Best Place to Hang with Bottom Dwellers 2011 | Capitol Caf� | Food & Drink | Phoenix

Best Place to Hang with Bottom Dwellers

Capitol Caf�

Timur Guseynov

Located in the creaky old basement of the Arizona State Capitol's Executive Tower, the Capitol Café serves up surprisingly good (and crazy-affordable) grub, as well as all the latest political gossip. Open weekdays for breakfast and lunch, everyone from office drones to the big-time politicians we all love to hate can be spotted bellying up to the salad bar or chowing down on all-American meals such as the rib-stickin' meatloaf. Run by a former Marine named Robert E. Smith, Capitol Café also is a great example of public-private enterprise, as it's operated under a federal act created in the 1930s to help blinded military veterans find gainful employment. According to Smith, who lost his sight 35 years ago, this program has led to the creation of more than 5,000 privately owned restaurants and snack bars that serve federal and state properties nationwide. No wonder why they call politicians "fat cats."

Evie Carpenter

With little more than a door and a few blue awnings visible, this long-running restaurant looks less like the upscale seafood joint it claims to be and more like the kind of fast-food joint where disinterested, college-aged servers wearing eye patches would dish up greasy fish and chips. That's because most of The Salt Cellar is hidden underground in a cavernous dining room with no windows and only a skylight for natural light. The effect is a little eerie, but the chef's dedication to importing fresh seasonal catches such as Georges Bank sea scallops, New Zealand Bluenose sea bass and mussels from Maine makes us willing to overlook any claustrophobic discomfort.

Cafe Monarch
Café Monarch is untraditional in terms of restaurants, in that it's a one-man show that's as much an experience as it is a fine-dining restaurant. That one man is Chef Christopher Van Arsdale, and his mission is to create fresh and innovative American cuisine that caters to the needs of each guest. He's your chef, your waiter, and your busboy all wrapped up in a gracious package. Enjoy your meal on the garden patio or inside the small dining room, where you can watch him bustle around the kitchen. During brunch, you'll get one of two choices: sweet or savory. Like candied ginger atop baked almond French toast with almond butter and fresh blueberry sauce. Or a goat cheese-packed egg strata with spinach, roasted artichoke hearts, and basil-chicken sausage on the side. Light lunches make use of seasonal produce, with dishes like baked goat cheese and berries, turkey breast panini with orange cranberry relish, and chicken basil salads with heirloom tomatoes. The main event, though, is family-style dinner, like chutney-dressed lamb chops, garlic rosemary braised short ribs, and smoky barbecue pork tenderloin. Be forewarned, it's BYOB, and you might want to make sure you take advantage of this, because a one-man show tends to move at a slower clip than a fully staffed kitchen. Go, at first, for the experience, but we guarantee it's the food that will have you returning for more.
Jackie Mercandetti

We're not sure why more people don't know that there's a new-ish restaurant at the Secret Garden, but this is a secret we think should get out. This casual eatery, located in the shadow of South Mountain and housed in a restored 1929 Spanish-style mansion, is a real treasure. A New American menu featuring mostly locally grown foods, posted in the window, lured us in when we attended a wedding at the Secret Garden, a favorite place for matrimony over the past several years. We ventured back and were glad we did, because this still-largely-undiscovered "secret place" is unlike any other restaurant in town, and well worth the drive to 24th Street and Baseline.

We started with a drink under a massive carob tree, then moved onto the patio, where we enjoyed hors d'oeuvres and a glass of wine before moving indoors to the barrel-ceiling dining room for some sophisticated dining —and the discovery of another secret worth sharing: shrimp and grits, a taste sensation that's both down-home comfort food and light, fresh dinner fare. Also worth shouting about is the handmade papardelle with local sausages, cherry tomatoes, basil and shaved Pecorino. For dessert, don't miss ricotta fritters with fig and balsamic syrup.

Owners Pat Christofolo (formerly of the Farm at South Mountain) and her son, Dustin, have brought together some of the best local purveyors to make each menu item that much more special. Fossil Creek Creamery, Queen Creek Olive Mill, McClendon's Select, Power Ranches, and Black Mesa Ranch are among the names that make us feel like we're part of a special club of local food fans when we eat here. But forgive us for not wanting this to be an exclusive club — we're shouting out loud about this great place, hoping to make the House at Secret Garden not so secret any more.

Jackie Mercandetti

We're still surprised whenever we hear someone say they've never heard of Tuck Shop, one of the best casual-dining spots in town. Opened about three years ago, Tuck Shop (named after snack stands popular in the UK, where one "tucks in" for a quick bite) offers tapas-style dining with a delicious menu designed by restaurant consultant Mitch Hoverman. We love the mac and cheese with prosciutto and lobster, the skirt steak, and especially the citrus-brined chicken and white cheddar waffles. And, seriously, where else in Phoenix can one go to get beer-battered cheese curds? We always start with those, and then move on to a plate of the dates stuffed with chorizo and Gruyère, washed down by a gin and tonic (with a paper-thin slice of cucumber as garnish!), because Tuck Shop makes its own tonic water, a slightly tart, lightly syrupy concoction that makes everything we eat while drinking it taste even better.

On weekends, there can sometimes be a wait for a table, but we love cozying up to strangers at the big communal table in the middle of the room — or eating at the bar. Tell a friend about Tuck Shop, which is tucked away at 12th and Oak streets, smack dab in the center of the Coronado historic neighborhood.

Katie Walter
Technically, Mi Comida is an Ecuadorean restaurant, but you also can find dishes from Bolivia, Venezuela, and Peru at this homey little storefront. More familiar dishes such as tamales, empanadas, and ceviche share the menu with lesser-known entrées, like lomo fino saltado (filet mignon sauté), sango de camarones (delicious shrimp stew), and sudado de pesado (banana leaf-wrapped fish). We recommend you try the chicha morada (a fruity Incan beverage, jam-packed with vitamins) and the guanabana batido, a sweet and frothy "shake." For dessert, there are traditional flan and torte dishes, as well as quinoa cookies. If you're looking for something with south-of-the-border (south of the Mexican border, that is) flavors, it's worth a trip up to the northwest side of town to sample Mi Comida's flavorful wares.
Jamie Peachey
Looking for a tasty Vietnamese spin on your next meatless meal? Get to Fresh Mint, the easy-going vegetarian, vegan, and certified kosher eatery in Scottsdale, where owner and executive chef Mai Ly, with a dream to "create beautiful, good, healthy food for people," works her magic to create fresh, made-to-order dishes packed with flavor. Summer rolls, spicy lemongrass noodle soup, or green papaya salad are nice places to start; then jump into more "meaty" dishes like vegetarian citrus "spare ribs," five-spice pho with marinated soy beef, or the guest favorite and flavor-filled kung pao soy chicken, with veggies, crunchy peanuts, and classic kung pao sauce. The entrées are quite big, but, hey, if there are leftovers, who's complaining?
Courtesy of Green
We love meat. A lot. Meat on the bone. Beef ribs dripping with fat, Southern-fried chicken with the skin on, lamb chops, pork chops — you get the idea. But we'd give it all up — and toss milk and eggs in there, too — if you could promise us that every meal we'd eat would be as good as what we get at Green. From the edamame to the tsoynamis (the latter is a soy-based shake with mix-ins, like a Blizzard), everything at Green is good. Not good for you, necessarily, but probably better than a beef rib. The pizza's top-notch and so are the faux wings. We drive across town for the deep-fried samosas. If you're into fake meat, you'll be in heaven. Green's slated to open a Phoenix location soon — and we can't wait.

Best Vegan Restaurant Inspired by a New Age Guru

Loving Hut

Supreme Master Ching Hai is a wacky gal. She believes there were once four planets called Venus, that crop circles are road signs for UFOs, and that the world's coming to an end unless you go vegan.The New Age guru may at least have the vegan thing pegged. That is, if you believe climatologists who argue that factory farming of animals for human consumption creates more greenhouse gases than all the world's cars, planes, trains, and buses combined.You don't have to buy all of Hai's teachings, or even revere her as the living Buddha, to enjoy her followers' vegan dishes at the restaurant chain she founded, Loving Hut, which has two locations in the Valley and serves up tasty Asian-fusion fare using faux shrimp, beef, and chicken made of soy or yam. The vegan carrot cake may even make a convert out of ya. Why, just by noshing it, you're helping to end global warming. Who knew going green would taste so sweet?
It ain't much to look at and the hours are sketchy, but Wahsun is a secret worth discovering for those in search of platefuls of authentic Chinese fare at crazy-low prices. In a sparsely decorated room filled with Chinese regulars from the neighborhood, Wahsun's steaming dishes arrive as if they'd been cooked in a bustling home kitchen, packed with fresh ingredients and zero frills. Start with the mammoth, must-have egg rolls, then move on to Mongolian beef or the house chow mein. Those in the know can ask for the Chinese menu and open the door to more "daring" fare like roasted half duck, crispy-skin pork, and a seafood tofu hot pot. Whatever your adventure, make sure to bring the green in this cash-only establishment, not that you'll need much to get an authentic, exceptional Chinese meal — plus you'll leave with leftovers in tow.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of