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Best Of 2012

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Best Of :: La Vida

Best Burritos
Asadero Norte de Sonora
Jackie Mercandetti
La Cocina is just one great pit stop among many along Mexican Restaurant Row.

Of the roughly five gazillion places in the Valley that serve a chicken burrito, this humble little orange building on 16th Street just north of Washington is the one we keep coming back to time and again. How could it be that good? First, the chicken is from a rotisserie bird, chopped up with the skin for that much more flavor. Then, the chopped chicken is rolled up in a fresh, warm tortilla along with shredded cabbage, wonderfully rich frijoles, and creamy guacamole. It's heaven, especially when you factor in the garnishes (spicy, tomatoey salsa, cuke slices, Mexican lime, radishes, and one big ol' grilled jalapeño). This joint delivers the goods on carne asada, pastor, and lengua, too. You really can't go wrong with any of these burritos. And did we mention the price? Five bucks. Exactly.

122 N. 16th St., Phoenix, 85034
MAP
602-253-4010
Best Mexican Restaurant in a Bowling Alley
Oaxaca Restaurant (at Let It Roll Bowl)

Ah, the bowling alley snack bar — a place that’s never, ever as good as you want it to be. Especially at those corporate houses that dominate the kegling landscape. The pizza is always prefab junk, and the deep-fried goodies rarely are any better. That’s why this family-run eatery at Sunnyslope’s independently owned Let It Roll Bowl is a breath of fresh air. Reasonably priced standards such as tacos, burritos, and enchiladas are available, as are regional specialties like molotes (deep-fried fritters stuffed with potato and chorizo) and tlayuda (think: Mexican pizza). Menu entrees include black or (very good) red mole, stuffed chiles, gorditas, and green or red ribs. None of it costs more than $8 and all of it tastes pretty darn good. And if you feel your bowling experience simply isn’t complete without a pizza or hot dog, well, they’ve got that American stuff, too.

8925 N. 12th St., Phoenix, 85020
MAP
602-395-0867
Best Mexican/Chinese Fusion Fast Food
Chino Bandido Takee-Outee

We're not sure exactly how the idea for fast Mexican/Chinese food came about ("Hey, you put your chimichanga in my sweet and sour sauce!") but we're glad it happened — and it's a Valley original. With two locations, you can indulge in a Chino Bandido fix whether you're in the East Valley or on the west side. Either way, you'd better not skip the jade chicken, a deep-fried, bright-red treat that feels like dessert for dinner. Pair it with carnitas or carne asada burros and jerk rice with pork. Just be sure to leave room for (we know this sounds odd, but bear with us) a fresh-baked Snickerdoodle cookie for dessert. Fusion at its finest.

15414 N. 19th Ave., Phoenix, 85023
MAP
602-375-3639
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1825 W. Chandler Blvd., Chandler, 85224
MAP
480-889-5990
Best Upscale Mexican Restaurant
The Mission
Jackie Mercandetti

Chef Matt Carter's sophisticated, intimate spot serving modern Latin cuisine in Scottsdale might mean shaking the piggy bank for some extra coin, but the culinary journey is worth it. Mixing French cooking techniques with influences from Spain, Mexico, Central and South America, Carter's dishes are intensely flavorful and expertly prepared. Start with a stellar smoked pork pozole, or shared plates of duck carnitas empanada and smoked pork shoulder tacos in hand-pressed corn tortillas, then move on to exceptional grilled entrees like the chimichurri hanger steak and Chilean salmon. The tequila, cocktail, and wine lists are as impressive as the cuisine — especially when sipped by a flickering outdoor fire or inside amid chandeliers, ornate mirrors, and the restaurant's glowing wall of Himalayan salt blocks.

3815 N. Brown Ave., Scottsdale, 85251
MAP
480-636-5005
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7000 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix, 85054-6151
MAP
480-513-4445
Best Neighborhood Restaurant, Central Phoenix
Tacos Atoyac
jackie+Mercandetti
Served+up+fast+and+flavorful%2C+Tacos+Atoyac+goes+south+%26mdash%3B+way+south+%26mdash%3B+of+the+border+with+its+less+commonly+found+Oaxacan+fare.

The abundance of Sonoran-style Mexican eateries is plainly clear in the Valley. But finding comida oaxaqueña, Oaxacan food from southwestern Mexico, takes a bit more work. Thank the dynamic duo of Oaxacan Pablo Lopez and Chilean-born Dan Maldonado for bringing their bare-bones taco shop to north Central Phoenix — where the food's served up street-style, fast and flavorful, and at jaw-droppingly low prices. Start with the $1 street tacos, filled with tender lengua or luscious pork al pastor, then move on to the mighty fish taco (possibly one of the best in the Valley), or the crazy-tasty tlayuda, likened to a Mexican pizza featuring a dinner-plate-size thin, crunchy tortilla slathered with a bean spread. And with nothing on the menu over $8, there's room in the budget to splurge on a heavenly sweet cup of homemade Mexican horchata.

1830 W. Glendale Ave., Phoenix, 85021
MAP
602-864-2746
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4001 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 85012
MAP
602-264-6141
Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, Downtown Phoenix
Rito's

To those in the know (and that's more and more all the time), this award probably comes as little surprise, because this is one of downtown's true gems. There's no signage to speak of, there's no place to sit inside, the menu is tiny, it's open for only a couple of hours a day, and it takes only cash. Sounds like a real pain in the ass, huh? Well, maybe, but the line out the door at lunchtime indicates that it's worth it. Serving only red or green chili burritos (and their deep-fried counterparts, chimichangas), this hole-in-the-wall does basically just one thing and does it better than almost anybody else. The green chili, with its tender chunks of pork and wonderfully deep flavor, is our favorite in town, even though it can be kind of a mess (seriously, it takes some practice eating these things, but that's part of the fun). And the red chili, spicy and bold with bites of beef, is a winner, too. Of course, they're both wrapped in fresh tortillas, and you can have cheese and/or beans added to the mix, as well. Next time you're downtown during lunchtime, do yourself a favor and pop in.

907 N. 14th St., Phoenix, 85006
MAP
602-262-9842
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1202 E. Mohave St., Phoenix, 85034
MAP
602-252-1503
Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, North Phoenix
El Rinconcito del D.F.

This is the kind of place you could drive by every day on your way to work and never notice. In fact, we'd passed it by numerous times without giving it a second thought, until one day, the light bulb went off over our head. And are we ever glad we popped in to this Sunnyslope outpost, just south of Let It Roll bowling alley (a Best of Phoenix favorite). It's cash-only, it's no-frills, it's dirt-cheap, and, if you're lucky, you may see an employee rend a cooked goat as you chow down on awesome Mexico City street food such as tacos, burritos, tortas, and huaraches. It's that authentic. In addition to the standard asada, jamon, chorizo, carnitas, and pastor, you can get pierna (pork leg), pata (pork feet), cabeza (cow's head), and suadero (rose meat). What's rose meat, you ask? It's the fatty top part of the beef, just below the skin — served up chopped and grilled on top of a huge huarache ($7 and big enough for two people). And it is delicious. Well, we guess the secret's out on El Rinconcito now. You can thank us later.

8901 N. 12th St., Phoenix, 85020-3070
MAP
602-943-5933
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3336 W. Bell Rd., Phoenix, 85053
MAP
602-993-3108
Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, South Phoenix
Los Taquitos
Jackie Mercandetti

Normally, when we hear the words "Guy Fieri," we wanna stick a hot relish fork in our eye — twice. Still, for whatever reason, the Fieri seal of approval does seem to help some deserving Valley eateries. Case in point: this small, strip-mall storefront in Ahwatukee. Save for the Lalo Cota Day of the Dead mural on the wall, this place does little to distinguish itself from any other suburban taquería, except for long lines waiting for the always-fresh Mexican vittles coming out of the kitchen. The pozole and menudo (served every day) are excellent, as are the specialty Bombero (notable for its delicious sweet and spicy sauce) and Arizona (smoky carne asada and diced potato) burritos. Throw in deliciously spicy red and green salsas, and you've got a winning combination.

4747 E. Elliot Rd., Ahwatukee, 85044
MAP
480-753-4370
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8646 S. Central Ave., Phoenix, 85042
MAP
602-243-9113
Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, West Valley
Mama Lupita's

Don't be put off by the location (in a crummy strip mall a couple of miles west of considerably tidier historic downtown Glendale) because inside this very good Mexican eatery is a cheery little dining room with a friendly. The menu focuses on the cuisine of the southern Mexican state of Michoacan and features several menu items you'd otherwise have to search far and wide to find, including bírria seca (barbecued goat), pipian con nopales marquesita (pork and cactus in a brown, nutty sauce), and Michoacan-style enchiladas (folded tortillas doused in tangy guajillo red sauce). The tortillas here are hechas a mana and the salsa is fresh and plenty fiery. There's a full breakfast menu and numerous seafood dishes, including ostiones en su concha (oysters on the half-shell). Prices are beyond reasonable, but even if they weren't, finding an authentic Michoacan-style dinner in good old Glendale would be worth it.

6550 W. Glendale Ave., Glendale, 85301
MAP
623-915-9531
Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, Southeast Valley
Taquitos Jalisco
Jackie Mercandetti
Not needing any help with the heat is the aptly named Shrimp in a Very Hot Sauce, or camarones a la diabla.

From the outside (well, from the inside, too), this unassuming eatery could be just another no-frills, hole-in-the-wall taquería in a past-its-prime suburban strip mall. However, the food is excellent. Let's start with the bírria de chivo (a specialty of the southern Mexican state of Jalisco): This goat dish may be the best of its kind in the Valley, with luscious chopped meat in a mouthwatering thick stew flavored with roasted peppers. We also enjoy the pozole rojo, a boldly flavored soup with hominy and tender chunks of beef served with add-as-you-like garnishes of cilantro, onions, shredded cabbage, and lime. Beyond that, you can find all standards — tacos, burritos, tostadas — with very good carne asada, lengua, al pastor, and the like. Prices are about as cheap as they come for flavors this outstanding.

437 S. Gilbert Rd., Mesa, 85204-2861
MAP
480-733-0722
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1949 W. Ray Rd., Chandler, 85224
MAP
480-786-3100
Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, Tempe
El Tlacoyo
Heather Hoch

Find this hidden, casual eatery in Tempe and you'll discover a selection of unique and authentic eats from the eastern Mexican state of Hidalgo, located north of Mexico City. For starters, don't miss the restaurant's namesake, the tlacoyos, oval-shaped fried masa cakes topped with a delectable green sauce, cheese, and feather-light shredded chicken. There's also a larger version of the tlacoyo called the huarache and a selection of stellar cheese crisps folded and filled with delights like huitlachoche (corn smut) and pumpkin flower. Weekends bring added deliciousness in the forms of lamb soup, barbecued lamb tacos, and the popular Hidalgo snack called tulancingueñas (think of it as a spicy Mexican version of a ham and cheese sandwich). Add a little Chuck Berry mixed in with the Mexican music coming out of the restaurant's speakers, and you've got yourself some lively goodness from both sides of the border.

2535 E. University Dr., Tempe, 85281
MAP
480-894-9543
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300 S. Ash Ave., Tempe, 85281
MAP
480-966-6677
Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, Scottsdale
Tacos Jalisco

Just a mile north of this dilapidated '60s-era strip mall, in Old Town Scottsdale, there's no shortage of higher-end Mexican restaurants. And many of them are quite good. But for dyed-in-the-wool, dirt-cheap Mex eats, this is our go-to. A carne asada platter for just $6.45? Yes, please. The chopped beef is tender and lightly seasoned, served with homemade tortillas, diced onions, and fresh cilantro. For a couple of dollars more, there's mojarra frita (fried talapia) or camarones rancheros (shrimp served in a spicy tomato sauce). Where this mom-and-pop joint especially comes in handy is when you're hoisting beers a couple of doors down at one of Scottsdale's best dive bars, the Closing Soon Saloon. After a couple of pops, you can duck into this taquería for a couple of spicy al pastor tacos or a nice pollo burro, and then retreat back to your barstool 15 minutes later. Repeat as necessary.

3060 N. 68th St., Scottsdale, 85251-6836
MAP
480-941-9095
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7328 E. 2nd St., Scottsdale, 85251
MAP
480-946-2256
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Best Burritos: Asadero Norte de Sonora

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