Why is it Americans are so frightened when an ethnic restaurant promises to offer specialties of its homeland, then does? It's right there on the sign and menu at El Tlacoyo: "cuisine of Hidalgo," a state in east-central Mexico. This means scary-to-most-of-us goodies such as cheese crisp with brain, cactus soup, pork stomach tacos, beef head burros, head cheese tortas, marrow guts tacos and barbecued goat. A lot of this stuff is actually quite good, once we get past knowing what we're eating. Cactus soup is a marvelous orange broth with nicely bitter grilled nopal. Tlacoyo is a delicious casserole, layered with slabs of masa, queso fresco, white meat chicken, sour cream, cilantro and onion. And we're almost embarrassed to admit how much we enjoy goat -- mild, moist, barely gamy, and more smoothly flavored than beef. But if quesadillas con cesos (brain) causes a cringe, choose a more familiar authentic dish: whole-fried fish smattered with garlic and served with fries, rice, beans and tortillas. Whatever we choose, at El Tlacoyo, it's authentically delightful.

We get chills just thinking about the chiles at Los Dos. How hot are they? Well, the restaurants close for the month of July. Sure, the owners get some well-deserved vacation, but we think the real reason is to comply with Arizona's summer anti-burn laws. Los Dos' adovada ribs have been known to set off fire sprinklers, the fall-off-the-bone meat incendiary with Hatch red chiles. And there's no relief in side dishes, either, with flame-throwing beans, rice and salsa. Earlier this year, Los Dos opened a location in Manhattan, bringing tough-talking New Yorkers to their knees. We're so proud to say we can take the heat, and call Los Dos Molinos our own.
When thinking of tinkering with tamales, we head to La Purísima for the fixings. With such marvelous masa, even the worst cooks would have trouble messing up a green corn or red chile beauty.

But mostly, we come for the sweet, ready-to-eat creations. There's no better pan dulce -- warm, fluffy and with just a hint of sugary tone. The empanadas are endearing, too, tart with pineapple or smooth with pumpkin. And these cooks know how to crank out the cookies, brightly colored frostings and all.

Back in 1989, Gilbert was a sleepy bedroom community. That was also the year the town welcomed Lulu's Taco Shop. Since then, Gilbert has exploded into one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. Coincidence? We think not. Being in the same neighborhood as Lulu's authentic, Guadalajara-style soft tacos is enough reason to call Gilbert home. Owners Israel and Lourdes Aviles make sure everything here is made from scratch. With the tacos, there's little to get in the way of pristine, whisper-thin flour tortilla and quality meats, except for a bit of fresh lettuce. Fillings can be daring, like cabeza (head meat) or lengua (tongue), but our favorites are more mainstream -- marinated and charbroiled beef, pork and chicken. We top off our tacos with a trip to Lulu's fresh salsa bar, with chunky and spicy selections, and a side of chile-laced marinated vegetables.

Lulu's are the best. And that's not just trash tacoing.

If you ever catch owner Arturo Lom up to his elbows at the sausage machine, you'll know why we love this place. The aromas of garlic and spices seize your olfactories long before the chorizo links ever hit the grill. Lom likes to mix lean cuts of beef and puerco and he stuffs them into genuine sausage casings; the recipe is his own, but the taste is for everyone, with a zippy kick. These tasty south-of-the-border flavors linger about as long as it takes to get back to the store to buy a few more pounds.

For the wickedest, wildest, put-hair-on-your-chest hot sauce you can get, look no farther than right here in the Valley, where Gunslinger is made using all-natural ingredients. Gunslinger habanero pepper sauce does the job and then some, boiling over with the potent chile, a hundred times hotter than the jalapeño. A few drops of this on your morning eggs and you'll start the day with a bang. Splashed on chicken wings, rubbed with Gunslinger's Intensi-Fire spice mix, the concoction has been known to bring grown men to their knees. Put that in your holster and smoke it.

Now this is a jewel of a secret, deserving of only our closest friends. Virtually nobody except Oaxacan transplants knows about this charming mini market, restaurant and takeout station, but it stocks everything we need, including the elusive chapulines -- real grasshoppers roasted with garlic, lemon and lots of salt. We can buy the basics for our kitchen, including oversize tortillas called tlayudas, paste to make mole (black or red) and quesillo, Oaxacan cheese in long strips wound into a ball.

We prefer to let the Lopez family cook for us, however, in their little cafe. They're masters of the Oaxacan tamal -- a delicious version of chicken steamed in a banana leaf and dressed with mole oaxaqueno (a sweeter mole containing almonds as well as red chiles, spices, chocolate, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds). Chase it with champurrado, a luxurious chocolate atole (a thick drink made with masa, milk and vanilla).

We're a little sorry to be sharing Mini Mercado Oaxaca with the masses. But then, we never could keep a secret this delicious.

Rosa's prides itself on its authentic, Baja-style Mexican food, and one of its best-selling dishes is a gift from the heavens called Flying Saucers. An eight-inch crisped flour tortilla is buried under mounds of beans, lettuce, sour cream, guacamole, salsa fresca, cheeses and our choice of beef, pork or chicken. These saucers soar because of their top-quality ingredients. Salsas are made fresh from scratch every day. Beef and pork are marinated in fruit juices, herbs and spices, slowly oven-roasted, then finished on a charbroiler while being basted in their own juices. Chicken, too, is moistened with mild red chile sauce, then baked for hours. Go ahead. Take us to your leader. As long as Rosa's in charge.
The recent boom in these small Mexican meat markets has filled the Valley with scores of places to get your adobada and ranchera. Yet we prefer the sizzling variety of this bright place. The smiles behind the counter take you back to butcher stores you probably knew, when Joe -- now Jose -- could prepare your cut before you could utter a word. The meat is always fresh. The marinated beef and pollo are dripping with marinade, ready for the grill. And if you've got a hankering for something surf and turf, El Tarachi's marine section covers the basics, from ceviche to oysters and a few fish with scales.
Gone are the days of binge-drinking whatever rotgut tequila could be thrown back with a lick of salt and a suck of lime. Now, we like to taste our tequila -- sipping it like cognac, even. And the best place to savor tequila is Coyote Grill, with an impressive list of 110 varieties, including blanco and plata (not aged), reposado (aged in oak for up to a year), anejo (monitored by the Mexican government to ensure its superior quality), and mescal, a harsh-tempered beast that's not for beginners.

While other restaurants may boast long tequila lists, the Coyote's also got that $145-a-shot super-premium star, José Cuervo 1800 Colección, of which Cuervo releases only a few hundred bottles a year. We can make do with the equally good Herradura's Seleccion Suprema, at an easier-to-swallow $35. And for dessert, the Grill has flavored tequilas -- coquila (coffee, chocolate and cream), rose (strawberry and cream), and almendrado (almond). Now that's tequila worth toasting.

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