Barrio Cafe
A craving for Mexican food and a craving for Barrio Cafe's memorable fare are two completely different things. It's almost as if chef Silvana Salcido Esparza intentionally set out to defy diners' expectations, combining her own dazzling ideas with traditional flavors found in southern Mexican cuisine. Looking for chips and salsa to land on your table? Instead, you'll get a basket of soft, fresh bread with garlicky homemade olive spread. Think quesadillas are all about chicken and melted jack cheese? Not at Barrio. Here, try them with garlic and tequila lobster with Oaxacan cheese and queso de cabra. Esparza also creates wonderfully rich black mole, tender and tangy cochinita pibil (Yucatn-style slow-roasted pork), and melt-in-your-mouth pato en tamarindo (seared duck breast with zesty tamarind and chipotle sauce). Huge, beautifully presented tortas are worthy of knife and fork (we're fans of the torta del Barrio, with a Oaxacan-cheese-stuffed roasted poblano), and ethereal desserts like the churros rellenos de cajeta de cabra warm, crisp fritters filled with gooey goat's milk caramel, paired with vanilla ice cream end things on a high note. Dinner at Barrio Cafe just might rock your world.
Old Town Tortilla Factory
What better way to enjoy a margarita (or several), a basket of chips and salsa (or several) and maybe even more, than on the twinkly patio at the Old Town Tortilla Factory? This longtime favorite is a little ritzier than your average Mexican dive, but a little less plastic than some of the neighboring Scottsdale joints. We love to kick back on the patio weather permitting and sample the bar's extensive tequila menu.

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD MEXICAN RESTAURANT, CENTRAL PHOENIX

El Portal

We still think Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox should leave office to do the public service she does best running one of the best Mexican restaurants in town but we've gotta admit, the lady does a pretty good job of multitasking. You'll often see Wilcox along with members of her family, and a rotating selection of politicians, lobbyists and other government types hanging out in the large booths in the corner of this casual restaurant just south of downtown. They're here for the political gossip, but also for the machaca, which is even hotter than the news of the latest mishap at the Legislature. We could make a meal out of the endless chips and hot salsa, but always try to save room for carne asada tacos.

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD MEXICAN RESTAURANT, SOUTH PHOENIX

Los Dos Molinos

Los Dos Molinos
Lauren Saria
Los Dos Molinos just might be the king of all neighborhood Mexican joints. It's festive, with glossy blue walls, shiny red chile peppers hanging from the ceiling, and loud music; reasonably priced; and, of course, delicious. The menu covers basics like tacos, enchiladas, and tamales, and the house specialties are unforgettable: adovada pork ribs marinated in red chile; fall-apart-tender pork carnitas, slathered in melted cheese; and, if you feel like playing with fire, New Mexican red chile or Hatch Valley green chile plates. It's pretty much everything you'd want close to home, but what's so remarkable about this popular spot is how many people will go out of their way to eat here. From the looks of all the prominently displayed national magazine write-ups about Los Dos, folks don't just come here from all corners of the Valley, but all corners of the country, too. Talk about cravings!

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD MEXICAN RESTAURANT, WEST VALLEY

Garcia's Las Avenidas

Garcia's Las Avenidas
Timur Guseynov
It's amazing what can spring from a humble taco stand. Fifty years ago, Olivia and Julio Garcia started small, dishing up home cooking out of a tiny spot with only two picnic tables for seating. Over the years, the business took on new life as the Garcias opened more restaurants, expanding into a well-known chain. Eventually, the family sold their interest in it, but their legacy continues at the original Garcia's, a magnet for Mexican food fans in the West Valley. Portions here are generous, and prices are downright cheap. We're partial to the luscious green chile enchilada and spicy, roasted chile relleno, but the menu also boasts tostadas, tamales, tortas, and (on weekends) homemade menudo. The place is so popular that there can be a bit of a wait, but turnover's fast, thanks to several spacious dining areas. Decor is cute and cheerful, with mural paintings and framed pictures, and the main room resembles a tiny Mexican town square. Indeed, Garcia's has come a long way from two picnic tables.
Owner Mayela Vargas named El Peasco Mexican Kitchen after a tiny town in Chihuahua, Mexico, where her parents were born, and the hometown spirit shows. There's a village of miniature adobe homes on display in the middle of the room, murals of plants and pottery on the walls, and upbeat norteo on the stereo. Instead of chips, diners are presented with warm tortillas to scoop up a light, tangy green tomatillo salsa, flecked with soft bits of avocado and cheese. If you do order chips, though, try the slightly spicy red salsa, which is thick and tomatoey. (Both the red and green salsas took home second-place awards at the 2006 Southwest Salsa Challenge.) House specialties include carne asada del Peasco, coated in a complex blend of seasonings that evoke the fire of chorizo; shrimp enchiladas blanketed in a creamy sauce of green chile peppers and onion; and El Peasco burro, filled with moist white-meat chicken, lightly fried, and ladled with slightly spicy cream cheese sauce. And the family-style dinners, only available from the carry-out menu, are an irresistible bargain. ($16 to feed four? Sign us up!) It's enough to make the other neighborhoods jealous.

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD MEXICAN RESTAURANT, SOUTHEAST VALLEY

El Zocalo Mexican Grille

El Zocalo Mexican Grille
In Mexico, if you're hungry and looking for a lively gathering spot, you head to el zocalo, the bustling cultural epicenter of small towns and cities alike, where you can dine at an outdoor cafe and watch the world go by. In Chandler, if you're hungry and looking for a lively gathering spot, you head to this charming restaurant, situated on San Marcos Place, the city's own version of a town square. The atmosphere is stylish, service is friendly, and there's even outdoor seating on the romantic, plant-filled back patio. As for the menu, there's plenty to choose from casual eats like the generously sized carne asada torta, served on fresh, crisp bread, as well as dinner plates like the chicken mole, which is so luscious you'll be licking up every last drop with the help of hot, chewy tortillas. On Friday and Saturday nights, diners are treated to live music. No wonder there's often a line to get in.

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD MEXICAN RESTAURANT, SCOTTSDALE

El Molino Mexican Cafe

El Molino Mexican Cafe
Old Town Scottsdale isn't the first neighborhood that comes to mind for inspired Mexican food, which is why this unassuming, cheerful spot is such a pleasure to discover. Unlike glitzier restaurants a stone's throw away, where cocktails and cleavage compete with the eats, El Molino is all about the menu, full of scrumptious family recipes that've kept this place in business since 1937. There's a lot to choose from tacos, chimichangas, enchiladas and more. You can hardly go wrong. We like Nana Rosa's Special, a quesadilla roll of green chile, tender beef, and gooey cheese that melts in your mouth; and the El Molino Burro Supreme with machaca, a huge portion with a pleasingly spicy kick. El Molino's tamales (available in green corn or red beef) are wonderful, too, with sweet, delicate filling that's moist even without bitefuls of rich enchilada sauce. The best thing is, El Molino also sells tamales by the dozen and masa by the pound. That's right, they figured out we're hooked.
For years, college kids seeking a cheap meal and working professionals wanting a laid-back atmosphere for a break from business have been coming to this no-frills restaurant for irresistible Mexico City-style cuisine. There's no better time to come than Thursdays at lunch, where you can expect to find the joint filled with hungry folks chowing down on the $5.75 chicken mole, which comes with a white or dark meat chicken thigh served with an overflowing plate of Spanish rice, refried beans, two flour tortillas, and a side of lettuce and tomato. The peppy mole poblano sauce is a thick red blend with the perfect amount of zing containing a mixture of chile peppers, spices, and unsweetened chocolate that's not too tart or spicy. You can pig out on the complimentary basket of corn chips and mild salsa, but trust us you'll want to save room. The mole is worth the wait.
Asi Es La Vida
Good thing we love Sonoran cuisine, because it dominates the menu at so many Mexican joints around these parts. But sometimes, for variety's sake, it's a thrill to get a taste of what lies a lot farther south of the border. In the case of Asi Es La Vida, we're talking about specialties from Mexico's central and southern regions. Everything we've tried at this intimate, whimsically decorated spot is delicious (and live musicians make meals extra memorable), but the cochinita pibil slow-roasted pork done up Yucatn-style is outstanding. After one bite of this succulent dish, smothered in tangy, mildly spiced orange sauce, we decided we'll never settle for plain ol' carnitas again.

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