Best Machaca 2008 | Los Dos Molinos | La Vida | Phoenix
Lauren Saria

Do you ever find yourself ordering one particular thing whenever you see it on a menu? We're that way with machaca. And ever since we discovered the outrageously good machaca at Los Dos Molinos — where there's a whole menu full of memorable dishes — we've had to keep returning just to satisfy our cravings. Here, the classic shredded beef dish is impressively tender, with a rich, meaty flavor that stands up to Los Dos' signature spices. This is kicky stuff, for sure, but it's heat we can handle. Better yet, there are three different machaca dishes. You can get it wrapped in a burro slathered in enchilada sauce, tucked into a crisp, golden chimichanga, or spooned onto the machaca pizza, a huge, crispy tortilla topped with tomatoes, red chili, and gooey melted cheese. That last one is our favorite, an entrée-sized appetizer that we'd be happy to devour alone. Sorry, but if you want to eat machaca this good, you're on your own.

Jackie Mercandetti

At this family-owned buffet — brimming with home-style Cuban dishes like arroz con pollo, ropa vieja (shredded beef), fricasé de puerco (super-tender pork), and apporeado de pescado (shredded fish with vegetables) — it seems kind of indulgent to order an extra dessert, especially since there are puddings, fresh fruits, and pastries included in the all-you-can-eat spread. But seriously, who can say no to flan this good? Not us, now that we crave this creamy dessert all the time. Sabor Cubano has spoiled us with its superb rendition of a classic. Some places serve flan that's as light and wiggly as a blob of Jell-O (to be fair, we like that stuff too), while this flan is denser and silkier, with a deep golden glaze of delicious caramel sauce. It's sweet, but not cloyingly so, which makes it that much easier to scarf down a whole serving by ourselves. You could argue that this portion is really meant for two, but we prefer to think of it, simply, as more to love.

We have plenty of guilty pleasures, but one thing that makes us feel no guilt whatsoever is an ice-cold paleta on a toasty Arizona afternoon. Sure, you could call them Mexican popsicles, but paletas are truly a class unto themselves, so much more fun than their American counterparts. Flor de Michoacan carries around two dozen flavors, including tamarind, pistachio, and coconut, along with classics like strawberry cream, lemon, and pecan. We're always tempted to order one of each, except that they'd all melt by the time we got home. Better to just grab a seat here and indulge, one by one. Besides, the vibe's just so charming, with giant fruit painted on the windows and walls done up in hot pink and blue stripes. It makes us feel like a kid all over again, which has us wondering — is the fountain of youth perhaps frozen into a pop?

Tirion Boan

Los Reyes de la Torta (translated, the Sandwich Kings) of Sunnyslope reign supreme in the realm of aguas frescas, those luscious-looking fresh-fruit drinks sold on just about every corner throughout Mexico. They're sort of the Aztec answer to the Sonic Sunrise, but without the diabetes-inducing corn syrup and artificial flavoring. For a mere $3.25 at Los Reyes, you can revel in an obscenely large goblet filled with the natural fruit water of your choice. The flavor list seems endless — pineapple, strawberry, cantaloupe, watermelon, mango, lime, orange, papaya, apple, celery, or more exotic horchata (a cinnamon-y rice drink) and oatmeal (we've yet to try the oatmeal, which sounds intriguing). Let your creative juices flow and create your own combo for just 50 cents more. And plan on sharing one of these puppies; they're so big that you'll have a hard time finishing one by yourself.

Timur Guseynov

Truth be told, we'd like to give Phoenix Ranch Market a whole handful of Best Ofs. What's not to love about this cheerful, sprawling emporium of Mexican food? The in-house panadería greets you right inside the front door, with everything from fruit-filled empanadas to Hello Kitty tres leches birthday cakes. The aguas frescas counter hawks a nice variety of ice-cold drinks, including horchata, jamaica, and pineapple punch, and just beyond that is a bustling food court offering hot à la carte items. Phoenix Ranch Market's busy tortillería is mesmerizing — and mouthwatering — to see, while the pescadería and carnicería feature jaw-dropping displays of glistening seafood and freshly butchered meats. (Note to the squeamish: Brace yourself for the inevitable cow's skull peering out from a refrigerated case, somewhere near the steaks and sausages.) And that's not all — there's an ice cream stand and a coffee counter, too. Somewhere in the middle of all this you'll find regular aisles of Mexican and American staples, a reminder that this is still some folks' neighborhood grocery store. For the rest of us, though, it's one of the Valley's most exciting food destinations.

Jackie Mercandetti

Whether we're craving a simple sweet treat or need to order up a festive special-occasion cake, La Tolteca's our go-to spot. It's a given that we stock up on fresh corn and flour tortillas, of course, but there's so much more to tempt us — it's just impossible to walk past the row of illuminated display cases filled with huge Mexican cookies, pan dulce, empanadas, flan, and churros. Something always stops us in our tracks, despite our best attempts to head to the adjacent counter for a burrito. Tres leches cake, in particular, is one of our biggest weaknesses. Soaked with sweetened milk and layered with gooey fruit filling, it's sponge cake with an irresistibly rich, creamy texture. They sell it by the slice, but what the heck — we like the sheet cake version. When we show up at a party bearing one of those tasty treasures, people treat us like rock stars.

Best Religious Shrine in a Grocery Store

Mini Mercado Oaxaca

Ahhh . . . Walking into Mini Mercado Oaxaca recently transported us back to the beautiful southern Mexican state of Oaxaca (before Andrés Manuel López Obrador declared himself the real president of Mexico and forced his pretender to the presidency, Felipe Calderón, to send in armed federal troops to save the city from chaos). To your left, just as you stroll into the small market/restaurant, you can't miss a florid home altar, an authentic staple of most homes and small stores in Mexico.

Amid burning candles, bouquets of real flowers, and charming everlasting flower arrangements that are the specialty of the tiny Oaxacan town of San Antonino Castillo Velasco, stands a large, spray-painted, plaster-of-Paris Jesus, happily dangling an equally large golden fish. Surrounding him are statues of almost every Catholic saint in the book, including San Martín de Porres, Santo Niño de Atocha and, of course, several effigies of Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, Oaxaca's patron saint, not to mention an entire grotto con water fountain dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Gilding the already very shiny lily, for extra spiritual protection, the altar maker has also thrown in a statue and several pictures of His Holiness John Paul II, who beatifically blesses you as you cruise the merchandise.

Best Place to Buy Hubcaps and Quesadillas

Precision Auto

Need a cheap used fender, hubcap or new windshield? No problem, vato.

Broadway Road in South Phoenix has got you covered. This theatrical stretch from about 12th Street all the way west to 35th Avenue has got to be one of our town's best-kept secrets. Just ask Robert de la Torre of Precision Auto. His family's auto store has been around since 1954. The family's shop offers even the most hard-to-find car parts. But if the de la Torres don't have it, just keep driving west to where Broadway turns into a single lane. You'll see people fixing cars on the side of the road where they've probably just picked up a bargain from places like the popular Pick-A-Part wrecking yard (31st Avenue and Broadway). Many of these places sell bargain auto parts at a fraction of the price you might find at any of the chain stores. The best part is celebrating your new metallic treasures with a snack from "Maria's Tacos & Stuff #2" across the street. Fixing your car has never been so tasty, fun, and inexpensive.

You'd think it would be easy to find piñatas in Phoenix. It is. But something special? Sure, chains like Food City and Party City carry a token selection of papier-mâché Disney characters and traditional piñatas, but they're all the same. Time and again shop owners told us that no one local does custom piñatas. Finally, a tip brought us to Arizona Piñatas, a little mom-and-pop shop based in Scottsdale. The downside is that there's no physical storefront, so you'll have to browse online and get your order shipped. Stock designs include sports-themed piñatas, animals, flowers, and the traditional round ball studded with large cones. They also carry pull-string models for toddlers who can't quite handle a bat. For a little extra cash, you can order candy and supplies or request a Disney princess, pink flamingo, or flying pig piñata. So why are these guys really the best? If you want a likeness of your boss to beat the crap out of, Arizona Piñatas will make it.

Don't be fooled by the bland white exterior of the Mexican Arts-Imports building at Van Buren and 24th Street. Inside, ceiling-high shelves are crammed full of Mexican imports from maracas to painted wall tiles and rustic wooden benches. And not just the kitschy souvenir stuff Midwestern gringos love to pick up at Phoenix's dime-a-dozen pottery shops — Mexican Arts has such a huge stock of ceramics (we're talking several rooms and an outdoor patio drowning in pottery) that even other local import store owners shop here. Like a real Mexican mercado, the prices aren't set in stone. On a recent visit, we scored a cool hand-painted mask marked at $20 for just five bucks. Need a marble Madonna? Check. Hand-tooled leather gun belt? Got it. Tequila? Well, maybe not, but they've got a killer tin agave-plant liquor set you can take home and serve it from.

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