We used to think cherry slushies were the bomb, until we tried the raspado de tamarindo (tamarind-flavored Mexican shaved ice) at Frutti Sweets, a cheerful little shop that also sells soda, paletas, and ice cream. This sugar-rush-inducing concoction is a potent blend of chile powder, ice, tamarindo, a squeeze of fresh lemon, and a squirt of chamoy (fruity chile sauce), with a few saladitos (salted Mexican plums) thrown in. For extra kick, it comes with a chewy, chile-tamarindo candy-coated straw for simultaneous gnawing and slurping. The result is at once sweet and tangy, with slightly savory hints of spice an acquired taste, to be sure, but a welcome detour from one-dimensional fruit flavors. Consider this a brain freeze with a twist.
La Tolteca
Jackie Mercandetti
Does anyone in this town remember the Guggy's surprise cake? At this point, we're pretty sure we dreamed the whole thing up, but we have vivid memories of birthday cakes purchased at Guggy's coffee shop (there was one at Scottsdale Fashion Square, back in the day when that was still an outdoor mall) made of thick, rich layers of cake layered with sweet frosting and some sort of nutty, chocolaty filling the "surprise." Fantasy or not, we've fulfilled our longing with the Mexican version of the surprise cake tres leches cake at the bakery at La Tolteca. You can buy a whole chicken at the market at La Tolteca, or a great burrito at the takeout counter, but our favorite spot is the bakery, where the tres leches cake is sweet and rich, the cake itself almost creamy, layered not with chocolate and nuts but with vanilla icing and fresh strawberry or peach filling. Tres leches stands for "three milk," indicating the cake's key ingredients: condensed milk, evaporated milk and whole milk. We're sure Guggy's didn't pay quite as much attention to detail (what difference did our young palates know?), and we're happy as adults to celebrate our birthdays from here on with La Tolteca's specialty.
Everyone has a weakness. For some, it's gambling. Sex. Chocolate. For us, it's Azteca's glorious conchas swirled sweet rolls laced with a ribbon of sugary pastel icing. It's hard to go into this bakery and come out with less than a sackful of the light, flaky pastries. Founded by Bernardo Lopez in 1956, Azteca is now one of the largest local suppliers of baked goods. The shop has since been passed on to his children, and now employs dozens of bakers, but the high quality of its food has never changed. Regular offerings include fruit-filled empanadas (turnovers), cuernos (croissant-shaped rolls) and orajas (puff pastry). It's not unusual to find customers with their noses literally pressed against the glass display cases, ogling the bolillo rolls and butter cookies inside. Sure, the place serves fabulous cosido, a hearty beef soup with root vegetables and corn, but who can think about lunch when the sweet scent of pan dulce is wafting from the kitchen?
Whenever a fifth Sunday squeezes into the crowded calendar, Nancy Lewis and her crew of Spanish cultural champions fill their mouths with linguistics and their bellies with delectable Latin food. The group samples authentic Latin cuisine outside of the standard Sonora, Mexico, fare, including the centrally located Havana Cafe (Cuban) and Eliana's (Salvadoran), the West Valley's Mi Cocina (Ecuadorian), and Scottsdale's Pepin (Spanish). In the spring, a group of 35 hungry folks gathered at a recent favorite discovery, Mesa's tiny Restaurante Salvadoreo, chowing on healthy portions of pupusa (thick hand-made corn tortilla stuffed with cheese or meats), fried plantains, and succulent entrees for under $10, including pollo encebollado (chicken with onion) served with black beans and rice. The event is both Spanish- and English-language-friendly, and newcomers are always welcome. Buen provecho!
At Phoenix Ranch Market's new sit-down Mexican restaurant, there's always music. Sometimes it's piped in, but more often, it's performed by live musicians perhaps a band out on the courtyard stage, or a soloist singing romantic melodies from his vantage point behind a keyboard in the busy dining room. The spirited sounds make the festive atmosphere even more fun, and when Mariachi o Trio Alegria is working the crowd, it's an extra special treat to be serenaded at lunchtime. We're accustomed to seeing mariachis after dark, but these gentlemen were tableside on a recent Friday afternoon. Decked out in sharp traditional costumes, these three talented, smiling gents (two guitarists and a harpist) stroll from table to table, taking requests, singing triumphant folk songs, and causing outbreaks of applause at every stop. We're not sure if their performances actually enhance our appetite, or whether they just go well with frosty margaritas. Either way, "La Cucaracha" never sounded so good.
La Casa Del Mariachi
The worst thing a Mexican restaurant can do is hire a bad mariachi band. Imagine being tied to your table, waiting for the check, while the Mexican Hat Dance plays for the umpteenth time. Shudder. We've been there. Thankfully, you won't have that experience at La Casa del Mariachi. Sure, the interior is pure kitsch, with faux tile roofs, candy-colored walls and burro murals. The music is fabulous, though. On weekends, the Salon Guadalajara banquet facility adjoining the main restaurant transforms into a dance hall. Latin beauties in red skirts twirl around the floor as the band's crooner, in sparkling charro suit and sombrero, sings of love and loss. Even if you're a hardened mariachi-hater, you can't help but tap your toes after a few minutes of the lively beat.
Even before reggaeton became all the rage in the Valley, Club 95 was playing hot tracks by reggaeton artists like Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, and Ivy Queen. The station also sponsored various reggaeton nights around the Valley, adding even more muscle to the growing music scene. Club 95's DJs also spin Mexican regional and Spanish pop, but in the past year, the format has become more reggaeton. The "Latino Vibe" is still there, though, and the Phoenix flavor comes through in the Spanglish that saturates the frequency. Club 95 DJs like Mikey Fuentes, Jose El Cubanito, Diamond Boy Luis, and the stunning Jackie Morales are local celebrities in the Latino world, showing up at different station events and promotions, and fielding on-air phone calls from listeners and fans. So despite the fact that Club 95 plays very little (if any) mariachi and accordion music, the station is clearly a bridge between cultures in the Valley, and hands down the most popular station among the young, hip Latino/Latina crowd.
According to author Elijah Wald, there have been public cries to ban narcocorridos, or Mexican drug ballads, in Mexico since the '70s. Baja California jumped on the bandwagon with a voluntary ban in 2002. Even Arizona has considered a radio ban on narcos. Yeah, good luck with that. Often talked about as the cousin to gangsta rap, narcos hide on the shelves of most Latino stores, behind polica-friendly Shakira and Enrique Iglesias CDs. Discoteca de Joyas Musicales doesn't play that game. A glance at the rack offers hard-core narcos from two of the most popular players in the genre, Reynaldo Martinez and Los Tigres del Norte. If you don't speak espaol, you'd better learn some before you shop here. Basic phrases like "how much is this" and "where can I find" are pretty much all you need to know. But for heaven's sake, don't go asking for "Mexican drug music" unless you'd like to get up close and personal with a pistola.
What's a party without a piata? Boring, we say. And what better way to acquire your piata than with a one-stop party shop at Dulceria Pico Rico? This well-lighted, expansive shop on 16th Street, in the heart of what we've come to call Little Mexico, has a wide array of piatas, in all the probably-not-sanctioned characters of the day from the princesses to the Power Rangers and everything in between. We're hoping for a Shrek piata on our own birthday, along with a color-coordinated fete you can find all the purple and green tissue paper, tablecloths, plates and napkins you can imagine. And don't worry about making an extra stop for candy. Dulceria Pico Rico stocks enormous bags of mixed candy. Exciting!
The quinceaera was originally a religious coming-of-age ceremony that declared a young virgin eligible for marriage. Today, it's more like a Hispanic teenager's excuse to party. Yes, it's supposed to be about God, but what would a celebration of womanhood be without the perfect dress? Azteca Wedding Plaza specializes in quinceaera supplies, from frilly white dresses to wax-covered floral headpieces and bouquets. It's not exactly the place you go to be waited on. The staff is largely bilingual and will assist madre with a special-occasion dress, but the quinceaera is usually stuck hefting a pile of gowns to the dressing room herself. Still, we think the massive selection of formal gowns is well worth the extra effort. There are elegant silk sheaths for the damas (think bridesmaids), colorful ruffled A-lines for the modern quinceaera, and rows of white princess ball gowns that symbolize purity and virtue. As for that aforementioned virgin requirement, let's just say the staff at Azteca is smart enough to have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

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