We're drowning in dining options — some are nasty, some are average, but many are outstanding. I spend 40 hours a week hunting for those perfect places and plates, tastes and experiences that I can't wait to tell someone about.
While its impossible to try everything, I give it a shot and share my discoveries in a yearly guide to the best bites in the East Valley. Bon apetit!
Best gourmet-bang for your buck
Perfect portion sizes, pretty plates and superb Italian-influenced dishes, including spicy rosemary cannellini bean bruschetta ($12), sweet and savory chorizo-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon ($7) and a petit filet mignon balsamico that cuts like butter ($22.95). The tiramisu ($5.75) and decadent, picture-perfect mini flourless chocolate cake ($5.75) look and taste just as lovely as everything else.
>> 7000 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale, (480) 778-0800
Most satisfying splurge
Drinkwater's City Hall Steakhouse
I've been to this swank-but-not-stuffy steak and seafood hot spot seven times, and it's always the same — superior service, salads worth taking up stomach space, the best steak in town (the bone-in filet is life-changing), divine desserts (the warm butter cake is scary-good), one bank-breaking bill, a courtesy phone call the next day and bragging rights for a year.
>> 6991 E. Camelback Road, Scottsdale, (480) 941-4700
Best English import
Cornish Pasty Co.
A Cornwall, England, native is responsible for bringing this addicting, dough-wrapped creation to the East Valley. A pasty (PASS-tee) is like a calzone but with a flaky pie crust instead of pizza dough and much more exciting stuff inside. There are 30 different variations, but the carne adovada ($6.50) and lamb vindaloo ($6.50) sure go nicely with a pint of Kronenbourg 1664.
>> 960 W. University Drive, Tempe (480) 894-6261
Best crowd-pleasing lunch
Floridino's Pizza & Pasta
The inexpensive lunch deals include a giant two-topping calzone for $4.99 and a one-item pizza for $3.50. Both come with a drink and a speedy server. Salad and pasta deals are also available.
>> 590 N. Alma School Road, Chandler, (480) 812-8433
A crunchy baguette is a must for me when it comes to sandwiches, but this lunch haven won me over with its soft, thick slices of baked-before-your-eyes bread layered with — what else? — Boar's Head meats and cheeses. I'm a sucker for the Southwestern Club with smoked peppered turkey, bacon, avocado, jalapeño jack cheese, red onions and raspberry honey mustard.
>> Multiple locations
Best bagel shop
Kokobelli Bagel Cafe
My perfect bagel would be warm with a crisp exterior, a doughy inside and little to no hole. This breakfast and lunch spot nails all four keys to my carb-loving heart, and they give me a sugar-topped mini blueberry muffin with my breakfast bagel sandwich. Bonus!
>> 1155 S. Power Road, Mesa, (480) 985-7700
Best new restaurant
The Greene House
I had my most sensational seafood dish of the year at this Craftsman-style creation — black cod with oak-aged soy and candied porcini mushrooms. It was sweet, it was flaky, it was an absolute joy to eat. The Sam Fox restaurant has a seasonal menu and a boutique wine list with case production numbers. If you catch the ravioli starter with fava beans and truffle butter or the vanilla bean panna cotta dessert, both are marvelous.
>> 15024 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, (480) 889-9494
Best happy hour
From 4 to 7 p.m. daily, this rustic red-brick cafe cuts the prices in half for every appetizer (bruschetta, sautéed shrimp, homemade sausage, escargot, caprese, cheese plate and antipasto), wines by the glass or flight and specialty drinks. Premium draft beers are $2 off. The deal is only good at the bar.
>> 398 S. Mill Ave., Tempe, (480) 968-9112
Best neighborhood Italian
If you live anywhere near this Ahwatukee Foothills charmer, you're lucky. The cozy atmosphere and jovial staff make the cannelloni de carne and chocomisu taste even better.
>> 4221 E. Chandler Blvd., Ahwatukee Foothills, (480) 759-9292
The Original Pizza Cookie (aka pizzookie) at this popular pizza and pasta joint can't be beat. Many have tried, all have failed. Oregano's has the best cookie dough, they're the only ones who get the gooey factor just right and they serve the finest vanilla bean ice cream. Choose from chocolate chip, white chocolate macadamia nut and the recently added peanut butter chocolate chip.
>> Multiple locations
Best Asian lunch buffet
This unassuming Thai cafe posts its seven-item buffet ($6.95) menu every morning at www.benjarongthai.com. Highlights include Thai fried pork (diced tomato, large pieces of tender pork, scallions and fried egg), Kwuy Taew Pad Se-Ew Gai (wide noodles with chicken, broccoli and a light, sweet soy sauce) and Nua Pad Gra Prow (spicy stir-fry of ground beef, basil leaves, green beans, garlic and white onion).
>> 1440 S. Country Club Drive, Mesa, (480) 890-9988
Best new Mesa restaurant
D'Vine Wine Bar & Bistro
Where else in Mesa can you cut into a piece of seared yellow fin tuna with a coconut-papaya adobo sauce ($13) while sipping a boutique bottle of chardonnay and listening to the soft sounds of an acoustic band? Still looking for Cafe ah Pwah's chef Karen Firestone? She's at this new neighborhood noshery in northeast Mesa.
>> 2837 N. Power Road, Mesa, (480) 654-4171
Best Gilbert restaurant
Dark and sexy with a very likeable menu including braised short ribs with gnocchi and tomato ragout ($18), pepper crusted ahi tuna ($19), fried green tomatoes ($8) and desserts that could double as art.
>> 4972 S. Power Road, Gilbert, (480) 840-3455
Best swine and sweets
The pulled pork here is heavenly and the warm peach cobbler and hot apple crisp are crave-worthy as well.
>> 4500 E. Main St., Mesa, (480) 807-1645
Best slice steal
It's $3.50 for two man-size slices of big-crusted pizza (sausage is my fave) with a refillable drink from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. How the heck are they making money? >> Multiple locations.
Best big burger
The Vine Tavern & Eatery
The Vegas Jo is one attention-grabbing hamburger ($10.99) — it's stacked with four half-pound patties, six slices of cheddar and jack cheeses, six strips of meaty bacon, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, iceberg lettuce, tomato and red onion. Quality is not sacrificed for size; this monster drips decadence.
>> 6102 E. Main St., Mesa, (480) 396-2472
Egg & I
The basics — a Belgian waffle with fresh strawberries, fluffy biscuits drenched in gravy, a hearty Denver skillet — are as good or better than any I've had in these parts. What takes this place to the next level are its creative a.m. options like the breakfast quesadillas, potato skins stuffed with egg and oatmeal brûlée.
>> 2823 N. Power Road, Mesa, (480) 641-8080
Best non-breaded calamari
Bada Boom! Pasta Room
A shallow bowl of tender calamari curls sauteed with diced tomatoes, loads of garlic, red pepper flakes and a splash of vodka. It's a spicy little number, one I've gotten a kick out of many times.
>> 4151 N. Marshall Way, Scottsdale, (480) 214-2666
The paper-thin meat is slightly charred by the greasy-spoons grill, placed on a soft hoagie, and topped with melted swiss cheese and loads of sliced grilled onions and bell pepper. It may not be authentic, but it's the best I've had.
>> 1725 E. Ryan Road, Chandler,
Best Sunday night dinner
You don't need an excuse to dine at this urban Oldtown Scottsdale find, but getting half-off bottles of wine on Sundays makes it a no-brainer. Pair the vino with the grin-inducing grilled pear salad ($8), the diverse antipasto plate ($12) and the succulent cinnamon and nutmeg crusted pork tenderloin ($18).
>> 7210 E. Second St., Scottsdale, (480) 945-6600
Best wine bar
Kazimierz World Wine Bar
I've been to wine bars in Italy that had nothing on this cozy hideaway. With 1,850 wines, plush sitting areas, low lighting, an unmarked entrance and interesting small bites — I don't see anyone dethroning Kazimierz anytime soon.
>> 7137 E. Stetson Drive, Scottsdale, (480) 946-3004
Most luscious liquids
Mangos Mexican Café
The most dangerous part about working in downtown Mesa is not the proximity to the halfway houses, it's being within walking distance of the addicting aguas frescas at this family-run cafe. The colorful, giant glass jars of freshly pressed pineapple, cantaloupe, strawberry, watermelon and mango juices are the thirst-quenching queens of the desert.
>> 44 W. Main St., Mesa, (480) 464-5700
Best order-at-the-counter Thai
Oasian Noodle Bar
I stumbled into one of the most memorable meals of the year at this casual new Asian place. Owner “K.C.” dished up fragrant soups and noodles at his tiny bar along with fascinating stories of his days in Taiwan and Alaska. It's painful picking between the many tasty options, but Sergeant Chang chicken ($6.95), Singapore noodles ($6.95) and chicken masaman curry ($7.50) usually win out.
>> 1935 S. Val Vista Drive, Mesa, (480) 632-1245
Best full-service Thai
With a serious five-star heat scale (three stars and I hit the runny-nose/slight-sweat state) and the best curries I've had, this is where I'd send any serious Thai food fan. Their spicy noodles — fried flat noodles, chicken, onion, jalapeño and herb-infused basil — is my favorite Thai dish of all time.
>> 5055 W. Ray Road, Chandler, (480) 785-1640
Best vegetarian restaurant
One bite of this heavily spiced south Indian cuisine and you'll forget filet mignon ever existed. The menu has nearly 100 choices — most of which are vegan — the portions are huge and the flavors are more exciting than one could ever imagine.
>> 1639 N. Scottsdale Road, Tempe, (480) 994-8787
Best soup and sandwich combo
Crackers & Co.
There's enough slicing and dicing done each morning to make 10 different soups at this tucked-away cafe. Pair a cup of the spicy chicken tortilla or Portuguese soups with one of six sandwiches for $7.19.
>> 535 W. Iron Ave., Mesa, (480) 898-1717
Chino Bandido Takee-Outee
Craving a teriyaki chicken burrito with a side of refried beans and pork fried rice? This Mexico-meets-Asia eatery found a way to combine the cuisines of two very different countries, but the quality of each burrito, quesadilla or rice bowl depends on the customer. Hit the sampling station before tackling the sudoku-like menu and your culinary experiment should be a success.
>> 1825 W. Chandler Blvd., Chandler, (480) 889-5990
Teakwoods Tavern & Grill
I've tried many things at this neighborhood hot spot and liked them all. But, after one bite of these mini burgers, I waved goodbye to my “experimental” days and slowly introduced my mouth to this must-have item. Juicy patties, oh-so-soft buns, heaps of grilled onions, melted cheddar cheese — all in three easy to eat packages.
>> 5965 W. Ray Road, Chandler, (480) 961-0945; 151 E. Williams Field Road, Gilbert, (480) 899-8325; 8880 E. Via Linda, Scottsdale, (480) 614-5254
With million-dollar views (literally) of city lights framed by rugged desert mountains and roaring fire pits, the gorgeous back terrace at this Old World charmer could compete with Tuscany's most scenic villas.
>> 10455 E. Pinnacle Peak Parkway, Scottsdale, (480) 502-9095
Best off the beaten path in Scottsdale
This husband-and-wife-run restaurant has always been tricky to locate, and the giant construction job directly west of the small storefront can't be helping, but if ever a place was worth flipping a few U-turns to find then this is it. Seeing what chef Matthew Long comes up with next is always a treat — currently it's his impossibly tender, panko-dusted calamari ($7.95) and light halibut osso bucco ($21.95).
>> 4441 N. Buckboard Trail, Scottsdale, (480) 423-9043
Best affordable steakhouse
Frank & Charlies Wood Fire Grill
The grill-checkered steaks at this wood-walled restaurant are juicy and served on warm plates with two sides — none of that a la carte business you get at the fancier filet houses. The 14-ounce ribeye ($19.99) is well-marbled and sure to put a smile on any father's face when paired with the herbed red roasted potatoes and hot cinnamon apples.
>> 2050 N. Alma School Road, Chandler, (480) 857-9444
Best barbecue beans
Joe's Real BBQ
This side dish is like a meal in itself. Chunks of barbecue meat, a variety of beans and a thick, sweet sauce make them irresistible.
>> 301 N. Gilbert Road, Gilbert, (480) 503-3805
Best family restaurant
San Tan Flat
The majority of the seating is outside at picnic tables in the dirt — does it get more kid-friendly? Parents can have a beer and burger while watching the little ones run wild among the Old West relics that surround this campground-like restaurant and bar.
>> 6185 W. Hunt Highway, Queen Creek, (480) 882-2995
Best fast Mexican food
Order at the counter, sit down with a personal basket of light chips and tasty hot sauce, and your Mexican dish will be delivered seconds later. The veggie burro and deep-fried pollo fundido are two favorites.
>> 1065 E. Baseline Road, Gilbert, (480) 755-8226; 101 E. Baseline Road, Tempe, (480) 839-8226; 3461 W. Frye Road, Chandler, (480) 726-8226
Best banana dessert
The Dolce Della Casa is a football-sized sugary calzone stuffed with chocolate hazelnut and sliced banana served hot from the wood-fired oven. Plated with two scoops of vanilla ice cream, it's the only banana-based dessert I've ever swooned over.
>> 6952 E. Main St., Scottsdale, (480) 663-9797
Best under $5 lunch
Susie's Mexican Cafe
The cafe ain't pretty — it's old and a little unkempt — but the Rocky Point-style taco lunch special is simplistic perfection. For $4.96, diners get three carne asada tacos sprinkled with cilantro and chopped white onions, some of the best beans and rice around, hot and mild salsas, chips and a draft beer.
>> 2405 E. University Drive, Tempe, (480) 966-7091
Best seafood soup
The potage del caribe — a creamy seafood chowder with potatoes and a bit of tomato and salted pork — is lick-the-bowl clean good.
>> 4232 E. Chandler Blvd., Ahwatukee Foothills, (480) 704-2600, and 6245 E. Bell Road, Scottsdale, (480) 991-1496
Best place to take visitors
Rancho de Tia Rosa
Give the friends and family something they can't get back home — great Mexican food in a festive atmosphere. They make the best chips and salsas in the East Valley, crazy-good carnitas, a not-too-sweet chicken mole even my picky pops loves and a fabulous flan.
>> 3129 E. McKellips Road, Mesa, (480) 659-8787
Best place to take foodie visitors
Rancho Pinot Grill
The second your gourmand-y guests walk into this shrine to food and wine, they'll know what state they're in. A beautiful saguaro skeleton rises up in the center of the white-linen-draped dining room, which is adorned with classy cowboy-desert decor. The atmosphere is casual-upscale, the service is impeccable and the one-page menu is inspired and ever-changing. And, who knows, maybe you'll see retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor like I did on a recent visit.
>> 6208 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, (480) 367-8030
Best green beans
Leave it to a spice-fueled Vietnamese place to magically transform green beans into something unbelievably scrumptious. That's right, the veggie that's up there with spinach and broccoli on the list of snoozer sides is what I look forward to the most when visiting this BYOB spot.
>> 1919 W. Chandler Blvd., Chandler, (480) 963-4490
Best late-night meal
Tapino Kitchen & Wine Bar
From 10 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Thursday through Sunday, this playful wine bar serves a dozen petite plates as well as mesquite grilled kobe beef bites ($25). The chorizo croquets ($6), lamb, beef and feta cheese empanadas ($6) and duck confit relleno ($7) will awaken the most tired taste buds.
>> 7000 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale, (480) 991-6887
Most passionately defended restaurant
Olé Restaurant & Cantina
My C- overall grade was met with a shower of irate e-mails with zingers such as, “You must have been having a bad hair day or went in there with an attitude” and, “Your review, to be blunt, sucks.”
>> 459 N. Gilbert Road, Gilbert, (480) 926-3681
Best alternative to Pizzeria Bianco
Classic Italian Pizza
If you're still driving to downtown Phoenix and waiting two hours to eat Chris Bianco's much-praised pizza, give this hard-to-find Italian spot a shot. The wood-fired, gourmet pies are as good or better.
>> 1054 E. Baseline Road, Tempe, (480) 345-8681
Best new pizza place
Another Sam Fox success, the thin-crust pies here are perfect and topped with the finest ingredients. The caramelized onions and crumbled sausage combo is tough to beat.
>> 3426 E. Baseline Road, Mesa, (480) 497-3500
I'm dying for some of those slow-cooked ribs and a bowl of hot bread pudding swimming in a sugary vanilla sauce. If anyone knows where the Payne family barbecue joint disappeared to, please let me know.
Best grub and game duo
Half Moon Sports Grill
The prime rib sliders ($7.75), Frito pie ($6.50), Philly cheesesteak ($9.25) and burgers are my MVPs at this high-end sports bar. The big-screens are top-notch and hung high enough to give everyone an unobstructed view, but the two private living-room spots near the entry (Loge and Skybox) are the cushiest in the house.
>> 325 W. Elliot Road, Tempe, (480) 456-9400
Best cheap burger
Upper Deck Sports Grill
All day Wednesday the quarter pounders at this sports bar are $1.50. They're served on a nice bun, and the meat is well-seasoned. To make a meal of the deal, splurge for a side of the baked mac n' cheese.
>> 4224 N. Craftsman Court, Scottsdale, (480) 941-9333
Best breakfast burrito
Warm tortillas stuffed with your choice of ingredients — the scrambled eggs, bacon, potato, cheese and onion combo is killer.
>> 355 N. Arizona Ave., Chandler, (480) 963-6763
Best beef nachos
Nachos are not as easy to do right as some think, but the nearly 40-year-old La Fonda has found a way to keep the chips crisp, the toppings evenly dispersed and the cheese completely melted. And they serve a nice hot sauce and salsa for dipping.
>> 1126 N. Scottsdale Road, Tempe, (480) 966-8001
Best place for beer
The Yard House
This So-Cal institution recently migrated east to the joy of many Arizona brewski fans. The 130 beers on tap flow overhead through stainless steel pipes from a remote keg room holding more than a 1,000 gallons of cold, refreshing ales and stouts.
>> 7014 E. Camelback Road, Scottsdale, (480) 675-9273
• Crackers & Co., Mesa
• Joe's Farm Grill, Gilbert
• Lil' Pizzazz, Mesa
• The Market, Scottsdale
• Oregano's, Gilbert
• Rumbi Island Grill, Mesa
In the works
• Star Spangled Tavern, Scottsdale
• Four Peaks, Gilbert
• Dos Gringos Grille, Chandler
• Chilepistols Mexican Kitchen, Gilbert
• Rancho de Tia Rosa's, Gilbert
• Teakwood's Tavern, Queen Creek
• Cafe Binkley, the East Valley
• Postino, Scottsdale
• Taneko Japanese Tavern, Scottsdale
My 10 current addictions
• Classic Italian Pizza, Tempe
• Cyclo, Chandler
• Drinkwater's City Hall Steakhouse, Scottsdale
• Furio, Scottsdale
• Fusion Restaurant & Lounge, Scottsdale
• The Greene House, Scottsdale
• Oasian Noodle Bar, Mesa
• Radda Caffe-Bar, Scottsdale
• Rancho de Tia Rosa, Mesa
• Sauce, Mesa
Chipotle Mexican Grill
Ruth's Chris Steak House
Native New Yorker
Source: Tribune Reader Network
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