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.

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.

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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