Best Of :: La Vida
by Robrt L. Pela
Every morning, Patricia Federico goes outside and faces the east.
"I visualize myself as a tree, my feet like roots going into the earth," she says. "Then, I open my palms to the sky and receive the energy of the sun. This makes me vibrationally strong and able to walk in both worlds."
Take birria. Subtract broth (or simply put it on the side). Add a crisp, hot tortilla and lots of gooey cheese. This is a recipe for quesabirria, a food that has mushroomed in popularity among eaters of Mexican food from coast to coast. The several versions at Birrieria Tijuana, a truck operating out of a north Phoenix parking lot, are worth the trek and a meal at tables just feet from car traffic. Tortilla half-moons crackle as you bite in, oozing cheese. Long-stewed beef has a satisfying melt almost on a cheesy level, and intensity to match, all rounded by chopped herbs and lime juice. There's a reason everyone sitting in this parking lot is beaming.
Silvana Salcido Esparza was planning on retiring in a couple of years. Then COVID hit, upending life — and especially restaurant life — as we all knew it. "Guess what?" she told us in March. "You're going to have to put up with my annoying ass for a lot longer than I thought." No complaints here. The always-quotable Esparza is not only a star of the local dining scene (we've lost track of how many times she's been nominated for a James Beard Award); she's also an essential moral figure in Phoenix. When the virus arrived, Esparza closed her flagship restaurant, Barrio Café, and converted it into a community kitchen, preparing red chile burritos and barbecue pork, and giving it all away for free. It wasn't the first time she shouldered her community. In 2019, she comped meals for furloughed workers after the federal government shut down. And as Esparza prepared for the reopening of Barrio Café this summer, she hired several artists to transform the restaurant with new murals and wall art, helping them weather tough economic times caused by the closure of the gallery scene. "I look out for these artists," Esparza told us. "They're my family." For Esparza in Phoenix, it seems, that's true of just about everybody.
Rosaura "Chawa" Magaña founded Palabras Bilingual Bookstore as a community space in 2015, eager to give readers the chance to spend time together in an environment where cultural representation was a high priority. Today, the bookstore hosts a wide variety of events that includes women's reading groups, spoken-word nights, and writers' workshops. Cozy seating areas allow visitors to linger over conversations, and there's a back patio where people sometimes gather to share food and drink. The walls are filled with works by local artists — many of which, by design, inspire meaningful dialogue among browsing book-buyers. Most of all, though, Palabras is exactly what Magaña aimed for it to be five years ago: a place where people who've traditionally been marginalized can come and find a safe space to gather and grow together.
United by creativity and a shared love for artist Frida Kahlo, a group of Latina artists based in metro Phoenix have been working together for more than 10 years to bring their affection for Kahlo to a wider audience through exhibits, craft fairs, workshops, and an annual celebration of the artist's birthday. This collective's members have changed through the years, but the group has always been a beautiful window into the work created by Latina artists and the ways that work brings joy to the greater community. Their events draw people with a shared passion for Kahlo, then broaden their view to include the exciting arts landscape right here in our midst.
Performers danced through a grassy expanse at Steele Indian School Park last October, carrying a large-scale puppet fashioned after a feathered serpent deity called Quetzalcoatl. It was part of a Día de los Muertos celebration called Mikiztli, created by Cultural Coalition as a public celebration of ancestors and ancient Mesoamerican culture. The festival highlights the richness of cultural traditions that gave rise to Día de los Muertos, largely through mediums such as music, dance, storytelling, and art. People of all ages descended on the park, where they made sugar skulls, had their faces painted, explored works by local artists, enjoyed moving performances, and participated in a candlelight procession. It was a poignant reminder of the ways that popular culture tends to dilute or twist history, and a powerful community act of reclaiming and honoring deeply rooted cultural truths.
What started as a group of music students in the same class at ASU has grown into a skilled mariachi band composed of all female musicians who play the classic mariachi mix of violins, trumpets, flute, vihuela, and guitarron. Dressed in traditional mariachi attire in beautiful silvery blue with crisp white embellishments, these talented performers are musicians and cultural ambassadors who prompt their audiences to consider the rich histories inherent in mariachi music and mariachi's significance in the contemporary musical landscape. Every musician in Mariachi Pasion brings a specific energy to the group, whether performing in a school, park, museum, or community center. Their music stirs the soul, making it dance with delight.
For 50 years, Mexican Art Imports has been adding dazzling color to metro Phoenix. The shop is packed to the gills with merchandise: pottery, clothing, kitchenware, leather goods, wall hangings, religious items, fridge magnets, and holiday items share space in a dizzying display. We never know where to look first, but we often head straight for the apparel section, where fun woven totes sit alongside embroidered clothing, leather holsters, striped blankets, and gorgeous hand-tooled purses. We hit up Mexican Art Imports for papel picado in a variety of sizes, for brightly painted serving platters to give as housewarming gifts, for wall mirrors bordered by tiny Mexican tiles. Each room in the surprisingly large shop yields more items to discover, and we like to visit often to see what's new and take a few treasures home for ourselves.
On the surface, Tocaya Organica seems very ... shiny. The fast-casual Mexican restaurant chain immigrated from California, bringing with it almost 60,000 Instagram followers, a greenery wall for people to pose with, and a "West Coast cool" brand identity. But when you eat there, you'll find that Tocaya has substance to go along with its style. The restaurant sells build-your-own, customizable items; choose a burrito, salad, bowl, quesadilla, or tacos, then select a protein and a type of queso. We love the Street Corn en Fuego bowl, which comes with jalapeno cabbage, cilantro lime rice, avocado, and salsa. Vegans and vegetarians will appreciate all the meat-free options, like adobo tofu and cilantro lime chick'n plus vegan chipotle jack and mozzarella "cheese." Don't skip the pomegranate guacamole with plantain chips or the churro waffle bites with chocolate and strawberry dipping sauces, either.
Mexican food is often heavy on the opposite of vegan food: lots of meat, lots of cheese. Earth Plant Based Cuisine on Grand Avenue has a different vision, though. This small, family-owned business packs big flavor into its menu, along with a desire to show customers what going green and being vegan is all about. The tables and ceilings are made from wood pallets, the countertops and prep tables from repurposed materials. The friendly staff is eager to guide you, but in our experience, you can't go wrong with the street-style corn, the carnitas made with seasoned mushrooms, or the Baja burrito with beer-battered "shrimp." Save room for a milkshake made with soy-based ice cream and almond milk.
During pandemic days, it's been great to have a drive-thru that allows us to enjoy our favorite Sonoran fare. Now if we could only figure out what to order. We've finally given up trying to decide which of Maria's frybreads is our favorite. Plain, it's delightful, dense, and soft and crispy around the edges. With honey, it's our favorite decadent dessert. Clumped with both red and green chile, it's a meal. And speaking of meals, we only need one per day when it comes from Maria's speedy, friendly drive-thru, where we can pick up the five-star flavor of an enchilada-style red chile burrito, or maybe the giant-sized chicken chimichanga with rice and some of the best refried beans we've ever had.
The pleasures of a great roadside taco truck are simple, and south Phoenix's Taqueria La Hacienda keeps it as simple as can be. The Buckeye Road fixture prepares a large handful of proteins in a small handful of ways. For $6, you can nab a carne asada or lengua burro neatly wrapped in red-checked paper and jammed with juicy meat. Tacos come with scatterings of chopped onion and herbs — not much more than the bare essentials. Vampiros are a smart order at this truck, as tortillas crisped into place cup generous portions. Lace on red and green salsa from the squeeze bottles generously. We love that we always know where to find Taqueria La Hacienda, and that it gives us the food we crave during the day, when covered seating banishes the sun, and into the night, including until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Chef Javier Perez, who runs this warm nook with his wife, Ana Bautista, plates thoughtful breakfasts that are largely Mexican, but not always. Something that isn't: an egg sandwich slicked with mayo, served on challah, absolutely stellar. But the La Grande Orange and Luci's Orchard alum can go new-school and old-school Mexican with the best of them. An all-business breakfast burrito stretches with potato, egg, and crumbles of chorizo. Crepes soak under velvety tres leches crema. Chilaquiles — house-fried tortilla chips angled every way that sop with fork-broken egg yolk and quietly smolder with chiles and chicken stock — are a perfect morning meal.