Best Of :: La Vida
Thanks to La Barquita's lengthy, covers-all-the-bases menu, there are plenty of reasons to stop by this affordable, no-frills neighborhood joint on McDowell. From crispy chicken-stuffed flautas to chile verde with pork to mouth-searing camarones rancheros (shrimp in spicy ranchero sauce), there's a dish for just about any craving. The real reason we come here, though, is to eat a dish you just can't find anywhere: birria. To put it less eloquently, in English, it's goat meat. The way La Barquita serves it up is al estilo La Barca, Jalisco — that is, Jalisco-style. Cooked until it's falling off the bone and served in its own lightly spiced juices, the meat comes with steaming tortillas, diced onion, fresh cilantro, lime wedges, and hot sauce. No rice, no beans, no distractions. Just how we like it.
To paraphrase an old saying about a dead cat, you could swing a baseball bat in this town and hit a piñata. Many grocery stores sell them, and you can easily cruise 16th Street in central Phoenix and find a wide selection. But would it be wide enough? This year, our little princess didn't want a princess piñata. She wanted a piglet. And not just any swine would do; she wanted Piglet — you know, from Winnie-the-Pooh. After exhausting our brick-and-mortar possibilities, we got online and found Arizona Piñatas. We called, and a cheerful employee complied, agreeing that Piglet would be ready by Friday. And would we like it delivered? What? We just about dropped the iPhone, we were so happy. Yes, absolutely. And, sure, throw in the matching stick to whack the thing with. This endeavor wasn't cheap, we'll warn you. But, boy, was it worth it. Piglet arrived on our front porch on time as promised and was the life of the party until, well, until he wasn't.
People often refer to Phoenix as a young city, but our burgeoning metropolis has a pretty old soul. That's why our hearts delight when we have the opportunity to drive past what used to be the El Mural bar in west Phoenix. It's been years since anyone's hoisted a drink there, but the outside is still emblazoned with the beautiful work of Victor Caldee. Though of Cuban origin, the artist (with the help of Miguel Dominguez) brought together a bevy of Mexican icons: music and entertainment heroes Beatriz Adriana, Lola Beltran, Vicente Fernandez, and Jose Alfredo Jimenez, and revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. The spirit of old Phoeniquera barrios is further connected to a past long gone via the depiction of a Mayan figure and pyramid surrounding El Mural's entrance.
For the past several years, the Desert Botanical Garden has thrown the best Dia de los Muertos party in town. This year, the festivities — held Halloween weekend and the first week of November — promise to be grander than ever, with performances, food, and hands-on crafts for the kids. Oh, and a mercado! We'll be sure to stop by to check out the wares offered by Bets and Nancy Nenad, two adventurous Phoenicians who travel through Mexico to bring back a fine, fun selection of skeletons in many forms — from plastic to papier-mâché. Hey, it's a living.
The Hispanic equivalent of the bat mitzvah or "Sweet 16" party, the quinceañera marks a Latina girl's coming of age. It's easy to find a respectable dress for the event, but only at a true tiendas de bodas can you get service to fit a quince's exact needs. Owner Ofelia Martinez understands the Hispanic market and, more importantly, understands young Hispanic women. Her shop carries a wide range of colorful gowns and specializes in "plus sizes," which means girls with curves won't have to stretch and tug their way into a stick-girl dress. Fluffy, traditional quinceañera dresses in shades of peach and robin's-egg blue are plentiful. If the quince is a modern gal, perhaps a more contemporary sheath dress — in ivory white to please la familia. The shop also does in-house alterations and carries latilla veils, rosaries, crowns, and gloves to accessorize the little princess. Whether the quince wants to look like Cinderella or J-Lo in The Wedding Planner, Ofelia has her covered.
At one end of this cavernous, winding mishmash of spaces is a room packed with all kinds of crosses — metal, tin, wooden. At the other end, there's a room full of hand-tooled gun holsters. In between is just about any Mexican tchotchke you can dream of: small wooden guitars, leather wallets, ceramic pots, embroidered dresses. We felt like we'd died and gone to Nogales. Beware: The neighborhood, across the street from the Arizona State Hospital, is in a rough part of town near Van Buren Street. Obviously the owners are aware of their surroundings. The place opens at 9 on weekdays, but whatever the time of day, you'll need to ring the bell before they'll let you in.