Best Tortas 2021 | Los Reyes de la Torta | 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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Tirion Boan

This self-professed king of the torta lives up to its name. Since 2001, Los Reyes has been slinging a wide array of tortas that stray minimally from their Mexican origins. This isn't a place where you'll see progressive garnishes or newfangled ingredients that "improve" on the classics. Here, tortas tend to be about 25 percent soft bollilo roll, 75 percent fillings. Layers upon layers of tender, paper-thin bistec are heaped between bread. Many tortas have a warm, gooey layer of melted mozzarella. One unites chorizo, pork, and Spanish omelet — and that's before we even get to the avocado, tomato, and chipotle sauce. Sandwiches are about ratios, and the ratios on these tortas, whether spotlighting breaded chicken or onions and jalapeños, are flawless.   

Jackie Mercandetti Photo

The very best bite of Mexican food in town might be the quesadilla with marinated pork from Tacos Chiwas, nirvana attainable for $6.50. How can this simple combo of cheese, tortilla, and pork be so outstanding? Well, the tortilla isn't a circle of shirt cardboard but a craft product that the Tacos Chiwas founders, Nadia Holguin and Armando Hernandez, press themselves. These tortillas are toasted with high skill: browning them, crisping them, and bringing their grainy spirit to full life. Glorious asadero cheese oozes. And the pork is tender and radiant with heat and all the goodness chiles can muster. A Phoenix cheap eats hall of famer, first ballot.

Christopher Hudson uses local ingredients to make fancy-as-fuck Sonoran-style tortillas. Some of these are simple: tortillas made with lard, with heritage grain, or even with corn. Others get stupendously weird, like blueberry-honey-Bordeaux. Hudson won't hesitate to put chocolate or mulberries in tortillas, but he will hesitate to serve tortillas not up to his standards. He has thrown out batches before, and probably will again. To get his stuff, you need to arrive at the Gilbert Farmers' Market early, as these tortillas fly out of the specialty bin. Also, you have to use them fast, because they're made with perishables. Luckily, they're also available more regularly at Arcadia Meat Market. 

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.

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