Best Of :: La Vida
Food trucks are trendy now, but before gourmet hot dogs and crème brûlée hit the streets, La Frontera Comida Mexicana was on the scene slinging Mexican food out of the back of a food truck. And La Frontera consistently churns out some of the best burritos in the Valley. Grab some cash (plastic will be declined) and saddle up to the huge food truck at 16th and Van Buren streets. The formidable burritos at La Frontera are nearly big enough for two meals, and they're pure carnivorous bliss, packed with your choice of grilled meat — none of that rice-and-beans filler crap — and plenty of pico de gallo to kick up the flavor.
A hard-to-find monument on top of a hill in the Southwest Valley stands as a reminder that massive swaths of Arizona and the Southwest region of this country once belonged to Mexico. But it was all lost during the Mexican War, fought from 1846 to 1848.
The site, known as Monument Hill, is just east of the Phoenix International Raceway track in Avondale, at the top of a fairly easy hike that starts near Avondale Boulevard and Baseline Road.
A concrete "X" marks the spot on the hill where surveying began in 1851 by Andrew B. Gray and Lt. A. W. Whipple, American surveyors. The land survey was part of the deal struck with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848, to resolve disputes over the new U.S.-Mexico boundaries.
With much debate over ownership of the land, the U.S. government ended up purchasing about 32,000 square miles of land from Mexico as part of the Gadsden Purchase. The Estrella Mountains that run through Goodyear, once part of Mexico, were enveloped into American soil and later became Maricopa County's first regional park.
From Avondale, a book by Jerry Squire and the City of Avondale: "The job was finished after much government red tape, Native American uprisings, long bouts of boredom because of the terrains and weather conditions, and even episodes of drunkenness. It is rumored that the crew became weary and wanted to return home so they cut the survey short, and Arizona never got its ocean port off the Sea of Cortez."
There were more complicated political decisions that ultimately denied Arizona beachfront property, but we won't bore you with those. Drunk and weary surveyors make for a much better story.
While the original monument was built on the initial point in 1851, the giant "X" was dedicated in April 1984. A press release announcing that ceremony noted that "a low, inconspicuous knoll 15 miles southwest of Phoenix takes on celebrity status . . . as the most important hill in Arizona."
Gringos around here think they know the score when it comes to our neighbors' rituals. We're all about Dia de los Muertos, the November 1 celebration of the dearly departed. Even if you've never been south of the border, chances are good that you have some Day of the Dead tchotchkes around the house, even made sugar skulls with the kids.
At least you've seen pictures. But you've never seen pictures of the Deer Dance, a sacred celebration held around Easter each year in Guadalupe, the beleaguered strip of a tiny town bordered by big city Phoenix and its 'burbs. You're welcome to attend the festivities, though (as long as you're not one of Joe Arpaio's deputies), and if you find yourself on the streets of Guadalupe in the weeks leading up to Easter (especially on Good Friday), you may be privy to a fascinating ritual.
Approaching the small white church at the center of town, you will see black robed figures with masks and red-tipped swords rushing at the building as a cacophony of bells and drums fill the air. Suddenly, out of the church a flurry of children in white burst forth to chase back the masked figures and assail them with flowers. On one side of the angels, men wearing streamers on their heads and bells on their ankles shake a gourd in one hand and wave a feathered bamboo wand in the other. On the other side of the angels, masked dancers wrapped in blankets from the waist down are led by the most fascinating figure of all: a man with a deer hoof belt and bare torso, shaking gourds in both hands and rattlers tied around his ankles. On his head an ornate headdress is crowned by the stuffed head and antlers of a deer. We know about this only because we asked. In a time when digital technologies and instant communication have exposed the whole world for our viewing through YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook, it is hard to imagine much that hasn't been recorded and posted. But, when it comes to its unique religious rituals, Guadalupe, a community of about 5,500, has managed so far.
Driving over the town line from Tempe, you may notice a sign prohibiting photography, video recording, and even note-taking during religious ceremonies. The Pascua Yaqui Indian community guards the mystery of its rituals scrupulously, inviting outsiders to watch yet guarding themselves against an onslaught of tourism. "It's a place where we come together, eat together, pray together, and everybody's welcome, it doesn't matter as long as you have respect for the ceremony," says Rafael Armenta, cultural adviser at the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and a lifelong resident of Guadalupe).
To understand what makes the religious ceremonies in Guadalupe so special, go back about a hundred years. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Yaqui Indians were under great pressure from the political authorities in Mexico to give up their land in Sonora. Some Yaquis had always resided in the Southwestern United States, but many more came to Arizona as refugees when oppression under President Porforio Diaz escalated. Guadalupe was settled by Yaquis as early as the 1880s, but the town did not become legally recognized until 1914 and was incorporated in 1975.
The Yaquis were Christianized by Spanish Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century and have since been practicing a blend of their original polytheistic traditions and devotional Catholic spirituality. Stepping into Guadalupe during Holy Week or on December 12, the feast day of the town's patron saint, Our Lady of Guadalupe, one is instantly transported into a new world of colors, song, and dance. To an outside observer, the rituals may seem incomprehensible, but they are essentially a retelling of familiar stories, such as Christ's passion, through the symbols and traditions of the Yaqui people. The flower, or sewa, is ubiquitous. Whether hanging in garlands between the demure houses, offered to the shrine of the Virgin, embroidered into clothing, or spoken about in casual conversation, the flower is a symbol that harks back to ancient Yaqui beliefs. Flowers are the symbol of the triumph of good over evil. In pre-Christian cosmology, flowers represented one of the five parts of the natural and mystical world, but today, their importance references the crucifixion of Jesus.
The Yaquis hold that when Christ was on the cross, his dripping blood was transformed into flowers. Thus, the sewa is a symbol of salvation and redemption. The deer dancer is the personification of the flower and each member of the community has his or her own flower, or spiritual duty, to take care of. "The deer dancer is the one that represents our tribe . . . He dances with the music, like the water drum and the rasp, and they sing lyrics about the desert world. The deer dancer represents the flower and the flower represents grace. Before God we have to show that we have earned the flower," says Armenta. "They hang streamers of flowers all over. We always decorate with flowers when we're celebrating because we all work at the flower. Everyone has a flower to work at."
The ceremonies take place in a large open plaza in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church (5445 E. Calle San Angelo), where ramadas are set up to accommodate the dancers and musicians. On the streets surrounding the church, 14 crosses are set up to symbolize stages of Christ's journey. During Lent, the ceremonies take place each week from dusk on Friday until dusk on Sunday, totaling more than 50 hours and including more than 100 men. The ritual dances are performed in front of a crucifix and shrines are included in the procession.The participating groups, among which are the Fariseos (Pharisees), Pilatos, and Montachines, are made up of men who are confirmed into the duty of dance and song and perform in the name of God and as a tribute to the sacrifice of Jesus. The deer dancer is chosen from the community by the Moro, an elder who recognizes the gift for the dance and spiritual connectivity within a man young or old and confirms onto him the duty of the dance. While most societies are only active during the Lent season, the deer dancers in Guadalupe are present at other holidays throughout the year.
Armenta, whose father was a member of the Fariseos, goes to every festival ceremony every year. He underscores the importance of participation as a personal penance, a religious commitment, and a sort of insurance policy. "My dad always used to say, and I'll always remember those words, 'You don't know, God made us and he's the one that knows when he's going to invite us to heaven. So maybe this would be the last year that you're going to see the ceremonies, so it's always good to be there.'" To hear Armenta's deer dance story, go to www.phoenixnewtimes.com/ bestof2011.
Amaranth is one of the indigenous staples of Mesoamerica, but here in Phoenix, we looked high and low for creative uses of the 8,000-year-old Mexican grain and came away disappointed. Spaniards outlawed the cultivation and consumption of amaranth because the Aztecs used it in ceremonies worshipping "false idols" not recognized by the Catholic Church. Despite being sustainable, very high in nutrition, and easily cultivated, it all but dropped off the radar in Mexico (and here in the States) as a result of Spanish invasion. It's making a slow comeback. The ancient grain is getting a nuevo makeover among (health) foodies. Amaranth seeds are showing up in health food stores like Whole Foods, and the greens of the amaranth plant can sometimes be found at local farmers markets, but culinary aficionados in PHX are lagging behind the trend. Where's the alegría (popped amaranth honey bars)? Or amaranth greens stewed with calabacitas? And it lends itself perfectly to gluten-free creations that don't taste like bark. Quinoa's had its day. We want to usher in the age of amaranth!
It's well known that more than a few workers who tend to the grounds and animals at Turf Paradise don't exactly come correct with their pay-pers. In 2008, about 100 employees at the racetrack faced termination and deportation because they remained employed after federal authorities turned down their visa applications. But Maricopa County Joe Arpaio, America's self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff," didn't turn his eye to Turf Paradise, which is owned by businessman Jerry Simms. Instead, Arpaio and his trusty deputies were content to eradicate illegal immigration by picking off a couple of immigrants at a time at car washes, a water park, and fast-food restaurants. Perhaps Simms' hefty cash contributions to Arpaio and his political campaigns are behind this immigrant haven?
Father Jorge Eagar is well known in the Valley's Hispanic community for leading Tempe's Shrine of Holy Wisdom, a ministry of the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch-Malabar. Officially unaffiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, the Catholic Apostolic Church is an independent religious sect that embraces classic Catholic ritual and regalia, but is far more ecumenical and all-encompassing when it comes to beliefs. It prides itself on blending both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions, whatever their sources. Everyone has a shot at the priesthood in this church, despite gender, sexual orientation or any other of the usual bars to being a cleric in the mainstream Catholic Church.
What Eager is not well-known for is his eye-popping nacimiento or Christmas créche, designed around and assembled from over 1,200 figurines he's personally collected over the last 55 years. Eagar's nacimiento is so big it's taken over half of the multi-car garage attached to his home in Chandler. And it's so intricate that it would take days to appreciate all the fine details Eagar has woven into this monumental Biblical scenario.
Very few people in the Valley are privileged to see Father Eagar's eye-catching Christmas crèche, which is a popular tradition in both Mexico and Mexican-American communities in the Southwest. You have to be personally invited to see it and only a certain number of people are allowed in the colorfully lit crèche area at a time. Donations from guests are not required, but encouraged to help defray the cost of maintenance and to support other events Eagar's church holds during the liturgical year. Your best bet for gaining much coveted entrance is to contact Friends of Mexican Art around the Christmas season; members of this organization usually have seasonal entrée to the nacimiento and get a portion of donations made to support their continuous underwriting of Mexican art-related events in the Valley.
The corner of 12th Street and Dunlap Road doesn't exactly look like a hotspot for Mexican food, but tucked within Let It Roll Bowl is the new location of the old Mini Mercado Oaxaca. It's now called Oaxaca Restaurant, and though it does serve bowling staples like pizza, fries, and ice cream (don't eat these — the Mexican food is better), there also is an extensive menu of outstanding moles, tlayudas, empanadas, and other specialties. Excellent mole notwithstanding, what Oaxaqueños in the know really head to this place for are the chapulines, or edible crickets. For about seven bucks, you can score a bag of food-grade crickets that go great as a taco filling or just for popping by the handful. The texture is just like popcorn, and the flavor is reminiscent of tangy salt-and-vinegar potato chips. As the old tater chip saying goes, "You can't eat just one."
If the tableside taps, hot pink accents, and mural of a sexy chica with guns and tattoos a-blazing don't clue you in, El Hefe blends the chic, trendy ambiance of a typical Old Town bar with Latino machismo. The same can be said for the El Hefe Dog, a Kobe beef wiener wrapped in bacon and smothered with plump charro beans and such condiments as mustard, green chile salsa, and avocado. Quality meat makes for a savory base for the toppings, which overflow onto the wooden plate like a colorful foodie fiesta. Wrap the whole thing up in a soft hoagie roll, and you've got a man-size munchie that literally gives more weight to El Hefe's rep as a "super macho taquería."
The Great Bacon Craze of '09-'11 seems (thankfully) to be coming to an end, but if there's one place bacon still reigns supreme, it's lovingly wrapped around a Sonoran-style hot dog at Nogales Hot Dogs. At Nogales Hot Dogs they serve one thing and one thing only: mesquite-smoked, bacon-wrapped hot dogs loaded with toppings. This is not a sit-down restaurant, though, so keep an eye out for a food truck parked in a lot at the southwest corner of 20th Street and Indian School Road. They set up at around 6 p.m. daily and serve their Mexi-fied version of chili dogs late into the evening, for you night owls.
Breakfast burritos are well and good, but they can be snooze-worthy, hardly enough to rouse us from a deep sleep. Platters of perfect chilaquiles, huevos rancheros, and chorizo con huevos, on the other hand? We're up and gunning for the door. Get your pants on, already! Guerrero's is a small shop that opens at 7 a.m. and offers a dozen different breakfast platters. Guerrero's chilaquiles are like Mom used to make, and their machaca with eggs will turn that morning frown upside down. Guerrero's even has burritos, if you simply can't part from the old tried and true.
We spend all week eating yogurt and fruit for breakfast so that when the weekend rolls around, a bit of indulgence can be forgiven. When we're craving a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs morning meal with a Latin twist, Ticoz's weekend brunch is the only thing that satisfies. This chic, trendy lounge transforms into a classy mid-morning venue to linger over a rich brunch. The 3 Egg Gringo Breakfast, frittata, or French toast sticks should be enough to satisfy the breakfast purists. For the rest of us, there's pork chile verde huevos rancheros and our favorite, the Mexican eggs Benedict: two lightly sweetened corn cakes topped with spicy chorizo, poached eggs, and a rich chipotle hollandaise. Add a $3 mimosa or bloody Mary to make your stellar Latin brunch go down even easier.
Cheap Mexican places are a dime a dozen, but not every location smells so good from the parking lot that we need only follow our noses to the entrance. And does the nose ever know. Los Compadres is a humble, family-owned Mexican joint that offers some of our favorite lunchtime specials, all priced at six bucks or less. Be forewarned that the lunch specials are mini versions of standard Sonoran fare, which means tiny tacos, bitsy burritos, mini tostadas, and the like, but one plate is still plenty enough to fill our belly. Plus, everything on the menu is less than $10, so you can mix and match your own lunch special or order a trio of sopaipillas to go.