BEST MEXICAN TAKEOUT 2003 | Phoenix Ranch Market | Food & Drink | Phoenix
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.

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.

Allison Young
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.

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.

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