So we took them to Los Dos, starting with a cheese crisp smothered in green chile. That's chile as in Hatch chiles from New Mexico, one of the hottest peppers known to mankind. After a few bites, our buddies were squirming. Then, they dipped their chips into the hotter-than-hell salsa. We warned them, yet they insisted on ordering the adovado, tooth-tender pork cooked to fall-apart juiciness, but marinated in fire-alarm red chile and served with beans spiked with even more chile. By this time, they were just about on their knees, begging forgiveness for their cockiness, It's okay, we said, and showed them the proper way to savor this delicious inferno -- a bite of flame, then a bite of cooling sour cream or guacamole. A taste of torture, then a taste of tame, with a side of flour tortilla. A snack of sadism, then a sip of salvation, with an ice-cold raspberry margarita on the rocks. Because Los Dos doesn't rely simply on heat to grab our attention -- this truly is some of the finest Mexican food to be had anywhere. Our friends went home happy, exuberant, and with a great story to tell.
The aroma of Carolina's fresh-griddled wraps is intoxicating. The recipe is simple: unsifted, white enriched flour; baking powder; salt; water; and the most important ingredient -- trusty, old-fashioned lard. But the experience is complex, all earthy rich goodness, golden brown bubbles, chewy thin lace. Now that's real flour power.
These are fantastic favorites -- tacos with juicy rich shredded beef layered in lacy thin shells, enchiladas in spicy, fork-licking sauce, and burros bursting with luscious stuff like green chile beef in oceans of thick grayish gravy. We feast on the magical machaca, the shredded beef blended with vibrant spices, tossed with scrambled egg, onion and tomato, slathered with soupy-soft refried beans, cheese and rice, then wrapped in tears of warm flour tortillas. Carbajal's has topnotch menudo, too, bobbing with soft tripe and al dente hominy mixed with chopped red onion, minced cilantro or lemon, plus exquisite albóndigas, a kiddy-pool-size portion of rich tomato broth, rice, carrot, potato, white onion, squash and highly herbed meatballs.
This is the best there is of comfort food, Mexican style.
Often, dishes are unexpected, like tacos de birria de chiro (braised goat), and chilaquiles de camarónes (a comfort casserole of corn tortilla strips and shrimp simmered in salsa verde, jack cheese and crema). Even dessert is different here, so old, so new, with homemade vanilla ice cream spiked with toasted pumpkin seeds. It's a brave, nueva frontier here at Los Sombreros.
Food of this caliber requires some patience. It takes a few minutes to get fed, since the cook actually prepares dishes instead of sliding them prewrapped from a warming tray. But when weÕre in a rush, we just call ahead, and CJÕs has our order waiting at a drive-through window (where we push a button under the window to let staff know weÕre there). Such luxury, without even leaving our car. Makes our heart go vroom!
Readers' Choice: The Good Egg
We rarely see arepas locally, and never like this, the Cuban corn cakes lavish with raw quail egg, caviar and crème fraîche. We've never had such spectacular ceviche, either, such as a "rainbow" presentation of sashimi-grade slabs of layered halibut and salmon, and of ahi with red and green chiles in a brilliant marinade of soy sauce, citrus juices, red onions and cilantro. And there's true genius behind a clever plate of plantain-crusted halibut, pan-seared with sliced banana, sautéed spinach, bacon and cherry tomatoes.
Deseo is Spanish for "desire." With a ravishing menu like this, there's no question we do.
Readers' Choice: Bar Nun
We can buy retro candy (Pop Rocks!), and select from a dizzying array of olive oils or pestos. We can feel oh-so cosmopolitan lounging with our pooch on the patio of the adjacent Java Garden coffee shop. We no longer even blink to find simple breakfast fare composed of once considered ultra-luxe smoked salmon on an English muffin with cream cheese, capers and onion. Lunch is modern and magnificent with a croque monsieur, layered with ham, tomato, spicy mustard, Gruyère and egg. Dinner, of course, is pizza, perhaps Wednesday's special of fennel, organic greens and goat cheese.
This is the new, cutting-edge Phoenix we know and love, and we say thanks to the Orange for making our lives so grande.