La Tolteca
Jackie Mercandetti
We have a very good friend who's a very good cook, and recently, she let on that she's been perfecting a recipe for tres leches cake. We put in an order for our birthday, but 'til then, we will continue to worship La Tolteca's version. Tres leches means "three milks," indicating the main ingredients: condensed, evaporated, and whole milk. All together, you've got one rich, delicious cake, so moist it's hard to tell where the icing leaves off and the cake begins. Dear friend, you have big shoes to fill! We can't wait to see if you're up to the task of matching the fine bakers at La Tolteca.
Los Sombreros
Courtesy of Los Sombreros
It doesn't matter if we feast on a platter of fabulous carne asada, or inhale a whole basket of chips with queso fundido or chunky homemade guacamole — we always have room for dessert at Los Sombreros, one of the best places in the Valley for gourmet Mexican food. In particular, we're fanatics of the flan, served up in a thick, generous slice. It's almost big enough to share, but we'd never want to, especially since it's paired with Almendrado tequila. What? Tequila with dessert? Oh, yes, indeed. It's a sweet, aged liqueur with an intense, deep almond flavor. Swirl it a little, inhale that seductive aroma, and then take a sip before you take a bite of silky, creamy flan. It's even better when you drizzle it right on top of the custard. And don't worry about getting funny looks from your waiter. He'll be cheering you on until your last delicious bite.
We can't tell you how happy we are that the Atkins diet trend has completely fizzled. For a while there, Mexican pastries were our naughty little secret, an indulgence that we couldn't sheepishly mention without getting dirty looks from our protein-obsessed friends. But now that everybody's back to embracing over-the-top carbs (how else to explain the cupcake phenomenon?), we'll tell anyone within earshot where to go for the most authentic Mexican treats around: Flores Bakery. Planted right in the heart of the Mexican/Native American community of Guadalupe, this small shop is as wonderful as it smells (you can catch a whiff of oven-fresh goodies before you even set foot in the place). And what a selection! We love the pan dulce, the pineapple-filled empanadas — it's all good. They also have crusty, golden bollilos (bread rolls), flaky orejas made from puff pastry, and plenty of those three-colored cookies known as golleta bandera. While we're there, we can stock up on basics like salsa, masa, and tortillas, too, but let's face it — we're there to satisfy our sweet tooth.

BEST VIETNAMESE BAKERY THAT CATERS TO MEXICANS

Bamboo Bakery

David Pham is a classically trained French pastry chef from Vietnam who runs a Phoenix bakery that caters mainly to Mexicans. Don't you just love America? (Okay, don't answer that. We're sick of you bigots out there!)

In any case, Pham has certainly added a dose of sugar to the local melting pot with the Bamboo Bakery. Initially, Pham focused on croissants and pastries, but as his reputation spreads, he's been making more cakes — specifically, brightly hued Mexican tres leches cake and fancy cakes in just about any shape, for quinceañera celebrations. (A favorite: a cake designed to look just like the guest of honor's fancy party dress.) Stop by the store, or check out the bakery's Web site, which will allow you to choose from more than 150 flavors of cakes and fillings. As for designs, the only limit is your imagination, and Pham will do you up right for any holiday.

Realeza Michoacana
Since those popsicle pushcarts are, literally, moving targets, when we get a taste for our favorite paletas, we head to this sweet little shop, where the freezer is always packed with cantaloupe, watermelon, and tamarind popsicles. Realeza Michoacana also sells a wide variety of ice cream and fresh fruit spiked with chile, as well as a bakery case full of fresh cookies and breads. But our favorite part of a stop here is the chance to admire the walls, which are painted our favorite shade of raspberry pink, adorned with large, kitschy paintings of the restaurant's offerings. We love the big ice cream cone and corn on the cob on the window, and the basket of the fruit on the front wall. We are particularly fond of the pile of baked goods under the word Panadera — it's good to have a visual, since, we're embarrassed to admit, we don't speak a word of Spanish. But the language barrier never stops us from walking out of Realeza Michoacana feeling just a little sweeter.
Los Altos Ranch Market
Timur Guseynov
Why is there always a line at the grass-roofed hut next to the open dining area at Phoenix Ranch Market? Because all those hungry shoppers need something thirst-quenching to go with the burritos, tacos, and tortas they're getting at the hot foods counter, and these refreshing, cantina-style drinks (most made with fresh fruit juices) taste good with everything. Not to mention, the aguas frescas bar here has so many craveable flavors, from luscious papaya to tart jamaica (hibiscus) to sweet, milky horchata, which tastes kind of like rice pudding. Nearly a dozen of them are ladled out of big, barrel-shaped glass jars filled with ice, so they're cold enough to revive you from the withering heat outside. We recommend ordering the biggest size they have — you might look goofy holding that huge Styrofoam cup, but it's the only thing that'll last through lunch and a grocery shopping spree.
Christown Spectrum Mall
Hey, have you been to Christown Mall lately? That is one weird mall, dude. You walk inside — and there's a Costco. And a Wal-Mart.

Luckily, in between the two, along with Famous Footwear and Claire's, is La Olla. It's a cubby of a coffee shop, and we would never have found it if a good friend with a taste for all things Latin hadn't mentioned it. The place bills itself as a "Euro Latino Espresso Café," and it was funny to see our lattes and cappuccinos translated into Spanish. We tried the house specialty, La Olla — sweetened espresso smothered in chocolate and accented with cinnamon. Delicious, not quite like any coffee drink we've had. And now we can't wait to go back to Christown.

Mini Mercado Oaxaca
Even though mole shows up on a lot of menus around town, it's usually the token Oaxacan entree in a sea of Sonoran specialties. But at Mini Mercado Oaxaca — located in the heart of Sunnyslope, where the burgeoning Oaxacan community has earned the 'hood the nickname "Little Oaxaca" — the mole isn't just a stand-alone regional item. Here, it's joined by excellent sopes, chilaquiles, tlayudas (pizza-sized tortillas with a variety of toppings), and other hard-to-find dishes.

In other words, this stuff is deliciously authentic, and worth seeking out. Whether you're in the mood for rich mole rojo, chock full of red chiles, or a deep, dark mole negro (a spicy, mysterious concoction made with unsweetened chocolate), they both taste great with the roasted chicken, a whole thigh and leg so plump with meat that you'll have a field day scooping up all that mole. And don't worry — even after you've picked every last bit of meat off the bones, you can clean your plate with warm, soft tortillas. Can't let a good mole go to waste!

Carolina's Mexican Food
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.

Restaurant Mexico
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.

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