Best Of :: La Vida
Okay, we know what you're thinking. "How much can a restaurant improve on the time-honored taco, enchilada, and chile relleno platter?" Our answer: When it doesn't include any of the above.
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.
On a sizzling afternoon, we've found a way to beat the heat that's even better than a slushie: a Mexican slushie. Made with fresh fruit chunks, flavored syrups, and scoops of shaved ice, they're called raspados and do they ever hit the spot when the heat's starting to make us a bit loco. La Reyna Michoacana, a cheerful sweet shop with shiny white tile floors, bright lemon-hued walls, and colorful fruit paintings along the counter, is our favorite pit stop for this south-of-the-border refreshment, offering raspados in flavors from strawberry and pineapple to rompope, a sweet almond concoction reminiscent of eggnog. Try one straight up, or order it diablito, with ground chile flakes to add a spicy twist. Sweetened condensed milk is another delicious addition, especially with La Reyna's fabulous tamarind raspado. No matter what flavor you go with, just remember you gotta drink up to cool down.
When summertime arrives you know, in early March we start craving Mexican popsicles, known as paletas. This year, we started the hunt for the cantaloupe bars we recalled from last season, but it wasn't easy to find them. We remembered Moreliana's cute packaging (a boy and girl enjoying their paletas) but figured, hey, one paleta's as good as the next so we bought a bag of another brand. Not so, amigas. Only Moreliana's available in pushcarts through the summer, and at various small ice cream shops and bakeries (but not Phoenix Ranch Market) packs their paletas with tons of fresh fruit, so (to paraphrase Willy Wonka) the cantaloupe really tastes like a cantaloupe and the watermelon really tastes like a watermelon. The mango with chile is also the real deal so much so that three of us tried to eat one without our mouths going numb and our faces sweating, but had to give up. Still, we gave up smiling.
There's nothing like an ice cream sundae to satisfy a sweet tooth. Not just any sundae, mind you, but the kind of layered confection that's so good you'll forget there's such a thing as a love handle. With south-of-the-border Coke in glass bottles, nachos, and wicked chile tamarind raspados, too, this isn't your ordinary ice cream shop. Fruitti Sweets is a tiny little spot that scoops up lip-smacking flavors like boysenberry sorbet, and sugar-free caramel praline. Dreamy chocolate and fresh strawberry are among the sugary syrups we can't live without.
We can't skip the whipped cream, and the toppers include coconut so fresh we swear someone's grating them up in the back. They've got your maraschino cherry covered. Just when you thought it couldn't get any sweeter, pink and yellow sugar wafer cookies seal the deal. For less than three bucks, this sundae's so hot it's cool.
We have a very good friend who's a very good cook, and recently, she let on that she's been perfecting a recipe for tres leches cake. We put in an order for our birthday, but 'til then, we will continue to worship La Tolteca's version. Tres leches means "three milks," indicating the main ingredients: condensed, evaporated, and whole milk. All together, you've got one rich, delicious cake, so moist it's hard to tell where the icing leaves off and the cake begins. Dear friend, you have big shoes to fill! We can't wait to see if you're up to the task of matching the fine bakers at La Tolteca.
It doesn't matter if we feast on a platter of fabulous carne asada, or inhale a whole basket of chips with queso fundido or chunky homemade guacamole we always have room for dessert at Los Sombreros, one of the best places in the Valley for gourmet Mexican food. In particular, we're fanatics of the flan, served up in a thick, generous slice. It's almost big enough to share, but we'd never want to, especially since it's paired with Almendrado tequila. What? Tequila with dessert? Oh, yes, indeed. It's a sweet, aged liqueur with an intense, deep almond flavor. Swirl it a little, inhale that seductive aroma, and then take a sip before you take a bite of silky, creamy flan. It's even better when you drizzle it right on top of the custard. And don't worry about getting funny looks from your waiter. He'll be cheering you on until your last delicious bite.
We can't tell you how happy we are that the Atkins diet trend has completely fizzled. For a while there, Mexican pastries were our naughty little secret, an indulgence that we couldn't sheepishly mention without getting dirty looks from our protein-obsessed friends. But now that everybody's back to embracing over-the-top carbs (how else to explain the cupcake phenomenon?), we'll tell anyone within earshot where to go for the most authentic Mexican treats around: Flores Bakery. Planted right in the heart of the Mexican/Native American community of Guadalupe, this small shop is as wonderful as it smells (you can catch a whiff of oven-fresh goodies before you even set foot in the place). And what a selection! We love the pan dulce, the pineapple-filled empanadas it's all good. They also have crusty, golden bollilos (bread rolls), flaky orejas made from puff pastry, and plenty of those three-colored cookies known as golleta bandera. While we're there, we can stock up on basics like salsa, masa, and tortillas, too, but let's face it we're there to satisfy our sweet tooth.
David Pham is a classically trained French pastry chef from Vietnam who runs a Phoenix bakery that caters mainly to Mexicans. Don't you just love America? (Okay, don't answer that. We're sick of you bigots out there!)
In any case, Pham has certainly added a dose of sugar to the local melting pot with the Bamboo Bakery. Initially, Pham focused on croissants and pastries, but as his reputation spreads, he's been making more cakes specifically, brightly hued Mexican tres leches cake and fancy cakes in just about any shape, for quinceañera celebrations. (A favorite: a cake designed to look just like the guest of honor's fancy party dress.) Stop by the store, or check out the bakery's Web site, which will allow you to choose from more than 150 flavors of cakes and fillings. As for designs, the only limit is your imagination, and Pham will do you up right for any holiday.
Since those popsicle pushcarts are, literally, moving targets, when we get a taste for our favorite paletas, we head to this sweet little shop, where the freezer is always packed with cantaloupe, watermelon, and tamarind popsicles. Realeza Michoacana also sells a wide variety of ice cream and fresh fruit spiked with chile, as well as a bakery case full of fresh cookies and breads. But our favorite part of a stop here is the chance to admire the walls, which are painted our favorite shade of raspberry pink, adorned with large, kitschy paintings of the restaurant's offerings. We love the big ice cream cone and corn on the cob on the window, and the basket of the fruit on the front wall. We are particularly fond of the pile of baked goods under the word Panadera it's good to have a visual, since, we're embarrassed to admit, we don't speak a word of Spanish. But the language barrier never stops us from walking out of Realeza Michoacana feeling just a little sweeter.
Why is there always a line at the grass-roofed hut next to the open dining area at Phoenix Ranch Market? Because all those hungry shoppers need something thirst-quenching to go with the burritos, tacos, and tortas they're getting at the hot foods counter, and these refreshing, cantina-style drinks (most made with fresh fruit juices) taste good with everything. Not to mention, the aguas frescas bar here has so many craveable flavors, from luscious papaya to tart jamaica (hibiscus) to sweet, milky horchata, which tastes kind of like rice pudding. Nearly a dozen of them are ladled out of big, barrel-shaped glass jars filled with ice, so they're cold enough to revive you from the withering heat outside. We recommend ordering the biggest size they have you might look goofy holding that huge Styrofoam cup, but it's the only thing that'll last through lunch and a grocery shopping spree.
Hey, have you been to Christown Mall lately? That is one weird mall, dude. You walk inside and there's a Costco. And a Wal-Mart.
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.
Even though mole shows up on a lot of menus around town, it's usually the token Oaxacan entree in a sea of Sonoran specialties. But at Mini Mercado Oaxaca located in the heart of Sunnyslope, where the burgeoning Oaxacan community has earned the 'hood the nickname "Little Oaxaca" the mole isn't just a stand-alone regional item. Here, it's joined by excellent sopes, chilaquiles, tlayudas (pizza-sized tortillas with a variety of toppings), and other hard-to-find dishes.
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!