El Coquito
We're probably not fooling anyone — our pick for "Best Puerto Rican" is, as of press time, also the only place for Puerto Rican. Yet it's no less deserving of the honor. Owner Jaime Acevedo brings his Puerto Rican heritage to the Valley via New York City, which is evident from the Yankees jerseys and memorabilia on the walls at this pint-size strip mall nook. And like the best Puerto Rican neighborhood joints in Nueva York, El Coquito dishes up island soul food like stick-to-your-ribs mofongo (mashed fried plantains topped with meat), slow-roasted pork, and an assortment of such deep-fried cuchifritos as bacalaitos (crispy salted cod, best eaten with a squeeze of lemon) and relleno de papa (mashed potato balls filled with ground beef). The food's delightful enough, but if you really want to have a fiesta, bring your own booze. The velvety coconut coquito drink is heavenly with a shot of rum.
Guru Palace of India
Jamie Peachey
We've been in love with Guru Palace since we first set eyes on a luscious bowl of chicken tikka masala here, with moist chunks of meat soaked in buttery, tomato-ginger gravy. Even after we'd eaten the chicken, we couldn't resist spooning more of that tasty sauce over a steaming scoop of basmati rice. Turns out, everything at Guru Palace is just as enticing as that first dish we tried. Guru Palace specializes in Northern Indian cuisine, which means excellent marinated meat specialties and several kinds of bread (naan, paratha, kulcha) cooked in the tandoor, a special clay oven. The array of vegetarian dishes is impressive, although there are just as many interesting meat and seafood options, including lamb done up a half-dozen ways. This "palace" may be located in a strip mall, but it still gives you the royal treatment.
Al-Hana Restaurant at Baiz Market Place
Laura Segall
So what if this restaurant is really just a lunch counter and a handful of tables sectioned off from a Middle Eastern grocery store? That doesn't make Al-Hana — located inside of Baiz Market, next to the cash registers — any less delightful. Consider the open kitchen, where you can see white-clad cooks slice your succulent chicken shawarma right off the rotating spit, dunk falafel in the fryer, or pull a tray of hot, fresh pita right out of the oven before one lands on your plate. From the creamy, lip-smacking hummus and juicy shish taook (marinated chicken) to buttery, gooey knafeh (a dessert of melted cheese beneath a buttery crust, drizzled with sugary syrup and sprinkled with pistachios), everything here is as fresh as can be. We recommend doing your eating before you go shopping, lest you go completely overboard in the aisles.
Restaurant Takamatsu
Our favorite Korean restaurant distinguishes itself in more ways than one. The food's amazing, of course, and the service is downright jovial — we always feel welcome at this homey spot. Just as appealing is the atmosphere, which draws groups of Korean families and hungry businessmen alike. We're hooked on the wonderful smell of sizzling meat here, which gets our stomachs rumbling for juicy kalbi (beef short ribs), bulgogi (thinly sliced marinated beef), buttery pork belly, chicken, and shrimp. Although we're quite familiar with this interactive, cook-it-yourself way of dining, it's always comforting when the helpful staff stops by to keep an eye on things and make sure the cold beer's flowing. Dinner at Takamatsu is a guaranteed way to forget about the world and just enjoy the moment.
Sushi Ken
When all our Japanese friends started telling us Sushi Ken was their favorite place in town, we wasted no time in heading down to Ahwatukee for a sushi fix. Sure enough, the sushi here is great, but there's so much more to the menu that makes us happy. From savory ramen noodle soup that satisfies with its complex broth to tempura and crispy tonkatsu pork, Sushi Ken covers all the bases and keeps it real. This is straightforward, family-style eating just like you'd find in Japan, right down to the desserts (mitsumame, a cold, sweet jelly served with fruit, is a rarity in Phoenix, but they have it here). The only thing that could make this place better would be to pick it up and plunk it down right next to our house.
Da Vang
Jacob Tyler Dunn
It can feel overwhelming to peruse Da Vang's menu for the first time — so many choices, so little time. (Thank goodness it's numbered!) But don't worry, because everything at this humble hole-in-the-wall is just what you're craving if you love authentic Vietnamese eats. Sip on a refreshing da chanh (limeade) or a jolt-inducing ca phe sua da (iced coffee with condensed milk), and enjoy a generous, steaming bowl of pho chock full of sliced beef, brisket, tendon, tripe, and tender rice vermicelli; a hot, seafood-laden crepe (banh xeo); or some tasty barbecued pork fashioned into a baguette sandwich (banh mi). You'll leave well fed for just a few bucks — good incentive to come back frequently.
Asian Cafe Express
Heather Hoch
The Valley's best place to fill up on authentic Chinese cuisine also happens to be a very modest storefront with a no-frills little dining room. Although you won't find lavish furnishings fit for an emperor at Asian Cafe Express, you will find a very glorious feast. Chef-owner Michael Leung's excellent sauces are the highlight of many dishes, and his pan-fried noodles have that perfect tinge of smokiness. He does vegetables with finesse and transforms seafood into even more of a delicacy than it already is in its natural state. There's so much to choose from — dumplings, stews, stir-fries, and more. The Valley may not have a Chinatown, but at least there's a restaurant that brings that level of Chinese culinary prowess to the masses here.
Thai E-San
First things first: How do they define their "Thai hot"? Here, at Thai E-San — which opened in CenPho earlier this year — even the medium is pretty tongue-searing. These folks mean business, from the taste of their curries. Sausage stuffed with ground pork and pork skin is an intriguing and uncommon dish, while the coconut soup takes a Thai restaurant standard and does it up right, with plenty of aromatic herbs. Masamun curry with roast duck, whole deep-fried bass with ginger, and spicy squid salad are a few more good picks among an exhaustive menu of stir-fries, noodles, curries, and fried rice dishes. And although barbecued Thai chicken may not sound very interesting, do try the house special marinated chicken, grilled to juicy perfection. You'll want to gnaw on the bones.
Sage Kitchen
Why in the world did we ever think veganism was kind of gloomy? At Chakra 4, the healthful vegan menu is the most vibrant rainbow of food we've ever seen. Chopped salads with orange carrot, purple cabbage, green cilantro, yellow pepper, and ruby tomato, sandwiches stuffed with flavorful housemade hummus and an array of vegetables, and soups and stews brimming with colorful veggies and grains — it's uplifting just to look at it, let alone taste it. And the flavors are just as bright, so scrumptious that we usually stuff ourselves silly here. The fact that there's no meat or animal products in any of it only justifies our urge to shovel all this goodness down our gullet and then order some of those dark chocolate vegan bonbons in the display case. Naughty but nice.
Cafe Krishna
More than 100 items, packed into a colorful menu supplemented with photos, facts, and descriptions, make choosing dishes a delightful challenge at this tasteful Southern Indian restaurant in Chandler. You won't miss meat one bit when faced with such an array of savory chaat snacks, naan and other breads, deep-fried chickpea patties, fragrantly spiced vegetable stews, and jaw-dropping dosai, crispy, paper-thin crepes with delicious fillings. Vegetarian cuisine doesn't get much heartier than this.

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