In September, Phoenix New Times celebrated the cream of the crop with our 36th annual Best of Phoenix edition. Here are our top picks for Mexican dishes in metro Phoenix.
Best Chilaquiles: Pepe's Taco Villa Breakfast, lunch, or dinner, there is no wrong time to sink your teeth into chilaquiles at Pepe's Taco Villa. There's an endless list of places in town to get yourself an order of the Mexican favorite, but nowhere with the balance of chicken and tortilla strips cooked to crispy perfection, and chile with enough kick to tease our lips. Let's not forget the fried egg -- or two -- that sits atop the blend of chicken and tortilla, with yolk that smoothes out the rest as it goes down. We also can't resist the owner's excitement when he brings out our order and waits to make sure everything is just right.
Best Sonoran Hot Dog: Nogales Hot Dog Every region of this great country has its own way of serving the all-American hot dog. In Arizona and throughout the Southwest, we live and die by Sonoran hot dogs. When guests come into town boasting about the merits of a hog dog "dragged through the garden," we take them directly to Nogales Hot Dog, on the southwest corner of Indian School Road and 20th Street. Open only during the evenings, the hot dog spot -- okay, it's really a makeshift stand with a tent and a few picnic tables -- serves a prime example of our regional dog. Each wiener comes topped with pinto beans, tomatoes, onions, and a mayo spread. You also can hit the condiment table to add salsas, cheese, and other toppings as you see fit.
Best Breakfast Burrito: El Norteno Spicy chorizo, scrambled egg, soft, diced potatoes, and melted cheddar cheese all wrapped in a warm tortilla. Yep, most can agree that nothing gets better than biting into a homestyle breakfast burrito after a long day or night. El Norteño, the quintessential hole-in-the-wall restaurant in downtown Phoenix, on Seventh Avenue and Roosevelt, meets your need for comfort food in a tortilla. Heck, if the urge is there, add beans or maybe even sour cream to the already perfect burrito. If chorizo isn't quite your thing, opt for a burrito filled with ham or bacon instead. The joint is cash only, so come prepared.
Best Burrito: Rito's Mexican Food There's a reason this little restaurant boasts snaking lines of hungry patrons during the daily lunch rush. It's because smart diners know this lunch-only downtown Phoenix eatery serves seriously satisfying Mexican fare that's always worth the wait. The green chile burrito is one of our favorite dishes, with tender beef smothered in spicy green chile sauce. Big eaters also can opt to have their burrito come chimichanga-style and covered in a layer of cheese and sauce. Just don't count on making it back to the office after eating such a serious gut bomb.
Best Tacos: Taco Mich From the outside, this Mexican restaurant looks like nothing much, but don't let the cheesy signage and gaudy paint job fool you. Taco Mich is our go-to spot for tacos, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. When we need late-night weekend eats, we head here for the best $1 al pastor tacos. Here's how it works: You place your order inside at the counter and the cashier gives you a pink ticket. You take the ticket outside to the grill, where you trade it in for a plate of fresh tacos al pastor. The meat is crispy, flavorful, and studded with pieces of fat. Sprinkle onions and cilantro as you wish to kick things up a notch and be sure to get a few cups of the smoky red salsa offered on the side. It starts out with a nice spice, but builds up to a solid burn as you go.
Best Enchiladas: Menuderia Guanajuato Enchiladas are not uncommon. Mexican or not, almost everyone knows how to put together the easy dish. So how is it possible for a restaurant to differentiate itself from the competition? For one thing, the use of housemade tortillas. Menuderia Guanajuato lines up six fresh enchiladas rolled with chicken and topped with your choice of red or green sauce, fresh sour cream, and cotija cheese. Most other restaurants forget about the chicken inside, not giving much thought to whether it's moist or flavorful, but not Menuderia Guanajuato. Special care is given to each element wrapped in and topped on those enchiladas. The cotija cheese, sour cream, and even the lettuce (usually just a space filler) all play a role in the six enchiladas hogging all the room on your plate.
Best Tamales: La Tolteca Unwrapping a moist, steaming tamale is reminiscent of ripping into a gift as a kid. The excitement that comes from the anticipation of finding out what's inside only intensifies once expectation and reality meet. Tearing into a plump green chicken and cheese tamale from La Tolteca brings excitement that doesn't have to wait until the holiday season. The moist masa engulfs melted Monterrey Jack cheese and sliced green chile accompanied by moist chicken. For those who are more enticed by those things that are sweet, order one of Tolteca's strawberry or pineapple tamales . . . or both. Don't stop with those, they also make red beef and carnitas tamales, all for only $1.99 apiece.
Best Torta: Gallo Blanco Gallo Blanco, located in the Clarendon Hotel, isn't the hole-in-the-wall kind of Mexican restaurant you usually look to for simple south-of-the-border cuisine. But that's part of the charm of chef Doug Robson's menu -- the restaurant's tacos, enchiladas, and tortas compete with some of the best. And when it comes to the Nacho Torta in particular, we're confident in saying it's the best Mexican sandwich in town. The hearty entrée is served on a fluffy telera sourced from La Sonorense bakery and comes loaded with excellent rib eye, the restaurant's addictingly good charred tomato salsa, fresh avocado, and not one, but two over-easy eggs. For smaller appetites, half tortas are available, though we usually go for a whole and save the other half for later.
Best Pozole: Los Taquitos For those who find it hard to swallow menudo, pozole is the route to take. Thick chunks of tender, flavorful pork, along with hominy float together in the bowls of fresh pozole at Los Taquitos. The aroma of the steaming soup fills the nostrils, making it hard to resist. Pozole is not found in many restaurants, nor is it readily available any time of the day. It's also not an easy soup to construct, so when we find someone who can put together pozole without skimping on any of the flavors and charging only $6 a bowl, we hold on to them.
Best Menudo: Rosita's Place No one likes being told that they can order menudo only on weekends. There are times when the day's events call for a soothing bowl of deep red or bright white menudo filled with fresh tripe and soft hominy. Rosita's Place knows about those days and caters to us the way we remember our grandmothers doing when we were young. The time spent on each batch of menudo is evident with the bold flavors that swirl in our mouth. Go ahead, squeeze a lemon wedge in it or toss some onion and cilantro -- maybe even oregano -- on top, but we guarantee that all you'll need are fresh tortillas to dip in the rich broth.
Best Mexican Seafood: Mariscos Altata To call Mariscos Altata loud doesn't do justice to the level of noise you're likely to encounter while dining at the West Phoenix restaurant. But if you're really looking to have top-quality Mexican seafood, then the impressive din will be worth enduring. The restaurant serves a large menu of dishes featuring shrimp, oysters, squid, scallops, and more. Your meal will always begin with chips, salsa, and a complimentary cup of briny seafood and vegetable soup that will likely leave you wanting more. One of the better entrée options is the shrimp cucaracha. Served with a side of red hot dipping sauce, it's a dish of grilled head-on prawns that arrive at your table looking like a plate of spindly insects.
Best Carne Asada: Asadero Norte de Sonora Much of the draw of this 16th Street spot is the whole grilled chickens, which will set you back less than $10 but easily can satisfy a whole family. And they're really good. But it's not the chicken that keeps us coming back. It's the carne asada. Whether we're taking out or dining in, we almost always get an order of Asadero's street-style tacos, which come in a variety of types, including lengua and al pastor. They're all solid options, but the carne asada is the best. The restaurant does an excellent job of producing flavorful, moist grilled steak, and we've yet to find a better option in town. You also can get your carne in burrito form, though we think the tacos allow you to better appreciate the meat inside.
Best Guacamole: Barrio Cafe We've said it once and we'll say it again: Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's guacamole is the best in town. True, there's something to be said about a simple, well-executed bowl of creamy guacamole, but we can't help dreaming about the heartier, fancier version found at the chef's famous Barrio Cafe. Her guacamole features fresh avocados, tomato, red onion, cilantro, jalapeño, lime juice, and pomegranate seeds to make for a dip that's anything but boring. The balance between tart and sweet makes it addicting. Yes, the fanfare of the tableside show comes with a larger-than-average price, but we promise you won't regret the extra dollars once you try it.
Best Salsa: Carniceria Los Piños Making good salsa is not easy. Finding the balance of chiles, garlic, and salt while still imparting a memorable flavor is sometimes best left to those who have been doing it for years. The folks at Carniceria Los Piños put out a refrigerator full of three different kinds of salsas and a spicy guacamole every day. Choose from two red salsas -- the classic, which leaves a welcomed burning sensation causing you to reach for more, and the totalmente salsa, with its roasted pepper taste. The salsa verde is an all-time favorite, made with fresh tomatillos and excellent on just about anything it touches.
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Best Elote: Fruitilicious Elote (simply put, corn) has gained favor in respected restaurants, making its way onto menus for about $5. So, sure, you could say it's trendy. But head down to South Phoenix and there lies the mecca of Mexican street foods, with prices equivalent to the streets. Instead of serving corn on the cob, Fruitlicious slices off the corn from the cob and puts it in a cup with a dollop of mayo, lime juice, cotija, and chili powder. It's a mess-free way to indulge in the hot and creamy goodness of an all-time favorite without having to fork out unnecessary money that very well could be spent on the other enticing snacks Fruitlicious creates.
Best Nopales: Comedor Guadalajara Most are not comforted when spotting cactus (nopales) on a menu, but Comedor Guadalajara got smart and put it into a classic: the quesadilla. Packed with cheddar cheese, chunks of grilled chicken, red and green bell peppers, and cactus, the dish is an easy way for cactus newbies and experts alike to enjoy the desert plant. The semi-acidic taste of the cactus complements the bitter taste of the green bell pepper. After indulging in cactus for the first time, you'll quickly realize that eating native Arizona vegetation never tasted so good.
Best Tortillas: Carolina's Don't even bother trying to convince us that there's a place in town making better tortillas than Carolina's. This restaurant has been doing them perfectly for as long as we can remember. There are lots of Mexican restaurants in town and many of them make good tortillas, but none achieves the level of fame that has come to this Phoenix institution. Carolina's tortillas are made in-house and arrive fresh off the grill nice and hot. We'll never be able to understand how Carolina's manages to make them paper-thin and yet able to stretch around more burrito contents than we ever thought possible. It's a good thing, too, because without such a strong tortilla base, there's no way you'd be able to enjoy Carolina's food without spilling green chile sauce and grease all over your shirt.