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.

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.

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.

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