Sushi Nakano
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

The more popular sushi becomes, the more perfectly serviceable sushi joints we see popping up around town. But in the hands of passionate experts, sashimi, nigri, and the rest are elevated from a simple meal to a dining experience. Sushi Nakano's small Ahwatukee strip-mall location is our favorite place for raw fish and other Japanese dishes; Chef Leo Nakano, who learned the art under the tutelage of his father, Hiro Nakano, of Hiro Sushi, has created a spot reminiscent of small, quiet restaurants we've visited in Tokyo. The food is consistently wonderful, whether it's a gyoza appetizer; simple, gorgeous nigiri; or one of the spot's popular rolls, like the Mt. Fuji, which brings together shrimp tempura, cucumber, avocado, and spicy tuna.

Tampopo Ramen

This authentic Japanese ramen spot offers top-notch ramen, rice, and starters in a strip-mall setting — right by the Ross Dress for Less. When you're ready for the good stuff, choose between ramen options like the ultra-spicy, curry, miso, soymilk, and seafood. All steaming bowls start with the Tampopo original tonkotsu ramen. Toppings include scallions, bamboo shoots, and Tampopo original spicy paste, as well as proteins like roasted pork, squid, scallops, and fried chicken. You can also add rich soup, which is extra-concentrated and flavored, as well as extra noodles, for $1. Everything is easily enjoyed in the simple and modern dining room, complete with a lengthy community table where you may unabashedly slurp.

Call us particular, but we like it when meals are crafted to our exact specifications. Poke, the popular bowl-of-fish concept, gives us a custom dining experience every time. Our favorite place to have it our way is Koi Poke, an expanding local chain. Start with white rice, brown rice, or mixed greens, then choose from a wide selection of fresh seafood, such as spicy tuna, yellowtail, salmon, octopus, and our favorite, the marinated Hawaiian tuna. Add one of Koi's tasty sauces, and pile on toppings like cucumber, edamame, red onion, and kale, and you've got a healthy, delicious meal exactly the way you want it.

Great Wall Cuisine

Forgive us, Lord, but there may be no better place in the Valley to be at 11 a.m. on a Sunday than Great Wall Cuisine, the best among a woefully small selection of dim sum spots in town. Inside this expansive west Phoenix establishment, servers cart around a seemingly endless supply of dumplings, steamed meat, and other Cantonese favorites. Steam rising from bamboo baskets and a cacophony of clanking dishes and Chinese chatter let you know you're in for the real deal. Expect to wait for a table, depending on the size of your party, but rest assured it'll be worth it.

Katsu

"Fusion" is like a four-letter word these days, but not at Katsu in Mesa's Asiana Market. Chef Danny Jeong spent time cooking in Italy and Los Angeles' Koreatown; he loops the two together in some astounding pastas. Creamy, velvety, dense, and edged with bacon's smoke and chile heat, kimchi pasta is a bowl of carbonara on vacation in Seoul. He also plates a wildly buttery and saline mentaiko pasta, a dish born in Japan, pollock roe clinging to every last strand of Italian spaghetti. Jeong plates a fine panko-sheathed katsu cutlet, a solid but mild rendition of the rice cake tteokbokki, and even a bursting bulgogi burrito. But the pasta dishes are what really kick open the door to your mind.

It seems like everyone we know these days is embracing a gluten-free or carb-free lifestyle. We support their decision, but we think baked goods are too wonderful to give up, especially the items we find at Lior the Baker. Make sure the place is open before you head to north Scottsdale to shop, because the hours are limited. But when you get there, you've got nothing but good options, from several varieties of challah bread to a rotating selection of desserts. If you can, pick up one of the shop's flat Moroccan breads, heavily spiced and baked on flat river stones.

Gluten Free Creations

"Gluten-free baked goods" used to be an oxymoron, or at the very least, an unappetizing prospect. We're glad that's no longer true. Gluten-Free Creations is where we go to pick up treats that are both delicious and safe for our gluten-sensitive friends and family. There's plenty to choose from here, from cookies, cakes, and brownies to bagels, biscuits, and sandwich bread. We like the jalapeno cheese bagels, the snickerdoodles, and the triple-chocolate marble bundt cake. Both locations also serve a limited sit-down menu Wednesday through Saturday; think bagels with cream cheese, black bean burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, and chicken strips.

A combination gluten-free bakery/horror movie museum is not the most predictable mashup, but at Spooky's Swirls, it works. Open since July, Spooky's serves macabre and sci-fi-themed treats like "cereal killer" Fruity Pebbles marshmallow bars, mini mouse cheesecakes, and cupcakes topped with chocolates that look like Han Solo encased in carbonite. Before or after you order, feel free to browse the rotating selection of movie memorabilia from the Horror & SciFi Prop Preservation Association. On a recent visit, we saw a stunt machete from a Friday the 13th movie, toiletries from the Bates Motel TV show, and a Gizmo from Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Movies play on a flatscreen TV, and there are old issues of Fangoria and Starlog to peruse while you eat your gluten-free treats.

Everyone loves a good comeback story, and Nino McCurley's tale is as good as it gets. In 2010, the Valley resident broke his back while working as a local firefighter and lost his job. Four years later, a distracted driver plowed into his motorcycle, landing him in a wheelchair for 28 weeks and requiring him to learn how to walk again. Frustrated and destitute, McCurley started hustling to survive, first by selling his paintings at local art shows. Then, his cousin showed him "crazy-ass YouTube videos" of rolled ice cream being made by street-food carts in Thailand, which inspired McCurley. "I was like, 'I don't know what the fuck that is, but I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna be the best at it and bring it to Phoenix,'" McCurley says. He did just that. He bought the equipment, taught himself how to make the Thai-style frozen dessert, and debuted his food cart, Nomadic Ice Cream Rolls, in 2015. It was a big hit, leading McCurley to open a brick-and-mortar location in downtown Glendale in 2017. In July 2018, he transformed the spot next door into Lemoncade, a combination lemonade stand, art space, and retro arcade. Because that's just how he rolls.

Nathas Kraus, a baker without a bakery, sells a dazzling array of classically French pastries a few days a week at farmers markets such as Gilbert and Uptown. Though his cream-flavored "rhino" croissants and butter-saturated kouign-amann are showstopping, his simple breads are quietly excellent. If you get to his stand before everything sells out (hint: get there early and prepare to wait in line even then), be sure to walk away with La Parisienne. This long, lancing loaf is naturally leavened. It cuts into rounds or larger swaths (perfect for cheese) with a compact, crackly, almost hard shell and a light interior. This is Old World bread baked with skill and sweat, the kind of loaf that inspires trans-Atlantic trips.

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