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.
Carolina's Mexican Food
Sarah Whitmire
We tried no, make that really tried, just ask our editor to see if anyone in town could beat out Carolina's, the perennial winner of Best Tortillas. Surely, we thought, this sprawling metropolis has got to have a feisty new contender in this category. And indeed, there are some great homemade tortillas to be had around town. But nowhere else do they transform such seemingly simple food into something as sublime as what Carolina's cranks out by the hundreds. Stretched until they're huge and papery thin, these tortillas are served up hot and chewy, fresh off the griddle. Try them with a plate of creamy green chile or juicy machaca, and then grab a bag of warm ones to take home. Actually, better make that two bags. You'll be tearing into these babies before you leave the parking lot.
Mucho Gusto Taqueria & Mexican Bistro
Tamales are tricky. We can whip up a taco, but when it comes to tamales, we have no idea how to get the corn base moist and tasty, or where to begin to make a filling as delicious as the inside of a pork tamale at Mucho Gusto. This Tempe haunt is a favorite far and wide, for innovative Mexican cuisine that reaches outside the box to tempt and challenge diners. The margarita menu is creative as well, and we are most happy with a thick, banana-leaf-wrapped tamale and a hibiscus marg.

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