Best Of :: La Vida
We thought we'd died and gone to Libertad Mercado in Guadalajara when we discovered the Mexican cookware, utensils and supplies stocked at La Tolteca, a combo bakery, deli, restaurant and meat counter on East Van Buren done up in bright, serape-esque colors. If you can tear yourself away from La Tolteca's long glass bakery cases filled with fragrant pan dulce, freshly deep-fried churros and whipped-cream-topped tres leches cake and are not deflected by its fabulous meat counter and eat-in dining area, you'll find yourself in the middle of neatly arranged, good-quality Mexican cookware and utensils hard to find outside of Mexico itself. We saw huge metal cazuelas, big tubs with handles used for deep frying and simmering; humongous tamale steamers; comales, flat metal griddle-like affairs for cooking tortillas, searing fajitas or scorching fresh chiles; and those wonderful, inexpensive hand citrus squeezers that Williams-Sonoma powder-coats and sells for a small fortune. We also scoped out tortilla presses, hand-crank corn grinders for making masa, straw scrub brushes, wooden spoons and stirrers, and molinillos, a sort of wooden whisk-like utensil you twirl between your palms to froth Mexican hot chocolate to foamy perfection. La Tolteca also stocks authentic volcanic stone molcajetes and tejolotes, three-legged mortars and pestles used by every good Mexican cook worth her sal to grind up everything from chiles and spices to tomatoes and onions for salsa and guacamole. And speaking of chiles and spices, you'll find an extensive selection of both fresh and dried ones at La Tolteca right across the aisle from the cookware.
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.