Last month Phoenix New Times celebrated the cream of the crop with our 37th annual Best of Phoenix edition. Here are our top picks for Mexican dishes in metro Phoenix
Tortas El Güero
If your hunger for a torta comes in mini, regular, or supersize, you're in luck. El Güero has you more than covered. With 14 menu items to choose from — including a vegetarian creamy avocado and cheese torta — there is something for everyone. We're hooked on the I-can't-make-up-my-mind Cubana, with layers of tender braised pork leg, ham, steak milanesa, and refreshing iceberg lettuce. If you're craving turkey and Thanksgiving is nowhere in sight, give the Colitas a try: tender turkey tail meat between a toasted telera bun slathered with mayo, topped with lettuce, tomato, and spicy pickled jalapeños. Forget about getting a drive-thru burger next time you feel the need for meat between toasted buns.
Best Sonoran Hot Dogs
Nogales Hot Dog
The real secret to the Sonoran-style hot dog isn't the bacon wrap, not that it doesn't help. The secret is the bun — slightly sweet, light as a cloud, yet sturdy enough to hold that bacon-wrapped wiener, mayo, pinto beans, diced tomatoes, onions, avocado cream, pickled jalapeños, and any other of the many toppings ready to garnish the sweet bun. For years, this hot dog stand has been at the top of the list in the Valley, for its friendly, consistent late-night service, and we can't disagree.
You can find some of the best red or green pozole in town on an otherwise unremarkable stretch of Van Buren. And you can find it early in the day, as this wonderfully fragrant restaurant opens daily (except Tuesdays) at 9 a.m. Pozole for breakfast? Why not? Especially when it's served spicy and hot with a pile of freshly chopped iceberg lettuce, white onion, and cilantro. Top your steaming bowl of pozole with the shredded green cabbage, chopped white onion, and cilantro provided, and fish out the tender hunks of pork with some of the chicharrones provided. And just in case you need it, every table comes with a small bottle of Mexican oregano. Our guess: With pozole this good, you won't need it.
House Margarita at Paz Cantina
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.
Best Mexican Seafood
El Pacifico Restaurante y Pescaderia
There's more to Mexican seafood than fish tacos, and if there's one place in Phoenix to experience mariscos, it is El Pacifico, a colorful family-owned seafood eatery in Central Phoenix. This is the sort of place where bringing a group and ordering one of everything is never a bad idea, just so the menu can be fully appreciated. Start with a platter of briny oysters topped with lime-soaked rock shrimp, hot sauce, and avocado; follow up with a tostada piled high with shrimp and fish ceviche and a callo de hacha aguachile; then take a slight break with a fresh coconut stuffed to almost overflowing with a cóctel de campechana (a mixture of shrimp, oysters, octopus, and fish) and tender coconut flesh. Finish off the meal with a fragrant bowl of caldo de siete mares or caldo largo, Mexican seafood soups that rival the best French bouillabaisse in their flavor and variety.
Best Carne Asada
Tacos Sonora Grill
There's value in restaurants that dedicate themselves to doing one thing, and doing it well. When it comes to the tacos at Tacos Sonora Grill, there's only one choice to make: corn or flour tortillas. No matter what your choice, those generously sized tacos (no two-bite minuscule tortillas to be found here) will be filled with carne asada and only carne asada. Tender and juicy, with a good dose of smoke from the charcoal grill, the carne comes in three forms: as a taco, a tostada-quesadilla hybrid, or as a beef-stuffed quesadilla. Try all three for $7.
Carolina's Mexican Food
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.
La 15 y Salsas
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.
La Santisima Gourmet Taco Shop
Nothing pairs as well with spicy Mexican food as a tall glass of horchata. Sure, a margarita will get the job done, but when you're sweating bullets and looking for something to cool the flames in your mouth, there's only one drink that can really meet your needs. When you consider that La Santisima Gourmet Taco Shop (with another location in Glendale) is known for having some of the best salsas in town, it makes sense that the restaurant also has some of the best horchata. It's not your standard pre-mixed agua fresca. The restaurant's version is loaded with fruit and pecans, giving it a depth of flavor that's seriously unique. There's no grittiness to the rice-based drink, just a hint of melon, and a nutty flavor that's perfect when balanced by a salsa-drenched taco or two.
Cocina 10 at Crescent Ballroom
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.
Raspados Paradise Mexican Restaurant
If you're still thinking that a raspado is just the Mexican version of a Slurpee, you need to step out of the convenience store and find yourself a real raspado shop. We wish our corner 7-Eleven had chunks of tamarindo swirled into the cups of ice, or thick strawberry or mango syrups with — you guessed it — real fruit in them. But it just doesn't. And until it does, we'll be hitting Raspados Paradise Mexican Restaurant for our icy treats. Just don't judge us for choosing to have it topped with a sweet drizzle of Lechera, sweetened condensed milk.
Asadero Norte de Sonora
In a town full of quick, affordable, and delicious Mexican restaurants, all of them featuring sides of beans, it takes talent and effort to stand out. The steaming cup of charro beans at Asadero Norte de Sonora does just that. Forget paste-like, greasy refried beans; these soupy pinto beans, studded with bacon, onions, and chile verde are proof that no one does beans better than the northern Mexican state of Sonora. Just be thankful that every burrito, taco, and torta order comes with a little cup of these addictive beans, or get a side for just $1.50.
If it seems the paleta game is a one-woman show in the Valley, that's because it is. Drawing from her upbringing in Michoacán, the paleta and ice cream epicenter of Mexico, Betty Alatorre de Hong, has been creating seasonal and addictive frozen fruit treats since 2010, stamping each one with her signature bite mark, earning national press, and even taking the time to create a perroleta for her canine clients. We can't say no to the refreshing pepino paleta, the rum-spiked piña colada, or a classic pure mango paleta, but we like to check back to see what seasonal treats Betty has in her freezer.
rom 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.
Sometimes, we feel a menu item was created only to heed our call. Such is the case of the coctel de elotes at Tortas Paquime. So what if we nearly died getting in and out of the dangerously packed and tiny parking lot one time. We left with a warm cup of tender corn kernels filling our greedy stomach. They were rich and buttery, with just enough mayo to make them creamy, but heavy on the chili powder and extra heavy on the lime juice, with a layer of salty cotija to top it all off. This is exactly how we like our corn: no messy cob involved and soupy enough to tilt into our waiting mouth.
Luncha Libre Gourmet Food Truck
There's nothing traditional about Luncha Libre's quesadillas, but that's precisely what makes them so good. They may be Mexican food, but expect a dose of Asian, Southwest, and good ol' American flavors. The Breakfastdilla, a monster stuffed with cheese, scrambled egg, and chorizo, is a revelation about how we've been doing breakfast all wrong all this time. Shame on us. Until we correct our underachieving quesadilla-making ways, we can keep ourselves stuffed with cheese, tortillas, and whatever else the Luncha guys think up by following this busy truck all over town. Keep up with their movements via Twitter @LunchaLibre.
Los Reyes de la Torta
We can't blame you if you've never made it past the selection of excellent tortas at Los Reyes de la Torta. They are, after all, what made the restaurant famous, but you would be missing out on their wonderful chilaquiles, a perfect balance of spicy green or red salsa penetrating fried corn tortillas, garnished simply with sour cream, queso fresco, and a side of beans. Simple as the dish is, it's satisfying and filling, and those salsas are tear-inducing not just for their heat, but also for their fantastic taste. Top it with eggs, steak, or chicken for a breakfast big enough to carry you through the day.
Best Breakfast Burrito
If a cramped, cash-only establishment is not for you, skip El Norteño. But be warned: You'll be missing out on one of the best bargains on breakfast burritos in the Valley, found inside a tiny building at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Roosevelt Street in downtown Phoenix. Four bucks gets you a generous portion of spicy and flavor-packed housemade chorizo, mixed with eggs and fluffy potatoes and tightly wrapped inside a warm flour tortilla. Perfect for breakfast, but available any time. Dunked into the excellent housemade hot sauce, it's almost more flavor than can be handled — ask for extra portions of this bright red and gloriously shiny sauce to take home.
Henry Ford famously said, "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black," but he may as well have been talking about the cult-worthy burritos at the worst-kept secret spot in Phoenix, Rito's. Any customer can have any burrito that he or she wants so long as it is green or red — and paid for in cash. Join the line of downtown professionals patiently waiting for their mouthfuls of tender braised beef in, you guessed it, either red or green sauce and expertly packed into a flour tortilla. If you come to the conclusion that Rito's is the kind of place that excels at what they do through specialization, rather than by sumptuous settings and expansive "please everyone" menus, look around you; you're not the only one.
Mercado y Carnicería Cuernavaca
Swing by this butcher shop and food counter on any night and you're certain to run into one of the many self-described foodies of the Valley utterly devoted to the charcoal-grilled chicken, carne asada, and al pastor tacos of Mercado y Carnicería Cuernavaca. If you thought tacos had to be a complicated affair featuring overly complex sauces and precious garnishes, all carefully perched on a bent-metal stand, think again. Get to Cuernavaca and back to tacos made great by well-seasoned, perfectly cooked meats, sauce (if you want it), a simple onion and cilantro garnish, and a warm tortilla served in a paper basket. Anyway, one of those metal stands would just get in the way of power-eating your way through one of Cuernavaca's roasted-pineapple-topped al pastor tacos.
Patience is a virtue, one that is richly rewarded at the South Phoenix eatery Pitic. Crowded with families and business folk enjoying a leisurely lunch, Pitic is the place where enchiladas stand out on a menu overflowing with Mexican classics. Appropriately drenched in a smooth red chile more flavorful than spicy (as it should be) and paired with creamy refried beans, this dish makes a sour cream garnish unnecessary. Choose from rolled cheese, chicken, or beef enchiladas — or the lesser-known Sonoran-style flat enchiladas — and take the option to add a fried egg on top.
Azteca Bakeries & Restaurant
Go past the shady courtyard into this production bakery/casual eatery to get to the most delicate corn tamales money can buy in the Valley. They're buttery with melted hunks of queso fresco, roasted green chile rajas, and roughly ground kernels of fresh sweet corn. Get that wax paper and corn husk wrap off this steaming tamal, give it a loving bath of the accompanying green chile sauce, and dive right in. Order them by the dozen for $21, and don't forget to try the beef and red chile tamales a try.
Best Nopales Dish
Queso Fundido at Asi Es La Vida
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Imagine this: cheese, chorizo, and cactus. We know what you're thinking. Who would dare to put cactus in something you eat, right? Well, a lot of people, actually. It's more commonly called nopales and is a staple in Mexican food, especially that of central Mexico. If you look carefully, you can find it on the menus of many Mexican restaurants around the city, but our favorite use has to be in the queso fundido at Asi Es La Vida. It acts almost as a green chile in the cheesy dip and it mingles well with the spicy chorizo and hearty mushrooms. Grab a chip, take a dip, and prepare to be a convert. And we promise there won't be a spine in sight.
Best Agave-Spirit Cocktail
"El Ultimo" at Last Drop Bar at The Hermosa Inn
The agave spirit revolution is coming, as the smoky mezcal variant rightfully becomes more and more familiar to tequila drinkers, leaving room for plenty more curiosity for what's next. "What is next?" is a question best fielded by Travis Nass at the Last Drop Bar at the Hermosa Inn, in Paradise Valley. Here, Nass explores categories of agave spirits previously unknown to anyone even fairly well-versed with the territory, with spirits like sotol, distilled from baked, mature Desert Spoon plants in Chihuahua — essentially, a single-varietal spirit. Try his El Ultimo, which mixes sotol with green chartreuse and Chareau, an aloe vera liqueur.