Best Milestone 2022 | Barrio Café | La Vida | Phoenix
Allison Young

It's been 20 years since Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza opened Barrio Café with Wendy Gruber on July 11, 2002 — and the Mexican restaurant that blends cuisine, art, and culture is still going strong despite some significant challenges. Esparza recalls the kitchen flooding on opening day, the chronic health condition that could have destroyed her spirit, the devastating financial impacts of COVID-19 closures, the death of a beloved friend and artist, and the politicians who promulgated racial profiling of Latinos. Instead of giving up, she's pushed forward grounded in love for family, community, and food as a profound creative expression of resistance. We can't wait to see what adventures await her as her impact continues to grow in breadth and depth.

We never get tired of seeing artist Lalo Cota's murals filled with lowriders, skull figures, alien spaceships, and other stylized imagery around town. But Cota took it to the next level for his solo exhibition at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum. The lowrider paintings were awesome, of course. But the best lowrider we saw this year was a three-dimensional car he built for the entrance to the exhibit, where people could pose as if they were in the driver's seat and hanging out the window waving to all their fellow autophiles. It worked as an art piece and a unique photo opportunity, and everyone in the gallery from kids to grownups loved having the chance to take an imaginary spin through lowrider culture.

Collaborations born of creativity and necessity marked the COVID-19 era, but this year's best Latinx collaboration continued an innovative series of multidisciplinary celebrations and conversations launched in 2016 by CALA Alliance (Celebración Artística de las Américas). Adapting to the times, organizers presented a hybrid event in March, so people could gather at Crescent Ballroom or participate via livestream. It was a rare opportunity to experience a blend of sound with meditative, healing qualities, and sculptural installations that transported participants to various sites in the Americas within the context of hard political realities. By blending bilingual music, art, and conversations in this casual setting, Crossfade LAB made space for fresh insights about culture, geographies, and politics, and helped people make connections that will empower future actions in the realm of social justice and creative expression.

Maybe you were that kid who always swung just a bit too hard when they brought the candy-filled piñata out at birthday parties. You'd have met your match at Phoenix Art Museum, where the "Desert Rider" exhibition included a car piñata built to scale and suspended from the ceiling so people could walk around to check out every little detail accentuating its bright pink form. Beyond bringing back childhood memories, the piñata inspired people to think about not only the richness of Latinx culture, but also the ways adulthood can sometimes suck out all our childlike qualities. Justin Favela's piñata helped us reconnect with the curiosity and wonder of our youth — even if it didn't entirely dispel our fondness for breaking things open in search of treats.

Día de Los Muertos festivals around metro Phoenix are explosions of color, expressions of long-held traditions and entertaining spectacles. When the Day of the Dead rolls around, we head to Mesa Arts Center to watch and participate in the festivities. MAC's version of the event includes a community ofrenda (a memorial altar) where attendees can leave photos of loved ones, plus music and dance performances, food and drink for sale, kids' activities, vendors, and more. We're not the only ones impressed by what MAC has to offer: In March, the National League of Cities gave the city of Mesa one of its 2022 Cultural Diversity Awards for the Día de Los Muertos event. This year's festival will be held Saturday and Sunday, October 22 and 23, and is free to attend.

Benjamin Leatherman

Club DWNTWN is a landmark of Phoenix's Latin dance scene that's been around for nearly 20 years, which, by itself, makes the club unique among local discotecas. The secrets to its longevity are also why it's the top club in town: a wide variety of hot tunes, plenty of space to dance, and numerous amenities. DJs bring the bops in three different rooms, each with its own varied sound. Up front, the expansive main room rocks with the harder beats of Latin urbano, hip-hop, and Top 40. In another dance hall and out on the back patio, genres such as rock en Español, cumbia, bachata, and musica tropicales are all in the mix. When hombres y mujeres aren't dancing at DWNTWN, they're drinking at its main bar (which is stocked with a wall of tequila), hitting up a separate michelada bar, or being seen in the VIP section. The crowds here are as wide as they are varied, as the turnout is typically huge. Saturday's Noche Latina party is the biggest night of the weekend, with lines stretching up Central Avenue. In other words, show up early (and dress to impress) if you hope to hit the dance floor.

Jackie Mercandetti

Consider it pure luck if you can find a seat at this tiny, yet highly acclaimed eatery on funky Grand Avenue. Dig into some fresh guacamole — limey and topped with cotija cheese and chiltepin peppers — or grilled elote with spicy crema to start. Later, watch James Beard Award-nominated Chef Rene Andrade grill up Sonoran specialties like perfectly seasoned carne asada and pollo asado over an open flame. Since it opened in February 2021, Bacanora has racked up accolade after accolade; it was just included in Bon Appetit's list of the 50 best new restaurants in the country. And when Machine Gun Kelly needed to grab a meal while he was in town for a show, Bacanora was the restaurant he chose. The menu, like the restaurant, is small but mighty, so book well in advance, grab a couple of friends, and try at least one of everything.

Tirion Boan

Call Her Martina, a new restaurant along the Scottsdale Waterfront, looks like a modern Mexican restaurant complete with greenery, neon signs, posters of movie stars, and sleek black furniture. But the space sounds like a nightclub. A mix of reggaeton, hip-hop, and pop hits blasts over the speakers of this trendy Old Town spot. Customers just starting their night stop by for a trio of salsas, an appetizer plate of steak-specked guacamole, or a cocktail or two. Tables of friends celebrate birthdays and go all out with orders of grilled octopus served over dramatically dark squid-ink risotto. The drinks, beautiful and balanced, steal the spotlight, while the flan topped with fresh mint drowns out the music with notes that are sweet, creamy, and rich.

Felicia Campbell

If you're focused on your driving while tooling down 16th Street (and you should be), you may miss the two food trucks camped out near Monroe Street. But the next time you're not rushing to get somewhere, stop and experience some of the best Mexican food in town. La Frontera #1 faces 16th Street, and the cash-only joint serves up tacos, burritos, vampiros, tostadas, and more. The al pastor is to die for and we usually order it packed into a burrito, but with a long list of available meats, including carne asada, cabeza (beef head), and buche (pork stomach), it'll be a long time before we run out of things to try. And speaking of options, you can take your food to go or enjoy it under the awning of the small seating area, or you can check out La Frontera #3, the food truck with a more seafood-heavy menu located in the same parking lot.

In a city with a 'Bertos on practically every corner, it's safe to say that Phoenicians have no shortage of choices when it comes to drive-thru Mexican food. But when we can, we eschew the corporate option and go for something a little more authentic (and in our opinion, way tastier). Maria's Frybread and Mexican Food is a small restaurant in east Phoenix, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in taste. The eponymous frybread is outstanding — we love it under the red chile beef, which in turn gets topped with lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese. Burritos (breakfast and non), tostadas — there's really not a bad choice here. You can eat in the homey dining room on oilcloth tablecloths, or pick up your meal in the drive-thru. Just be aware that unlike a 'Bertos, Maria's has limited hours for the dining room and the drive-thru, so make sure you time your visit well in order to try this hidden Arcadia gem.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of