BEST MARGARITA 2004 | Salty Señorita | Food & Drink | Phoenix
Jamie Peachey
There are several competing stories as to where the first margarita was mixed and by whom, and Lord knows, we're not going to do a tango with that tar baby. Still, most folks can agree that the traditionally tequila-and-lime-based concoction has been around for more than half a century. So you can pretty much bet the hacienda on the fact that the initial margarita, despite its disputed origins, was not served frozen but rather on the rocks. There are plenty of purists who turn up their nostrils at these alcoholic Icees for just this reason. But we don't give a roadrunner's patootie about tradition. What we want from a margarita is salt, blended ice, a bowl-shaped glass big enough to eat Froot Loops out of, and enough tequila to subdue a snarling bobcat. That's why we pick Scottsdale's Salty Se--orita as the purveyor of the Valley's best margaritas. Not only do SS's margaritas meet all our basic criteria, they're like the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of Mexican cocktails, mocking those served elsewhere in the Valley as "girlie margaritas." The SS has 100 different brands of tequila to get you effed up on, and, as an added plus, on any given night of the week, the place is wall to wall with hot dudes and dudettes loudly pounding those jumbo, high-proof Slurpees like there's no tomorrow. Hey, what better way to hook up while downing your favorite, icy-cold beverage? Love or Cuervo, we don't care, as long as they're willing.

Readers' Choice: Z'Tejas Grill

You've probably heard many a Phoenician rave about Mariscos Ensenada's seafood pastas, like the bay scallops with cream chipotle sauce, or the prawns with spaghetti, olive oil, tomatoes and wine. Or maybe you've heard someone go on and on about Mariscos Ensenada's octopus, shrimp or sea snail tostadas. And some folks just can't shut up about the ceviche verde de camarn (shrimp marinated in a spicy green sauce) or the pescado relleno de jalba con crema (fish fillet stuffed with crab). But what rocks our boat at this no-frills mariscos is much simpler: the chips and salsa. We're not sure what's in that brown, peppery elixir, but it's just piquant enough to whet our palate for another frozen margarita without burning off the first layer of tongue. The chips themselves are fresh and not too salty, and just one dunk into that Mexican ambrosia is enough to give you a jolt. Really, now, how often does a salsa stick in your memory and make you want to slurp it like a high-octane smoothie? Okay, perhaps we're slightly obsessed, but that salsa freakin' rocks.

Jackie Mercandetti
Lunchtime at La Tolteca is as busy as Van Buren gets -- during the day.

La Tolteca is a bright and cheery superstore, a bakery, restaurant, butcher shop and supermarket where you can buy tamarind candies, dried Jamaica flowers, beer, fresh cucumber juice and beef tongue. But the way La Tolteca is designed, it's the panaderia, or bakery section, that customers must file by first -- gleaming glass cases with pan dulce, multicolored cookies and fresh fruit, guava-filled empanadas, churros, plastic cups filled with tricolored flan, and La Tolteca's supreme delicacy, its tres leches cakes, creamy white sponge cake drenched in sweetened milk, fruit filling slathered between the thick layers, and topped with whipped cream. The tres leches cakes are available in individual slices, or in massive sheets the size of a boogie board.

Now, that gives new meaning to the phrase "sugar rush."

Timur Guseynov
If you're craving a foodie fiesta, look no further than either of the Phoenix Ranch Markets. With myriad Mexican meals available from any of the varied food stations -- offering up everything from freshly made-right-in-front-of-you shrimp tacos to the hangover-curing menudo (on weekends) -- your taste buds will forgive you for all those trips to the Del Taco drive-through. In fact, visiting these enormous supermercados is a very sensual experience. Whether your eyes are accosted by the vibrant decor, or your ears are introduced to the lively salsa music blaring over the PA system, every sense gets a workout. While the proboscis will definitely get some action with all the aromas, see if it can also pick out the smell of love in the air, as the expansive carniceria isn't the only meat market on the premises. Duded-up caballeros flirt up a storm with gorgeous chicas near the canned goods, and a young couple nuzzles near the crowded cafeteria-style El Cocina. The place is pretty popular on the weekends among the Hispanic crowd and even takes on a discoteca-like feel (especially given the color scheme and soundtrack), and one mother is seen dancing down an aisle with her toddler. But that kind of responsibility comes much later in life, and any potentially amorous pair that hooks up here may want to head to the panaderia to pick out a wedding cake first.
In a place like Phoenix, where Spanish is the only language in some sections, there is no shortage of Mexican dives. But we suggest you try Birrieria El Gordo on 27th Avenue, about a block north of Indian School. The decor is sparse, and if your Spanish is rusty, you may have to get by with goofy white-boy sign language, but the tacos are delicioso, with tortillas made from scratch on site every day, and some of the best patrn, cabeza and barbacoa-style meat we've ever pushed past our lips. Don't forget to hit the sauce cart with its little limes, finely chopped cabbage and a half-dozen types of salsa. And they also make a great bowl of menudo on the weekends, if you happen to be hung over from too much tequila the night before.

The youngster's B-Day is drawing nigh and he's been clamoring for a fancy-pants piata, but no rainbow-colored donkey or bull will suffice this time around (especially after that Juicy Fruit commercial had him sleeping in your bed for weeks). He's already prepped a short list of the usual suspects -- Batman, Clifford, Yu-Gi-Oh!.

So you head to Sanchez & Sons Printing, where the kindly shopkeeper gives you the option of a custom-made creation or choosing from their vast selection of cartoon heroes. You consider an impressive Nemo-esque clownfish or a badass-looking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, before settling on a SpongeBob effigy.

The good news: SpongeBob won't be around for long -- at least, not in his current form. The bad news: You'll be picking pieces of him off the lawn for months.

Ooo-wee! It is getting hot in here. Every weekend, the parking lot of this ritzy downtown Phoenix nightclub is packed with Hummers, lowriders and luxury sedans. There's a $10 cover most nights, a dress code (upscale casual -- no baggy pants, no athletic wear), and a security check at the door. The two dance floors stay shakin' until the wee hours of the morning, with Latin pop on the main dance floor and some serious salsa action in the back -- Saturdays, all the way 'til 4 a.m.

The Arizona State Fair comes and goes each October. How do the churro- and carnie-ride-obsessed deal with the next 50 or so weeks? A perfectly acceptable substitute is found at the Great Southwestern Swap Meet, a.k.a. El Gran Mercado. For the most part, the giant market is like the fair's commercial building gone Chicano, and the place certainly lives up to its name, with almost 1,400 vendors. You'll find joyerias and dulcerias next to booths selling used appliances. Several unisex salons style the locks of many of the folks who turn out every weekend to sell off their worldly possessions or dance to Tejano bands in the cavernous dance hall; some prefer singing karaoke en espaol in the courtyard next to one of El Gran Mercado's many eateries, or hanging out in the arcades with the pool-shooting teens.

It's a lively alternative to shifty hawkers of the midway or the has-beens performing in Veterans' Memorial Coliseum.

Lauren Saria
Ask a dozen folks where their favorite Mexican food is in town, and you'll get a dozen answers. Sometimes it's the place nearest to where you live or work. Or maybe it's the spot that makes chimichangas or flautas just the way you like them. It could even be the restaurant that has put a trendy, nuevo twist on old standards. Given this endless multiplicity of opinions, and the impassioned debates amongst foodies inspired as a result, we think picking the Best Mexican Restaurant in Phoenix should be as unifying as watching the Olympics, enjoying fireworks on the Fourth of July, or learning to loathe the sight of Paris Hilton on TV. That's why Los Dos Molinos gets our vote for the Best Mexican in the PHX. Take an out-of-towner to Tom Mix's old house down on South Central, fill him full of schooner-size margaritas while you await a table out on the patio, and then buy him a plate of enchiladas guaranteed to have his eyes watering like it's the last episode of Friends, and that hombre will be impressed. Even the seemingly endless drive to get there, and the très tacky interior, will feel like part of a noteworthy, purely P-town experience. Favorite Mexican eateries are as common as paloverdes, but Los Dos Molinos is something more -- a landmark, a shrine, a gaudy cathedral to culinary greatness. Long may she reign. Readers' Choice: Macayo's

Allison Young
Barrio Cafe may be the ultimate proof of the existence of karma. This slammin' little eatery on 16th Street has been hailed by all and sundry, from the New York Times and Food and Wine magazine to nearly every rag in P-town, save maybe for Erotica Phoenix. All Barrio needs now is for Yahweh to part the heavens and reenact his Sistine Chapel shtick with a nekkid chef Silvana Salcido Esparza playing Adam with tattoos and breasts. But, hey, we ain't here to playa-hate. Esparza and business partner Wendy Gruber have earned all the plaudits, huzzahs, kudos, laurels, and six-packs of Corona they can carry. Barrio's thing is authentic Mexican cuisine prepared with a gourmet flair, in sauces that are so good you'll want to smear them all over someone you love á la 9 1/2 Weeks. We're especially enamored of Barrio's black-as-night mole, and its "delicate" green tomatillo sauce, for which we're willing to offer up our first-born, if need be (whenever we get around to procreating). The interior is vibrant and fun, with decorative local art on the walls, and there's often live music on tap. And if you happen to see a bearded dude in a white robe and sandals, nose-deep in a queso fundido, that's Jehovah, yo. Told you this place is popular.

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