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 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.

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