We stumbled across this spot while trying to avoid rush-hour traffic (Guadalupe has a speed limit of 25 miles per hour, but it's better than sitting bumper to bumper with Arizona Mills patrons.) And lucky us, because it is literally room after colorful room of imported Mexican treasure. Narrow aisles hold hundreds of glass margarita pitchers, Talavera (that brightly colored floral painting) pots and dishes of all shapes and sizes. We haven't seen a collection of imports this good since the last time we were actually in Mexico.

The Mercado's side yard also holds hundreds of outdoor necessities, from tin fountains to terra cotta planters. Our favorite details are always the small ones, though, which is why we were excited to find a collection of tiny Dia de los Muertos skeletons next to a bin of child-size maracas, and a great selection of those tiny bobblehead turtles that little kids sell on the street in Nogales.

Real treasure-hunters will be excited about the selection of tree bark paintings and authentically painted Casas Grandes pottery, which originated thousands of years ago in the northern Mexico region of Paquime.

El Pueblito
The best thing about carved Mexican furniture is the unfinished style of the truly authentic pieces. The look has become so popular in the Southwest that every furniture store, from Sears to Levitz, offers an imitation. But the replicas are too shiny, too polished.

Not so at El Pueblito. You can run your hands over the huge pine and mahogany tables here and still feel the grainy imperfection that comes from a piece of furniture that's been carved by hand and shipped over hundreds of miles from Guadalajara to Phoenix. You can find similarly rustic Caballero trunks and unfinished clay pots here, where the pieces reflect the rich mix of Aztec and Spanish craftsmanship that defines Mexican furniture-making. The store is small but literally packed with some of the best and most authentic furniture, not to mention accessories — what casa is complete without a carved pine cross to hang over the fireplace? Owners Cesar Serrano and Mario Joya are also willing to accommodate special orders and have the connections south of the border to bring you exactly what you want.

BEST PLACE TO GET OLD MEXICO STYLE ON A BUDGET

Razmataz

Razmataz Furniture Store
We'll say it right now and get it out of the way: Mother knows best.

Okay, happy now, Mom?

True story: We were out and about in Scottsdale, doing deep undercover research for this year's "Best of." (Hey, it's a nasty job, but someone's gotta do it.) And we wanted to round out the "La Vida" section with a place that offers Mexican-style furnishings at affordable prices. We racked our brain and listened to that voice in our head: "Go to Razmataz." For years, Mom had been saying it. For years, we'd said, "Yeah, yeah." It's not that Mom doesn't have great taste and a well-appointed home (two, in fact), but — well, you know, she's Mom. So we tend to not listen so well. Bad habit carried over from childhood.

But we're trying to be better, in our middle age, so we called the old gal up (she'll love that line) and asked her on a date to her favorite spot. She practically glided through the aisles, gloating all the way, and we had to admit she's right. We managed to leave without anything but a long list of items we'd like for our birthday, Christmas, and Hanukkah — like the adorable, rustic, pale green bins, the red dining-room chairs (only $69 each on sale!), the huge black armoire and the gorgeous wrought-iron chandelier. You'd better get over there before Mom goes back and buys us the lot — she's that happy to have been proved right.

Actually, as she pointed out, there are several Razmataz outposts throughout the Valley, which makes the bargain-hunting that much more fun. Every store has different inventory, so you can take yourself on a scavenger hunt all over town. And when we're finally done with our "Best of" research, that's just what we intend to do. With Mom in tow.

Los Altos Ranch Market
Timur Guseynov
We'd like to be jet-setting hipsters with unlimited travel budgets. Sadly, we're just working stiffs with tiny bank accounts. When we're ready for some out-of-town fun without the TSA screening, we head to Phoenix Ranch Market on Sunday for some parking lot people-watching. Enormous grills cook up delectable eats while fantastically loud local radio stations with promotional booths tempt you with contests and prizes. Furniture stores spill onto the street with couches and love seats galore, and portrait studios are all ready to take your picture. Jewelers with their wares are ready to make you sparkle, and a steady stream of families provides the best people-watching around. And that's before we're inside.

Grab some agua fresca and carne asada for sustenance before heading back to the parking lot. Cowboy hats, boots, and colorful clothes abound in an ever-changing sea of people that will make you forget you've never left AZ. Pick up a piñata for a souvenir, and no one will believe you didn't day-trip south of the border.

We knew we'd found the best Mexican neighborhood in town when we heard that Silvana Salcido Esparza lives there. After all, Chef Silvana, as she's known to fans of her Barrio Café, runs one of the best Mexican restaurants in town, on one of our most-traveled paths, 16th Street.

We asked her to share some Mexican favorites in Phoenix, and among her suggestions was this one, for "Best Mexican Neighborhood."

"All you have to do is look around to see that this little corner of Phoenix is a mecca of Mexico City and Oaxaca transplants," Silvana tells us. She points to Mini Mercado Oaxaca, and Los Reyes de la Torta as great stops for authentic Oaxacan specialties and Mexican sandwiches, respectively, and also points to the local Food City's tortilla factory and bakery as must-dos. Beyond that, parts of Sunnyslope (particularly Hatcher) are, indeed, a mini-Mexico, featuring strip malls packed with doctors, dentists, discotecas, and botas de vaquero.

Another of Silvana's Sunnyslope favorites is the Mexican hot dog vendors situated most evenings at Cave Creek and Mountain View, and also at Dunlap and Second Street.

"Forget south Central," she says. "For a greater sense of community, head towards the Slope. The meth-head zombies are gone and replaced by the little Oaxacans on bikes."

The Purple Lizard
This upscale boutique in central Phoenix takes the prize in this category because it offers items we simply have never seen anywhere else. Sure, there's the expected mix of loteria games, Frida Kahlo replicas and Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) figurines. But resting on a high shelf is a collection of true treasures — wood statues of some of Latin America's most-revered santos, hand-carved and painted circa 1930. San Juan and Santa Catarina stand next to each other, 80-year-old paint barely flaking off their faces, sad eyes carved into the wood by some highly skilled hand south of the border. Nearby, the greatest find at all, a large wooden statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe completed in the early '40s, stands guard over a table of sweet-smelling candles. The statues, like everything else in the store, are priced to reflect their value, but they won't empty your wallet. Nothing's more than $300.

The little shop is also packed with clothing — everything from basic floral embroidered linen to floor-length silk skirts, including hard-to-find brands like CP Shades, Flax, and the amazing Krista Larson. Another favorite find was the skull-themed jewelry — all silver worked in Mexico and imported to the store.

Frida Kahlo remains an important Latina cultural and feminist icon for many artists (even after that awful movie they made about her a few years ago), so it makes sense that she's the namesake for this local women's artist collective. The Phoenix Fridas, as you might guess, focus their work around Mexican folk-art traditions, though they go about it in very different ways. The group works with diverse mediums — some women paint, others are jewelers or clothing designers, another works mostly on crafts like scrapbooks and knick-knacks — but they all love Frida and they identify themselves as feminists... whatever that word means these days.

These chicks love Frida to the point that they've even given each other nicknames: Smoker Frida, Tia Frida, Dead Frida, Crafty Frida, Beader Frida, Paper Frida, Frida Bill and, well, you get the point. Like a Latin-flavored sewing circle, the women share ideas, support each other and promote their art. They show occasionally at Paper Heart and their works can also be purchased through their MySpace page. In spite of the slightly misleading title, you don't have to be a Latina to join. You just have to love art and, of course, all things Frida.

About 10 years ago, the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation department noticed a town that was brown. "With Latinos poised to become the majority in Phoenix in the near future," says Carmela Ramirez, "we needed to be ready to help empower our community and stop others from taking advantage of us." Ramirez, along with co-founders Albert Santana and Diane Figueroa, accepted the city's challenge to create an organization that could help the Latino community boost knowledge about health, education, business, and arts.

Now, the Latino Institute's highly popular signature events routinely draw thousands of families — both newly arrived and natives. Every year, the Latino Institute offers a Teen Conference, a Back to School Fair and a large festival celebrating Dia de los Niños. The events are always non-alcoholic, non-threatening bilingual forums where Latinos can ask just about any question on their minds to the people who have all of the answers. Bankers, police officers, artists, teachers, business leaders and mortgage lenders are just a few of the panelists and speakers who show up with information at the Latino Institute events. At least five other cities in the country have modeled similar programs after the Phoenix Latino Institute. Nice!

The competition for Best Bigot was fierce. With the debate over illegal immigration raging, there were so many nominees: Sheriff Joe Arpaio, County Attorney Andy Thomas, Governor Janet Napolitano, State Representative Russell Pearce, white supremacist J.T. Ready. It was hard to ignore Arpaio's illegal immigrant hotline. Who can forget Thomas' novel idea of charging illegals with "conspiring" to smuggle themselves into the country (prosecutions be damned)? And Pearce has had a hard-on for Mexicans from way back. He's the one always drumming up legislation to try to keep them out, like the bill that his political ally Napolitano actually signed to prosecute businesses for hiring undocumented workers. Never mind that it won't work and, in the off chance it could, would cripple the economy of the state.

But the guy who gets the nod this year is Rusty Childress, Kia dealer and coddler of neo-Nazis like Ready. Childress hosted Ready at one of his Thursday-night hate confabs at his Kia dealership, when people who would have been attracted to the KKK in another era show up to blather about how much they hate Mexicans. And the political extremists at the meetings didn't end with Ready. Besides J.T., all but Thomas and Napolitano on the aforementioned list have showed up to entertain the rednecks at Childress Kia. It's Childress who's been the behind-the-scenes puppet-master of the anti-illegal-immigration movement here. And... he didn't have to do it to curry the political favor of the Gomers in the electorate, either. He did it because he's dedicated, apparently, to bigotry. He didn't even let the fact that he has no problem selling automobiles to Mexicans get in the way of his dedication to the cause. We say Rusty Childress is the bigot's bigot for 2007.

While it's moved away from its mostly reggaeton format in the past year, Latino Vibe still airs NYC DJ Kazzanova's reggaeton mix in a prime Saturday spot (8 to 10 p.m.), and its own on-air talent — like the lovely Jackie Morales on weekdays and Raul RocDaHouse on weekends — still sometimes spin songs by the genre's breakout stars like Daddy Yankee, Tego Calderon, Pitbull, and Don Omar. "Club 95" has just been including more palatable pop and Top 40 hip-hop in its play lists lately — Nelly Furtado, Shakira, Eminem — and that's not a bad thing, even when we get to a Ricky Martin and Fat Joe collaboration. Because this is a station that's got spicy personality and isn't afraid to play the new Akon song right before some Kumbia All-Stars. They go with what works, but they also try new things —like DJ Ruben S. hosting Latin Ladies Night at Scorch Bar every Thursday, or posting an online community calendar directing listeners to stuff like Spanish tours of the Pueblo Grande Museum and the International Hispanic Games. At 95.1, the Vibe is bilingual and bicultural, but most importantly, it's fun and frisky.

Best Of Phoenix®

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