Should soup be served in a wine goblet? Only if it's as special as the cocido crafted by Israel and Lourdes Aviles, owners of Lulu's. For more than a decade now, the Avileses have been tempting us with their authentic, Guadalajara-style cooking, including dreamy cocido, a traditional beef stew.

Thinking Dinty Moore? Don't. Cocido is more like soup -- but soup with an attitude. The clean broth boasts flavor much too intense for its light character. It looks like pale bouillon laced ever so slightly with orange oil, but explodes in beefy force, underpinned with cilantro and just enough salt to tingle our taste buds.

Its body makes it more like stew. Certainly it's as full-figured as the voluptuous señorita mural on Lulu's wall, the broth gorged with soft zucchini, celery, green pepper, fall-apart-tender beef, onion, and corn-on-the-cob halves.

This soup makes a meal. Served with soft, corn-studded rice, smoky refried beans and a tortilla, Lulu's cocido is one awesome comida.

Only a supernatural being would have thought to combine more ingredients than those which make authentic mole.

There are as many recipes for mole as there are regions in Mexico. But our local favorite -- a rich, velvety sauce containing a dozen types of dried chiles, nuts, seeds, vegetables, spices, plantains and chocolate -- can be found at Hacienda.

You'll have to look carefully for the dish -- it's hidden under the à la carte offerings as enmolada de queso con carne o pollo. And don't be misled by the unbelievably low $3.95 price tag -- you can easily make a meal of these two corn tortillas, stuffed with gooey jack cheese and chicken or beef, then covered with a creamy blanket of the dark addictive mole.

Mole? Olé!

It's almost impossible to walk five blocks in any Mexican city on a summer day without passing at least one stand or parlor that specializes in paletas. Paletas are a traditional, distinctly Mexican take on the Popsicle concept: frozen natural-fruit bars that border on a survival necessity in the withering Mexican heat.

So it's a bit ironic that the definitive Valley peddlers of this distinctly Mexican treat are two twentysomething gringo siblings based in Mesa. But Nathan Hatch and his brother Adam spent much of their childhoods picking fruit at their parents' orchards in Chihuahua, Mexico. When they had time off, they hung out at their favorite paleteria and learned the fruit-crunching ropes from the masters.

Their shop, Flor De Michoacán, opened in May, and it's already pulling in the crucial Hispanic crossover clientele, with its authentic paletas, agua fresca drinks and frescas con crema (sliced strawberries mixed in cream). There are a few worthy paleta stands parked on Valley street corners, but if you're looking for a real shop, this is the place to go.

Chef-owner Norman Fierros has been wowing us for two decades with his offbeat, innovative approach to Mexican food. From a small stand in a dicey south Phoenix neighborhood to his current, tony locale, he hasn't lost the innovative edge that put him on the map.

And when it comes to the culinary map, Fierros isn't afraid to go all over it, ingeniously mixing techniques and ingredients with something bordering on genius.

The addition of epazote, for example, a strong, citrusy herb, to his tacos de pescado, makes the simple fish and tortilla combo sing. Even an uncomplicated endive salad sparkles with queso cotija, the "Parmesan of Mexico," plus roasted Arizona pecans and mesquite honey vinaigrette. When we're looking for something really different, conejo asado gets our hearts thumping with chorizo-rubbed rabbit and grilled sweet corn. And don't even get us started on his sublime tamale hash.

Old Town Tortilla Factory has a "connoisseurs guide" to its more than 100 premium tequilas. That's nifty. But even better is that we can upgrade our margaritas with any of their fancy tequilas for just an additional dollar.

The custom option is just one of the things that makes Old Town's margaritas so good. Fresh-squeezed lime juice and the house standard tequila are others. Even the most basic margarita here is spiked with Sauza silver, a bold and assertive favorite of tequila lovers.

Service makes us smile, too. Our marg is brought in a shaker, blended at our table, and left for us to refill our glasses. The setting, finally, makes our cocktails all that more delicious. We think the 75-year-old Scottsdale adobe home is intriguing, too, with its huge flagstone patio surrounded by 100-year-old pecan trees and its central fountain that often is set on fire.

We'll toast to that.

Readers' Choice: Macayo

In the market for authentic Mexican furniture? No need to head for Nogales; just go south of the Tempe border, down Guadalupe way.

Mercado Mexico quite possibly has the most comprehensive inventory of Mexican home furnishings in the Valley. Statues, fountains, furniture, dishware and, yes, piñatas are regularly imported from Guadalajara and Mexico City. And if your tastes run to the outré, you'll occasionally find oddball items like cow skulls, pieces of armor, or a tree-trunk bar.

If this shopping spree somehow lacks the authenticity of an actual trek to Mexico, you can always stop at a convenience market on your way home and pick up some packs of Chiclets.

Some Mexican restaurants have great chips. Some have great salsa. The red and green neon lighted salsa bar at Pica Poco Taco has them both.

The chips here are homemade, stacked high in a large bin atop the bar, where they're kept warm and replaced constantly through the day. They're thick and crisp, and customers are free to scoop to their heart's content.

Salsas, too, are homemade and fresh. Mild, traditional salsa is powerful, rich with tomato juices anchored by chunks of tomato, onion, chile and cilantro leaves. Sweet tomatillo salsa packs a one-two punch with marvelously tangy vinegar tones. A sign warns that the bright orange salsa Pica Poco is hot, and it is -- a smoldering purée hides heat that grips and won't let go.

Plunk some of each into the little plastic cups at the bar. Taste them all. But remember, as the sign above the bar requests, take only what you can eat -- "This salsa is too precious to waste." We'll say it is.

Readers' Choice for Best Salsa: Macayo

Don't feel like cooking? El Norteño has been a Valley takeout favorite for years.

The small space is nothing fancy, but the food is. El Norteño's kitchen cranks, even producing menudo on weekends. The staff has you fed morning to night: Breakfast on spicy, homemade chorizo-and-egg burros; lunch on green enchiladas, red tamales and tacos; and return to pick up dinner -- killer machaca, green chile stew, cheese crisps and chicken tostadas.

El Norteño, we'll take you anytime, anywhere!

Anyone who's spent time in Mexico knows that the food there isn't what we're used to seeing on our chain restaurant menus around town. All it takes is a four-hour drive to Puerto Peñasco to discover that authentic-style Mexican food is lighter, more crisply flavored than we might expect, and highly reliant on fresh herbs, spices and vegetables. There's also a lot more seafood than just fish tacos.

A faster way to figure this out is to visit our favorite local taste of Mexico, San Diego Bay.

Don't expect ambiance -- there isn't any. But we don't care, not when we're contemplating Pescado Veracruzano, a Mexican specialty that indulges moist red snapper with a luscious coat of tomatoes, onions, chiles, capers and olives. Or when we slide that first joyous bite of camarones verdes past our lips. Food doesn't get much better than this, with shrimp tossed in sour cream, coriander, small green tomatoes, jalapeños, garlic and onion, sautéed in butter and covered in cheese. These spices sing like an opera.

For a true south-of-the-border fiesta, San Diego Bay's the real thing.

Readers' Choice for Best Mexican Restaurant: Macayo

Sometimes we crave a good meal but don't want to put up with overly chipper waiters, bright interiors and hostesses telling us to have a nice night.

That's when we head to Hacienda Mexican Restaurant and the tiny taco stand hunkered in the shadows outside the kitchen door. The cart's an extension of the sit-down, full-menu restaurant, but operates only at night. We grab our food, climb in our truck bed and stretch out under the stars for a private, late-night feast.

Here, the cinema of life plays around us without invading our personal space. Low riders without mufflers rumble by, thump-thumping with rocket-powered radios. Headlights bounce off the corrugated metal wall flanking the restaurant, illuminating the shadowy creep of a street citizen just a few feet away.

Every night except Monday, as soon as dusk falls, the taco-hungry masses converge until the stand shuts down at midnight. Like us, they're here for wonderful charro beans (spunky with spice, bacon fat and veggies) and the wallet-friendly tacos. For just $1.25 each, the corn tortilla parcels include shredded, onion-stabbed pork adobada; carne asada; lengua (tongue); and cabeza (head meat). Everything is fresh, topped with splashes of red or green hot sauce, spoonfuls of puréed avocado and salted radishes.

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