Shar's Kitchen
We never knew there were such things as corn zippers and frosting pens — or that we needed them — until we stumbled on Shar's. The store carries full-size Bosch appliances, as well as food processors, blenders, cookware, and myriad kitchen gadgets, all at bargain prices. Our favorite finds include an adorable insulated lunch bag that looks like a purse and the Butter Bell, a handy ceramic crock that lets you safely keep butter unrefrigerated. They also have cheap ceramic discs that claim to prevent water from boiling over. Who knew? Unlike other kitchen supply stores that sell you a food processor and then kick you out the door with a chance of blending up watery tomato sauce instead of the salsa you intend to make, Shar's offers free (or super-cheap) weekly classes that incorporate various kitchen tools and techniques. No wonder the shop has lasted in the Valley for more than 20 years.
ABC Cake Decorating Supplies
Shows like Cake Boss and Food Network's Challenge have gotten average folks off the couch and into the kitchen to bake creative cakes. It's not as easy as it looks on the small screen, but with ABC's help you can definitely pull off a bargain wedding cake or an edible SpongeBob SquarePants for your 5-year-old niece's birthday party. The shop is a mecca for professional pastry chefs and home cooks, with rows upon rows of cake toppers, cupcake liners, shaped pans, chocolate molds, and anything else your pastry-loving heart desires. To give you an idea how extensive their selection is, they have an entire endcap of nothing but cake servers and a case of plastic bride and groom toppers in all shades of the rainbow. If you want to personalize a cake without doing any dirty work, they offer a service that transforms a favorite photo into a cake topper. ABC also hosts classes on working with fondant and making gumpaste flowers, so you can be certain your cake won't end up looking like a grade-schooler's home-ec project.
Smeeks
Ted Roundy
Yes, it's a candy store, but the goodies aren't all that's sweet about Smeeks. We've fallen hard for this little store — from the free gumballs on the front counter to the $5 photo booth in the back. The place is chock-full of guilty pleasures you never knew you needed, like squirrel underpants, bacon Band-Aids, and sparklers that burn so bright atop a birthday cake they even scare the grownups. This is a place for kids of all ages, and old-school candy rules. Owner Georganne Bryant (of Frances fame and — full disclosure — co-sponsor of Chow Bella's Caramelpalooza caramel tasting, soon to be a regular annual event) even keeps a list where customers can request childhood favorites. If they still make it, Georganne will stock it, so make sure your dental insurance is current, because that taffy really sticks to the teeth — and the fillings. Oh, but it's worth it.
Desert at Lux
Dominique Chatterjee
Desert at Lux
Coffee houses come and go, and we're glad Lux stayed. Even with a change of ownership a few years ago, this packed-to-the-gills coffee bar earns its reputation as the place to see and be seen — and to sip — in Central Phoenix. No one minds if you bring over your Pane Bianco sandwich from next door on a hot day, as long as you buy a beverage — and we're more than happy to oblige, since Lux brews some of our favorite coffee drinks in town. On a nice day, sit outside on the beautiful hand-carved picnic tables and watch the light rail whiz by. Nice, indeed.
Lola Coffee
It's easy to see why there are now two Lola Coffee locations on the planet. This new hang is a spin-off from Lola's original location, and, much like the spot on North Central Avenue, the downtown coffee shop is an intimate place to share designer coffee that's roasted in-house, home-baked goods, and herbal teas. It's also the perfect venue for busy bodies to knock out work stuff or homework. And you can look all stylish doing so, thanks to the polished concrete floors and tables. By the way, each location is steps away from the light rail, so feel free to partake in a Lola Coffee crawl almost anytime.
Fiddler's Dream Coffee House
Courtesy of Fiddler's Dream Coffee House
We stumbled upon this one-of-a-kind coffee shop, on the grounds of the Phoenix Friends Meeting space at the southeast corner of 17th Street and Cactus Wren, on our way to a west-side concert. We were so taken with the cozy, SoCal-esque, post-hippie ambiance that we went back the following weekend to check it out more closely. Turns out that, in addition to good, strong, no-nonsense coffee, espresso, hot and cold teas, and pastries, this place also serves some of the best vibe in town, anywhere. That's because Fiddler's Dream is an all-volunteer organization that's been around for 23 years, and its staff is devoted to giving local performers a chance to strut their stuff on stage, free of charge. The cafe's Open Stage Night, each Thursday from 6:15 to 10 p.m., is about generosity but also results in some fun, down-home entertainment, too. The Dream offers a smoke-free, alcohol-free, all-acoustic environment that's unlike any other hangout around. Fiddler's Dream is our dream now, too!
The Bad Ass Coffee Co.
This really is some badass coffee they are brewing up in Surprise, using 100 percent Kona coffee beans grown on Hawaiian volcanoes. It's a cozy shop with an aroma that will please any coffee connoisseur's taste buds.The store's name, so the legend goes, comes from the bellowing donkeys (a.k.a. asses) that hauled the delicious coffee beans down the mountainsides. The gourmet coffee shop adopted its name in honor of the asses' badass work ethic.You won't find donkeys — or asses — at this shop, just friendly customer service and a delicious selection of coffee blends served hot or cold, at the counter or at a convenient drive-thru. Most of their specialty drinks can be made sugar-free, including a rich, blended caramel vanilla latte or the Snickerlicious, a concoction of dark chocolate, hazelnut, and caramel.
The funny thing about Coffee Rush is how easily we stop being in a rush every time we come here. The staff is relaxed and friendly, without that don't-bother-me-I'm-gabbing-with-co-workers attitude found at certain other coffee shops with burnt coffee and myriad locations. If you're a regular, they'll start your favorite chai or Caramel Nut Latte before you even get to the register. The pretty man-made lake out back makes the Chandler location a great place to chill out with a Mocha Frost and work on your laptop or catch up with friends. Coffee Rush's menu is basic, with no ridiculous triple venti nonfat double deluxe moch-whatchamacallits or supposedly healthy low-fat pastries. They simply have quality coffee available in a few dozen regular and sugar-free flavors, offered hot, iced, or frozen. If you're craving a nosh to go with your java, don't miss out on the Greek owners' specialty — gooey, sweet baklava with walnuts or pistachios.
Inside the Bungalow
For the second year in a row, Inside the Bungalow gets our accolades for being the coolest place for strong, tasty coffee in Mesa. The java here is robust and potent, with house blends strong enough to put a spring in one's step without leaving a bitter taste in the mouth. But Inside the Bungalow's appeal doesn't end with the coffee — the building itself is a renovated historic home just off Robson and Main streets, with a quaint little tower jutting up above the shingled roof. There's a spacious patio with umbrella tables to shield patrons from the sun, and plenty of room for coffee talk inside, too — three rooms with hardwood floors, one including a cozy fireplace. With the homey, old-world charm and heady roasts at Inside the Bungalow, who needs a drive-thru? Not us.
Cartel Coffee Lab
The competition for best coffee house is steep in Tempe, but really, for us there's no contest. We love Cartel first and foremost for its wicked-strong espresso — more than worth the laughably long wait — and then for the vibe. You won't find anything frap-like here, no smoothies or even much in the way of food. Just coffee and the people who love it. We also love the industrial-inspired furnishings, the changing art exhibits (lately we've fallen for the rickrack/strawberry basket ensemble hanging from the ceiling) and the chance to run into some of our favorite folks in town, which inevitably happens on a visit to Cartel's Tempe outpost.

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