BEST MEXICAN RESTAURANT CHAIN WE'RE GLAD IS A CHAIN

3 Margaritas

There's nothing fancy about 3 Margaritas, a lesser-known, smaller chain than the big guns in town. We stumbled upon it only recently, and were so happy to find it. From the chips to the fajitas, everything was fresh and tasty, with no big surprises, except that we hadn't discovered it earlier. It's a great family restaurant with enough fire on the menu to satisfy a hot-sauce hound, and enough milder items to tempt the toddlers.
Sanchez and Sons
Living so close to the border, we don't have much trouble finding a run-of-the-mill piñata. Even gringo-friendly markets like Safeway carry piñatas shaped like SpongeBob and Disney princesses. But if you want the real deal, not just some assembly-line rip-off, Sanchez and Sons is the place to go. Each piñata here is handmade, and owner Amador Sanchez says his crew can make one in any shape — just give them four days' notice.

The shop used to import their piñatas from Mexico until the Border Patrol became worried about drugs and started busting them open looking for a kind of sugar not usually found at children's birthday parties. Like so many other south-of-the-border traditions, a real piñata is a mix of both secular tradition (hence, the plethora of papier-mâché Minnie Mice and ninjas for sale at Sanchez) and Catholic symbolism.

The seven-pointed star piñata, Sanchez's specialty, is actually a part of the Mexi-Catholic Christmas celebration. The points on the star represent the devil and the seven deadly sins, the goodies inside are blessings El Diablo is hiding, and busting it open releases them. Not into Catholic guilt? Here's another tradition we can all get behind here in the desert: The Aztecs used to fill clay piñatas with water.

Party City
You'd think, here in Phoenix, a really good piñata would be easy to come by. Think again. It took us months to land our "Best Piñata" winner, and at that, the kind gentleman who sold us our red, blue and orange burro admitted he doesn't carry the "pull piñata" model. The pull piñata is popular among the toddler set — kids old enough to enjoy the pleasures of the piñata, but not big enough to wield a bat or even the sturdy wooden sticks most piñatas come with.

We must have been looking in the wrong places, because not long ago, at a joint birthday party for sisters, ages 4 and 6, we spied a super-cute pull piñata out the window, and asked the hostess (a collector of all things vintage, as well as some amazing Day of the Dead art) where she landed the pastel-trimmed piñata, complete with several telltale magenta strings hanging from the bottom.

"Party City," came the blunt reply. "Duh," we thought to ourselves. No need to traipse through Guadalupe when a perfectly good (although not particularly ethnic) pull piñata is right there — in a variety of shapes, sizes and characters — at one of the Valley's largest party store chains.

"Yeah," said the hostess, laughing, as confetti and candy rained down on the kids, who immediately began brawling over the gummy bears. "They call these the non-aggressive piñatas."

At least no one got whacked in the head with a baseball bat.

BEST PLACE TO BUY A QUINCEAÑERA DRESS

Bridals by Ofelia

In Latin American culture, a young girl's quinceañera (her 15th birthday) marks her movement from child to woman. The first thing that delighted us about this dress shop was the coincidental (and, yes, alternately spelled) name Ofelia, which brings to mind one of Shakespeare's most tragic teenagers — Ophelia, who drowned herself for love before she was even allowed to properly date. Of course, the quinceañera is a much happier event, and Bridals by Ofelia specializes in helping teenagers make their coming-out day special.

The shop has row after row of dresses to choose from, ranging in color from the traditional pink quince dress, to bright blues, to white, another common choice. A seamstress is on-site to provide alterations in case your dream dress doesn't fit exactly how you want it to. And if you're on a budget, layaway is available. The shop can also provide help with floral arrangements and invitations. Bridals by Ofelia also provides tuxedos and less-fancy dresses to make sure all the damas and chambelanes in your quince party look (almost) as good as you do.

BEST ONE-STOP SHOPPING FOR QUINCEAÑERA NEEDS

Quince Girl Expo

Arizona State Fairgrounds
Planning a quinceañera is as complicated and stressful as planning a wedding. You need the dress, the venue, the flowers, the photographer — the list goes on. Fortunately for young Latinas planning their sweet 15, there's Quince Girl magazine, a sort of one-stop advice shop to guide the girls, and their stressed-out moms, through the planning process. Once a year, the mag sponsors Quince Girl Expo, where for $5, you can gain access to 75 vendors peddling gowns, tuxedos, invitations, and even pillows to help plan the perfect party. Consultants — like wedding planners for the teen girl population — are on hand to offer advice to make sure the ceremony is put together perfectly. Even more helpful, all presentations and events, including the annual fashion shows, are presented in both Spanish and English.

BEST WAY TO DRESS FOR IMMIGRATION REFORM

Ch.A.L.E. Clothing

Ch.A.L.E. stands for Chicanos Achieving Latino Equality, and founder Leticia Almezaga certainly gets the point across with the sloganized T-shirts and accessories for sale on her Web site. The online clothing shop based in Phoenix was born around the same time as Almezaga's daughter, when she needed a way to support herself. The shop is bursting with pride por la raza — one shirt reads "Planet of the Aztecs" (in Planet of the Apes lettering) and another simply says "Decolonize." Other slogans are a little more light-hearted, like: "powered by frijoles." There's a special section for the Chicana mama and her mijos — for $14, your "little brown babes" can show their pride in a "Latina" romper or a "chula" bib.

But Ch.A.L.E. is more than just an online retailer. An entire community of Phoenix Latinos has sprung up around it — especially women. The site's message boards are full of dichos (advice, gringos, advice) for new Chicana mothers, and the small company sponsors events in support of the Mexican and Mexican-American community. Almezaga is one mujer revolucionaria, and we love it.

Metrocenter Mall
Sorry for the unoriginal award title, but we figured the name of this fashion outpost says it all. Chicano Style comes highly recommended by none other than our own "¡Ask A Mexican!," Gustavo Arellano. "The Mexican" hails from Orange County, and, as it turns out, so do the Chicano Style peeps, who've set up their first shop outside California at our own Metrocenter. From low-rider brim hats to "Brown is Beautiful" T's to Cheech and Chong bobbleheads for the less discerning customer, you can find it in style at Chicano Style.
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.

Best Of Phoenix®

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