Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, Scottsdale

Los Sombreros

Los Sombreros
Courtesy of Los Sombreros

Every year, chef Azucena Tovar travels back to her childhood home of San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico. And every year, we can't wait for her to return. That's when she adds new dishes to her already stellar menu of well-crafted Mexican food — the kind that have been bringing Scotts-dalians back to her charming brick home for almost 20 years. Perhaps you'll want luscious enchiladas filled with hibiscus, crab, or baked duck; classic chipotle pork; or grilled chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese and huitlacoche (corn smut). And speaking of huitlacoche, Tovar's huitlacoche crepas, served with blue and goat cheeses and pomegranate sauce, are the surest bets in Scottsdale.

Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, Tempe

El Tlacoyo

El Tlacoyo
Heather Hoch

El Tlacoyo may not serve up the escamoles (red ant eggs), chinicuiles (insect larvae), or zacahuiles (yard-long tamales) of Hidalgo, the eastern Mexican state the restaurant tips its sombrero to, but its listing of more than 100 dishes is still, like the rugged-terrain state, a nearly inexhaustible source of flavors. There are tlacoyos, oval-shaped fried masa cakes topped with cheese, chicken, and an excellent green sauce; tacos packed with sausage and cactus; and fried quesadillas filled with huitlacoche and pumpkin flower. Wait for the weekend and you'll get special items like heavenly, barbacoa de borrego (barbecued lamb) served with soup and tortillas and spicy tulancingueñas — a kind of ham and cheese sandwich by way of Hidalgo.

Best Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant, Southeast Valley

La Merced

This unassuming restaurant in Mesa may look small from the outside, but through its doors await gigantic plates of boldly flavored and affordable Mexico City eats: long, scroll-like flautas packed with moist shredded chicken or beef; monstrous tortas gigantes layered with Mexican-style ham, chicken milanesa, and hot dog slices; and dinners of heady chilaquiles verdes and garlic-tinged carnitas piled high to please. If you've brought some hungry amigos along, you'll want the Casuela a la Mexicana, a feast of eight excellent dishes. Or for a refreshing meal of the liquid sort, try a Bomba served up in a giant martini glass.

Asi Es La Vida

Like an old friend, Así es la Vida, Spanish for "such is life," is the kind of restaurant that, no matter when we visit, never fails to remind us why it holds a place in our hearts. Since it began in 1993, closed in 1999, and resurrected itself again in 2003, the family-owned spot, more or less responsible for teaching the Valley much of what it now knows about the cuisine of central-southern Mexico, has experienced nearly as much love and rejection as the Mexico City-born artist Frida Kahlo (which may be why homages to her self-portraits grace the walls). The restaurant's outward appearance may be a bit more frayed, its now-purple exterior with flashing "open" signs hardly becoming of a place once lauded by the New York Times as one of Phoenix's most interesting dining destinations. But inside, tucked into its cozy rooms appointed with Mexican art, white tablecloths, and fresh flowers, the food — an Acapulco-style shrimp cocktail, a well-seasoned Carne Tampiqueña, and enormous butterflied garlicky shrimp you'll pick up and eat right out of their skins — is as thoughtful and as flavorful as ever.

El Mesquite Restaurant
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Looking for a plate of morning machaca on the city's south side? Pop into this unassuming little strip-mall eatery at the corner of Central Avenue and Baseline Road, where you can get a very good version of the dried shredded beef — mixed with egg, tomato, jalapeños, and onions — on a plate with rice, beans, and tortillas or bulking out a giant burrito. There are excellent chilaquiles, too, made with El Mesquite's richly flavored enchilada sauce. And it's good to know that while waiting for your Mexican breakfast, you can munch on as many complimentary crispy chips with spicy salsa as you'll allow yourself to have.

Carolina's Mexican Food
Sarah Whitmire

The Carolina's tortilla, as just about everyone knows, is the closest thing to ideal in the Valley. Which is why when it comes to the breakfast burrito, your a.m. wake-up call should consist of this 40-year-old Mexican restaurant chain's fresh and delicate housemade tortilla wrapped around fillings like egg, beans, potato, spicy chorizo, and seasoned machaca. Add a little red or green chili and your morning step just got pepped.

Cocina 10
Charles Barth

When the lovesick duke in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night remarks, "If music be the food of love, play on," we'd like to imagine him at this late-night Mexican eatery inside Crescent Ballroom, downtown's most popular music venue, with burrito in hand. Loaded with ingredients like sweet al pastor marinated in achiote citrus, garlicky Angus beef braised with oregano, and tasty seasonal and local veggies, these massive beauties, wrapped in a thick, soft tortilla, will get you through your favorite band's riotous riff, bluesy ballad, or head-bobbin' jam — and with enough energy left for an encore.

Tacos Atoyac

True taco euphoria, it has been said, depends on the whims of the taco taster. And at this moment, ours can be found in this no-frills Mexican street-food joint in Central Phoenix that keeps them cheap, simple, and simply delectable. There is juicy grilled lengua, a spicy and luscious pineapple-marinated al pastor, and a beer-battered fish taco with lightly pickled red onions, shredded cabbage, and spicy Mexican crema on a griddled flour tortilla that's just about as good as it gets. It's an easy place to get happy.

La Pinata Mexican Food Restaurants

Might the ultimate Mexican snack be the humble tamale? Quite possibly. The simple masa-based dish dates back to ancient Mexican and Latin Americans like the Aztecs and Mayans, who were gobbling them up back in 5000 BC. Seven thousand years later, they still are staples at Mexican restaurants, including this longtime family-owned eatery in Central Phoenix. Made in-house, the soft, perfectly steamed masa envelops long strips of flavorful green corn, chicken, or a delicious mixture of pork and beef. Order them à la carte or as part of a platter, on which they're smothered in La Piñata's richly zesty sauce. Just like the Mayans used to make.

Sonoran hot dog
Laura Hahnefeld
Sonoran hot dog

Do you worship your hot dogs at the altar of Southwestern fast food? If so, there may not be a more perfect creation than the Sonoran. A beef frank with bacon, pinto beans, and condiments like onions, fresh tomatoes, jalapeño sauce, mayonnaise, and mustard, it's a dog whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. El Exquisito, the family-run hot dog stand on the city's west side, makes a formidable Sonoran dog. Its version features thick bits of bacon and adds ketchup as one of the condiments, giving it a more pork-y flavor with just a touch of sweetness and with a big doughy hug thanks to a downy-soft bun. Open every night (except Tuesday) about 6:30 p.m. and closing between midnight and 1 a.m., El Exquisito serves up a Sonoran dog that is, as the name suggests, exquisite.

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