Los Altos Ranch Market
Timur Guseynov
Are you ready to get juiced? Try the aguas frescas at Phoenix Ranch Market. There always seems to be a long line of thirsty people waiting for a drink at this store's festive kiosk, where employees ladle ice-cold beverages out of enormous glass jars. We're partial to the jamaica (pronounced "ha-my-ka," not "Jamaica," mon), a sweet, tart red punch made from dried hibiscus flowers. It's one of almost a dozen different flavors, including pia (pineapple), fresa (strawberry), papaya, and sandia (watermelon). Since the aguas frescas counter is planted right next to a picnic-table-filled dining area, where families slurp down their fruity concoctions along with la carte burritos and tacos, it almost feels like you're at a real Mexican mercado.
Padre's Modern Mexican
When we're drinking a margarita, we'll pass on that name-brand $30 shot; what we really want is lime so tart it stings, salt that flakes on our lips, a blend of the hard stuff that's not too heavy on the orange liqueur. And after tasting hundreds of margaritas across the Valley, we found that very combination at Padre's Modern Mexican Cuisine, the cheerful bar and grill just west of the Biltmore on Camelback Road. The house margarita a mix of Sauza Gold, triple sec, and fresh lime and lemon juice in a tall glass over ice is just $5, and so damn good, we guarantee you'll beg for a pitcher.
Z'Tejas Southwestern Grill
Yes, it's a chain restaurant. But the margaritas are so tasty, we're betting even the folks at Arizona Chain Reaction have a hard time resisting happy hour here. Generously poured, perfectly blended, and with just the right tequila kick, these margaritas would convince even the most ardent food snob to give the blender a chance. Feeling adventurous? Try a flight, with a trio of excellent mini margaritas flavored with your pick of prickly pear, guava, or even Chambord.
Via DeLosantos Mexican Food and Lounge
Courtesy of Via DeLosantos
Perhaps the only clue that this isn't your average Sunnyslope hole-in-the-wall is the cars in the parking lot: On one recent Sunday, we spotted an Audi, a Beamer, and a Lexus side by side. But there's nothing pretentious or upscale inside this homey Mexican restaurant and its smoky blue-tiled bar, just (very) low-key ambiance and a huge selection of tequila. Ask the bartender to suggest a shot or two; from the clean slickness of a blanco to the peatiest of anejo, these women know their stuff.
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.

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