Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, Tempe

Restaurant Mexico

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

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.

Barrio Cafe

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.

Richardson's of New Mexico

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.

El Zocalo Mexican Grille

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.

Rito's Mexican Food
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.

Carolina's Mexican Food
Sarah Whitmire

Tucked away on a quiet street southeast of downtown Phoenix, the original Carolina's would appear to be off the beaten path. But step through the front door and you'll be surprised at how bustling this place is; there's usually a line at most times of the day. (To be fair, the packed parking lot sort of gives it away.) Indeed, folks come here from well beyond the barrio to get their Mexican food fix, and not just because it's affordable. It's the killer tortillas that keep them coming back — tortillas that truly have no match in this vast Valley of Mexican restaurants. Why's that? Well, the easiest way to find out is just to taste them. They're remarkably thin and light, with just enough stretchiness to contain a burro's worth of fillings, and a moist, soft texture that makes them equally good unadorned. The fact that Carolina's tortillas are so popular is somewhat of a self-perpetuating success, since the high demand means the folks behind the counter are constantly making fresh ones. And once you get a bite of a hot one off the griddle, we're sure you'll be a fan.

Los Sombreros
Courtesy of Los Sombreros

We don't use the word "dreamy" too often, but that's the first description that comes to mind when we think of the mole poblano at Los Sombreros. The first bite makes us feel like we're floating on a cloud, and the last bite gives us a twinge of melancholy, as if we're a little heartbroken to see our meal come to an end. Here, the chocolate-tinged sauce is velvety smooth, with a masterful touch of spice, and it's served over a filling portion of moist, shredded chicken. We're also fond of the mole verde, served with juicy simmered pork. Whereas the mole poblano is seductive, this mole is sassy as all get out, made with pumpkin seeds and tomatillo. Either way, it's mole so good we almost catch ourselves shouting, "Olé!" — although admittedly that's after a couple margaritas.

Mariscos Sinaloa
Jackie Mercandetti

We have no illusions. Mariscos Sinaloa's blue vinyl booths and colorful, whimsical mural of sea creatures are not enough to fool us into thinking we're anywhere near the ocean. The seafood dishes, however, are beyond convincing. Not only do they look freshly caught — whole cooked snapper seems as though it was just plucked from the deep, and you half expect the pair of shrimp garnishing the seafood cocktail to wriggle their shiny tails — they taste that way, too. Camarones aguachile (raw shrimp bathed in chile-spiked lime juice) are tender and sweet, while the filete especial del chef (tilapia slathered in cream sauce with bacon, banana pepper, and shrimp) is moist and perfectly cooked. Sure, a trip to the shore would be nice, but in the meantime, eating at Mariscos Sinaloa is a beach vacation for our taste buds.

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