We are lucky in Phoenix to have some of the most creative, innovative and tasty out-of-the-box Mexican cuisine in the country. But sometimes you just want a bean and cheese burrito from your old standby. So here's a list of nine of our favorite classic Mexican restaurants in metro Phoenix.
Carolina's Whether you pronounce it Carlo-LIE-nas or Caro-LEE-nas, there's almost no chance you can live in Phoenix and not know, and love, this restaurant. And no, we don't mean the North Phoenix or Peoria locations, but the original restaurant located in South Phoenix.
Since 1968 this small, simple spot located south of downtown has been serving the Valley's most famous housemade tortillas and stick-to-your-ribs Mexican eats, including giant machaca burritos and moist green chicken tamales. The cinder block building that houses the restaurant has bars on the windows and no air conditioning, but that doesn't stop people from all walks of life from flocking here for a wallet-friendly lunch. Business types in suits and ties dine next to construction workers and college students at Carolina's well-worn tables, often ordering the Oaxaca Special, an addicting but simple combination of chorizo, fried potatoes, refried beans, and cheese. We've also heard of people who prefer to swing by as a last meal before getting out of town, if only to pick up a bag of fresh tortillas to enjoy on the road.
Los Dos Molinos Not everyone likes it hot. But those who do, head to Los Dos Molinos. The New Mexican family-owned restaurant chain began in Springerville, Arizona and has since opened one location in Mesa and three in Phoenix. And though the original eatery may technically sit 200 miles outside out town, most locals consider the South Phoenix location to be the real hot spot. Unlike some of its strip mall sister restaurants, the Central Avenue Los Dos Molinos is hard to miss, with its white cantina building, pink and green neon signage, and colorful patio, which features, among other things, a miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty. Here, diners with ironclad stomachs come to consume dishes like the adovada ribs, Victoria's Chicken, and the relleno dinner, all smothered in the Molinos' signature red and green New Mexican chilis. Make sure you have your antacids on hand, because the Molinos love to say they don't know how to make things mild.
Garcia's Las Avenidas Garcia's Las Avenidas is a treasured relic. The Garcia family opened its first restaurant in Phoenix back in 1956. Over the years, the restaurant expanded into several restaurants, and then turned into a big franchise operation. As the Garcia family sold off its stake in the company a few decades ago, the chain slid into franchised mediocrity and has stayed there ever since.
Meanwhile, the Garcia family couldn't fully divest themselves from the restaurant business, and Phoenix is a better place for it. It now operates just one restaurant, Garcia's Las Avenidas on 35th Avenue north of McDowell. The atmosphere is almost everything we could want in a Mexican restaurant, from the tile floors to the soaring exposed-beam ceiling. Unlike the Garcia's chain, the food is still first-rate old-school Mexican that's worth a drive past the usual neighborhood haunts and into las avenidas.
La Piñata Phoenix lives up to its name. Everywhere you look, it seems things are in a near-constant state of change and rebirth. That state of flux makes a 1970s time warp like La Piñata taste all the better. The orange naugahyde booths and Mexican folk art pottery on the walls would be kitschy if they weren't once the real deal.
While the traditional Phoenix old-school Mexican appetizer of a cheese crisp is hard to beat, the spinach queso dip is also mighty tempting (even if it is more Tex-Mex than Sonoran). But when isn't molten cheese dip a welcome addition to a table? You'll also be hard-pressed to find much better green corn and beef tamales than the succulent ones La Piñata dishes up.
Los Olivos This sprawling restaurant sits just west of the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts and is the perfect place to grab a casual, no-frills meal before or after a show. From the chile rellenos to the fajitas, nothing's fancy, and that's okay with us; just keep the chips and salsa coming. You'll have your choice of décor -- including a large, open bar area and several small dining rooms including one that will make you feel like you're starring in The Little Mermaid.
Casa Reynoso The Reynoso family's recipes originate from Miami-Globe, where you can find outposts of various relatives' restaurants up and down the highway. There's another in Chandler, but for our money (and you won't need to spend a lot) the classic Reynoso establishment is located at Southern and Mill in Tempe. Casa Reynoso is casual and bustling, family-run and family-friendly. People rave about the green chile, but our favorite dish is the machaca, served with warm flour tortillas and (if you do it right) a couple of margaritas.
Tee Pee You probably haven't heard the Tee Pee advertised on your local TV channel or radio station. That's because the modest Mexican restaurant doesn't need much help when it comes to getting the word out. It's been an Arcadia staple since 1958 and prides itself on having changed very little in the past 57 years. The high-calorie menu has maintained more or less consistent over time while ownership of the business itself has been passed down within the family. The retro restaurant's orange vinyl booths have become downright iconic by now and are accustomed to holding tightly packed parties in need of a good cheese crisp. Standing as a testament to Tee Pee's take on Mexican-American comforts like the chimichanga, the machaca enchilada, and the red or green chili beef burro, are the signed photographs of former presidents, celebrities, and athletes who have made a point to dine here.
Rosita's Place Rosita's has been a classic for decades -- we have friends from out of town who make it a first stop every time they're in Phoenix, and have been known to sneak salsa onto the plane home. Why? Because this homey institution never misses a beat, serving Sonoran-style Mexican classics like enchiladas and albóndigas. Grab another cerveza while the kids play by the fish pond. And don't skip the flan for dessert.
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SHOW ME HOW
Macayo's Want to mess with a longtime Phoenix-area resident? Just ask them what they think of Macayo's. You'll likely be met with a wistful sigh and reminiscence of when the place was their favorite Mexican restaurant in town.
Now that you have them longing for the past, ask them where they put their Señor Bob or Cha-Cha mug. All of a sudden, their eyes light up as they try to remember where they stashed the iconic ceramic bust with the oversize sombrero that holds a not-insignificant amount of margarita. Eventually they find it and beam with pride. Maybe it's still storing a handful of pocket change.
The next words out of their mouth will likely be along the lines of "Hey, want to go fill this up?" Go for it, at least for a no-fail delicious cheese crisp in the bar and a couple of margaritas sipped from a ceramic sombrero. Also noteworthy are the chimichangas, as Macayo's claims to have invented the dish.