Best Comfort Food 2009 | Rancho Pinot | Food & Drink | Phoenix

Is it dinnertime yet? The mouthwatering dishes at Rancho Pinot remind us of the kinds of things Mom used to make — if only Mom had been a gourmet cook. Chef Chrysa Robertson dreams up food that's rustic and soul-satisfying, putting the finest local produce to good use (not a surprise, considering her involvement with Slow Food Phoenix) in a menu that evolves with the seasons. Side dishes are a snapshot of the season, fresh from the farm, while appetizers such as hand-pulled mozzarella and ricotto gnocchi with lamb ragu are tasty enough to fill up on. But let's face it: There's always room for hearty entrees like handmade pasta or the famous "Nonni's Sunday Chicken," the kind of dish that traditions are made of. Braised with white wine, herbs, and mushrooms, this bird is fork-tender, the essence of comfort food in every bite. And the best part is, you can find it on the menu every night of the week.

Heather Hoch

We can't think of any takeout place that gets the kind of action that Pane Bianco does. The menu's minuscule and there's nowhere to sit inside. But there's always a lively scene under the shade sails out front, where customers congregate at rustic picnic tables to eat sandwiches and salads out of Pane's brown paper bags. What's the big deal, you ask? The crisp, bubbly bread is unmatched — celebrity pizzaiolo Chris Bianco is behind this place, after all — and fillings are impeccably fresh, from milky, handmade mozzarella to tangy tuna salad studded with onions and olives. Old-fashioned cane sugar sodas and dreamy rice pudding round out the offerings here. Considering how many sunny days we enjoy in Phoenix, we think al fresco is the way to go.

Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain has a real gem in elements, its signature fine-dining restaurant. Executive chef Beau MacMillan ranks among an elite group of chefs who've taken on an Iron Chef (in this case, Bobby Flay) and emerged victorious in the popular Food Network TV show. And his cooking is considered some of this city's most exquisite, meshing contemporary American with Asian flourishes, such as shrimp and pork pot stickers with hoisin butter, or juicy Maple Leaf Farms duck breast with bok choy, roasted butternut squash, and garlic cherry glaze. But the icing on this very impressive, delicious cake is elements' dining room, where the view is to die for. From this perch on the side of Camelback, surrounded by windows, you can see the sky glow at sunset, framed by inky mountain silhouettes and a twinkling blanket of lights below. If you've ever wondered why they call this Paradise Valley, a visit to elements should settle that question.

Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Restaurants sometimes use the term "award-winning" pretty loosely. But not Kai. This fine-dining spot has earned its elite status in some of the country's most prestigious restaurant rankings — most notably, the AAA Five Diamond Award and five stars from Mobil Travel Guide. That puts Kai up there among the best places in the country, worthy of a special visit. For that, diners will be rewarded with unique, sophisticated cuisine that meshes traditional luxury ingredients with distinctively Southwestern flavors and locally grown produce. An heirloom tomato and cheese tart is made with buckwheat and saguaro seeds, while smoked corn puree, scarlet runner beans, cholla buds, and saguaro blossom syrup jazz up the buffalo tenderloin. Suffice it to say, dinner at Kai is quite an event — one you won't soon forget.

You can order off the lengthy Chinese menu anytime (there are lots of seafood dishes here), but dim sum is likely the biggest reason Phoenix Palace is packed with hungry hordes from across the Valley, especially on weekends. Folks flock to this strip mall spot, located adjacent to Lee Lee's Oriental Supermarket, for a mind-boggling variety of Cantonese small plates served up hot and fresh, from delectable classics like steamed barbecue pork buns, shu mai, spare ribs, and chicken feet to more unusual dishes, such as crisp, pan-fried chive dumplings, tripe, and unforgettable "snow mountain" buns, soft custard-filled pastries that really do resemble wintry peaks. (Get them when they're warm, and you won't be able to eat just one.) It's hard to hold back when the carts pass by your table, but don't worry — the only thing more shocking than how much dim sum you'll inhale is how little it'll cost you.

Matt's Big Breakfast

Why is there a crowd of a few dozen people milling around on the corner of First Street and McKinley on a 100-degree day? Are they crazy? Well, yes — crazy for really delicious, all-American breakfast food, perhaps. These days, the mob outside Matt's Big Breakfast is a mix of downtown locals and longtime fans, as well as curious first-timers who've inevitably seen Matt's on the Food Network or read about it in Bon Appetit. And, yeah, we know we're perpetuating the hype by giving them more love, but they deserve it. The fact still stands that Matt and Erenia Pool's teeny-tiny diner cranks out heavenly pancakes, wonderful waffles, awesome omelets, and all kinds of comforting fare that still lives up to its stratospherically high reputation. Barely five years old, Matt's is already a downtown Phoenix landmark.

Kyle Lamb

From their red and white bungalow at Seventh Street and Whitton Avenue, the Shillers, scions of sausage sultan Hugo Schreiner, have been stuffing casings and Phoenicians since 1955. They've added a flavor or two to keep up with our changing palates, and low-fat for expanding waistlines, but it's the classics that keep us coming back for more. Like their linguisa, a Portuguese creation with a bit of fiery kick, or the summer favorite of BBQers everywhere, the bratwurst. Or their Cajun tasso and andouille treats, as well as traditional German recipes brought from the old country. These days, you'll find their sausage served in some of the best restaurants in town, but the doors are still open for drop-in visitors, just like when Hugo was in charge. Phoenix might have changed quite a bit since Schreiner's opened, but for this family business, the care and quality that goes into each handmade sausage hasn't. It's as good, if not better, than it's ever been.

Ah, bacon. It's hard to think of any meat more loved by carnivores or tearfully missed by vegetarians. We can't come up with a dish that can't be made better by the inclusion of the salty, smoky wonder. And we've been known to wax rhapsodic over its unctuous charms. Where for art thou, BLT? We're looking at you, baked beans! Bacon lovers around town practically weep at the sight of the porcine wonder food in all its glory from the good folks at The Meat Shop in south Phoenix. Who can blame them? The Wilson family has spent 100-odd years breeding and raising pigs, and it is clearly reflected in the caliber of their bacon. Hand-raised and butchered in-house, the little piggies' final resting place in a hand-sealed rasher goes to market weekly, and if you're lucky (and by lucky, we mean early to the Downtown Phoenix Farmers Market) or you just call to reserve some at the Wilsons' store, you'll score bacon that's never seen the inside of a freezer. Ah, bacon. If loving you is wrong, we don't wanna be right.

Is there another way to spell "delicious"? How about B-L-T? Chestnut Lane Café's version of the classic sandwich is the best we've ever had (next to our grandma's, of course). At this tiny Camelback eatery, they make their BLT with thinly shaved, house-roasted turkey, thick applewood-smoked bacon, ripe local tomatoes, lettuce, avocado, and mayo on fragrant slices of fresh multigrain bread. Plenty of other goodies stand out on Chestnut Lane's menu, like lobster Cobb salad and homemade pastries, but the turkey BLT is our favorite. With a cold glass of lemonade, it's one of life's simple pleasures.

Nicole Hoffman

Just when we thought we'd eaten every sandwich under the sun, we discovered the beauty of Lee's Sandwiches' banh mi — and now we're obsessed. What's banh mi, you ask? It's a hefty Vietnamese-style sub, with such fillings as pâté, barbecued pork, or a combination of sliced meats stuffed into a crusty French baguette, and embellished with mayo, fresh cilantro, sliced jalapeño, and pickled daikon and carrots for extra flavor and crunch. It's nice to have a few Euro-style options from Lee's sleek, efficient lunch counter, including the bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast croissant, and the BLT on a baguette, but honestly, we'll never get tired of the 16 kinds of banh mi. After all, why stick with ham and cheese when you can have ham and headcheese?

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of