Best Elote 2012 | La Carreta de Lily | La Vida | Phoenix

Neither La Carreta de Lily nor its specialty offering is much to look at. The small mostly ice cream shop is packed into a nondescript storefront, and the specialty — elote en vaso — will leave you holding plump kernels of corn floating in a styrofoam cup filled with a hot, gooey mayo, lime juice and salsa mixture, smothered with crumbled bits of cotija cheese and dusted with red chili powder. The unique explosion of flavors is unexpectedly addictive.

What makes this doubly tasty is that the corn is fresh off the cob — no canned corn here — evidenced by the toasted silk tassel or two that might slip into your cup. If the thought of spooning that entire combination into your mouth at once is overwhelming, you can start slow and tailor your elote in a cup — hold the mayo or the aged cheese. Or spice it up with extra salsa or chili sauce. Whatever your pleasure, the ladies working the counter at this elote y nevería (corn and ice cream) shop will scoop up a small or large serving of this popular Mexican street food.

Mark Susan

Silvana Salcido Esparza's new restaurant in Scottsdale's SouthBridge complex may not be what the Valley chef originally had intended (the menu and space have been combined with Esparza's quickly shuttered Silvana Bistro next door), but her gourmet street-size taco concept has remained intact — and that's what we love most. Ranging from the familiar to the exotic, there are 30 varieties to choose from in categories of chicken, seafood, pork, beef, and vegetarian. We like the al pastor with slices of sweet pineapple, beer-battered fish with a spicy cream salsa, the cactus and egg with queso fresco, and a roasted pepper mix with sautéed onions and cilantro. Pop in for happy hour, where two selected tacos are just three bucks, and find a favorite.

Chris Malloy

Of the roughly five gazillion places in the Valley that serve a chicken burrito, this humble little orange building on 16th Street just north of Washington is the one we keep coming back to time and again. How could it be that good? First, the chicken is from a rotisserie bird, chopped up with the skin for that much more flavor. Then, the chopped chicken is rolled up in a fresh, warm tortilla along with shredded cabbage, wonderfully rich frijoles, and creamy guacamole. It's heaven, especially when you factor in the garnishes (spicy, tomatoey salsa, cuke slices, Mexican lime, radishes, and one big ol' grilled jalapeño). This joint delivers the goods on carne asada, pastor, and lengua, too. You really can't go wrong with any of these burritos. And did we mention the price? Five bucks. Exactly.

For 30 years, this Sunnyslope restaurant serving Arizona-style Mexican food has been one popular joint. And with good reason: This is where you take the family for inexpensive renditions of the staples, especially the tamales. What makes them so good? Well, for starters, there's the key ingredient: masa. Here, it's a little sweet, moist, fresh-tasting, and light — none of that super-dense dry stuff. Then, there's the meat, tender shredded beef or juicy chicken. Finally, there are the sauces — including a very good red that covers the beef tamale. It's smooth, rich, colorful, and mild, but also deeply flavorful, as if it had been cooking for hours. But the green sauce is where it's at. Covering the chicken green corn tamale, this tomatillo-based gravy has a nice, peppery kick. And true to form for old-school Arizona-style places like this, everything is covered in melted cheddar cheese. Better give us a dozen of those tamales to go.

Katie Walter

If an omelet arrives on your table at this cute and quirky family-owned Phoenix lunch spot, do not send it back. And, by all means, avoid any temptation to pick up a fork. That's your chile relleno, dude. How to enjoy it best? Simply lift and place the soft yellow mass, topped with splotches of melted cheddar cheese and bright red salsa, onto the accompanying platter-size tortilla, wrap it up burrito-style, and take a generous bite. The reward comes almost immediately: the rich flavor of roasted Hatch chile, along with egg and cheese, and the sting of the tomatoey salsa. It might be the best chile relleno breakfast burrito you've had — and probably the only one.

Forget burritos and tacos — it's all about the pupusas. There are a few places in town that make these Salvadoran specialties, but time and time again, Restaurante Salvadoreño #3 serves the very best. A pillowy, soft outer tortilla sandwiches your choice of filling for just $2.15 apiece. For a unique taste from El Salvador, try the loroco pupusa, which features edible flowers that have a mild flavor similar to artichoke. The carne asada, pollo, and revueltas varieties are meaty and filling without being greasy. All the ingredients that Restaurante Salvadoreño #3 uses are high-quality and have rich, fresh flavor, making these pupusas good enough to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — all on the same day.

Chris Malloy

At this no-frills eatery on 16th Street (part of a family-owned mini-chain) you can choose from around 20 varieties of the popular, monster-size Mexican sandwich, each for about five or six bucks. Stuffed with meat, thick slices of avocado, pickled jalapeños, lettuce, tomato, and mayo on soft, round telera bread, we like the milanesa de pollo (breaded chicken), Cubana (piled with ham, pork, and cheese), and the packs-a-punch cochinita featuring slow-cooked pulled pork simmered with achiote, orange juice, and spices. Delicious.

The patio floor is painted bright yellow, and the entire restaurant — inside and out — is covered in fantastic blue murals with sea creatures, lighthouses, and mermaids. It's the perfect over-the-top ambiance for a seafood restaurant that serves delicious dishes, such as an octopus tostada and ceviche with raw shrimp that's been "cooked" in pure lemon juice.

Our favorite is the traditional coctel (cocktail) with shrimp and bits of finely chopped cucumber, onion, and tomato, all floating in a perfectly seasoned shrimp juice extract — not just the salted water you might find at lesser establishments. But the most popular item on the menu is the Super Coctel — an explosion of flavors with shrimp, octopus, squid, sea snail, baby clams, oysters, raw shrimp and ceviche. And their pescado veracruzano is another great catch — a whole tilapia doused with Las Glorias' salsa ranchero and covered with chopped carrots, peas, olives, and fresh jalapeños.
Katie Walter

Tuesdays are our favorite days at this bright and welcoming North Phoenix restaurant serving Jalisco-style Mexican fare. That's when Maria and Mark Altmaier serve up their luscious chicken mole. Simmered for hours and with a list of ingredients that could fill a page or more, the Altmaier's rich, thick, chocolate-tinged sauce can be had over tender pieces of chicken or as chicken mole enchiladas, which also are available on weekends.

Katie Johnson

Psst, want some crazy-good carne asada cooked over an open flame right in front of you? Step right up — to the counter — and order one of three vehicles for its delivery: tacos, a burrito, or a plate. A guy takes your name and hands you a 5-by-7-inch styrofoam tray. Take the tray over to the condiment bar, and pile it high with diced onions and cilantro, Mexican limes, sliced marinated carrots, shredded cabbage, sliced cucumbers, sliced marinated red onion, and any one of the five or six salsas available. You're gonna need this stuff because when your name is called, all you'll get is that delicious asada and its tortilla. It's up to you to do the rest. Not that this medium-rare skirt steak isn't delicious on its own — pleasantly salty, tender, and lightly marinated. The $6 plate of asada makes four decent-size tacos, which should fill you up without breaking the bank.

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