Arizona Historical Society Museum

Arizona is now embracing its Mexican roots big-time, especially around the time of Día de los Muertos, an ancient Mexican tradition that marries pre-Columbian social ritual to 16th-century Spanish Catholicism. The raucous result is a less-than-somber celebration devoted to honoring the dearly departed by annual graveyard cleaning and partying all night next to one's buried kin.

Probably the best part of this four-day holiday is the elaborately decorated ofrendas, or home offering tables, decked out with family photos, flowers, sugar skulls and candles. They're created to present tidbits of the departed's favorite food, drink, and even smokes, to lure lost souls back to Earth for the evening.

Last year, the Calaca Cultural Center collaborated with the Arizona Historical Society Museum on its fourth annual Día de los Muertos Altar and Art Exhibition, which showcases altars built by artists and community members (check Calaca's Web site for details about this year's "Call for Altars"). The museum displayed the ofrendas and invited the public to add to a large, four-sided altar. If you're into spectacle and religious rites, or are just enamored of all things Mexican, don't miss this sensory-overloading celebration at AHS Museum, which also includes an opening complete with food, entertainment, and purveyors of Mexican folk art.

Best Place to Snag Day of the Dead Stuff

Mesa Arts Center

Mesa Arts Center

Give the dead their due and buy cool stuff, too, at the Día de los Muertos Celebration held at Mesa Arts Center in downtown Mesa. This annual Day of the Dead extravaganza, usually mounted as close to November 1 and 2 as possible (the dates conveniently coincide with All Souls' and All Saints' days on the Catholic liturgical calendar), boasts a two-day Mexican folk art mercado, a community-built altar (called an ofrenda) and altar contest, family-oriented artist workshops and a special procession with guest appearances by crazed skeletons decked out like José Guadalupe Posada characters.

Free to the public, this fiesta's the perfect place to score fabulous folk art from all parts of Mexico, with an emphasis on all things bony and skeletal. Selected sellers from various parts of town converge to offer convenient, one-stop shopping for choice Mexican handicrafts, including ceramics, papier-mâché and carved wood from Jalisco, Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca, and other Mexican folk-art-producing areas, not to mention Mexican-inspired items made right here in Arizona. And don't forget to check out the Day of the Dead items stocked by The Store at Mesa Arts Center when you're not shopping and stuffing your face with homemade tacos. Check the center's Web site for exact days and event times for this year's festivities.

Dr. A.J. Chandler Park

Kids never seem to have an issue with things from which adults often recoil in horror. Like death, for example. So don't hesitate to take your offspring to Chandler's annual Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead Celebration and Festival, a free, kid-friendly fiesta put on by Xico Inc. (formerly Xicanindio del Artes of Mesa), Vision Gallery and the Calaca Center (boy, do they get around) in Chandler Park.

Besides the predictable altars and a late-afternoon processional that ends in a blessing of the altars on display, this festival boasts Mexican music and dancing; last year, we saw house-rockin' performances by well-known mask maker Zarco Guerrero, traditional Mexican folk dances, mariachi numbers and the muy caliente band Barrio Latino. And, por supuesto, there are plentiful folk-art shopping opportunities and fabulous fiesta foods at bargain prices.

But the real enticement for kids is the festival's Vision Kidz areas, where they can make their own sugar skulls, calacas (skeletons) and papel picado (colorful tissue paper cutouts, a staple of any Mexican fiesta). We hope and pray they'll repeat last year's riveting puppet epic "Funny Bunny's Day of the Dead Holiday Adventure," staged by Great Arizona Puppet Theater. Even the vendors here are kid-oriented, offering colorful handmade Mexican toys (some obviously made in China) and candies for under a buck.

Best Authentic Mexican Dining Experience

Tradiciones

Fiesta Grill
Jackie Mercandetti

It's hard not to get excited about going to Tradiciones, because visiting this central Phoenix eatery is almost as good as taking a mini-vacation to Mexico. From street tacos and mini-chimis to lomo azteca (pork tenderloin in chipotle cream sauce), chicken in mole sauce, and plump camarones a la diabla (shrimp in fiery chipotle-red chile sauce), the dishes are as delicious as they are beautifully presented. The bar makes some knockout margaritas, too. And beyond the culinary offerings, there's plenty of eye candy to feast on. Out in the courtyard, there's a water fountain, vendors selling pottery and other Mexican imports, and a huge outdoor grilling area, which fills the air with mouthwatering smells of sizzling carne asada and grilled vegetables. Inside, rustic hacienda-style décor creates a festive atmosphere, while waitresses dress the part in colorful skirts and ruffled tops. And if you go during peak hours, you might even catch a live performance by mariachis in traditional garb. It's a fun, family-friendly experience that will put a smile on your face — and you don't need a passport to get there.

Best Authentic Mexico City Dining Experience

Plaza Grill

Okay, so it may not be Mexico City's posh, post-industrial minimalist dining mecca, Aguila y Sol, nor its Centro Historico's charming, pre-Columbian-inspired eatery, Los Girasoles. But Plaza Grill in north Phoenix is the place you want to head for if you're craving real Mexican food that tastes like, well, real food from Mexico, served with an elegant flourish on white tablecloths tastefully decorated with little vases of fresh flowers.

No Velveeta cheese crisps here. And don't be put off by the fact that Plaza Grill is in a rundown strip mall across from a screaming yellow pawn shop that orders people whizzing by to "Park and Pawn." Despite its low profile, this place features well-executed regional Mexican staples, like Yucatecan cochinita pibil, fork-tender pork slowly cooked in a citrus/garlic/achiote broth, and sea bass prepared al estilo de Veracruz, with fresh tomatoes, lots of garlic, peppers, onions and olives. Here, chicken mole poblano, a specialty of Puebla, is classically redolent of chilis and chocolate, as it should be, while the camarones al mojo de ajo, jumbo Guaymas shrimp backstroking in a divine garlic sauce, takes us back to dining on the beach in Baja. We also adore the freshly made guacamole, probably the best we've ever had, which is tangy with key limes, as well as Gil, Plaza Grill's omnipresent maitre d'/solicitous server extraordinario, who will never forget you once you've been here.

Ask to be put on Chef Luis Mata's list for his monthly multi-course prix fixe dinner, expertly paired with appropriate wine selections for each course.

One month Mata mixed it up, going solely Spanish, then followed that the next month with Mediterranean (including a Portuguese bacalao appetizer and an unforgettable Italian risotto) — we're still licking our chops and waiting for the next installment.

Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, Central Phoenix

Rosita's Place

Rosita's Place
Sarah Whitmire

Visiting Rosita's Place is like visiting an old friend — a friend who loves nothing more than to make us fat and happy. Just setting foot in this place is enough to make us smile, thanks to a citrus-bright color scheme, paintings and framed photos with an Old Mexico feel, and the soothing sounds of water cascading into a tiny fishpond near the front counter. Of course, we're not truly content until we can dig into a big plate of homestyle Mexican food.

Usually, the only thing that separates us from our feast is our own indecision, as the menu's full of too many temptations. Juicy machaca? Moist chicken with mole sauce? Or how about an enchilada smothered with green chile and melted cheese? We go with something different every time (except for the flan, a must on every occasion). Luckily, thanks to splendidly cheap prices, we visit Rosita's Place pretty often. That's what friends are for, right?

Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, South Phoenix

Poncho's

Poncho's Mexican Food and Cantina

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

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

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

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 Of Phoenix®

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