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.
The hot summer months become a little more bearable with a well-made — but not too expensive — margarita in hand. At Juan Jaime's, margs will run you only $5.50. And you're definitely not going to stop with just one margarita here. The mix of tequila, triple sec, and house-made sour mix isn't overpowering, but it's so smooth that you'll surprise yourself by ordering another margarita within minutes. (A skinny version of the same margarita is also up for grabs.) The ambiance adds to the mix; the restaurant has indoor and outdoor seating, and a bar area ripe for people watching. We recommend ordering some chips with spicy salsa after your second marg — you don't want to enjoy too many of these on an empty stomach.
Local chain Los Altos Ranch Market feels in many ways more like a community space than a supermarket. The store is always abuzz with activity: at the quasi-food court, a long, cafeteria-style setup that sells burritos, tacos, and quesadillas for takeout or dine-in at the indoor picnic tables; at the bakery, where customers pick up big, puffy conchas and eye the cakes in the refrigerated cases; and at the full-service meat and fish counters. You can buy and sell gold at the kiosk near the exit, or buy a pinata for your kid's birthday party. Los Altos has a decent selection of American grocery items, but if we were just looking for some peanut butter, we'd go elsewhere. We come to Los Altos for Sonora-style tortillas the size of vinyl records, for huge chunks of fresh cotija cheese, for tubs of red and green mole. The upbeat music and positive energy we encounter when we visit is just icing on the tres leches cake.
Should I stop for a box? Or a quick concha? Or a tamale or burrito? The sequence of questions flickers through the mind of every in-the-know driver passing the west Valley location of this esteemed panaderia. This summer, the answer became easier once La Purisima released its Suns-themed concha, spiraled with waves of crunchy purple and orange sugar, its bun soft and yeasty. The old classics slap hard. Marranitos are soft and chewy and rich, with dusky notes of molasses. Orejas dipped in chocolate and simple squares of tres leches cake are everything they can be. Staring down the pastry case, you can only go right.
Kids may get excited in traditional candy stores, but we're old enough that M&Ms and gummy bears just don't thrill us anymore. Still, we can't help but marvel at the selection at Dulceria Valentinas, the local chain of party shops. They do have some American offerings, but those are old hat. We're much more interested in the dizzying array of Mexican sweets, which Dulceria Valentinas has in abundance. There are a few things we're familiar with by now, like the De La Rosa peanut candy. But we've had a whale of time browsing the aisles and picking up some new-to-us treats to sample, like Mamut, the chocolate-covered cookie-and-marshmallow dessert, and Pico, an orange and chili-flavored powdered candy. We return every so often to discover a new batch of favorites.
You don't have to be Catholic to enjoy a trip to Autom, but it probably helps. No matter what your religious tendencies (or lack thereof), this west-side emporium is stocked to the gills with interesting items, from actual priestly garments and church supplies to stuff for laypeople such as books, home decor, and more. If you're looking for something bearing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe — the version of the Virgin Mary that is celebrated all over Mexico and the American Southwest — Autom has a wide selection of goods, from statues and Christmas ornaments to rosaries and candles. Keep an eye out for Autom's Dollar Days events, when the reasonable prices drop even lower.
The deceptively large Mexican Arts Imports in central Phoenix is a riot of color; everything from the home decor to the clothing and accessories to the kitchenware is done in bright hues of blue, red, yellow, and green. We don't visit the place, which has been in business for more than 50 years, as often as we'd like — we don't have the willpower to browse without leaving with a shopping bag full of goodies. But we go there for the gorgeous, hand-tooled leather bags, Talavera serving bowls (they make excellent housewarming gifts), painstakingly painted trinket boxes, and more. So much more we can't list it all here. The store recently added the ability to shop online to its website, but nothing beats a trip to 24th Street to take in all this gem has to offer.
In college, we went to a party that featured a pinata full of mini liquor bottles, condoms, and underwear. Not our classiest moment, but we tell the story to illustrate the fact that you're never too old for the joys of whacking a hollow object with a stick. Dulceria La Bonita has the best selection of pinatas in town, from the whimsical many-pointed stars in a variety of colors, to cute animals, to popular characters like Batman, Baby Yoda, Elmo, and more. And when you're there, you'll find everything else you need to outfit your party, like disposable dinnerware and party favors. There's also a staggering array of Mexican and American candy, which makes far better pinata filler than ... well, you know.