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Tucson, Phoenix, and Santa Fe. Sounds like the name of an old-timey Western railroad — one whose mail cars Billy the Kid might have held up more than a hundred years ago. Life in the Southwest was tough back then. And so was the beef. Over at the ranch or on the range, the cooking was pretty dreary. “Ole Cookie,” the archetypal Old West cook, couldn’t be depended on for much more than a plate of frijoles and mush, a slice of beef jerky, and a cup of rancid coffee. When a cowhand got to town, the big deal was the trip to the saloon. And no one went to a saloon for the food. The Southwest of today is a different world. “Ole Cookie” was put out to pasture a long time ago. The beef jerky’s disappeared. And the saloons are closed. Today, Tucson, Phoenix, and Santa Fe are three of the most intriguing venues on the American culinary scene. None more so than Phoenix, where innovative chefs like RoxSand Scocos (of the eponymous restaurant RoxSand) hold sway. Over the past decade, Scocos has been the seminal figure in focusing attention on Southwestern cooking. Twelve years ago she and husband Spyros Scocos opened RoxSand. Three years later, she was named one of the rising chefs in America. And for the past five years in a row, she’s been a finalist for the James Beard Awards. Her secret: stunningly fresh, virtually 100 percent organic ingredients and a flair for presentation to match. Scocos cooks up impressively good fare that includes grilled confit of jerked rabbit, top sirloin with Texas chainsaw chili, and sauted natural scallops with horno de toro sauce. And then there’s the Piri Piri, an African dish of spicy shrimp coated with olive oil, garlic, and peanuts. Billy the Kid would have loved it. What The Ratings Mean The Zagat ratings are based on a 0-to-30- point scale and are for Food, Decor, and Service, in that order. The fourth column, Cost, reflects the estimated price of a dinner with one drink and tip. Lunch usually costs 25 percent less. 0-9 Poor to Fair 10-15 Fair to Good 16-19 Good to Very Good 20-25 Very Good to Excellent 26-30 Extraordinary to Perfection Janos Tucson, Ariz. 27 25 25 $48 Westin La Paloma, 3770 E. Sunrise Dr. (between N. Campbell Ave. and N. Swan Rd.) 520-615-6100 A resort with a spectacular view of the foothills is the new setting for chef Janos Wilder’s imaginative Southwestern-French cooking. The wine list here is excellent and the service first-class. If some complain that they feel distinctly poorer upon leaving Janos, it’s because of the prices, not the food. And while some say they miss his old location, Wilder’s true disciples declare that he sets the standard no matter where he sets up shop. SantaCafe Santa Fe, N.M. 26 26 24 $40 231 Washington Ave. (between Marcy St. and Paseo de Peralta) 505-984-1788 This favorite special-occasion spot near the Plaza continues to attract fans who praise its top-notch, inventive blend of Southwestern and cross-cultural dishes served in the elegant interior and outside on the lovely patio. The one real complaint: inconsistency in the kitchen. Le Cafe Miche Santa Fe, N.M. 26 22 25 $26 1431 Wyoming Blvd. N.E. (at Constitution Ave.) 505-299-6088 A recent expansion, beautifully done, and a new chef have revved up the ratings at this Northeast Heights restaurant. The excellent French fare is matched by great wines and superior service. Pampered patrons warmly praise the fine dining experience. Roxsand Phoenix/Scottsdale, Ariz. 26 24 24 $36 Biltmore Fashion Park, 2594 E. Camelback Rd. (at North 24th St.), Phoenix 602-381-0444 This hip global-accented Contemporary American owes much to chef/co-owner RoxSand Scocos’s consistently wonderful cooking. The setting is stark but sophisticated — “the closest thing to New York City in Phoenix.” Don’t leave without ordering from the wonderful “dessert walk,” a glass-enclosed case that features probably the best chocolate choices around. T.Cook’s Phoenix/Scottsdale, Ariz. 26 28 25 $43 Royal Palms Hotel & Casitas, 5200 E. Camelback Rd. (between N. Arcadia Dr. and N. 56th St.), Phoenix 602-808-0766 Housed in a beautiful, historic Phoenix hotel, this spectacular Mediterranean restaurant offers excellent rustic dishes. The inviting dining room boasts a hunter’s lodge fireplace for spit-roasting poultry and meats. There’s also a romantic bar, marked by antiques and overstuffed chairs, and a cigar lounge. Lon’s at the Hermosa Inn Phoenix/Scottsdale, Ariz. 25 26 23 $38 Hermosa Inn, 5532 North Palo Cristi Rd. (at E. Stanford Dr.), Paradise Valley 602-955-7878 Set in a beautiful adobe structure built by artist Lon Megargee in the 1930s, this romantic retreat affords a fine view of Camelback Mountain. Great service and superior Southwest-inspired cooking combine to make this one of the area’s most popular restaurants. Geronimo Santa Fe, N.M. 27 28 25 $46 724 Canyon Rd. (at Camino del Monte Sol) 505-982-1500 Voted New Mexico’s most popular restaurant and number two for food and decor. This eclectic, if pricey, Southwestern restaurant is set in a lovely, historic Canyon Road adobe building. The innovative cuisine here consistently wins applause for chef Eric DiStefano. Patrons praise the romantic, intimate interior and the thoughtful service. For many, this is the signature Santa Fe restaurant — a must for visitors. Tucson Ventana Room Tucson, Ariz. 28 28 28 $47 Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, 7000 N. Resort Dr. (at N. Kolb Rd., north of E. Sunrise Dr.), 520-299-2020 Tucson’s most popular restaurant is also number one in the state for food and service and number two for decor. Its champions crown it “best in the West” for its spectacular views and beautifully presented New American fare. Dinner only.

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