Kai
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.

Phoenix Palace

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
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.

Schreiners Fine Sausage
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.

The Meat Shop

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.

Chestnut Lane Cafe

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.

Lee's Sandwiches
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?

Cork

When restaurant industry veterans Robert and Danielle Morris teamed up with co-owner and executive chef Brian Peterson to open Cork, a stylish restaurant/wine bar in Chandler, they set out to serve food with the whimsy of a tasting menu but the ease of à la carte. And that's just what makes dining at Cork so fun — small portions make it simple for guests to pick and choose as eclectic a dinner as they want, whether they're in it for a few wine-friendly nibbles (like housemade crackers with wild venison salami and Humboldt Fog cheese) or an epicurean splurge that might include pork-belly-accented mac 'n' cheese, foie gras au torchon, and grilled elk chop. This is some of the most sophisticated dining in town, but the relaxed, friendly atmosphere makes it worthy of repeat visits. Who needs a special occasion when the food itself is worth celebrating?

House of Tricks
Timur Guseynov

Mom and Dad don't come to town often enough, so you've got to choose wisely when it's time for them to treat you dinner. Whether you're 18 and a college freshman or 42 and a shameless middle-aged freeloader, House of Tricks is a good choice. You don't want to waste a free meal on the likes of Chili's — not when Tricks is in the 'hood. This sweet little restaurant has charmed parental units for years, located blocks from Arizona State's Tempe campus, far enough off Mill Avenue to avoid any craziness on a Saturday night. Whether you sit on the patio, at the outdoor bar (complete with roaring fireplace), or in one of the tiny rooms inside, the atmosphere is lovely. Mom will be impressed with the mismatched teacups; Dad will go for the lengthy wine list. The menu is a delightfully mixed bag and changes all the time — you might try the herb-crusted lamb or the apricot glazed chicken. Or what the heck, go for the New York strip. You're not paying! Now, where's the dessert tray?

Pita Jungle
Timur Guseynov

Typically speaking, if you don't see a kids' menu, you don't want to bring your kids. It's like a restaurant with no highchairs. Big hint. Not so at Pita Jungle, where kids are more than welcome, and there's plenty for them on the grownups' menu. It's actually a relief to not have the choice of chicken fingers and mac 'n' cheese — it's the only way we can get the kids to eat vegetables, and there's a wide variety of all kinds of healthful food on Pita Jungle's Mediterranean menu.

The best part, though, is the service. Every time we've taken the kids to Pita Jungle, the staff has been so friendly that we've had to practically wrest the children away — and not in a creepy way. What started as a storefront in Tempe has expanded into a mini-empire, but what we love is that we can come in a month later and the woman cleaning the tables still remembers our daughter's name.

Now, who's in the mood for a macro combo platter tonight?

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