The Torta El Rey from Torta El Rey
Erica O'Neil
The Torta El Rey from Torta El Rey

We've all met tortas that were all bun, no meat, dry as sawdust, or barely worth their weight in bolillo. These are not the type of tortas you'll find at Tortas El Rey, a midtown strip-mall gem where the classic Mexican sandwich is transmuted into a minor feast. The torta that achieves its fullest, grandest expression is the El Rey, a thick, meaty vessel layered with succulent pig (jamón and pork sirloin), milanesa steak, a crackly strip of bacon, and for good measure, a healthy serving of chorizo. It comes thoroughly lubricated with melted cheese and topped with a fried egg, just in case that's not enough protein for you in one sitting. The hardest thing about eating the El Rey is finding a way to fit it into your mouth. But once you figure that part out, the sandwich soon becomes another fond, delicious memory.

You know the Sonoran dog, the bacon-wrapped, mayonnaise-sluiced street food of the Sonora-Arizona borderlands. By now, you may have even started to take the Sonoran dog for granted. Don't. Instead, make a dinner date with El Caprichoso, the popular Phoenix hot dog stand where service is fast and courteous, and the Sonoran dogs are perfection. The split-top bun is always fluffy, the hot dog nicely charred and juicy, the beans nicely seasoned, and the various toppings — pico, a dusting of salty cheese, and a squiggle of mayonnaise — are carefully composed and balanced. The El Caprichoso Sonoran dog, enjoyed on a picnic table with a curbside view of the streets of Phoenix, is one of best dinners in town.

Red, green, or white? That's the question at hand when you pay a visit to Pozoleria Guerrero, a barebones strip-mall restaurant that specializes in the rainy-day birthday meal of so many Mexican childhoods: pozole. Pozole comes in an infinite number of variations — and no one can quite decide on a definitive spelling — but all three of the varieties at Pozoleria Guerrero are fantastic. We prefer the white pozole, where the earthy funk of the hominy is complemented with lavish amounts of garlic and herb seasoning. Your broth is studded with hunks of succulent pork, and every bowl comes with a grizzled piece of chicharrón, which is perfect for soaking up the salty, flavor-rich broth of your pozole.

Mexican-style seafood is surprisingly abundant in Phoenix. We don't let a little thing like living in the middle of the Sonoran Desert stop us from enjoying platters of ostiones (oysters), citrus-sluiced ceviche, or fiery plates of shrimp soaking in lime-scented aguachile sauce. You'll find all these dishes, and much more, at Mariscos El Cochorit, a west-side mariscos joint where the banda music blares out of the speakers and enormous platters of Sonoran- and Sinaloan-style seafood stream out of the kitchen. The thing to get on a hot day, when you want to pretend you're on vacation but couldn't make it to the beach, is the coco con campechana, a hollowed-out coconut brimming with a refreshing, tomato-based cold seafood soup of whole shrimp, octopus, and calamari. And the camarones cucaracha may not sound very appetizing, but the plate of sizzling shrimp dripping in garlic butter is pretty great.

Tortas are easy enough to find in Arizona. But tortas ahogada? That's going to require a little bit of digging. Fortunately for you (and us), we've done the legwork and have found what may be the best, possibly only, tortas ahogada eatery in the metro area. The Guadalajaran specialty, which literally means "drowned sandwich," takes torta eating to another, albeit messier, level. And at Tortas Ahogadas Guadalajara, this fried pork dish is served between two slices of toasted bolillo bread and drenched in piping hot chile de arbol, a light-but-spicy sauce that may or may not set your tongue on fire. Delicious for many, dangerous for the more sensitive, the tortas ahogada at this Chandler establishment warrant caution as much as they do a tall glass of ice water.

If breathing in the sputtering fumaroles of charcoal-grilled carne asada is your version of heaven, we recommend a lunchtime pilgrimage to Sonora Taco Shop near downtown Phoenix. The tiny restaurant recently underwent a renovation (including a slight re-branding — it used to be known as Tacos Sonora Grill), but the tacos are as good as ever. The spartan menu is devoted exclusively to a handful of popular cuts — carne asada, al pastor, and pollo — but it's more than enough to make your taste buds tingle in anticipation. The carne asada is divine, served blisteringly hot off the grill, and cradled in your choice of flour or corn tortilla. Chase it with a pull from your Mexican Coke bottle for the perfect meal.

Looking for high-quality honeycomb tripe for your weekend pot of menudo? Chicharrón prensado for your gorditas? Suadero beef for your tacos? Carnicería Los Reyes makes it easy to get all those hard-to-find Mexican cuts that you can't locate at your neighborhood big-box grocery store. The service here is friendly, fast, and all the meats are clearly labeled and organized. Plus, the store carries locally made tortillas, and there's a small but well-curated inventory of fruits, veggies, and herbs. Like all good Mexican carnicerías, Los Reyes also carries a fine selection of hot and ready meats like carnitas, barbacoa, and pollo asado, so you don't even have to wait to get home to enjoy your bounty.

A weekend afternoon spent wandering the aisles of Los Altos Ranch Market on Central Avenue is never time wasted. Wander over to the produce section to breathe in the fresh, dewy bundles of hard-to-find herbs like hoja santa. Linger by the cremería, which stocks more than 30 specialty cheeses, for a free sample of queso fresco. Have lunch at the in-house taqueria, where you can order everything from tacos to chile rellenos to carnitas made in house. Wash it all down with a visit to the agua fresca bar, where you can neutralize your heavy lunch with a refreshing cup of fresh watermelon, cucumber, or pineapple agua fresca. And if you managed to spend an afternoon at Los Altos Ranch Market without eating or drinking anything, we congratulate you.

La Reyna Bakery
Natalie Miranda

Even late into the evening, the pan dulce pastries in the bakery cases at La Reyna Bakery are impossibly soft and fresh. This modest neighborhood panadería and repostería produces conchas so fluffy and sweet, they make the dense, grocery-store variety seem like gluten bricks by comparison. Sweet potato empanadas are nutty and tender, and the little Danish-style pastries called manitas are perfect for dunking into your morning cup of coffee or tea. While you're here, stock up on freshly made bolillos, and some of the fluffiest hot dog buns (perfect for your Sonoran dogs) to be found anywhere around town.

No one makes Mexican antojitos ("little cravings") quite like Tim and Kim Cobb, who are best known around the Valley for their popular fleet of United Lunchadores food trucks. At their Calaveras Snack Shop in north Phoenix, you can stop in for a quick sugar pick-me-up in the form of a fresh-out-of-the-fryer churro. As churros go, the cajeta-stuffed churro made at Calaveras is pretty much flawless. The hot, fresh fried dough is beautifully crisp and rolled in cinnamon sugar. Even better, the pastry is filled with molten hot cajeta on the inside. It may sound like a perfect storm for sugar overload, but you certainly won't hear us complaining.

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