Best Of :: La Vida
Food critics are a nasty lot. They love to scrap, backstabbing each other until the meanest of them stands supreme, like the king of the hill in the children's game of the same name. Of course, our Stephen Lemons is the Blackbeard of Culinary Criticism, always ready to raise the Jolly Roger and let blast a flow of invective at his Lilliputian rivals. Are they ever in agreement on anything? Believe it or not, there is perhaps one meal they could all break bread over, and sing the praises of: Los Sombreros' lamb adobo, wherein a shank of lamb sits drowning in a bowl of dark brown adobo sauce -- a mélange of ground chiles that's both spicy and savory at the same time. The lamb is so tender, it begins to "baaa" whenever you stick a knife in it, and we've seen our otherwise proud Mr. Lemons cleaning that bone and drinking down the last remnants of that magical souplike sauce. But just when you thought a gustatory truce was at hand, our Terror of the Dining Table slices his culinary opponents into sausages with his razor-sharp cutlass, and raises their heads high on the yardarm. As Lemons escapes over their decimated bodies with the leftover adobo, we can even hear him singing, "Yo ho! Yo ho! A pirate's life for me!"
In the interest of our gaming-themed "Best of," we wanted, dear reader, to find you the best cockfight in town. But The Man cried fowl. You can't find a legal cockfight in AZ anymore, although we hear there's still some action on the west side of Phoenix. Anyhow, we don't want to recommend anything that would hurt a chicken, short of a trip to KFC. But as far as "good" games go, we found Dulceria Pico Rico, a Mexican game store on 16th Street. DPR carries several versions of Loteria (Mexican bingo), as well as the Mexican version of Chutes 'n' Ladders, called Serpientes y Escaleras, and Pin the Tail on the Donkey, er, Burro. Even if you're bummed about not catching a cockfight, there's something very satisfying about winning the pot in Loteria. Victory tastes like chicken.
Silvana Salcido Esparza, owner and executive chef of Barrio Cafe, is proud of the series of tattoos that decorate her right leg. For her, tattooing isn't just the trendy thing to do, but a way of expressing and paying homage to her culture. "I didn't start getting tattoos until I was 35," says Esparza, who's now 45. "So it's not like I'm some kid who runs into the tattoo shop and runs out half an hour later with a new tattoo." In fact, Esparza reports that her tattoos took countless hours of conceptualization, and they are all original designs, featuring images of Toltec warriors, Nahuatl women, a Mexican eagle, the Day of the Dead calavera dressed as a chef, and a Mayan corn god. Each tattoo has a special meaning for Esparza. "In my culture, we believe that corn is life, and it denotes a new beginning and sustenance," she says. "And it's also associated with food, which is such a big part of my culture." Esparza's tattoo of Nahuatl women grinding corn comes from artist Diego Rivera's Mercado mural, and she chose the design for its suggestions of feminine power. "The woman signifies everything for the Mexican culture," she says. "Everything is centered around the mother." Most of the work was done by various tattoo artists in Mexico City, except for the Mayan corn god, a local job. Eventually, Esparza says, the series of tattoos will become a full leg sleeve, brought together by images of corn. We don't think that's corny at all.
We've had a lot of margaritas in our day, but we must admit to doubling our intake after discovering what the addition of a little prickly pear juice can do to such an already perfect drink. And nobody in the Valley does prickly pear margaritas better than the surprisingly low-key bar at this posh resort in far north Scottsdale. Unlike lesser prickly pear margaritas, there is nothing syrupy or heavy about these purplish-pink babies; they're possessed of a perfect light tartness. The only drawback: The resort is so far from civilization, and the drinks go down so smoothly, you're probably going to have to book a room.
The blender has done for margaritas what the automatic transmission did for sports cars. Why do people pay top dollar for high-end tequila, then ask the barkeep to blanderize it with pulverized ice? As Frank Sinatra was prone to say when given more than two cubes in his whiskey tumbler, "What do I look like, a figure skater?" If you want a Slurpee, go to 7-Eleven. If you want an honest margarita -- one with real bite -- head to Richardson's, where there's no blender, or sweet-and-sour mix, to get in the way of a good thing. Richardson's knows the recipe for pure refreshment on a hot summer day: good tequila and fresh-squeezed lime juice with a dash of Triple Sec poured into a glass filled with ice (cubes!) and rimmed with salt. That's it, nothing more. Alter this recipe even a smidgen and you may be drinking a cocktail, but it ain't a margarita.
Some folks like their margaritas on the rocks, just as some folks enjoy a 10-inch spike to the upper thorax. Those rocks-in-their-heads margarita masochists will argue that frozen margaritas are an abomination thought up by girly men. Back in the day, they'll point out, we didn't have blenders, so margaritas would have been served chilled or on the rocks at best. Perhaps, but then there's this little thing known as "progress," of which we're so fond. Since the invention of the margarita back in the 1930s, progress has come to improve our lives with such marvels as air conditioning and frozen margaritas, both of which are available for your pleasure at Z'Tejas. Its eight-ounce Chambord margarita is particularly wicked -- a blend of Sauza Gold, triple sec and sweet and sour, swirled into Chambord liqueur that makes them so potent that imbibers are cut off after three drinks. While the knuckle-draggers are sipping theirs on the rocks (and probably trying to start a fire with two sticks), we'll be on our third Chambord maggie, enjoying a lovely yet profound buzz.
We can thank those wacky conquistadors for inventing this first distilled liquor of the New World. True, the Aztecs had already thought up pulque, a form of the fermented drink from the agave plant, but it was the Spaniards who first distilled this into tequila, probably because they ran low on their own firewater. Nowadays, fine tequila is as highly regarded by snooty connoisseurs as excellent scotch or whiskey, and it boasts nearly as many varieties. The Old Town Tortilla Factory offers well more than 100 types of tequila in its "Margaritas Tequilaria," the bar adjacent to the beautiful, hacienda-like hideaway of a restaurant. Sure, there are traditional margaritas to be had, and fancier ones, like the "Millionaire's Margarita" with Cuervo Reserva and 150-year-old Celebration Grand Marnier. But we prefer a glass of one of those rare, anejo (aged) tequilas to sip, while we watch Tortilla Factory's must-see, fire-spitting waterfall gurgle in the moonlight. What would we say if the ghost of one of those ferocious conquistadors stopped by for a drink? What else? ¡Salud!
Gregarious gourmets Carlos Manriquez, a.k.a. "the Sorcerer of Sauces," and Chad Withycombe hold court here at Mucho Gusto. They're two of the crew that operate Scottsdale's BYOB gem Atlas Bistro, and their contribution to the Valley is enormous -- now in the way of Southwestern and modern Mexican fare. Manriquez's passion for fine victuals at a modest price comes across in such affordable palate-ticklers as steamed clams Adobo, Barra Vieja shrimp, and a Gaucho steak in an Argentine chimichurri marinade. Salivating yet? Last one to Mucho Gusto is a rancid tamale.
French cuisine is what most folks think of when the phrase "haute cuisine" is bandied about, and this seems to follow. The phrase is in French, after all, duh! For many moons, French, Italian, and even Japanese vittles have lent themselves more to the concept of haute cuisine than, say, Mexican. But gourmet Mexican cuisine has been on the rise for several years now, with its rich, complex sauces, and this nearly French concept of taking the rustic, setting it in a more refined ambiance, and giving it the same care and respect as the most uppity of foodstuffs. The fulfillment of this process can be experienced at Coyoacán, Phoenix's most exciting restaurant since Such Is Life/Asi Es La Vida. Coyoacán's kitchen creates such exquisite delights as nopal Hidalgo, grilled venison, and mole poblano. Entrees are served with a smorgasbord of side dishes, and a half-dozen house-made salsas, all in a breathtakingly beautiful restaurant with murals depicting pre-Columbian marketplaces and ancient Olmec stone heads. Coyoacán out-hautes the haughty Frogs foodwise! Though the folks who run it ain't nearly as stuck-up as they deserve to be.
Nearly every 'hood in the Valley has its own "Best Neighborhood Mexican" restaurant, sometimes more than one. The category exists not for those gourmet, highfalutin Mexican places -- the same four places you always see listed in rags around town, and deservedly so, for exceptional, haute Mexican cuisine. We love those spots, but sometimes you just want a good enchilada, taco, or plate of beans, without having to deal with a lot of B.S., and that's when we cruise over to a spot like Rosita's Place on McDowell Road, just east of the 51, where the albóndigas melt in your mouth and the frijoles are as appetizing as the flan. Some of the best tacos in the Valley vie for your tongue's attention with enchiladas that'll forever make you turn your nose up at the gringo versions sold elsewhere. The environs are authentic as well: Brown, glazed Mexican pottery hangs from orange roof beams, vintage black-and-white pics of Mexican soldiers hang from the walls, and a gurgling, stone-lipped pond/fountain filled with goldfish sits before a makeshift shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Rosita's is a neighborhood Mexican eatery that inspires neighborhood pride. And if you live or work nearby, you're fortunate indeed.
La Perla is a pearl of a joint. Opened by the Pompa family back in 1946, La Perla Cafe is located in the sort of funky building people instantly feel at home in, whether they've come in for a plate of chile rellenos and rice and beans, or to enjoy a margarita and some chips and salsa while grooving on any of the live music La Perla regularly showcases. Mariachi bands, and solo brass artists work the rooms on the weekends, but even if you're not there when the music is flowing, you'll appreciate the kick-back, family-friendly atmosphere, the big booths, and the photos of Old Mexico on the walls. No puttin' on airs here, even though the Pompa clan still proudly runs the joint. If you're in Glendale and need to feed your gob with some reliable Mexican grub, La Perla is the place for you and yours, amigo.
After more than 35 years and two generations of family ownership, Comedor Guadalajara still packs 'em in for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Neither the regulars nor the newbies are coming for the decor or the ambiance, as there's little of either on the premises. Everything's meticulously clean, but form follows function here, and CG's function is to fill that belly like it's your last meal on Earth. The menu is classic, Sonoran-style cuisine -- tacos, tostadas, flautas and enchiladas. But CG also specializes in mariscos, serving standards such as 7 Mares soup, shrimp Veracruz-style, pan-fried tilapia, and shrimp enchiladas in green tomatillo sauce. You'll also be blown away by the house-made flan, so rich and dark it's more like a caramel pudding than a custard. The service, too, is topnotch, and far more personal than one might expect from the cavernous interior and inexpensive comestibles. It isn't the building that gives this place soul, but the employees and the food.