Casual brunch in Phoenix

This time around I focus on some of my favorite casual brunch spots around the Valley. The food and the atmosphere keep me coming back time and again to all three, so much so that I've tried half the menu at all of them, or at least the brunch menu. For me that says a lot about the quality of a place, if I can take someone new to a restaurant and truly be able to recommend anything on the menu. 

Apple cinnamon pecan golden cakes, Ncounter

-- Lux Central -- I don't know how accurate it is to place Lux into the brunch category, except that at its core Lux is a brilliant coffee shop. The coffee is so good I drink it black, and that's how I truly define a good coffeehouse. I am one who usually opts for a bit of cream or sugar, but freshly roasted coffee, brewed right and brewed fresh -- sometimes that's all you need. Free refills if you order a simple cup of joe, and I am set for hours to peruse the internet, write this blog, or catch up with a friend over their delicious mac & cheese. But what sets Lux apart is how it really transcends your typical idea of a coffee shop, transforming from a bustling work-space into a late night bar. Not only can I say Lux has the best coffee I've had in Phoenix, it also boasts the most unique cocktails I've ever tried -- a fragrant lavender-hue concoction of Creme de Violette, St. Germaine, Domaine de Canton and Gin. I don't think I would've ever tried any of those liqueurs alone, much less together, if not for the urging of our bartender, but I must admit it was great and nothing like what I expected.

-- Ncounter -- Only open from 7 am to 3 pm, Ncounter is always crowded, but it's because they do brunch well and at affordable prices. And their location on Mill Ave. in Tempe probably doesn't hurt their business. Their golden cakes and french toast range from $5-7, depending on if you want toppings. I usually opt on the sweeter side, and find myself repeatedly ordering the apple cinnamon pecan pancakes or bananas foster french toast. While they have a lunch menu with sandwiches and salads, I always find myself ordering brunch, and my other top choice is the Farmer's Market Bene -- 2 eggs poached with spinach, tomato, avocado and hollandaise sauce atop english muffins. It's a great fresh take on the traditional egg's benedict.

-- Hillside Spot -- Hillside Spot is one of my favorite finds in Phoenix, because it's somewhat of a hidden gem nestled in quiet Ahwatukee. It's a market and restaurant co-owned by some of the Valley's best chefs, including Doug Robson of Gallo Blanco. You can tell as soon as you enter that their focus is on community, demonstrated in the locally-sourced ingredients and Arizona brews on tap, as well as an atmosphere that feels more like a neighborhood coffee shop than a restaurant, with its welcoming open dining room and relaxing patio. While Hillside Spot is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner, their breakfast menu is what keeps me coming back, and its available all-day. I keep saying I'll try some of their dinner items, but every time I go for dinner, I am tempted again by favorite meal, brunch. Whether it's a torta, breakfast burrito or an omelette, I've never been disappointed by my order.