BEST MEXICAN TAKEOUT (2003)
Phoenix Ranch Market
If there's anything we can't find in this 24,500-square-foot south Phoenix mercado, all we have to do is visit its second location, a 40,000-square-foot monster in the West Valley. Pretty much the entire country of Mexico is contained within these stores, with a jaw-dropping display of staples like whole beef head, carne seca, fresh coconut, guava gel, mammee fruit, and tamale husks. Yet perhaps the most exciting feature is the food court, a massive area of quick-serve meals of such top quality that it's hard to believe we're not in a real restaurant. It even looks like a restaurant, fronted with a classy wooden ranch house façade, and filled with throngs of families feasting at picnic-style tables. The booty is beautiful: a buffet array of chile Colorado tacos, tortas, burritos, sopes, cocido, tamales, homemade tortillas, roasted chicken, carnitas, rice, beans, salsas -- all cheap at about $5 for a full meal. We can eat with the masses at the tables, charged up with thundering piped-in mariachi music. Or, we can get our stuff packed in Styrofoam, to indulge in a quieter, private picnic at home. Either way, when the lunch and dinner bells ring, we're heading for the ranch.