Phoenix has great Mexican restaurants. That's no secret. But so many fly under the radar, not getting the attention or the love they deserve. Here, we share seven Mexican eateries that are something of hidden gems. The food these spots cook ranges from Sonoran to Oaxacan, tortas to mariscos, offbeat corn preparations like the memela to the good old corn-tortilla taco. Any one of these seven would hook you up with a great meal.
Asadero Norte De Sonora
Asadero Norte De Sonora, owned by the Bravo family, is the kind of place where you get way more food than you order. Order tacos, for example, and your waitress brings you chips and a soup. The chips are the shape and size of Trident gum sticks, maybe bigger. The salsa they come with smolders with the deep-red color of very spicy food, but there's a tang and fruit flavor to stem the chile de arbol rush. Cabeza (beef head) is one of the few meats at Asadero that is boiled rather than grilled, and the cabeza tacos are a nice surprise. The beef head meat is mild but also flavorful — the gamey funk of kidneys, intestine, and liver is totally absent. Like Asadero Norte De Sonora, it is quietly great.
El Norteño serves burros and chimichangas that test the capacity of your stomach. Styrofoam plates and containers come with larger-than-life versions of whatever you’ve ordered, and, yes, the outsize gorditas are heaped with guacamole and sour cream and rained with cheese. You almost know the menu before seeing it: the burros and the chiles, the agua frescas and the horchata, the churros and the flan. But on the edges there may be an unknown or two, pleasant surprises that separate this spot from others. The Sonoran enchiladas are smothered with a red sea of enchilada sauce that has a dark chile spirit and full-throated, mounting heat that stalks closer and closer as you eat. And the gorditas are crunchy pucks of maseca filled with red chile, green chile, or ground beef. The red chile packs deep pepper flavor. All the good stuff on top cools the heat. If you’re ever downtown, hungry, and looking for strong Mexican that will obliterate your hunger for at least six hours, consider this staple and the humble gordita.
Oaxaca, a mountainous region in southern Mexico with lasting indigenous influences, is nicknamed "land of the seven moles," so you can expect to eat lots of mole at Oaxaca Restaurant on Bethany Home Road in Phoenix. Mole is a complex, ancient Mexican sauce pounded into a paste-like mixture from numerous ingredients, often more than 30. There are countless kinds of mole. In Oaxaca Restaurant's chicken tamale and tlayuda — the latter an Oaxacan dish like pizza but made with paper-thin crust — the mole is loamy and dank with a chocolate musk. Another dish to try, this one without mole, is memela — an Oaxacan preparation kind of like a gordita. It's made from a blend of masa and water, and, at this restaurant, hand-shaped like a medium-sized pancake with the outside lipped high to rim in sauce and cheese pooled in the middle. It's the kind of corn dish more earthy than sweet, one that reminds you of how amazing corn can be.
Mariscos Ensenada makes a mean shrimp aguachile, a preparation of uncooked fish in the family of ceviche. Aguachile uses citrus to make raw fish more palatable. Raw seafood sits in bright pools colored by pulverized peppers, runny deep-red or electric-green baths kicking with bracing flavors. At Marsicos Ensenada, the green sauce is lightning. Serranos, cilantro, and citrus give the sauce a wildly bracing zap, making the shrimp taste fragrant, marine, and superfresh. Slivers of red onion add blunt, pungent aromatics. Cucumber slices add clean flavors and crunch. You almost can't get enough of the green sauce on your tiny spoon. Each bite is a gastronomic flash bang. This is the apex of lush warm-weather eating.
Mi Vegana Madre
José Gamiz, who operates Phoenix food trailer and pop-up kitchen Mi Vegana Madre with his wife, Leticia, says the concept of vegan Mexican food still confuses some people. "Mexican food is really plant-based, from nopales to verdolagas, to all kinds of stuff that grows wild," Gamiz says. The “carne” in their vegan carne asada is grilled vegetable protein, a popular soy meat substitute, highly seasoned and bathed in a savory red salsa, then topped with cilantro and chopped white onions. "As meat has become more accessible, it’s become more prominent," Gamiz says. "When you think of Mexican flavors, though, what really gives food its flavor are the spices.” To see where Mi Vegana Madre pops up, check out the restaurant’s Facebook page.
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Los Reyes De La Torta
Los Reyes De La Torta is the kind of eatery that habitual lunchers dream of finding. Prices are low; portions are huge; menu options are rich and numerous. “Torta” is in the restaurant’s full name, so it makes sense to go for one. A good bet is the Norteña de Res torta, which is small but filling. Everything between the soft buns is packed with fat: avocado, chipotle mayo, hot cheese, and refried beans. All the soft toppings conspire to deepen the flavor of the razor-thin steak slices. There isn’t a single discordant note. Everything works together toward a damn good steak torta. Los Reyes also has burros, sopas, chilaquiles, quesadillas, ceviche tostadas, and a colorful and intense menu of agua frescas and frozen libations. The fresh juice and blended ice will round out your meal nicely.
Kiss Pollos Estilo Sinaloa
Kiss Pollos Estilo Sinaloa, a nook of a Mexican restaurant on Third Avenue just south of Buckeye Road, gives new speed to "fast food." You get insane flavor for the brief time you spend in the shop. Kiss offers basic, highly limited takes on the taco, burrito, and quesadilla. A salad blanketed with chopped chicken is the most expensive menu item, hitting the wallet at a mere $7.99. If it's your first time in, the staff may offer you a complimentary Kiss signature taco. Two small, soft corn tortillas come loaded with chopped chicken and a little pork, which you can top off with pickled red onions, white onions, scallions, shredded cabbage, cucumbers, or lime juice from the chilled salsa bar. Spiced, buttered potatoes come in 30 percent of menu items, including the "flip" taco, a quirky Kiss creation that is a tostada with a soft tortilla blanketing the top.