Best Downtown Lunch 2014 | Carolina's | Food & Drink | Phoenix
Sarah Whitmire

We once read that making too many decisions causes your brain to crave glucose. Though we're not sure about the science behind that supposed fact, we can tell you from firsthand experience that an especially stressful day of work always makes us crave a Carolina's tortilla. This no-frills restaurant has been a Valley institution since 1968, drawing a crowd of customers that ranges from downtown business types to college students from ASU's downtown campus. The tortillas alone are worth braving the un-air-conditioned dining room, particularly when they hold servings of red machaca or green chile. We're also big fans of the Oaxaca Special, which combines cheese, potatoes, beans, and excellent chorizo.

Sitting on the spacious outdoor patio at Bink's Midtown while you look out on the neighborhood brings a sense of community that's rare to find at restaurants in this town. We've spent more than one Sunday morning digging into chef Kevin Binkley's seasonal fare while feeling deeply appreciative of the beautiful surroundings and great company. It's a bonus that the Sunday brunch menu offers something for just about every type of diner. Classic brunchers will appreciate dishes such as the green chile braised pork served in a hot skillet with a cheddar drop biscuit and an egg cooked sunny side up. There's also a selection of cold and hot local produce, with options that include peaches with avocado, crema, sunflower seeds, and lime-tarragon vinaigrette during the summer. And the cinnamon roll — a large, freshly baked treat with butterscotch sauce and cream cheese frosting — is worth the calories.

Jackie Mercandetti

Normally, we shy away from any situation that requires wearing a plastic bib with a crab on it, but when it comes to dining at Angry Crab Shack in Mesa, it's our pleasure. This popular East Valley restaurant offers bags of seafood by the pound — everything from giant orange and white king crab legs to plump shrimp smothered in a sauce of your choice. No matter what creatures of the sea you choose to enjoy, you'll want them boiled in the restaurant's Trifecta sauce, a finger-licking combination of garlic, lemon pepper, and Cajun seasonings. You'll also be asked to choose a desired level of heat, and when they warn you that the food tends to run spicy, know that they really mean it. If you order correctly, you'll be left with an excess of sauce at the bottom of your bag; we recommend an order of Cajun fries to sop up the rest.

Jackie Mercandetti

There aren't many places in this town where you'll find people lined up outside in the middle of summer, but that's exactly the sight you'll see five days a week at Little Miss BBQ. Hungry folks looking for a taste of Scott and Bekke Holmes' barbecue endure the heat because there's nothing quite like this place anywhere else. Since opening in March, the restaurant has exploded onto the local BBQ scene, selling out of pounds of brisket and slow-smoked ribs every day the restaurant is open. The brisket boasts a flavorful crust of pepper, salt, cayenne, and garlic and offers the melt-in-your-mouth moistness that can only be the result of 11 long hours in the restaurant's custom-made, wood-fed R & O smoker. And if smoky beef breast isn't your style, there's a full menu of meats that includes housemade sausage, pulled pork, turkey breast, and a remarkably good pastrami.

Lauren Saria

We'll admit, we were skeptical of the newest restaurant to come from the Mastro family. Would Steak 44 bring over-the-top décor and boring chophouse classics to Arcadia? Fortunately, the answer is no. Despite being an upscale and still relatively pricey restaurant, Steak 44 manages to feel like the type of comfortable neighborhood spot that's been a part of the community for years.

You'll find couples enjoying a casual meal at the bar, while families gather to celebrate special occasions in the dining room. Part of the draw has to be the menu, which includes unexpected options such as soft shell crab in vanilla bean tempura and fried deviled eggs. The steaks also come in smaller and, therefore, more affordable sizes. Try the 12-ounce Delmonico for a dinner that's full on flavor and a bit slimmer on price.

David Holden

For francophiles. there's nothing not to like about chef Matt Carter's Zinc Bistro. The restaurant hits the nail on the head when it comes to replicating a charming Parisian bistro. The tin ceilings, abundance of light, and spacious patio make you feel as though you're dining in the City of Lights, and the food backs up the vibe.

Start your meal with a cup of Carter's incredible onion soup, which comes with a thick layer of crispy melted cheese. From there, you really can't go wrong with anything on the menu, though a few standouts include the grilled lamb and, believe it or not, the pomme frites. Carter's French fries are just about perfect, fried to a golden brown and then seasoned with marjoram, paprika, and a touch of fleur de sel.

Heather Hoch

True food love is almost as much about the nostalgia as it is the food itself, and for many Valley residents, eating at Khai Hoan in Tempe is a beloved ritual. Before pho was on every corner, Khai Hoan was serving bowls of the soup for years, being the first spot where many people tried it locally. For that, we love Khai Hoan. The décor is basic, but the food is always spot-on and the service is always friendly. Simple, flavorful spring rolls and huge, steamy bowls of pho — as well as freshly cracked coconuts — transport you to another place. Once you can tear yourself away from the pho, you'll discover delicious, authentic bun cha rice noodle dishes and hu tieu glass noodle soups, but you certainly don't have to stray. We'd understand.

Sure, there are plenty of times when any old Korean barbecue place will do. But when we get a hankering for top-quality banchan and sizzling bowls of bibimbap, there's only one place that truly satisfies. That's Cafe Ga Hyang. Stop in for lunch and you'll find a quiet little West Valley dining spot where your semi-private booth will be festooned with little dishes of spicy kimchee, pickled potatoes, and other starters. Then it will be followed by entrées such as kalbi beef and bubbling bowls of tofu soup.

If you're lucky, charming co-owner Sun Johnson will be your server and double as a guide through the menu if you're unfamiliar with the cuisine. At night, the restaurant gets a more energetic vibe, with karaoke and drinks flowing until 2 a.m. Even better, the kitchen stays open just as late, so you can get get your jap chae fix long after most Valley restaurants have closed up shop.

It seems everyone has their own favorite place in the Valley to order a bowl of pad Thai, but if you seek fresh, flavorful Thai cuisine, then you absolutely have to try Nunthaporn's Thai Cuisine in Mesa. You might think all pad thai is created equal, but once you try Nunthaporn's, you'll know what the dish should be. And don't hestitate to order something different like the ginger and black-fungus-based pad khing, though, because no matter what you order at this modest-looking restaurant, you will not be disappointed. Whatever you order, you can enjoy eating it inside or on the patio as you watch shoppers peruse Mesa's historic downtown promenade off Main Street.

Jackie Mercandetti Photo

On the exterior, chef Shinji Kurita's James Beard Award-nominated restaurant looks like just another sleek strip mall dining spot in Scottsdale. But take one step inside and you'll immediately know that you're about to experience something special. Everything from the classical music that plays through unseen speakers to the attentive and knowledgeable servers is as sophisticated and expertly selected as the chef's food.

Kurita gives diners few choices once they've sat down to dine — just the number of courses and accompanying drinks. Everything else is left up to the chef, which is good because we'd never be able to choose between dishes like pan-fried whole soft shell crab, buttery sake mushi, or sake-steamed mushrooms. Fortunately, nearly all of Kurita's coursed menus include the chef's signature Tsukuri Six, a stunning selection of small seafood bites. The selection varies by season but usually includes a variation of Kurita's tuna tartar, New Caledonia blue shrimp, and, if you're lucky, a fresh Kumamoto oyster accented with ponzu gélee and unctuous sea urchin.

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