Barrio Cafe
At Barrio Café, you won't find standard, Sonoran-style Mexican fare. Instead of delivering burritos served with cheese-smothered refried beans, chef Silvana Salcido Esparza has created a menu of modern Mexican food for the urban masses. Complex and creative dishes like the cohinita pibil are what keep us coming back for more. The Yucatan stewed cochinita pibil is a mass of saucy pork slow-roasted in banana leaves until fork-tender. Sour orange and achiote paste lends the dish a rich earthiness, and about halfway through the cochinita pibil platter we're taking a mental Mexican vacay without even having to renew our passport.
Mariscos Playa Hermosa
Lauren Cusimano
Seafood in Arizona generally is the butt of a joke rather than the makings of a tasty night on the town. Mariscos Playa Hermosa is here to assuage our landlocked fears of consuming seafood in desert environs. The mariscos at Playa Hermosa are fresh and briny (in a good way). Take your pick of scallops, calamari, octopus, shrimp, mussels, and just about any other sweet seafood gem. We recommend the Caldo de 7 Mares (7 Seas Soup), a mariscos smorgasbord of seven different ocean critters. And if you're been searching for a shrimp cocktail just like they serve in Puerto Peñasco (minus the sand), look no further than the tomato-doused, citrus-spiked seafood ceviche. Minus the sand.
Tortas Paquime
Tortas are the Mexi-fied version of a lunchtime staple — the sandwich — with meat, cheese, and toppings piled high on a toasted telera roll. We're not talking run-of-the-mill cold cuts, though. At Tortas Paquime, they specialize in hot-from-the-grill carne asada, milanesa, and cochinita with fresh avocado, jalapeo, lettuce, tomato, and mayo. Make sure to try the Torta Ahogada — it's dipped in homemade chile tomato sauce to really push your sammich over the top. Add horchata or a bottle of Mexican Coke and snag a couple colorful pan dulces on your way out, and you'll be a convert. Subway never stood a chance.
El Nopalito
Grilled cheese sandwiches were generally reserved for greasy-spoon diners and kids' menus. Then we discovered pambazos, a Mexican take on the tired grilled cheese sandwich. At El Nopalito, order a pambazo and be treated to a huge, soft bun that is similar to the telera used for tortas. This bun is then dipped in a guajillo chile sauce that adds spice and a bright red color. Afterward, your electric-red pambazo is filled with salty queso fresco and grilled. (You can request that meat be added if you absolutely gotta have it.) Top your pambazo with some crisp, cool lettuce and salsa of choice, and you have a grilled cheese sandwich that is anything but boring.
Comedor Guadalajara
Meagan Simmons
Leave the tortilla soup behind. When we're craving Mexican soup (caldos), we look to Comedor Guadalajara to spice up the routine. And we mean literally, as some of their soups are muy picante. During lunch, you'll be treated to a complimentary bowl of soup with your combo, but it's the grande-size serving of caldo de albondigas that keeps us coming back. Perfectly spiced Mexican meatballs float in a flavorful broth packed with veggies. Or try one of their many seafood soups, like the Caldo de Mariscos 7 Mares, a "seven seas" soup loaded with fish, shrimp, lobster, octopus, squid, clams, and mussels. You don't need to wait for a cold day to slurp away.
Los Sombreros
Courtesy of Los Sombreros
If we came across blackened, bloated corncobs infected by huitlacoche in the wild, it's doubtful our first instinct would be to put them in our mouth. But to whoever first mustered up the cojones to pop a couple of these nightmarish kernels, we salute you. Los Sombreros follows in these brave footsteps by celebrating the earthy, mushroom-like flavor of these "Mexican truffles." Thin crêpes are filled with sautéed "corn smut," veggies, and queso, then drizzled in crema and pomegranate sauce. The delicate and exotic flavors meld together to create one heck of an appetizer. Try it once and you'll see why it earns its other moniker, "Mexican caviar."
Gallo Blanco Cafe
Robrt Pela
Elote translates to Mexican-style grilled corn on the cob, and it's where Gallo Blanco really delivers. Maybe not to your house, but definitely to your house. Gallo Blanco gussies an entire ear of sweet roasted corn with lime-infused mayonnaise that coats every kernel with a hint of citrus. The layer of mayo also acts as glue for a thin layer of dry, crumbly cotija cheese. A sprinkle of chili powder and a spritz of fresh lime finish off the perfect elote. Sweet, savory, spicy, rich, and tart all at once, Gallo Blanco's elote is something you won't regret trying, even if you will be picking corn kernels out of your teeth for the next hour.
Salvadoreño Restaurant #3
You live in Arizona and, therefore, are familiar with the standard corn tortilla. What may not be as familiar are pupusas, the Salvadoran take on the masa disks — they remind us of corn tortillas on steroids. At Salvadoreño, they offer up some of the meanest pupusas this side of the border, pumped to the max with ooey, gooey meat and veggie fillings. Our favorite pupusas are the revueltas, packed with pork, cheese, and beans, or the locoro and cheese, made with a South American flower bud similar in taste to asparagus or broccoli. Add a bit of mild red salsa and curtido, a vinegary cabbage slaw, to your pupusa and inhale. Then head to the register for another couple of pupusas. It's the right thing to do.
El Tlacoyo
Heather Hoch
Nopales (or nopalitos) are odd vegetables that you can't find at just any Mexican restaurant, but keep an eye out for something translated as "cactus" on a menu and you're in for a treat. Nopales are the processed, green pad of the prickly pear cactus. Instead of incurring multiple pricks trying to make DIY nopales, we recommend hitting up El Tlacoyo to try the huaraches con nopales. Huaraches hail from Mexico City, and El Tlacoyo does 'em right. Order one of these, and you'll be treated to a huge disk of masa fried to a doughy crisp, topped with nopalitos, beans, salsa verde, and queso. There's even a bit of lettuce for presentation's sake.
Asi Es La Vida
While Oaxaca claims to be the land of seven different moles, here in the Valley, we're pretty much stuck with one: black mole. Mexican chocolate, lots of chiles, sesame, and tomatillo are blended together to create a complex sauce that's savory and just slightly sweet. But with well over 20 ingredients and a laborious daylong prep, it's a complicated sauce to make and difficult to master. When the craving hits us, we just head to Asi Es La Vida. That way we don't have to slave over a stove all day to enjoy a delicious platter of enmoladas or mole chicken, smothered in a rich and tangy chocolate-based sauce that leaves us practically licking our plates.

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