BEST NEIGHBORHOOD MEXICAN, WEST VALLEY 2005 | La Perla Cafe | La Vida | Phoenix


La Perla Cafe

La Perla is a pearl of a joint. Opened by the Pompa family back in 1946, La Perla Cafe is located in the sort of funky building people instantly feel at home in, whether they've come in for a plate of chile rellenos and rice and beans, or to enjoy a margarita and some chips and salsa while grooving on any of the live music La Perla regularly showcases. Mariachi bands, and solo brass artists work the rooms on the weekends, but even if you're not there when the music is flowing, you'll appreciate the kick-back, family-friendly atmosphere, the big booths, and the photos of Old Mexico on the walls. No puttin' on airs here, even though the Pompa clan still proudly runs the joint. If you're in Glendale and need to feed your gob with some reliable Mexican grub, La Perla is the place for you and yours, amigo.


Comedor Guadalajara

Meagan Simmons
After more than 35 years and two generations of family ownership, Comedor Guadalajara still packs 'em in for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Neither the regulars nor the newbies are coming for the decor or the ambiance, as there's little of either on the premises. Everything's meticulously clean, but form follows function here, and CG's function is to fill that belly like it's your last meal on Earth. The menu is classic, Sonoran-style cuisine -- tacos, tostadas, flautas and enchiladas. But CG also specializes in mariscos, serving standards such as 7 Mares soup, shrimp Veracruz-style, pan-fried tilapia, and shrimp enchiladas in green tomatillo sauce. You'll also be blown away by the house-made flan, so rich and dark it's more like a caramel pudding than a custard. The service, too, is topnotch, and far more personal than one might expect from the cavernous interior and inexpensive comestibles. It isn't the building that gives this place soul, but the employees and the food.
We all like a sure thing. Like a rerun of Seinfeld, a steak dinner at Durant's, or the latest White Stripes CD. And in Tempe, when it comes to "neighborhood Mexican," Restaurant Mexico is a no-lose proposition. Tucked into a brown block of businesses just east of Mill Avenue, Restaurant Mexico has got it going on: simple yet tasty Mexican cuisine, such as enchiladas in tomatillo sauce, burros, chimichangas, tostadas, and some of the best sopes we've ever had, covered with chorizo and salad. Even Restaurant Mexico's refried beans are better than average. And the prices will put a smile on the face of a starving student. You can eat like a king for about $10. Perfect for that first date with the cutie from Chemistry 101, or that Sir Studly who sits across from you in Sociology.
For a "neighborhood Mexican" restaurant, Los Olivos is nicer than most, which may have something to do with the 'hood involved, one where SMoCA and the James Hotel are its next-door neighbors. We speak here of the original location on Second Street in Old Town Scottsdale, a beautiful, rambling place with tasteful, Diego Rivera-like murals, stained-glass windows, Spanish chandeliers, and walnut-stained wooden tables and chairs. Owned and operated by the Corral family, whose patriarch Tomas Corral built the structure long ago, Los Olivos is also known for its hearty traditional fare, such as tacos al carbon, chicken picado, machaca, and "Mexican flag" enchiladas. If you want a combo plate of chimichangas and tacos, Los Olivos has that, too, and L.O.'s sopaipillas, fried ice cream or flan will have you loosening your belt and longing for a siesta. Good spot for impressing discriminating dates without killing your wallet or pocketbook in the process.


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!

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