Cafe Reviews

Asadero Norte de Sonora, Taqueria 3 Amigos, Tortas El Guero, and the Rest of Phoenix's Mexican Restaurant Row

Hungry for some good Mexican food?

Me, too. I have favorite destinations all over the city, but living and working close to downtown, I'm spoiled to have Phoenix's Mexican Restaurant Row nearby. Stretching from roughly Washington Street to Thomas Road, there's such an abundance of good, cheap eats to be found along 16th Street that you can hardly go wrong.

I love it for the sheer variety, from counter-service hole-in-the-wall joints to nicer sit-down spots, serving any number of elaborate or down-home dishes and regional specialties.

Starting just north of Washington Street, Asadero Norte de Sonora is a great go-to place for a quick, tasty lunch. It's about as no-frills as it gets, but prices are accordingly cheap. Order at the counter and grab a seat in the tiny dining room, where you might see someone hawking bootleg DVDs around noontime.

Everything is mesquite-grilled, and although they specialize in carne asada and pollo asado, you'll also find tripa (tripe), cabeza (head), costillitas (ribs), and more, served up as tacos, burros, or tortas. Beware the killer grilled jalapeño here — I've found out firsthand how potent it can be on an empty stomach.

A couple of blocks to the north is an excellent mariscos restaurant, Mariscos Playa Hermosa. Here, the vibe is just as delightful as the food — colorful furniture and decorations make it one of the more charming places to hang out on 16th Street, and the owners are very gracious.

There's a basic rundown of grilled meats on the menu, but the vast majority of items are straight out of the ocean, from Seven Seas soup to shrimp wrapped with bacon and cheese. I'm fond of the fish filet in kicky garlic sauce, as well as tostadas heaped with cold ceviche and seafood cocktails brimming with shrimp, octopus, and abalone.

Even with its abbreviated menu, Taqueria 3 Amigos manages to cover breakfast items, seafood dishes like camarones rancheros, tortas, and combination plates. As the name suggests, though, tacos are the house specialty at this casual, counter-service spot, available in 10 varieties: carne asada, carnitas, pastor, pollo, chile rojo, chile verde, chicharron (pork rinds), lengua (tongue), cabeza, and tripa (tripe).

These are the tiny street tacos you'd find at a roadside stand in Mexico, topped with diced onion and fresh cilantro. Tender lengua and deliciously seasoned pastor hit the spot on my last visit.

Practically around the corner is the heart of CenPho's Mexican food scene, Pro's Ranch Market and its adjoining restaurant, Tradiciones.

Most of the time, I'm happy to hit up the food court at the grocery store, where there's a vast selection of food served cafeteria-style, and plentiful picnic tables. Ceviche tostadas (from the seafood department in the back) and a cold horchata are my typical order, but when I'm in the mood for a leisurely meal with a group, surrounded by festive décor and waitresses in ruffled dresses, I settle in at Tradiciones with an enchilada or parillada (mixed grill platter) — and a cilantro margarita. The menu here is huge and it's a good place for family get-togethers.

Near McDowell Road, La Cocina Economica is another friendly neighborhood spot where you can fill up for very little cash. The first time I visited, I could hear a lady singing in the kitchen, and I had a feeling that the food would be just as uplifting. (It was.)

Options include Mexican-style breakfast dishes like eggs and chorizo, surf-and-turf platters with rice and beans, huaraches (fried masa with various toppings), and delicious sopes (thick fried masa tortillas) topped with meat, lettuce, tomato, green pepper, and crema. The creamy refried beans here taste faintly of pork.

The newest hangout along 16th Street is La Condesa Gourmet Taco Shop (see my full review in the March 11 issue), which hits a sweet spot for me — the food is mouthwatering, the atmosphere is fun (I'm a sucker for Dia de los Muertos and lucha libre-themed art), and the price is right.

The menu is divided among tacos, burros, and fried masa quesadillas that resemble calzones, all filled with goodies like chicken mole or top-notch cochinita pibil (luscious, slow-roasted pork). These days, La Condesa offers table service, although the lavish salsa bar is still self-serve, with around 10 choices at any given time. Try the cilantro crema, smoky chipotle salsa, and unique peanut and strawberry salsas.

There's more seafood to be had at Mariscos Ensenada, a place I've been visiting over the past decade whenever I've had a hankering for a cold seafood cocktail or a platter of fried fish.

While Mariscos Playa Hermosa wins the prize for its cozy dining room, Mariscos Ensenada makes up for it with occasional mariachi performers who walk in off the street to turn a random weekday lunch into an unexpectedly festive occasion.

Tortas El Güero whips up some of the best sandwiches in town and, according to an issue of Esquire magazine from a couple of years ago, in the whole country.

I come here to watch campy norteño music videos on two TVs as I feast on giant, two-handed creations layered with lettuce, tomato, mayo, pickled jalapeños, and thick slices of ripe avocado. The cochinita is stellar, and so is the Torta Cubana, with ham, pork, and cheese. A bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola washes it all down with a jolt of sugar and caffeine.

It's not intentional that I saved the best place for last; Barrio Café just happens to be farther north than all these other restaurants.

That said, chef Silvana Salcido Esparza was a 2010 semifinalist for the James Beard Awards' "Outstanding Chef: Southwest" honor, and continues to cook some of the most intriguing upscale Mexican food in Phoenix.

On Facebook and in the news, Esparza has been an outspoken opponent of the controversial SB 1070 in the past several weeks, while ironically, Senator John McCain — who's taken a tough stance on border issues — has dined at Barrio Café twice in recent times. Apparently, politics stays out of the dining room, though, as Esparza graciously declined to comment to one of my colleagues.

Esparza steers clear of typical Sonoran fare and celebrates Central and Southern Mexican dishes such as Oaxacan mole, 12-hour roasted cochinita, and chicken enchiladas with tomatillo cream sauce. She also does a killer poblano chile relleno, stuffed with chicken, garlic, onion, pecans, and fruit, drizzled with almond sauce and pomegranate. The house horchata is the best I've ever had, and goat's milk caramel-filled churros make dessert a must.

Among all the wonderful little spots along Mexican Restaurant Row, this one's the busiest for good reason.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig