Best Of :: La Vida
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.
For years, Tacos Atoyac was the bar against which we judged all other street-style Mexican eats. The no-frills restaurant served everything we could have asked for from a taco: affordability, simplicity, and lots of flavor. That's why we were devastated to hear the restaurant had closed suddenly and indefinitely in March. Taco enthusiasts wondered whether we'd ever find an acceptable replacement for the restaurant's near-perfect beer-battered fish taco. Thankfully, the drought didn't last long. In May, we were thrilled to hear that co-owner Pablo Lopez had reincarnated the beloved spot under a new name, Restaurant Atoyac Estilo Oaxaca — same location, same menu. If we close our eyes while biting into one of the carne asada burros, it's almost as if nothing changed.
If you've never dined on the patio at Los Sombreros, then you've been missing out on one of the more romantic dining spots in town — not that the inside of the converted brick house that this restaurant calls home is a bad option. No matter where you sit at this dining spot, you're sure to have a memorable meal. Chef-owner Azucena Tovar uses her impeccable talent to craft modern Mexican cuisine that blends traditional flavors with her own personal style, traveling to Mexico City every year for inspiration. Some of her standout dishes include mole poblano, huitlacoche quesadillas, and hibiscus enchiladas — in short, not the kind of fare you'll find at just any ol' Mexican joint.
It may be small, but what this Mesa restaurant lacks in size is more than made up for in soul. The family-run restaurant came into being after months of hard work from Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz, who renovated the mid-century building themselves and even inherited some of the cacti out front from family and friends. The menu includes a wide selection of wheat flour empanadas, which range in flavors from traditional to the more unexpected. On the savory side, don't miss the Boricua, which combines rice, pigeon peas, and ham hock cooked in sofrito sauce. And for a standout sweet, try the fig cheese and caramel, which contains local figs, mozzarella, and South American-style dulce de leche. The rest of República Empanada's entrées are worth a try, too, particularly the arroz con pollo, seasoned with capers, olives, peas, celery, cilantro, onions, and red bell peppers. Don't forget, you can also wash down your meal with one of the many craft beers available by the bottle.
When you know that Phoenix Burrito House comes courtesy of the De la Cruz family — they're the folks behind Zócalo Mexican Grille and El Sol Mexican Cafe & Bakery in Chandler, Mangos Mexican Cafe and Bakery in Mesa, and Méjico in Central Phoenix — then it should come as no surprise that Phoenix Burrito House is such a solid new spot. The restaurant took over the former home of The Fry Bread House, adding a little south-of-the-border charm to the Melrose District. We love the restaurant's tortillas, which are soft, chewy, and offer just the right amount of stretch. They're particularly enjoyable when wrapped around ingredients such as pork in green chile sauce and Phoenix Burrito House's spicy shrimp.
If you're at Los Olivos only for the chips and salsa and a margarita, you will not be disappointed. This restaurant delivers from that first perfectly crisp, salty chip. But we dare you to stop at just chips — soon you'll be ordering a cheese crisp, maybe some corn sopas from the friendly staff, and from there it's just a hop and a skip down the menu to a giant selection of every classic Mexican dish imaginable: chimichangas, fajitas, enchiladas. There's nothing nouveau about this place. It's a collection of Sonoran classics made for decades and served in a crazy series of connecting cavernous rooms. Our favorite spot is the underwater-esque lounge. As long as Los Olivos keeps the chips coming and the tequila flowing, we're good.
Breakfast, lunch, or dinner, there is no wrong time to sink your teeth into chilaquiles at Pepe's Taco Villa. There's an endless list of places in town to get yourself an order of the Mexican favorite, but nowhere with the balance of chicken, tortilla strips cooked to crispy perfection, and chile with enough kick to tease our lips. Let's not forget the fried egg — or two — that sits atop the blend of chicken and tortilla, with yolk that smoothes out the rest as it goes down. We also can't resist the owner's excitement when he brings out our order and waits to make sure everything is just right.
Spicy chorizo, scrambled egg, soft, diced potatoes, and melted cheddar cheese all wrapped in a warm tortilla. Yep, most can agree that nothing gets better than biting into a homestyle breakfast burrito after a long day or night. El Norteño, the quintessential hole-in-the-wall restaurant in downtown Phoenix, on Seventh Avenue and Roosevelt, meets your need for comfort food in a tortilla. Heck, if the urge is there, add beans or maybe even sour cream to the already perfect burrito. If chorizo isn't quite your thing, opt for a burrito filled with ham or bacon instead. The joint is cash only, so come prepared.
There's a reason this little restaurant boasts snaking lines of hungry patrons during the daily lunch rush. It's because smart diners know this lunch-only downtown Phoenix eatery serves seriously satisfying Mexican fare that's always worth the wait. The green chile burrito is one of our favorite dishes, with tender beef smothered in spicy green chile sauce. Big eaters also can opt to have their burrito come chimichanga-style and covered in a layer of cheese and sauce. Just don't count on making it back to the office after eating such a serious gut bomb.
From the outside, this Mexican restaurant looks like nothing much, but don't let the cheesy signage and gaudy paint job fool you. Taco Mich is our go-to spot for tacos, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. When we need late-night weekend eats, we head here for the best $1 al pastor tacos. Here's how it works: You place your order inside at the counter and the cashier gives you a pink ticket. You take the ticket outside to the grill, where you trade it in for a plate of fresh tacos al pastor. The meat is crispy, flavorful, and studded with pieces of fat. Sprinkle onions and cilantro as you wish to kick things up a notch and be sure to get a few cups of the smoky red salsa offered on the side. It starts out with a nice spice, but builds up to a solid burn as you go.
Enchiladas are not uncommon. Mexican or not, almost everyone knows how to put together the easy dish. So how is it possible for a restaurant to differentiate itself from the competition? For one thing, the use of housemade tortillas. Menuderia Guanajuato lines up six fresh enchiladas rolled with chicken and topped with your choice of red or green sauce, fresh sour cream, and cotija cheese. Most other restaurants forget about the chicken inside, not giving much thought to whether it's moist or flavorful, but not Menuderia Guanajuato. Special care is given to each element wrapped in and topped on those enchiladas. The cotija cheese, sour cream, and even the lettuce (usually just a space filler) all play a role in the six enchiladas hogging all the room on your plate.
Unwrapping a moist, steaming tamale is reminiscent of ripping into a gift as a kid. The excitement that comes from the anticipation of finding out what's inside only intensifies once expectation and reality meet. Tearing into a plump green chicken and cheese tamale from La Tolteca brings excitement that doesn't have to wait until the holiday season. The moist masa engulfs melted Monterrey Jack cheese and sliced green chile accompanied by moist chicken. For those who are more enticed by those things that are sweet, order one of Tolteca's strawberry or pineapple tamales . . . or both. Don't stop with those, they also make red beef and carnitas tamales, all for only $1.99 apiece.