Our monthly visit to cranky Aunt Betty on the west side always necessitated a calming visit to one of the better day spas in the tonier part of town. That is, until we discovered Savant, a full-service salon with all the comforts provided by better-known beauty stops. Now we save ourselves a drive to Scottsdale by dropping in at Savant's new 2,400-square-foot west-side digs (they've been teasing and curling and toning for 15 years), where we're given the full spa treatment and released, fully recovered from Auntie's sour attitude and prune Danish. We get a haircut, a massage and a manicure, and if we wanted to, we could also get a dye job, a pedicure, and a waxing. Savant's long list of treatments includes facials, glycolic peels, scalp treatments and expert makeup consultations. We're tempted to look into aroma wraps and salt rubs, and we may yet. Because even though Aunt Betty is gone now, we're still making monthly visits to Savant.

Few things excite us like the phrase "by the pound." Imagine walls of fabric -- piles and shelves of it -- everything from leather to lamé, stacked, hung and rolled into every nook and cranny of SAS's orderless shelves, sans any recognizable categorical system. True, you can't go in looking for something specific unless you have three hours to search every shelf, but if you're a crafty type looking for inspiration for your next project, just walk into SAS and you will be instantly transformed into the most creative person you know. Besides the fabric at rock-bottom prices, they have buttons by the cupful that are older than your mom, as well as scraps, trim, notions, ersatz jewels and our favorite: the famous aisle of grommets. SAS is a costumer's delight, a craftmaker's paradise, a stitcher's wet dream . . . but a warning: It also can be an OCD sufferer's version of the seventh level of hell.
Sharing a block with a Mexican restaurant and a row of showrooms shilling Southwestern furniture, it sits there like the visiting bumpkin cousin at Christmas dinner. Maybe it doesn't fit in, but we have to count it as one of our own. Big Red of the Desert is a place of safekeeping, a source of succor, for a very specific set of people in the Valley -- misplaced Nebraskans. Inside, you'll find all manner of material devoted to the NCAA's perpetual naturals, the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers.

You heard right. All they sell is Huskers gear: sweat shirts, jogging pants and every possible riff on the tee shirt, from tank top to toddler size. Collapsible tailgate chairs are in long supply, too, and so are Husker stickers, license plates and foam beer can coolers. Why do they call the team "Big Red"? Because it beats the shit out of "Cornhuskers." But more important, why is this store here, in a city known not for football but for its sunny climes? Well, if you've ever been to Nebraska, you might understand that it's an even trade.

Since the deregulation of the taxi business, the streets of south Scottsdale, Mesa and central Phoenix have been filled with colorful taxis bearing Spanish names and plastered with advertising for everything from Food City to chiropractic doctors. And Mayas Radio Taxis are one of the first and largest squads on the streets. Their cars are clean, colorful and come in a bunch of sizes, all bearing the large Aztec pyramid logo. Flag one down and you get more than a lift; you get a guide. Hop in and ask the Spanish-speaking driver to take you to the best local eatery or dance club. They seem to know everything! Their rates are $5 minimum and $1.25 per mile thereafter. And unlike their counterparts in Mexico, these taxis, for the most part, obey traffic laws.

Hands full? No car? No problema! The best place to catch a Mexican taxi is outside the Food City grocery store at 20th Street and McDowell. But for that matter, most Food Citys in Mesa and Phoenix now have lines of cars ready to provide you with their services, whether it's Taxi Azteca, Mayas or one of the many independent cabbies. And there are enough there that you know you'll find a cab big enough to fit your load of groceries, ranging from the family minivan to SUV to economy car. You rarely have to wait, and the drivers are often ready to help load your groceries for you. With such service, who needs a car?

Once you step inside the doors of La Michoacana, it's like you're transported back to Mexico. And with good reason. The ice cream recipe it uses is from the original and famous La Michoacana from Michoacán, Mexico -- creamy and flavorful with exotic flavors, like pia, melon, mango, mamey, coco, limon, durazno, horchata, jamaica, tamarindo and sandia, to name a few. There's also a giant selection of flavorful fruit Popsicles made from either a cream or a water base. Another favorite is the sweet and spicy pico de gallo, a giant fruit cocktail with powdered chile, lime and salt over a selection of watermelon, cantaloupe, strawberries, pineapple and fresh peaches. Also try the Mexican version of berries and cream topped with a light drizzle of whipped cream -- now that's cool.

Sometimes it's good to find yourself surrounded by suckers. Like when you're at a dulceria candy store as cool as Dulceria Pico Rico. Inside you'll find suckers, suckers and more suckers. Some are made to look like a mango and are sprinkled with chile and lime, others are made of goat's milk caramel. How about some watermelon-flavored hard candy with more chile and lime? Tamarind and chile? Every imaginable combination of candy from Mexico, with a whole range of sweet, exotic tastes, sits in row after row of large plastic bags just waiting for you to dig into. You can also find a great selection of piatas and other party favors to round out whatever event you're hoping to sweeten up. The cashiers mostly speak Spanish. But when you have the international language of candy, who needs English?

Best Central And South American Grocery Store

Pan Americano

You can find a Mexican carniceria on just about every corner in downtown Mesa, Phoenix, Avondale and Chandler. But if you're in the mood for making some Salvadoran tamales or popusas, then the unique Pan Americano can come to your rescue. Aptly named for the Pan American highway that runs through Central and South America, this is your number one source for those hard-to-get ingredients you need from south of south of the border.

Goya products are abundant, as well as elusive ingredients, like fresh banana leaves for making those succulent tamales. You can also find delicious Salvadoran and Venezuelan specialty baked goods, made fresh daily. Plus, Pan Americano is clean, centrally located and nicely stocked with other wares, like flags, magazines and music from most Latin American countries. And if Latin American cuisine is where you're palate takes you, be sure to check out the Pan Americano restaurant at Seventh Street and Camelback.

Timur Guseynov
Past the pretty wooden façade and row of split rail fencing at Ranch Market sits the Valley's most exciting selection of Mexican staples, desserts, produce, meats, cheeses, seafood and more. The quality is supreme, even if sometimes shocking (a whole beef head, eyes still in, stares at us from the meat case, its open mouth stuffed with an ear of corn). Anything we could ever want is available in beautiful form: fresh coconut, mango, papaya, peppers of all kinds, fresh herbs, tamale husks, guava gel, carne seca, whole buffalo fish, beef lips, pork feet, and on and on.

But since cooking isn't our favorite thing, we're thrilled with the skills of the cooks at the take-away food court. The bakery churns out rainbows of pan dulce, postres, cakes, bread, rolls and cookies. The "Oasis" sells salads, fruit waters and salsas (wonderful shrimp cocktail, ceviche, pico de gallo, tropical frescas). And the busy restaurant next to it swarms with people scrambling for Styrofoam containers of first-class Mexican favorite dishes, immensely cheap at just $2 to $5 for a full meal.

You can take your pick at a long, enticing buffet line set up in front of the flaming gas grills where quick chefs cook everything from scratch: chile Colorado tacos, toothsome tortas, fat sandwiches and enormous burritos.

And for the ultimate, the Ranch prepares family and party packages serving six to 18. There's a choice of roasted chicken or carnitas, paired with rice, beans, salsas, macarron, tortillas, chips, ceballos, cilantro and Coca-Cola. Just know that this isn't gringo Mexican -- meats are drier, spices are hotter, every part of an animal often is used.

There's no question -- this takeout takes us away.

Selection and ingredients are what make La Estrella stand out as the Valley's best Mexican bakery. Considering how tiny it is, it has an impressively varied selection of breads that are just too tasty to pass up. The pan de huevo is soft and delicious (because of, we think, the powdered milk Estrella adds to the recipe). Plus, hard-to-find pan fino, fleite and resposteria are found here fresh daily. A second location in south Phoenix, on Central Avenue, is also making La Estrella label tortillas and wonderful white masa and serving a small selection of Mexican culinary specialties. And at the original location, there's a large assortment of Mexican household products to go with those loaves, like magazines, medicines, soaps, detergents and CDs, all crammed into the small storefront. To our eyes, La Estrella is a true Panifidora Mexicana.

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