Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, South Phoenix 2008 | Poncho's | La Vida

Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, South Phoenix


If you walk into Poncho's and think the place feels homegrown, well, you're on to something. Turns out this South Phoenix favorite was raised from a takeout business to a full-fledged restaurant back in the mid-'70s, when the Vasquez family converted their house into a dining room to accommodate a growing crowd of regulars. True to its history, Poncho's menu's full of homestyle recipes, and the wallet-friendly prices are a refreshing blast from the past, too. Many items come wrapped in a tortilla, from enchiladas and crisp chimichangas to burros like the El Crudo, stuffed with juicy machaca and tomatillo sauce. Other specialties include the Tamale Especial — a green corn tamale slathered in green sauce and jalapeño cream cheese — and the gooey, golden fried chile relleno. No matter what you choose, expect generous portions fit for a family feast. And if that Diet Coke just doesn't quite quench your thirst, be sure to check out the cozy cantina in the back. When you see the bar with a string of tiny beer bottle lights overhead, you'll know you've found the right place.

Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, West Valley

La Perla Café

La Perla Café doesn't present itself as anything other than a homey neighborhood place to splurge on tasty Chihuahua-style Mexican cooking, but the truth is, it's a full-fledged Glendale landmark. The Pompa family got this place started way back in 1946, which, in the land of sprawl, makes La Perla older than most parts of the Valley. It's no wonder the eatery's stayed in business all these years, though. Handmade tortillas are a highlight of many dishes here, including tacos, enchiladas, and burros. Eight different kinds of quesadillas are noteworthy, too — go for the Supreme, with machaca, green chiles, sour cream, and guacamole. La Perla prides itself on its cocktails as well, although we can never seem to branch out beyond the La Perla margarita with strawberries. Give us a pitcher of that, and we can handle the spiciest salsa they'll feed us.

Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, East Valley

Rancho de Tia Rosa

Timur Guseynov

Never mind the sprawl. If there's one thing we truly envy about East Mesa, it's Rancho de Tia Rosa. Even if you don't happen to live in this 'hood, Rancho de Tia Rosa is worth a visit, for both its charming atmosphere and its outstanding cuisine. The sprawling, 8,000-square-foot pink hacienda features water fountains, lush landscaping, front and rear patios decked out with wrought-iron chairs and tile-topped tables, and Saltillo tile floors throughout. Inside the cavernous main dining room, where there's a wall of funky brickwork and paintings of parrots and pretty señoritas, rustic tables and booths can accommodate large groups. The food's just as whimsical as the vibe, with playful gourmet spins on traditional dishes such as the Nuevo Chile Relleno, a plump roasted poblano filled with moist pork picadillo, with sour cream, cheese, and pine nuts on top. The grilled pork chop is accented with adobo chile rub and red chile chutney, while the decadent chicken mole makes use of six kinds of chile peppers, 22 spices, fruits, nuts, herbs, and — of course — chocolate. Dare we say, if this place were located closer to central Phoenix, it would attract as much attention as Barrio Café's gotten over the years.

Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, Tempe

Restaurant Mexico

In its three-plus decades of existence, Restaurant Mexico has certainly had its share of changes (ever-expanding development has forced it to pack up and move three times), but one thing's remained the same: its mouthwatering food. And in an area overflowing with Sonoran eateries, its menu full of Mexico City-style dishes definitely sets it apart from the pack. How about some fresh sopes topped with chorizo, or perhaps one of the unusual quesadillas, a deep-fried delicacy made with masa and flavorful beef picadillo? Other options include tacos, tostadas, and enchiladas slathered in tomatillo sauce. You can hardly go wrong, which is evident even in Restaurant Mexico's tasty take on standards like refried beans. Say all you want about "Mall Avenue" — this little-indie-restaurant-that-could, now planted squarely in the midst of Tempe's bustling main drag, is a true original.

Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, Scottsdale

La Fonda del Sol

Sometimes it seems like Scottsdale is home to more sushi joints than good old-fashioned Mexican restaurants, but if you know where to look, there is definitely South of the Border grub to be found. In the case of La Fonda del Sol, it's at the north end of a quirky retail complex on the southeast corner of Scottsdale and Shea, home to a diverse collection of restaurants that encircle an expansive parking lot. Although some of its neighbors might be upscale dinner destinations, La Fonda del Sol is unquestionably casual, more charming for its friendly service than for its atmosphere. But hey, we're not here to gawk at the décor, anyway. What gets us in the door is cheap, satisfying fare like green corn tamales, luscious carnitas tacos, machaca-stuffed chimichangas, and killer combination plates. Come lunchtime, it's even easier on the wallet, with a belly-busting all-you-can-eat buffet for under seven bucks. Nope, you can't find a deal like that at any sushi place, period.

Allison Young

Too many restaurants treat Mexican dishes like diner food — they crank them out quickly and cheaply, and if the stuff happens to be tasty, well, you're lucky. In the hands of a talented chef, though, Mexico's culinary traditions can be downright sophisticated, not to mention surprising. At Barrio Café, guacamole, prepared tableside, is anything but run of the mill, while even the humble chile relleno is transformed by a filling of shrimp and scallops. Chef-owner Silvana Salcido Esparza's a well-traveled lady, and it shows, from Mexico City-style chicken enchiladas topped with tomatillo cream sauce to slow-roasted, fork-tender cochinita pibil (pork with achiote rojo and sour orange), a Yucatecan specialty. Even the desserts are unusual, including goat's milk-caramel-topped crepes, caramel-filled churros, and Oaxacan chocolate cake. With so many luscious flavor combinations and mouthwatering presentations, Barrio Café will give you a whole new perspective on Mexican cuisine.

Mexican restaurants already blanket the Valley, but what about culinary offerings from much farther south of the border, as in South America? For those, you might have to search a little harder, but the effort's worth it. Our favorite stop is Mi Cocina Mi País, a strip mall gem that serves up homestyle dishes from Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia in a happy orange dining room draped with colorful woven tapestries. Here, shrimp ceviche gets a tasty twist, thanks to pickled red onion and a handful of popcorn, while juicy pork tamales come wrapped in glossy, dark green banana leaves. Sample fluffy arepa (corn cakes) or sobrebarriga Bogotana (Colombian slow-cooked beef), and then quench your thirst with a cold glass of sugary chicha morada (a purple punch made from corn, of all things) or pineapple-sweetened avena helada. Desserts like flan, plantain cake, and torta de camote, made with sweet potatoes and raisins, are authentic as well — and too tasty to pass up.

Different moods call for different kinds of breakfast. Some days, it's a greasy, gut-busting American-style spread with pancakes and bacon and eggs. Other times, we prefer something lighter — and kind of French — like an omelet or some crepes. And then there are times when nothing but savory, spicy Mexican dishes will do. When that last craving kicks in, Richardson's always delivers, with some of the heartiest a.m. eats in town. (Although they serve it 'til 4 p.m. on weekends, so don't worry about sleeping in and missing out.) We're fond of the perfect huevos rancheros, smothered in Richardson's legendary New Mexican-style chile, as well as the outstanding breakfast burrito. And carne adovada, a heaping platter of smoked pork simmered in red chile, is the perfect splurge to start the day. Honestly, we can't think of a time when we're not in the mood for that.

What a charmer. We already thought El Zocalo was a neat restaurant with the perfect name (a Mexican zócalo is the town square, and this eatery is situated right on Chandler's own town square, San Marcos Place). But once we discovered the lush outdoor patio tucked out back — something we'd missed when we ate there during the hottest time of year — we were totally enamored. With tables decked out in white linens, red brick pavers, flowering shrubs, and leafy potted plants all around, it's romantic and relaxing, the kind of place that makes us glad to live where the season for patio dining is almost the entire year. And at night, it's lit up with tiny white lights that cast a flattering glow on anybody who's dining out there. If there's any way to look good while greedily snarfing down El Zocalo's insanely tasty mole de pollo, it's in a setting as pretty as this.

Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Talk about a testament to a restaurant's success: Earlier this year, Rito's streamlined its already compact menu — farewell, tacos and tostadas — and it hardly seems to have put a dent in business. Nope, most days there's still a line here at lunchtime, even though this no-frills eatery keeps a really low profile (so low that there's not even a sign on the front door). Of course, it's worth the wait for excellent burros and chimichangas, served up plain or enchilada-style. Go for the red chili burro, with tender shreds of beef smothered in smooth, lip-smackingly spicy sauce; the green chili burro (Rito's claim to fame), filled with moist chunks of pork; or the great beans and rice. It's all homey, flavorful, and easy on the wallet. And be sure to stake out a spot at one of the picnic tables outside, where you can join other happy customers chowing down on one of the best lunch deals in town. After one whiff of the good stuff cooking back in the kitchen, we promise you'll be too hungry to take your takeout back home.

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