Best Of :: La Vida
From start to finish, chef Silvana Salcido Esparza delivers Mexican cuisine at its finest at her longstanding Central Phoenix restaurant. You'll want to begin the experience with an order of the award-winning guacamole and finish with the churros rellenos de cajeta de cabra. The dessert comes with two churros dusted in cinnamon sugar. The combination of hot, doughy churros and scoops of vanilla ice cream should be tantalizing enough, but Esparza ups the ante by filling each churro with cajeta de carba, or goat's milk caramel. You're going to want more of this thick, gooey sauce than can fit inside the deep-fried sticks of dough, and luckily, Esparza also drizzles some over the ice cream and the plate. We suggest dipping the churros in the pool of nutty, caramel sauce. We've been known to eat it straight off our spoon when the rest of the dessert's all gone.
In early October, a group of Native American and indigenous artists plans to unveil the largest bi-national land art installation ever shown on the U.S./Mexico border. The interdisciplinary four-person group — Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, Kade L. Twist and Nathan Young — is Postcommodity, and together, the artists are known for creating socially conscious and culturally focused works shown in galleries and museums in Arizona and around the country. But in October, the group has an especially ambitious vision: tethering more than two dozen 10-foot-diameter balloons more than 50 feet in the air. The balloons, decorated with large "scare eyes" (used in farming to deter large predator birds), will create a temporary two-mile-long sculpture intersecting the border. The aim is to connect American Indian, Latin American, and Mexican immigrant communities in one of the most divided, hostile, and militarized zones in the Western Hemisphere — which means it's time to mark your calendars and fill your gas tanks. Border art history is in progress.www.postcommodity.com
Every year for the past decade or so, a select group of Phoenix Jews and Latinos have gathered to break bread — or, rather, matzoh, the unleavened crackers that symbolize the unfinished bread made by Jews fleeing the Pharaoh, an integral part of the Passover story and any seder dinner.
The Latino-Jewish Seder, typically held in the spring a few days before the actual Passover holiday begins, is co-hosted by Valle del Sol and the American Jewish Committee and includes participants of the current Hispanic Leadership Institute (a program of Valle del Sol), local AJC members, and local Latino and Jewish leaders with the purpose of fostering "an environment of dialogue, cross-cultural communication, and to build greater understanding between both communities."
In other words, it's a great time to kibbitz (that's Yiddish for chat) and learn about a fundamental Jewish custom, the seder dinner — including the "mandatory" four cups of wine, which definitely make the chatter lively.www.valledelsol.com
Led by Angela Ramirez, Flamenco Por La Vida has become an early-evening staple Saturdays at Crescent Ballroom. The troupe's passionate songs and fiery dancing in Crescent's lounge often top the indie rockers that take the stage in the main room afterward. Each week, Ramirez and her crew don traditional garb — the ladies in traje de flamenco, the men in vests and black slacks — and whirl, spin, clap, and stomp to a fiercely strummed acoustic guitar. The weekly performance has proved so popular that the Crescent has been home to Lluvia Flamenca, a semi-annual festival that finds Ramirez and her group joined by flamenco performers from all over the world.
A quiet lunch spot featuring a sprawling patio by day, La Flor de Calabaza is a Latin lounge by night. With art on the walls, white leather couches, and nightclub lighting, the vibe here is fresh, and so is the food it serves. The cocktail list includes drinks such as El Orgasmo, Nalgas de Indio, and Beso de Angel. On Tuesdays, the bar pours 99-cent margaritas, on Wednesdays, a DJ ignites the dance floor with salsa and bachata, and Thursdays feature 99-cent tacos. During the weekends, live bands such as Jalapeño Rock, Diluvio, and Gravedad play rock en español. If dancing makes you hungry, La Flor de Calabaza keeps its kitchen open late. Located in the Roosevelt district, La Flor de Calabaza shares in the First Friday fiestas with music and drink specials. If you want to unleash your inner rockero this weekend, a table reservation is recommended.
Most of the time, Mijana is a Lebanese restaurant, but on Friday nights, the tables are put away and Mediterranean music is replaced with Latin dance music, and el baile begins. A $10 cover charge buys a lesson at 9:30 p.m. with professional instructors from all over the Valley as well as access to the social dancing part of the night that begins at 10:30. The professional dancers divide newbies into beginner and intermediate groups to help get hips and feet moving. Most Fridays, DJ Ben keeps things hot with a mix of salsa, bachata, and merengue. Occasionally, Mijana brings in a Latin big band to set dancing feet ablaze with live music. Once you've worked up a thirst, quench it at the full-service bar while watching bodies step and twirl. Fridays at Mijana come alive for a must-do Latin Night.
Scenes don't always rise organically within a music community. Sometimes, they are placed there deliberately, started and maintained by organizers who see a void and have the will to make it better. Such is the case with Phoenix's fledgling alt-Latino music scene. Whereas our southern cousin Tucson boasts a handful of modern Latino bands, Phoenix's scene is still in its infancy. And that's where Nicolas Paredes and his collaborators come in. Clandestino is a monthly music night at Crescent Ballroom that Paredes and company started in 2014, and the event brings in bands from all over the country (and Mexico) and pairs them alongside local DJs for chill, fun dance nights featuring tropical bass music. The scene can only grow from here.
What do you want with a plate of tacos or a big ol' bowl of guac? A margarita, of course. And after a long day or at the start of a long night, there's nothing better than Paz Cantina's house margarita, which will never cost you more than three bucks. That's right, just three dollar bills. Sure, we were skeptical at first, but after one (okay, maybe it was three or four) we realized this downtown taco shop doesn't skimp on the ingredients — and by ingredients we mean booze. It doesn't take too many of these cocktails to have you feeling good, which either can be a good or bad thing, depending on your tolerance for tequila.
Readers Choice: Salty Señorita
Let's start with the fact that Mejico doesn't serve fancy modern Mexican cuisine. This cozy restaurant, located in a converted house, offers homestyle Mexican food that's simply done, but also excellent. It's exactly that you would expect from an owner like Obed de la Cruz, also one of the owners of such East Valley Mexican spots as El Sol Mexican Cafe & Bakery, El Zócalo Mexican Grill, and Mangos Mexican Cafe. There are classic dishes such as enchiladas de rez, shrimp relleno, and mole de pollo, but here they're well-executed and delivered to you at a white-tablecloth-covered table. The atmosphere is charming, the service is friendly, and though the price point is higher than your typical neighborhood restaurant, we're more than happy to shell out for the simple, high-quality fare.
Readers choice: The Mission
The particular magic of Carolina's flour tortillas is in not being able to leave the parking lot without digging out that bag of warm tortillas, battling the twist-tie, and wrestling out one of those floury, paper-thin disks. Tortillas this good need no adornment. This Phoenix institution may sell tortillas by the dozen, but it's guaranteed that there will be at least one or two missing from the bag by the time it reaches its intended destination. Order accordingly to your gluttonous appetite.
Readers Choice: Carolina's
If northern Mexican food is all about the beef, then Oaxacan food, of which La 15 y Salsas is a shining example, is all about the salsa. A trio of fresh salsas hit the table with every meal, with a basket of thin, crunchy corn chips on the side. The salsas come in bowls just big enough to give diners a taste of the salsas' bright, spicy, or smoky flavors, but not so big they become the meal itself. Sample brightly green and acidic tomatillo speckled with fresh cilantro, powerfully spicy chile de árbol, chunky roasted tomato salsa, and glossy, dark pasilla chile. There's a seemingly endless number of salsas this well-loved Sunnyslope neighborhood has in its repertoire, and it is worth many a repeat visit to try them all.
Thank the music gods for the creation of a fantastic casual eatery inside of a busy bar and event venue, particularly one with thick guacamole that can be enjoyed during bingo, flamenco dancing, trivia nights, a concert, or any other event at Crescent Ballroom. Coarsely crushed avocado is complemented with the usual lime, cilantro, jalapeño, and onion, with bits of roasted tomato and juicy orange thrown in. Topped with more cilantro — we love a kitchen that loves cilantro — and finely grated cotija cheese, this guacamole is worthy of scraping the bowl clean, in between rounds of bingo, that is.