Central Avenue, especially the roughly three-mile stretch between Broadway Road and South Mountain Park in south-central Phoenix, is home to a dense concentration of top-notch Mexican restaurants. This under-appreciated dining corridor is filled with roadside taquerias, homestyle mom-and-pop luncheonettes, marisquerias, sweet shops, and even an excellent neighborhood coffee shop with Mexican-inspired drinks (Azukar Coffee).
Whether you’re new to the neighborhood or a longtime local, here are five slightly under-the-radar restaurants that cement south-central Phoenix’s reputation as a haven for satisfying, homestyle Mexican cooking. Extra-crispy tacos dorados, spicy shrimp platters, Sunday morning micheladas: It’s all here, and it’s worth the drive from anywhere in town.
El Snappy Mexican Food
3520 South Central Avenue
Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
El Snappy is a small, cash-only, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Mexican cafe on the corner of Elwood Street and Central Avenue. The restaurant’s tiny dining room, replete with old-school Formica booths and hacienda-inspired bric-a-brac, is distinctly old-fashioned and pleasant. The menu has a bit of everything: Mexican breakfast platters, seafood, burritos, tortas, huaraches, sopes, and a great house menudo, available daily in red or white versions.
Behind the counter, you’ll catch a glimpse of somebody from the Fonseca-Dominguez clan pressing corn tortillas by hand, or slow-braising house specialties like bistec picado, gorgeously browned chopped steak braised in tomatoes, onions, and chiles.
One of the best things I’ve ever had at El Snappy, though, was a simple plate of chicken enchiladas, a humble dish that’s rarely prepared with the level of care you’ll find here. The rich, creamy, beautifully seasoned tomato sauce soaks into the impossibly juicy shredded chicken in a way that feels almost revelatory. The shrimp plates are terrific, too — the al mojo de ajo, featuring small, juicy shrimp subsumed in a lovely garlic sauce, leaves the pleasant smack of butter on your tongue. You can never go wrong, though, with ordering whatever is written on the daily special board.
El Nuevo Taquito
4118 South Central Avenue
Daily 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
On a recent El Nuevo Taquito run, I stood beside a woman in front of the large, wall-length menu inside the counter-service restaurant’s small lobby. “I never know what to order!” she confessed to me, and we commiserated over the special torment of El Nuevo Taquito’s sprawling menu, which features everything from seafood tostadas to griddled gorditas to whole roasted chickens with tortillas and salsa. There’s a lot to explore on the menu. The good news, though, is that most of it is delicious.
Go ahead and put the tacos dorados on your go-to order list. These cleanly fried, hard- shell beauties are stuffed with juicy swaths of shredded beef and garnished with crunchy carrot shavings. They’re wonderful. Regular old corn tacos, though, are equally compelling. The most-requested meat is the gently charred carne asada, but if you’re a fan of tripas, try the ones here — the intestines are nicely seasoned and marvelously crisp. It would be a serious error to bypass the chicharrón tacos, though; the slippery cueritos (pigskins) are stewed in a bracingly fresh, well-balanced salsa verde. You’ll be planning your return to this perennial neighborhood favorite before the last bite is finished.
Tacos Mi Ranchito Mexican Grill
6607 South Central Avenue
Saturday through Thursday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 8 a.m. to 1 a.m.
This sit-down Mexican restaurant, which is owned and operated by the friendly Herrera Carbajal family, has earned a reputation locally as the place to go on a Friday night for Mexican karaoke, followed by the inevitable Saturday morning restaurant sojourn for a hangover michelada.
The real attraction at Tacos Mi Ranchito, though, is the restaurant’s menu of classic norteño grub and seafood. If you look around the Western-themed dining room, outfitted with a TV screens and a sleek bar, you’ll see groups sharing big, smoke-tinged parilladas — intensely seasoned meats and grilled veggies served on a tabletop grill with a stack of tortillas on the side. If that’s too tame for you, order the house molcajete de carne, a seething, extra-spicy mortar filled with juicy hunks of carne asada and chicken gurgling in an intense chile broth. For the spice averse, there’s the hearty Chihuahua-style entrees, including the enchiladas estilo Chihuahua, featuring a short stack of cheesy tortillas soaking in a fragrant red enchilada sauce.
El Mesquite Restaurant
26 East Baseline Road
Wednesday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Monday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; closed Tuesdays
If you grew up in south-central Phoenix, there’s a good chance you’re already well familiarized with El Mesquite, a strip mall eatery near Baseline Road and Central Avenue that’s a popular gathering spot for post-church feasting with the family.
The whiff of charred meat always seems to hang in the air inside the delightfully old-fashioned dining room, festooned with Corona swag and portraits of Mexican ranchero singers. The carne asada is a staple of the menu — it’s chopped to smithereens and delivered with a pronounced, smoky char. But the house chile verde and chile colorado are even more memorable. The chile colorado, tender hunks of pork swimming in a homemade sauce, features an addictively smooth, rich, and flavorful chile sauce. This is chile colorado for the most spice-averse among us: thick and luscious, with only a hint of pungent, garlicky flavor.
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4602 South Central Avenue
Mondays through Thursday 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Friday 8 a.m. to 1 a.m., Saturday 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., Sunday 7 a.m. to midnight
Where do you go when all your favorite south-central restaurants Phoenix have shut down for the night, and the only option for late-night Mexican food seems to involve a lonely interaction with the drive-thru squawk box at the nearest Federico’s or Filibertos? You ditch the squawk box and head to Taqueria Tepehuaje, a longtime neighborhood food truck that’s parked day and night near the corner of Central Avenue and Broadway Road.
Sinaloan-style dishes dominate the menu, which includes street staples like vampiros — your choice of meat is piled onto a thick, crisp, comal-toasted tortilla, the meat suffocated under a glossy blanket of melted white cheese. The vampiros are gone in two bites, more or less, but they are a very memorable couple of bites. Don’t miss the tortas. The sandwiches feature shiny, basted, extra-fluffy rolls, unabashedly buttered and crisped-up by someone who has zero vested interest in your cholesterol levels. Try your torta with the house birria or rich cabeza — the former has a thick, earthy succulence that’s impossible to forget once you’ve had it, and the latter is impossibly rich. If you have room after all that, dessert is an easy walk across the parking lot to the raspados shop next door.