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.
You'll find all kinds of just-baked Mexican pastries on display at this sunny little nook, popular with the Chandler lunch crowd. But take one look at the menu, and it's pretty obvious what they do best at El Sol: burritos, which are the perfect showcase for El Sol's wonderful handmade tortillas. Start your morning with a cheap, hearty breakfast burrito, stuffed with potatoes and ham, bacon or chorizo, or drop by for a midday meal guaranteed to satisfy whatever kind of crazy burrito craving you've been having lately. We counted nine different fillings here: red or green chile, pollo or carne asada, shredded beef, shrimp, carnitas, and bean and cheese. Get any one of them fried or enchilada style, or go overboard with the Killer Burro, bursting with guacamole, sour cream, rice, and beans. It's sloppy good.
Bigger than a Dagwood. Taller than a New York deli sammy. Able to foot-punch Quiznos' patootie with one slice of bread tied behind its back. That's a Mexican-style torta from Tortas La Presa on North Seventh Street. Not for the weak of arteries, a La Presa torta is a mountain of mozzarella, sliced hot dogs, fried eggs, chorizo, breaded strips of beef called Milanesa, and at least half a dozen other items, including onions and avocados, all stuffed between a lightly grilled bun called a telera. It's the Godzilla of the sandwich world, a ginormous monstrosity that blows away all the pussyfoot panini in town. After downing one, you'll be so lightheaded from the carbs and protein, you'll want to curl up in the fetal position for a three-hour nap. Chase it with one of the freshly squeezed aguas frescas (Mexican fruit juices), and at least you'll feel better about all the grease you've just inhaled.
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.

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