BEST CHIPS AND SALSA 2003 | Jordan's | Food & Drink | Phoenix
Jordan's has been a Phoenix landmark since 1946, and the place looks its age, with its dark interior, shiny, gold-flecked wallpaper and ragged red carpeting. Thank goodness for tradition, though -- the owners have seemingly never learned that so many restaurants these days are happy to shame us with food from bags, boxes and freezers. All food here is prepared fresh from scratch daily, including, wonder of wonders, the crispy, salty warm corn chips slapped in baskets for free on our tables. The chefs make their own salsas, including a thin, wet, truly infernal tomato purée; and a gentler mix that kind of reminds us of tomato soup. Our waitress, in fact, actually rolls her eyes when we ask if these beauties are made on-site, by hand. She sighs, and says, "Of course, there's no other way." Long live the legend.

Readers' Choice for Best Salsa: Garduo's

Some of them look like dinner rolls dusted in psychedelic sugar. Some look like buns that have had a violent run-in with fruit. But they're called bunuelos, and they're actually little bundles of joy. The Mexican pastries are flaky, light, and usually just slightly sweet (most of the sugar comes from the colorful topping, in pink, yellow, blue and/or green). They taste best when freshly made, and at Azteca, the bakers are busy every day except Sunday, stocking the cases of the small takeout shop with multiple all-natural, preservative-free varieties. Selections vary, but usual offerings include pan dulces (sweet rolls and breads), empanadas (turnovers), galletas (cookies), orejas (puff pastry) and pan de muerto, a Day of the Dead specialty. If that weren't enough, this shop also cranks out homemade tortillas. Sweet!
If eating a bowl of menudo means you have a lot of guts, what better way to show it than by getting into a boxing ring just a few feet from your dinner table? You can do that every Wednesday night at Pitic Restaurant, famous for its caldo de res and green salsa. The attached lounge serves up amateur night and enchiladas for the fight-crazy crowd, who line up in neatly placed rows. The place is a riot mostly because the crowd tends to take over with funny-as-hell jabs at the boxers and announcers. Street fighters and proud papás sign up weeks in advance for their shot at a $300 cash prize and to appear on Canal 53, a low-power Spanish TV station that broadcasts the fights the ensuing Saturday night.

Don't let the out-of-place bingo games get in the way of good, hard-punching entertainment.

Timur Guseynov
If there's anything we can't find in this 24,500-square-foot south Phoenix mercado, all we have to do is visit its second location, a 40,000-square-foot monster in the West Valley. Pretty much the entire country of Mexico is contained within these stores, with a jaw-dropping display of staples like whole beef head, carne seca, fresh coconut, guava gel, mammee fruit, and tamale husks. Yet perhaps the most exciting feature is the food court, a massive area of quick-serve meals of such top quality that it's hard to believe we're not in a real restaurant. It even looks like a restaurant, fronted with a classy wooden ranch house façade, and filled with throngs of families feasting at picnic-style tables. The booty is beautiful: a buffet array of chile Colorado tacos, tortas, burritos, sopes, cocido, tamales, homemade tortillas, roasted chicken, carnitas, rice, beans, salsas -- all cheap at about $5 for a full meal. We can eat with the masses at the tables, charged up with thundering piped-in mariachi music. Or, we can get our stuff packed in Styrofoam, to indulge in a quieter, private picnic at home. Either way, when the lunch and dinner bells ring, we're heading for the ranch.

A margarita needs to be prepared properly. That's why we like the magical margs served at Brasa Roja. The place is a Colombian restaurant, but bartenders know their way around this specialty Mexican concoction like nobody's business. Each drink is made to order, not too sweet, and served in a rainbow of flavors like lime, peach and strawberry. We like sipping a salty one on a weekend night when the live Latin American music plays. It's just the thing to go with nibbles of patacón, a delightful appetizer of green plantains, sliced and gorgeously greasy-crisp deep-fried. The chips are sprinkled with salt, and then dipped in zingy green aji chile salsa or Dijon-mayo sauce sparked with jalapeo. Another round for everyone!

Readers' Choice: Garduo's

Until we discovered San Carlos Bay, we never understood octopus. Sure, we'd eaten it as sushi, and were happy enough with the sometimes rubbery, often tasteless seafood. The novelty intrigued us, though never knocked us out. Yet now we know: There's simply nothing better than San Carlos' garlic octopus, impossibly tender, outrageously fragrant, and decadently buttery. It positively melts in our mouths, spooned in messy bundles of flour tortillas wrapped around French fries, rice, beans and salad. In fact, San Carlos has given us an entirely new appreciation for the swimming stuff of all kinds. We adore the authentic seafood cocktail, brimming with octopus, squid and shrimp in a zesty tomato broth spiked with cucumbers, onions and cilantro. Shrimp is always sparkling fresh, served in our favorite culichi style (a tangy green sauce blended with cheese and sour cream) or "endiablados" (meaning the devil, as in hot sauce). Snapper is stupendous, too, prepared Veracruz-style (zesty olives, onions, tomatoes and peppers), or served whole, fried and torn in fleshy chunks, slathered with creamy beans and rice, dunked in zingy salsa and wrapped in warm tortillas.



Jackie Mercandetti Photo
For more than 25 years, Rito's owners have been telling folks to get out of their house. It hasn't worked. Even with no sign, limited operating hours, and an inconsistent list of daily menu offerings, people continue to flood the tiny converted dwelling for topnotch burritos, tacos, chimis and tostadas. The Salinas family doesn't even go out of its way to make us feel too welcome. We shout out our orders at the counter, after waiting in line for way too long; they shout back at us when it's ready to pick up. There's no seating, save for a few plastic tables on a patio. Law officials are always swarming around -- Phoenix police are good customers. And choice? There is none. There's red chile and green chile, plus beans and rice. Sometimes there are enchiladas. Whatever we get, it's hot. Hot as in painful. Hot as in the Salinas family might be subtly telling us: "Get the hell out of here." But it's all to no effect. On any given day, at any given lunch hour, you know where you can find us: standing in line at the Salinases' house, begging for another meal from Rito's.

Courtesy of Via DeLosantos
Being dedicated professionals, we didn't simply take the restaurant manager's word that Via Delosantos, a madcap little Mexican restaurant in north Phoenix, serves more than 210 tequilas. First, we counted the listings on the menu, and we came up with almost 200 varieties. Then we went to look at the collection in person: A sign posted as we entered the restaurant boasted a library of 193 labels. We started to count the actual bottles, displayed along an entire wall behind chicken wire. But it pretty quickly got too difficult for us, keeping track of the blurring array of fresh-from-the-still blanco brands, reposado aged in oak two months to a year, and anejo aged more than a year. So then we decided to try ordering a shot of them all, making a little check mark for each guzzle as we nibbled on warm chips and zingy salsa. A half-dozen drinks later -- a half-dozen chicken scratches later -- we had completely forgotten the purpose of our mission. But we were happy, and that's all that matters. So take our word for it: Via Delosantos has very nice tequilas, an amazing whole lot of them, and that's all we really need to know.

Readers' Choice: Garduo's

Jackie Mercandetti
Eating at La Tolteca is like eating in a Mexican market, because actually we are eating in a Mexican market. This place is part Hispanic grocery store, part kitchen accessory store, part bakery, part butcher shop, part fast-food takeout counter, part sit-down restaurant. The music is loud and boisterous, the servers are cheerful chatterboxes, and, most important, the food is amazing. We stop in for tacos whenever we're in the 'hood (okay, it's not a glamorous 'hood, surrounded by used-car dealerships and discount furniture stores). But these tacos make any neighborhood beautiful. Everything is made fresh each day. The flour shells are light and crispy, like puffy sopaipillas. The corn shells are exquisitely crunchy and full of fresh vegetable flavor. The meats are lovingly roasted to juicy perfection, including chicken breast, carne asada, pastor (spiced rotisserie pork) or carnitas with onion and cilantro. There's seafood -- shrimp and mahi-mahi. And because this is a true Mexican experience, there's exotica like cabeza (head), lengua (tongue) and tripa (tripe). When we're really hungry, we get the monster taco, a flour shelled beast that's so big it takes up an entire dinner plate. It takes a double shell to hold all the shredded chicken or beef, iceberg lettuce, tomato and cheese. A squeeze of fresh lime, some salsa from the homemade salsa bar, and this is heaven.

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.

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