Rito's Mexican Food
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

To order a green chile burrito from Rito's, you have to be hungry. You have to be tolerant of heat (the cooks use Hatch chiles when in season), ready for a goopy latticework of melted cheese, okay with making a mess, okay with your lunch companions seeing you turn into a kid, and again, hungry, but hungry for more than food. A Rito's burrito satisfies a primal hunger for the spicy, comforting, soulful food of the Southwest. That'ss because a green chile burrito from Rito's is one of the rare places where flour tortillas, yellow cheese, and stewed meat achieve, with the help of chiles, perfection. Ascend to yet another level by going enchilada-style. Damn, it's good to eat in the Southwest.

El Norteno
Chris Malloy

Not all dishes have been accepted into the canon of breakfast food — breakfast lasagna isn't a thing, nor are breakfast burgers. But we're so glad that it's socially acceptable to have a burrito in the morning. Our favorites are the ones from El Norteño, which has been family-owned and -operated since 1981. The food here is simple, cheap, fast, and so, so good. Breakfast burritos come in steak and egg, chorizo and egg, and bacon and egg varieties, just to name a few. Our favorite is the chorizo and egg; the eggs are perfectly cooked, and the chorizo is neither dry nor greasy. We add potatoes and cheese and still get a decent amount of change from a $10 bill (oh yeah, the joint is cash-only). El Norteño has a full menu of great choices, but it serves breakfast all day, so it's hard to tear ourselves away from our beloved burrito.

The Tamale Store

Forget the catchy restaurant names: Adding the word "store" to something makes things easy, especially if that store happens to sell the best tamales in town. That's saying something in a city like Phoenix. But The Tamale Store sells menu items like chicken green chile, pork red chile, Arizona cornbread with colby jack cheese, cilantro black bean — we could go on. What's more, this is a family-run operation. When Martha Castillo's house-made tamales gained some well-deserved recognition, it was "all hands on deck" for she and her adult children in order to meet demand. Tamales can be found at the physical store in north Phoenix, where they can be eaten or taken to go, and at farmers markets across the entire Valley — some year-round.

TEG Torta Shop
Chris Malloy

Sometimes, we want a big meal. Other times, not so much. At TEG, (formerly called Tortas El Guero), we can get a fantastic sandwich that matches our appetite. The restaurant sells tortas in mini, regular, and super sizes; all come with fries, and we haven't met a bad choice yet. The Alambre comes with carne asada, bacon, onion, green bell peppers, and melted cheese. Another favorite is the Pacifico, which stacks pork leg, ham, pineapple, and chipotle. There are vegetarian options as well, like the Calabacita (zucchini, spinach, red bell pepper, and cheese) and the Poblana (poblano chile, mushrooms, and spinach). Order one of TEG's aguas frescas or milkshakes to wash down your torta, and you've got the makings of a great meal, no matter how big your appetite is.

Street food is all the rage, but once you've had a piping hot spoonful of Mexican street corn, or elote, done right, you won't mind participating in this trend. Fans of corn, both cobbed and cupped, will enjoy most anything from Elote Man AZ, a Mexican food truck serving a variety of street corn. Try it Mexican style, with mayonnaise, cotija cheese, chili powder, lime juice, and Valentina hot sauce, or go plain with just butter, salt, and pepper. But snack fans will opt for orders of elote mixed with generous sprinklings of Doritos, Tostitos, Takis, or Flaming Hot Cheetos — or maybe one with all four, called the Quatro. And for a sweeter side, try the Churroelote, that being cinnamon-coated corn.

Hot Dogs El Caprichoso
Patricia Escarcega

Brats, sausages, hot dogs, and the whole extended family of casing-wrapped meats take some incredible forms — but after eating a Sonoran hot dog at El Caprichoso, there is no doubt as to which is supreme. This Sonoran dog is magic. The color on the bun is astounding. It is near-white in some parts, near black where the soft-but-chewy dough touched the griddle during its heavy toasting. The bun practically swallows the hot dog inside, and tomatoes, cheese, beans, and crema finish the job. This is a hot dog so lavished with toppings that you can't see the hot dog. This is a hot dog with the joy and splendor of a desert dusk. This is a hot dog that returns in hunger flashes and happy dreams.

Tacos Chiwas

Even with the reputational boost they get from being in this local favorite's name, tacos aren't the best thing on the Tacos Chiwas menu. One of the items that eclipses even the tripas and lengua tacos is the gordita, fresh and pillowy, soft as a daydream, available in four versions. Made of flour and shaped more like a pita sandwich than the cakelike corn gorditas you can find elsewhere in town, these gorditas easily rank among the best bites of Mexican food you can find in Arizona. They are homestyle yet sophisticated, utterly comforting, the fragrant pocket leading smoothly into the hearty, flavor-packed fillings. Don't overlook the picadillo gordita, probably the most underrated of the four. It has a simple, warming goodness that perfectly synchronizes with the greater heartbeat of Nadia Holguin and Armando Hernandez's beloved eatery.

Mariscos Playa Hermosa
Lauren Cusimano

Is there any restaurant, mariscos or otherwise, more colorful than Mariscos Playa Hermosa? With its glowing neon beer signs, loud tabletops and decor, multicolored patio seating, and hot pink chairs — the backs of which depict a perfect Mexican village — we don't think so. As ogle-worthy as the dining room is the menu, a bible of spicy seafood and Mexican staples. Full-color photos of dishes like the filete al ajillo and aguachiles help newcomers decide what to order. And if you're looking for heat, for spice, try the El Peligroso — a very shareable bowl of shrimp, scallops, and octopus soaking and smothered in some of the hottest sauce and broth you can stand.

Tacos y Mariscos El Sinaloa
Chris Malloy

A $10 aguachile from this stationary food truck comes heaped with raw, gray shrimp recently coated in citrusy juices. Lifting the teetering mass from its fiery red pool of chiltepin, lime juice, and Clamato, you have no chance. No chance of keeping the curls of purple onion, cucumber wedges, and tomato chunks on that tostada. No chance of quelling that bright, beautiful heat that lifts the marine spirit of the shrimp. No chance of experiencing anything but true love for how this spirit is accented and highlighted even further by citrus, allium, and the surprisingly perfect briny touch of Clamato. No chance of anything but dissolving into the scene — the radio tunes blaring, the kitchen clatter filtering from the truck, the customers fishing Jarritos from ice chests, the sun a hot object overhead. For a minute, our star seems like nothing next to this bright, searing aguachile.

The special at this new east Phoenix taqueria may be charcoal-grilled carne asada. The birria may be the menu item that really catches your eye, or maybe the vampiros, al pastor, or hot dogs. But though the menu is lean on seafood, don't sleep on the ceviche. Tacos Culichi pays homage to Chef Adan Pulido's hometown of Culiacán, near the coast of Sinaloa, one of Mexico's great seafood regions — and he makes ceviche like somebody who has a bond with the sea. It is an austere but flawless version: chopped shrimp, tomatoes, cucumber, and red onion, all piled into a knoll on a crisp, wavy corn tostada. It shatters as you bite. Citrus-charged shrimp bursts. Bracing flavors rush you and juices coat your lips.

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