At Phoenix Ranch Market's new sit-down Mexican restaurant, there's always music. Sometimes it's piped in, but more often, it's performed by live musicians perhaps a band out on the courtyard stage, or a soloist singing romantic melodies from his vantage point behind a keyboard in the busy dining room. The spirited sounds make the festive atmosphere even more fun, and when Mariachi o Trio Alegria is working the crowd, it's an extra special treat to be serenaded at lunchtime. We're accustomed to seeing mariachis after dark, but these gentlemen were tableside on a recent Friday afternoon. Decked out in sharp traditional costumes, these three talented, smiling gents (two guitarists and a harpist) stroll from table to table, taking requests, singing triumphant folk songs, and causing outbreaks of applause at every stop. We're not sure if their performances actually enhance our appetite, or whether they just go well with frosty margaritas. Either way, "La Cucaracha" never sounded so good.
La Casa Del Mariachi
The worst thing a Mexican restaurant can do is hire a bad mariachi band. Imagine being tied to your table, waiting for the check, while the Mexican Hat Dance plays for the umpteenth time. Shudder. We've been there. Thankfully, you won't have that experience at La Casa del Mariachi. Sure, the interior is pure kitsch, with faux tile roofs, candy-colored walls and burro murals. The music is fabulous, though. On weekends, the Salon Guadalajara banquet facility adjoining the main restaurant transforms into a dance hall. Latin beauties in red skirts twirl around the floor as the band's crooner, in sparkling charro suit and sombrero, sings of love and loss. Even if you're a hardened mariachi-hater, you can't help but tap your toes after a few minutes of the lively beat.
Even before reggaeton became all the rage in the Valley, Club 95 was playing hot tracks by reggaeton artists like Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, and Ivy Queen. The station also sponsored various reggaeton nights around the Valley, adding even more muscle to the growing music scene. Club 95's DJs also spin Mexican regional and Spanish pop, but in the past year, the format has become more reggaeton. The "Latino Vibe" is still there, though, and the Phoenix flavor comes through in the Spanglish that saturates the frequency. Club 95 DJs like Mikey Fuentes, Jose El Cubanito, Diamond Boy Luis, and the stunning Jackie Morales are local celebrities in the Latino world, showing up at different station events and promotions, and fielding on-air phone calls from listeners and fans. So despite the fact that Club 95 plays very little (if any) mariachi and accordion music, the station is clearly a bridge between cultures in the Valley, and hands down the most popular station among the young, hip Latino/Latina crowd.
According to author Elijah Wald, there have been public cries to ban narcocorridos, or Mexican drug ballads, in Mexico since the '70s. Baja California jumped on the bandwagon with a voluntary ban in 2002. Even Arizona has considered a radio ban on narcos. Yeah, good luck with that. Often talked about as the cousin to gangsta rap, narcos hide on the shelves of most Latino stores, behind polica-friendly Shakira and Enrique Iglesias CDs. Discoteca de Joyas Musicales doesn't play that game. A glance at the rack offers hard-core narcos from two of the most popular players in the genre, Reynaldo Martinez and Los Tigres del Norte. If you don't speak espaol, you'd better learn some before you shop here. Basic phrases like "how much is this" and "where can I find" are pretty much all you need to know. But for heaven's sake, don't go asking for "Mexican drug music" unless you'd like to get up close and personal with a pistola.
What's a party without a piata? Boring, we say. And what better way to acquire your piata than with a one-stop party shop at Dulceria Pico Rico? This well-lighted, expansive shop on 16th Street, in the heart of what we've come to call Little Mexico, has a wide array of piatas, in all the probably-not-sanctioned characters of the day from the princesses to the Power Rangers and everything in between. We're hoping for a Shrek piata on our own birthday, along with a color-coordinated fete you can find all the purple and green tissue paper, tablecloths, plates and napkins you can imagine. And don't worry about making an extra stop for candy. Dulceria Pico Rico stocks enormous bags of mixed candy. Exciting!
The quinceaera was originally a religious coming-of-age ceremony that declared a young virgin eligible for marriage. Today, it's more like a Hispanic teenager's excuse to party. Yes, it's supposed to be about God, but what would a celebration of womanhood be without the perfect dress? Azteca Wedding Plaza specializes in quinceaera supplies, from frilly white dresses to wax-covered floral headpieces and bouquets. It's not exactly the place you go to be waited on. The staff is largely bilingual and will assist madre with a special-occasion dress, but the quinceaera is usually stuck hefting a pile of gowns to the dressing room herself. Still, we think the massive selection of formal gowns is well worth the extra effort. There are elegant silk sheaths for the damas (think bridesmaids), colorful ruffled A-lines for the modern quinceaera, and rows of white princess ball gowns that symbolize purity and virtue. As for that aforementioned virgin requirement, let's just say the staff at Azteca is smart enough to have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

BEST VENUE FOR BIG-NAME LATINO ACTS

Dodge Theatre

There's a reason hordes of Hispanics have been heading for downtown Phoenix in recent months, and it isn't to stage another massive demonstration for immigrant rights. It's because Dodge Theatre has become something of a hot spot for superstar Latino acts over the past year. The topflight, 5,000-seat venue has been packed with Chicanos from across the Valley, who show up in force to peep norteo songsters like Juan Gabriel, Grammy winners Intocable, and Los Tigres del Norte, as well as the likes of gifted Guatemalan singer-songwriter Ricardo Arjona, ranchera star Vicente Fernndez, the Mexican pop duo Sin Bandera, and others. They're the kinda tunes you could enjoy every day on any of the myriad local Latino stations dotting your radio dial, if only you'd bother to learn a second language, ignoramus.
Andy Herrera, a.k.a. DJ Big Latin, has been spinning cumbia, bachata, merengue, and reggaeton around the Valley for the past four years, and the portly Dominican has always been one step ahead of the trends, helping to launch the Valley's first (and still most popular) reggaeton night at Jackson's on 3rd, networking with the Valley's Latin radio stations, and bringing national acts like Chosen Few and Ivy Queen into his shows. Though he no longer spins at Jackson's, he's filled his schedule with other caliente weeklies and can be found working the turntables at La Perla Cafe on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; Tilly's on Thursdays; Macayo's on Fridays; and CBNC on Saturdays. He makes some mean mix CDs, too, so if you like what he pulls out of his stacks o' wax when you're shakin' your booty on the dance floor, ask him nicely and he'll probably hook you up.
In its past incarnation as the Crowbar, Club Dwntwn was a hip-hop and Top 40 palace catering to gay clientele. Now, the club is one of downtown's top gay Latin hot spots, offering two dance floors with DJ-spun cumbia, salsa and Spanish-language rock. Despite the recent surge in popularity, Latin-Jamaican hybrid reggaeton (pronounced "reggae-tone") is only played at a handful of clubs, and it's why we flock to Dwntwn on Beat Lab Saturdays. DJ's Rubass, Joey and Ponk scratch wax until the wee hours of the morning, playing tunes like "Oye Mi Canto" and Daddy Yankee's mega-hit "Gasolina" as a sweaty throng of dancers grinds to the trademark Dem Bow beat. The only drawback is the dress code, which seems to have taken a cue from Dwntwn's posh neighbor, Amsterdam. No baggy pants, sneakers or sunglasses for guys, although chicas are allowed to wear anything they want as long as they look muy caliente!
Karamba
No doubt about it now Karamba is purely a gay Latin club, even if it's best known for having hosted the hugely popular '80s/electro/glam night "Hot Pink!" on Fridays. Club owners recently replaced "Hot Pink!" with "Vertigo Fridays," a reggaeton and Latin dance night, complete with lithe, gyrating go-go boys. The rest of the week is filled with Latino/Latina drag shows and more dancing. So really, any night of the week here is a great gay Latin dance night. But "Kaliente Saturdays," now the club's longest-running weekly night, brings out the most buff and beautiful boys. "Kaliente" also kicks the most comprehensive and diverse of Latin jams, including salsa, merengue, cumbia, rock and pop en espaol, and high-energy Latin house, spun by DJs Tranz and Melo. Best of all, there's no cover before 10 p.m.

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