Restaurant Mexico
See our wallet? It's fat and happy, just like us. The most we can spend at this peppy little hole in the wall is $8.50, and that's for a hefty platter of fajitas, grilled steak with green peppers, tomatoes, onions, refried beans, rice and flour tortillas. Just $5.75 gets us a combo of crisp beef picadillo taco, chorizo tostada, and cheese enchilada. We've made entire meals, actually, of the basket of corn chips and mild salsa (free), plus a soft chicken taco stuffed with lots of shredded breast in natural juices, and piles of crispy lettuce and tomato ($2.25). Even if we splurge for a side of fluffy Spanish rice or creamy refrieds, it's just a buck more. We love that it's chic and cheap, too, with Mexico City-style treats like a quesadilla (not the usual gringo affair, but a turnover of corn dough filled with picadillo or chorizo then deep-fried for $2.30). Enchiladas aren't everyday fast food, with zingy tomatillo and Mexican cheese (just $2.30). And the capper: A high-octane margarita is only $2.75.

Los Dos Molinos
Lauren Saria
Our out-of-town visitors were pooh-poohing us, saying that for all they'd heard about the spicy potency of Mexican food, they weren't impressed. Why, they'd had a cheese crisp, they'd had a taco, they'd had some chips and salsa at one of those big chain restaurants, and they barely felt a tingle.

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.

Barrio Cafe
If you haven't tried horchata, the sweet, refreshing Mexican rice drink, you're depriving yourself of dessert in a cup. Made with rice, sugar and cinnamon, it's a beverage you'll find at most Mexican restaurants in the Valley. But there's something extra special about the horchata at Barrio Café. Served in a charming, old-fashioned glass bottle, it's got the luscious, creamy consistency of chocolate milk and a flavor reminiscent of rice pudding. Sipped between bites of Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's tantalizing cuisine, it's a soothing foil to spicy flavors.

Carolina's Mexican Food
Sarah Whitmire
The menu at Carolina's offers these toppings for their tortillas: cheese, with red, green or machaca meat, or slathered with butter. We admit that we've made a major meal of ordering one of each. Pure heaven. What is harder to come clean on, though, is that before we leave the restaurant, we buy a dozen more tortillas, and have been known to eat them all, plain, on the drive home.

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.

The love affair with simple, satisfying Sonoran-style gringo food starts with the chips. They're spectacular, crispy light, warm, and sprinkled with lots of salt. The chunky salsa purée is flamed with just enough chiles to add spark without pain. It's tempting to eat an entire basket all by our lonesome. But we resist, knowing that owner Marina Carbajal is in the kitchen, crafting her family recipes to feed the crowds at her tiny cafe (five red-tile-topped tables plus five booths).

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.

Los Sombreros
Courtesy of Los Sombreros
When is something old actually something new? When it's old as in authentic, but when it's new to Valley taste buds. And the Mexican food served at Los Sombreros is excitingly new. This isn't the typical gringo ground beef taco with Cheddar cheese, but the regional cuisine of and around Oaxaca. That means some exotica in ingredients, like cotija (dry crumbly white cheese), rajas (poblano chile strips), string-style white Oaxacan cheese, and cilantro crema. That means deep ethnic food, with things like mole poblano, a Puebla dish incorporating some 30 ingredients. That means high-class staples, like free-range chicken from Young's Farm in Dewey.

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.

This is the fanciest fast food to be found. Everything here is prepared to order, with fresh ingredients, and with sauces and dressings made from scratch. The family-run cafe keeps it simple but satisfying with a Hawaiian-Asian menu, meaning stir fries and rice bowls (no extra charge for white meat chicken!), teriyaki-pineapple-chicken salad, or a Big Kahuna burger, bringing a third of a pound layered with American and provolone cheeses, Canadian bacon, a pineapple ring and mayo. Milk shakes are handmade, and instead of plastic-toned soft-serve, thereÕs the premium BertoÕs gelato, in coconut-lime or mango-raspberry. Still, everything costs less than $6 for an entire meal, including sandwich, cooked-to-order shoestring French fries and a soda.

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!

Sometimes, even before we rub the sleep from our eyes, we've already decided what we'll be having for breakfast. That's because the early morning fare served at New York Bagels 'n Bialys visits us in our dreams. The selection offered in this Jewish deli is mind-boggling, with almost three dozen delectable dishes. The Rabin family uses recipes handed down for more than 100 years. We love the traditional dishes -- real Brooklyn lox scrambled with onions and eggs; a deli omelet groaning with corned beef, pastrami and melted cheese; or homemade corned beef hash with three eggs. We appreciate the offbeat, too -- the Reuben omelet with corned beef, grilled sauerkraut and Swiss; or the filling Philly beef omelet, packed with steak, onions, peppers, mozzarella and mushrooms. Whatever we get, we're not going away hungry, since each plate comes with a heap of crisp-skinned home fries, choice of tomatoes or cottage cheese, and a bagel or bialy. Bagels are made fresh from homemade dough, fat-free and sugar-free, with no additives or preservatives. Then they're boiled, and baked on both sides for optimum chewy-crustiness.

Readers' Choice: The Good Egg

deseo
Courtesy of Deseo
The credit begins with Douglas Rodriguez, celebrity chef from back East, and father of the unique cuisine now known as Nuevo Latino. He's the big name behind Latin-influenced Deseo. But the award goes to Deseo's actual chef de cuisine, Mark Dow, who is flawlessly crafting Rodriguez's recipes and bringing brand-new excitement to the Valley's dining scene.

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

La Grande Orange Grocery
Courtesy of La Grande Orange
Time was, not so long ago, that it was difficult to find even basic ingredients like cilantro in local grocery stores. Fennel was a plastic doohickey we used to change our car's oil, "greens" meant iceberg lettuce, and pizza came from Domino's. But Craig and Kris DeMarco have taken our fair Valley into the big leagues, with La Grande Orange, a Berkeley-esque grocery/deli/pastry shop/sit-down cafe/coffee house/wine store and pizzeria. They've divided the shop into a culinary co-op of independent local food artisans (a pastry and cake wizard, a master bread baker, a produce expert, a fruit genius, etc., all share the space). A highlight is the on-site pizza god, handcrafting pies from natural sourdough fermented crust; organic, seasonal vegetables brought in daily by local growers; homemade meats and cheeses; and herbs so fresh they're plucked in bunches from silver tubs in the store's produce section.

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.

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