Best Nachos 2016 | Cocina 10 | Food & Drink | Phoenix
Charles Barth

Let it be known here: The I-10 Nachos made at Cocina 10, the Mexican kitchen inside Crescent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix, are flawless. Nachos, of course, suffer a reputation for being a lowbrow snack food, the sort of thing enjoyed at bowling alleys and baseball stadiums. But that doesn't mean nachos aren't delicious. The I-10 Nachos elevate the humble snack food to new flavor heights. This is a carefully engineered nacho plate, made with a sturdy, crunchy base of tortilla chips, layered with refried pinto beans, and then generously lubricated with Tillamook sharp cheddar and Oaxaca cheese. The whole thing is baked into one delicious unit, then topped with fresh guacamole, scatterings of cilantro and cotija, and given a final blessing — a dollop of sour cream. As far as nachos go, the I-10 Nachos are perfection.

Evie Carpenter

If you're a fan of chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's culinary forays into the heart of modern Mexican cooking, a visit to her latest effort, Barrio Café Gran Reserva, is mandatory. Gran Reserva has transformed the old Bragg's Factory Diner space on Grand Avenue into an artful, 27-seat cafe space — the ideal showcase for chef Silvana's latest culinary experiments. It's the first of the Barrio Café restaurants to offer a tasting menu, which offers seven small-plate courses with exquisite bites like chicharrón de pancita, the tender meat bearing crisp edges and deliciously caramelized with Coca-Cola. Gran Reserva also boasts what might be the biggest Mexican wine list in town and an expanded menu of mezcal. If that's not reason enough for a visit, we don't know what is. 

Best Mexican Restaurant to Take an Out-of-Towner

Most Wanted Taco Shop

Your cousin is visiting from out of town. Or maybe, it's your old college roommate. When you live and eat in Phoenix, it's inevitable that eventually you'll host an out-of-town visitor, and it's inevitable that they will demand you take them out to eat Mexican food. There are so many options, but Most Wanted Taco Shop is a standout choice. Picky eaters will be indulged here — they can sample all the various slow-cooked meats and veggies for free and select their favorite. Voracious appetites will be satiated with the restaurant's enormous one-pound burrito. Hipsters will approve of the chandelier hanging from the ceiling, the brightly colored walls, and the luchador painting on the wall, vestiges of when this used to be called Santos Lucha Libre. More importantly, however, discerning taco eaters will be impressed by the smoky-sweet al pastor, the succulent carne asada, and the vaguely exotic cochinita pibil.

Best Mexican Restaurant to Take a Scenester

Barrio Urbano

Where do you go when you want to see and be seen, while enjoying a bowl of very good guacamole on the side? The Yard in Phoenix, situated in the heart of the increasingly fashionable Seventh Street uptown corridor, is the ultimate hangout lounge. You may technically come to Barrio Urbano to eat and drink, but you will also come to witness the carousing of bros at Culinary Dropout, to play a game of cornhole with the next table over, or to liven up your Instagram feed with the colorful backdrop that is Barrio Urbano. Oh, and the food is pretty good, too.

In the wee hours of the morning, when your favorite taco truck has called it a night, there is La Korita Taqueria. The drive-thru is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the food is tastier than other late-night options that shall remain nameless. The carne asada is grilled over mesquite, the juicy nubs as smoky and rich as anything you've ever had in the clear light of day. The menu is also quite comprehensive, so you can quell any highly specific midnight cravings for deep-fried taquitos dorados, or perhaps a gordita stuffed with shredded beef. A chile relleno at 3 a.m. — why not?

The origins of cocktail culture don't exactly trace back to our fair and young state — but we can lay claim to one classic: the Tequila Sunrise. Just orange juice and tequila, layered with bright red grenadine, it's essentially, you know, only slightly better than sitting down to the bar and ordering a Shirley Temple. Luckily for us, California is the real culprit behind that interpretation — ours, invented at the Arizona Biltmore in the 1930s, was a much more respectable mixture of tequila, lime, and soda water layered with a deep purple blackcurrant liqueur. The Old Town Scottsdale bar Counter Intuitive does the California version — which might be regrettable if it weren't for a couple of tricks up their sleeves, including fresh juice and a craft spin.

Counter Intuitive/Facebook

Keifer Gilbert is no stranger to the hustle. At one point this past year, he was tending three bars — three of the city's best, in fact — at sister restaurants Crudo and Okra, and weekends at Counter Intuitive (as well as participating in food and beverage events around town). He left Crudo briefly, but only because Counter Intuitive was opening its own sister spot, the tiki-slinging UnderTow, where he began the hustle once again. That's a lot, given that there are usually dozens of original drinks on each menu and only seven nights in the week. But far more to Gilbert's credit than sound memorization and tight technique, though, is his sense of friendly, good-natured bartending.

You've seen the other side of the coin too many times: some of the most charismatic bartenders found guilty of building too much momentum in a night, struggling to find the line between sparking the party and becoming the party themselves. Gilbert, however, nails it. He's appropriately attentive, earnest, and upbeat — it's obvious he's having fun, no doubt about it — but so are you. That's the most important thing. He knows it and tends to it.

Young, hungry, and hospitable, Gilbert certainly has a great year behind him, and an even brighter future ahead as he continues to develop his personal style and tastes at two of the city's very best.

As far as cocktail movements are concerned, "old school" is thought to refer to a time from the turn of the century through the Prohibition era that followed, when the foundation for most classic cocktails was laid. But there is an older school still — America's first cocktail movement, which birthed the 18th-century mint julep. It was medicine then and still is; just brandy, ice, sugar, and mint in an unadorned tin cup — and in uptown Phoenix, Okra makes it better than anyone else. In fact, they dedicate an entire menu to the drink, providing historic variants (the original, with brandy, or instead, a version sporting bourbon dating to the era that followed) and some twists of their own; for instance, an island-inspired julep featuring rum and house-made pineapple syrup.

Counter Intuitive/Facebook

While most cocktail menus straddle a bias between classics on one page and a handful of their own creations on the other, Old Town Scottsdale's Counter Intuitive went ahead and dreamed up a few dozen new, original drinks for their Mexican-inspired episode, Agua Caliente Racetrack. Just as the team created their Chinatown-inspired menu before it, the drink creation is entirely flavor-driven, starting with a list of ingredients that represent a region or a theme. From there, they work their way backward into cocktails that must withstand substantial criticism before any one drink makes the final menu. There is, indeed, a "new school" in the Phoenix craft cocktail movement, and it's in session at Counter Intuitive.

Like bourbon and whiskey, rum has the power to warm the mind, body, and soul through a long and hard winter — but we don't have those in Phoenix. It's a good thing, then, that we have Rum Bar, guided by Jamaican-born owner Dwayne Allen, for the long and hard summers, where the bartenders know exactly how to beat the heat with concoctions that are refreshingly cool — and refreshingly creative, too. Here, the apothecary is stocked exotically and the house-designed shrubs flow into drinking territory less traveled. Not that the stalwarts of hot-weather rum drinks aren't there to please and impress; Rum Bar does mojitos, daiquiris, and piña coladas better than any of the other guys.

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