Carolina's Mexican Food
Sarah Whitmire

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.

Los Taquitos Mexican Grill
Jackie Mercandetti

Established in 1981, the four Valley locations of Los Taquitos offer what you would expect from a fast-casual Mexican concept — burritos, street tacos, tostadas, and something for the kids. But what you might not anticipate is the level of quality delivered by these modern-yet-cozy eateries. Propelled by generations-old family recipes, Los Taquitos' menu lists some next-level items (that shrimp burrito, good heavens), but even the chips offer the perfect restaurant-grade crispiness, crunchiness, and saltiness. And they're not too thin, either. This is why the Super Nachos are on the menu's list of specials. Think those crispy, salty chips topped high with say, carnitas, plus pico, sour cream, guac, and shredded cheese. These aren't goopy ballpark nachos, but more a medley of some of Los Taquitos' best menu items.

Nando's Mexican Cafe

When you think of pizza, you probably think of dough topped with tomato sauce, melted cheese, and some toppings like pepperoni or mushrooms. You'll think differently once you try one of Nando's Mexican Café's signature tortilla pies. The Pizza Blanco is spread with spicy cream cheese and topped with grilled chicken, tomato slices, green chiles, green onions, and Monterey Jack cheese. Not to be outdone, the Mexican Pizza is layered with guacamole, green chiles, tomatoes, shredded cheese, and green onions, then topped with chicken or beef. We'd like to thank Nando's and its four locations for expanding our concept of pizza.

Quesadillas are an easy, quick dish, but once you come within range of the black Ni de Aqui, Ni de Alla food truck, ordering the cheesy entree is all you can think of doing next. And our advice? Go for the Morena quesadilla — two hefty triangles of carne asada and almost-fluid mozzarella cheese, wrapped in a crispy tortilla kissed sporadically by the grill's heat. You feel this heavy plate in your wrist when picking it up, and the first bite is just as cheesy, hot, and protein-heavy as you had hoped. Even after the 'dilla cools down a bit, the rest is congealed, chewy, and extra flavorful, not unlike delicious leftover pizza.

La Frontera
Felicia Campbell

Come the lunch hour, even on summer days when highs look way down at 100 degrees, the blue canopy outside this modest food truck on 16th Street shades quiet crowds at foldable tables. They are regulars, and many are eating tacos. Choices are scrawled on paper taped by the ordering window. You would do well to stray from more typical offerings like carne asada and into the offal and odd bits. Buche, pork stomach, is soft with some spring and radiates warm porcine goodness. A pile of tripas is blistering hot and crackly, the savage crunch giving way to fatty richness cut by creamy avocado salsa. But nothing matches the cabeza taco, hunks of pillowy head meat at once decadent and reserved, adorned with raw onion and chopped herbs. This one is so perfect that adding salsa almost feels like a crime.

CRUjiente Tacos
Debby Wolvos

Do flavors from places like Korea, Hawaii, and Maine have a place in tacos, you may ask? Richard Hinojosa believes they do. At CRUjiente Tacos, he gives tacos touches and flavors from other regions. He has plated a duck mole taco on a blue corn tortilla. He is well known for a Korean fried chicken taco, which appears more like an artful creation than something you would put in your mouth — cilantro perched, gochujang dolloped, mojo dots lime-green on the flanks. He tortillas up peach tacos. He lays a segment of guinea hen across a circle of coarse blue corn accented with cauliflower-ginger puree. The possibilities are open. That is the beauty of this taco shop. At most taquerias, you know how the al pastor is going to taste, or you have a good idea. At CRUjiente, however, every trip to the taqueria is a fresh adventure.

Chula Seafood
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Not many purveyors of fish tacos are as directly linked to the source as Chula. The swordfish tacos served at the uptown Chula location begin as giant but agile creatures harpooned in the cold, blue waters off San Diego — pulled onto a boat that Chula co-owner Jon Heflin's father, Jim Heflin, pilots. But what makes this taco the best happens at the end as well as the beginning. Generous, steaky slabs of swordfish seem to overflow from their corn tortillas. A bright, garlicky mojo marinade uses land ingredients to accent the fish's alluring marine qualities. A slaw brings cool snap. Chile crema adds fatty depth and mellow burn. Chula has seized control of this taco from sea to serving tray, and the result is a welcome contemporary version of an old classic.

Best Place to Eat Tacos Without Cilantro

Sonora Taco Shop

Open every day except Sunday, this south Phoenix taco gem fills your tortilla to the brim with your choice of meat — asada, chicken, or pastor. (Sorry, non-meat-eaters: Sonora Taco Shop is not for you.) One item not found is cilantro, the ingredient that typically ruins whatever food is on the plate, making it impossible to taste any other actually delicious flavor. (Don't @ us, it's a genetic mutation.) Order a vampiro, a caramelo, or even a burrito, and take comfort in knowing that the green, lacy leaf closely resembling parsley won't be anywhere near your meal. Every bite of tender, perhaps spicy, meat will be thoroughly enjoyed with everything but the gross herb.

Cocina Madrigal
Chris Malloy

Leo Madrigal packs more than 30 years of kitchen experience into his enchiladas. For his green chile enchiladas, the Mexico City-born chef gives pork the slow-and-low barbacoa treatment. The pork is soft, yielding, and smothered in green chile with the same feel-good molten qualities of the pork itself. Sauce blankets the modest-size corn tortillas neatly, spilling a little onto the beans on one flank, the pico-topped rice on the other. A dramatic tight zigzag of crema crowns the top, adding yet another dimension of pure softness on top of the melted cheese. These aren't the biggest enchiladas in town, but good luck finding a flaw in them.

Valle Luna Mexican Restaurant

The origin of the chimichanga is hotly disputed. What's not in question is that deep-fried burritos are delicious, and we eat them as often as our diet allows. Our pick is the chimi plate at Valle Luna, a local mainstay for more than 35 years. First, choose your meat; we like the spicy machaca beef, but other options include shrimp, ground beef, shredded chicken, and pork. Next, wait for your meal to show up, a full plate composed of a thick chimichanga topped with house-made Sonoran chimi sauce, plus sour cream, guacamole, rice, and beans. You'll leave stuffed even if you didn't fill up on Valle Luna's chips and salsa earlier in the meal.

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