Best Of :: La Vida
Tamales are tricky. We can whip up a taco, but when it comes to tamales, we have no idea how to get the corn base moist and tasty, or where to begin to make a filling as delicious as the inside of a pork tamale at Mucho Gusto. This Tempe haunt is a favorite far and wide, for innovative Mexican cuisine that reaches outside the box to tempt and challenge diners. The margarita menu is creative as well, and we are most happy with a thick, banana-leaf-wrapped tamale and a hibiscus marg.
We love the art that celebrates Das de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead the enormous papier-mch skeletons, the smaller scenes that depict the dead doing everything from writing at the typewriter to performing surgery in the operating room. But damn, sometimes that art can be expensive! So when we want a quick, sweet (but warning not edible) Day of the Dead fix, we head to the Willow House, where we can find a beautiful (in its way) sugar skull, made deep in Mexico and decorated with the traditional brightly colored sugar frosting and shiny tinfoil, for $4. On a recent trip to Willow, we also found a lovely cardboard Jesus air freshener to hang in the car.
The members of the Border Film Project Rudy Adler, Victoria Criado and Brett Huneycutt were smart enough to hand thousands of disposable cameras to immigrants and Minutemen. Some of them were smart enough to send them back, and SMoCA was smart enough to incorporate the results into a full-blown exhibition. We commend them all for creating a much more realistic glimpse of the border than most of us will ever get.
In the Southwest, "authentic" Mexican furniture isn't hard to find. Even big-box stores have hacienda collections these days. But that little "hecho en Mexico" sticker doesn't always mean much when it comes to quality. Authentic (not "authentic") handmade furniture and imports are much harder to come by. Fortunately, Bellas Artes de Mexico lives up to its name, making it our pick for best Mexican imports store. Walking into this family-owned furniture shop feels a bit like walking into the home of a 16th-century conquistador. The place is filled with beautifully hand-carved tables, doors and wardrobes with details so intricate it feels like they must open up to reveal some south-of-the-border Narnia. Bellas Artes is owned by Cristina and Felipe Guzman, who import furniture from their family's well-known furniture shop in Guadalajara, Mexico. The family's woodworking ability is clearly the star of the show the mesquite tables are breathtaking, and one of our favorite pieces was a Last Supper scene carved from one giant piece of pine but the store is also good for hand-painted ceramic dishes, traditional tin mirrors, and random, brightly painted knickknacks.
You don't have to go south of the border to find great Mexican pottery at least not south of the U.S. border. Just south of Arizona Mills mall is a cozy little brick storefront overflowing with clay pots and colorful planters painted in shades of burnt orange and turquoise. Inside, shelves are brimming with imported goods from Mexico and Latin America. There are ceramic lizards to crawl down your garden walls and a selection of handmade pots that dwarfs those of the gardening departments at Home Depot and Lowe's. There's a bit of a language barrier for non-Spanish speakers, but there are usually a few young translators around to help bridge the gap. Besides, the only question you'll really need to ask is Cunto cuesta? (How much?), because once you find a Mata Ortiz pot for less than its manufactured equivalent, you won't even dream of going somewhere else for Mexican home decor.
From roughhewn pine benches to massive armoires covered in wrought-iron spikes that look more like torture devices than entertainment centers, this North Valley warehouse has everything to make su casa exude rustic charm. La Casona specializes in high-end custom rustic furniture, which is hard to find even in most so-called authentic Mexican stores. A custom dining table with mesquite legs and padded leather chairs can set you back $10K, but we think it's worth it for an heirloom piece tailor-made for your space. Don't worry if that's more than you paid for your car, you can still find something that won't break the bank. The affordable stretched leather equipal tables, along with colorful Talavera pottery, tin mirrors and hand-painted folk art, will make your home feel like a permanent fiesta.
El Paso Import Co. started out selling authentic vintage Mexican furniture, but soon mixed in some reproductions (always making sure the buyer was aware). That's fine with us; we can actually afford this stuff. We love it, and are considering moving to a larger house since we've filled our own to the limit with armoires, huge tables and small cabinets, all trimmed with wonderful details and painted in funky colors when the natural wood isn't left alone. A repro like this, we'll take anytime!
Tucked behind the Yucca Tap Room on the southwest corner of Mill and Southern avenues in Tempe, this relaxed and friendly community space is the place where Spanish-language champions and students can sharpen their Latin-seasoned tongues. The bright blue, green, red and orange walls shower The Place with a south-of-the-border warmth in two classrooms hosting a variety of beginning, intermediate and advanced instruction, including lunchtime and happy hour conversation, reading, grammar and pronunciation. The library stocks Spanish-language newspapers, magazines and books, while the lounge area has an inviting, hostel-type community-room warmth with a coffee station, comfy chairs, and a television that shows films from a Latin American country of choice on Movie Mondays. The best value is the $50 monthly pass; day passes are available for $15, and there's a free open house every First Friday. Our favorite part? All instructors possess firsthand experience in Spanish-speaking countries and can beef up the vulgar vocab during the dirty words and slang class, offered every Thursday afternoon.
Are you ready to get juiced? Try the aguas frescas at Phoenix Ranch Market. There always seems to be a long line of thirsty people waiting for a drink at this store's festive kiosk, where employees ladle ice-cold beverages out of enormous glass jars. We're partial to the jamaica (pronounced "ha-my-ka," not "Jamaica," mon), a sweet, tart red punch made from dried hibiscus flowers. It's one of almost a dozen different flavors, including pia (pineapple), fresa (strawberry), papaya, and sandia (watermelon). Since the aguas frescas counter is planted right next to a picnic-table-filled dining area, where families slurp down their fruity concoctions along with la carte burritos and tacos, it almost feels like you're at a real Mexican mercado.
When we're drinking a margarita, we'll pass on that name-brand $30 shot; what we really want is lime so tart it stings, salt that flakes on our lips, a blend of the hard stuff that's not too heavy on the orange liqueur. And after tasting hundreds of margaritas across the Valley, we found that very combination at Padre's Modern Mexican Cuisine, the cheerful bar and grill just west of the Biltmore on Camelback Road. The house margarita a mix of Sauza Gold, triple sec, and fresh lime and lemon juice in a tall glass over ice is just $5, and so damn good, we guarantee you'll beg for a pitcher.
Yes, it's a chain restaurant. But the margaritas are so tasty, we're betting even the folks at Arizona Chain Reaction have a hard time resisting happy hour here. Generously poured, perfectly blended, and with just the right tequila kick, these margaritas would convince even the most ardent food snob to give the blender a chance. Feeling adventurous? Try a flight, with a trio of excellent mini margaritas flavored with your pick of prickly pear, guava, or even Chambord.
Perhaps the only clue that this isn't your average Sunnyslope hole-in-the-wall is the cars in the parking lot: On one recent Sunday, we spotted an Audi, a Beamer, and a Lexus side by side. But there's nothing pretentious or upscale inside this homey Mexican restaurant and its smoky blue-tiled bar, just (very) low-key ambiance and a huge selection of tequila. Ask the bartender to suggest a shot or two; from the clean slickness of a blanco to the peatiest of anejo, these women know their stuff.