El Molino Mexican Cafe

For such a tiny little spot, El Molino Mexican Café has a surprisingly large menu — and everything on it is delicious. How do they make it so good? Consider it the wisdom of five generations of family cooks who've passed down the recipes that El Molino still uses today. Its discreet location makes it seem off the radar, but it's actually a Valley institution that was founded in 1937. Fans come here for mouthwatering specialties like luscious machaca and top-notch red or green chile beef, tucked into burros, quesadillas, and more. Another plus about this place is all the stuff available to go, like masa by the pound, tamales by the dozen, and everything you need for a feast at home, from salsa and tortillas to taco fillings. It's enough to make you feel like you're part of a big Mexican family, which is why we love this place.

Restaurant Mexico

You have to give props to Restaurant Mexico for being a survivor in the Tempe dining scene. In more than three decades in business, this humble but determined eatery has had to pack up and move three times (alas, blame it on development). In an area where so many beloved institutions are now just the stuff of legend, Restaurant Mexico's longevity really is something to applaud. But, of course, the real reason it's still around is because of the food, which is pretty novel in these parts. While Sonoran-style dishes are the default at most Mexican joints, this place dishes up the cuisine of Mexico City. That means outstanding sopes topped with chorizo, quesadillas that defy the ordinary (they're deep-fried masa, stuffed with goodies), and plenty of crumbly white cheese instead of the gooey yellow stuff. Students naturally flock here because of the modest pricing, but it's really the food that has a following.

Best Neighborhood Mexican, Southeast Valley

El Zocalo Mexican Grille

El Zocalo Mexican Grille

What a classy little spot this is, located right along downtown Chandler's bustling restaurant row (fitting, since el zócalo refers to a quintessential Mexican town square). Given the airy high ceilings, the crisp white tablecloths, and the rustic tiled roof over the kitchen, you'll think you stumbled into a stylish bistro in a hip Mexico City enclave. There's even a lush patio out back, the perfect place to sip margaritas on a balmy Arizona evening. The menu is just as sprawling — from casual bites like tortas, tacos, and quesadillas to lavish entrees like shrimp chile relleno and pork green chile. And mole de pollo is a must-try, with moist shredded chicken slathered in a creamy sauce of chocolate, red chile, and ground nuts. Trust us, you'll want to hoard the tortillas so you can slurp up every last drop of it.

The Mission
Jackie Mercandetti

It's finally the weekend, and after last night's overindulgence, we need hair o' the dog, big-time. A Bloody Mary sounds like the ultimate cure, so we're on a mission to get to The Mission for a perfectly crafted version of this classic a.m. cocktail (or maybe a mimosa if we have a sweet tooth). Then we can dig into a scrumptious Latin brunch that never fails to make us smile. At this stylish Old Town spot, decorated with chandeliers and dripping candles for a decadent vibe, morning munchies get a glamorous spin. Think corn pancakes with Dungeness crab, cilantro, and smoked pasilla crema; chorizo scrambled eggs with chipotle grits; and cinnamon pecan waffles with dulce de leche crema. In the midst of a long workweek, The Mission's satisfying brunch is the light at the end of the tunnel.

Mariscos Playa Hermosa
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.

deseo
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.

Las Glorias Grill

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.

Huauchinango Mexican Grill

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 Senor Restaurant

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.

Rito's Mexican Food
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.

Best Of Phoenix®

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