We live in a magical city of upscale to hole-in-the wall Mexican restaurants, incredibly talented chefs, and absolutely addictive dishes like tacos, tamales, and margaritas. And since this is such a vast city of such options, we’re here to help you narrow it down. Here are our Best of Phoenix 2019 winners for La Vida.
Best Upscale Mexican RestaurantBarrio Café Gran Reserva
1301 Grand Avenue
One of the greatest seats in Phoenix dining is a stool overlooking the kitchen at Barrio Café Gran Reserva. From there, you can see Silvana Salcido Esparza's collection of Mexican wines, made from grapes like chardonnay and nebbiolo, mostly in the Valle de Guadalupe. Mexican wine? Hell, yes. BCGR is no longer new, but the tiny V-shaped dining room on Grand Avenue is plating a version of upscale, intellectual Mexican food on a level that sets it apart from the citywide pack. Flavor-brimming vegan moles. Elegant scallop aguachile. Drinks charged with bacanora and chiles. Full-tilt murals rendered by some of the town's best street artists. Sous Chef Brianna Arzaga keeps the kitchen humming, and duck carnitas come out to white-clothed tables as a guitar player makes the strings quiver. The clear play here is to opt for the tasting menu, offered in vegan and non-vegan forms. It will set you back well under $100 for courses that will set your mind forward, making it a fine-dining deal without local equal.
Best Restaurant to Take a ScenesterGallo Blanco
928 East Pierce Street
Doug Robson's Gallo Blanco hits the spot for everything from a family breakfast to a quick lunch, drinks, or an intimate dinner. Expect those earth-shattering corn tortilla chips and irresistible green and red squeeze-bottle salsas to see some heavy use while waiting for your salad, torta, burrito, or tacos. There's art, an urban vibe, a current-yet-approachable food menu, and one hell of a drink program. We recommend the Armando Palmero. If you're perched in the south-facing bar or breezy patio area, you'll get a view of the Garfield District, Welcome Diner's bustling porch, and a bit of the downtown skyline.
Best New Mexican RestaurantLa Marquesa
1915 East McDowell Road
The Guzman family, the culinary clan behind La Santisima Gourmet Taco Shop, have tightened their focus from all of Mexico to one region for their second restaurant. That region is Guadalajara, where the family comes from, meaning that, oh yes, birria is on the menu. For the family recipe, goat is marinated for two days. It's then wrapped in an agave leaf and slowly roasted in La Marquesa's clay oven for 12 hours. The result is a decadent birria, one with a rich, subtle broth to match its fall-apart meat. The Guzmans, known for their salsa prowess at La Santisima, import a special pepper related to chile de arbol to make salsa tailored to this birria. The salsa is great — but superfluous. The goat stands out on its own. Save that liquid orange gold for lengua or cabeza tacos, both on the level of the goat. And wash it all down with one of the great horchatas in Phoenix.
Best Restaurant to Take An Out-Of-TownerMi Patio
3347 North Seventh Avenue
When people are visiting, a packed, active schedule usually follows. So, when it's time to eat — and this being Phoenix, it'll have to be something regional, like Mexican — food can't come fast enough. Upon being seated at Mi Patio, a spinning bowl of hot chips and multiple dishes — depending on the size of your party — of salsa are hurled in front of you. During your meal, these helpings of chips and salsa are replenished at a rate that'll make you feel as if you are at the fountainhead itself. But what to pile on top? Any one of the Mi Patio "Especials" are recommended, especially the Baja chicken burro. Visitors won't know what hit them, but they will be full.
Best Vegan Mexican RestaurantMi Vegana Madre
5835 West Palmaire Avenue, Suite E, Glendale
Historic Downtown Glendale has become an interesting epicenter for vegan dining. Even after the closing of the Veggie Rebellion grocery store, the district is home to Casa Terra, Namaste Café, and Mi Vegana Madre. A food truck turned physical location, Mi Vegana Madre is a vegan and vegetarian Mexican eatery tucked away from the bustle of the library's square on Palmaire Avenue. It specializes in alternative dishes like al pastor tacos and nachos made with soy "meat"; carne asada tacos with grilled vegetable protein; and some irresistible aguas frescas. The people behind the eatery have a simple mission: to teach the benefits of veganism through their food. They say, "Mi Vegana Madre was born out of our love for animals, our culture, and the food that our mothers, grandmothers, and aunts cooked for us."
For lifelong Arizonans, the suffix "-berto's" is code for tasty, fast Mexican food. But not all Roliberto's and Julioberto's are created equal, and each location has its own level of cleanliness, plus unique menu offerings with varying degrees of quality and tortilla-to-meat ratio. In crowning the king of all 'Berto's, none is more deserving than Filiberto's at 1Seventh and Glendale avenues. This establishment typifies the 'Berto's experience, offering everything from street tacos and verde chicken plates to enchiladas and veggie burritos. The food sets a culinary baseline among the plentiful 'Berto's chains, but it's the little things that make this Filiberto's special, like the uncommon salsa bar, the TVs playing daytime talk shows, and the arcade machines. Plus, this 'Berto's is housed in an old Wendy's, and that's an irony more delicious than all the cheese crisps ever. This is our 'Berto's — there are many like it, but this one is our favorite.
Best Mexican Food TruckThe Drowning Taco
264 East Broadway Road, Mesa
The recipe behind the signature taco of this Broadway Road food truck, the tacos ahogadas, took co-owner Alma Kerby 10 years to perfect. Three taquitos shaped like rolled-tortilla cigars submerge in a thin tomato broth peppered with jalapeño. Melted cheddar clings to the yellow lengths. The broth is nimbler and more refreshing than heavy, and the tacos have a nice, not-yet-sogged crisp that gives way to decadent beef inside. The Drowning Taco, both the business and the dish, are a nice addition to the local truck scene. So, too, are the more standard flour tortilla tacos, packed with the likes of creamy cabeza and char-tipped carne asada, all lavishly topped with cilantro and an avocado-based salsa.
Best Mexican BreakfastComedor Guadalajara
1830 South Central Avenue
In the mornings, a landscape of tomatillo salsa, chilaquiles, and egg-and-longaniza-packed burritos spreads across town. For a Mexican breakfast with uncommon range and heart, look to south Phoenix stalwart Comedor Guadalajara. Here, soft shards of tortilla fill a velvety salsa rojo. Menudo is available by the cup or bowl Friday through Sunday. Bowls here are tripe-heavy, with knobs of hominy and a soul-filling comfort to the chile-tinted broth. Eggs come more ways than you can dream, including beside steak, with various salsas, with nopales, with machaca, and, of course, packed into burritos. They even come in breakfast chimichangas. Whether you're craving something to kick your hangover or a simple plate of huevos rancheros coated in classic ranchero-style sauce, a serious breakfast awaits at Comedor Guadalajara, and has for more than 50 years.
Best Late-Night Mexican FoodLa Frontera #3
209 North 16th Street
After midnight, nothing beats grease and options. This La Frontera truck has both, offering mariscos cocktails and hamburgers out of its mobile kitchen. If you've had a long night and want something marine-light, a dependable ceviche tostada will set you back just a few bucks (and comes with chips and salsa). If you're craving a bite on the heartier side, the Sonoran hot dog — streaked with avocado sauce and mustard, smothered with beans and cheese — is one of the most underrated in town. Add potatoes to your dog if you're smart. Add a side of nachos if you're hungry. Or, you can keep things on the oceanic side with a giant shrimp and octopus burrito, or a perfectly built classic fried fish taco that goes beautifully with either of the two milder salsas.
Best SalsaLa Santisima Gourmet Taco Shop
1919 North 16th Street
Wedged into ice, the many deep bowls of the La Santisima salsa bar serve as a reminder that the word "salsa" means "sauce," a word with open-ended possibilities. Here, some salsas are powered by your standard tomatoes and tomatillos, your toasted chiles and crushed garlic. But what makes this salsa bar glorious are the next-level options. Thin, hot salsa with a jolt of tamarind. Creamy salsa, cool and kicking with the flavor of cashew. Even strawberry salsa, fragrant and unexpectedly brilliant alongside this shop's chicken with Oaxacan black mole or achiote-perfumed cochinita pibil. The salsas at La Santisima are so good that what you order almost feels secondary. The highlight of the meal comes before, as you're waiting for your order, once you step up to the chilled bar with a cup and the colors spread before you like a treasure map.
Best GuacamoleBarrio Café
2814 North 16th Street
Guacamole is essentially a combination of mashed avocado mixed with salt and some assortment of vegetables, and maybe a citrus. But what determines a good order of guacamole definitely lies in how you combine these ingredients. Local legend Silvana Salcido Esparza knows exactly how, and has since 2002. Chef and owner of Barrio Café (and Barrio Café Gran Reserva in the Grand Avenue Arts District), Esparza has taken this chip dip to the next level. Guacamole del Barrio is avocado, salt, cracked pepper, lime, and dicings of tomato, onion, jalapeño, and cilantro. And, of course, there's the now-signature topping of pomegranate seeds. The house guac is served all day and prepared tableside during dinner service — which is absolutely part of the experience.
Tortillas are kind of like pizza — they're usually pretty good, especially when they're fresh, recently warmed, and either stored in a little plastic container on the restaurant table or wrapped in a dish towel on the kitchen counter. Tortillas are usually good, but sometimes they're great. When Carolina's Mexican Food was established, the Valenzuela family initially focused on burritos, tamales, and of course, house-made tortillas. They learned the recipes from their parents and passed them down to their kids, and, in a way, metropolitan Phoenix. Carolina's even started with a tortilla-maker, Elvira Castellanos de Abril, in 1968. These tortillas are found in the majority of dishes on the Carolina's menu, from the wrapping of a burrito to soaking up some menudo on Saturdays. The little folded tortilla is always there — and has been for decades.
Best NachosLos Taquitos
Established in 1981, the four Valley locations of Los Taquitos offer what you would expect from a fast-casual Mexican concept — burritos, street tacos, tostadas, and something for the kids. But what you might not anticipate is the level of quality delivered by these modern-yet-cozy eateries. Propelled by generations-old family recipes, Los Taquitos' menu lists some next-level items (that shrimp burrito, good heavens), but even the chips offer the perfect restaurant-grade crispiness, crunchiness, and saltiness. And they're not too thin, either. This is why the Super Nachos are on the menu's list of specials. Think those crispy, salty chips topped high with say, carnitas, plus pico, sour cream, guac, and shredded cheese. These aren't goopy ballpark nachos, but more a medley of some of Los Taquitos' best menu items.
Best Mexican PizzaNando's Mexican Café
When you think of pizza, you probably think of dough topped with tomato sauce, melted cheese, and some toppings like pepperoni or mushrooms. You'll think differently once you try one of Nando's Mexican Café's signature tortilla pies. The Pizza Blanco is spread with spicy cream cheese and topped with grilled chicken, tomato slices, green chiles, green onions, and Monterey Jack cheese. Not to be outdone, the Mexican Pizza is layered with guacamole, green chiles, tomatoes, shredded cheese, and green onions, then topped with chicken or beef. We'd like to thank Nando's and its four locations for expanding our concept of pizza.
Best QuesadillaNi de Aqui, Ni de Alla
Quesadillas are an easy, quick dish, but once you come within range of the black Ni de Aqui, Ni de Alla food truck, ordering the cheesy entree is all you can think of doing next. And our advice? Go for the Morena quesadilla — two hefty triangles of carne asada and almost-fluid mozzarella cheese, wrapped in a crispy tortilla kissed sporadically by the grill's heat. You feel this heavy plate in your wrist when picking it up, and the first bite is just as cheesy, hot, and protein-heavy as you had hoped. Even after the 'dilla cools down a bit, the rest is congealed, chewy, and extra flavorful, not unlike delicious leftover pizza.
Best TacoLa Frontera #1
209 North 16th Street
Come the lunch hour, even on summer days when highs look way down at 100 degrees, the blue canopy outside this modest food truck on 16th Street shades quiet crowds at foldable tables. They are regulars, and many are eating tacos. Choices are scrawled on paper taped by the ordering window at La Frontera #1. You would do well to stray from more typical offerings like carne asada and into the offal and odd bits. Buche, pork stomach, is soft with some spring and radiates warm porcine goodness. A pile of tripas is blistering hot and crackly, the savage crunch giving way to fatty richness cut by creamy avocado salsa. But nothing matches the cabeza taco, hunks of pillowy head meat at once decadent and reserved, adorned with raw onion and chopped herbs. This one is so perfect that adding salsa almost feels like a crime.
Best New-School TacoCRUjiente Tacos
3961 East Camelback Road
Do flavors from places like Korea, Hawaii, and Maine have a place in tacos, you may ask? Richard Hinojosa believes they do. At CRUjiente Tacos, he gives tacos touches and flavors from other regions. He has plated a duck mole taco on a blue corn tortilla. He is well known for a Korean fried chicken taco, which appears more like an artful creation than something you would put in your mouth — cilantro perched, gochujang dolloped, mojo dots lime-green on the flanks. He tortillas up peach tacos. He lays a segment of guinea hen across a circle of coarse blue corn accented with cauliflower-ginger puree. The possibilities are open. That is the beauty of this taco shop. At most taquerias, you know how the al pastor is going to taste, or you have a good idea. At CRUjiente, however, every trip to the taqueria is a fresh adventure.
Best Fish TacoChula Seafood
Not many purveyors of fish tacos are as directly linked to the source as Chula. The swordfish tacos served at the uptown Chula location begin as giant but agile creatures harpooned in the cold, blue waters off San Diego — pulled onto a boat that Chula co-owner Jon Heflin's father, Jim Heflin, pilots. But what makes this taco the best happens at the end as well as the beginning. Generous, steaky slabs of swordfish seem to overflow from their corn tortillas. A bright, garlicky mojo marinade uses land ingredients to accent the fish's alluring marine qualities. A slaw brings cool snap. Chile crema adds fatty depth and mellow burn. Chula has seized control of this taco from sea to serving tray, and the result is a welcome contemporary version of an old classic.
Best Place To Eat Tacos Without CilantroSonora Taco Shop
1009 South Seventh Street
Open every day except Sunday, this south Phoenix taco gem fills your tortilla to the brim with your choice of meat — asada, chicken, or pastor. (Sorry, non-meat-eaters: Sonora Taco Shop is not for you.) One item not found is cilantro, the ingredient that typically ruins whatever food is on the plate, making it impossible to taste any other actually delicious flavor. (Don't @ us, it's a genetic mutation.) Order a vampiro, a caramelo, or even a burrito, and take comfort in knowing that the green, lacy leaf closely resembling parsley won't be anywhere near your meal. Every bite of tender, perhaps spicy, meat will be thoroughly enjoyed with everything but the gross herb.
Best EnchiladaCocina Madrigal
4044 South 16th Street
Leo Madrigal packs more than 30 years of kitchen experience into his enchiladas at Cocina Madrigal. For his green chile enchiladas, the Mexico City-born chef gives pork the slow-and-low barbacoa treatment. The pork is soft, yielding, and smothered in green chile with the same feel-good molten qualities of the pork itself. Sauce blankets the modest-size corn tortillas neatly, spilling a little onto the beans on one flank, the pico-topped rice on the other. A dramatic tight zigzag of crema crowns the top, adding yet another dimension of pure softness on top of the melted cheese. These aren't the biggest enchiladas in town, but good luck finding a flaw in them.
Best ChimichangaValle Luna
16048 North Cave Creek Road
The origin of the chimichanga is hotly disputed. What's not in question is that deep-fried burritos are delicious, and we eat them as often as our diet allows. Our pick is the chimi plate at Valle Luna, a local mainstay for more than 35 years. First, choose your meat; we like the spicy machaca beef, but other options include shrimp, ground beef, shredded chicken, and pork. Next, wait for your meal to show up, a full plate composed of a thick chimichanga topped with house-made Sonoran chimi sauce, plus sour cream, guacamole, rice, and beans. You'll leave stuffed even if you didn't fill up on Valle Luna's chips and salsa earlier in the meal.
Best BurritoRito's Mexican Food
To order a green chile burrito from Rito's, you have to be hungry. You have to be tolerant of heat (the cooks use Hatch chiles when in season), ready for a goopy latticework of melted cheese, okay with making a mess, okay with your lunch companions seeing you turn into a kid, and again, hungry, but hungry for more than food. A Rito's burrito satisfies a primal hunger for the spicy, comforting, soulful food of the Southwest. That'ss because a green chile burrito from Rito's is one of the rare places where flour tortillas, yellow cheese, and stewed meat achieve, with the help of chiles, perfection. Ascend to yet another level by going enchilada-style. Damn, it's good to eat in the Southwest.
Best Breakfast BurritoEl Norteño
1002 North Seventh Avenue
Not all dishes have been accepted into the canon of breakfast food — breakfast lasagna isn't a thing, nor are breakfast burgers. But we're so glad that it's socially acceptable to have a burrito in the morning. Our favorites are the ones from El Norteño, which has been family-owned and -operated since 1981. The food here is simple, cheap, fast, and so, so good. Breakfast burritos come in steak and egg, chorizo and egg, and bacon and egg varieties, just to name a few. Our favorite is the chorizo and egg; the eggs are perfectly cooked, and the chorizo is neither dry nor greasy. We add potatoes and cheese and still get a decent amount of change from a $10 bill (oh yeah, the joint is cash-only). El Norteño has a full menu of great choices, but it serves breakfast all day, so it's hard to tear ourselves away from our beloved burrito.
Best TamaleThe Tamale Store
15842 North Cave Creek Road
Forget the catchy restaurant names: Adding the word "store" to something makes things easy, especially if that store happens to sell the best tamales in town. That's saying something in a city like Phoenix. But The Tamale Store sells menu items like chicken green chile, pork red chile, Arizona cornbread with colby jack cheese, cilantro black bean — we could go on. What's more, this is a family-run operation. When Martha Castillo's house-made tamales gained some well-deserved recognition, it was "all hands on deck" for she and her adult children in order to meet demand. Tamales can be found at the physical store in north Phoenix, where they can be eaten or taken to go, and at farmers markets across the entire Valley — some year-round.
Best TortaTEG Torta Shop
2518 North 16th Street
Sometimes, we want a big meal. Other times, not so much. At TEG, (formerly called Tortas El Guero), we can get a fantastic sandwich that matches our appetite. The restaurant sells tortas in mini, regular, and super sizes; all come with fries, and we haven't met a bad choice yet. The Alambre comes with carne asada, bacon, onion, green bell peppers, and melted cheese. Another favorite is the Pacifico, which stacks pork leg, ham, pineapple, and chipotle. There are vegetarian options as well, like the Calabacita (zucchini, spinach, red bell pepper, and cheese) and the Poblana (poblano chile, mushrooms, and spinach). Order one of TEG's aguas frescas or milkshakes to wash down your torta, and you've got the makings of a great meal, no matter how big your appetite is.
Elote Man AZ
Street food is all the rage, but once you've had a piping hot spoonful of Mexican street corn, or elote, done right, you won't mind participating in this trend. Fans of corn, both cobbed and cupped, will enjoy most anything from Elote Man AZ, a Mexican food truck serving a variety of street corn. Try it Mexican style, with mayonnaise, cotija cheese, chili powder, lime juice, and Valentina hot sauce, or go plain with just butter, salt, and pepper. But snack fans will opt for orders of elote mixed with generous sprinklings of Doritos, Tostitos, Takis, or Flaming Hot Cheetos — or maybe one with all four, called the Quatro. And for a sweeter side, try the Churroelote, that being cinnamon-coated corn.
Best Sonoran Hot DogEl Caprichoso
2826 North 35th Avenue
Brats, sausages, hot dogs, and the whole extended family of casing-wrapped meats take some incredible forms — but after eating a Sonoran hot dog at El Caprichoso, there is no doubt as to which is supreme. This Sonoran dog is magic. The color on the bun is astounding. It is near-white in some parts, near black where the soft-but-chewy dough touched the griddle during its heavy toasting. The bun practically swallows the hot dog inside, and tomatoes, cheese, beans, and crema finish the job. This is a hot dog so lavished with toppings that you can't see the hot dog. This is a hot dog with the joy and splendor of a desert dusk. This is a hot dog that returns in hunger flashes and happy dreams.
Even with the reputational boost they get from being in this local favorite's name, tacos aren't the best thing on the Tacos Chiwas menu. One of the items that eclipses even the tripas and lengua tacos is the gordita, fresh and pillowy, soft as a daydream, available in four versions. Made of flour and shaped more like a pita sandwich than the cakelike corn gorditas you can find elsewhere in town, these gorditas easily rank among the best bites of Mexican food you can find in Arizona. They are homestyle yet sophisticated, utterly comforting, the fragrant pocket leading smoothly into the hearty, flavor-packed fillings. Don't overlook the picadillo gordita, probably the most underrated of the four. It has a simple, warming goodness that perfectly synchronizes with the greater heartbeat of Nadia Holguin and Armando Hernandez's beloved eatery.
Mariscos Playa Hermosa
1605 East Garfield Street
Is there any restaurant, mariscos or otherwise, more colorful than Mariscos Playa Hermosa? With its glowing neon beer signs, loud tabletops and decor, multicolored patio seating, and hot pink chairs — the backs of which depict a perfect Mexican village — we don't think so. As ogle-worthy as the dining room is the menu, a bible of spicy seafood and Mexican staples. Full-color photos of dishes like the filete al ajillo and aguachiles help newcomers decide what to order. And if you're looking for heat, for spice, try the El Peligroso — a very shareable bowl of shrimp, scallops, and octopus soaking and smothered in some of the hottest sauce and broth you can stand.
Tacos y Mariscos El Sinaloa
410 North 16th Street
A $10 aguachile from this stationary food truck, Tacos y Mariscos El Sinaloa, comes heaped with raw, gray shrimp recently coated in citrusy juices. Lifting the teetering mass from its fiery red pool of chiltepin, lime juice, and Clamato, you have no chance. No chance of keeping the curls of purple onion, cucumber wedges, and tomato chunks on that tostada. No chance of quelling that bright, beautiful heat that lifts the marine spirit of the shrimp. No chance of experiencing anything but true love for how this spirit is accented and highlighted even further by citrus, allium, and the surprisingly perfect briny touch of Clamato. No chance of anything but dissolving into the scene — the radio tunes blaring, the kitchen clatter filtering from the truck, the customers fishing Jarritos from ice chests, the sun a hot object overhead. For a minute, our star seems like nothing next to this bright, searing aguachile.
Best CevicheTacos Culichi
3004 East McDowell Road
The special at this new east Phoenix taqueria may be charcoal-grilled carne asada. The birria may be the menu item that really catches your eye, or maybe the vampiros, al pastor, or hot dogs. But though the menu is lean on seafood, don't sleep on the ceviche. Tacos Culichi pays homage to Chef Adan Pulido's hometown of Culiacán, near the coast of Sinaloa, one of Mexico's great seafood regions — and he makes ceviche like somebody who has a bond with the sea. It is an austere but flawless version: chopped shrimp, tomatoes, cucumber, and red onion, all piled into a knoll on a crisp, wavy corn tostada. It shatters as you bite. Citrus-charged shrimp bursts. Bracing flavors rush you and juices coat your lips.
Best ChurroDulce Churro Café
1674 North Higley Road, #107, Mesa
For years, we thought we didn't like churros. But as it turns out, we'd only ever had bad ones. The churros at Dulce Churro Cafe aren't good — they're fantastic. Start by choosing your shape; Dulce makes loops, bites, and sticks fresh when you order. Then, you can customize your treat with dips (like mango, chocolate, or caramel), glazes (like icing or strawberry), and toppings (like sprinkles or almonds). Your churro will show up piping hot and perfect — just crispy enough on the outside, yielding to a soft interior. We respect the wide variety of add-ons, but for our money, one of Dulce's churros simply coated in cinnamon sugar is all we need to be in dessert heaven.
Best PaletaPaletas Betty
96 West Boston Street, Chandler
There aren't a ton of advantages to living in a desert climate, but one is that it's almost never too cold to enjoy a delicious frozen treat. We love stopping by Paletas Betty when we're hanging out in Downtown Chandler, an increasingly trendy area full of bars, restaurants, and shops. Traditionalists can opt for a mocha, vanilla, strawberries and cream, or mango paleta, and more adventurous types can try flavors like arroz con leche (rice pudding with freshly ground canela) or pina con chile (pineapple mixed with handmade chile powder). There's also a selection of beverages, and even paletas for dogs. Whether it's June or December, a treat from Paletas Betty always hits the spot.