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.

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.

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