Mariscos Playa Hermosa
Lauren Cusimano
Maybe it's because we live deep in the middle of Cactus Country that we Phoenicians always seem to be craving seafood. Seems to explain the abundance of mariscos joints here in Sand Land, eh? Still, not all Mexican seafood establishments are created equal. So the one we always make a beeline for when that seafood craving overtakes us is Mariscos Playa Hermosa on 16th Street at Garfield. Here, the pulpo tostadas taste as fresh and the ceviches seem as zesty-lemony-limey as they should. And the camarnes culichi shrimp in tangy, green tomatillo sauce, drizzled over with melted manchego will make you sigh with ecstasy. Say you're hungrier than Rosie O'Donnell after a catfight with Star Jones? Order up one of Playa Hermosa's whole, fried mojarra (tilapia) and strip it clean, from head to tail, with your teeth. If that doesn't do the trick, we'll get you a one-way helicopter ticket to Puerto Peasco and have it drop your fat ass out over the Sea of Cortez into a school of mahi-mahi until you eat your fill like Flipper.
Nogales hot dogs are so very bad, and so very, very good. In fact, we like to think of these bacon-wrapped wieners drenched in mayo and topped with any number of condiments such as guacamole, cheese, pinto beans, onions, mushrooms, chopped tomatoes, and so on, along the same lines that we regard unprotected sex. It might not be the best thing to do in terms of your health, but damn if there isn't a sensory overload as a payoff. Usually, we down a Nogales hot dog on the way home from the tavern, when our judgment is seriously impaired by pitchers of beer and a series of Jger shots that would embalm a horse. We're hoping the fiber from the brew will help flush all of Nogales' vascular no-no's out of our arteries. Wishful thinking on our part, but what do you want us to do, stop eating the things?
Rosita's Place
Sarah Whitmire
We're chile relleno hunters, and we've spent years seeking the perfect specimen. In our culinary travels, we've encountered numerous wanna-bes, from rellenos that required a chain saw to those that collapsed in an indigestible heap, like a baking pie in an artillery range. Splat. The unassuming little restaurante named Rosita's has the best we've come across north of the border: firm, but not too firm, liberally coated though not slathered in cheese, fluffy as a freshly groomed Pomeranian, tender as love's first blush. Rosita doesn't skimp on the fixings, and her prices are delectably low. On a recent visit, three of us ordered full meals plus a round of bottomless iced teas and walked out a mere $23 in the red. Our hats are off and our belts are loosened.
The best tongue we've ever had was at Bikini Lounge on a First Friday from this artist chick named Summer who had a pierced nose and dreadlocks, though, of course, we couldn't really eat that tongue. Heh, not that we didn't try! Haven't seen Summer in many a month, but we think about her every time we bite into one of the lingua burritos over at Asadero Norte de Sonora, this little orange taco and burrito palace on 16th Street. The beef tongue is chopped up and grilled with onions, and it's so freakin' soft and savory we flash back to making out with Summer at the Bikini while drunken art lovers spill MGD on one another and get into bar fights. Ah, they are not long, the days of beer and tongue. But at least we'll always be able to relive them at Asadero, with a tall horchata and a tear in our eye.
Cruise south down Central Avenue and you're likely to pass Moreliana Fruit Bars, the birthplace of one of our favorite things about summer paletas, those sweet frozen bars hawked from little orange carts in the streets and avenues of Phoenix. For 21 years, Moreliana has been making a multitude of flavors at the moment, nine cream-based and nine water-based to cool us down even in our non-air-conditioned car. The company offers flavors that include vanilla, strawberry, and pineapple. For the adventurous, it also offers cucumber with chili, though we hear the boring gringos often just stick to chocolate. Hunt down one of the 30 carts Moreliana supplies around town soon it closes up shop in November when the weather cools off.
We have to wonder: If the cows are happier, does the meat taste better? Because that's the impression we get from Super Carniceria La Hereford, where blissful bovines populate the pasture on the store's colorful outside mural. Inside, you'll find upbeat accordion music, piatas hanging from the ceiling, and miniature aisles of snacks, produce, and seasonings that'll catch your eye on your way to the refrigerated meat cases in the back. There are more than a dozen offerings for your protein fix, including beef chuleta, steak milanesa, tripas, and lengua. And, of course, it wouldn't be on our radar without the spicy meats that make us crave Mexican cuisine, like longaniza, chorizo, and red-chile-marinated adobada. For folks hunting hot stuff of a different kind, La Hereford also has cooked, ready-to-eat meats such as carnitas and chicharrones. Grab some fresh masa, tortillas, and a few glass bottles of Mexican Coca-Cola, and you're good to go.
We used to think cherry slushies were the bomb, until we tried the raspado de tamarindo (tamarind-flavored Mexican shaved ice) at Frutti Sweets, a cheerful little shop that also sells soda, paletas, and ice cream. This sugar-rush-inducing concoction is a potent blend of chile powder, ice, tamarindo, a squeeze of fresh lemon, and a squirt of chamoy (fruity chile sauce), with a few saladitos (salted Mexican plums) thrown in. For extra kick, it comes with a chewy, chile-tamarindo candy-coated straw for simultaneous gnawing and slurping. The result is at once sweet and tangy, with slightly savory hints of spice an acquired taste, to be sure, but a welcome detour from one-dimensional fruit flavors. Consider this a brain freeze with a twist.
La Tolteca
Jackie Mercandetti
Does anyone in this town remember the Guggy's surprise cake? At this point, we're pretty sure we dreamed the whole thing up, but we have vivid memories of birthday cakes purchased at Guggy's coffee shop (there was one at Scottsdale Fashion Square, back in the day when that was still an outdoor mall) made of thick, rich layers of cake layered with sweet frosting and some sort of nutty, chocolaty filling the "surprise." Fantasy or not, we've fulfilled our longing with the Mexican version of the surprise cake tres leches cake at the bakery at La Tolteca. You can buy a whole chicken at the market at La Tolteca, or a great burrito at the takeout counter, but our favorite spot is the bakery, where the tres leches cake is sweet and rich, the cake itself almost creamy, layered not with chocolate and nuts but with vanilla icing and fresh strawberry or peach filling. Tres leches stands for "three milk," indicating the cake's key ingredients: condensed milk, evaporated milk and whole milk. We're sure Guggy's didn't pay quite as much attention to detail (what difference did our young palates know?), and we're happy as adults to celebrate our birthdays from here on with La Tolteca's specialty.
Everyone has a weakness. For some, it's gambling. Sex. Chocolate. For us, it's Azteca's glorious conchas swirled sweet rolls laced with a ribbon of sugary pastel icing. It's hard to go into this bakery and come out with less than a sackful of the light, flaky pastries. Founded by Bernardo Lopez in 1956, Azteca is now one of the largest local suppliers of baked goods. The shop has since been passed on to his children, and now employs dozens of bakers, but the high quality of its food has never changed. Regular offerings include fruit-filled empanadas (turnovers), cuernos (croissant-shaped rolls) and orajas (puff pastry). It's not unusual to find customers with their noses literally pressed against the glass display cases, ogling the bolillo rolls and butter cookies inside. Sure, the place serves fabulous cosido, a hearty beef soup with root vegetables and corn, but who can think about lunch when the sweet scent of pan dulce is wafting from the kitchen?
Whenever a fifth Sunday squeezes into the crowded calendar, Nancy Lewis and her crew of Spanish cultural champions fill their mouths with linguistics and their bellies with delectable Latin food. The group samples authentic Latin cuisine outside of the standard Sonora, Mexico, fare, including the centrally located Havana Cafe (Cuban) and Eliana's (Salvadoran), the West Valley's Mi Cocina (Ecuadorian), and Scottsdale's Pepin (Spanish). In the spring, a group of 35 hungry folks gathered at a recent favorite discovery, Mesa's tiny Restaurante Salvadoreo, chowing on healthy portions of pupusa (thick hand-made corn tortilla stuffed with cheese or meats), fried plantains, and succulent entrees for under $10, including pollo encebollado (chicken with onion) served with black beans and rice. The event is both Spanish- and English-language-friendly, and newcomers are always welcome. Buen provecho!

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