The countdown to Best of Phoenix is on. Mark your calendar: This year's issue will be on newsstands September 26. What better way to warm up than by asking some local "experts" to list their own personal bests? This week Joe Johnston -- the guy who put the "Joe" in Joe's Real BBQ and Joe's Farm Grill -- shares his favorite spots to get AZ-Mex food.
By Joe Johnston
Rating Mexican restaurants is dangerous business since there is an incredible diversity of Mexican regional styles available in the Valley and everyone has their own secret hole-in-the-wall. What I proffer is Mexican restaurant food in the lineage of the comfort food "we" grew up with ("we" being longtime AZ residents for whom Mexican food is not their traditional home cuisine). Sort of like Chinese restaurant food from the 1960s and 1970s, it is rooted in the culinary traditions of the mother country but modified for the local clientele and available ingredients. It is essentially a blend of food from the state of Sonora and ingredients and tastes of the state of Arizona.
This should not be apologized for or denigrated, it simply is a transitional cuisine of the kind you expect on a cultural border and like any cuisine can be made well or poorly. Realistically, most of the Mexican food eaten in the U.S. can be traced to this sort of food rather than Mexico City style or numerous other styles transferred unaltered from their home state in Mexico.
Our tastes in food are informed by our childhood experiences. On a weekly basis, we dined at Ortega's in Chandler, which has long since been demolished with Chandler City Hall built atop this hallowed site. It was a well-run Sonoran/AZ Mexican restaurant serving tacos, tostadas, enchiladas, burros, cheese crisps, beans, and rice garnished with shredded iceberg lettuce and diced tomatoes. My dad was not a fan of Mexican food, so he ordered a T-bone steak and French fries; Mom went for a cheese crisp. My standard order was for the undisputed king of AZ-Mex: the #1. Combination #1 is the holy trinity of a cheese enchilada, a beef taco, and a bean tostada. It remains to this day a staple of the authentic AZ-Mex restaurant in the Valley.
Comedor Guadalajara, Phoenix
The Comedor is a pretty amazing place and perhaps the best example of old school AZ-Mex done well. The place is HUGE and it is virtually windowless, which is an important characteristic of this style. Furthermore, it has random decor from a border souvenir shop placed on every wall. It is always busy and has a great mix of local residents, city workers and business people at lunchtime (local families at dinner and on weekends: expect a wait). The service is friendly and prompt and it is the sort of well-oiled machine you expect with 40 years of operation. While Guadalajara is in the state of Jalisco, this menu is all AZ-Mex with the twist of an extensive seafood menu (mariscos).
Head for the combination #1, which in this case includes rice and refried beans. As is customary with AZ-Mex, chips and salsa come out first. The chips are freshly fried and the salsa is not the chunky stuff you get at the chains but a well-crafted, finely blended version. Next comes an oddity: a gratis bowl of alphabet soup with chicken chunks. Then comes the #1 on a burning hot plate (essential). The taco is pan fried, as all good tacos are, and stuffed with a very finely chopped beef mixture. The enchilada has brick-red enchilada sauce and not an excessive amount of interior cheese: balance is important. Beware places that have orange-ish or weak enchilada sauce, there must be the full flavor and color of rehydrated red chile pods and a hint of lard. The tostada is the ultimate combination of textures with the cool crunch of iceberg lettuce being exceedingly important. The beans must, of course, be refried using lard. Comedor uses a shredded cheese blend with restraint. No cotija here, just Colby or Longhorn plus some other white cheese, which is a hallmark of an AZ-Mex menu: the simplest of descriptions for each item -- cheese enchilada. Food coma . . .
Libby's El Rey, Globe
There is a handful of unique variants on AZ-Mex and one that I particularly enjoy is Mining Town Mex. Libby's is the best example of this, other than perhaps La Casita in Mammoth, which is MUCH farther away. Libby's is worth the drive and is about 90 minutes from Phoenix. (Find it at 999 N. Broad St., Globe, 928-425-2054.)
Libby's is a true dive as only 60 years in the same building can achieve. It is somewhat ramshackled, has few windows and random Mexican souvenirs on the walls: all very promising. Order the combination #2 which is an anomaly of Mining Town Mex, their #2 is a Valley #1. Out come the chips and salsa, in this case two stellar salsas -- mild and sort of hot. The chips are freshly fried and are drizzled with melted butter after frying, a deliciously naughty addition characteristic of this variant. Out come the blazing hot plates with warnings not to touch. The #2's taco uses shredded beef, pan fried and sporting a bit of melted cheese on the outside of the flap which is another Mining Town Mex signature. Their enchilada sauce is richly colored (mahogany?) and flavored, the beans redolent of lard. This is nirvana. Also not to be missed are the tamales and chile con carne colorado. They make their own flour tortillas, so be sure to buy some.
Note that there are several restaurants in the mining towns called El Rey. You want Libby's for the best.
El Sol Bakery, Chandler
The original outpost of the de la Cruz family, El Sol is both a bakery and a restaurant and is counter service. Offering a complete line of Mexican baked goods, they also make their own flour tortillas, which are very good indeed. You can assemble a #1 off of their menu and it is quite good, meeting all of the key criteria with the exception that the cheese in the enchilada melts into a rubbery strip.
What they are known for is a category of AZ-Mex that didn't exist during my childhood: the breakfast burrito. Every component that goes into their burritos is first rate, starting with the homemade super-thin tortillas. The fluffy eggs, potatoes, chorizo and other ingredients of the several variations are perfectly cooked. This is accompanied by the famous El Sol salsa, which they now sell at Costco and other big box retailers. It is much better here, being freshly made in this tiny shop.
Gallo Blanco, Phoenix
I admire Doug Robson's work. Being both a talented chef and having lived in Mexico, Doug creates some vibrant, authentic dishes. While he grew up in Mexico City, Gallo Blanco and has an inflection of the capital in his restaurant, the menu still reaches out to the AZ-Mex enthusiast and stretches their palate a bit. It is bright and airy and well decorated, so you expect something that departs from the norm. Less a common man's place, Gallo Blanco appeals to foodies, hipsters, and those who enjoy a culinary adventure.
You cannot order a combination #1 at Gallo Blanco, but you can get carne asada in various forms (taco, torta, and burrito). Beef was and is the primary meat produced in Sonora and Arizona. This rounded out with braised pork offerings, which are even better. In traditional AZ-Mex, pork is mainly found as lard or in tamales, but Doug puts pork on an equal footing with beef. I always go for the ultimate Mexican breakfast comfort food: chilaquiles. Theirs features only green chile sauce but can be had in vegetarian or chicken version (my choice). Not to be missed is classic street food: elote callejero. It's grilled corn that's seasoned and sprinkled with cotija cheese and one of the best renditions of a humble ear of corn in the Valley.
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Elote Cafe, Sedona
I love Elote Cafe and consider it the best Mexican restaurant in the state. Jeff Smedstad is a culinary gem and runs an amazing restaurant. His food used to be much more accessible when he was at Los Sombreros in Scottsdale, but it is so good that it is worth heading north on the I-17. When you get there, be prepared to wait. No reservations are accepted and it is known nationally for its excellence.
Elote Cafe is best characterized as Mexican eclectic in that it has dishes influenced by various parts of the country, including Sonora. You can technically order a combination #1, but it would be a la carte off of the kids menu and I am sure it would be incredible. This is the place where you need to let go of preconceived notions of what Mexican food is. My absolute favorite dish is the Lamb Adobo. This unctuous, spicy braised lamb shank is one of their top selling dishes and for good reason. His twist on the Wild West and traditional mole is Buffalo Mole Poblano and it has layers and layers of flavor, as well. Perhaps the best corn dish in the state is Jeff's version of street corn. The cocktails and dessert menu are as well crafted as the rest of the menu, so come hungry!