Best Mariscos 2009 | Mariscos Playa Hermosa | La Vida | Phoenix
Lauren Cusimano

Yeah, yeah, we know we're giving away one of central Phoenix's best-kept secrets here, but more people need to know about this splendid little nook. Who knows how many people drive right by Mariscos Playa Hermosa's humble storefront without knowing how charming it is inside — friendly service, a full bar, and colorful, tropical décor? Even more appealing is the presentation of the seafood dishes here. Everything's lavishly served with limes and avocado slices and fresh vegetables, almost too pretty to eat. But eat we will — zingy camarones culichi in a punchy tomatillo sauce, tender red snapper in a heady garlic sauce, tostadas heaped with cold ceviche, and beautiful cocteles brimming with shrimp, oysters, and octopus in cilantro-tinged tomato broth. It's a refreshing taste of the ocean, right in the middle of the city.

Courtesy of Deseo

Once you get a taste for ceviche, you'll find that it's as habit-forming as sushi. Although this fish isn't quite raw, you see — it's gently marinated in citrus juice for a little extra zing. And Deseo's got the most creative ceviche in town, thanks to the wizardry of chef Douglas Rodriguez (a James Beard Award winner considered by many to be the inventor of "Nuevo Latino" cuisine), who developed the menu. Deseo offers nine different spins on ceviche, including ahi tuna with candied citrus, lime sorbet and mustard oil, and lobster escabeche with avocado, chives, aji, and chips. Our favorite is the "Millionaire Tacos," with lobster, ahi, and hamachi on tiny yuca tacos. We're not sure how the dish got its name, although we do feel like we've hit the jackpot when we eat it.

The 99-cent fish taco night at Las Glorias Grill in Phoenix is a long-standing and deservedly popular Wednesday tradition. The tender whitefish is grilled rather than deep-fried, then folded inside a warm corn tortilla, garnished simply with crumbly white Mexican cheese, lettuce, and a surprisingly light sauce. Two or three will fill you right up. A Corona or two at a buck-fifty a pop, and a decent tip for the very friendly servers and, what, you're out a whopping $7. We promise, you'll be back for more next time you're near the neighborhood.

Before you yawn at the thought of eating a quesadilla — one of the most run-of-the-mill Mexican dishes around and, perhaps, the most frequently gringo-ized — we want you to think beyond the generic cheesy creation that's stuck in your head. Think of something more substantial, with a savory masa crust around chicken and cheese filling. Imagine the whole thing slathered in tomatillo sauce, piled with shredded lettuce and crumbles of cotija. And now think of sinking your teeth into that. It doesn't sound like a quesadilla at all, really, but it's just a regional Mexican specialty. Like so many other tasty dishes at Huauchinango, the quesadillas are cooked in the style of Puebla, in Central Mexico. Different is delicious, and Huauchinango is proof.

Si Señor really brings the heat. An Arizona spin-off of the Castillo family's restaurant in New Mexico, this place specializes in tantalizingly tongue-searing dishes that put our neighboring state's famed Hatch chiles to good use. Free chips and homemade salsas get your taste buds primed, but prepare to rev things up even more with the spicy, luscious red chili con carne. Sure, it's hot, but it's got a complex, roasted chile flavor that shines, accented by chunks of melt-in-your-mouth pork. (If you want to go nuclear, order the chunky green chili con carne; it's just as addicting.) Cool off between bites with a refreshing, unusual sangria margarita (a house specialty), and you could ride the heat wave all day.

Jackie Mercandetti Photo

There's something about Rito's that feels like an insiders' club — maybe it's the lunchtime line snaking out the door or the complete lack of signage on the building, which is off the beaten path in a central Phoenix neighborhood. And, indeed, there is a very special secret about this place, although it's one we share with everyone who loves good Mexican food. It's the unforgettable green chili burro, packed with tender chunks of pork. Wrapped in a fresh tortilla, it's comfort food at its best. But there's something else you should know about it: Be careful when you take your first bite, or you'll wind up with green chili all over your shirt. And then you definitely won't look like an insider.

The unforgettable carne adovada at Los Dos Molinos is doubly seductive — slow-cooked, melt-in-your-mouth pork combined with the heat of red chile marinade. What's the kitchen's secret? It uses New Mexico red chiles, whose distinctively rich flavor takes the dish to a whole new level. If you're impatient to get a taste of it, the easiest plate-to-mouth delivery method is a Los Dos burro, neatly wrapped in a fresh flour tortilla. But if you have the time and appetite to splurge on a mountain of fork-tender pork, order the adovada ribs. They're a house specialty here, and they're so good that we can hardly shut up about them (unless we're in the middle of eating them, of course).

Jackie Mercandetti

Thanks to La Barquita's lengthy, covers-all-the-bases menu, there are plenty of reasons to stop by this affordable, no-frills neighborhood joint on McDowell. From crispy chicken-stuffed flautas to chile verde with pork to mouth-searing camarones rancheros (shrimp in spicy ranchero sauce), there's a dish for just about any craving. The real reason we come here, though, is to eat a dish you just can't find anywhere: birria. To put it less eloquently, in English, it's goat meat. The way La Barquita serves it up is al estilo La Barca, Jalisco — that is, Jalisco-style. Cooked until it's falling off the bone and served in its own lightly spiced juices, the meat comes with steaming tortillas, diced onion, fresh cilantro, lime wedges, and hot sauce. No rice, no beans, no distractions. Just how we like it.

We doubt many folks would drool over any menu description that mentions corn smut, because it sounds like something gnarly that Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern would seek out on his Travel Channel show. But call this fungus by its Nahuatl name, as they do in Mexico, and it has quite an appetizing ring to it: huitlacoche. This is the magic ingredient in Sierra Bonita Grill's scrumptious mini-quesadillas, with menonita cheese, spinach, and huitlacoche wrapped in fragrant corn tortillas. Pico de gallo and black bean and hominy relish make tasty embellishments, but we prefer them plain — the better to savor the mushroom-y taste of these "Mexican truffles."

The Salvadoran specialty called a pupusa is one of our all-time favorite budget eats, usually ringing up at about two dollars each. But that's hardly the reason we can't resist 'em. Truth is, they're so satisfying to sink our teeth into — thick corn masa patties filled with cheese and other flavorful ingredients, like black beans, pork, or loroco, an edible flower native to El Salvador that tastes sort of like broccoli or dark leafy greens. Restaurante Salvadoreño's pupusas, fresh off the griddle, have a light, toasty crispiness on the outside and just the right amount of gooey melted cheese inside. We dare you to eat only one.

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