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.

At Tacos de Juarez, the cooks stuff their soft tacos with generous portions of mild-mannered tripes de leche (chunks of beef small intestines), pork, cabeza (beef cheek), carne asada and chicken. Hard tacos -- slicked with just enough oil to leave the slightest sheen on our fingers -- are crunchy vessels for moist carne desebrada (shredded beef), chicken and carne molida con papas (ground beef and potatoes), draped with Cheddar. Add the extras like crisp radish coins and fresh shredded lettuce, or sides of pico de gallo, electric green sauce and fiery red sauce.

Don't be swayed by the run-down exterior of the restaurant, partly hidden by a bus station for people traveling to Mexico. And just step over those folks stretched out on the sidewalk or in the parking lot behind the building.

Inside you'll find a bright and comfortable dining room packed with a workday lunch crowd that often includes a table of sheriff's deputies, a booth or two of City Hall staffers, and other taco aficionados.

Ordinarily, the prospect of paying $12.50 for a single taco would be enough to send even the most ardent Mexican-food lover into, well, shell shock.

But that's before beholding Golden Swan's majestic model, a saffron-infused corn tortilla about the size of a tea saucer. Presented on a bed of creamy corn spritzed with yellow and red pepper oil, the pricey gem is stuffed with two moist and meaty lobster cakes. To the side rests a crisp chayote slaw of jicama, carrot and zucchini in a cumin-spiked sweet vinaigrette.

Washed down with imported Panna water from Italy (go figure), this tony take on the lowly taco is enough to render a certain talking Chihuahua speechless.

More than just a side dish, frijoles are the glue that holds a dish together. They're the heart of a truly good Mexican meal.

What's an enchilada, after all, without soft, gloppy beans to mix into the cheesy sauce between bites? Fish can be the finest, but it soars to new levels when tucked into a bean-smeared tear of tortilla. And what would we do with the leftover shards of hard taco shell if we didn't have a gentle pool of refrieds in which to dip?

Rosa's loves beans, and it shows. Banish any thoughts of what other restaurants might fake as frijoles -- those sad, dried-out clumps that taste like, well, sad, dried-out clumps. No, Rosa's lard-free refrieds are gloriously soupy, indulgently oil-kissed, and smooth, studded with just enough whole beans for toothsome pleasure.

Don't know beans about frijoles? Just be glad Rosa does.

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