Best Of :: La Vida
On the outskirts of south- west Phoenix, on a back road with views of alfalfa fields and the placid-looking Estrella Mountains, my husband and I are driving in circles. In my lap, I’ve got a beat-up notebook with the address of a west-side ranchito I’ve never seen or visited. This place, I’ve been told by a friend of a friend, might have the stuff we’re looking for.
We make a couple of wrong turns. We pass the same trailer park twice. Finally, we stop at the foot of a ramshackle horse property, which is framed on one side by a line of pinyon pine trees and on the other by a long, dirt path leading toward a two-story farmhouse. I don’t know the people who live here, but the address and description match the information I’ve been given.
You’ll see parked cars and people, I was told. Look for the friendly folks holding Styrofoam cups.
The hand-lettered sign outside Carnicería Castillo in south Phoenix makes a bold claim: "The Best Carne Asada and Pollo al Carbon in Phoenix!" Thankfully, this is not just an empty boast. This longtime neighborhood butcher shop sells consistently great carne asada, along with some of the juiciest, smokiest grilled whole chickens in town, prepared daily on the grill outside and sold in big, gorgeously wrapped aluminum packs in the shop's small takeout kitchen. Of course, this is not merely a takeout joint. If you're looking for meats to take home and cook yourself, Carnicería Castillo carries an extensive selection of harder-to-find cuts, including lengua, tripas, thinly sliced cecina, and house-made longaniza sausage. The meat case alone will put your chain grocery store butcher counter to shame.
Considering the city's size, the roster of upscale Mexican restaurants in metro Phoenix is surprisingly small. Barrio Café Gran Reserva is a pleasant outlier, a small, intimate spot with fine-dining airs and a multicourse menu de degustación, with optional wine pairings. Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's refined and distinctive take on regional Mexican cooking is more interesting than the Mexican fare you'll find at most of the city's high-end resort restaurants. The intimacy of the space also adds to its general allure. With only 22 seats, and walls adorned with original murals, Barrio Café Gran Reserva feels at once casually intimate and elegant.
Ladera Taverna y Cocina is the latest project from Genuine Concepts, which is better known for hip neighborhood outposts like The Vig than for its traditional Mexican restaurants. For its first Mexican concept, the group has tapped chef Jorge Gomez, who has devised an accessible menu of refined, regional Mexican cooking. Highlights include the cochinita pibil tacos and the savory green chile, both of which benefit from expert slow-cooking. The drink menu, featuring fun and novel diversions like a house margarita paired with a frozen paleta, is reason enough to visit.
What did local Mexican food enthusiasts obsess over before the arrival of Tacos Chiwas? The small, standalone Mexican restaurant on McDowell Road has become a favorite of the local Mexican food cognoscenti, thanks to the restaurant's soulful take on northern Mexican cooking. In a city glutted with Sonoran-style taquerias, Tacos Chiwas specializes in Chihuahuan staples like homemade gorditas and montados, generously stuffed or topped with specialties like desebrada, shredded beef slow-cooked in your choice of red or green sauce. For local scenesters, especially those looking to fill Instagram feeds with gorgeous platters of tacos and gorditas, a visit to Tacos Chiwas is an absolute must.
Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's Barrio Cafe has been instrumental in helping advance and expand what we talk about when we talk about Mexican cooking in metro Phoenix. The chef's highly personal, regionally inspired take is refined, artistic, and bold, and you can pretty much say the same thing about any dish on the Barrio Cafe menu. The restaurant has earned national recognition over the years and has become the essential spot in town to take any out-of-towners with an interest in Mexican cuisine.
Taqueria Lucy is a venerable west-side lonchera that's been parked in the general vicinity of 27th Avenue and Buckeye Road since 2002. True, it's not the speediest food truck around — there rarely seems to be a lull at the order window, and the lines can get long at peak dinner hours. But the wide-ranging menu — everything from tacos to Sinaloan-style mariscos — rivals the flavor and quality that you'll find at many brick-and-mortar Mexican restaurants. Tacos are made on freshly made corn tortillas, and burritos are enormous, pocketbook-size affairs, stuffed with tendrils of beautifully grilled meat. The setting might seem gritty, but the food is impossibly and irresistibly delicious.
For fans of Doug Robson's Gallo Blanco Cafe — and there are plenty of them — 2017 is the year that the white rooster came back to life. (White rooster refers to Robson, a white guy raised in Mexico.) And for that, we tip our hats to Robson, who brought his much-loved contemporary Mexican concept back to life in a gorgeously renovated space. The spirit of the old rooster now lives in downtown Phoenix's Garfield District, in a space that befits the menu's old-new, high-low aesthetic. The old menu has been lovingly fine-tuned, and its offerings include Mexico City-inspired antojitos like huaraches, along with an expanded menu of tacos, tortas, and assorted especiales. Long live the white rooster.
El Horseshoe Restaurant is a small, family-run Mexican restaurant that has been a landmark on Buckeye Road for decades. The restaurant offers Sonoran-style specialties like machaca, mariscos, chimichangas, and carne asada. The restaurant has a particularly strong breakfast menu, which includes a very delicious menu of breakfast burritos. How about a breakfast burrito bulging with saucy machaca, eggs, and verduras (veggies)? Or a big, powdery flour tortilla wrapped around an eggy bundle of chorizo and potatoes, all of it beautifully lubricated with melted cheese? However you like it, the nice folks at El Horseshoe will graciously make you the breakfast burrito of your dreams.
Comedor Guadalajara may not come to mind as one of the most popular Mexican restaurants in town, but it only takes a handful of visits to this south-central Phoenix staple to witness the crowds that gather there daily. There is almost always a line to get into Comedor Guadalajara, including for breakfast. Maybe it has something to do with the irresistible allure of the chilaquiles? They are wonderful — a little soupy, drenched in savory red sauce, and just spicy enough to make them interesting. The mountain of saucy chilaquiles comes topped with a couple of eggs, and the dish only seems to taste better as the minutes tick by. The sauce softens the slivers of corn tortillas on your plate, until they become not much more than delicious gravy.
El Gallo de Lagos Taqueria is the kind of family-run strip-mall hole-in-the-wall that is a taco-lover's dream. The restaurant delivers a very strong assortment of tacos, including al pastor cut off the trompo, and luscious, melty buche (pork stomach) tacos. The restaurant is also known for its birria, tortas, huaraches, flautas, sopes, and quesadillas. Only one thing makes all of these delicious dishes taste even better, and it's the house-made assortment of salsas: a deliciously tangy green salsa, a spicy red salsa, and a heady chile-infused oil salsa that might bring to mind the stuff you find at your favorite Sichuan spot. Come for the tacos, but definitely stay for the homemade salsas.
Asadero Toro is the kind of nondescript, standalone Mexican restaurant that seems to fade into the metro Phoenix landscape without notice. But if you're the kind of Mexican food aficionado who can appreciate a well-made side of beans, it's worth taking note of Asadero Toro. First, there's the bean and cheese burrito, a simple classic that nevertheless has been known to produce feelings of immeasurable joy. Then there's the simple side of beans, which you can order with pretty much anything on the menu. The beans are about as creamy as melted Brie, and lovingly seasoned to extract intense flavor from the humble legume. It may not be fancy, but it's delicious.
Rita's Mexican Food is one of the west side's quiet gems, a long-running Mexican restaurant with refined airs and great service. It also happens to have some seriously good guacamole. Order it tableside, which at Rita's feels less like a trite menu cliché and more like a delicious indulgence. The whole avocados are sliced right in front of you, the meat of the fruit smashed against finely sliced onions and tomatoes, and seasoned to your liking. The chips are part of the equation, of course, and they are hot and perfectly crisp.