El Norteno
Chris Malloy

If a cramped, cash-only establishment is not for you, skip El Norteño. But be warned: You'll be missing out on one of the best bargains on breakfast burritos in the Valley, found inside a tiny building at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Roosevelt Street in downtown Phoenix. Four bucks gets you a generous portion of spicy and flavor-packed housemade chorizo, mixed with eggs and fluffy potatoes and tightly wrapped inside a warm flour tortilla. Perfect for breakfast, but available any time. Dunked into the excellent housemade hot sauce, it's almost more flavor than can be handled — ask for extra portions of this bright red and gloriously shiny sauce to take home.

Rito's Mexican Food
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Henry Ford famously said, "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black," but he may as well have been talking about the cult-worthy burritos at the worst-kept secret spot in Phoenix, Rito's. Any customer can have any burrito that he or she wants so long as it is green or red — and paid for in cash. Join the line of downtown professionals patiently waiting for their mouthfuls of tender braised beef in, you guessed it, either red or green sauce and expertly packed into a flour tortilla. If you come to the conclusion that Rito's is the kind of place that excels at what they do through specialization, rather than by sumptuous settings and expansive "please everyone" menus, look around you; you're not the only one.

Readers Choice: Carolina's

Swing by this butcher shop and food counter on any night and you're certain to run into one of the many self-described foodies of the Valley utterly devoted to the charcoal-grilled chicken, carne asada, and al pastor tacos of Mercado y Carnicería Cuernavaca. If you thought tacos had to be a complicated affair featuring overly complex sauces and precious garnishes, all carefully perched on a bent-metal stand, think again. Get to Cuernavaca and back to tacos made great by well-seasoned, perfectly cooked meats, sauce (if you want it), a simple onion and cilantro garnish, and a warm tortilla served in a paper basket. Anyway, one of those metal stands would just get in the way of power-eating your way through one of Cuernavaca's roasted-pineapple-topped al pastor tacos.

Readers Choice: Joyride

Pitic Restaurant

Patience is a virtue, one that is richly rewarded at the South Phoenix eatery Pitic. Crowded with families and business folk enjoying a leisurely lunch, Pitic is the place where enchiladas stand out on a menu overflowing with Mexican classics. Appropriately drenched in a smooth red chile more flavorful than spicy (as it should be) and paired with creamy refried beans, this dish makes a sour cream garnish unnecessary. Choose from rolled cheese, chicken, or beef enchiladas — or the lesser-known Sonoran-style flat enchiladas — and take the option to add a fried egg on top.

Go past the shady courtyard into this production bakery/casual eatery to get to the most delicate corn tamales money can buy in the Valley. They're buttery with melted hunks of queso fresco, roasted green chile rajas, and roughly ground kernels of fresh sweet corn. Get that wax paper and corn husk wrap off this steaming tamal, give it a loving bath of the accompanying green chile sauce, and dive right in. Order them by the dozen for $21, and don't forget to try the beef and red chile tamales a try.

TEG Torta Shop
Chris Malloy

If your hunger for a torta comes in mini, regular, or supersize, you're in luck. El Güero has you more than covered. With 14 menu items to choose from — including a vegetarian creamy avocado and cheese torta — there is something for everyone. We're hooked on the I-can't-make-up-my-mind Cubana, with layers of tender braised pork leg, ham, steak milanesa, and refreshing iceberg lettuce. If you're craving turkey and Thanksgiving is nowhere in sight, give the Colitas a try: tender turkey tail meat between a toasted telera bun slathered with mayo, topped with lettuce, tomato, and spicy pickled jalapeños. Forget about getting a drive-thru burger next time you feel the need for meat between toasted buns.

Sonoran hot dog
Heather Hoch
Sonoran hot dog

The real secret to the Sonoran-style hot dog isn't the bacon wrap, not that it doesn't help. The secret is the bun — slightly sweet, light as a cloud, yet sturdy enough to hold that bacon-wrapped wiener, mayo, pinto beans, diced tomatoes, onions, avocado cream, pickled jalapeños, and any other of the many toppings ready to garnish the sweet bun. For years, this hot dog stand has been at the top of the list in the Valley, for its friendly, consistent late-night service, and we can't disagree.

You can find some of the best red or green pozole in town on an otherwise unremarkable stretch of Van Buren. And you can find it early in the day, as this wonderfully fragrant restaurant opens daily (except Tuesdays) at 9 a.m. Pozole for breakfast? Why not? Especially when it's served spicy and hot with a pile of freshly chopped iceberg lettuce, white onion, and cilantro. Top your steaming bowl of pozole with the shredded green cabbage, chopped white onion, and cilantro provided, and fish out the tender hunks of pork with some of the chicharrones provided. And just in case you need it, every table comes with a small bottle of Mexican oregano. Our guess: With pozole this good, you won't need it.

There's more to Mexican seafood than fish tacos, and if there's one place in Phoenix to experience mariscos, it is El Pacifico, a colorful family-owned seafood eatery in Central Phoenix. This is the sort of place where bringing a group and ordering one of everything is never a bad idea, just so the menu can be fully appreciated. Start with a platter of briny oysters topped with lime-soaked rock shrimp, hot sauce, and avocado; follow up with a tostada piled high with shrimp and fish ceviche and a callo de hacha aguachile; then take a slight break with a fresh coconut stuffed to almost overflowing with a cóctel de campechana (a mixture of shrimp, oysters, octopus, and fish) and tender coconut flesh. Finish off the meal with a fragrant bowl of caldo de siete mares or caldo largo, Mexican seafood soups that rival the best French bouillabaisse in their flavor and variety.

There's value in restaurants that dedicate themselves to doing one thing, and doing it well. When it comes to the tacos at Tacos Sonora Grill, there's only one choice to make: corn or flour tortillas. No matter what your choice, those generously sized tacos (no two-bite minuscule tortillas to be found here) will be filled with carne asada and only carne asada. Tender and juicy, with a good dose of smoke from the charcoal grill, the carne comes in three forms: as a taco, a tostada-quesadilla hybrid, or as a beef-stuffed quesadilla. Try all three for $7.

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