Best Mexican Lunch 2012 | Carolina's | La Vida | Phoenix
Sarah Whitmire

It's noon and your corporate overlords already hate you for even stepping away from your desk at all, let alone for lunch. (Yeah, we feel your pain: more work for less pay.) Time for a break that's fast, cheap, good, and legendary, courtesy of this always-hopping Mexican joint just south of downtown. Boasting crazy-good tortillas, green corn tamales, machaca, and a show-stopping signature hot sauce/salsa especially drool-worthy when poured over the Oaxaca special (a burrito featuring Carolina's excellent chorizo, beans, potatoes, and cheese), you'll be in, out, and satisfied in 30 minutes (maybe less) and with only about $7 less in your wallet. Is it lunchtime yet?

It would be enough to feast on unlimited chorizo con huevos, red menudo, chiles rellenos, and other Mexican staples at Rio Mirage's brunch — all served with a glass of sparkling champagne. But what makes this Sunday treat especially worthy of a nod are the fresh-off-the-grill, piping-hot tortillas delivered in a woven basket right to your table.

You simply can’t go wrong with the classics — rice, beans, chips, and salsa — added to the build-your-own taco station, and the menudo, light on hominy but packed with beef stomach and a slightly thickened red sauce, defies the version of the dish you’d find in most Mexican restaurants. Satisfy your sweet tooth with pan dulce, a sugar-coated sopaipilla, or a churro stuffed with an apple-flavored filling. There’s a mix of chopped watermelon, cantaloupe, and strawberry for a less indulgent end to your all-you-can-eat experience.

The tacos and burritos at this small and stylish Central Phoenix eatery certainly are good, but let's face it: It's the salsa bar that put this place on the map. There usually are 12 different salsas on hand, consistently well prepared and wonderfully flavorful — from sweet to spicy to fruity to tangy. There's a cool cilantro cream with a refreshing, light taste, a zesty tomatillo, and more unique selections like strawberry and pecan salsa. Spread them out on your table for a sensory explosion, not just for your taste buds, but a colorful feast for you eyes, as well. A basket of chips never had it so good.

We didn't think things could get any better than sitting on Rita's elegant and spacious patio with a cinnamon-spiked glass of their red sangria — and then we tried a bowl of the luscious guacamole. Holy avocado! Made tableside with fresh avocados, spicy jalapeños, and tart lime juice, the dip is customized to your liking and served with an overflowing bowl of their delicious tortilla chips. We like ours salty and spicy with a hearty helping of jalapeños and a nice dose of sea salt. It's a pricey appetizer, but it's worth it for guac this good.

Katie Walter

El Porvenir Tortilla Factory isn't much to look at — from either the outside or inside. But don't let the dusty shelves in the dimly lit store turn you off, because this family business has been churning out the best flour and corn tortillas in Arizona since 1954. Delivered daily to stores across the state, you’ve probably seen the packages, stamped with a red eagle, at your local grocer. If you want to cut out the middle man, however, go directly to the Tortilla Factory for a package of warm, preservative-free tortillas that are the next best thing to homemade. Red Eagle has a variety of sizes to accommodate everything from soft tacos to good-size burritos. Unlike most tortillas, you’ve got to keep these flavorful treats in the refrigerator (or eat ’em fast) because they don’t contain the preservatives that give their competitors’ products a longer shelf life — and a rubbery texture.

Lots of Mexican joints in the Valley solve the Mexican-soup puzzle, but many of these serve it only on the weekends. This West Phoenix hole-in-the-wall serves the stuff every single day, and it serves not one but three varieties — one for each color of the Mexican flag. The deep-flavored pozole rojo is filled with pork chunks, hominy, and red chiles. The pozole blanco uses chicken and is not quite as spicy but no less flavorful. And the pozole verde (also featuring chicken) is slightly tangier than its brethren, thanks to the use of tomatillos. Each variety is served in large, steaming bowls along with warm tortillas and a plate of add-ins such as cilantro, lime, shredded cabbage, and radish. Our recommendation: Dump it all in the stew, stir, and let the flavors mingle to create one of the best-tasting, most soul-satisfying dishes found in Mexican cuisine. Our other recommendation: As hard as it may be to resist, don't finish the entire bowl in one sitting, because your pozole — no matter what color — will taste even better the next day.

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.

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