BEST ELOTE EN VASO (CORN IN A CUP) 2005 | La Reina Michoacana | La Vida | Phoenix
Lured into La Reina Michoacana by a painting of roasted corn on the cob in the store's window, we were all pumped to savor the unparalleled perfume and smoky taste of one of Mexico's finest street dishes. When we were told "no hay," we were very disappointed, but the counter lady guaranteed that La Reina's elotes en vaso (literally, corn in a cup) was muy rico. Was that ever an understatement! We're now hooked on La Reina Michoacana's 12-ounce Styrofoam cups of fat, steaming corn kernels drenched in melted butter and aromatic Mexican lime juice, topped with grated cheese that melts into little gooey globs of heaven (you can also get mayo on top, but we thought that might be gilding the lily). We added hot salsa and chile flakes as a crowning touch, and couldn't spoon this corny treat into our mouths fast enough. All this good gluttony, and we only spent three bucks!
None other than Aquaman rolls into town the other day on vay-cay from helping the Gulf Coast recover from Katrina, and the scaly superhero is craving some excellent seafood, natch. But where do you send the King of Atlantis for primo piscine eats here in our landlocked metropolis? There's only one place the Protector of the Seas and Oceans can sit down for a nautical nosh: Serrano's Fishmarket and Restaurant, purveyor of the finest piscatory platters coming under the genre of mariscos, or Mexican seafood. This clean little establishment only has a handful of tables, and the decoration is sparse. But the food, whether whole tilapia, pulpo tostadas, cocteles de camarón, or spicy camarónes a la diabla, is like a whirlwind of sea salt in your kisser. Run by Armando Serrano, brother of Ricardo Serrano, who in turn runs the Serrano's at 32nd Street and Shea Boulevard, the eatery never lets us down when we're in the mood to believe we've died and gone to Rocky Point. Needless to say, the Defender of the Deep Blue Sea dug Serrano's so much that he bought a condo nearby so he can winter in the PHX. Just hope the pool's big enough for members of his posse, like that hammerhead shark from all those Superfriends episodes.
You've seen those steadfast guys in the dead of summer pushing colorfully painted, four-wheeled refrigerated carts full of exotic frozen fruit bars through deserted streets and you've always wanted to stop one and sample his wares. You don't really have to go cruising for one of those heat-seeking vendedores when you get the urge to splurge your daily carb allotment. Just hightail it to La Michoacana, where a lovely young woman behind the store's immaculate counter offers paletas, those very same frozen fruit bars, in a rainbow of juicy, archetypically Mexican flavors. We got adventuresome and tried the sweet-tart tamarind and the smooth cantaloupe flavors, both of which were exceptionally refreshing on a scorching day. We're really intrigued by the sound of mango con chile, arroz (rice), piña colada, sandia (watermelon), ciruela pasa (prune) and the inscrutable nanche (we're told this mystery fruit is a sweet, deep yellow, olive-size tropical fruit common in regions like Veracruz and Nayarit), so we'll be going back to La Michoacana very soon for further research tastings.
Forget your carnival midway snow cones and Stop-and-Rob Slurpees. And Hawaiian shave ice (only mainland haoles dare to call it shaved ice) isn't even in the running. All hail the new king of frozen desserts -- the raspado, Mexico's luscious take on fruit-flavored syrup drizzled over finely crushed ice. What separates the divine raspado from its other, more pedestrian brain-freeze bros is its liberal dousing of plain shaved ice with both thick syrup and small chunks of fresh ripe fruit in season, like mango, plum, peach, strawberry and melon. Add to your list of choices banana, vanilla, walnut, orange, coconut, tamarind, lime and piña colada, and just about every other season is adequately represented. We seriously doubt that the creator of the Mexican raspado was aware of its real history, which dates back to A.D. 62. That's when ultimate party animal and Roman emperor Nero got the bright idea of ordering his slaves to the nearby Apennines to schlep back snow and ice to Rome, where it was pummeled into slush and doused with honey and fruit pulp. Chances are Nero's original version wouldn't even come close to the latter-day Phoenix version being dished up at Oasis Raspados.
Fresh pineapple or fresh strawberry? Hmmmmm. The choice was tremendously difficult, but after an exceptional amount of hemming and hawing, we decided to go with Panadería La Estrella's strawberry-filled pastel de tres leches, which literally translated means "three-milk cake." And after tasting what seemed to be a thousand less-than-stellar variations on one of Mexico's (and Latin America's) most popular desserts, we award a 10 to La Estrella, the winner of the tres leches cake competition we just created. Tres leches cake derives its name from the fact that it's made with three different types of milk: sweetened condensed, evaporated, and heavy cream. When made properly, it's a luscious saturated vanilla butter cake that borders on pudding, with fresh fruit layered between the cake to add a gustatory punctuation mark to the whole experience. La Estrella's ultra-moist strawberry version, loaded with lightly sweetened fresh strawberry chunks and finished with mounds of whipped cream (and we ain't talking Cool Whip here), makes American strawberry shortcake just plain pale in comparison.
In the 1860s, the French under Napoleon III descended for a short time on Mexico, dragging with them European-style breads and pastries. Lucky for us, Mexico ultimately kept the bread recipes but booted out the French, creating Cinco de Mayo for us to drunkenly celebrate here in the U.S., as well as the Mexican version of the baguette -- the bolillo. Since that time, the bolillo -- used as an alternative to tortillas for slurping up runny food and for making tortas (or, if you prefer, el sandwich) -- has steadily gained in popularity and is a staple in any Mexican bakery. We've had any number of versions of the bolillo purchased from panaderías throughout Mexico. Some are shaped like small footballs with hernias, hard and crusty on the outside and soft or chewy on the inside. But our favorite variety, ubiquitous around the Valley, is the round, slightly flattened version like those baked by La Sonorense Bakery. They've got a golden brown crust that's not too tough, and insides full of melt-in-your-mouth softness, which is the perfect combo for making sandwiches that won't put your jaws out of joint or break your back teeth.
Allison Young
We've been sampling fancy desserts at Mexican restaurants in this town for so long that -- we're embarrassed to admit -- we remember eating deep-fried ice cream at Willy and Guillermo's. Thank goodness we've grown up, and so has Mexican cuisine in Phoenix. One of our favorite adults is Barrio Cafe, where you can top your meal with incredible French press coffee and a dessert that will make you happy you skipped that second basket of bread. We love anything chef Silvana Salcido serves that's stuffed with Oaxacan chocolate, but our absolute favorite -- the one we think about in the middle of the night -- is the Churros Rellenos de Cajera de Cabra, goat's milk caramel-stuffed fritters with vanilla ice cream. The churros bear no resemblance to that cardboard stick you choked down at the state fair. Instead, they're light and crunchy, soft inside, perfectly flavored next to the cinnamon-tinged ice cream, which, we're thankful to report, is not deep-fried.
We miss the good ol' days when, instead of a 7-Eleven or Circle K, every neighborhood had its own little grocery pit stop right around the corner. Flores Bakery in Guadalupe is just that kind of place, an old-fashioned blast from the past with exceptional baked goodies to boot. Besides the usual quick packaged snacks, you'll find a small meat counter serving up fresh tortas with carnitas and barbacoa, as well as prepared masa for homemade tortillas, premade tortillas, sopes and crispy tostaditas. But Flores Bakery's shining glory is its traditional Mexican pan dulce (sweet bread) in a variety of colorfully decorated shapes and flaky puff pastry orejas (or palmas, buttery palm-shaped sweet pastries). Rich tres leches cake is de rigueur here, as well as cream-cheese-slathered carrot cake. We tried one of the gigante puffy turnovers filled with slightly sweetened apple filling and sprinkled with large-grained turbinado sugar, which was over-the-top delicious. But Flores' specialty, in our minds, at least, is its bolillos con crema y jalapeños. The very thought of these soft, French-style rolls stuffed with huge hunks of fresh cream cheese and vinegary jalapeño slices baked to a golden brown makes us whimper uncontrollably.
We know we've come home to Mexico when we catch that first whiff of smoky barbacoa wafting on the breeze. Whether it's from chicken, beef, pork, lamb or baby goat being grilled over an open mesquite fire or slow-roasted on hot coals in an open pit, that heavenly smell is, for us, an unmatchable part of the best of Mexican culture and cuisine. Carnicería El Camino keeps those fragrant home fires burning bright for homesick Phoenician Mexicophiles with its extensive selection of Mexican-style cuts of meat, poultry and seafood. A small, corner grocery store with a down-home, old-fashioned feel, El Camino is piled to the rafters with all ingredients Mexican, but it's the butcher counter that shines like the blazing sun over the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacán. Here you'll have no trouble finding real Mexican chorizo, diesmillo (thinly sliced chuck roast), cecina (paper-thin pieces of dried or partially dried and seasoned beef or pork), chuleta (huge, thin slices of pork or lamb both unsmoked and smoked) or carne de chivo and borrego (goat and sheep, respectively) for barbecuing. The store also has 100 percent Mexican brand Chimex salchichón (a spicy, salami-like sausage), beef tongue, premade fajita mix for the less ambitious of us cooks, and codornices (quail). If you're a seafood lover, El Camino has that covered, too, offering large uncooked shrimp, pulpo (octopus), and, on the weekends, fresh ceviche. Also available for those weekend hangovers is classico rico menudo, a sloshy, tongue-searing tribute to beef tripe, hominy and calf's knuckles that's a guaranteed cure for those who have over-partied on the fin de semana.


Phoenix Ranch Market

Timur Guseynov
We are seriously jealous, not to mention thoroughly bummed. Now that we've been to Phoenix Ranch Market at 59th Avenue and Thomas Road (visualize AJ's duded up for a Mexican quinceañera fiesta), we are finding it increasingly difficult to shop at our local Safeway. Our neighborhood grocery doesn't sport larger-than-life-size metal mariachis and a tin donkey on its roof, gaily welcoming all who enter its cleverly designed Mexican-style portals with blaring mariachi and norteño music pumped into its state-of-the-art sound system. Nor does our corner store boast signs in Spanish trumpeting fabulous palapa-embellished meat, fish, bakery, tortilla, cheese and fresh deli sections geared to classic regional Mexican cooking. Does your corner grocery store offer baby goat and patas de pollo (chicken feet), as well as mini-corn dogs? We didn't think so. Since discovering Phoenix Ranch Market, we're unable to cruise the aisles of our humdrum, peanut-butter-and-jelly neighborhood food emporium without a pang of longing. We're virtually haunted by the memory of Phoenix Ranch Market's huge tortilla-making machine, operated by crisply dressed, hair-netted ladies and spewing out plate loads of aromatic, Frisbee-shaped wheat and corn pancakes. And by PRM's glass barrel jars of homemade aguas frescas in tangy tropical flavors of pineapple, tamarind, Mexican lime, watermelon, cantaloupe and cinnamony rice-flavored horchata. To be honest, it's become increasingly hard to live without instant access to fresh nopales (cactus pads), membrillo (guava paste), cooked octopus, piñatas, and our favorite Mexican fabric softener (Suavitel in "primavera" scent), all of which Phoenix Ranch Market stocks on a regular basis. The only thing that's saving us from moving across town is the knowledge that a new Phoenix Ranch Market has opened at 1602 East Roosevelt Street, close enough to become our new favorite food-shopping destination.

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