La Barquita Restaurant
Jackie Mercandetti

Unless you were raised on nopales from a young age, prickly pear cactus is probably not a staple of your regular diet. But why not? Easy to grow, nutritious, and quite tasty when paired with grilled meats, or in an ensalada of fresh tomatoes and onions, nopalitos are at once simple and sublime. The most troublesome thing about nopales, of course, is that, for the uninitiated, trimming spines and scraping off thorns can be time-consuming and intimidating. You can skip the prepping altogether and head to La Barquita, a neighborhood restaurant in central Phoenix where nopales are on the menu all day. They are exquisite in the Molcajete A La Mexicana, a minor feast served in the namesake, three-legged Mexican mortar. The dish comes piled with grilled slices of steak, caramelized bulbs of onion, feathery sprigs of cilantro, finger-length slices of fresh white cheese, and limp, charred nopal paddles, their natural tartness mellowed to a fine, smoky sweetness.

Barrio Cafe

Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's original Barrio Café restaurant helped put the Phoenix Mexican food scene on the national map, and it remains one of the city's top destinations for distinctively artful, upscale dishes inspired by regional Mexican cooking. Here is the place to go for tableside guacamole punctuated with bright, ruby-like pomegranate seeds, enjoyed amid white tablecloths and the warm glow of a Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe candle. It's the place to go for seared duck breast finished with a tamarind chipotle reduction, filet mignon topped with a lovely tangle of crab and goat cheese, or an impeccably crafted chile en nogada floating in buttery almond cream sauce. Barrio Café is the heart and soul — and stomach — of Calle 16, the place to go when six-pound burritos, humdrum combo platters, or the squawk of a drive-thru speaker simply won't satisfy.

What makes a great tortilla? Handmade over machine-cut, thinner rather than thicker, supple rather than dense? No matter what criteria you apply, it's hard to find fault with the tortillas made at La Sonorense in south Phoenix. The 15-inch flour tortillas, which are made fresh daily in this small, family-run factory, are engineered to be shaped into quesadillas and burritos. But they're so good, you could easily devour a whole 12-pack all on their own. Buttery and powdery, papery thin yet pliant enough that you can roll them into a fine, edible scroll, these classic Sonoran-style tortillas are part of what makes it great to live and eat in Arizona. And if you're not into the flour tortilla holy trinity — flour, salt, and, yes, lard — La Sonorense also makes excellent corn tortillas. 

La Santisima Gourmet Taco Shop

La Santisima makes killer burritos, tacos, and quesadillas, but the restaurant's marquee attraction is its fantastic salsa bar. With more than 10 homemade salsas to choose from, including unique offerings like spicy peanut salsa, sweet and chunky strawberry salsa, creamy pecan salsa, and refreshing jicama salsa, there is an option here for every mood and fancy. For traditionalists, there is the excellent Salsa Mexicana, a classic red, white, and green medley of smoky green chiles, white onions, tomatoes, and cilantro, which is the little black dress of the La Santisima salsa bar — it pairs well with everything.

Those of us who live for a freshly made batch of guacamole understand that a good guacamole is a necessity, not a luxury upsell side. Luckily, the folks at Diego Pops in Scottsdale understand the significance of a well-made, impeccably seasoned guacamole that can stand all on its own. The guacamole here is chunky, with the pleasing slow burn of blistered jalapeños mingling with the faint sweetness of fresh citrus. A squirt of lime, a sprinkle of salty cotija cheese, plus a basket of hot, crispy tortilla chips on the side — it's an honest, simple guacamole that's as timeless and pleasing as hot butter on fresh bread.

Otro Cafe
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Finding great Mexican street corn on the streets of Phoenix is not always the easiest task. Sure, you could spend all Sunday driving around, looking for the neighborhood elote man. Or, you can save some precious eating time and head to Otro Cafe, chef Doug Robson's uptown Mexican restaurant. There's always Elote Callejero on the menu, and it's always delicious. The elote is served entero (on the cob), neatly slathered with mayonnaise, and dusted with a generous helping of cotija cheese and a dash of smoked paprika. The sweet corn, and the faint peppery smokiness of the paprika, is like eating summer itself.

Machete Azteca, a west-side counter-service restaurant specializing in the street foods of Mexico City, is not the place to go to for oversize, cheddary cheese crisps, nor is it a destination for quesadillas made with store-bought flour tortillas, oozing with melted Monterey Jack. This is the place to go for sturdy, 16-inch-long, machete-shaped quesadillas — so big you'll need a pizza box to carry them out of the restaurant. The quesadillas are thickly built on homemade corn tortillas, and stuffed with tender, cheese-smothered fillings like alambre de res (grilled, thinly sliced beef cooked with sauteed onions, peppers, and bits of bacon) and chicharrón prensado (rendered and pressed pork skins). There's not really a bad quesadilla in the house, although we're partial to the flor de calabaza, a squash blossom machete glued together with salty white cheese. 

Comedor Guadalajara
Meagan Simmons

Chilaquiles are the ultimate leftover comfort food, in the sense that you can quickly whip up a morning batch with the shards of leftover stale tortilla chips stuck in the back of your pantry or with the flabby, hardening tortillas lingering somewhere in the recesses of your uncleaned fridge. Sure, chilaquiles are technically easy to prepare, but that doesn't mean it's easy to find a plate of restaurant chilaquiles that captures the full, glorious appeal of this comfort food dish. Enter Comedor Guadalajara, the boxy, nondescript Mexican restaurant on Central Avenue that has fed generations of Phoenicians. There is no choosing between red or green sauce here. There is only one chilaquiles plate, a no-frills breakfast of gently fried corn tortilla slices blanketed in a wonderful red chile sauce, which is lightly inflected with the heat of roasted chiles. It comes topped with a couple of eggs, and the soft, tender tortilla strips take on a meaty texture the longer you let them soak in the sauce. And, oh, that sauce. It's so good, you'll find yourself plotting your return to south Phoenix for one more taste.

Fancy resort kitchens have their own version of breakfast burritos, and they usually involve egg whites, pico, and thick, sturdy flour tortillas. These are fine burritos, but there's something truly special about a breakfast burrito made on a flattop grill by a guy nicknamed Chuy, who wields a giant metallic spatula like a grizzled kitchen warrior. That's the kind of breakfast burrito you'll find at Rolando's Mexican Food, a counter-service standalone joint that looks like the decor has gone unchanged since 1976. There are a few options to choose from, but the standard order here is Rolando's Breakfast Burrito, a massive breakfast indulgence of buttery scrambled eggs, nicely seasoned breakfast potatoes, and crispy bits of bacon. Melted orange cheese cements the whole scrappy breakfast together, and the meal comes neatly packaged in an enormous, Sonoran-style flour tortilla.

Ta'Carbon
Katie Johnson

At the height of the lunch hour, the parking lot at Ta'Carbon becomes a snarl of illegal park jobs, and inside, there's almost always a line at the counter. Blame it on the exquisite tacos, little bundles of gorgeously seasoned meats piled into soft, fluffy tortillas, which you can garnish to perfection at the salsa bar. Try the Hazz, a green chile beef taco spilling over with blistery nubs of carne asada blanketed with white cheese. It's fantastic. Al pastor, cabeza, lengua, tripitas — take your pick, because they're all delicious. Put in your order at the counter, and pay after you've had your fill. 

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