BEST NEIGHBORHOOD MEXICAN, SOUTHEAST VALLEY 2005 | Rancho de Tia Rosa | La Vida | Phoenix


Rancho de Tia Rosa

Timur Guseynov
This 8,000-square-foot hacienda-style restaurant is the kind of place you want to take mom on her B-day. The eatery boasts colorful tile-topped tables and collectibles gathered by owners Liz and Dennis Serrine during their frequent visits to Mexico. The place is named for Dennis' grandmother, affectionately known as Tia Rosa, or "Aunt Rosa," by her immense extended family, and the menu offers many Baja-style items, such as seafood tacos and shrimp quesadillas, as well as a number of more healthful takes on traditional Mexican fare. It's California that comes to mind when you visit Rancho de Tia Rosa, and at times you can almost imagine that you're at some beachside San Diego grub shack as you dine there. The cantina serves a selection of premium tequilas and can fashion them into 15 different kinds of margaritas, and the light, almost fluffy flan dessert is not to be missed.
There are a lot of great mole dishes in Phoenix, and consequently, this was one of the hardest categories to fill in BOP. Let's just say we never met a mole we didn't like, be it red, brown or green. The word "mole" comes from a Nahuatl word meaning "mixture" or "concoction," and true to the label, moles can contain a number of varying ingredients, including different chiles, onion, ground pumpkin seeds, and, if we're lucky, Mexican chocolate. Distinctive Oaxacan chocolate, ground with almonds, sugar and cinnamon, is renowned worldwide. And this may explain why one of our favorite PHX moles is created at the restaurant inside Mini Mercado Oaxaca, a little grocery store dedicated to selling Oaxacan products as well as serving a menu of traditional fare. Its mole with rice is everything a mole aficionado could ask for: thick as icing, warm and creamy, and a deep brownish-black in color. Sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds, the mole covers a chicken leg and thigh, but you're tempted to eat just the mole, maybe mixing in a bit of the orange-yellow arroz with it. Mildly spicy, this is the food of the gods. Or at least what we'd be noshing every day if we were deities.
Sarah Whitmire
We purposely set out to find tortillas better than those at Phoenix legend Carolina's, ate our way across town, and ended up about 40 pounds heavier. What did we glean from our efforts? That Carolina's still has the best tortillas this side of the Mexican border, tortillas so exquisite that they only need a little butter when grilled to melt in your mouth like savory cotton candy. Of course, they're equally delicioso wrapped around green chile, machaca with egg, chorizo with potatoes, or any of Carolina's variations on a theme. Carolina's has been doing what it does best since 1968, recently opening a second location -- Carolina's Mexican Food North, on Cactus Road. It's instructive to visit the no-frills Mohave Street location, set in one of the rougher-looking neighborhoods in town, and watch the businessmen in Mercedes-Benzes and homeless men on foot stop by for a bite to eat. That doesn't happen anywhere else in the PHX, and it's all because of Carolina's magnificent tortillas.
Lauren Cusimano
We never know when the fever will hit us (someone cue Peggy Lee) -- the fever for Mariscos Playa Hermosa's camarónes culichi, or shrimp in green tomatillo sauce. And once we've got the fever, nothing will do but to make a beeline to this humble little place and snarf up a serving of that tangy ambrosia, which includes melted jack cheese and fat, fresh shrimp, with a side of rice and tortillas. Tomatillos may be our favorite member of the nightshade family. When you buy them fresh, they look like jolly green figs, with a paperlike covering over a mini-tomato that has a sticky skin. Inside they're mushy, full of seeds, with a taste somewhat like a green apple. But turned into a sauce, their flavor intensifies, as does their color, and the result is polish-your-plate-with-tongue good. A lot of Mexican eateries make it, but we're partial to Mariscos Playa Hermosa's because it doesn't try to get all precious with it, as do some spots. Rather, Mariscos' is straightforward and immensely satisfying, curing us of "tomatillo fever." Well, at least for the moment.
Courtesy of Los Sombreros
Food critics are a nasty lot. They love to scrap, backstabbing each other until the meanest of them stands supreme, like the king of the hill in the children's game of the same name. Of course, our Stephen Lemons is the Blackbeard of Culinary Criticism, always ready to raise the Jolly Roger and let blast a flow of invective at his Lilliputian rivals. Are they ever in agreement on anything? Believe it or not, there is perhaps one meal they could all break bread over, and sing the praises of: Los Sombreros' lamb adobo, wherein a shank of lamb sits drowning in a bowl of dark brown adobo sauce -- a mélange of ground chiles that's both spicy and savory at the same time. The lamb is so tender, it begins to "baaa" whenever you stick a knife in it, and we've seen our otherwise proud Mr. Lemons cleaning that bone and drinking down the last remnants of that magical souplike sauce. But just when you thought a gustatory truce was at hand, our Terror of the Dining Table slices his culinary opponents into sausages with his razor-sharp cutlass, and raises their heads high on the yardarm. As Lemons escapes over their decimated bodies with the leftover adobo, we can even hear him singing, "Yo ho! Yo ho! A pirate's life for me!"
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.

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