BEST NEIGHBORHOOD MEXICAN RESTAURANT, CENTRAL PHOENIX

Rosita's Place

Rosita's Place
Sarah Whitmire
We couldn't dream up a better neighborhood Mexican joint than Rosita's Place. It's got that been-there-forever charm — with rustic décor, and a bubbling water fountain that flows into a tiny fish pond — along with welcoming service from waitresses decked out in ruffled dresses. The prices are old school, too. This is the kind of restaurant where you can feast for less than 10 bucks, and feed yourself well for around five.

As for the food itself, Rosita's Sonoran specialties always hit the spot. The salsas here are great, and definitely worth the extra buck it'll cost you for chips. Machaca is memorable, too, and you can eat it any which way — in a burro or taco, on a chimichanga, or straight-up, with a pile of warm tortillas. Enchiladas topped with red or green chili sauce, top-notch albondigas, mouth-watering mole, and fluffy, cheesy chile rellenos are just a few of the dishes that've kept us coming back here time and time again. The thick, creamy flan is reason enough to stop by, and the place does a fine Mexican-style breakfast as well. Every neighborhood should be lucky enough to have an old faithful like Rosita's Place.

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD MEXICAN RESTAURANT, SOUTH PHOENIX

Comedor Guadalajara

Comedor Guadalajara
Meagan Simmons
The Sanchez family's South Central eatery has been around nearly 40 years, thanks to tasty Sonoran cuisine and a welcoming atmosphere fit for families — the sprawling dining rooms here go on and on, each one painted a more colorful hue than the last.

Comedor Guadalajara's menu is pretty extensive, too, with burritos, tacos, chimichangas, and a nice selection of combination plates. Try the shrimp enchiladas, draped in a creamy sauce of green chile and tomatillo, or the steak picado, with chopped beef, onions, tomatoes, and jalapeños slathered in tangy red sauce. Parrilladas (heaping platters of grilled meats meant to be shared) are the specialty here; the seafood version, piled with fresh shrimp, lobster tail, mussels, squid, calamari, and a whole tilapia, is an impressive spread. It helps to take a friend or two to help you eat it all, but don't feel guilty if you'd rather stuff yourself silly.

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD MEXICAN RESTAURANT, WEST VALLEY

Pedro's

Pedro's Mexican Restaurant
From the looks of its plain, brick exterior, it's hard to tell how hoppin' it is inside Pedro's, but once you snag a table and dig in to dinner here, you'll immediately get why this place has become a west-side institution.

The Sonoran-style eats are homey and flavorful, and portions are downright grande — the burros, in particular, are quite a mouthful. We like the spicy homemade chorizo and bean version. Pedro's enchiladas have kick, too, but it's not all hot stuff. The chicken dishes are cooked in a mild sauce of tomatoes, chiles, and onions. And if you're a machaca lover, don't miss the stuffed quesadilla, a house specialty. An oversized flour tortilla filled with shredded beef, cheese, chiles and tomatoes, this grilled beauty will melt in your mouth. With so much food, you might take home leftovers, but we guarantee they won't stay in your fridge for long.

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD MEXICAN RESTAURANT, SOUTHEAST VALLEY

Guedo's Cantina Grille

Guedo's Taco Shop
Who knew that a couple of tacos and some cerveza is all it takes to feel like you're on vacation? The beachy vibe at Guedo's is so true to the laid-back spirit of Baja that the only thing missing is the smell of the ocean breeze. Outside, the patio is decked out with palapas, palm trees, and plenty of misters. Walk through the front door, and you're in a happy wonderland of kitsch — there are photos everywhere, colorful painted parrots and bunches of chiles hanging in the front dining room, and Mexican beer signs on the walls.

It's all enough to make you smile, but the food will make you downright giddy. The tortillas here are delicious, the tomatillo and red chile salsas are mouth-watering, and the meat fillings for the huge selection of tacos, burritos, tostadas and cheese crisps are completely addicting. As you'd expect from such a seaside-inspired spot, Guedo's does a great fish taco. A less obvious hit is the chicken taco, with moist chunks of meat in a spicy red sauce. Next time you're antsy for a south-of-the-border road trip, Guedo's will help tide you over.

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD MEXICAN RESTAURANT, TEMPE

Casa Reynoso

Casa Reynoso
Natalie Miranda
Tucked into the corner of a strip mall where Fry's is the main attraction, Casa Reynoso doesn't look like much from the parking lot. Inside, though, it's cozy, with lots of archways, wrought iron, hanging plants, and pottery. Grab one of the booths and take your time with the menu, which showcases recipes handed down through generations of the Reynoso family, based in Globe. Roasted green chiles are the foundation of several star dishes here; go for the green chile enchiladas, a gooey, eggy chile relleno, or the gollo burro, filled with green chile, pork, beans, cheese, and onions. The awesome house salsa is hot but addicting, and the homemade tortillas are prepared daily. Dinner at Casa Reynoso is also easy on the wallet, so go ahead and order another margarita — you can justify this one.

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD MEXICAN RESTAURANT, SCOTTSDALE

Los Olivos Mexican Patio

Los Olivos Mexican Patio
Jamie Peachey
Los Olivos' original Scottsdale location has been around for decades, and it's one of the funkiest Mexican restaurants in the Valley. The quirky blue room, just a step past the lobby, looks like a psychedelic underwater scene, with a big fish tank and a cluster of bubble-shaped skylights that cast a cool glow on tables full of diners. Meanwhile, the main dining room feels more traditional, with the exception of oversized sculptures and planters that add a surreal touch.

If the atmosphere puts you in a whimsical mood, try the Mexican Flag, an eye-catching trio of enchiladas topped with red chile sauce, sour cream, and green chile. Fajitas are another house specialty, served with a heap of colorful vegetables, guacamole, beans, and sour cream. And instead of the usual side of refried beans, go with the frijoles charros — spicy pinto beans flecked with cilantro. At Los Olivos, primo Mexican comfort food plus a fun vibe equals a neighborhood favorite that Scottsdale can be proud of.

BEST MEXICAN CHAIN WE HOPE GROWS HERE

Costa Vida

Costa Vida Fresh Mexican Grill
A good friend led us to Costa Vida because it's become her favorite lunch spot, not only because of the salads on a tortilla (not in a tortilla — these aren't fried; instead, they're layered with beans, your choice of meat, veggies, and cheese) but also because of the free cheese crisps for kids 5 and under. Very tasty — we loved the shredded chicken with black beans. We told the guy at the counter how good it was and that we'd be back, and he said, "Oh, well, we'd be happy to deliver lunch to you at work any time. Just call.

"Um, we work in downtown Phoenix, we told him.

"Oh, is that far?"

Turns out the guy had just hit town, fresh from Utah, where Costa Vida is HQ'd. Here's hoping Costa Vida expands its vision in metro Phoenix, and that someday soon we can take that nice guy up on his offer!

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.

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