BEST TORTILLAS 2007 | Carolina's | La Vida | Phoenix
Sarah Whitmire
We've given Carolina's "Best Tortillas" more times than we can count, but don't assume we're being lazy just because we're giving them the honor again. Seriously, we spend all year thinking about tortillas, comparing the offerings at every Mexican place we visit to the hot, homemade beauties we find here.

Indeed, there are lots of tasty tortillas in these parts, but Carolina's are still the gold standard. They're thin and stretchy and almost delicate, but big and firm enough to hold a gut-busting amount of machaca or chorizo and beans without exploding after one bite. Beyond that, they're irresistible on their own. While hundreds of Mexican joints in the Valley look for new ways to dress up their tortillas, Carolina's is doing just fine, thank you, selling them plain. When they're fresh off the griddle, you'll want to eat them by the bagful.

The first time we ordered a quesadilla at this downtown Tempe eatery, we had to do a double-take when it arrived with our meal — it was unlike any we'd ever seen. Usually, we have some kind of melted cheese-and-tortilla thing in mind.

But at Restaurant Mexico, where the menu focuses on Mexico City-style dishes, the kitchen has a lighter touch with everything. As for the quesadillas, they're made with fresh masa (corn dough) that's deep-fried and filled with spicy chorizo or beef picadillo, a far cry from the typical rendition you see in these parts.

Nowadays, Restaurant Mexico is the only place we can really get our quesadilla fix. Shame to think the place almost went under with all the development going on in Tempe. But earlier this year, it moved into new digs on Mill, its fourth location in more than 30 years of business. We couldn't be happier to see this institution stick around — and from the looks of all the hungry patrons chowing down there at lunchtime, we know we have plenty of company.

What makes the green corn tamales at El Bravo so addicting? Is it the moist, sweet masa, or the creamy, tangy green sauce? We're not sure, but we know that every time we visit this cheerful, family-run nook, we can't resist ordering one. The menu's filled with other temptations, too — like burros made with thin, homemade tortillas, and a unique, house-specialty machaca made with dried beef and eggs — but we can always save room for a tamale. And now that El Bravo has a second location in Sky Harbor's Terminal 4, we're psyched that we can stuff our faces before boarding our next flight.
Tirion Boan
Sooner or later, you're going to blow your diet, so you might as well come to Los Reyes de la Torta and enjoy every guilt-inducing bite of their gargantuan Mexican sandwiches. There's hardly anything here for vegetarians, but if you're a meat lover, you'll get a week's worth of protein (not to mention calories) stuffed into one big bun. Can't decide between breaded beef, pork sirloin, ham, or chorizo? Well, let the namesake torta del rey make things easy for you. The thing's layered with all that and more: refried beans, melted cheese, eggs, avocado, jalapeño, tomato, and onion. It sounds like a lot to bite into — and it is — but what's shocking is how easily you can sink your teeth into one. The lightly grilled bread is fluffy and moist, and the thinly sliced meats are remarkably tender. You'll scoff at how big these tortas are, until you find yourself polishing one off, slurping on some pineapple juice, and rubbing your belly like one happy Buddha — or the Latin equivalent.
Katie Walter
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.

Close your eyes, pretend the sound of cars passing by on McDowell is actually waves crashing on the shore of the Sea of Cortez, and let your taste buds take a beach vacation at San Carlos Bay, where you'll find the finest Sonoran-style seafood in town. Perfectly cooked shrimp dishes are plentiful here. No matter what you're craving, the menu has something for every mood, from tangy culichi-style shrimp, to fiery endiablados shrimp, to shrimp sautéed with octopus, onions, celery, and jalapeños in a light garlic sauce, served on a bed of French fries. (It sounds strange, but boy, is it tasty.) For something dramatic, try the snapper Veracruz, a whole fried fish blanketed in a chunky sauce of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and olives. And on a hot day, nothing will cool you down like San Carlos Bay's famous seven seas cocktail, with plump oysters, clams, squid, shrimp, and octopus in a chilled, cilantro-flecked tomato broth. It's the next best thing to seaside dining.
A downside of most Mexican restaurants in the Valley is menu fatigue. We love classic Sonoran dishes, but sometimes a break from tradition is just what we're craving. At times like those, we head to Padre's, where Mexican food comes with a twist.

For starters, we're hooked on the lobster thermidor quesadilla, and lately we can't resist the cilantro mousse with chips, which makes an addicting accompaniment to one of Padre's top-notch margaritas. As for entrees, duck breast tacos with tomatillo salsa are a fine alternative to ubiquitous carne asada tacos (of course, they have those, too), and the pollo relleno — chicken breast stuffed with poblanos, goat cheese, caramelized onions and corn, and slathered in poblano cream sauce — is a guilty pleasure. Well, maybe not that guilty — we've ordered it too many times to count.

Allison Young
A lot's been written about chef-owner Silvana Salcido Esparza's creative, contemporary Mexican fare, from the fresh guacamole with pomegranate seeds, prepared tableside, to her hauntingly delicious cochinita pibil, fork-tender pork that's been slow-cooked for 12 hours.

Indeed, we still think Barrio Café is worthy of every "Best of" we've given it. But brunch here is still — 'til now, anyway — an unsung pleasure, with distinctive dishes you won't find anywhere else in town.

The crepa de chorizo is a dreamy concoction, with spinach, spicy sausage, and queso fresco rolled up in a hollandaise-covered crepe, while the pastel de calabazas con queso, a veggie-stuffed omelet slathered in spicy tomatillo sauce, will wake your taste buds right up. And if that's not enough of a morning boost, try Barrio Café's tequila-soaked version of the bloody Mary, the sangrita. Now that's our kind of eye-opener.



Jackie Mercandetti
When you need to please the kids and the grandparents alike, head to Tradiciones. Heck, you might as well invite your extended family while you're at it, because the colorful dining room has abundant seating for large groups. Ordering appetizers is a snap, thanks to the generous sampler plate, and "La Parillada," the house-specialty platter heaped high with sizzling grilled meat, is perfect for sharing. Besides the accessible Sonoran cuisine, grownups will go for the stiff margaritas, while little ones will love the festive atmosphere — when the restaurant's decorated with bunches of colorful balloons and the singing mariachis stroll past your table, it feels like one big party.


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.

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