President Joe Biden, then a candidate, stopped into Barrio Café with Kamala Harris for a photo op in October 2020. And somehow, the legend of Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza grew. It's been growing for a while, since she opened on 16th Street two decades ago. Most recently, during the first months of the pandemic, she turned Barrio Café into a community kitchen, stewing chile and folding burritos for her "fellow man" in need. Times got hard even for Barrio Café. Still, it remains one of the most interesting, thoughtful, and on-point menus in town. Esparza still rocks out her famous dishes, like guacamole with chiles en nogada, and seafood enchiladas that blend Mexican and French techniques. Over the years, she has adapted, incorporating the smoker more and more. Sitting at the tiny bar with cochinita pibil and a frosty margarita remains one of the great culinary and cultural pleasures in town.
Most trendy Mexican restaurants in town plate all kinds of thoughtless crowd-pleasers. Chantico swings bigger. Sometimes it misses, sure. But the hits are upper-deck home runs that hang with the best progressive Mexican food in town. Walter Sterling and his team cook a crispy duck leg smothered in dark-as-night mole negro, offset by the warmth of vanilla and brightness of orange. Their version of cocinita pibil features a medley of stellar pickles, offering crisp freshness to cut through the heat and fatty dissolve of the pork. The restaurant itself? A knockout indoor-outdoor space with impressive tiling and beach-style lighting, a scene that whisks you far away.
In recent years, a formidable vegan Mexican dining scene has sprouted up in Phoenix. One of the more recent celebrated upstarts, Pachamama, features predominantly Mexican food with Pan-Latin elements. This west Phoenix restaurant comes from Kevin Lebron, a Puerto Rican chef who formerly cooked at La Grande Orange, and his vegan wife, Maria. They crisp tortillas for tacos de papas on the long plancha, sliver hearts of palm for vegan ceviche, blend a light, fruity, ethereal salsa that portrays chile in a nimble way. The tacos feature Yukon Golds touched with coconut milk and cashew-chipotle crema. Their shatter reverberates through your mind and body. All said, it's one of the most impressive meatless tacos in town.
This already beloved traveling taco stand changes its menu monthly (or so), with themes rooted in Mexican cuisine — and a few distinctions thrown in. Founded by owners Lawrence Smith and Aseret Arroyo during the pandemic, Chilte Tacos channels the varied traditions of Arroyo's experience with Sinaloa cooking. Smith (who was an NFL player with the Indianapolis Colts before going to culinary school) has cooked in impressive kitchens himself, including Elements, Ghost Ranch, and Match. One past theme was birria, which saw birria matched with tacos, ramen, and fufu — and they've tucked that tender birria into tortillas blackened by squid ink to create quesabirrias, something we'll never forget. They've served hot chicken tortas, bulgogi tacos, and chapulin tamales too. What they cook varies as widely as their location, which ranges all over town.
Ask anyone who's lived or spent time near downtown Mesa if they know the bright-pink Mexican food restaurant with the old-school neon cocktail sign, and most likely, the answer is yes. That's because the family-operated eatery El Charro Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge has been at the Country Club Drive spot since 1958 (though it was originally located at 416 West Main Street when it opened in the 1940s). El Charro is known for plush red booths, classic memorabilia, neon beer signs, and strong takes on simple Mexican-American classics: chips and salsa, enchiladas, and margaritas. Since 2017, El Charro had sat vacant, a sign at the entrance reading "CLOSED FOR VACATION OPEN AFTER LABOR DAY." Then, on May 5 — Cinco de Mayo 2021 — the eatery reopened, offering just takeout. Eva Munoz Orta, the daughter of previous owner Fred Munoz, who died in 2012, has taken the reins — and customers can dine in now, too.
The perfect downtown taqueria doesn't exi — wait, it does. At Taco Boy's, two generations of the Cornejo family have been throwing whole sacks of lump charcoal onto the Santa Maria grill for two years, giving slips of ruby beef next-level char and supreme tenderness. The taqueria pulls massive crowds into its modest, brightly painted space. Friday nights, it's pretty much standing room only. Just about everything you can order here is very good, from simple grilled chicken all the way to a salty, crispy tripa and a cabeza with about 30,000 leagues of flavor. Taco Boy's cradles meats on masterful flour tortillas driven up from Sonora. Though the taqueria bustles in the heart of downtown, you feel as if you might be feasting at a rollicking backyard grill-out.
COVID-19 may have prevented live music shows from happening at downtown venue Crescent Ballroom for most of 2021, but its in-house restaurant Cocina 10 was open for takeout. Temporary pandemic relief was something we sought out wherever we could — at Crescent, it was found by diving into a plate of crunch-tastic I-10 Nachos. These feature a heaping portion of tortilla chips topped with cheddar and Oaxaca cheese, refried beans, cilantro, pico de gallo, sour cream, and more cheese (that's cotija sprinkled atop the crispy, savory tower). In addition to being an addictively delicious platter, it has a perfect chips-to-toppings ratio, so you're not left wishing you had more chips or fixins. Vegans, no worries, you're covered, too: The chips in that version are loaded with a thick and creamy vegan cheese and bean dip, guacamole, cilantro, pico de gallo, and vegan jalapeno crema.
Though the Maskadores micro-chain has grown to several locations, quality hasn't dipped at all. It remains a fun blue space adorned with heroic images of lucha libre wrestlers donning their iconic masks. The quick-serve, vaguely fast-casual Mexican restaurant brings it on a whole lot of plates, but none better than its enchiladas. An order comes with two tight, crispy corn tortillas — not the usual enchilada tubes but half-moons, utterly maximizing surface area for the enchilada sauce (red or green) smothering and seeping to the far edge of the plate. With rice and an unbelievably soulful side scoop of pinto beans, these enchiladas make for a supremely satisfying gut-busting lunch.
By the time we order a chimichanga, we've already come to terms with the fact that we're about to eat a deep-fried burrito topped with a bunch of stuff, all of which will come on a platter with even more food. Since we've committed to this calorie-laden feast, we may as well go big or go home, which is why we like Rosita's Place when it's time for a cheat meal. You'll never forget the first time a Rosita's chimi is slid in front of you: it's massive, topped with dollops of guacamole and sour cream and sprinkled with cheese. Fillings include chicken, machaca, or beans, which you'll find when you bust through the crispy exterior. Add in a side of rice and beans, and you've got a sublime plate of Mexican cuisine.
Another year, another win for Rito's, one of our most reliable, humble, great Mexican classics. Whether green chile beef or red chile beef, whether shredded chicken or beautiful refried pinto beans, whether deep-fried into a chimichanga or sauce-drowned into an enchilada-style burro, you cannot go wrong with a burrito from any of the Rito's locations. A fragrant, lightly toasted flour tortilla wraps the saucy package like a rough sail. In its package, it looks about as big as a football. You can add rice and cheese to the middle, but would you add new brushstrokes to a Picasso? These deeply comforting burros are perfect as-is.