Cinco de Steve-O

The ofays in this town would starve without Mexicans, whether legal, illegal, or full-blown citizens. Seems like just about every eatery in Maricopa County has Spanish-speaking help in the cocina, from cheapo fast-food outlets and slow-food bistros to those wallet-draining nose-in-the-clouds gourmet spots that bother with only the highest of high-muck-a-mucks. Just the other day, I dined at this mega-sushi emporium in north Scottsdale and decided to have a seat at the sushi bar to watch my raw fish being prepared. I kid you not, everyone behind that counter hailed from south of the Arizona-Sonora border. ¿Camarero, más wasabi, por favor?

Generally, when you speak to anyone with any sense in the restaurant or bar industry, they'll acknowledge the importance of immigrant labor and praise the work ethic of their Mexican-born staff, often placing it well ahead of that of the Caucasians in their employ. Without such workers, who is going to prep the vittles you pop in your pie-hole every day? Much less wash your cars, build your homes, empty your trash and clean your office buildings.

The contribution of Mexican-Americans in the PHX extends far beyond their labor, of course. Alimentary-wise, we in the Valley have a tendency to take Mexican cuisine for granted because it's so ubiquitous here. All the same, let me assure you, my tummy is most grateful. And the best way I can think of to express my gratitude on this Cinco de Mayo is to publish a list of my fave Mexican grub purveyors, those I patronize on a frequent basis. These are not the frou-frou, upscale Mex places, for the most part. I like those, too, but these spots are very consistent, and they keep pulling me back time after time for one satisfying chow-down after another.


Rosita's Place

Rosita's Place, 2310 East McDowell Road, 602-244-9779.
No matter what I order at Rosita's, I know it's going to knock my Winnie-the-Pooh socks right off my frickin' feet. From albóndigas (meatball soup) and mole-drenched chicken enchiladas, to chile rellenos swimming in melted cheese and green chile tamales that are soft, sweet and spicy all at the same time, Rosita's Sonoran-style edibles are so superior to those of her competitors, it's a wonder that so many foodies give me a blank expression when I drop the name. By Zapata's ghost, people, Rosita's has New Times Best Of Awards on its wall dating back to 1985! The flan is thick, sweet and gooey, and the frijoles could pass for some sort of legume frosting, they're so creamy and rich. But what I really go for are the machaca tacos dorados, in those hard shells that remind me of the crust of a really crispy egg roll. The machaca itself is luscious, its shredded beef soft with grease that nearly drips down your arm as you eat it. Licking your dining partner's elbow to catch said grease is allowed, by the way.

Asadero Norte de Sonora, 122 North 16th Street, 602-253-4010.
"I really need to learn me some Spanish." This is what I always think when returning to Asadero, a fantastic lil' taco shop where I know just enough Spanish and the servers know just enough English for us to secure one of our many cash-only transactions. No credit cards are accepted, you see, so don't forget to stop at the ATM or you'll miss out on all the meats prepared al carbón; i.e., char-grilled over an open flame. Sure, the place has carne asada, pollo asado, and spicy barbacoa. However, I go ape for the lengua and cabeza -- steer tongue and head meat, respectively. You can order these as a burro ($3.50) or as a soft taco ($1.25). Speed them down your throat with monster swallows of one of the Zona's best horchatas.

Mariscos Playa Hermosa, 1605 East Garfield Street (16th Street and Garfield), 602-462-1563.
There are loads of mariscos joints here in Cactus Country serving Mexican-style seafood, but I've been quick to learn that not all mariscos places are created equal. The one I always end up going back to after a bad experience elsewhere is Mariscos Playa Hermosa, where the pulpo tostadas make me jiggle my knees in seafood ecstasy, and the ceviches taste as fresh and as lemony-limey as they should. If I'm particularly peckish, I might order a whole, fried mojarra (tilapia) and gnaw down on it, head to tail. At least once every six months, my craving for Playa Hermosa's camarónes culichi reaches undeniable proportions, and I cave to the power of those shrimp in tangy, green tomatillo sauce, drizzled over with melted manchego. And my pals wonder why I weigh close to 300 pounds!

Nogales Hot Dogs, parking lot on the southwest corner of 20th Street and Indian School Road.
Here's another cash-only bidness, one that situates itself on most eves from 6 to midnight in the empty parking lot of Guitar and Keyboard City at the above location. Usually there are one or two Latinas working beneath the rainbow-colored umbrella, serving up bacon-wrapped Nogales hot dogs, laden with any number of vascular no-nos and then some, such as mayo, guac, pinto beans, jalapeños, onions, chopped tomatoes, different types of cheeses, mushrooms and probably a few more items I'm forgetting. The bevvy of choice here is Jarritos, the Mexican soda pop, and I'm a big fan of the strawberry (fresa) and the hibiscus (jamaica) flavors. One dog with everything is only $2.50; sodas are $1.50. So for less than $5, you can get your grub on beneath the stars, at one of the little picnic tables awaiting your fanny. Nogales Hot Dogs has other stands, but this is the one I nosh at regularly.

Phoenix Ranch Market, 1602 East Roosevelt Street, 602-254-6676,
I'm a sucker for the combo of atmosphere and above-average victuals, and you might believe a supermarket, or in this case a supermercado, would be unlikely to fit that bill. But Phoenix Ranch Market ain't no Piggly Wiggly, bucko. "Rancho," as some refer to it, is a veritable Collier's Encyclopedia of Mexican cuisine, albeit one you can push a shopping cart through. Go for the inexpensive tacos, bowls of birria, or plates of chile Colorado you can purchase at the cafeteria-like La Cocina. Pick from one of the dozen or so aguas frescas, like limonada or tamarindo, for a libation. Chew on a churro for dessert, then go on a tour of the vast produce, dairy, seafood, and meat sections, all with products either from the homeland, or crafted in a similar manner. Causes one to ponder: What would Phoenix be without its Mexican influences? Far poorer than you could ever imagine, amigo.


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