Best Guisados 2021 | Just Tacos and More | La Vida | Phoenix

Taking in the Sights on 16th Street

Maybe vibrant street art makes you hungry. If so, you might consider eating your way up and down Calle 16, that stretch of 16th Street that’s essentially an outdoor mural gallery as well as a regional tour of excellent south-of-the-border cuisine.

Starting way down south and heading north, you might stop in at Asadero Norte De Sonora, known for its Sonoran-style grilled meats. First-timers like the parillada, a sort of sampler platter that comes with three different meats and house-made tortillas. If it’s huevos you’re after, up the road a bit you’ll spot La Cocina Economica Mexican Kitchen, a no-nonsense diner that serves breakfast all day. If you haven’t had a chorizo-and-egg burrito for breakfast, with a side of poblano, you haven’t lived. Check out Economica’s zany indoor mural and the fiesta-painted tables and chairs.

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The stewy, saucy Mexican bites known as guisados are the homestyle focus of Just Tacos, run by a team that includes Violeta Cortez. Just Tacos opened a few days before the world shut down in March 2020, yet has won a loyal following. The call of the guisado cannot be denied, especially when we're talking about a chile relleno absolutely stuffed with panela cheese, battered and fried, and served on a tortilla that when folded can barely hold the glorious pepper. Chicken tinga is shredded to deep tenderness, lifted with gentle spicing. Braised pork in guajillo adobo has a deeper, harder, more beautiful kick. Hit the happy hours right (fish Fridays!), and you might become a regular yourself if you aren't one already. 

The jiggly yolk of a fried egg stares at you like an eye. It's perched atop a deep bowl of thick tortilla chips laced with red dust. Chopped herbs, red onion curls, and drifts of cheese cling to the chips. These chips? Tortillas cut and fried to order. The red dust? More of a tight sauce powered by guajillo and pasilla chiles. The chile flavor has a rare depth, rich notes of judiciously added chicken stock mellowing the cool burn. All said, this chilaquiles bowl is a masterclass in soulful flavor and textures. Chef Javier Perez simply reaches another gear with this breakfast staple. 

Gypsy Restaurant Group

Elote — that savory dish usually composed of corn, cheese, crema or mayo, lime juice, and seasonings — is prone to one particular pitfall: the weird soupiness that arises when all the ingredients are thrown into a Styrofoam cup. But you don't have to worry about that at Dilla Libre, where your corn is still on the cob, perfectly roasted and slathered in lime, garlic, cotija cheese, Tapatio crema, and chile lime Tajin seasoning. You can slice it off the cob or eat it picnic-style; the bright flavors sing either way. We recommend Dilla Libre's elote as a prelude to its hearty quesadillas or burritos. But a word of warning: Despite the fact that cilantro is not mentioned in the menu description, our elote came generously sprinkled with it. If you're a cilantro-hater like we are, make sure to order it without.

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.

Lauren Cusimano

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. 

Jacob Tyler Dunn

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. 

Patricia Escarcega

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.

Meagan Mastriani

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.

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