Best Gordita 2019 | Tacos Chiwas | La Vida | Phoenix
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

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.

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.

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.

Meagan Mastriani

For years, we thought we didn't like churros. But as it turns out, we'd only ever had bad ones. The churros at Dulce Churro Cafe aren't good — they're fantastic. Start by choosing your shape; Dulce makes loops, bites, and sticks fresh when you order. Then, you can customize your treat with dips (like mango, chocolate, or caramel), glazes (like icing or strawberry), and toppings (like sprinkles or almonds). Your churro will show up piping hot and perfect — just crispy enough on the outside, yielding to a soft interior. We respect the wide variety of add-ons, but for our money, one of Dulce's churros simply coated in cinnamon sugar is all we need to be in dessert heaven.

There aren't a ton of advantages to living in a desert climate, but one is that it's almost never too cold to enjoy a delicious frozen treat. We love stopping by Paletas Betty when we're hanging out in Downtown Chandler, an increasingly trendy area full of bars, restaurants, and shops. Traditionalists can opt for a mocha, vanilla, strawberries and cream, or mango paleta, and more adventurous types can try flavors like arroz con leche (rice pudding with freshly ground canela) or pina con chile (pineapple mixed with handmade chile powder). There's also a selection of beverages, and even paletas for dogs. Whether it's June or December, a treat from Paletas Betty always hits the spot.

This food cart spotted in downtown Phoenix and Roosevelt Row is known for late-night Native American cuisine at various locales. The Rez, an Urban Eatery also can be seen at farmers markets and food festivals serving up frybread — even vegan and gluten-free varieties — plus Navajo burgers, blue-corn nachos, tamales, tacos, crepes, stew, and the menu item we're here for, its signature aguas frescas. Friday and Saturday nights mean aguas frescas till 4 a.m. — more or less. If you see a green jug, spring for the iced cups of the fresh lime-green concoction (though flavors do vary). It's a fun, complex mix of honeydew, basil, pineapple, jalapeno, and some other flavor that's just ... green.

Melissa Fossum

If you'd like to have a seat and watch the denizens of Roosevelt Row walk by, one of the best spots is the patio wrapped around Taco Chelo. Picnic table-style seating allows you to focus on the main drag or quiet neighborhood (depending on which side of the table you occupy) while enjoying tacos, chips, and something to drink. That drink? It'll have to be the frozen house margarita — or Consuelo's Margarita. It's a simple mix of Jose Cuervo Tradicional, meaning 100 percent blue agave-rested tequila, plus triple sec, lime, and agave. You can add flavor, but original is best. It's blended with ice to create what we like to call the adult squishee. It's tart, it's sweet, and it melts fast, so anticipating a second round is not all that uncommon.

Two friends got together and decided to push a family booze recipe to make a living — that's the fascinating story behind Mezcal Carreño. The 90- to 92-proof mezcal originated in Oaxaca, Mexico, with the Carreño family, mezcal-makers since 1904. The mezcal recently began distribution in the United States, starting first in Phoenix. Overseers Ivan Carreño and Abel Arriaga of Mezcal Carreño are the friends behind the distinct, bubble-textured bottles, and if you happen to catch them at a food festival, they will gladly give you a quick history. Oh, and a sample of their mezcal, of course, if you're not already a convert.

Spread comfortably through a simple, house-like structure on South Central Avenue, Azukar Coffee has every element of a superlative coffee shop. There is natural light, color from turquoise tabletops and florid paintings, and a deep sense of warmth that flows from more than simply the rush of hot caffeine to your head. Owner-operators Sandra and Norberto Flores greet you warmly when you step in — and then patiently guide you through the unconventional offerings if you please. Cajeta coffee beverages. Iced lattes with piloncillo. Pastries like pan dulce to go with your drink. Regulars post up at tables, break out laptops, and get to work. It’s easy to lose yourself and kick back with a mesquite-syrup latte, life’s bummers dissipating like steam from your cup. If you haven’t made it out to this 2-year-old spot yet, get going.

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