Best Of :: La Vida
By Robrt L. Pela
Rosaura "Chawa" Magaña of Palabras Bilingual Bookstore
As the child of immigrant parents, Rosaura “Chawa” Magaña watched her folks struggle with language barriers and discrimination. "I think the injustices against communities of color were part of what ultimately brought me to create Palabras Bilingual Bookstore," she says.
Magaña was inspired by Librería Donceles, a traveling art installation that does double duty as a Spanish-language bookseller. "I knew I wanted to create a bookstore and community space," Magaña says. "At Librería Donceles, I saw poets read in Spanish, looked through books I had never seen before about different aspects of Latinx culture, and watched a musical performance in Spanish."
She began imagining a similar space in Phoenix, one that embraced the culture and voices of people of color and could foster community connection and growth. A first-generation Mexican-American, Magaña understood that Latinx stories were rarely represented in the standard literary canon. "I thought it would be amazing to walk into a bookstore and see an intentionally diverse selection of books," she explains. "It would have made all the difference in the world to me as a kid to experience that."
Five Latinx Books Everyone Should Read
By Rosaura "Chawa" Magaña
Honestly, it’s not possible to pick five books, because I could never dictate to anyone what they should be reading. But here are some that made an impact on me, and that I feel are worth reading.
- The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano
- The Carrying by Ada Limón
- The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
- Borderlands/La Frontera The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa
- Sirena Selena by Myra Santos Febres
In the mornings, a landscape of tomatillo salsa, chilaquiles, and egg-and-longaniza-packed burritos spreads across town. For a Mexican breakfast with uncommon range and heart, look to south Phoenix stalwart Comedor Guadalajara. Here, soft shards of tortilla fill a velvety salsa rojo. Menudo is available by the cup or bowl Friday through Sunday. Bowls here are tripe-heavy, with knobs of hominy and a soul-filling comfort to the chile-tinted broth. Eggs come more ways than you can dream, including beside steak, with various salsas, with nopales, with machaca, and, of course, packed into burritos. They even come in breakfast chimichangas. Whether you're craving something to kick your hangover or a simple plate of huevos rancheros coated in classic ranchero-style sauce, a serious breakfast awaits at Comedor Guadalajara, and has for more than 50 years.
One of the greatest seats in Phoenix dining is a stool overlooking the kitchen at Barrio Café Gran Reserva. From there, you can see Silvana Salcido Esparza's collection of Mexican wines, made from grapes like chardonnay and nebbiolo, mostly in the Valle de Guadalupe. Mexican wine? Hell, yes. BCGR is no longer new, but the tiny V-shaped dining room on Grand Avenue is plating a version of upscale, intellectual Mexican food on a level that sets it apart from the citywide pack. Flavor-brimming vegan moles. Elegant scallop aguachile. Drinks charged with bacanora and chiles. Full-tilt murals rendered by some of the town's best street artists. Sous Chef Brianna Arzaga keeps the kitchen humming, and duck carnitas come out to white-clothed tables as a guitar player makes the strings quiver. The clear play here is to opt for the tasting menu, offered in vegan and non-vegan forms. It will set you back well under $100 for courses that will set your mind forward, making it a fine-dining deal without local equal.
Doug Robson's Gallo Blanco hits the spot for everything from a family breakfast to a quick lunch, drinks, or an intimate dinner. Expect those earth-shattering corn tortilla chips and irresistible green and red squeeze-bottle salsas to see some heavy use while waiting for your salad, torta, burrito, or tacos. There's art, an urban vibe, a current-yet-approachable food menu, and one hell of a drink program. We recommend the Armando Palmero. If you're perched in the south-facing bar or breezy patio area, you'll get a view of the Garfield District, Welcome Diner's bustling porch, and a bit of the downtown skyline.
The Guzman family, the culinary clan behind La Santisima Gourmet Taco Shop, have tightened their focus from all of Mexico to one region for their second restaurant. That region is Guadalajara, where the family comes from, meaning that, oh yes, birria is on the menu. For the family recipe, goat is marinated for two days. It's then wrapped in an agave leaf and slowly roasted in La Marquesa's clay oven for 12 hours. The result is a decadent birria, one with a rich, subtle broth to match its fall-apart meat. The Guzmans, known for their salsa prowess at La Santisima, import a special pepper related to chile de arbol to make salsa tailored to this birria. The salsa is great — but superfluous. The goat stands out on its own. Save that liquid orange gold for lengua or cabeza tacos, both on the level of the goat. And wash it all down with one of the great horchatas in Phoenix.
When people are visiting, a packed, active schedule usually follows. So, when it's time to eat — and this being Phoenix, it'll have to be something regional, like Mexican — food can't come fast enough. Upon being seated at Mi Patio, a spinning bowl of hot chips and multiple dishes — depending on the size of your party — of salsa are hurled in front of you. During your meal, these helpings of chips and salsa are replenished at a rate that'll make you feel as if you are at the fountainhead itself. But what to pile on top? Any one of the Mi Patio "Especials" are recommended, especially the Baja chicken burro. Visitors won't know what hit them, but they will be full.
Historic Downtown Glendale has become an interesting epicenter for vegan dining. Even after the closing of the Veggie Rebellion grocery store, the district is home to Casa Terra, Namaste Café, and Mi Vegana Madre. A food truck turned physical location, Mi Vegana Madre is a vegan and vegetarian Mexican eatery tucked away from the bustle of the library's square on Palmaire Avenue. It specializes in alternative dishes like al pastor tacos and nachos made with soy "meat"; carne asada tacos with grilled vegetable protein; and some irresistible aguas frescas. The people behind the eatery have a simple mission: to teach the benefits of veganism through their food. They say, "Mi Vegana Madre was born out of our love for animals, our culture, and the food that our mothers, grandmothers, and aunts cooked for us."
For lifelong Arizonans, the suffix "-berto's" is code for tasty, fast Mexican food. But not all Roliberto's and Julioberto's are created equal, and each location has its own level of cleanliness, plus unique menu offerings with varying degrees of quality and tortilla-to-meat ratio. In crowning the king of all 'Berto's, none is more deserving than Filiberto's at 17th and Glendale avenues. This establishment typifies the 'Berto's experience, offering everything from street tacos and verde chicken plates to enchiladas and veggie burritos. The food sets a culinary baseline among the plentiful 'Berto's chains, but it's the little things that make this Filiberto's special, like the uncommon salsa bar, the TVs playing daytime talk shows, and the arcade machines. Plus, this 'Berto's is housed in an old Wendy's, and that's an irony more delicious than all the cheese crisps ever. This is our 'Berto's — there are many like it, but this one is our favorite.
The recipe behind the signature taco of this Broadway Road food truck, the tacos ahogadas, took co-owner Alma Kerby 10 years to perfect. Three taquitos shaped like rolled-tortilla cigars submerge in a thin tomato broth peppered with jalapeno. Melted cheddar clings to the yellow lengths. The broth is nimbler and more refreshing than heavy, and the tacos have a nice, not-yet-sogged crisp that gives way to decadent beef inside. The Drowning Taco, both the business and the dish, are a nice addition to the local truck scene. So, too, are the more standard flour tortilla tacos, packed with the likes of creamy cabeza and char-tipped carne asada, all lavishly topped with cilantro and an avocado-based salsa.
After midnight, nothing beats grease and options. This La Frontera truck has both, offering mariscos cocktails and hamburgers out of its mobile kitchen. If you've had a long night and want something marine-light, a dependable ceviche tostada will set you back just a few bucks (and comes with chips and salsa). If you're craving a bite on the heartier side, the Sonoran hot dog — streaked with avocado sauce and mustard, smothered with beans and cheese — is one of the most underrated in town. Add potatoes to your dog if you're smart. Add a side of nachos if you're hungry. Or, you can keep things on the oceanic side with a giant shrimp and octopus burrito, or a perfectly built classic fried fish taco that goes beautifully with either of the two milder salsas.
Wedged into ice, the many deep bowls of the La Santisima salsa bar serve as a reminder that the word "salsa" means "sauce," a word with open-ended possibilities. Here, some salsas are powered by your standard tomatoes and tomatillos, your toasted chiles and crushed garlic. But what makes this salsa bar glorious are the next-level options. Thin, hot salsa with a jolt of tamarind. Creamy salsa, cool and kicking with the flavor of cashew. Even strawberry salsa, fragrant and unexpectedly brilliant alongside this shop's chicken with Oaxacan black mole or achiote-perfumed cochinita pibil. The salsas at La Santisima are so good that what you order almost feels secondary. The highlight of the meal comes before, as you're waiting for your order, once you step up to the chilled bar with a cup and the colors spread before you like a treasure map.
Guacamole is essentially a combination of mashed avocado mixed with salt and some assortment of vegetables, and maybe a citrus. But what determines a good order of guacamole definitely lies in how you combine these ingredients. Local legend Silvana Salcido Esparza knows exactly how, and has since 2002. Chef and owner of Barrio Café (and Barrio Café Gran Reserva in the Grand Avenue Arts District), Esparza has taken this chip dip to the next level. Guacamole del Barrio is avocado, salt, cracked pepper, lime, and dicings of tomato, onion, jalapeno, and cilantro. And, of course, there's the now-signature topping of pomegranate seeds. The house guac is served all day and prepared tableside during dinner service — which is absolutely part of the experience.
Tortillas are kind of like pizza — they're usually pretty good, especially when they're fresh, recently warmed, and either stored in a little plastic container on the restaurant table or wrapped in a dish towel on the kitchen counter. Tortillas are usually good, but sometimes they're great. When Carolina's Mexican Food was established, the Valenzuela family initially focused on burritos, tamales, and of course, house-made tortillas. They learned the recipes from their parents and passed them down to their kids, and, in a way, metropolitan Phoenix. Carolina's even started with a tortilla-maker, Elvira Castellanos de Abril, in 1968. These tortillas are found in the majority of dishes on the Carolina's menu, from the wrapping of a burrito to soaking up some menudo on Saturdays. The little folded tortilla is always there — and has been for decades.