Best Of :: La Vida
By Robrt L. Pela
It’s all about food for Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza. But she, who brought us the beloved local Barrio Café chain, always mixes in some local stops along the way to her favorite eats. Headed to a solo picnic at Papago Park, Esparza stops at Honey Bear’s BBQ for some to-go pulled pork and a hot sausage sandwich. “I love to watch the sunset over my beloved Phoenix,” says the celebrated restaurateur, “with airplanes like a swarm of bees in that beautiful, one-of-a-kind Phoenix sky. This little combo is a favorite I’ve been doing since 1995!”
On days off, she hops into her 1965 Chevy Impala convertible and cruises through Tempe, heading for a hot link from Ted’s Hot Dogs. “Then I go across the street and have a Bada Bing Italian ice from Joe’s, and finish with an open-air ride to Apache Junction, where I look at the beautiful Arizona sky.” She wraps up this journey “listening to country music at the saloon in Goldfield, that little ghost town.”
- There’s nothing more local for me than Christown Spectrum Mall (1703 West Bethany Home Road, 602-249-0670). A little shopping, a little eating, and a clothes-on massage — that’s Phoenix for me.
- I love authentic food, so you can find me enjoying good old New Mexican cuisine at the iconic Los Dos Molinos (1044 East Camelback Road, 602-528-3535).
- Los Altos Ranch Market (1602 East Roosevelt Road, 602-253-6874, losaltosranchmarket.com) has it all. The only thing better than being there is getting there on my bike. Weather permitting, I sometimes walk.
- My all-time favorite Phoenix hike is South Mountain’s Kiwanis Trail (Mill Avenue and All America Way), up to Telegraph Pass. This one gives you everything you want from Arizona in terms of natural beauty, with a view of the Valley that makes your jaw drop and reminds you why you live here.
Have you ever eaten a machete? These Mexico City-style quesadillas are about 2 feet long and hand-molded to approximate the size and shape of the namesake blade. They're thick and sturdy, built on house-made corn tortillas and stuffed with cheese-smothered fillings that include chicharrón prensado (rendered and pressed pig skins); sesos (cow or pig brains, depending on availability); buttery, wilted flor de calabaza (squash blossoms); and huitlacoche, the earthy, inky-black corn fungus that has been a culinary staple in Mexico since pre-Colombian times. No matter what you order, these machetes will forever change the way you look at a quesadilla.
The Valley is home to a handful of upscale Mexican restaurants, but few are as singular as chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's Barrio Café Gran Reserva. The small eatery is artful and elegant, with tables draped in white linen and original mural art gracing the flatiron-shaped dining room. This is one of the only Mexican restaurants in the city offering a multicourse menu de degustación (tasting menu), which acts as a showcase for Esparza's latest experiments in modern Mexican cooking. The menu shifts frequently to accommodate the chef's interests, but its dynamism is part of what makes Barrio Café Gran Reserva one of the city's most interesting restaurants.
If you want to impress your taco-loving hipster friends, take a spin out to Arcadia for a taste of chef Richard Hinojosa's terrific gourmet tacos. Don't miss the duck taco, which is slicked with a nice, bittersweet mole sauce and paired with salsa verde. Other highlights include a Texas wagyu steak taco paired with soy-pickled mushrooms; a pork belly taco served with house-made kimchi and Sriracha aioli; and a decadent vegetarian tempura avocado taco. All the tacos are served on notably fresh house-made tortillas. The restaurant also has a full bar and a craft cocktail menu.
This all-day restaurant/cafe — a collaboration between Nadia Holguín and Armando Hernandez of Tacos Chiwas and James Beard Award-winning pizza icon Chris Bianco — is an understated gem. Situated in an artfully restored century-old building that once housed a market for immigrant communities, Roland's offers a small menu that is rooted in the norteño culinary traditions of Holguín and Hernandez's native Chihuahua. Dishes like chile colorado and entomatadas (corn tortillas stuffed with asadero cheese and smothered in a vibrant red chile sauce) demonstrate an underlying reverence and respect for homestyle Mexican fare.
Where do you take out-of-town visitors with a serious Mexican food obsession? You take them to Barrio Café, of course, arguably the most famous Mexican restaurant in metro Phoenix. Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's long-running restaurant on Calle 16 has been lauded for its distinctive take on regional Mexican cooking since its debut in 2002, and it remains an important local touchstone for Mexican food and culture. Many of the chef's dishes have become local classics, including her pomegranate-studded guacamole; creamy chiles en nogada; and banana leaf-wrapped cochinita pibil.
This long-running Mexican food truck has been a landmark on Buckeye Road for a decade. While it's certainly not the flashiest or trendiest food truck in town, Taqueria La Hacienda is one of the most reliable purveyors of consistently delicious food truck tacos. The meat selection is extensive — try the extra-spicy chicharrón taco, or the incredibly rich cabeza tacos. For a meal that will leave you satiated for hours to come, feast on the cheesy and spicy chile relleno burrito, a flavor bomb if ever there was one. The service at Taqueria La Hacienda is friendly and efficient, and the selection of house-made salsas is impressive. Be sure to bring cash.
Open until 1 a.m. on most nights (the exception is Sunday, when the truck closes down at midnight), Taqueria Tepehuaje is a longtime neighborhood food truck that's parked day and night near the corner of Central Avenue and Broadway Road. The selection of tacos, quesadillas, tortas, and combo plates is wide-ranging and uniformly strong. Highlights include street staples like vampiros — your choice of meat piled onto a thick, crisp, comal-toasted tortilla. Don't miss the tortas, which feature shiny, basted, extra-fluffy rolls stuffed with meats like the house-made birria, which has a thick, earthy succulence that's impossible to forget once you've had it.
Traditional southern Mexican cooking is still hard to find in the Valley. Thank goodness for Las 15 Salsas, a colorful Sunnyslope restaurant that specializes in homestyle Oaxacan fare. Appetizers include Oaxacan treats like memelitas con queso, thin corn patties topped with heaps of queso fresco and salsa. There's a whole menu of tlayudas — crisp, pizza-shaped tortillas lightly smeared with asiento (pork lard), refried beans, queso fresco, lettuce, and your choice of meat, including options like cecina (thinly sliced marinated beef). Other highlights include thick, dark mole negro; empanadas stuffed with melted Oaxacan cheese and squash blossoms; and a wonderfully cheesy, banana leaf-wrapped tamal Oaxaqueño.
The paths to breakfast burrito nirvana at Phoenix Burrito House are many, but however you choose, you'll end up in the same place. Machaca provides the fastest, warmest, and most direct route. The strings of beef have a robust animal flavor, the element that unites the many others jammed to dangerous capacity within the hot flour walls of this football-size meal. A toasting brings out nuanced flavors from the tortilla, and heady warmth. Salsa is cool and fresh. Potatoes are warm and give minimal resistance to your eager chomping. And the best thing about this breakfast roll-up might be its sheer size: There's enough there for breakfast, yes, and part of lunch.
Although many chefs are content to smother tortilla chips in red sauce, chef Doug Robson of Gallo Blanco takes a different approach with his chilaquiles recipe. Served as a short stack of oven-crisped corn tortillas, the Gallo Blanco chilaquiles are pasted together with a blend of melted Chihuahua and Oaxaca cheese, and then topped with two fried eggs. The tortillas soak up the kitchen's lovely, fire-roasted tomatillo salsa. To eat it, you slice into it like a round cake. The Gallo Blanco take on this classic Mexican brunch staple is decadent and not to be missed.
The salsa bar at Casa Corazon in central Phoenix is a thing of beauty. You'll find nearly a dozen house-made salsas and fresh taco garnishes, enticingly well-organized and bearing unique flavors that will have you making return trips during your visit. Don't miss the creamy, blended pineapple salsa, or the bracingly fresh serrano pepper salsa. For extra heat, try the smoky morita salsa. It doesn't hurt that the restaurant makes its own fresh tortilla chips, which is further incentive to make multiple trips to the salsa bar.
The cheesy rajas, beefy desebrada roja, and peppery picadillo get top billing at Tacos Chiwas, midtown Phoenix's beloved Chihuahua-style taqueria. But it would be a mistake to leave without trying the restaurant's excellent frijoles charros. Whole pinto beans are simmered in a broth flavored with bacon, hot dog slices, onions, and fresh cilantro. The result is a velvety, richly layered stew that's a meal all on its own. Beans are a staple of most Mexican restaurants, but they're rarely as memorable and delicious as they are here.