Smedstad left Los Sombreros in 2006 to open Elote Cafe in Sedona – our choice for the state’s best Mexican restaurant, incidentally – but he still undertakes frequent research-and-development trips. One of his greatest joys is discovering new farmers and producers in the fertile Verde Valley surrounding Sedona, allowing him to blend Old World Mexican with New World sensibilities in some of the most exciting Mexican food ever to pass our lips. We asked Smedstad to share some recipes from his 2009 cookbook, The Elote Cafe Cookbook, and tell us about a few of the essential ingredients in the Mexican pantry. (Cookbook recipes reprinted with permission.)
The most prolific herb in Mexican cooking, used fresh in salsas and salads and cooked in sauces, braises and soups.
Mexican Cheeses (Cotija, Queso Fresco)
Two favorites are the mild, fresh queso fresco and the tangy, crumbly cotija. Oaxaca, queso asadero, panela and queso blanco are also beloved by queso heads.
Called limones, these small limes are juicier than their larger counterparts, and give any dish a bright, acidic boost.
An essential ingredient in the everyday life of most Mexicans, prickly pear pads are scraped of thorns and either grilled, sautéed or boiled and used as a taco filling or as part of a salad or stew.
It looks like a green tomato with a papery husk, but it is not. The flavor is mouth-puckering tart. Used for salsas and sauces.
Chiles (Jalapeños, Poblano, Serranos, Guajillo Chiles, Dried Chipotle, Dried Ancho Chiles)
Fresh poblanos, jalapeños and serranos are the fresh workhorses. Four go-to dried ones are fiery chiles de árbol, smoky chipotles, raisin-y anchos (poblano in fresh form) and sassy guajillos.
Earthier than Mediterranean oregano, this dried herb is essential to many stews, braises and rubs.
This root vegetable with a slightly sweet crunch is mostly served raw but can be cooked.
Among the dozens of Mexican bean varieties, two are pillars: pintos (Northern) and black beans (Central/Southern).
“Here in the Southwest, a great vegetable, prickly pear cactus, or nopales, grow naturally in many people’s backyards. Nopales have an okra-like quality to some people but others think they taste like green beans, and they readily absorb companion flavors. Respect the spines! Always use gloves when scraping the paddles. Grilling is a great way to cook nopales so they turn crisp. They’re done when they’re tender, like broccoli or carrots. Serves 4.”
FOR THE SALAD
2 cups nopales
a good handful of field greens
1 medium tomato
1 small red onion
1 poblano chile
2 pickled jalapeños
1 cup roughly crumbled queso fresco
FOR THE DRESSING
1⁄4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
Shave the nopales of all spines, rinse, then coat with oil and grill or broil until cooked through and slightly browned or charred. Cut into strips and chill. Dice the tomato and onion and set aside. Roast, peel, seed and dice the poblano and set aside. Slice the pickled jalapeños and set aside. Whisk the dressing ingredients in a large bowl. Add the nopales strips, greens, tomato, onion, poblano, jalapeños and queso fresco to the bowl and mix well.
Tomatillo Salsa Fresca
“For this bright salsa, poach the tomatillos slightly, then shock them with cold water to maintain their color and flavor.”
1 cup water
10 tomatillos, husked
4 serrano chiles, stemmed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup diced onion
1 cup chopped cilantro
Bring the water to a boil in a large stockpot and cook the tomatillos in it for one minute. Strain them into an ice bath, reserving the water. Transfer the cooled tomatillos to a blender with the water and purée. Mix in the remaining ingredients and the salsa is ready.
Jicama and Orange Salad
“Based on street snacks sold all over Mexico, this light and refreshing salad makes a great introduction to jicama for the uninitiated. Jicama is crunchy, fresh tasting, and sweet. When describing it to people I like to tell them that it tastes like a cross between apples and water chestnuts. Serves 4.”
FOR THE FRESH LIME DRESSING
1 cup olive oil
2⁄3 cup lime juice
1⁄4 cup Cholula brand hot sauce
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
FOR THE SALAD
1 medium jicama, peeled and cut into thick matchstick-like pieces
2 oranges, peeled and cut into thick slices
1⁄4 cup diced onion
3 radishes, cut in half and sliced
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
lime juice and chile powder to garnish
Mix the dressing ingredients well and reserve. Place all the salad ingredients in a large bowl and toss. Pour over enough dressing to coat, toss again, and plate. Garnish each serving with a squeeze of lime juice and a sprinkling of chile powder if desired.
Comparing old- and new-school Mexican restaurants is like comparing apples to oranges... or arroz to frijoles, as the case may be. So instead of a Top 10 list of the Valley’s best Mexican eateries, we’re giving you five modern, and five traditional.
1. The Mission
3815 N. Brown Ave., Scottsdale,
The truth: Any of our top four Mod-Mex restaurants could swap places, depending on seasonal menu tweaks and the like. But The Mission – with its precise execution and high-toned flair – wins by photo finish. The Mexican colonial décor is downright sexy, and chef Matt Carter's bold, beautiful food is suitable for la nobleza. The Mission draws its inspiration from the heartland of Mexico, with splendid mesquite-grilled meats – sublimely typified by rolled chorizo-stuffed pork shoulder, braised and finished on the wood grill – and plancha-griddled seafood. Drinks are pricy but strong. A sizzling cucumber-jalapeño margarita rouses the palate for peerless tableside guacamole and tantalizing starters like a decadent duck empanada.
2. Otro Cafe
6035 N. Seventh St., Phoenix,
Doug Robson’s “other” restaurant (now his only restaurant after shuttering Gallo Blanco) is everything destination-dining should be, offering thrilling food at an approachable price. Who wouldn’t drive for local draft beers, fresh tomatillo and chile de árbol salsas with thick corn chips, fantastic tacos sporting handmade flour tortillas, inventive dishes like the rustic Mexican paella and evocative mole negro gracing mesquite-grilled chicken, or a two-fisted Naco torta with citrus-marinated grilled rib-eye? (Deep breaths.) If the service hummed along as consistently as the food, Otro could easily have been the top pick.
3. La Hacienda
7575 E. Princess Dr., Scottsdale, 480-585-4848,
Typical of many resort restaurants, the prices here are steep. And, frankly, that’s why La Hacienda lands in third. ($18 for a Cadillac margarita?!) That’s not to take one iota away from the exquisite setting and exceptional cuisine. The devil is in the details and Chef Forest Hamrick nails it with technical precision and flavor. You could craft a meal from only the starters, including a pricy but tongue-tingling spicy crab guacamole, paired with a house-made chorizo and potato empanada or an ethereal corn tamal. From the mains, put your money on the soul satisfying costilla de res (short ribs) or the lighter huachinango, a pristine fillet of grilled snapper.
4. Los Sombreros
2534 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-994-1799; 14795 N. Northsight Blvd., Scottsdale, 480-991-1799,
Central Mexican gastronomy is on full display at San Miguel de Allende native Azucena Tovar’s rustic brick cottage in South Scottsdale. After chef Jeff Smedstad sold his stake to Tovar in 2006 and hoofed it to Sedona, the restaurant struggled to consistently execute. But Tovar (pictured, left, with a tamarind margarita) got her groove back and is once again romancing Phoenicians with earthy huitlacoche quesadillas and smoked chicken enchiladas. Traditional fat tamales are right at home next to a contemporary corn cake “soufflé” draped in a lusty mole poblano. Margaritas are solid, Mexican beer is cold, and the chips with roasted salsa are some of the best in town.
5. Barrio Cafe
2815 N. 16th St., Phoenix,
When celebrity chef Silvana Salcido Esparza opened Barrio Café in 2002, it was groundbreaking: the Valley’s first true gourmet Mexican cuisine, unabashedly presented in a scrappy midtown location. The snug café remains a destination, with its white tablecloths and complimentary baskets of French bread with olive relish. And Esparza still churns out her signatures: tableside guac with pomegranate seeds, a dreamily rich chiles en nogada and that Yucatanian gift of achiote and sour orange braised pork called cochinita pibil. However, Barrio Café seems content operating on cruise control. That’s why it lands at number five – Barrio remains elite, even if no longer innovative.
1. Comedor Guadalajara
1830 S. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-253-8299, comedorguadalajara.com
Comedor (translation: “dining room”) gets the número uno nod because it consistently delivers on a simple promise: good food, good prices and genuine hospitality. For the past 47 years, the family-owned restaurant has served soul-soothing Sonoran grub to a diverse clientele ranging from hungry construction workers to Downtown business suits – nothing fancy, but always plentiful and tasty. An interior remodel three years ago transformed the no-frills digs into a warmer, more festive space, which makes the often-lengthy wait for heaping combination plates of tacos and enchiladas – and superior daily specials like Thursday’s green chile chicken enchiladas – more tolerable.
2. Pepe’s Taco Villa
2108 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix,
At 34 years, this Phoenix institution hasn’t been around as long as some Mexican family restaurants, but it serves some of the best Northern Mexico-style platos, plus a few specialties not found anywhere else. One of those specialties is tacos Siberia ($4.50) – a nod to La Siberia, a restaurant in Monterrey – consisting of two overlapping, rolled corn tortillas stuffed with juicy shredded chicken, jalapeños, guacamole and sour cream. It’s simple but satisfying. And the green chili burrito ($4.95) might be the best in town. The wood-paneled ceiling and high-back padded booths give the dimly lit spot an old-timey, cozy feel.
1202 E. Mohave St., Phoenix, 602-252-1503, carolinasmex.com
If you’ve never heard of Carolina’s (you’re allowed to pronounce it Car-o-LINE-ah’s, employees confirm), you must be new to the Valley. Legendary for freshly made, warm, gigantic flour tortillas, the simple menu of burros, tacos, tamales and tostadas at humble prices has held mainstay status since 1968. Burros (most at $4 and less) top the list of favorites, especially the red or green chile, but right behind is the juicy, pot-roast-style machaca. For a small upcharge, get your burro enchilada-style or deep-fried (chimichanga-style). Carolina’s puréed pintos ought be as legendary as the tortillas – thick, creamy and smoky. Now with three Valley locations, Carolina’s bare bones décor at the South Phoenix flagship only adds to the appeal.
4. San Carlos Bay Seafood Restaurant
1901 E. McDowell Rd., Phoenix, 602-340-0892
Out of dozens of Mariscos restaurants in the Valley, this one stands out for quality ingredients coupled with expert seafood cooking techniques. Ice-cold seafood cocktails – or cocteles, in the proper parlance – are remarkably fresh, chock-full of plump, perfectly cooked seafood. The shrimp ceviche tostada instantly transports you to a sandy Mexican beach, and chile-spiked caldos arrive bubbling hot, properly seasoned and bobbing with plenty of seafood. The whole fried fish ($16 for small) is firm, delicious snapper – not your typical timid tilapia – with a highly seasoned crisp skin playing off moist white flesh. Splurge a buck and get it Veracruz-style, topped with a tangy mix of tomatoes, onions, capers and olives.
5. Tortas el Rey
1811 N. 24th St., Phoenix, 602-275-1605, tortaselreyphoenix.com
Tortas aren’t the only thing on the menu at this busy, no-frills spot, but they are what seduced us in the first place. Skip the six-meat monster, the El Rey, and direct your attention to the Ranchera Especial, a superb combination of chopped, chile-marinated steak griddled with onions and bell peppers on a toasted telera that picks up an elusive sazón from the plancha grill. Man cannot live on tortas alone, so venture into other menu areas including the rarely-found pambazo, a guajillo-chile dipped sandwich stuffed with potatoes and chorizo. Work through the Mexico City-style huaraches and quesadillas de maiz, including the spicy, smoky chicken and chipotle tinga ($7.99).
771 Highway 179,
Sedona at the Kings Ransom Hotel, 928-203-0105,
Had we not confined the boundaries of this guide to metro Phoenix, the unequivocal número uno nod for the best Mexican restaurant would go to Elote Cafe in Sedona. Jeff Smedstad’s temple to corn features quintessential Central Mexico dishes interpreted by a chef with classic French training combined with painstakingly sourced ingredients from the Verde Valley. The upshot is a jaw-dropping dining experience in a room with a view.
Ones to Watch
5632 N. Seventh St., Phoenix,
Silvana Salcido Esparza’s newest venture located in The Yard complex brings modern Mexican breakfast, lunch and dinner as only Esparza can deliver: bad-ass huevos, tacos, tortas and signature tequila cocktails. (Opened January)
2333 E. Osborn Rd., Phoenix,
Tucked in a stylish cottage house, this Mexican eatery from the de la Cruz family (El Zocalo Mexican Grille) serves a short menu of Old-World-meets-modern Mexican specialties, including an honest mole. (Opened February 2014)
1011 N. Third St., Phoenix,
With a hip street vibe, this contemporary taco and torta shop brings spicy flavor to Downtown. Order anything pork, as Chef Brian Webb (of Hey Joe! Food Truck fame) is the king of puerco. And yes, that $3 margarita is the real deal.
(Opened November 2014)
What are the similarities and differences between classic and modern Mexican cuisine? We recruited Teresa Sanchez-Hiller, second-generation co-owner of Comedor Guadalajara – our No. 1 pick for the Valley’s best traditional Mexican restaurant – to chat with new-jack culinary genius Doug Robson (Otro) on precisely that topic. Like their menus, their life paths are disparate but similar. Sanchez-Hiller is originally from Juárez, Mexico, while Robson was born in Tepotzotlán just north of Mexico City, moving to San Antonio when he was 11 and relocating to the Valley to attend culinary school in 2006. Teresa and Doug had never met before we got them together for this interview, but knew each other by reputation. They agreed to meet at Comedor Guadalajara and talk about the current – and past – Mexican food scene.
Teresa, your family opened Comedor Guadalajara in 1968. When did you start working at the restaurant?
TERESA SANCHEZ-HILLER: Oh, probably 1968 (laughter). I was 15, working for my mom and dad. We started [the restaurant] on 16th Street, just parallel to [the current I-17 location], and it was called Las Flautas. We moved to this location five years later because the airport was going to buy the property over there. My dad, you know, was looking ahead, when we got into this place.
DOUG ROBSON: [15 years-old] is so young, but you know, I’m already starting to work my kids in the restaurant.
TSH: School then work, school, work, school, work... that’s how it was.
What was the Mexican food landscape like here in the Valley in 1968?
DR: It was probably them and no one else.
TSH: Oh no, there were lots of Mexican restaurants. There was La Casita on Buckeye and Rosita’s on 16th [now Rosita’s Place on McDowell Road], and a restaurant that was open for maybe 100 years. What was the name? Oh, yeah, it was called Steve’s.
DR: The history of Mexican restaurants, especially along the [Interstates] 17 and the 10, they really depended on travelers stopping, you know, people who were looking for authentic Mexican food. It was great commerce for the Latin community to open restaurants, plus it was cheap real estate. And the thing that made Comedor Guadalajara successful was that they were family-owned, and that Latin hospitality. And the food is really, really good.
Doug, you were born near Mexico City. How long were you there?
DR: I left when I was almost 12 and came to the States and got introduced to a completely different style of Mexican food: Tex-Mex. But I grew up in a rural town with markets and fresh produce in the zócalos and street food like elotes callejeros and taco stands.
How did you get to the Valley and end up opening a Mexican restaurant?
DR: Just after I got married, my wife and I came here in 1996 in a U-Haul with a motorcycle and two dogs. I showed up at SCI (Scottsdale Culinary Institute) and they said to me, “Do you know there is a year [-long] wait to get in?” I said no, but OK, I’ll wait. They asked me to fill out an essay on why I wanted to go to school. A week later, they called me to say they had a spot for me. After I finished school, I worked for Robert McGrath (Roaring Fork) and Michael DeMaria (M Culinary). Then... I said, you know what, I want to open my own restaurant. Back in school, we had a class project to come up with a restaurant concept and a menu. I didn’t know it, but my wife kept that menu and when I said I wanted to open a restaurant [12 years later] she gave it to me. It became the opening menu for Gallo Blanco.
Talk about your respective culinary styles. Comedor Guadalajara typifies classic Sonoran fare and Otro represents a contemporary spin on Mexican cuisine, but what does that really mean?
DR: It’s funny, because if you look at the history of the Latin American culture, you have a lot of influence from the colonial days, but you also have the influence of the 1900s during the World Wars when a lot of Europeans moved to Central America. You don’t think of flapjacks as being Mexican, but you’ll find street vendors in Mexico selling pancakes with banana toppings and pineapple. And they roll it like a taco.
And the cheese crisp is an Arizona invention, isn’t it? Teresa, do you remember them in Juárez?
TSH: No. As a little girl in Juárez, all I remember was going out for flautas. They were much longer than they are today, and served with an avocado sauce. Of course, now we make them smaller and serve them with guacamole. But Americans are always willing to try something. When we started, we didn’t know what a chimichanga was.
DR: (Laughs) Right? Chimichanga? It sounds like chongo, [slang for] monkey. What is that?
What do you think about the word “authentic?” Does it mean anything?
TSH: Home. It means something from the home. When my mom was here, she developed a sopita – a cup of soup – for the workers at lunchtime to help them get through the day. It’s still tradition. Everyone gets a [free] cup of soup here with lunch because of my mom. My dad cooked, too. He liked to cook a lot. He’s 82 and still comes into the restaurant twice a day.
DR: When you look at authenticity, there really is no such thing because you have such a melding of cultures. Mexican food is very different from the Aztecs and pre-Columbian food. You have a melting pot, like the Asian influence, how Mexicans love soy sauce brought over by Chinese railroad workers. In Peru they have chaufa. It’s basically a stir-fry, influenced by the Chinese. Ceviche? Influenced by the Japanese.
TSH: Hey, I hear you have a fantastic ceviche. I need to come try it.
DR: Well, thank you. I know I’m eating here [at Comedor] today. I’m starving.
Where to find the Valley’s premier Mexican food in 10 critical categories.
Best Hard-Core Cuisine
1. Tacos Sahuayo: Every day at 4:30 p.m. (except Monday), Standard Restaurant Supply’s parking lot turns into a lively pop-up street food hub featuring the usual offal suspects in tacos and tortas. On occasion, the food truck dishes out tacos de buche (pork stomach), less spongy than tripa (cow’s stomach). ($1.50-$2) 2922 E. McDowell Rd., Phoenix, 602-418-7614
2. El Rinconcito del D.F.: Talk about extreme nose-to-tail cooking! This barebones joint offers some less common tacos on weekends. In addition to cabezas (head and cheek meat) there are sesos (brains) and ojo (eye) tacos ($1.37-$4), which, even we admit, are acquired tastes, despite the delicious, ultra-spicy red and green salsas. Cash only. 8901 N. 12th St. Phoenix, 602-943-5933
3. Ta’Carbon: From the well-stocked salsa and condiment bar, dress up offal street tacos ($1.85-$2.10) filled with juicy chunks of braised lengua (tongue), shredded cabezas (technically cacha, since it is made only from cheek meat), or smoky, chewy tripa prepared over a mesquite grill. 5834 W. Camelback Rd., Glendale, 623-463-8134; 2929 N. 43rd Ave, Phoenix, 602-682-7701, tacarbon.com
1. The Mission: Psst. Here’s an insider tip, but only for serious chile heads: Ask your server for the secret stash of ghost chile sauce. Fair warning: Its Scoville heat rating (SHU) is somewhere near one million units. For perspective, habanero rates about 350,000 SHU. ¡Caramba! 3815 N. Brown Ave., Scottsdale, 480-636-5005, themissionaz.com
2. Los Dos Molinos: New Mexicans love their red and green chiles – the hotter the better. Not everything on the menu blisters the tongue, but they’ve built their reputation on richly flavored, sweat-inducing dishes like pork adovada and Hatch green chile beef. Following much field-testing, we believe the South Phoenix location boasts the hottest salsas of the three Valley locations. 8646 S. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-243-9113, losdosmolinosphoenix.com
3. Habanero’s Mexican Grill: Call it truth in advertising: This place loves its habanero. The habanero-infused tequila (available at the North Scottsdale Road location only) will light up your taste buds. Sure, it stings a bit, but not nearly as much as the flaming namesake sauce. A little goes a long way on both accounts. 10392 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-991-9211, habaneros.mx
1. La Santisima Gourmet Taco Shop: Talk about a salsa mother lode: On any given day, there are a dozen or so rotating options on the bar, ranging from mild (tomatillo) to searing (chile de árbol) to creamy and spicy (peanut). There’s even a strawberry salsa, for the love of Pedro. Proceed with caution: The salsas are labeled by name, but not heat level. Two locations. 1919 N. 16th St., Phoenix, 602-254-6330, lasantisimagourmet.com
2. Urban Taco: Nine salsas run the gamut from avocado and garlic crema to roasted corn and garlic crema, to green chile and cilantro aioli to spicy chipotle. Truly, few taquerias place quite as heavy a premium on salsa selection.Order in flights of three ($3.50) or five ($4.50) with chips, or à la carte for $.75 each. 6522 N. 16th St., Phoenix, 602-368-2708, urbantacos.net
3. Caramba!: The salsa bar at this locally owned Mexican mini-chain features five medium to hot salsas including a roasted tomato and jalapeño salsa, a tomatillo salsa, and a puréed hot sauce spiced with cayenne and cumin, as well as the standard pico de gallo. Four locations. 5421 W. Glendale Ave., Glendale, 623-934-8888, carambamex.com
1. Otro: The best guacamole is sans tomato, because tomatoes can leave the avocado mash watery. Otro’s guac ($4.50/$7) tops our list with plenty of lime, garlic, serranos, onions, roughly chopped cilantro and cotija – and, thankfully, no tomatoes. 6035 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 602-266-0831, otrocafe.com
2. Distrito: The tomato-less, chunky specimen at Jose Garces’ upscale resort restaurant in Old Town gets a double flavor boost from roasted jalapeño and salty cotija cheese, and there’s plenty of lime and garlic, crucial to a solid guac ($10). Get fancy with a scoop of lump crab for an extra $5. Like the Otro version, it holds up over a long meal... but it probably won’t last that long. 4000 N. Drinkwater Blvd., Scottsdale, 480-970-4444, scottsdale.distritorestaurant.com
3. Los Compadres: Ripe avocados get mashed with lemon juice and a glug of the ultra-mild house salsa, which lends a bit of garlic and tomato flavor without watering down the creamy consistency ($2.50 as a side). It’s unusual but quite delicious. Two locations. 4414 N. Seventh Ave., Phoenix, 602-265-1162, loscompadresaz.com
1. Restaurant Mexico: The Clare burro ($7.25), named after a long-time employee, is legendary. Stuffed with whole pinto beans and guacamole, this mainstay is smothered in mild green chile sauce and queso fresco. The regular refried bean and cheese burrito ($6.20) is tasty, too. 423 S. Mill Ave., Tempe, 480-967-3280, restaurantmexico.menutoeat.com
2. America’s Taco Shop: At the three locations still run by the founders, it’s all about the bean: the Mayocoba (Peruano) bean, a pale yellow bean with a thin skin and creamy texture. Ask for it “America’s way,” with chopped roasted jalapeños, for an extra $.25 ($3.99/$5.79). Three locations. 7001 E. First Ave., Scottsdale, 480-278-7070, americastacoshop.net
3. Elmer’s Tacos: Where else can you get a mini bean and cheese burro for $1.75? Even the regular size is only $2.75, a steal considering the depth of the garlicky, smoky beans. What you can’t get is the recipe. We know because we asked. 355 N. Arizona Ave., Chandler, 480-963-6763, elmerstacos.com
1. Tortas El Güero: There’s not a flop in the 14+ torta lineup from this super tidy joint, but we’re partial to the Chihuahua-style pierna de puerco featuring sliced pork loin topped with avocado, tomato, jalapeño, mustard and mayo on a toasted telera roll. Available in three sizes ($4.99-$12.99). 2518 N. 16th St., Phoenix, 602-252-9228, tortaselguero.com
2. Tortas Paquime: This local mini-chain built its reputation on delicious griddled tortas, even as they expanded the menu to include a multitude of Mexican eats – including a new “light menu.” Please. Just give us the paper-wrapped torta “Cubana,” an offbeat mix of shredded pork, ham, turkey, refried beans and melted cheese ($6.59). Four locations. 2541 E. McDowell Rd., Phoenix, 602-244-1188, torpaq.com
3. Los Reyes de la Torta: Among the 20 or so tortas, dig into the killer norteña de pollo, a chipotle-marinated chicken breast grilled with a mix of onions and jalapeños, topped with melted cheese. ($5.75 - $7.99). Three locations. 9230 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 602-870-2967, losreyesdelatortaphx.com
Best Aguas Frescas
1. La Santisima Gourmet Taco Shop: Not too sweet, heavy on the cinnamon and loaded with toasted pecans and strawberries (melons, too, in season) this horchata is practically required drinking. Sipping the milky rice drink cools the palate fire lit by the scorching salsas ($3.99). Two locations. 1919 N. 16th St., Phoenix, 602-254-6330, lasantisimagourmet.com
2. Tortas El Güero: It’s unusual to find aguas frescas (fresh fruit waters) made from scratch when powdered mixes are standard fare at most Mexican joints, but Tortas El Güero isn’t typical in any way. The rotating flavors might include strawberry, mango, or cantaloupe ($2.50). 2518 N. 16th St., Phoenix, 602-252-9228, barriourbanophx.com
3. Barrio Urbano: Blueberry, lime, and pineapple are just a few of the daily-changing aguas frescas making a splash at Barrio Urbano. Order them “still” ($3) or with a splash of sparkling water ($4). 5632 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 602-287-9000, barriourbanophx.com
1. Tortilla @ Gadzooks Enchiladas & Soup: Mexico’s most ubiquitous soup is endlessly customizable at Gadzooks. Dress up the chile-and-chicken-broth base with shredded chicken, sweet-spicy corn bread, green chile tomatillo sauce, crema or Chihuahua cheese ($6.95). 3313 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 602-279-5080, gadzooksaz.com
2. Menudo @ El Norteño: You don’t need a hangover to appreciate the garlicky, chile-flecked broth full of hominy and tender tripe. Squeeze in a lemon wedge and top it with cilantro and onions ($3 for 12 ounces, weekends only). 1002 N. Seventh Ave., Phoenix, 602-254-4629, elnortenoaz.com
3. Albóndigas @ Rosita’s Place: The Mexican equivalent to chicken soup has tender meatballs lightened with cooked rice and flavored with garlic, onions and cilantro, plus carrot and celery in a tomato-tinged broth ($4.50/$7). 2310 E. McDowell Rd., Phoenix, 602-244-9779, rositasplace.menutoeat.com
1. Barrio Urbano: It’s easy to lose count of how many complex flavors are swirling around after one bite of these modern chilaquiles. Fried tortilla chips are simmered with a spicy, tangy, roasted tomatillo sauce and topped with fried egg cooked to order ($9). Delicioso. 5632 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 602-287-9000,
2. Paz Cantina: Good luck trying to polish these half-crisp, half-soft house-fried chips off in one sitting. Available simmered in green or red sauce topped with a couple of fried eggs, we’re partial to the latter, a lusty guajillo chile sauce spiced with lots of cumin and garlic ($8.95). 1011 N. Third St., Phoenix, 602-368-2487, pazcantina.com
3. Comedor Guadalajara: Floppy chips swimming in plenty of mild red chile sauce with a barely discernible crunch, this version represents the humbleness of the ingredients: day-old fried tortillas and a simple enchilada-style sauce. There’s nothing fancy about it, but it’s oh so comforting and filling ($8.50). 1830 S. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-253-8299, comedorguadalajara.com
1. Los Dos Molinos: The menu reads “Mexican” – enchiladas and tacos, save a few New Mexican specialties like adovada and sopapillas – but the reason Los Dos identifies as New Mexican is because the founders are from our neighboring state and proudly use New Mexican red and Hatch green chiles. Three locations. 8646 S. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-243-9113, losdosmolinosphoenix.com
2. Richardson’s Cuisine of New Mexico: Since 1998, Richardson Browne has been plying New Mexican expats – and the rest of us – with succulent carne adovada, Chimayo chile chicken and twice-baked green chile potatoes. Now in more spacious digs after a devastating fire in 2009, Richardson’s still charms. 6335 N. 16th St., Phoenix, 602-265-5886, richardsonsnm.com
3. Sierra Bonita Grill: The rustic ranch décor fits the menu, a swirl of Mexican, Native American and modern American Southwestern fare. Carne asada resides comfortably next to New Mexican-style stacked enchiladas and modern poblano cream pasta. 6933 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 602-264-0700, sierrabonitagrill.com
Ubiquitous throughout Mexico – North, South and all points in between – the taco is the most quintessential Mexican food. It’s the perfect bite: portable and versatile. It doesn’t matter if it’s from a humble taqueria or a five-star resort. There are only three components and a great taco has to nail all tres: the tortilla, the filling and the garnish. Boom.
1011 N. Third St., Phoenix,
A back-to-basics preparation from Puebla in southeast Mexico, tinga features chipotle-marinated chicken or beef. Paz serves it with cabbage, crema and pickled onions. ($3.50)
2 Taco del Mar:
Who needs cod when you have lightly battered and fried calamari rings topped with green cabbage, crema and pico de Paz? ($3.75)
Paz’s resident locavore taco features grilled and sliced Arizona prickly pear pads, mushrooms and onions topped with pico de Pas and crumbled queso fresco. ($3)
The popular dish from Michoacán is made by braising pork in citrus and cream, followed by a nice griddling. Paz tops it with green cabbage, cilantro, onions and tomatillo salsa. ($3.25)
5 Carne Asada:
Perhaps the most popular taco style in the Southwest: marinated and grilled steak with cilantro, onions, and serrano chile and radish slaw. ($3.50)
6 Fish Taco:
Baja’s chief contribution to the Mexican culinary canon features battered and fried fish (mahi mahi here), with green cabbage and sweet and tangy pickled red onions. ($4.75)
3 Valley Tacos Not to Miss
Restaurant Atoyac Estilo Oaxaca: The Baja-style fish taco juxtaposes cool and hot, crunchy and soft. ($2) 1830 W. Glendale Ave., Phoenix, 602-246-1111, restaurantatoyac.com
Santos Lucha Libre: Just a hint of cinnamon in the al pastor puts this spicy taco ($5.25 for 3) on top. 9822 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 602-943-1156
America’s Taco Shop: The carne asada ($2.59) is still the most flavorful in the Valley. 7001 E. First St., Scottsdale, 480-278-7070, americastacoshop.com
With roughly 5,800 miles of Mexican coastland, seafood in el sur is no trivial matter. There are at least a couple dozen Valley mariscos joints, which means a vicarious trip to the Mexican seaside is always within reach. Step inside the bustling Mariscos Playa Hermosa near Downtown and reel in some of the best pescado y mariscos classics in town.
Mariscos Playa Hermosa
1605 E. Garfield St., Phoenix,
A whole, deep-fried seasoned tilapia. Ask for it “Veracruz style” and it comes with a briny mix of tomatoes, slivered onions, olives and capers.
Similar in style to chilled gazpacho, the Mexican cocktail is chock-full of crisp cucumber and onion, along with a school of sea critters – think shrimp, squid and octopus.
Tostada de Ceviche de Camarón
Lemon- and lime- marinated chopped shrimp, cucumber, tomato, red onion and cilantro, topped with sliced avocado, served with crisp, flat tortillas. Build your own and douse it with one of the half-dozen bottled sauces on the table.
Molcajete Caliente Mix
For the heartiest of appetites, this lava bowl filled with tomatillo sauce and cheese arrives bubbling hot, sporting beef, shrimp, chicken and fish perched around the rim.
Camarónes al Mojo de Ajo
Shrimp sautéed in garlic butter with onions and bell peppers, served with Spanish rice and refried beans.
Caldo de 7 Mares
Called “seven seas stew” because it contains crab, mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops, octopus and fish, swimming in a chile and garlic broth.
Choriqueso Queso Fundido
Gooey melted cheese topped with spicy chorizo and jalapeño slices, because you can’t eat seafood all the time.
Mexican pasteles might not have the finesse of, say, the Maison Ladurée macaron, but rest assured: Mexicans love their sweets with just as much ardor as the French. Intended to be consumed with coffee or Mexican hot chocolate, Mexican pastries are drier compared to American or French pastries. Find some
excellent specimens at La Purisima. Housed in a colossal blue building on Glendale Avenue, the family-owned panadería cranks out 15,000 individual pastries a day. Prices range from $.50 to $1.50.
4533 W. Glendale Ave., Glendale, 623-842-1400
Soft flour tortillas filled with an assortment of flavors – cajeta (caramel-like) is our favorite – and rolled in powdered sugar.
Flaky pie dough enclosing barely sweet fillings, including apple, pineapple, pumpkin and arroz con leche (rice pudding).
Brown sugar and molasses cookie cut out in the shape of pig, this is La Purisima’s most popular cookie. They bake 350 a day.
Chocolate- and plain sugar- glazed sweet rolls with a coconut flake rim.
The most recognizable sweet roll, with its sugared seashell-stamped top, which is either plain sugar or flavored with cocoa powder, comes in a variety of colors and two patterns. The crosshatch pattern delivers more sugary topping.
Large round cookie with an orange-flavored center and a crystal sugar rim.
Flaky sweet roll with a glossy sugar glaze. Shares the name of a mixed seafood cóctel, although no one knows why.
Rolled sponge cake with a strawberry glaze swirl and rolled in coconut.
Tequila, Mezcal, Cerveza y Vino
Scarfing tacos works up a mighty thirst that only Mexican tipples can quench. Tequila rules the hacienda, but smoky mezcal is on the cusp of giving agave azul tequilana a run for its money. Other times only an ice-cold, crisp brew hits the spot, and Mexico produces lagers tailor-made for chile heat. Mexico’s wine industry is minuscule compared to the U.S., but what they are barreling is impressive. Barrio Cafe beverage maestro Richard Vick brings us up to speed on el mundo de bebidas.
2815 N. 16th St., Phoenix,
Premium wines from Mexico’s thriving Baja region are surprisingly sophisticated, if not quite up to Napa standards – yet. Top wineries include Santo Tomás and Monte Xanic, both of which produce exceptional reds.
Mexicans favor crisp lagers that pair well with spicy dishes – the bubbles soothe the palate. Modelo Especial is Vick’s pick for michelada, a refreshing beer cocktail made with tomato juice, lots of lime and Tapatio hot sauce.
Made from the desert spoon plant, mezcals are finding a wider audience in the U.S. as a smoky alternative to tequila. Vick recommends a young Pierde Almas and the more complex Del Maguey Wild Tepextate. Barrio also carries bacanora, Sonora’s answer to tequila.
Barrio Bomba is Vick’s gussied up version of a Tequila Sunrise. He starts with a blanco tequila and adds the usual OJ and grenadine, but also adds a splash of pineapple juice and some Cointreau. “It pairs beautifully with our chiles en nogada,” he says.
Brush up on regional Mexican cuisine – and find exemplary dishes throughout the Valley – with the help of this culinary map.
Sonoran: Machaca Burrito
El Horseshoe Restaurant
2140 W. Buckeye Rd., Phoenix, 602-251-3135
True machaca starts with ultra-thin slices of beef sirloin, salted and air-dried. It then becomes an ingredient for other dishes, most famously carne machaca y con huevo, where it is fried with garlic, onions and eggs.
Baja: The Fish Taco
Mucho Macho Taco
5341 N. Seventh Ave., Phoenix, 602-277-8226,
What makes a mere fish taco a Baja fish taco? The light, crispy, beer-battered white fish, the shredded cabbage and chile-spiked crema. Flour vs. corn tortilla is up for debate.
Sinaloa: Pescado Culichi
2601 E. Bell Rd., Phoenix,
Culichi, named after the city of Culiacán, is a rich sauce of poblanos, sour cream and cheese, served with fish and seafood.
Nuevo León: Monterrey Taco
Pepe’s Taco Villa
2108 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-242-0379, pepestacovilla.com
Sonora may be home to machaca, but the cattle-country state of Nuevo León also uses a fair amount of the air-dried, salty beef. In this case it’s chopped and sautéed with egg, chiles, tomatoes and onions, and stuffed in a soft flour tortilla.
Jalisco: Torta Ahogada
Tortas Ahogadas Guadalajara
518 N. Arizona Ave., Chandler, 480-855-3888
Ahogada means “drowned,” and at this counter-serve spot tucked in a mini-mall, it’s a bolillo roll split from the top, stuffed with roasted pork and doused in a tangy, garlicky chile de árbol sauce. There isn’t a better one this side of the border. Fortunately it comes in medium as well as loco hot.
D.F. (Mexico City): Alambre
2831 N. 24th St., Phoenix, 602-522-2043,
Chopped bacon, onions and green bell peppers sautéed together with beef (or marinated chicken) form the basis of alambre, which at El Nopalito is served over three overlapping corn tortillas covered with a modest sprinkling of melted cheese.
Puebla: Chiles en Nogada
2815 N. 16th St.,
Phoenix, 602-636-0240, barriocafe.com
Representing the colors of the Mexican flag, this roasted poblano chile is stuffed with dried and fresh fruits, pork, and draped in a creamy walnut sauce and topped with pomegranate seeds. Barrio Café takes a couple liberties, replacing pork with chicken, and almonds for walnuts in the sauce.
Oaxaca: Mole Negro Oaxaqueño
La 15 Y Salsas
1507 W. Hatcher Rd., Phoenix, 602-870-2056,
Considered the culinary epicenter of Mexico, Oaxaca is home to the “seven moles,” including the complex, dark-as-night mole negro, which takes two days and an astounding 25 ingredients to make.
Yucatán: Cochinita Pibil
Así es la Vida
3602 N. 24th St., Phoenix, 602-955-2926, asieslavidarestaurant.com
Pork leg (or shoulder) is rubbed with achiote paste (from annatto seeds), garlic, cumin, chiles, cloves and other spices. Wrapped in lightly toasted plantain leaves, the pork is slowly braised in sour orange juice, resulting in a juicy, tangy, aromatic stew.
Everyone has a favorite neighborhood Mexican joint – a no-fuss, no-muss spot for scratching that south-of-the-border itch. These are just a few of our favorite haunts
and their one must-order dish.
Los Picos Parrilla
1542 W. University Dr., Mesa, 480-833-4711
Go-to dish: Cochinito Tioponcho ($11.95)
Served on a wooden platter sporting thick, baton-cut fries, the star of this casa specialty is street-size, braised pork tacos garnished with red onion and cabbage, and drizzled with a fantastic mustardy sauce. The dish is called “Uncle’s Pork” for a reason – the family’s uncle sold pork tacos in Mexico.
855 W. University Dr., Mesa, 480-615-5820
Known for gigantic portions, this Mexico City-style storefront’s huaraches and corn-based quesadillas fill practically every inch of the serving platters. So it’s no surprise the tortas are muy grande – nearly twice the size of others in town. Among the half-dozen options, the lightly breaded and fried beef milanesa is a standout.
Guedo’s Cantina Grille
71 E. Chandler Blvd.,
Go-to dish:Fish Taco ($3.50)
The campy beach theme is hilarious, but the soft shell tacos are serious business. Down a couple fish tacos – seasoned, battered and fried Alaskan Pollock served in two corn tortillas (no flour ones here) and topped with crunchy red cabbage and chipotle crema. It’s as close as you can get to Rocky Point without leaving town.
1524 E. University Dr., Mesa, 480-464-8226,
Go-to dish:Tacos al Carbon ($1.90)
Mesquite-grilled street tacos at this modern counter-serve spot come in three meats – carne asada, pollo and birria. The birria (in this case, beef, not goat, simmered in a bright guajillo and ancho chile sauce) is best. The fresh salsa bar is well-stocked (watch out for the muy picante green salsa).
Serrano’s Mexican Food
141 S. Arizona Ave., Chandler, 480-899-3318, serranosaz.com
Go-to dish: Pollo Ranchero Fundido-Style ($13)
This family-owned mini-chain is known for setting the table with bean dip along with chips and salsa. They’re also known for whopping portions of Sonoran favorites, especially chimichangas. One of the house favorites is a deep-fried chicken burrito smothered in a fundido (cream cheese) sauce – don’t even think about the calories, just dig in.
7328 E. Second St., Scottsdale, 480-946-2256, losolivosrestaurants.com
Go-to dish: The Mary Lou ($12)
Multiple generations of the Corral family have been serving Sonoran comfort food with genuine hospitality for decades, including a mighty fine cheese crisp. Even better is the Mary Lou, named after a beloved aunt. It’s a cheese crisp, folded in half and topped with red or green chile con carne – or both, if you ask nicely.
Frank & Lupe’s Old Mexico
4121 N. Marshall Way, Scottsdale, 480-990-9844, frankandlupes.com
Go-to dish: Lupe’s Enchiladas ($10)
The original Frank & Lupe’s is in Socorro, New Mexico, and their sons run this one in Old Town Scottsdale. It’s not surprising the New Mexican specialties stand out. Lupe’s enchiladas – stacked, not rolled – are a prime example: corn tortillas interspersed with cheese and red or green sauce (or both) and topped with a fried egg.
El Cuernavaca Restaurant
3030 N. 68th St.,
Go-to dish: Cecina Con Queso Quesadilla ($6.99)
This restaurant features some rare specialties from Cuernavaca, the garden-like resort town south of Mexico City, including quail and iguana, and also serves killer quesadillas. One of the best is cecina con queso, a thick, griddled corn patty folded around salty dried beef and topped with crisp iceberg and gooey melted cheese.
3060 N. 68th St.,
Established: Circa 1995
Go-to dish: Marinated Pork Tacos ($1.50)
Tacos aren’t the only thing this unpretentious Guadalajara-style joint serves, but they are everything you’d expect in a bargain street taco. The tortillas are fresh and soft and the fillings are more flavorful than many other bargain taco joints. The carne asada is good, but the garlic-marinated pork is great.
SOL Mexican Cocina
15323 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-245-6708, solcocina.com
Go-to dish: “Canarditas” Duck Tacos ($12)
The menu at this casually upscale, Baja-inspired restaurant is swathed in gourmet flair, and presentation matters. Take, for example, the build-your-own, French-inspired duck tacos: A deep-fried confit duck leg sits atop three corn tortillas in all its crisp-skin glory. A sweet and spicy, tequila-splashed blackberry serrano salsa helps tame the richness.
5834 W. Camelback Rd., Glendale, 623-463-8134, tacarbon.com
Go-to dish: Tacos Lengua ($1.85)
If you didn’t know these juicy, melt-in-your-mouth cubes of meat were bits of braised cow tongue, you might mistake them for deeply flavorful, tender cuts of steak. This taco shop – with a fantastic salsa bar – does a brisk business in all types of carne, but nothing is a flavorful as the lengua.
4414 N. Seventh Ave., Phoenix, 602-265-1162; 2350 W. Northern Ave., Phoenix, 602-864-0043, loscompadresaz.com
Go-to dish: Cheese Crisp ($5.25)
The Valdivia family claims to have introduced the cheese crisp to the Valley. For a humble dish – just three ingredients – getting it right is harder than it looks, and Los Compadres nails it. The browned tortilla stays crisp and is just barely covered in a thin layer of melted Jack and cheddar.
1715 W. McDowell Rd., Phoenix, 602-340-9310
Go-to dish: Tacos Jaz ($2.25)
Located across from the state fairgrounds, this tidy spot, as the name suggests, specializes in carne asada and other parts of the cow, mostly in the form of tacos and burritos. The flour tortillas made on-site make them stand out. Try the Jaz taco – steak griddled with green peppers and topped with melted cheese.
3330 N. 19th Ave., Phoenix, 602-279-1763,
Go-to dish: Shredded Beef Chimichanga ($9.95)
A lot of restaurants do chimichangas well. (What’s not to like about a deep-fried burrito?) The menu is laden with the usual suspects, from tacos to tamales, but it’s the chimi – which occupies a surprisingly small part of the menu – that steals the show. Look for a new location near Seventh and Missouri avenues coming soon.
5912 W. Glendale Ave., Glendale, 623-939-7561
Go-to dish: Ground Beef Tacos (3 for $8)
Sure, the décor is dated, but the restaurant just celebrated its 69th anniversary, so it’s doing something right. That “something” is serving classic Americanized Mexican food in healthy portions at moderate prices, including crunchy hard-shell tacos with seasoned ground beef, iceberg and cheese. Old school – and we love ‘em.
8338 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 602-943-9753,
Go-to dish: Machaca Scramble ($10.95)
Machaca is salted, dried beef – the Mexican equivalent of beef jerky – and something Mexican cowboys could easily take on the trail. The flavor is more concentrated than fresh beef. Sautée the meat in a little fat with onions, jalapeños and a couple scrambled eggs, and you have one muy delicioso plate fit for a vaquero.
1516 E. Thomas Rd., Phoenix, 602-241-1918,
Go-to dish: Chilaquiles ($4.65)
Home to 32 combination plates, this diner-style Mexican joint – where the servers know customers by name – serves satisfying, home-style chilaquiles. Day-old tortilla chips are simmered in a red enchilada sauce until mostly tender, and topped with requisite over easy eggs with a side of refried beans.
4144 E. Indian School Rd., 602-956-0178,
Go-to dish: Chile Relleno ($12.50)
This relleno is like no other. A gigantic puff of egg whites baked to golden brown hide green chile strips and melted cheese. Served with a ranchero “gravy,” this dish might be the lightest thing on the old-school Ameri-Mex menu. Order it first thing – it takes 20 minutes to bake.
907 N. 14th St., Phoenix, 602-262-9842;
15643 N. Reems Rd., Surprise, 623-546-3835,
Go-to dish: Red or Green Chile Beef Burrito ($5.40)
Those in the know get here early because by noon, the line is longer than Willie Nelson’s career. All you need to know is red or green chile (flip a coin; both are beef) and do you want that burrito deep-fried and/or enchilada style? The smoky, salty beans might be the best in town, too.
416 N. Seventh Ave., Phoenix, 602-253-5864,
Go-to dish: Chile Relleno Burrito, Enchilada-Style ($5.67)
Burritos aren’t the only thing on the menu, but because the flour tortillas are made fresh daily, it makes them extra special. If you love chiles rellenos, you must order the chile relleno burrito. A cheese-stuffed chile, battered and fried, is sauced and stuffed inside a fresh flour tortilla.
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