Best Of :: La Vida
For 30 years, this Sunnyslope restaurant serving Arizona-style Mexican food has been one popular joint. And with good reason: This is where you take the family for inexpensive renditions of the staples, especially the tamales. What makes them so good? Well, for starters, there's the key ingredient: masa. Here, it's a little sweet, moist, fresh-tasting, and light — none of that super-dense dry stuff. Then, there's the meat, tender shredded beef or juicy chicken. Finally, there are the sauces — including a very good red that covers the beef tamale. It's smooth, rich, colorful, and mild, but also deeply flavorful, as if it had been cooking for hours. But the green sauce is where it's at. Covering the chicken green corn tamale, this tomatillo-based gravy has a nice, peppery kick. And true to form for old-school Arizona-style places like this, everything is covered in melted cheddar cheese. Better give us a dozen of those tamales to go.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.