Here in Arizona, Mexican food doesn’t even count as ethnic food. It’s just part of our everyday dining. With all our options, we don’t have to settle for chains. Arizona’s best Mexican food comes from locally owned restaurants. Here are three of my favorites.
La Condesa Gourmet Taco Shop (1919 N. 16th Street, Phoenix)
After two weeks of living on smoked trout during a trip to Iceland, I returned home starving for some Southwestern spice. I only stopped at home long enough to drop my luggage off, and then I was on the way to La Condesa.
Tacos are the speciality at La Condesa, though you can also dig into burritos and quesadillas and sample the salsa bar (where else can you get peanut salsa?). I usually pick a two-taco platter with rice and beans (starting at $6.99 – but you can mix and match for a little more cash). What to pick? Try something different on every visit. There are plenty of choices: “dogfish” (battered shark), mahi-mahi, Aztec tinga chicken, carne asada and mole are just a few of the selections. Even the veggie tacos are satisfying. The tacos come with soft corn tortillas.
And try the horchata. It’s probably the only $4 horchata on the planet, but it’s also in a league of its own. It comes with pecans and diced fruit floating in the usual rice milk/cinnamon mix. Service is fast and friendly, even when you show up 15 minute before the 9 p.m. closing time.
You’ll see a wide variety of people dining here, though I’d say urban 20-something wanna-be creative types are the biggest bloc. There’s also an occasional family and groups of women headed out on the town. The air conditioning doesn’t work well here, so it’s often hot – somehow, that fits the Dia da las Muertas-type art and the sturdy wood tables and chairs.
If there’s one thing I’d change about La Condesa, I’d ask them to add black beans to the menu. I think they’re tastier than refried beans – and they’re definitely healthier.
Tortas El Guero (2518 N. 16th Street, Phoenix)
Yes, 16th Street in Phoenix has some serious Mexi-mojo. Just blocks from La Condesa, you’ll find Tortas El Guero.
People from outside Arizona might be shocked by this, but Mexico is responsible for some awesome sandwiches (known as tortas). I’ll take their chewy, soft bread over the crusty hard rolls of many other sandwiches.
You’ll find a huge variety of tortas here. I rarely get the same one twice in a row. Most are under $6. Barbacoa, El Cubano (ham, pork, mustard, cheese and pickles), chipotle and carne asada are in my regular rotation.
The salsa bar here is less wild than the one at La Condesa, but you’ll still find lots of pickled and marinated goodies to heat your sandwich up. Tortas El Guero also does a nice job on the horchata – it’s a more conventional recipe, but still has that satisfying, just-right amount of sweetness.
Tortas El Guero primarily serves a Spanish-speaking crowd. The staff switches language as-needed, though. It’s not a fancy place – you order at the counter and head to diner-style tables and chairs. But you’re not here for the decor.
What you are here for, though, is food that’s cheap and tasty served friendly and fast. It’s a model for a perfect torta shop.
Los Sombreros (2534 N. Scottsdale Road)
Los Sombreros is a world away from my other two favorites. The bill for two people can easily exceed $50. Yes, this is upscale, modern, downright hoity-toity comida nueva mexicana (and I hope I did that right). You’ll likely have to wait for a seat – heck, you might have to wait for a spot in the parking lot.
But there’s a reward for patience. Like crab enchiladas, carnitas and puerco en chipotle. One of these three spectacular dishes is a requirement for every meal I have there. Each dish is deceivingly hefty – you will not be hungry after your last bite unless you’re a competitive eater named Kobayashi.
For side dishes, I choose fresh black beans and grilled vegetables. I can’t, however, lavish praise on the salsas. La Condesa’s salsas are far more original and flavorful. The chips are decent, but the two salsas underwhelm despite a good bit of spicy kick.
If you can actually manage to keep eating, try a Mexican chocolate cream pie. I’d tell you more about it, but I entered a food coma shortly after working away at a piece. There’s a full tequila menu along with a few beers. But I have yet to encounter a Mexican restaurant, no matter how upscale, that has a beer selection that will impress. I wish Los Sombreros would be the option with a nice local IPA on tap, but it’s not.
This is a popular spot for date night, for couples and couples traveling in packs. Since the prices can put a strain on credit balances, most of the crowd still skews older. The vibe is upbeat, but not blaring loud – and it has by far the most pleasant atmosphere of the restaurants mentioned here. It’s also a little dressier, so try not to spill the mole on yourself.
I doubt many people would label Los Sombreros as an authentic Mexican food experience. I’d agree – but it’s an updated twist on a lot of familiar concepts. Weak salsa aside, the food and the service will leave a good taste in your mouth.