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Best Of 2014

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Best Of :: La Vida

Best of Phoenix 2014: Legend City / Goat Cheese
Luster Kaboom

In Spanish, its name means "goat sucker," which is meant not as a pejorative but rather a description of the dietary habits of the chupacabra, a mythical creature who's occasionally seen stalking the desert. The name comes from the animal's penchant for killing and drinking the blood of small animals, especially goats.

In terms of legendary creatures, the chupacabra is relatively young. Early sightings occurred in Puerto Rico in 1995, and domestic visits from the little monster also have been reported. The goat-sucker also must be a shape-shifter, because descriptions of it vary. In Russia, it's the size of a bear, with spines from its head to its tail; in Maine, it's more dog-like, with long, sharp teeth and bald, pink skin. And there have been plenty of sightings near metro Phoenix. Always, the chupacabra has a sour disposition and a thing for eating other animals.

Biologists and wildlife management officials consider the chupacabra a contemporary legend and usually explain it away as a rabid dog. A five-year study by scientist Benjamin Radford failed to prove either the animal's existence or the reports that it drains its victims of their blood. Radford concluded that reports of chupacabra — at least in the United States — are in fact dogs and coyotes with mange, which causes their fur to fall out and their skin to bunch up and thicken.

Otherworldly creatures? Mangy dogs? No matter — the chupacabra has gone small-screen, and that makes it real. CNN's Ed Lavandera has discussed the chupacabra on air, describing it as the "Bigfoot of Latino culture." Better yet: The goat-sucker has had a featured role in something called Scooby-Doo! and the Monster of Mexico.

Best Rise From the Ashes
Restaurant Atoyac Estilo Oaxaca
Lauren Saria

For years, Tacos Atoyac was the bar against which we judged all other street-style Mexican eats. The no-frills restaurant served everything we could have asked for from a taco: affordability, simplicity, and lots of flavor. That's why we were devastated to hear the restaurant had closed suddenly and indefinitely in March. Taco enthusiasts wondered whether we'd ever find an acceptable replacement for the restaurant's near-perfect beer-battered fish taco. Thankfully, the drought didn't last long. In May, we were thrilled to hear that co-owner Pablo Lopez had reincarnated the beloved spot under a new name, Restaurant Atoyac Estilo Oaxaca — same location, same menu. If we close our eyes while biting into one of the carne asada burros, it's almost as if nothing changed.

1830 W. Glendale Ave., Phoenix, 85021
MAP
Best Upscale Mexican Restaurant
Los Sombreros
Courtesy of Los Sombreros

If you've never dined on the patio at Los Sombreros, then you've been missing out on one of the more romantic dining spots in town — not that the inside of the converted brick house that this restaurant calls home is a bad option. No matter where you sit at this dining spot, you're sure to have a memorable meal. Chef-owner Azucena Tovar uses her impeccable talent to craft modern Mexican cuisine that blends traditional flavors with her own personal style, traveling to Mexico City every year for inspiration. Some of her standout dishes include mole poblano, huitlacoche quesadillas, and hibiscus enchiladas — in short, not the kind of fare you'll find at just any ol' Mexican joint.

2534 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 85257
MAP
480-994-1799
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14795 N. Northsight Blvd., Scottsdale, 85260
MAP
480-991-1799
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2814 N. 16th St., Phoenix, 85006
MAP
602-636-0240
Best Latin American Restaurant
República Empanada
Jackie Mercandetti

It may be small, but what this Mesa restaurant lacks in size is more than made up for in soul. The family-run restaurant came into being after months of hard work from Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz, who renovated the mid-century building themselves and even inherited some of the cacti out front from family and friends. The menu includes a wide selection of wheat flour empanadas, which range in flavors from traditional to the more unexpected. On the savory side, don't miss the Boricua, which combines rice, pigeon peas, and ham hock cooked in sofrito sauce. And for a standout sweet, try the fig cheese and caramel, which contains local figs, mozzarella, and South American-style dulce de leche. The rest of República Empanada's entrées are worth a try, too, particularly the arroz con pollo, seasoned with capers, olives, peas, celery, cilantro, onions, and red bell peppers. Don't forget, you can also wash down your meal with one of the many craft beers available by the bottle.

204 E. 1st Ave., Mesa, 85210
MAP
480-969-1343
Best New Mexican Restaurant
Phoenix Burrito House
Lauren Saria

When you know that Phoenix Burrito House comes courtesy of the De la Cruz family — they're the folks behind Zócalo Mexican Grille and El Sol Mexican Cafe & Bakery in Chandler, Mangos Mexican Cafe and Bakery in Mesa, and Méjico in Central Phoenix — then it should come as no surprise that Phoenix Burrito House is such a solid new spot. The restaurant took over the former home of The Fry Bread House, adding a little south-of-the-border charm to the Melrose District. We love the restaurant's tortillas, which are soft, chewy, and offer just the right amount of stretch. They're particularly enjoyable when wrapped around ingredients such as pork in green chile sauce and Phoenix Burrito House's spicy shrimp.

4140 N. 7th Ave., Phoenix, 85013
MAP
602-265-1274
Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant
Los Olivos

If you're at Los Olivos only for the chips and salsa and a margarita, you will not be disappointed. This restaurant delivers from that first perfectly crisp, salty chip. But we dare you to stop at just chips — soon you'll be ordering a cheese crisp, maybe some corn sopas from the friendly staff, and from there it's just a hop and a skip down the menu to a giant selection of every classic Mexican dish imaginable: chimichangas, fajitas, enchiladas. There's nothing nouveau about this place. It's a collection of Sonoran classics made for decades and served in a crazy series of connecting cavernous rooms. Our favorite spot is the underwater-esque lounge. As long as Los Olivos keeps the chips coming and the tequila flowing, we're good.

Multiple Locations
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