Luckily, in between the two, along with Famous Footwear and Claire's, is La Olla. It's a cubby of a coffee shop, and we would never have found it if a good friend with a taste for all things Latin hadn't mentioned it. The place bills itself as a "Euro Latino Espresso Café," and it was funny to see our lattes and cappuccinos translated into Spanish. We tried the house specialty, La Olla sweetened espresso smothered in chocolate and accented with cinnamon. Delicious, not quite like any coffee drink we've had. And now we can't wait to go back to Christown.
In other words, this stuff is deliciously authentic, and worth seeking out. Whether you're in the mood for rich mole rojo, chock full of red chiles, or a deep, dark mole negro (a spicy, mysterious concoction made with unsweetened chocolate), they both taste great with the roasted chicken, a whole thigh and leg so plump with meat that you'll have a field day scooping up all that mole. And don't worry even after you've picked every last bit of meat off the bones, you can clean your plate with warm, soft tortillas. Can't let a good mole go to waste!
Indeed, there are lots of tasty tortillas in these parts, but Carolina's are still the gold standard. They're thin and stretchy and almost delicate, but big and firm enough to hold a gut-busting amount of machaca or chorizo and beans without exploding after one bite. Beyond that, they're irresistible on their own. While hundreds of Mexican joints in the Valley look for new ways to dress up their tortillas, Carolina's is doing just fine, thank you, selling them plain. When they're fresh off the griddle, you'll want to eat them by the bagful.
But at Restaurant Mexico, where the menu focuses on Mexico City-style dishes, the kitchen has a lighter touch with everything. As for the quesadillas, they're made with fresh masa (corn dough) that's deep-fried and filled with spicy chorizo or beef picadillo, a far cry from the typical rendition you see in these parts.
Nowadays, Restaurant Mexico is the only place we can really get our quesadilla fix. Shame to think the place almost went under with all the development going on in Tempe. But earlier this year, it moved into new digs on Mill, its fourth location in more than 30 years of business. We couldn't be happier to see this institution stick around and from the looks of all the hungry patrons chowing down there at lunchtime, we know we have plenty of company.
We're used to getting variety at Mexican restaurants, but Mi Cocina Mi Pais has won us over by sheer novelty, with a tasty culinary repertoire that ventures much farther south of the border, to Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. In particular, we're enthralled with La Bandeja Paisa, a combination plate with more variety than anywhere in town, aside from all-you-can-eat buffets. This incredible combo includes marinated steak, chorizo, a fried pork rib chicharron, a pile of patacones (unripened plantain fritters), fried plantains, arepas (fluffy corn cakes), rice, warm pepper relish, red beans, avocado, and a fried egg. No wonder it's unofficially considered the national dish of Colombia La Bandeja Paisa is the kind of homey, filling meal that could lull an entire country into a sweet, patriotic food coma. We pledge our allegiance to Mi Cocina Mi Pais.
For starters, we're hooked on the lobster thermidor quesadilla, and lately we can't resist the cilantro mousse with chips, which makes an addicting accompaniment to one of Padre's top-notch margaritas. As for entrees, duck breast tacos with tomatillo salsa are a fine alternative to ubiquitous carne asada tacos (of course, they have those, too), and the pollo relleno chicken breast stuffed with poblanos, goat cheese, caramelized onions and corn, and slathered in poblano cream sauce is a guilty pleasure. Well, maybe not that guilty we've ordered it too many times to count.