BEST TEQUILA SELECTION 2005 | Old Town Tortilla Factory | La Vida | Phoenix
We can thank those wacky conquistadors for inventing this first distilled liquor of the New World. True, the Aztecs had already thought up pulque, a form of the fermented drink from the agave plant, but it was the Spaniards who first distilled this into tequila, probably because they ran low on their own firewater. Nowadays, fine tequila is as highly regarded by snooty connoisseurs as excellent scotch or whiskey, and it boasts nearly as many varieties. The Old Town Tortilla Factory offers well more than 100 types of tequila in its "Margaritas Tequilaria," the bar adjacent to the beautiful, hacienda-like hideaway of a restaurant. Sure, there are traditional margaritas to be had, and fancier ones, like the "Millionaire's Margarita" with Cuervo Reserva and 150-year-old Celebration Grand Marnier. But we prefer a glass of one of those rare, anejo (aged) tequilas to sip, while we watch Tortilla Factory's must-see, fire-spitting waterfall gurgle in the moonlight. What would we say if the ghost of one of those ferocious conquistadors stopped by for a drink? What else? ¡Salud!
Gregarious gourmets Carlos Manriquez, a.k.a. "the Sorcerer of Sauces," and Chad Withycombe hold court here at Mucho Gusto. They're two of the crew that operate Scottsdale's BYOB gem Atlas Bistro, and their contribution to the Valley is enormous -- now in the way of Southwestern and modern Mexican fare. Manriquez's passion for fine victuals at a modest price comes across in such affordable palate-ticklers as steamed clams Adobo, Barra Vieja shrimp, and a Gaucho steak in an Argentine chimichurri marinade. Salivating yet? Last one to Mucho Gusto is a rancid tamale.
French cuisine is what most folks think of when the phrase "haute cuisine" is bandied about, and this seems to follow. The phrase is in French, after all, duh! For many moons, French, Italian, and even Japanese vittles have lent themselves more to the concept of haute cuisine than, say, Mexican. But gourmet Mexican cuisine has been on the rise for several years now, with its rich, complex sauces, and this nearly French concept of taking the rustic, setting it in a more refined ambiance, and giving it the same care and respect as the most uppity of foodstuffs. The fulfillment of this process can be experienced at Coyoacán, Phoenix's most exciting restaurant since Such Is Life/Asi Es La Vida. Coyoacán's kitchen creates such exquisite delights as nopal Hidalgo, grilled venison, and mole poblano. Entrees are served with a smorgasbord of side dishes, and a half-dozen house-made salsas, all in a breathtakingly beautiful restaurant with murals depicting pre-Columbian marketplaces and ancient Olmec stone heads. Coyoacán out-hautes the haughty Frogs foodwise! Though the folks who run it ain't nearly as stuck-up as they deserve to be.


Rosita's Place

Sarah Whitmire
Nearly every 'hood in the Valley has its own "Best Neighborhood Mexican" restaurant, sometimes more than one. The category exists not for those gourmet, highfalutin Mexican places -- the same four places you always see listed in rags around town, and deservedly so, for exceptional, haute Mexican cuisine. We love those spots, but sometimes you just want a good enchilada, taco, or plate of beans, without having to deal with a lot of B.S., and that's when we cruise over to a spot like Rosita's Place on McDowell Road, just east of the 51, where the albóndigas melt in your mouth and the frijoles are as appetizing as the flan. Some of the best tacos in the Valley vie for your tongue's attention with enchiladas that'll forever make you turn your nose up at the gringo versions sold elsewhere. The environs are authentic as well: Brown, glazed Mexican pottery hangs from orange roof beams, vintage black-and-white pics of Mexican soldiers hang from the walls, and a gurgling, stone-lipped pond/fountain filled with goldfish sits before a makeshift shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Rosita's is a neighborhood Mexican eatery that inspires neighborhood pride. And if you live or work nearby, you're fortunate indeed.


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.

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