Some snooty conquistador way back when once noted that in Mexico, avocados and guacamole were "butter for the poor." My, how times have changed! Guacamole -- a literal and linguistic mash-up of the Nahuatl (Aztec) words ahuacatl (avocado) and mole (mixture) has gone so upscale, customers now routinely shell out big bucks to watch its oh-so-Continental table-side preparation. Montezuma must be rolling over in his grave.
Those of us Arizonans weaned on guacamole often take the Will Rogers approach, meaning we've seldom met one we didn't like: runny varieties and industrial-strength tubs of the pre-made grocery store variety excluded. Super-simple, insanely complicated . . . it's all good because it's guac (sorry, Minerva) -- a rich but ultra-fresh-tasting snack that's just right with warm chips and a cold beer or salt-rimmed margarita. Here are eight outstanding takes on guacamole, some traditional, some trendy.
Chef-owner Doug Robson may be a gallo blanco, but this white dude, who lived near Mexico City as a kid, turns out some of the best Mexican food in the city. He offers two slightly different guacamoles at Gallo Blanco and its brand new little sister, Otro, both so delicious you'll want to lick the bowls clean. Gallo's version (Guacamole Classico) combines organic avocado, jalapeños, lime juice, white onion, charred tomato and citrus wedges for a chunky-creamy, slightly sweet guacamole. Meanwhile Otro's guac switches out jalapeños for hotter serranos and replaces the tomatoes with tomatillos to make a tarter, spicier mixture Robson calls Mexico City-style. Both come with fabulous corn chips from La Sonorense and both are offered at remarkably reasonable prices: $3 single, $5 share.
There's nothing particularly fancy about Sierra Bonita's guacamole, but it hits the spot when you're sipping an excellent La Paloma or margarita here. It's a faintly chunky, mostly creamy rendition bolstered with white onion, a bit of jalapeño and lots of cilantro. Diced tomatoes come sprinkled over the top so that the guac doesn't get too watery. Although plenty tasty enough to stand on its own, it's served with three salsas -- pico de gallo, tomatillo and chipotle, all fun for mixing and matching. Stop in for happy hour, when the $9 price is reduced to $6.
Iron Chef and serial restaurateur José Garces and his Modern Mexican cuisine may get mixed reviews from locals, but there's no denying his bright, lemon-y guacamole -- mixed with roasted jalapeño and cilantro, topped with cotija cheese and served in a cool silver bowl -- is first-rate. The $10 price drops to $6 during happy hour, but throw parsimony aside and spring for the add-on of sweet lump crab, which is such a natural with avocado. It's only another five bucks, so live a little.
Hard to say whether Milagro took a page from Distrito's book, but pairing crabmeat with guacamole is all over the Internet, touted by everyone from Emeril to Martha. Milagro's luscious version, called Guacamole Unico, combines lightly mashed avocado with roasted jalapeños, white onion, cilantro and lemon juice, topping this chunky heap of goodness with a generous spoonful of wild Dungeness crab, sweet and creamy. A side of robust red salsa kicks it up a notch. Not interested in unique guac? Then go with the slightly spicier traditional version ($8 regular, $5 at happy hour), which brings together serrano chiles, red onion, cilantro and fresh lime, topped with cotija.
A smart-alec friend of mine recently opined that Silvana Salcido Esparza invented guacamole, and while it's clear he's making a little joke, it's also true that Esparza is the local chef who transformed humble guacamole into an upscale table-side dish with a hefty price tag. But you won't hear me complaining. I love watching the ritual, knowing the guacamole -- made with diced tomato, red onion, jalapeño, lime juice, cilantro and dried cranberries or juicy pomegranate seeds that pop in the mouth -- is just-this-minute fresh. Get a half-order for $6 and the table-side version for $10.75.
Matt Carter has created his own ridiculously good version of table-side guacamole, and it either rivals or eclipses Barrio's, depending on the day and your mood. But, really, the comparison is apples to oranges. Where Barrio uses seasonal pomegranate seeds (like sweet, juicy edible pop beads in the mouth) or dried cranberry to add texture and sweetness, The Mission jacks up its guacamole with jalapeño, red onion, tomato, fresh garlic, EVOO, lime, chipotle puree and a trace of ghost pepper (the hottest chile in the world), topping it off with crunchy roasted pepitas and cotija for a concoction more savory than sweet. Florid? You bet, and I wouldn't change a thing -- expect maybe the $12 price tag. But I'll live with it because this is really, really good stuff. If you're one of those people who's always complaining about price-to-portion-size, don't even think of going here. Just take yourself straight to Claim Jumper.
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Jeff Smedstad may have flown the coop years ago, but this cute regional Mexican restaurant still cranks out some of the best guacamole in town, piled high in a molcajete and topped with cotija (small, $6.95; large, $10.95). It's a classic chunky-creamy mix of white onion, tomato, jalapeño and cilantro, throwing off more onion-y flavor than heat. Scoop it with corn chips and pinwheels of flour-based duros, an airy packaged snack popular in Mexico.