produce. (You can reach him directly at [email protected] or 623-846-4624.)

Be warned. These delicious delectables are delicate. And gone, baby, gone — faster than last season's Prada shoes. The market opens at 8 on Saturday mornings, and the best of the batch will be long gone by 9.

Queen Creek Olive Mill
Evie Carpenter

Perry Rea and his family planted a bunch of olive trees about a decade ago in what still passes for the sticks. They had a dream — make that a goal — of starting Arizona's first working olive farm and mill. And talk about hitting the jackpot. These days, some people taste the olive oil as if they're sipping a fine wine. They swear by this place in the far East Valley. At the company store, patrons can sample (and buy) several flavors of extra-virgin olive oil, dipping sauces, and some fine balsamic vinegar, all of them locally grown and produced. What an unexpected and delicious gift to send from the desert, one that won't break the bank, either.

Though Snowflake, the northern Arizona town nestled in the White Mountains, is outside our coverage area, we make an exception for this fabulous cheese that is available for purchase at boutique food stores around the Valley (Whole Foods is one) and at fine restaurants such as Quiessence. If you consider goat cheese to be an overpowering, overly pungent experience, think again. Black Mesa's cheeses are made exclusively from the milk of their own herd of Nubian goats, an African breed known for their adaptability to the hot summer temperatures.

The family-owned and operated company's Web site declares that Black Mesa never works on more than 14 gallons of milk at a time. That allows it to pay the closest detail to every step of the cheese-making process. The various cheeses — we especially like the goat's milk feta — are available online and at very reasonable prices. In a previous life, one of the owners was a pastry chef, and Black Mesa's commercial candy kitchen includes Goat's Milk Fudge and Butter Almond Toffees. Let's hear it for the goat!

Whole Foods Market

Quel fromage! We had to do a double-take the first time we stumbled into Whole Foods' cheese department, where the variety of fine artisanal cheeses — cow's milk, goat's milk, sheep's milk, you name it — just boggles the mind. From soft, tiny rounds of fresh chèvre and wedges of aged Gouda to slabs of creamy, pungent Époisses de Bourgogne, there's almost anything we could conjure up in our wildest cheese fantasies (and it doesn't hurt that the lavish displays are so appealing that they verge on food porn). Sniff around (literally and figuratively) and you'll be surprised by the novelties you'll find. There are usually samples to nibble on as you peruse the offerings, and if you'd like a taste of something before you splurge on a pricey chunk of it, the genial staff will be eager to let you try it. Trust us, this is one place where you can feel proud to be cheesy.

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