The 2016 edition of New Times' Best of Phoenix is out now. Here's our list of the best restaurants, shops, and dishes influenced by the Mexican border.
Best Upscale Mexican Restaurant: Barrio Café
Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's original Barrio Café restaurant helped put the Phoenix Mexican food scene on the national map, and it remains one of the city's top destinations for distinctively artful, upscale dishes inspired by regional Mexican cooking. Here is the place to go for tableside guacamole punctuated with bright, ruby-like pomegranate seeds, enjoyed amid white tablecloths and the warm glow of a Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe candle.
Best New Mexican Restaurant: Barrio Café Gran Reserva
If you're a fan of chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's culinary forays into the heart of modern Mexican cooking, a visit to her latest effort, Barrio Café Gran Reserva, is mandatory. It's the first of the Barrio Café restaurants to offer a tasting menu, which offers seven small-plate courses with exquisite bites like chicharrón de pancita, the tender meat bearing crisp edges and deliciously caramelized with Coca-Cola. Gran Reserva also boasts what might be the biggest Mexican wine list in town and an expanded menu of mezcal.
Best Mexican Restaurant to Take an Out-of-Towner: Most Wanted Taco Shop
When you live and eat in Phoenix, it's inevitable that eventually you'll host an out-of-town visitor, and it's inevitable that they will demand you take them out to eat Mexican food. There are so many options, but Most Wanted Taco Shop is a standout choice. Picky eaters will be indulged here — they can sample all the various slow-cooked meats and veggies for free and select their favorite.
Best Mexican Restaurant to Take a Scenester: Barrio Urbano
The Yard in Phoenix, situated in the heart of the increasingly fashionable Seventh Street uptown corridor, is the ultimate hangout lounge. You may technically come to Barrio Urbano to eat and drink, but you will also come to witness the carousing of bros at Culinary Dropout, to play a game of cornhole with the next table over, or to liven up your Instagram feed with the colorful backdrop that is Barrio Urbano.
Best Late-Night Mexican Food: La Korita Taqueria
In the wee hours of the morning, when your favorite taco truck has called it a night, there is La Korita Taqueria. The drive-thru is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the food is tastier than other late-night options that shall remain nameless. A chile relleno at 3 a.m. — why not?
Best Mexican Grocery Store: Los Altos Ranch Market
A weekend afternoon spent wandering the aisles of Los Altos Ranch Market on Central Avenue is never time wasted. Have lunch at the in-house taqueria, where you can order everything from tacos to chile rellenos to carnitas made in-house. Wash it all down with a visit to the agua fresca bar, where you can neutralize your heavy lunch with a refreshing cup of fresh watermelon, cucumber, or pineapple agua fresca.
Best Mexican Food Court: Mercado de Los Cielos
If you've not yet experienced Mercado de Los Cielos at Desert Sky Mall, it's time to take a field trip. The hardest part about eating at the Mercado food court is finding an empty table — it's a west-side weekend destination for families, and fills up quickly. Aim for a weekday supper, where you can have your pick of Mexican tortas, quesadillas, seafood, and pretty much anything else your heart and stomach desires.
Best Carnicería: Carnicería Los Reyes
Looking for high-quality honeycomb tripe for your weekend pot of menudo? Chicharrón prensado for your gorditas? Suadero beef for your tacos? Carnicería Los Reyes makes it easy to get all those hard-to-find Mexican cuts that you can't locate at your neighborhood big-box grocery store. Like all good Mexican carnicerías, Los Reyes also carries a fine selection of hot and ready meats like carnitas, barbacoa, and pollo asado, so you don't even have to wait to get home to enjoy your bounty.
Best Panadería: La Reyna Bakery
This modest neighborhood panadería and repostería produces conchas so fluffy and sweet, they make the dense, grocery-store variety seem like gluten bricks by comparison. Sweet potato empanadas are nutty and tender, and the little Danish-style pastries called manitas are perfect for dunking into your morning cup of coffee or tea.
Best Mexican Candy Shop: Dulceria La Flor
A well-stocked Mexican candy shop is a thing of beauty: tight rows of industrial shelving, stocked with brightly colored boxes of everything from yellow boxes of marzipan to sugary guava rolls to crinkly plastic bags erupting with tamarind-and-chili lollipops. This is the bounty you'll find at Dulceria La Flor, a small shop with a nicely curated selection of imported Mexican candies, all impeccably organized so that your eyes can easily make sense out of the sugary abundance.
Best Burrito: Taquerías El Chino
Serious burrito connoisseurs will want to make a west-side pilgrimage to Taquerías El Chino for the restaurant's consistently wonderful carne en salsa verde burrito. This green chile burrito is neither flashy nor revolutionary, but it hearkens back to the dish's working-class roots: Hearty and life-sustaining, it's last night's stew swaddled in a soft, pliable tortilla. Its green sauce is thick and rich, its hunks of tender beef are succulent, and the seasoning is perfection.
Best Breakfast Burrito: Rolando’s Mexican Food
There are a few options to choose from at Rolando's Mexican Food, but the standard order here is Rolando's Breakfast Burrito, a massive breakfast indulgence of buttery scrambled eggs, nicely seasoned breakfast potatoes, and crispy bits of bacon. Melted orange cheese cements the whole scrappy breakfast together, and the meal comes neatly packaged in an enormous, Sonoran-style flour tortilla.
Best Tacos: Ta’Carbon
At the height of the lunch hour, the parking lot at Ta'Carbon becomes a snarl of illegal park jobs, and inside, there's almost always a line at the counter. Blame it on the exquisite tacos, little bundles of gorgeously seasoned meats piled into soft, fluffy tortillas, which you can garnish to perfection at the salsa bar. Put in your order at the counter, and pay after you've had your fill.
Best Pozole: Pozoleria Guerrero
Pozole comes in an infinite number of variations — and no one can quite decide on a definitive spelling — but all three of the varieties at Pozoleria Guerrero are fantastic. We prefer the white pozole, where the earthy funk of the hominy is complemented with lavish amounts of garlic and herb seasoning. Your broth is studded with hunks of succulent pork, and every bowl comes with a grizzled piece of chicharrón, which is perfect for soaking up the salty, flavor-rich broth of your pozole.
Best Quesadilla: Machete Azteca
Machete Azteca, a west-side counter-service restaurant specializing in the street foods of Mexico City, is not the place to go to for oversize, cheddary cheese crisps, nor is it a destination for quesadillas made with store-bought flour tortillas, oozing with melted Monterey Jack. This is the place to go for sturdy, 16-inch-long, machete-shaped quesadillas — so big you'll need a pizza box to carry them out of the restaurant.
Best Carne Asada: Sonora Taco Shop
If breathing in the sputtering fumaroles of charcoal-grilled carne asada is your version of heaven, we recommend a lunchtime pilgrimage to Sonora Taco Shop near downtown Phoenix. The tiny restaurant recently underwent a renovation (including a slight re-branding — it used to be known as Tacos Sonora Grill), but the tacos are as good as ever.
Best Tortas: Tortas El Rey
We've all met tortas that were all bun, no meat, dry as sawdust, or barely worth their weight in bolillo. These are not the type of tortas you'll find at Tortas El Rey, a midtown strip-mall gem where the classic Mexican sandwich is transmuted into a minor feast. The hardest thing about eating the El Rey is finding a way to fit it into your mouth. But once you figure that part out, the sandwich soon becomes another fond, delicious memory.
Best Tortas Ahogada: Tortas Ahogadas Guadalajara
Tortas are easy enough to find in Arizona. But tortas ahogada? That's going to require a little bit of digging. The Guadalajaran specialty, which literally means "drowned sandwich," takes torta eating to another, albeit messier, level. And at Tortas Ahogadas Guadalajara, this fried pork dish is served between two slices of toasted bolillo bread and drenched in piping hot chile de arbol, a light-but-spicy sauce that may or may not set your tongue on fire.
Best Enchiladas: Gadzooks Enchiladas & Soup
Gadzooks, the fast-casual restaurant on Seventh Street with the funny-sounding name, has become a staple of the central Phoenix Mexican food scene. It's the place to go for succulent enchiladas made to your specifications with fillings like guajillo-braised short ribs and green chile pork shoulder.
Best Sonoran Hot Dogs: El Caprichoso
You know the Sonoran dog, the bacon-wrapped, mayonnaise-sluiced street food of the Sonora-Arizona borderlands. By now, you may have even started to take the Sonoran dog for granted. Don't. Instead, make a dinner date with El Caprichoso, the popular Phoenix hot dog stand where service is fast and courteous, and the Sonoran dogs are perfection.
Best Chimichanga: Rosita’s Place
Rosita's Place has been hanging around McDowell Road since the late 1960s, so you know they're doing something right over there. Case in point: the house chimichanga, an Arizona culinary invention that approximates the size, shape, and heft of a small log. The default version comes topped with big scoops of guacamole and sour cream, which is pretty much the best way to enjoy the Rosita's Place chimichanga.
Best Tamales: The Tamale Store
It takes time and patience to make a good tamale, and most of us will pay a premium for the very best. Lucky for us, the very best tamales are ready and waiting at the Tamale Store in north Phoenix. There is no other place around town making the kind of well-honed tamales you'll find here: thick, half-pound bundles of corn masa, generously filled with ingredients like melted Monterey Jack cheese and roasted poblanos.
Best Chilaquiles: Comedor Guadalajara
Sure, chilaquiles are technically easy to prepare, but that doesn't mean it's easy to find a plate of restaurant chilaquiles that captures the full, glorious appeal of this comfort food dish. Enter Comedor Guadalajara, the boxy, nondescript Mexican restaurant on Central Avenue that has fed generations of Phoenicians. There is only one chilaquiles plate, a no-frills breakfast of gently fried corn tortilla slices blanketed in a wonderful red chile sauce, which is lightly inflected with the heat of roasted chiles.
Best Nachos: Cocina 10
Let it be known here: The I-10 Nachos made at Cocina 10, the Mexican kitchen inside Crescent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix, are flawless. This is a carefully engineered nacho plate, made with a sturdy, crunchy base of tortilla chips, layered with refried pinto beans, and then generously lubricated with Tillamook sharp cheddar and Oaxaca cheese.
Best Elote: Otro Cafe
There's always Elote Callejero on the menu at Otro Cafe, and it's always delicious. The elote is served entero (on the cob), neatly slathered with mayonnaise, and dusted with a generous helping of cotija cheese and a dash of smoked paprika. The sweet corn, and the faint peppery smokiness of the paprika, is like eating summer itself.
Best Guacamole: Diego Pops
Those of us who live for a freshly made batch of guacamole understand that a good guacamole is a necessity, not a luxury upsell side. Luckily, the folks at Diego Pops in Scottsdale understand the significance of a well-made, impeccably seasoned guacamole that can stand all on its own.
Best Salsa: La Santisima Gourmet Taco Shop
La Santisima makes killer burritos, tacos, and quesadillas, but the restaurant's marquee attraction is its fantastic salsa bar. With more than 10 homemade salsas to choose from, including unique offerings like spicy peanut salsa, sweet and chunky strawberry salsa, creamy pecan salsa, and refreshing jicama salsa, there is an option here for every mood and fancy.
Best Tortillas: La Sonorense Tortilla Factory
What makes a great tortilla? Handmade over machine-cut, thinner rather than thicker, supple rather than dense? No matter what criteria you apply, it's hard to find fault with the tortillas made at La Sonorense in south Phoenix. Buttery and powdery, papery thin yet pliant enough that you can roll them into a fine, edible scroll, these classic Sonoran-style tortillas are part of what makes it great to live and eat in Arizona.
Best Tortilla Chips at a Grocery Store: El Rancho Market IGA — Homemade Corn Chips (Estilo Casero)
El Rancho Market IGA, at the southeast corner of Dunlap Road and 19th Avenue, has the best chips in the city. There is nothing fancy about the packaging — simple, clear plastic bags secured with a twist tie, containing what many would agree are God's gift to salsa, guacamole, or homemade nachos. The chips themselves are perfectly crisp corn chips with just the right amount of salt for almost any taste.
Best Nopales Dish: La Barquita
Unless you were raised on nopales from a young age, prickly pear cactus is probably not a staple of your regular diet. But why not? Easy to grow, nutritious, and quite tasty when paired with grilled meats, or in an ensalada of fresh tomatoes and onions, nopalitos are at once simple and sublime. They are exquisite in the Molcajete A La Mexicana, a minor feast served in the namesake, three-legged Mexican mortar.
Best Mexican Seafood: Mariscos El Cochorit
Mexican-style seafood is surprisingly abundant in Phoenix. We don't let a little thing like living in the middle of the Sonoran Desert stop us from enjoying platters of ostiones (oysters), citrus-sluiced ceviche, or fiery plates of shrimp soaking in lime-scented aguachile sauce. You'll find all these dishes, and much more, at Mariscos El Cochorit, a west-side mariscos joint where the banda music blares out of the speakers and enormous platters of Sonoran- and Sinaloan-style seafood stream out of the kitchen.
Best Mexican Sushi: Sushi Sonora
One of the best places to experience the strange and wondrous alchemy that is Mexican sushi is also one of the oldest Mex-sushi spots around town: Sushi Sonora. Try the restaurant's take on the cielo, mar, y tierra (a surf-and-turf roll made with shrimp, steak, and chicken), or the deep-fried beauty that is the cronchi roll, which is stuffed with shrimp, imitation crab, and cream cheese.
Best Raspados: El Migos Water-n-Ice
El Migos Water-n-Ice is a small, pleasant ice cream and water shop wedged into a sun-faded west-side strip mall. The shop sells all manner of Mexican snacks, but the house specialty is raspados. Try one of the house Obispos ("bishops") at El Migos, which are essentially raspados topped with your choice of ice cream. The El Migos Obispo raspado is pure indulgence.
Best Aguas Frescas: Los Reyes De La Torta
Los Reyes De La Torta offers a sprawling menu of aguas frescas naturales — fresh fruit drinks made with real fruit, ice, and then lightly sweetened with sugar. The drink menu boasts an impressive selection, including standards like pineapple and lemon, along with harder-to-find aguas frescas like papaya, mango, and watermelon. The restaurant also whips up novelty healthy drinks like the vampiro, which is made with orange juice, carrots, celery, and beets.
Best Horchata: Presidio Cocina Mexicana
Mediocre horchatas can be found in every corner of metro Phoenix. It only takes one long pull of one of these chalky, cloyingly sweet horchatas — made from the powder stuff, no doubt — to experience a serious case of buyer's remorse. It doesn't have to be this way, though, as is proven by the fresh-made horchata at Presidio Cocina Mexicana in central Phoenix.
Best Churro: Calaveras Snack Shop
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No one makes Mexican antojitos ("little cravings") quite like Tim and Kim Cobb, who are best known around the Valley for their popular fleet of United Lunchadores food trucks. At their Calaveras Snack Shop in north Phoenix, you can stop in for a quick sugar pick-me-up in the form of a fresh-out-of-the-fryer churro. As churros go, the cajeta-stuffed churro made at Calaveras is pretty much flawless.
Best Paletas: Realeza Michoacana
Realeza Michoacana on 16th Street has been making their own paletas on site for something like 20 years now. And the flavor selection is breathtaking: Mango and chile, bubblegum, pistachio, piña colada, tamarind, and guava are just some of the shop's specialty flavors. Fresh, sweet, and surprisingly bulky, these paletas will never go out of style.