La Tolteca
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."

Los Altos Ranch Market
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.
Birrieria El Gordo
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.

Sanchez and Sons
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.

El Gran Mercado
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.

Los Dos Molinos
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

Barrio Cafe
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.

La Hacienda at the Fairmont
Fairmont Scottsdale Princess
As the name implies, La Hacienda has the atmosphere of a traditional Mexican estate; the decor reminds us of Like Water for Chocolate. Roving musicians provide the background to a menu that reinvents classic Mexican cuisine. The appetizer menu includes a sampler plate, "antojitos mexicanos," which includes squash blossom quesadillas and crabmeat enchiladas, but do not miss La Hacienda's version of Puebla's chile en nogada -- ancho chile stuffed with roasted chicken and dried fruits, covered in pomegranate sauce. Notable entrees include quail stuffed with duck and rack of lamb encrusted with pumpkin seeds accented by blackened tomato chile jam.

Some traditions are even better reinvented.

Carolina's Mexican Food
Sarah Whitmire
A visit to Carolina's is nearly a religious experience, one that's catholic, with a little "c," meaning it's almost universal in its appeal. Park yourself in front of the main entrance to the dingy, warehouse-like structure with its school-cafeteria tables and chairs, and you'll see what we mean. Every sort of person, regardless of class or ethnicity, walks through those doors: a businessman in wrap-around sunglasses, and a construction worker on a lunch break; a pregnant woman by herself, and a student on his way home from school; the fat man with food on his shirt, and the primly dressed grandma back from a church social; a mother with an entire brood surrounding her, and an indigent fellow who's scraped enough together for a bite to eat. They all place their orders at the main counter surrounded by a garish red-and-white menu, take their numbers, and sit politely waiting to be called. It's an amazing cross section of humanity, mostly brought here by the same thing: Mama Carolina's tortillas. Maybe the fat guy wants a machaca with egg, or the pregnant lady, a green chile burrito. The student, a chicken enchilada, and the homeless man, a cheese tortilla. But they're almost all wrapped in or are accompanied by those magnificent flour tortillas, as light as air, slightly chewy, and somewhat smoky. They have corn tortillas, too, but it's those flour ones that we revere above all else. No wonder Carolina's sells thousands a day.

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