Best Of :: La Vida
Okay, we know what you're thinking. "How much can a restaurant improve on the time-honored taco, enchilada, and chile relleno platter?" Our answer: When it doesn't include any of the above.
We're used to getting variety at Mexican restaurants, but Mi Cocina Mi Pais has won us over by sheer novelty, with a tasty culinary repertoire that ventures much farther south of the border, to Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. In particular, we're enthralled with La Bandeja Paisa, a combination plate with more variety than anywhere in town, aside from all-you-can-eat buffets. This incredible combo includes marinated steak, chorizo, a fried pork rib chicharron, a pile of patacones (unripened plantain fritters), fried plantains, arepas (fluffy corn cakes), rice, warm pepper relish, red beans, avocado, and a fried egg. No wonder it's unofficially considered the national dish of Colombia La Bandeja Paisa is the kind of homey, filling meal that could lull an entire country into a sweet, patriotic food coma. We pledge our allegiance to Mi Cocina Mi Pais.
On a sizzling afternoon, we've found a way to beat the heat that's even better than a slushie: a Mexican slushie. Made with fresh fruit chunks, flavored syrups, and scoops of shaved ice, they're called raspados and do they ever hit the spot when the heat's starting to make us a bit loco. La Reyna Michoacana, a cheerful sweet shop with shiny white tile floors, bright lemon-hued walls, and colorful fruit paintings along the counter, is our favorite pit stop for this south-of-the-border refreshment, offering raspados in flavors from strawberry and pineapple to rompope, a sweet almond concoction reminiscent of eggnog. Try one straight up, or order it diablito, with ground chile flakes to add a spicy twist. Sweetened condensed milk is another delicious addition, especially with La Reyna's fabulous tamarind raspado. No matter what flavor you go with, just remember you gotta drink up to cool down.
When summertime arrives you know, in early March we start craving Mexican popsicles, known as paletas. This year, we started the hunt for the cantaloupe bars we recalled from last season, but it wasn't easy to find them. We remembered Moreliana's cute packaging (a boy and girl enjoying their paletas) but figured, hey, one paleta's as good as the next so we bought a bag of another brand. Not so, amigas. Only Moreliana's available in pushcarts through the summer, and at various small ice cream shops and bakeries (but not Phoenix Ranch Market) packs their paletas with tons of fresh fruit, so (to paraphrase Willy Wonka) the cantaloupe really tastes like a cantaloupe and the watermelon really tastes like a watermelon. The mango with chile is also the real deal so much so that three of us tried to eat one without our mouths going numb and our faces sweating, but had to give up. Still, we gave up smiling.
There's nothing like an ice cream sundae to satisfy a sweet tooth. Not just any sundae, mind you, but the kind of layered confection that's so good you'll forget there's such a thing as a love handle. With south-of-the-border Coke in glass bottles, nachos, and wicked chile tamarind raspados, too, this isn't your ordinary ice cream shop. Fruitti Sweets is a tiny little spot that scoops up lip-smacking flavors like boysenberry sorbet, and sugar-free caramel praline. Dreamy chocolate and fresh strawberry are among the sugary syrups we can't live without.
We can't skip the whipped cream, and the toppers include coconut so fresh we swear someone's grating them up in the back. They've got your maraschino cherry covered. Just when you thought it couldn't get any sweeter, pink and yellow sugar wafer cookies seal the deal. For less than three bucks, this sundae's so hot it's cool.
We have a very good friend who's a very good cook, and recently, she let on that she's been perfecting a recipe for tres leches cake. We put in an order for our birthday, but 'til then, we will continue to worship La Tolteca's version. Tres leches means "three milks," indicating the main ingredients: condensed, evaporated, and whole milk. All together, you've got one rich, delicious cake, so moist it's hard to tell where the icing leaves off and the cake begins. Dear friend, you have big shoes to fill! We can't wait to see if you're up to the task of matching the fine bakers at La Tolteca.
It doesn't matter if we feast on a platter of fabulous carne asada, or inhale a whole basket of chips with queso fundido or chunky homemade guacamole we always have room for dessert at Los Sombreros, one of the best places in the Valley for gourmet Mexican food. In particular, we're fanatics of the flan, served up in a thick, generous slice. It's almost big enough to share, but we'd never want to, especially since it's paired with Almendrado tequila. What? Tequila with dessert? Oh, yes, indeed. It's a sweet, aged liqueur with an intense, deep almond flavor. Swirl it a little, inhale that seductive aroma, and then take a sip before you take a bite of silky, creamy flan. It's even better when you drizzle it right on top of the custard. And don't worry about getting funny looks from your waiter. He'll be cheering you on until your last delicious bite.