Chips and salsa. They go together like love and marriage. A horse and carriage. Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Batman and Robin, Britney Spears and her belly button, they're inseparable.

We're addictive dunkers, never able to stop at just one basket. But we're highly particular about our chips. They must be thin, crispy, lightly salted, blooming with rich corn flavor, not greasy, and served warm (cold chips, bleh). We're stuck up over our salsa, too. No puny tomato purée will do -- some pico de gallo is always welcome, but at least one of the dips has to be a flame-thrower.

We've found the perfect combination at Cantina!, the upstairs restaurant next to the Boulders resort (they can't keep us off the pretty patio, sipping margaritas and double-dipping like nobody's business). Chips are yellow and blue corn, airy crisp. Salsas are inspired, both in variety and in macho flavor. We start with the complimentary servings of salsa dulce (mild) and salsa media picosa (regular), both thick with fresh vegetables.

Five others flavors beckon, and they're all dramatic: salsa picante (sweet and spiced), salsa verde (sharp, metallic jalapeños and tomatillos), salsa tejana (gutsy garlic, cumin and spice), salsa arbol (seriously hot) and salsa habanero (bring-us-to-our-knees fiery). For just $5, we get a variety pack, a thrilling taste-bud tour of picante, arbol and verde.

These chips are champs, and these salsas sure sizzle.

Phoenix is only four hours from the Mexican border. You'd think we'd be swamped with excellent, authentic Mexican restaurants. Not so -- unless your idea of real Mexican cuisine is that bloated chain stuff topped with a tiny paper flag. For the real deal, we go to Acapulco Bay, where we can sample some of the finest comida Mexicana y mariscos found -- dare we say it -- in all of Maricopa County.

It's a long menu, and everything is extraordinary, from the camarónes ahogados (fresh, whole raw shrimp "cooked" in lime juice with cucumber, tomato, red onion and spices) to the parrillada for two (a combo of Baja chicken breast, marinated pork steak, tender carne asada, juicy carnitas, grilled vegetables, guacamole and pico de gallo).

And where else can we get such succulent seafood as whole red snapper, cabrilla, tilapia, shrimp, octopus or lobster tail prepared seven different ways? Our favorite presentation is the garlic sauce, the infernal pepper sauce, the salsa ranchero, the salsa Veracruz, the cracker breaded, the spice grilled, and the crystal, spiked with mushrooms and cheese. Oops -- how many favorites are we allowed to have?

Phoenix is only four hours from the Mexican border. You'd think we'd be swamped with excellent, authentic Mexican restaurants. Not so -- unless your idea of real Mexican cuisine is that bloated chain stuff topped with a tiny paper flag. For the real deal, we go to Acapulco Bay, where we can sample some of the finest comida Mexicana y mariscos found -- dare we say it -- in all of Maricopa County.

It's a long menu, and everything is extraordinary, from the camarónes ahogados (fresh, whole raw shrimp "cooked" in lime juice with cucumber, tomato, red onion and spices) to the parrillada for two (a combo of Baja chicken breast, marinated pork steak, tender carne asada, juicy carnitas, grilled vegetables, guacamole and pico de gallo).

And where else can we get such succulent seafood as whole red snapper, cabrilla, tilapia, shrimp, octopus or lobster tail prepared seven different ways? Our favorite presentation is the garlic sauce, the infernal pepper sauce, the salsa ranchero, the salsa Veracruz, the cracker breaded, the spice grilled, and the crystal, spiked with mushrooms and cheese. Oops -- how many favorites are we allowed to have?

El Norteno
Chris Malloy
Even when we have no money, we still can eat like royalty at El Norteo. The most expensive thing on the menu at this casual, counter-service shop is a Mexican pizza, and for $6.75, it's huge, loaded with ground beef, beans, guacamole, sour cream, tomatoes, jalapeos and onions. Most everything else comes in at less than $5, with flavors and portions worth twice the price.

Who can beat a burro grande, just $4 for a hefty handful of red or green chile, sour cream or guacamole, cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion plus a 44-ounce drink? Actually, El Norteo beats itself, with a staggering display of daily specials. Breakfast is just $1.99 (huevos rancheros, beans and tortillas on Monday), lunch is just $2.99 (like a red or green burro enchilada-style, beans, salad and drink), and dinner is just $3.50 (perhaps beef chimichanga with beans and rice).

That's one hot tamale, for just a tiny little bit of cold cash.

Even when we have no money, we still can eat like royalty at El Norteño. The most expensive thing on the menu at this casual, counter-service shop is a Mexican pizza, and for $6.75, it's huge, loaded with ground beef, beans, guacamole, sour cream, tomatoes, jalapeños and onions. Most everything else comes in at less than $5, with flavors and portions worth twice the price.

Who can beat a burro grande, just $4 for a hefty handful of red or green chile, sour cream or guacamole, cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion plus a 44-ounce drink? Actually, El Norteño beats itself, with a staggering display of daily specials. Breakfast is just $1.99 (huevos rancheros, beans and tortillas on Monday), lunch is just $2.99 (like a red or green burro enchilada-style, beans, salad and drink), and dinner is just $3.50 (perhaps beef chimichanga with beans and rice).

That's one hot tamale, for just a tiny little bit of cold cash.

La Hacienda at the Fairmont
For so long, "upscale" hasn't been a word associated with Mexican cuisine. Just this year, though, we've had several restaurants open, hoping to tap into a moneyed clientele who realize that Mexican is so much more than tacos, enchiladas and burros.

But it's still that grande dame of south-of-the-border that wins our heart. La Hacienda even looks delicious. We imagine we're royalty, reigning over a Spanish Colonial estate in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains. The food is even better. We certainly know we're special when we're served up such exciting fare as spit-roasted suckling pig carved tableside, camarónes Culiacán (baked Gulf shrimp, smoked bacon and jack cheese), chile ancho en nogada (wood-roasted chicken in an ancho chile, dried fruits, nogada sauce) or mezcla de carnes y mariscos (mixed grill of beef tenderloin, sautéed shrimp and chicken, with three sauces).

Bring on the competition. It'll take a lot of it to inspire us to call anywhere but La Hacienda our home.

For so long, "upscale" hasn't been a word associated with Mexican cuisine. Just this year, though, we've had several restaurants open, hoping to tap into a moneyed clientele who realize that Mexican is so much more than tacos, enchiladas and burros.

But it's still that grande dame of south-of-the-border that wins our heart. La Hacienda even looks delicious. We imagine we're royalty, reigning over a Spanish Colonial estate in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains. The food is even better. We certainly know we're special when we're served up such exciting fare as spit-roasted suckling pig carved tableside, camarónes Culiacán (baked Gulf shrimp, smoked bacon and jack cheese), chile ancho en nogada (wood-roasted chicken in an ancho chile, dried fruits, nogada sauce) or mezcla de carnes y mariscos (mixed grill of beef tenderloin, sautéed shrimp and chicken, with three sauces).

Bring on the competition. It'll take a lot of it to inspire us to call anywhere but La Hacienda our home.

San Carlos Bay Seafood Restaurant
Sometimes we wonder if we've gotten boring when, year after year, we award the same "Best of" designation to the same restaurant. But when the category is Mexican seafood, and the restaurant is San Carlos Bay, we know we'll never apologize for the repetition.

How does this tiny, white stucco shop keep in stock such an ocean of riches? Who cares, as long as it keeps enough on hand for us -- the sparkling fresh shrimp, octopus, squid, abalone, oysters, snapper and crab. Such choice of preparation, too -- will our seafood be in a cocktail, in a stew, hot and spicy marinated, baked, machaca with green chiles, in garlic sauce, whole and fried, or breaded? We know our absolute favorite is the buttery garlic octopus, served atop French fries with rice, beans, salad and soft flour tortillas. But it's also the whole fried snapper, torn in fleshy chunks from the bone, wrapped in warm tortillas, spread with creamy beans and rice, then dunked in zingy salsa. Each visit is an adventure.

San Carlos Bay -- no matter how many years go by, you'll always be new and beautiful to us.

Sometimes we wonder if we've gotten boring when, year after year, we award the same "Best of" designation to the same restaurant. But when the category is Mexican seafood, and the restaurant is San Carlos Bay, we know we'll never apologize for the repetition.

How does this tiny, white stucco shop keep in stock such an ocean of riches? Who cares, as long as it keeps enough on hand for us -- the sparkling fresh shrimp, octopus, squid, abalone, oysters, snapper and crab. Such choice of preparation, too -- will our seafood be in a cocktail, in a stew, hot and spicy marinated, baked, machaca with green chiles, in garlic sauce, whole and fried, or breaded? We know our absolute favorite is the buttery garlic octopus, served atop French fries with rice, beans, salad and soft flour tortillas. But it's also the whole fried snapper, torn in fleshy chunks from the bone, wrapped in warm tortillas, spread with creamy beans and rice, then dunked in zingy salsa. Each visit is an adventure.

San Carlos Bay -- no matter how many years go by, you'll always be new and beautiful to us.

So owner Richardson Browne has a sign in his restaurant that reads, in Spanish, "Restaurant critics can kiss my ass." So he celebrated a former New Times Best of Phoenix designation by mounting the plaque on a toilet seat in his rest room. So he bluntly warns diners that his chile policy is: You Order It, You Own It. It's all fair warning that Richardson's isn't about pandering to fussy clientele. Here's a restaurant with food so good it stands on its own merits, take it or leave it.

We'll take it, and gladly, welcoming the foghorn blast of searing Hatch chiles that sounds through almost every dish. Such New Mexican cuisine is painful but addictive, from a glorious fiery green chile stew stocked with beef tenderloin, potatoes, carrots and Cheddar to a classy chimayo chicken, plump with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, poblano chile and Asiago cheese.

Everything is so good that Browne has been known to get in fights with copycat restaurateurs over his trademark touches: green chiles stuffed with mashed potatoes, tomatillo toast with sautéed chicken and ham, and red chile primavera topped with artichoke hearts, portobello mushrooms, spinach and goat cheese in a white wine tomato broth.

There's no argument in our minds. Let others copy away. Our original is always Richardson's.

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