Recipe for a good margarita: 11/2 cups gold tequila, 3/4 cup Triple Sec, 3/4 cup fresh lime juice, 2 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons kosher salt, 6 lime wedges.

Recipe for a great margarita: Run, don't walk, to El Encanto.

There's just something about the margs at Valley landmark El Encanto. Perhaps it's the quality ingredients. Perhaps it's the fact that they're so killer strong we're on our butts after just one. It doesn't hurt that the setting is so spectacular. Sit on the courtyard patio overlooking the huge pond at the old, mission-style building and watch the ducks and geese (be nice, and spring for a cup of birdseed from the bubblegum machine nearby). Service is another bonus: These folks have been around, they don't take any guff, but they know Arizona history and they melt like butter when you treat them right. Cheers, El Encanto.

Our casa es su casa. Just keep your cotton-pickin' hands off our comida -- when it's Mexican takeout night, that is. At this to-go-only place, we can buy the basics if we want to cook at home: corn husks, Mexican cheeses, chile sauces, three kinds of chorizo, masa, hominy, blue corn and white corn tortillas, or fresh chips and salsa. But we'd rather take the night off, shell out $3 to $6, and stuff ourselves on dishes fresh from Albuquerque's kitchen: blue corn enchiladas fragrant with fiery green chile sauce; medium-hot red chile or mild green chile; and sour cream enchiladas with two cheeses and Mexican cream. Or posole, a luxurious pork and hominy stew with red chile broth, lemon and oregano; tender carne adovada; chile rellenos; plus a pint of green chile stew with pillowy sopaipillas to dip into it. We always save room for empanadas, a filled pastry pocket dessert (we recommend the pumpkin).

There's a definite gluttonous appeal to most American-style Mexican places, with their dishes heavy with sauce, sour cream, guacamole and ungodly calories. That's okay when we're craving a good, old-fashioned bomb in our bellies. But we hate to sacrifice real Mexican flavor and spice under all those toppings. That's why we love Mangos, where everything is made fresh, from its pizza-pie-size tortillas to its just-squeezed tropical fruit juices. Homemade tamales don't hold back the heat, dimpled with fiery shredded pork, green chile strips and jack cheese. Shredded beef enchiladas kick up a flurry of burning spice in their wake. Carne asada, overflowing a burrito with large chunks of perfectly grilled beef, packs a back-of-the-throat punch, thanks to lots of gutsy chiles.
When it comes to Mexican cuisine, we Phoenicians are so caliente we sizzle. We're home to the only Mexican-style restaurant in North America that's garnered both Mobil Four-Star and AAA Four-Diamond ratings. Lounging like a Spanish Colonial estate against the McDowell Mountains, this place has class: low ceilings with dark wood beams, wood-framed windows, glowing fireplaces, Mexican folk art and luxurious brocade chairs. Strolling mariachis add romance, but we're here for the food. Luscious antojitos (appetizers) like cordoniz asada, grilled quail with bacon, tomato and squash in adobillo sauce. Indulgent entrees such as chuleta de venado, grilled venison chops with roasted vegetable quesadilla in a white fig and Jamaica (hibiscus flower) sauce. And tempting desserts like capirotada, a fried, three-milk bread pudding with port-macerated berries and star anise ice cream. Ah, we've got Mobil stars in our eyes.
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.

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