Best Oaxacan Import 2016 | Mel Mecinas | Food & Drink | Phoenix

Today, he oversees the dining outlets at one of the Valley's top resorts, Scottsdale's Four Seasons at Troon North, and two years ago, he traveled to New York to cook at the famed James Beard House. But before chef Meliton "Mel" Mecinas became one of the top chefs in metro Phoenix, he came from humble beginnings that take us all the way back to the southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca, known as the "land of seven moles." The self-taught chef learned the basics of cooking with his family in Mexico, eventually coming to Los Angeles at 18, where he began his culinary career as a $4.50-an-hour dishwasher. He eventually earned a spot working under Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur Joachim Splichal, during which time Mecinas says his formal training really began. He's been with the Four Seasons for a decade now, offering a top-quality dining experience at the resort's Talavera restaurant.

If there is one thing the Valley knows, it's tortilla chips. Just travel to anywhere outside of the Southwest, really, and try to buy a good bag of tortilla chips. For those who live in the northern part of Phoenix on the west edge of Sunnyslope, though, they know where to find a great bag of chips for less than you would pay for a medium-size bag of Tostitos and their ilk. El Rancho Market IGA, at the southeast corner of Dunlap Road and 19th Avenue, has the best chips in the city. There is nothing fancy about the packaging — simple, clear plastic bags secured with a twist tie, containing what many would agree are God's gift to salsa, guacamole, or homemade nachos. The chips themselves are perfectly crisp corn chips with just the right amount of salt for almost any taste. In addition to the chips, El Rancho Market IGA has a wonderful salsa bar, a great little in-store cafe serving all your Mexican favorites, and everything else you would need to complement the four or five bags of chips you will probably buy every time you go.

Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Have you tried the frijoles charros at Tacos Chiwas yet? A visit to this central Phoenix taqueria would not be complete without ordering a cup of the restaurant's signature bean soup. Beans, of course, are a staple of Mexican restaurants, but rarely are they shown as much love and attention as they get in the Chiwas kitchen. Whole pinto beans are slowly simmered in a broth flavored with salty nubs of bacon and chunky slices of hot dog, and infused with scatterings of fresh cilantro. The brothy beans are served in a plastic foam cup, a humble vessel for a richly layered, deeply flavorful dish that rivals the slow-cooked appeal of the Sunday afternoon bean soup simmering in your abuelita's kitchen.

Consider the burrito, which is maybe the most enticing parcel of tinfoil-wrapped hot food to ever come out of a crinkled paper bag. The burrito is a multifaceted, highly personal piece of sustenance. Maybe your preference is a burrito wrapped in a slightly crackled tortilla, oozing molten-hot refried beans and ribbons of melted cheddar. Or maybe your dream burrito is a marvel of engineering, a soft, fleshy container for stewed beef made in the classic northern Mexico style. Either way, serious burrito connoisseurs will want to make a west-side pilgrimage to Taquerías El Chino for the restaurant's consistently wonderful carne en salsa verde burrito. This green chile burrito is neither flashy nor revolutionary, but it hearkens back to the dish's working-class roots: Hearty and life-sustaining, it's last night's stew swaddled in a soft, pliable tortilla. Its green sauce is thick and rich, its hunks of tender beef are succulent, and the seasoning is perfection. It's a burrito for the ages. 

It takes time and patience to make a good tamale, and most of us will pay a premium for the very best. Lucky for us, the very best tamales are ready and waiting at the Tamale Store in north Phoenix. There is no other place around town making the kind of well-honed tamales you'll find here: thick, half-pound bundles of corn masa, generously filled with ingredients like melted Monterey Jack cheese and roasted poblanos. Pork green chile, chicken mole, bean and cheese — there's nary a dud on the menu here. Stop by to enjoy them fresh out of the steamer, or take a few frozen bundles home to stash away in your freezer for a rainy day. The frozen variety come carefully double-wrapped in wax paper and corn husk, with instructions on how to recreate the magic of freshly steamed tamales at home.

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.

Allison Young

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 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.

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