Mexican food aficionados understand that guacamole is like a fingerprint — everyone's is a little different. At restaurants around town, we've had chunky guacamole and smooth, stripped down to its bare essentials or adorned with nontraditional ingredients. The guac at Diego Pops leans more toward the fancy side; order it at the Old Town Scottsdale hotspot and you get a cup of avocado laced with orange, cotija cheese, blistered jalapeno, and lime juice. It comes surrounded by a sea of hot, fresh tortilla chips. The citrusy notes of the orange and lime give the guac a brightness, the jalapeno injects spice, and the cotija adds creaminess for a version of this beloved dish we order time and time again.
On our great corridor of Mexican food, the vibrant central Phoenix stretch of 16th Street, the crown jewel of the Valley's Mexican seafood scene awaits. Painted the teal of the sea and the orange of coral, MPH, opened in 2002 by Jose and Maria Maldonado, is approachable and wide-ranging. The move is to sit on the patio, order a marg or a giant glass of beer, and go to town. Molcajetes festooned with shrimp and giant, multi-tier seafood towers adorned with salsa-laced crab legs and oysters electric with aguachile will satisfy groups. But you could also swing a solo lunch here, putting away tacos gobernador or a tostada heaped with ceviche. MPH is simply a sunny, michelada-tinged, old-fashioned good time.
In our city, where eating cold, citrus-bright fresh fish is a summer necessity, the stellar ceviche options are many. The truest to the dish's refreshing, simple spirit might be the version plated by Chefs Carlos Diaz and Doug Robson at Gallo Blanco in Garfield. Gallo's ceviche de pescado is a ceviche of the day. It changes with the freshest offerings available from Chula Seafood, but the other core components remain largely the same. Plenty of herbs. Slivers of pepper. Citrus. Olive oil. Every last one of its elements converges to highlight the fish, celebrating it with the joy that only a desert city in a landlocked state can.
It's an iconic Phoenix dining experience. You pull up to El Caprichoso's parking lot location on a warm summer night. You sit at a plastic table topped with a piece of red oilcloth. The waiter takes your order, and a surprisingly short time later, a Sonoran hot dog and an ice-cold drink are sitting in front of you. The bun is impossibly pillowy, and the plump frank is buried underneath the traditional toppings: bacon, beans, tomato, onion, guacamole, mayo, and cotija. Around you, conversations in Spanish and English fill the air, as does the sound of traffic from the street nearby. The regular-size hot dog is plenty for us, but we'd understand if you ordered the Titanic dog, which offers more bites to appreciate the symphony of flavors in this classic Arizona dish.
Of all the flavor combinations, cinnamon and sugar may be our favorite. Which is why we get our hands on a piping-hot churro from Dulce Churro Cafe every chance we get. The offerings here are beyond comparison, mainly because the host of options means we can get exactly what we're in the mood for. Sometimes, we're craving the basics: a hot, fresh, crispy on the outside, tender on the inside churro dusted with our beloved cinnamon and sugar. Other times, when we're really vibing out, we get our churro dipped in chocolate and sprinkles, or with a mango, caramel, or cheesecake dip. Whatever we choose from Dulce Churro Cafe, we know it'll hit the spot.
What a concept: an eatery that puts equal emphasis on solid Mexican food and mouthwatering desserts. It's worth the drive to Tacos + Cakes to get our fix for both essential food groups in one spot. Tacos + Cakes has a decently sized menu of typical south of the border dishes at reasonable prices (we like the chicken chimichanga and the rolled tacos filled with shredded beef). It serves breakfast all day, too. But we always save space for the desserts, in particular the tres leches cake. Flavors vary, but on any given day you might find chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, pecan, or lemon. You get a hefty square of cake that's perfectly sweet and not too moist. The shop operated as the Pasteleria Elizabeth bakery for a number of years before adding the food component in early 2020, so it's no surprise that the desserts sing here.
To call a paleta a Mexican Popsicle is to undervalue the charms of this traditional frozen treat. Paletas Betty's offerings change from day to day, but usually include traditional combinations, like the Arroz Con Leche, made from milk, cream, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla, and studded with rice, and the Pina Con Chile, a sweet and spicy blend of pineapple, sugar, lime, chiles, and salt. We also love when Paletas Betty gets experimental with it, allowing us to try varieties like the Zarzamora (a blackberry-lavender blend) or the Pepino (a cucumber and mint treat made with Greek yogurt). It's the mix of the old and new concepts of the paleta that make Paletas Betty our favorite shop in town.
There's no shortage of great Mexican food in the Valley. But forget about tacos or even chiles en nogada and focus momentarily on desserts. Specifically, the raspado, which is — and this is a vast oversimplification — shaved ice, fruit syrup, and fruit (and sometimes ice cream, lechera, and/or chamoy sauce). Few places have perfected the form like Oasis Raspados. These are among the peak of raspados, which are both sweet and fruity but also savory and spicy for good measure. Yet Oasis's tasty treats go so much further, and whether you opt for the indulgent Obispo or the light and creamy Fruti-Nieve, you can expect a perfectly refreshing blend of quality, craftsmanship, and creativity. Oasis has also refined the overall experience and sense of community that comes with these taste sensations. It's not about artisanal ingredients, lines out the door, or a decent presence on Instagram — this is the dessert all of us can enjoy.
Last year, a Latin-influenced restaurant from the same team behind Taco Guild opened Ofrenda (or "offering") on the main strip in Cave Creek. The eatery offers an extensive wine and cocktail list, as well as menu items like pork empanadas, lobster tacos, and tomahawk steak. This new north Valley restaurant also hopes to amass a bigger selection of agave-based spirits than any other in the world — and it's well on its way. A colossus of a 300-seater with two stories of outdoor tables, Ofrenda has a 20-foot-tall "library" of tequila and mezcal accessed by ladders (remember that scene in 1991's Beauty and the Beast?). Behind a bar near the entrance stands prominent bottles: Mezcal Carreno, a brand with some Arizona roots, and El Tesoro. "We're going for the world record," Carlos Marquez, executive chef, told New Times earlier this year. We think they'll pull it off.
Messing with a perfect thing is dangerous. It's a wonder, then, that so many bartenders feel the need to gussy up the margarita, one of the world's few perfect drinks. CRUjiente does attempt some pretty wild riffs on the good, old-fashioned marg, like coconut and passionfruit-serrano. But the Premier Cru, the restaurant's lower-end, ordinary margarita, taps into the classic cocktail's legendary refreshment. Co-owner and bar maestro Jason Morris adheres to the tried-and-true classic recipe: blue-agave tequila, lime, and agave syrup. He rebalances the equation a bit to include more tequila and a kiss of orange imparted by muddling a slice. It's a small final touch, but adds complexity and bracing goodness, making for a perfect marg.