Here are our food-focused Best of Phoenix 2020 winners for La Vida.
Best Trendy Mexican RestaurantTocaya Organica
2525 East Camelback Road, #115
On the surface, Tocaya Organica seems very ... shiny. The fast-casual Mexican restaurant chain immigrated from California, bringing with it almost 60,000 Instagram followers, a greenery wall for people to pose with, and a "West Coast cool" brand identity. But when you eat there, you'll find that Tocaya has substance to go along with its style. The restaurant sells build-your-own, customizable items; choose a burrito, salad, bowl, quesadilla, or tacos, then select a protein and a type of queso. We love the Street Corn en Fuego bowl, which comes with jalapeño cabbage, cilantro lime rice, avocado, and salsa. Vegans and vegetarians will appreciate all the meat-free options, like adobo tofu and cilantro lime chick'n plus vegan chipotle jack and mozzarella "cheese." Don't skip the pomegranate guacamole with plantain chips or the churro waffle bites with chocolate and strawberry dipping sauces, either.
Best Vegan Mexican RestaurantEarth Plant Based Cuisine
1325 Grand Avenue
Mexican food is often heavy on the opposite of vegan food: lots of meat, lots of cheese. Earth Plant Based Cuisine on Grand Avenue has a different vision, though. This small, family-owned business packs big flavor into its menu, along with a desire to show customers what going green and being vegan is all about. The tables and ceilings are made from wood pallets, the countertops and prep tables from repurposed materials. The friendly staff is eager to guide you, but in our experience, you can't go wrong with the street-style corn, the carnitas made with seasoned mushrooms, or the Baja burrito with beer-battered "shrimp." Save room for a milkshake made with soy-based ice cream and almond milk.
Best Mexican Drive-ThruMaria's Fry Bread and Mexican Food
4041 East Thomas Road
During pandemic days, it's been great to have a drive-thru that allows us to enjoy our favorite Sonoran fare. Now if we could only figure out what to order. We've finally given up trying to decide which of Maria's frybreads is our favorite. Plain, it's delightful, dense, and soft and crispy around the edges. With honey, it's our favorite decadent dessert. Clumped with both red and green chile, it's a meal. And speaking of meals, we only need one per day when it comes from Maria's speedy, friendly drive-thru, where we can pick up the five-star flavor of an enchilada-style red chile burrito, or maybe the giant-sized chicken chimichanga with rice and some of the best refried beans we've ever had.
Best Mexican Food TruckTaqueria La Hacienda
254 East Buckeye Road
The pleasures of a great roadside taco truck are simple, and south Phoenix's Taqueria La Hacienda keeps it as simple as can be. The Buckeye Road fixture prepares a large handful of proteins in a small handful of ways. For $6, you can nab a carne asada or lengua burro neatly wrapped in red-checked paper and jammed with juicy meat. Tacos come with scatterings of chopped onion and herbs — not much more than the bare essentials. Vampiros are a smart order at this truck, as tortillas crisped into place cup generous portions. Lace on red and green salsa from the squeeze bottles generously. We love that we always know where to find Taqueria La Hacienda, and that it gives us the food we crave during the day, when covered seating banishes the sun, and into the night, including until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Best Mexican BreakfastThe Bread and Honey House
4700 East Van Buren Street
Chef Javier Perez, who runs this warm nook with his wife, Ana Bautista, plates thoughtful breakfasts that are largely Mexican, but not always. Something that isn't: an egg sandwich slicked with mayo, served on challah, absolutely stellar. But the La Grande Orange and Luci's Orchard alum can go new-school and old-school Mexican with the best of them. An all-business breakfast burrito stretches with potato, egg, and crumbles of chorizo. Crepes soak under velvety tres leches crema. Chilaquiles — house-fried tortilla chips angled every way that sop with fork-broken egg yolk and quietly smolder with chiles and chicken stock — are a perfect morning meal from The Bread and Honey House.
Best TortillaCarolina's Mexican Food
Prepackaged flour tortillas are available at pretty much any supermarket in town. But why on earth would you buy those, when you can walk into any Carolina's Mexican Food location and leave with its fresh tortillas instead? The Carolina's tortillas come in two sizes — 12-inch and 15-inch — and are made throughout the day, just like they have been since 1968. You can get a half-dozen for $3.60 or a dozen for $6.45 — a little more expensive than the processed, bland ones in the grocery store, but infinitely better. We routinely pick up a six-pack and take it home to make quesadillas or fajitas — or to just heat one up, spread butter on it, and enjoy.
Best NachosCocina 10 at Crescent Ballroom
308 North Second Avenue
Minimalism is a fine concept when applied to art, design, or fashion. Not nachos, though. We expect excess and decadence when we order nachos. The ones that emerge from the kitchen of Crescent Ballroom's Cocina 10 almost overflow the plate. The light, thin tortilla chips come smothered in a pile of refried beans, three types of cheese, cilantro, pico de gallo, guacamole, and sour cream. You know that sad, bare patch of chips that's often found on an order of nachos? Doesn't exist at Cocina 10; toppings are plentiful. We like to eat on the open-air second floor, which adds a lovely view of downtown to the nacho-consuming experience. We also recommend adding carne asada to your order; again, when it comes to nachos, less is not more.
Best QuesadillaTacos Chiwas
After a lifetime of eating specimens made on lesser tortillas, tasting a quesadilla made by Nadia Holguin and Armando Hernandez is like going from black-and-white to color, acoustic to electric. The tortilla? Handmade from freshly ground local grain, warm and fragrant and perfectly browned. The cheese? Molten, oozing. The meat? If you go pork, it'll be fall-apart shreds boosted by a steady, beautiful chile heat. There are a handful of elite tortillas in metro Phoenix. Tacos Chiwas has one of them — and all the added touches are just as impressive. For the money, this quesadilla is one of the top bites of food in town.
Best QuesabirriaBirrieria Tijuana
1926 West Deer Valley Road
Take birria. Subtract broth (or simply put it on the side). Add a crisp, hot tortilla and lots of gooey cheese. This is a recipe for quesabirria, a food that has mushroomed in popularity among eaters of Mexican food from coast to coast. The several versions at Birrieria Tijuana, a truck operating out of a north Phoenix parking lot, are worth the trek and a meal at tables just feet from car traffic. Tortilla half-moons crackle as you bite in, oozing cheese. Long-stewed beef has a satisfying melt almost on a cheesy level, and intensity to match, all rounded by chopped herbs and lime juice. There's a reason everyone sitting in this parking lot is beaming.
Best TacoLa Bamba Mexican Grill Restaurant
12102 West Thunderbird Road, El Mirage
Too much of the "best taco" talk around town neglects to consider the actual best taco: the generously heaped, three-sauced wonders plated by Edson Garcia, who juggles 17 tasks at once inside his far west Valley hidden gem. Tacos at La Bamba Mexican Grill Restaurant are deeply considered, to the point that their basic components are remixed. The al pastor uses pork belly, shards of marinated pineapple, and pineapple vinegar. Horchata is served in a giant stein, impossibly lush. This intensity and quality extends to all Garcia touches. A native of Veracruz, the man deserves a place in Arizona's taco pantheon. A few bites of carne asada or shrimp, and you'll believe.
Best Taco TuesdayTaqueria El Fundador
3245 West Van Buren Street
We don't know exactly when Taco Tuesday became a thing. But one day per week when taco consumption is encouraged, arguably even required? We're not mad about it. Plenty of taco joints run specials on this holy day, but of those our favorite is Taqueria El Fundador, where most of the taco varieties are just $1 each on Tuesdays. These tacos are filled with warm, perfectly spiced morsels of meat and piles of onion and cilantro (we're partial to the al pastor). Of course it doesn't have to be Tuesday for us to crave what Taqueria El Fundador's got going on; the eatery, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, does hearty burritos, gooey quesadillas and yes, tacos, six days a week (it's closed on Sundays).
Best ChimichangaRito's Mexican Food
907 North 14th Street
The chimichanga is one of the only zones of the Rito's menu where prices sail north of $10. But even though you can get happily full for half of that here, you will be elated to gnash into its burro deep-fried to a saucy crisp. Saucy, yes, because the right move is to go enchilada-style, meaning a chimichanga smothered in chile sauce and blanketed with melted cheese. Rito's, of course, is for old-school eating. Its category of "yellow-cheese" Mexican has been disparaged by other chefs. But conceptual, high-minded cooking feels overly dainty when you're two bites away from finishing a green chile enchilada, full, and wishing you had a thousand more.
Best BurritoPHX Burrito House
4140 North 7th Avenue
PHX Burrito House is the kind of place where even the potato is expertly considered, providing soft bites that break up richness, jive with cheese, and pair nicely with a fragrant flour tortilla. You would be wise to include the humble potato in your build-your-own breakfast burritos at this eatery, which is truly a house. The best burrito here, the machaca, comes with them, forming a jalapeno-charged package big enough for two meals. Where most options here are meaty and intense, a shrimp burrito displays lightness and freshness. Other places are divier or flashier, but PHX Burrito House wraps its namesake food better than anyone in the Valley.
Best Breakfast BurritoEl Norteño
1002 North 7th Avenue
People loiter outside El Norteño, the humble Mexican-food shack at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Roosevelt Street. Are they waiting to order? Have they already ordered? Is this where the line starts, sir? Eventually, you piece together that you must enter a small vestibule (only one person at a time, especially these days) to place your order. On the wall inside is a massive menu that vaguely resembles the periodic table of the elements. You could eat here twice a week for a year and still not try everything. So, we'll make it simple for you: Go with the chorizo egg burro, and add potatoes. It's about $6 with tax, and, depending on how you see your day going, constitutes either a big breakfast or two small ones. Join the loiterers. When your order's called, apply the spicy salsa that comes in little tubs in your brown bag to every bite. And remember to bring bills — El Norteño is cash only, and closed on Sundays.
Best TamaleReinas De Las Pupusas Restaurant
2308 West Northern Avenue
In a metropolis brimming with Mexican eateries, the best tamale happens to be cooked in a Salvadorian restaurant. This may not sound right, but it's true. The banana-leaf-wrapped tamale at Reinas De Las Pupusas Restaurant is a gastronomic masterpiece. Chef Dolores Garcia deftly calibrates the simple flavors and tucks the package into hot foil. The melted cheese that glues the corn together? Mozzarella. The flavors? Deeply herbal, a faint earthy perfume, almost akin to the profile of an excellent green tea. Order a few yourself (they're only $2.50 each) and you'll be hooked.
Best TortaTEG Torta Shop
2518 North 16th Street
Torta ahogada, drowned in chile sauce. Torta stuffed with achiote-laced cochinita pibil. Even a torta stuffed with fried turkey tails. This family-owned torta shop (also known as Tortas El Guero) has specialized in many versions of the Mexican sandwich since 2002. Featuring soft buns that guide your focus to the fillings, these tortas, available in three sizes to suit your appetite, are full-on joyous meals on their own. But at TEG Torta Shop, you can go further. Regulars sidekick their sandwiches with horchata, or maybe a cantaloupe, mango, or plantain milkshake. The bow on top of the meal is a chilled salsa bar, catapulting excellent tortas to an unforgettable level.
Best EloteOtro Café
6035 North Seventh Street
We love all elote, from the kind that comes out of a Styrofoam cup from a food truck window to the fancy-pants foodie variety found at Scottsdale eateries. But we like it best at Otro Café, Doug Robson's uptown Phoenix sister restaurant to Gallo Blanco. Otro's Elote Callejero — a perfect prelude, we should add, to one of the restaurant's excellent shrimp tacos or chicken enchiladas — is a wood-fired ear of corn draped in mayo, cotija cheese, and smoked paprika. Each slice down the cob releases a pile of fresh, warm, rich elote. We always make sure we've stripped the cob bare and grab every bit of cotija before the server whisks the plate away.
Best Lard-Free BeansAmerica's Taco Shop
Vegetarians can trust beans again at America's Taco Shop. No need to verify with the manager whether those pintos are 100 percent vegetarian: Owner America Corrales made a conscious decision to cook her beans without lard. In doing so, she's proven that extra pig fat isn't essential for tasty beans. Hers retain their natural flavor and authenticity, and blend well with the heaping amounts of salsa and guacamole on the burritos, salad bowls, and nachos served at America's Taco Shop. Dine in at the Scottsdale location, where the walls are decorated with colorful depictions of Corrales' family history and roots in Mexico. Or take these beans to-go and make it a Taco Tuesday night at home. Just be certain to warn your family.
Best MariscosMariscos Ensenada
3242 West Van Buren Avenue
Though the 16th Street hub has closed its nautical-themed dining room for good, other locations of cult favorite Mariscos Ensenada are still giving seafood the galvanizing Mexican treatment. Seafood tacos in the Valley don't get much better than the achiote-rubbed smoked marlin taco, about as meaty and umami-potent as fish can get. On the other end of the spectrum, raw shrimp slicked with an electric spicy lime sauce highlights all the fresh, delicate facets of food pulled from the sea. The spread of options here covers just about everything in between, from delicate octopus tostadas to heady, cheesy tacos gobernadora. With some of this town's most underrated salsa and an icy Pacifico, this spot will fill you with marine bliss.
Best Sonoran Hot DogLa Frontera 3
209 North 16th Street
The easternmost truck of the La Fronteras in their 16th Street lot does a mean, criminally underrated Sonoran dog. On a split-top bun, somewhere down below all those toppings — guac, mustard, silky pinto beans, chopped tomatoes, a webbing of crema — a hot dog awaits. A blizzard of salty cheese sharpens it all, and a toasted chile is there to help you chase bites with little spurts of fire. The bun possesses that impossible union of chew and softness that most great Sonoran dogs have. It's key to easing you into all the goodness in the middle. Though not a dog-only truck, La Frontera makes such a solid version that it could be.
Best ChurroGallo Blanco
928 East Pierce Street
We'd love nothing better than to completely clean our plate of the modern Mexican fare served at Gallo Blanco every time we dine there. But then we wouldn't have room for the churros. On their own, churros are a simple delight, two tubes of dough fried to crispy perfection and rolled in cinnamon sugar. But the Gallo version comes with a trio of dipping sauces — cajeta, condensed milk, and chocolate fudge — that take the experience from tasty to divine. There's never enough churro to finish the dips, leaving us wishing for more sweet pastry — or wishing that it was socially acceptable to scoop up the sauces with a spoon.
Best PaletaRealeza Michoacana
2520 North 16th Street
Think you've tasted tamarind? How about guava, or even rice? Each of these foods takes on new dimensions when turned into paletas at Realeza Michoacana, purveyor of other frozen treats as well, like raspados and ice cream. But that tamarind? Deeply tropical, weighty, and veering into molasses notes. The guava paleta has a cool lushness. And the creamy, sweet rice flavor has the deep, almost floral fragrance of a great horchata, yet chewy and stippled with broken grains. Opt for a margarita flavor, an ornate coconut, or whatever calls to you from the rainbow colors of the paleta freezer. If you've been raised on mass-produced frozen treats, then here you can only go right.