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Char's

5039 E. Fifth St.

READERS' PICK: Once again Char's wins best of Tucson. It could be the service, the food or even the creative use of Thai art in a western mural. Whatever it is, the people love Char's. Meatitarians can find pretty much a symphony of choices, while vegetarians and vegans can take solace in the variety of vegetable-only dishes, as well as the fact that the cooks will substitute tofu for any meat product. The more glamorous dishes include Karw Pad Suppa-Rode, a more than ample serving of chicken, shrimp, cashews, pineapple and fried rice stuffed into a whole pineapple. You'll never finish it in one sitting. Not impressed? Check out the Typical Thai Omelet stuffed with ground beef or pork. Or perhaps the Steamed Mussels, Diet Silver Noodles or Vegetable Coconut Curries. Something a little tamer perhaps? Well, you're in the wrong place. Head for the soup aisle to try Thai staples like the Tom Yum Gai (Hot and Sour Chicken Soup) or the Creamy Coconut Milk Soup. The soups and dishes all come with the hot and spicy option; buyer beware. If all else fails and the family won't chance the Squid with Ginger Sauce or the Roast Duck, order the staple Pad Thai with assorted meats or veggies. And of course don't miss the coconut ice cream and fried bananas. The food is both exquisite and complicated. Taste bud meltdown may occur, but what the heck--you wouldn't go to a Thai restaurant if you wanted something ordinary.

READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: Karuna's, 1911 E. Grant Road. In the dinky little plaza across from Bookman's rests one of the most delightful little Asian escapes in this two-toned desert town. In some very subtle ways, Karuna's represents the simple, no-frills beauty of travelling through Thailand. The food is scrumptiuous, the service is helpful but too busy to dote, and most importantly, the prices are nearly as cheap as at a pad thai stand in Bangkok. (Sorry, that's probably stretching it a bit.) But for five bucks, the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet is enough to send you home so full that the necessary siesta that follows will have you dreaming of beautiful Ko Samui beaches and coconut curry when indeed you should be back at work. The experience never ends.

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