Best Of :: La Vida
There are young geniuses among us, and you'll find several of them have been roosting at the Aguila (eagle) nest in Central Phoenix.This leadership institute, a nonprofit organization launched about eight years ago by Rosemary Ybarra-Hernandez, mentors young Latinos, mostly from lower-income families, from high school through college. They say their approach is not "rocket science," but they certainly are shaping and guiding our future rocket scientists, and their track record is impressive. Some of the students who are part of the program — and we're talking serious brainiacs — are bound for amazing futures. Phili Reyes of Phoenix just took part in a NASA internship involving the space shuttle Orion. Reymundo Hernandez, also a local kid, is starting his senior year at MIT. Carmen Ramirez Zazueta, who attended Agua Fria High School, is a National Science Foundation Scholar. And Diana Garcia, who attended Westwood High School in Mesa, is a Gates Millennium Scholar at Brown University. Impressive, yes?
Ah, the bowling alley snack bar — a place that’s never, ever as good as you want it to be. Especially at those corporate houses that dominate the kegling landscape. The pizza is always prefab junk, and the deep-fried goodies rarely are any better. That’s why this family-run eatery at Sunnyslope’s independently owned Let It Roll Bowl is a breath of fresh air. Reasonably priced standards such as tacos, burritos, and enchiladas are available, as are regional specialties like molotes (deep-fried fritters stuffed with potato and chorizo) and tlayuda (think: Mexican pizza). Menu entrees include black or (very good) red mole, stuffed chiles, gorditas, and green or red ribs. None of it costs more than $8 and all of it tastes pretty darn good. And if you feel your bowling experience simply isn’t complete without a pizza or hot dog, well, they’ve got that American stuff, too.
We're not sure exactly how the idea for fast Mexican/Chinese food came about ("Hey, you put your chimichanga in my sweet and sour sauce!") but we're glad it happened — and it's a Valley original. With two locations, you can indulge in a Chino Bandido fix whether you're in the East Valley or on the west side. Either way, you'd better not skip the jade chicken, a deep-fried, bright-red treat that feels like dessert for dinner. Pair it with carnitas or carne asada burros and jerk rice with pork. Just be sure to leave room for (we know this sounds odd, but bear with us) a fresh-baked Snickerdoodle cookie for dessert. Fusion at its finest.
Chef Matt Carter's sophisticated, intimate spot serving modern Latin cuisine in Scottsdale might mean shaking the piggy bank for some extra coin, but the culinary journey is worth it. Mixing French cooking techniques with influences from Spain, Mexico, Central and South America, Carter's dishes are intensely flavorful and expertly prepared. Start with a stellar smoked pork pozole, or shared plates of duck carnitas empanada and smoked pork shoulder tacos in hand-pressed corn tortillas, then move on to exceptional grilled entrees like the chimichurri hanger steak and Chilean salmon. The tequila, cocktail, and wine lists are as impressive as the cuisine — especially when sipped by a flickering outdoor fire or inside amid chandeliers, ornate mirrors, and the restaurant's glowing wall of Himalayan salt blocks.
The abundance of Sonoran-style Mexican eateries is plainly clear in the Valley. But finding comida oaxaqueña, Oaxacan food from southwestern Mexico, takes a bit more work. Thank the dynamic duo of Oaxacan Pablo Lopez and Chilean-born Dan Maldonado for bringing their bare-bones taco shop to north Central Phoenix — where the food's served up street-style, fast and flavorful, and at jaw-droppingly low prices. Start with the $1 street tacos, filled with tender lengua or luscious pork al pastor, then move on to the mighty fish taco (possibly one of the best in the Valley), or the crazy-tasty tlayuda, likened to a Mexican pizza featuring a dinner-plate-size thin, crunchy tortilla slathered with a bean spread. And with nothing on the menu over $8, there's room in the budget to splurge on a heavenly sweet cup of homemade Mexican horchata.
To those in the know (and that's more and more all the time), this award probably comes as little surprise, because this is one of downtown's true gems. There's no signage to speak of, there's no place to sit inside, the menu is tiny, it's open for only a couple of hours a day, and it takes only cash. Sounds like a real pain in the ass, huh? Well, maybe, but the line out the door at lunchtime indicates that it's worth it. Serving only red or green chili burritos (and their deep-fried counterparts, chimichangas), this hole-in-the-wall does basically just one thing and does it better than almost anybody else. The green chili, with its tender chunks of pork and wonderfully deep flavor, is our favorite in town, even though it can be kind of a mess (seriously, it takes some practice eating these things, but that's part of the fun). And the red chili, spicy and bold with bites of beef, is a winner, too. Of course, they're both wrapped in fresh tortillas, and you can have cheese and/or beans added to the mix, as well. Next time you're downtown during lunchtime, do yourself a favor and pop in.
This is the kind of place you could drive by every day on your way to work and never notice. In fact, we'd passed it by numerous times without giving it a second thought, until one day, the light bulb went off over our head. And are we ever glad we popped in to this Sunnyslope outpost, just south of Let It Roll bowling alley (a Best of Phoenix favorite). It's cash-only, it's no-frills, it's dirt-cheap, and, if you're lucky, you may see an employee rend a cooked goat as you chow down on awesome Mexico City street food such as tacos, burritos, tortas, and huaraches. It's that authentic. In addition to the standard asada, jamon, chorizo, carnitas, and pastor, you can get pierna (pork leg), pata (pork feet), cabeza (cow's head), and suadero (rose meat). What's rose meat, you ask? It's the fatty top part of the beef, just below the skin — served up chopped and grilled on top of a huge huarache ($7 and big enough for two people). And it is delicious. Well, we guess the secret's out on El Rinconcito now. You can thank us later.
Normally, when we hear the words "Guy Fieri," we wanna stick a hot relish fork in our eye — twice. Still, for whatever reason, the Fieri seal of approval does seem to help some deserving Valley eateries. Case in point: this small, strip-mall storefront in Ahwatukee. Save for the Lalo Cota Day of the Dead mural on the wall, this place does little to distinguish itself from any other suburban taquería, except for long lines waiting for the always-fresh Mexican vittles coming out of the kitchen. The pozole and menudo (served every day) are excellent, as are the specialty Bombero (notable for its delicious sweet and spicy sauce) and Arizona (smoky carne asada and diced potato) burritos. Throw in deliciously spicy red and green salsas, and you've got a winning combination.
Don't be put off by the location (in a crummy strip mall a couple of miles west of considerably tidier historic downtown Glendale) because inside this very good Mexican eatery is a cheery little dining room with a friendly. The menu focuses on the cuisine of the southern Mexican state of Michoacan and features several menu items you'd otherwise have to search far and wide to find, including bírria seca (barbecued goat), pipian con nopales marquesita (pork and cactus in a brown, nutty sauce), and Michoacan-style enchiladas (folded tortillas doused in tangy guajillo red sauce). The tortillas here are hechas a mana and the salsa is fresh and plenty fiery. There's a full breakfast menu and numerous seafood dishes, including ostiones en su concha (oysters on the half-shell). Prices are beyond reasonable, but even if they weren't, finding an authentic Michoacan-style dinner in good old Glendale would be worth it.
From the outside (well, from the inside, too), this unassuming eatery could be just another no-frills, hole-in-the-wall taquería in a past-its-prime suburban strip mall. However, the food is excellent. Let's start with the bírria de chivo (a specialty of the southern Mexican state of Jalisco): This goat dish may be the best of its kind in the Valley, with luscious chopped meat in a mouthwatering thick stew flavored with roasted peppers. We also enjoy the pozole rojo, a boldly flavored soup with hominy and tender chunks of beef served with add-as-you-like garnishes of cilantro, onions, shredded cabbage, and lime. Beyond that, you can find all standards — tacos, burritos, tostadas — with very good carne asada, lengua, al pastor, and the like. Prices are about as cheap as they come for flavors this outstanding.
Find this hidden, casual eatery in Tempe and you'll discover a selection of unique and authentic eats from the eastern Mexican state of Hidalgo, located north of Mexico City. For starters, don't miss the restaurant's namesake, the tlacoyos, oval-shaped fried masa cakes topped with a delectable green sauce, cheese, and feather-light shredded chicken. There's also a larger version of the tlacoyo called the huarache and a selection of stellar cheese crisps folded and filled with delights like huitlachoche (corn smut) and pumpkin flower. Weekends bring added deliciousness in the forms of lamb soup, barbecued lamb tacos, and the popular Hidalgo snack called tulancingueñas (think of it as a spicy Mexican version of a ham and cheese sandwich). Add a little Chuck Berry mixed in with the Mexican music coming out of the restaurant's speakers, and you've got yourself some lively goodness from both sides of the border.
Just a mile north of this dilapidated '60s-era strip mall, in Old Town Scottsdale, there's no shortage of higher-end Mexican restaurants. And many of them are quite good. But for dyed-in-the-wool, dirt-cheap Mex eats, this is our go-to. A carne asada platter for just $6.45? Yes, please. The chopped beef is tender and lightly seasoned, served with homemade tortillas, diced onions, and fresh cilantro. For a couple of dollars more, there's mojarra frita (fried talapia) or camarones rancheros (shrimp served in a spicy tomato sauce). Where this mom-and-pop joint especially comes in handy is when you're hoisting beers a couple of doors down at one of Scottsdale's best dive bars, the Closing Soon Saloon. After a couple of pops, you can duck into this taquería for a couple of spicy al pastor tacos or a nice pollo burro, and then retreat back to your barstool 15 minutes later. Repeat as necessary.