Best Tamales to Go 2009 | The Tamale Store | La Vida | Phoenix

We're not saying you shouldn't keep buying a couple dozen tamales from your grandma's friend's neighbor at Christmastime. It's just that you might want to branch out a bit. Year-round, along with its location on Cave Creek Road north of Cactus, The Tamale Store operates stands at several Valley farmers markets (check their Web site for where and when). Sample a short list of flavors, buy a warm tamal or two for a strolling lunch, and stock up on easy-to-prepare frozen tamales in such flavors as chicken mole and blueberry cream cheese. They're the real deal, with corn-husk wrapping and fresh meats, cheeses, produce, and carefully chosen spices. Fluffy masa, no lard, and love and pride in every bite . . . Is there any occasion when a tamal is not the perfect food? No, friends, there is not. And it's not just our little secret, so you might want to call, fax, or e-mail ahead to make sure The Tamale Store can set aside your favorites for you.

Sarah Whitmire

Carolina's is legendary. A Phoenix institution. A family-owned business for more than 40 years. And now, it's bigger than ever. While the Mohave location remains ultra-busy, serving the downtown business crowd as well as hungry locals, and Carolina's on Cactus keeps people well fed in the North Valley, this past year has seen the addition of a third Carolina's, in Peoria. The expansion was inevitable, we think, because Carolina's tortillas make everything taste good. They're deceptively thin and fragile-looking but, boy, do they ever make good burros — somehow, they can wrap up a shocking amount of green chile with beans or chorizo with potatoes in one of the hot-off-the-griddle tortillas. Once upon a time, we're sure that Carolina's had a cult following. But these days, it's a full-fledged tortilla army.

Jackie Mercandetti

We're not sure which is more fun: walking into La Tolteca to catch a whiff of fresh bread and the mouthwatering selection of baked goods displayed in cases at the front of the restaurant, or walking out with a bag full of fragrant confections that we'll inevitably devour as soon as we hop in the car. We're talking huge cookies, macaroons, rolls, fruit-filled empanadas, tortillas, and irresistible tres leches cakes, available in regular sizes and party-worthy sheets. No matter what kind of sweets we're craving, La Tolteca always has what we're looking for. And when we're lucky, it's still warm.

Best Neighborhood Mexican, Central Phoenix

Los Compadres

Los Compadres

We're never too busy to get our grub on at Los Compadres. That's because this institution makes it easy to grab our favorite Mexican dishes to go. Counter service is quick, and everything's packaged to take home, even if we end up snagging a table to eat on the premises. We love the top-notch beans and rice, 10 different kinds of soul-satisfying burros (machaca's a good pick), and anything with their mouthwatering green chile beef. Better yet, the prices are so cheap that we can come here all the time and still spare a couple bucks for an order of hot, puffy sopaipillas with honey. Reliable, delicious, and cheap? It's really no wonder Los Compadres has been a local fave for more than 50 years.

Best Neighborhood Mexican, South Phoenix

Comedor Guadalajara

Meagan Simmons

For as long as we can remember, Comedor Guadalajara has been the place in South Phoenix to throw a bangin' dinner party for all of your nearest and dearest — without the hassle of straightening up around the house and actually, uh, cooking. Once you set foot in this sprawling restaurant, you'll understand why it was made for a fiesta; one spacious, colorful dining room leads into another, and then another. And the menu is all about splurges, particularly the jaw-dropping parilladas, surf-and-turf grilled plates heaped with carne asada, carnitas, whole fish, lobster tail, and more. Other specialties include chicken in red mole sauce, steak picado, and chiles relleno, along with combination platters that cover the standards, like flautas, tacos, and tostadas. And don't worry if you're dining solo — Comedor Guadalajara is so festive that you'll feel like the celebration's just for you.

There's a reason this cozy, family-run restaurant is such a success — it makes gluttony seem not only acceptable, but pretty much mandatory. Love the chips and salsa? They'll keep 'em coming as long as you keep munching. Got a craving for a chicken burro or a crispy chimichanga? You'll gasp when you see the size of one, stuffed almost to the point of bursting. The enchiladas are great, too, slathered in spicy sauce that's lick-the-plate good. But our favorite thing on the menu is so scrumptious that our tummy rumbles at the thought of it. It's Pedro's machaca-stuffed quesadilla, lightly grilled and oozing with meat and cheese. Pure hedonism in every bite. And at Pedro's, that's what they aim for.

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.

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

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.

Lauren Saria

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.

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