Best Margarita Spot
Macayo's
several Valley locations

Best Mexican Restaurant
Macayo's
several Valley locations

Best Salsa
Blue Agave Oyster & Chile Bar
Shops at Gainey Village
8787 North Scottsdale Road, Suite A-102, Scottsdale
480-607-9222

Grocery store tortillas tend to be thick and doughy, and bear as much resemblance to the real thing as does Roman Meal to a crusty loaf of French bread. While dreadful tortillas will do if you spread distractions like cheese and salsa all over them, you'd never just pop one in your mouth, plain. But La Sonorense's thin, tasty, fresh tortillas, which somehow manage to be chewy and flaky at the same time, are the exception. This little bakery can be hard to spot, because the bottom half of the sign's letters are missing. But word is out; you're likely to stand in line behind several people, and though this appears to be a full-service Mexican bakery, most of them are there to purchase still-warm bags of perfect tortillas. One disclaimer: Don't come crying to us if you snuff the life out of these babies by putting them in the fridge. Eat them all, and quickly.

Usually, we've got enough just in pocket change to cover the tab at this pink adobe taco hut that's always hoppin' to the beat of lively salsa music. Sometimes, the cooks get in the groove, singing along as they bang pots and pans.

It's a short menu, with just a few quesadillas, tacos, burros, tortas, flan and Mazatlán mud pie. Everything is made fresh to order, though, with top-quality stuff. Beef is sirloin Angus, and soft flour tortillas are homemade, as are the killer salsas in an array of tomatillo, chunky, mild and red hot. And what a deal! Nothing costs more than $4.75, not even the huge torta, a fresh grilled roll stuffed with onions, cilantro, salsa, avocado and your choice of charbroiled pork, beef or marinated chicken. We can make a meal of the Guedo burro, a large tortilla brimming with the same torta ingredients plus from-scratch frijoles and cheese. You go, Guedo's.

Finally, a place for anyone who's been dying to find that elusive skeleton basketball player shooting a lay-up in midair. The Chicano museum, located downtown, has a great gift shop filled with Day of the Dead crafts, as well as a wide variety of Mexican artwork, books and furniture. Dia de los Muertos collectibles range from the classic skeleton bride and groom and papier-mâché skulls to colorful shadowboxes depicting scenes of the dearly departed drinking, cooking and shooting pool. Our personal favorite is a glass candle adorned with a skeletal femme fatale cooing, "If I had lips, I'd kiss you."

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.

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