BEST NEIGHBORHOOD MEXICAN RESTAURANT, WEST VALLEY 2006 | Garcia's Las Avenidas | La Vida | Phoenix


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.


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.


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.
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.
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.
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.

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