Best Of :: La Vida
Too many restaurants treat Mexican dishes like diner food — they crank them out quickly and cheaply, and if the stuff happens to be tasty, well, you're lucky. In the hands of a talented chef, though, Mexico's culinary traditions can be downright sophisticated, not to mention surprising. At Barrio Café, guacamole, prepared tableside, is anything but run of the mill, while even the humble chile relleno is transformed by a filling of shrimp and scallops. Chef-owner Silvana Salcido Esparza's a well-traveled lady, and it shows, from Mexico City-style chicken enchiladas topped with tomatillo cream sauce to slow-roasted, fork-tender cochinita pibil (pork with achiote rojo and sour orange), a Yucatecan specialty. Even the desserts are unusual, including goat's milk-caramel-topped crepes, caramel-filled churros, and Oaxacan chocolate cake. With so many luscious flavor combinations and mouthwatering presentations, Barrio Café will give you a whole new perspective on Mexican cuisine.
This party-supply store is located on the same block as some of our other south-of-the-border staples — across the street from Realeza Michoacana, a bakery and paleta (Mexican popsicle) shop; and Tortas El Güero, a torta shop; and next door to Llantera del Norte. But Dulcería Pico Rico can easily stand alone. It's pretty much a one-stop shop if you're throwing a kid's birthday party (they'll even rent you a jumping castle), but the real reason to go here is the candy. The sweet, tummy-ache-inducing candy. The back of the store is almost entirely devoted to it. Mexican candy has a certain something that makes us want to buy enough to fill several piñatas (also available in abundance here). We think it's probably the packaging — so bright and full of the promise of fun. This place makes it hard to narrow our selection down to a few packages. The candy is divided up into savory (churarzo, in tamarind flavor — a buck and some change will get you 20 pieces), sour, hot (and they carry about a million varieties of the Mexican staple pico), and sweet. We're partial to the sweet. De La Rosa's peanut confections melt in our mouths and remind us of childhood trips across the border, back before you needed a thousand kinds of security clearance to come home.
There are lots of reasons to stop by this colorful Mexican sweet shop, from ice cream to fruit cocktails, paletas to pastries (the fruit-filled smiley-face cookies never fail to cheer us up). Even the atmosphere's a hoot, with bright murals of fruit and an eye-popping pink-and-yellow-checkered floor. But usually we just swing by for a refreshing raspado, Mexico's answer to the slushie. Practically overflowing from a tall Styrofoam cup, these babies are chock-full of shaved ice, fruit chunks, and flavored syrups. Order a Diablito, and you'll get a spicy-sweet drink jazzed up with chile powder and saladitos (salted plums) and a chewy candy swizzle stick made with chile and tamarind. Or get one straight up, in one of half a dozen flavors: mango, tamarind, plum, vanilla, strawberry, pineapple, or rompope, a milky-sweet flavor reminiscent of eggnog. In a city where the summer lasts half the year, a regular raspado pit stop makes it much easier to handle the heat.
Leave it to longtime downtown arts advocates/developers Beatrice Moore and Tony Zahn to turn a crusty old pie factory into a showcase for genetically modified art. In early April, their latest historic restoration, Bragg's Pie Factory, was filled with description-defying, literally pie-in-the-sky piñatas dangling from the rafters of what was once a state-of-the-art pie-production plant built in 1947 in classic Machine Age "streamline Moderne" style.
Rest assured that the Pie Factory's piñatas are about as far as you can get from those traditional rainbow-decorated donkeys or ones patently inspired by Spider-Man, Hello Kitty and Tickle Me Elmo. Look for next year's call for entries, which is open to all ages and artistic bents. (The "bear" we scored was made by a teenager with autism.) Our other favorites from last year's bizarre-but-beautiful mixed-media offerings include a ginormous spiked blowfish made of scalloped felt and a maniacally grinning and drooling crocodile creature. At least we think it was a crocodile — it's hard to tell with the genetically modified.
Past the handmade wooden sign marking the entrada, you'll find an outdoor market lined with booths of colorful Mexican pottery, religious statuary, clothing, and Spanish-language cassette tapes. Locals dance to Mexican pop music, sipping cerveza and chowing down on roasted corn with goat cheese. Sounds like a wonderful vacation find, but this isn't Guadalajara — it's SoPo. El Gran Mercado at 35th and Buckeye is the closest thing to a Mexican carnival you'll find north of the border. Think of it as the granddaddy of weekend swap meets. We're talking 300-plus vendors including used car dealers, grocers, and an outdoor barber. You'll have to speak español — at least un poco — to haggle with the merchants; but if you're willing to pay sticker price, you'll do fine without.
So, perhaps the closest to Mexico many members of Friends of Mexican Art (FOMA) have been is Nogales. That doesn't stop this dedicated group of Mexican art-philes, founded more than 45 years ago in Phoenix, from generously donating their time, effort, and funds to promote all aspects of Mexican culture throughout Arizona.
FOMA is the forward-looking organization that had the vision years ago to give the Phoenix Art Museum, among other important artworks, its now-famous Rufino Tamayo painting Dos figuras en rojo (Two Figures in Red) (1973), as well as significant contemporary Mexican fine and folk art to other Arizona cultural institutions, including ASU Art Museum and Tucson Museum of Art. It has sponsored numerous exhibitions of Mexican art and brought working folk artisans stateside. FOMA raised funds for the moving and restoration of Diego Rivera's famous Del Prado Hotel mural painting after Mexico City's 1985 earthquake. It's also contributed to the restoration of frescos in the church of Atotonilco, the very spot where Father Hidalgo first raised the banner of Guadalupe to kick off the movement for Mexican independence from Spain. Known as the Sistine Chapel of the Americas, this church made the World Monuments Fund's list of the 100 most endangered world monuments.
Recently, FOMA ponied up bucks to help underwrite a historically critical issue on Mexican tourist pottery by Mexico's most prestigious arts publication, Artes de Mexico. The group's primary source of fundraising is its annual springtime Hacienda Home Tour and Mercado, which showcases elegant homes with mostly Mexican art collections and sells folk art that's cherry-picked for its quality. For gringos, this group's got it going on when it comes to putting its money where its heart is.