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.

Tortas Paquime
Jackie Mercandetti

For those whose Mexican sandwich fantasies consist of ingredients like meat, avocado, tomato, pickled jalapeños, and mayo packed into torpedo-shaped bolillo or telera bread, this local chain's offerings are a tasty head trip. There's the namesake sandwich, which comes with tender, thinly sliced pork and mustard; the classic Cubano with shredded pork, ham, turkey, beans, and two kinds of cheese; and the mighty Torta Ahogado, featuring thick slices of pork, avocado, and refried beans drenched in a spicy and rich tomato-based chile sauce. Extra napkins? They've got as many as you'll probably need.

Ta'Carbon
Katie Johnson

The carne asada from Ta' Carbon is pretty amazing. Grilled to perfection, lightly marinated, and with just the right amount of coarse salt, the beef is sizzled over a charcoal fire, a method most asada aficionados consider ideal. You hardly could be blamed for watching it cook behind the counter, its smoky, meaty aromas finding their way to your nose before you've even had a chance to fill up your plate with diced onions, cilantro, Mexican limes, sliced marinated carrots, and salsas from the condiment bar. When it's ready, it comes with a tortilla, atop tacos, or however you wish, really. Want an ice-cold Mexican soda to wash it down with? You bet you do.

For 10 bucks, you could do worse than the crazy-good grilled chicken meal served at this no-frills Mexican meat shop and market in Scottsdale. Served up hot 'n' ready from a giant outdoor charcoal grill, these boldly seasoned and deliciously smoky whole chickens get packed to-go with corn tortillas, a pint each of rice and hot dog-studded beans, and fresh, spicy salsa. The fowl-focused feast easily will feed more than one person, so if you're going solo, prepare for some tasty leftovers.

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