Tratto
Jacob Tyler Dunn

With Cassie Shortino as chef and Blaise Faber as beverage director and GM, Chris Bianco's trattoria remains the best Italian restaurant in town by a wide margin. You can count Tratto's superiority in so many ways: drinks, including obscure amari, cocktails made with house-steeped liqueurs, and hard-to-find deeply regional wine vintages from the boot. Pasta, from wheaty tagliatelle shaped from freshly ground grains to a simple off-menu cacio e pepe that is hands-down the best pasta in town. Or even a simple starter: the bread, olive oil, and olive plate that opens your meal is nirvana, a harbinger of all the nirvana to come. And yet, there are still so many other facets to this jewel of a restaurant. Eating here is an escape to a better world. (Note: The address for Tratto will change soon; it's moving to what is currently the Pane Bianco space at 1505 East Van Buren Street later this autumn.)

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Jackie+Mercandetti
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The menu at Puerto Rico Latin Grill bursts with the flavors of the Caribbean — especially the carnivorous ones. Owner Wesley Andujar's kitchen staff works magic with meat, and pork in particular. To wit: the pernil, slow-roasted shredded pork that melts like manna on the tongue, and chuletas fritas (fried pork chops) crisped to perfection in piquant adobo seasoning. Chicken dishes like pechuga del pollo with sauteed onions linger pleasantly on the palate. Fish get a Puerto Rican twist with bacalaitos (salt cod pancake-like fritters) and whole red snapper. Plantains, a staple of Puerto Rican cuisine, shine in the mofongo (fried plantains mashed with spices) and jibarito de pernil (a sandwich combining savory pulled pork with mashed green plantains). Another prominent Puerto Rican dietary staple, rice, is available in both white and traditional yellow (arroz con gondules) versions.

Fe La Cubana

Great Cuban food? About as scarce in these parts as deep-sea marlin. But the food at Glendale's Fe La Cubana fits the bill. The restaurant is a classic cafeteria-style cafe with old-school versions of Cuban favorites. In a small, stark dining room with not much more than a TV that magnetizes the eyes of the regulars who fork at full plates, customers pick what they want from hot metal tins. Stewed oxtails. Yuca with a perfect balance of tenderness and glide. Rich red bean soup. One of the pinnacles of Cuban gastronomy is also a standout here: ropa vieja, a dish of pork stewed until supernally tender. Fill your plate, melt into your firm chair, and when you're done, nab a guava-stuffed pastele for the road.

Little Saigon

Historic Downtown Glendale and the Catlin Court Historic District are known for cozy house eateries. And while they're all delightful, a favorite is Little Saigon Restaurant. This cozy cottage restaurant surrounded by antique stores and small businesses seems fitting for its offerings of Vietnamese comfort food. The family-owned Little Saigon first opened in Christown Mall in 1998 before relocating to downtown Glendale in 2005. Here, power lunchers feast on more than seven choices of pho, including the classic pho tai (aromatic broth with sliced pieces of tender beef). Regulars also go for the crispy rice-flour crepes packed with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts, and combo plates like the grilled shrimp and pork with steamed white rice under a sunny-side-up egg. Little Saigon is also vegetarian-friendly, thanks to dishes like bun chay tofu (tofu rice vermicelli salad bowl), dau hu sot ca chua (stir-fried tofu with tomato and onions), and canh cai xanh (bok-choy soup with ginger and onions).

Filled with classic Thai dishes, as well as signature creations, Chanpen is a hidden gem in South Phoenix.
Jackie Mercandetti
Filled with classic Thai dishes, as well as signature creations, Chanpen is a hidden gem in South Phoenix.

The two locations of Chanpen Thai Cuisine aren't too far apart geographically, but they look quite different. The Broadway location is a cozy building that has seen better days; the Baseline restaurant is fancier, with yellow walls, Buddhist art, and a kind of set-apart area reminiscent of a temple. What's exactly the same at both outposts is the food: well-crafted versions of Thai classics like pad see ew and panang curry. Our favorites are the spicy, savory drunken noodles with peppers and broccoli, and the creamy, slightly sweet massamun curry with potatoes, carrots, and peanuts. The other commonality between the two Chanpen locations? Service that goes above and beyond. The welcoming staff members often offer us water or soup or ice cream while we wait for our takeout. That's the type of thing you don't forget, and it's part of what makes Chanpen the first place we think of when we're in the mood for Thai.

A bevy of Korean barbecue options have cropped up in the Valley in the past few years. Some are sleek and fancy. Others are low-key. Manna, which has another location in San Diego, falls more in the latter camp. Its food comes all-you-can-eat for $25 at dinner and $18 at lunch. Meals begin with an armada of banchan and then shift to the gas grill plate, where you cook galbi and diaphanous brisket slices yourself. You can go as hard as you want: veal intestine, baby octopus, or pork chops. Your tong and scissor hands will get a workout. At meal's end — after somehow making space for a mochi — you'll see that Manna can hang with any Korean barbecue joint in town.

Hana Japanese Eatery
Lauren Saria

So much stands out about this tried-and-true Japanese restaurant, where Lori Hashimoto has earned and maintained the respect of Valley eaters. The key to it all might be range. She's a master of simple Japanese preparations expertly done. We recommend delicate fried oysters breaded in panko, or osuimono, a lightly flavored soup that's pretty much all consomme, both satisfying with quiet flavors. The massive, complex dishes shine as well, like a tempura sampler of seasonal fish and vegetables, or the Hana Pride Roll, which, with touches like pickled burdock and togarashi, feels like a completely new sushi creation.

Old Town Taste
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

The second most interesting part about Old Town Taste is that it's not actually in Old Town Scottsdale. It's in a strip mall in Tempe, easily spotted by its bright-red sign. The most interesting part, obviously, is the food. The family-owned Chinese restaurant has a lengthy menu with a Sichuan bent, promising dishes like braised eggplant, mapo tofu, and Szechuan-style blood curd. But what brings us back again and again is the Chongqing-style platter. This house special is offered as chicken or fish, and both options are fantastic, thanks to chunks of meat coated in that thin, crunchy batter and topped with string beans and chile. It's never a bad time to slide into one of Old Town Taste's bright turquoise booths and dig into a meal of authentic Chinese cuisine.

Chennai Chettinaad Palace
Jackie Mercandetti

A hallmark of a great Indian restaurant is great naan, and at Chennai Chettinaad Palace, it's warm, fluffy, and buttery soft — a perfect companion to the chicken tikka masala or daal makhani. Entrees carry the richness of traditional spices like cumin, garam masala, and coriander, without overpowering with a pants-on-fire spiciness. Don't leave without tasting the biryani; the rice is loose and tender, with a blend of vegetables or a meat of your choosing. It rivals biryani you might find in a restaurant in India. The menu is vast, with almost 200 items to choose from. Start your meal with a cold glass of mango lassi, sample some of the hot pakoras as an appetizer, and move on to entrees from virtually every region of India. Finish off with desserts like gulab jamun or milky rice kheer.

Haji Baba Middle Eastern Food
Patricia Escarcega

Set in a nondescript strip mall just east of the Arizona State University campus, Haji-Baba doesn't look like much from the outside. But the restaurant-market has been feeding students — and everyone else who likes great Middle Eastern food at a ridiculously low price point — for decades. The chicken shawarma platter, crammed with spiced meat, basmati rice, hummus, tabbouleh, and a pungent, addictive garlic sauce, is one of our favorite dishes in the entire city. But anything on the menu is a good pick, from the gyro sandwich to the creamy baba ghanoush to the Greek salad studded with huge chunks of tangy feta cheese. Leave enough time to roam the market half of the space, where you can pick up fragrant spices, exotic coffee, and other Middle Eastern groceries.

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