Best Of :: La Vida
Day of the Dead celebrations take place across the Valley at arts centers, city plazas, or at well-known spots like the Desert Botanical Garden. Most have individuals dressed in elaborate costumes and intricate altars, along with face painting, folkloric dancers, and mariachis. But many say that the day of remembrance that takes place at the Guadalupe Cemetery in Tempe is among the most authentic. People gather at the cemetery, established in about 1904 and lined with white crosses leaning in all directions. Families spend the day with their deceased loved ones, reminiscing. Some bring food and drinks — for themselves and for their interred relatives. Others hold graveside vigils and services. Some light up the night with candles outlining the graves. It's a colorful celebration honoring a day in Latin American culture laced with religious traditions that date back thousands of years.
On one hand, it could be said that chef Doug Robson's Otro Cafe is a complement to his first restaurant, Gallo Blanco, in the way of very good and deftly prepared Mexican cuisine. In another sense, it's a more elevated companion that can hold its own. You'll find outstanding, bulked-out tacos here, as well as the Spanish-style tapas called El Español, an Inca salad made with nearly a dozen ingredients, and the satisfying tocino con rajas torta, a kind of BLT run through a Mexico City kitchen. For dessert, you'll want the postre de coco, a delicate creation of creamy coconut pudding topped with chocolate shavings that's reminiscent of a Mounds bar gone gourmet.
For the longest time, this 36-year-old neighborhood staple in Central Phoenix had pared down its menu to just its famous green chili and red chili burros. Not that anyone was complaining. When you serve essentially just two dishes (and a couple of variations on each) and the lines are still out the door, you're doing something right. Earlier this year, the family-run hole in the wall (truly, no signage or dining room to speak of) expanded its menu to include excellent beef and shredded chicken tacos, bean tostadas, cheese enchiladas, and cheese crisps. They now accept credit cards, too. And just like that, Rito's got even better.
Have you had the chicken burro at Asadero Norte De Sonora? Because if you haven't, you're missing out on a kind of chicken burro nirvana — a piece of wrapped paradise in the form of stellar shredded bits of mesquite chicken, frijoles, shredded cabbage, and creamy guacamole. It will make you feel happy. It will cause you to grin while you polish off your grande agua fresca. And most likely, it will see you in its modest little restaurant home again. This time, perhaps, with a few loaded tacos, a chicken dinner with all the fixin's, or a giant smoking grill of parrillada.
When Victoria Chavez started Los Dos Molinos nearly 40 years ago in Springerville, Arizona, she hardly could have imagined her New Mexican-style restaurant, named after two antique chile grinders, would be the fiery family business it is today. The original Phoenix location, housed in the adobe-style onetime home of Western silent movie actor Tom Mix, keeps the home fires burning with packed plates of meltingly tender adovada ribs marinated in a spicy red chile sauce, chunky chimichangas slathered in green chili, and potent margaritas enjoyed on the casita's courtyard patio.
There's nothing like a neighborhood restaurant that's actually, well, in a neighborhood. And this homey spot just off historic Glendale's main drag has been serving old-school Mexican eats since 1949. Originally Lily's Cafe, it became Fajardo's in 2009 when Alfredo Fajardo, the son of the original restaurant's cooks, reopened the place, keeping the old recipes intact. There's nothing over-the-top here, just good, hearty plates of crunchy beef chimichangas, cheese enchiladas, and oven-roasted pork chops (a Sunday special) with strips of green chile. Judging by the regulars who regularly pack the place, the neighborhood approves.
If you are a fan of mole, the dark, intricate sauce made with dozens of nuts, chiles, and spices, you could do worse than pay a visit to Elizabeth Hernandez's cheery Oaxacan restaurant in Sunnyslope. Available in red or black, the mole can be had spooned over chicken or chicken enchiladas. And the black, made with chocolate, is the star ingredient in what may be the best Oaxacan-style tamale in the Valley. There are tlayudas, too, covered in ropy and salty quesillo, al pastor, and tasajo; as well as quesadillas fritas and a spicy amarillo soup. The restaurant doubles as a Oaxacan marketplace, boasting deli cases and shelves filled with items from Hernandez's homeland.
Every year, chef Azucena Tovar travels back to her childhood home of San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico. And every year, we can't wait for her to return. That's when she adds new dishes to her already stellar menu of well-crafted Mexican food — the kind that have been bringing Scotts-dalians back to her charming brick home for almost 20 years. Perhaps you'll want luscious enchiladas filled with hibiscus, crab, or baked duck; classic chipotle pork; or grilled chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese and huitlacoche (corn smut). And speaking of huitlacoche, Tovar's huitlacoche crepas, served with blue and goat cheeses and pomegranate sauce, are the surest bets in Scottsdale.
El Tlacoyo may not serve up the escamoles (red ant eggs), chinicuiles (insect larvae), or zacahuiles (yard-long tamales) of Hidalgo, the eastern Mexican state the restaurant tips its sombrero to, but its listing of more than 100 dishes is still, like the rugged-terrain state, a nearly inexhaustible source of flavors. There are tlacoyos, oval-shaped fried masa cakes topped with cheese, chicken, and an excellent green sauce; tacos packed with sausage and cactus; and fried quesadillas filled with huitlacoche and pumpkin flower. Wait for the weekend and you'll get special items like heavenly, barbacoa de borrego (barbecued lamb) served with soup and tortillas and spicy tulancingueñas — a kind of ham and cheese sandwich by way of Hidalgo.
This unassuming restaurant in Mesa may look small from the outside, but through its doors await gigantic plates of boldly flavored and affordable Mexico City eats: long, scroll-like flautas packed with moist shredded chicken or beef; monstrous tortas gigantes layered with Mexican-style ham, chicken milanesa, and hot dog slices; and dinners of heady chilaquiles verdes and garlic-tinged carnitas piled high to please. If you've brought some hungry amigos along, you'll want the Casuela a la Mexicana, a feast of eight excellent dishes. Or for a refreshing meal of the liquid sort, try a Bomba served up in a giant martini glass.
Like an old friend, Así es la Vida, Spanish for "such is life," is the kind of restaurant that, no matter when we visit, never fails to remind us why it holds a place in our hearts. Since it began in 1993, closed in 1999, and resurrected itself again in 2003, the family-owned spot, more or less responsible for teaching the Valley much of what it now knows about the cuisine of central-southern Mexico, has experienced nearly as much love and rejection as the Mexico City-born artist Frida Kahlo (which may be why homages to her self-portraits grace the walls). The restaurant's outward appearance may be a bit more frayed, its now-purple exterior with flashing "open" signs hardly becoming of a place once lauded by the New York Times as one of Phoenix's most interesting dining destinations. But inside, tucked into its cozy rooms appointed with Mexican art, white tablecloths, and fresh flowers, the food — an Acapulco-style shrimp cocktail, a well-seasoned Carne Tampiqueña, and enormous butterflied garlicky shrimp you'll pick up and eat right out of their skins — is as thoughtful and as flavorful as ever.
Looking for a plate of morning machaca on the city's south side? Pop into this unassuming little strip-mall eatery at the corner of Central Avenue and Baseline Road, where you can get a very good version of the dried shredded beef — mixed with egg, tomato, jalapeños, and onions — on a plate with rice, beans, and tortillas or bulking out a giant burrito. There are excellent chilaquiles, too, made with El Mesquite's richly flavored enchilada sauce. And it's good to know that while waiting for your Mexican breakfast, you can munch on as many complimentary crispy chips with spicy salsa as you'll allow yourself to have.