Best Aguas Frescas 2014 | Gorditas El Tio | La Vida | Phoenix
Natalie Miranda

The only thing worse than stale pan dulce is filtered aguas frescas that have been sitting all day. So how come huge vats with various flavors of aguas frescas don't fill the counter space of Gorditas El Tio accompanied by dried-out fruit art in front indicating the flavor? Because all aguas frescas are made to order without the unnecessary frill. You can even look in the kitchen and watch the cooks toss all the fresh fruit into the blender and whip it up. Down a fresh glass of horchata or a creamy, fruity mix of mango to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Raspados used to be known as street food, sold on carts in Phoenix neighborhoods. The jingle of a bell or the honk of a horn used to be the indication that refreshment was on its way. Now shops are popping up all through the Valley, filling our cups and stomachs with shaved ice and fresh fruit topped with sweet cream. This modest West Valley raspado shop the turns out Mexican snow cones with flavors like eggnog, tamarind, strawberry, and mango, all piled high atop the rim of the cups to resemble a mountain swirled with fresh fruit.

The paletas at Realeza Michoacana are so fresh that the fibers found in mangos are ever-present in the mango and chile paleta, as are the strawberry seeds adding texture to the strawberry paleta. Sure, there are other places that mix fancy ingredients into their paletas, but you can't beat old-school Mexican popsicles. The fruit and chocolate bars are made fresh in-house, with a selection so wide that it will take a while for you to decide which one you really want. Choose from flavors such as strawberry (with or without cream), cantaloupe, tamarind, pineapple, and chocolate. Don't be shy if your placed order is a little longer than intended.

If you think Mexican candy begins and ends with Pelon, the push-up tamarind-style candy, you've got it all wrong. Take a stroll through the aisles at Dulceria Pico Rico for a few lessons in Mexican candy. The store is filled from top to bottom with selections such as De la Rosa, the creamy peanut rounds that melt in your mouth, or the small baggies of Pico, filled with a mixture of chili powder and sugar that will take your taste buds on a ride. Other favorites include the selection of mango, corn, or watermelon lollipops covered with chili. And when you're paying for your haul, don't forget to pick up a tamarind-covered candy apple.

We've all seen the Mickey Mouse piñata with the odd-shaped head and the princess piñatas with their eyes crossed. It's the only thing left on your list for an upcoming party, and it's obvious. But the piñata game has been taken to another level for several years by Arizona Piñatas. There's no store to browse, just a website and Facebook page with photos of its past creations. Pigs, Scions, Harley-Davidsons, SpongeBob SquarePants, and even holiday piñatas are in its catalog. The store's tagline is "Your imagination our creations." So if you can think of it, it'll deliver.

Feeling a little under the weather with sinus pressure? Got an embarrassing itch that just won't go away? How are your pH levels measuring? Is that migraine interfering with your day-to-day life? Well, that's where Yerberia San Francisco comes in. The glass cases are filled with remedies, medicines, and ointments meant to heal the body in quick and effective ways — and without side effects. YSF has teas and capsules to detoxify the body. One wall is adorned with herbs packaged in plastic bags so you can mix and match to make teas for your specific needs. Almost all the labels are in Spanish, since many of the medicines are native to Mexico, but the staff will break down the medicines for you to ensure those pesky ailments don't ruin your day.

Best Place to Buy Mexican Furniture

Meza's in Art

Drive too fast and you'll miss this quaint corner shop. It's not huge like a department store, but the quality inside will take your breath away (or that might be the thick scent of real wood). Rustic armoires with turquoise finishes, high-back chairs, and a dining set made with thick wood take up most of the room inside. Aztec-inspired furniture also is for sale, like a textured table with a quintessentially Mexican design. Bright, gaudy crosses (some adorned with large rosaries) line one side of the store along with landscape portraits and modern Chicano paintings. The deeper you delve into the small shop, the more reasons you'll come up with to redecorate your home.

Best Place to Buy Mexican Tchotchkes

Mexican Import

Whether you're taking someone from out of town or you're playing tourist yourself, Mexican Import is the place to stock up on Mexican tchotchkes. Colorful sombreros and cotton dresses with embroidery hang from the ceiling in the colorful shop. Browse and sort through jewelry and woven wallets from Guatemala or admire the artwork of crosses on the wall. Single tiles with bright designs are on sale for $1.99 apiece. Get ahead on Christmas decorations with one of the many Hispanic-style manger scenes. Maybe you're looking for a saint or two to outfit your yard. Well, take your pick.

Best Place to Buy Day of the Dead Treasures

Purple Lizard Boutique

Flowing skirts, cotton tops, purses, hats, belts, and jewelry all fit into this small, eclectic boutique. But the true gems are the Day of the Dead trinkets and paintings. High on a shelf, low in a case, or up on a wall is where you can find sugar skulls, Day of the Dead figurines both small and large, and portraits of the dearly departed. What we really love, though, are the hand-painted wine glasses, shot glasses, and coffee mugs decorated in Day of the Dead artwork. Purple Lizard even has votive candleholders and handcrafted shadow boxes with sugar skull figurines inside. There's a Day of the Dead treasure on every rack and shelf in the boutique.

The only complaint we have about the Spanish-language bookstore that opened this spring on Roosevelt Row is that it was not permanent. But that's a big part of the charm of Pablo Helguera's "Librería Donceles," a traveling exhibit that incorporated more than 12,000 used books and a lot of elbow grease to create a temporary bookstore with departments ranging from history to science to children's books. The (mostly vintage) books were amazing to comb through, even for those of us not well-versed in Spanish. And on top of that, the artist created an environment evocative of your favorite bookstore: homey and cozy, with art on the walls, rugs on the floor, salons, and even impromptu guitar sing-alongs. Most important, the show made a vital observation: that metro Phoenix doesn't actually have a permanent Spanish-language bookstore. Next up, life needs to imitate art.

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