La Pinata (Photo by Mark Lipczynski)
East side, west side. In the battle for the best Mexican food in Greater Phoenix, which territory can claim the title? As sure as Central Avenue draws the line between the two, the reality is we’re blessed with a veritable melting pot of Mexican restaurants with distinctive flavors that tell of the different heritages and regions their owners hail from.
This couldn’t be more true than on the west side of Phoenix, where Mexican-Americans setting up shop are from no further than Sonora, the northern-most region of Mexico where cattle roam, and barley and wheat grow freely. The nature of the food reflects these realities. They’d much rather serve you their freshly made flour tortillas than corn ones, and they’ll serve up a cow every which way to produce not only carne asada, but head meat, or even specific cuts within the head like cheek.
If you’re in the market for a taste of Mexican food done the west-side way, here are four spots to try.
Carolina’s Mexican Food
If you’re familiar at all with Mexican restaurants in Phoenix, you’re familiar with Carolina’s Mexican Food. It’s the safest bet when you want to introduce friends looking for something a little more off the beaten path than the familiar “-bertos” Mexican joint found all over the metro area.
Started by Manuel and Carolina Valenzuela in the 1950s, the landmark restaurant has grown from a small operation (the Valenzuelas sold tortillas, burritos and tamales out of the back seat of their car) to a local icon that has won awards time and time again for their famously huge, delicious tortilla called a sobaquera that stretches an entire arm’s length—ideal, of course, for burrito wrapping.
And what most often goes inside of that ginormous tortilla? Famously, it’s the machaca, a style of beef that’s been dehydrated for preservation, and then rehydrated and mixed with spices and chiles or onions. Sometimes its scrambled with eggs.
Carolina’s does the admirable work of being both an “authentic” experience and an accessible one—they’ve expanded to three locations and do major volume.
While not deep in the heart of the west Phoenix, La Pinata can still be considered a west-side favorite, especially since its original location on 19th Avenue near Osborn had been open for 45 years. The landmark restaurant recently relocated to Seventh Avenue and Missouri, in the former home of Mary Coyle Ol’ Fashion Ice Cream (another Phoenix institution). Owned by the Bugarin family—Peter, and his parents Hope and Pete—La Pinata first opened in 1970 and quickly became known as the “ home of the chimichanga.” It claims to be the first restaurant to top the classic, deep-fried burrito with sour cream, guacamole, tomatoes, onions and cheese.
More upscale than your hole-in-the-wall Mexican food gem, La Pinata serves Sonoran-style fare for lunch and dinner. You’ll find favorites (elevated, of course) such as cheesy enchiladas; crispy, flavorful tacos; stuffed-to-the-hilt burritos; and fajitas in all its sizzling goodness. For a more authentic taste, specialties of the house include the Yucatan, a deep-fried burro smothered in spinach con queso sauce; and Tio Pancho’s pollo Con queso, seasoned chicken wrapped in a deep-fried tortilla, topped with their special cheese sauce. Complement your meal with wine, beer (Mexican, of course), or a house special cocktail, margarita or sangria. We say cheers to that!
El Horseshoe Restaurant
Where Carolina’s is a good introduction to Mexican fare, El Horseshoe Restaurant tastes far more of scratch-cooking, boasting real-deal, small-batch machaca and chilaquiles, fried tortillas doused in red or green sauce, bursting at the seams with Sonoran regional flare. They hand-press their own tortillas, too, in case anyone was keeping score.
While the restaurant is known for its chilaquiles, it’s the burritos that will give you a true taste of authentic Mexico. Fillings range from the familiar carne asada and chorizo-and-eggs, to the more adventurous beef tongue, goat stew and beef head. You’ll find these ingredients in the soups, tortas and tacos, too.
Wash your meal down with a glass of cabada, a complex and so much more interesting version of the white-rice horchata. Admittedly, it’s just as sweet; better to wash down salsas that don’t hold back on the kick.
2140 W. Buckeye Road, Phoenix
Speaking of horchata, you’ve probably sipped down most Mexican foodstuffs around town with a cup of it, but the Valley is rife with the just-add-water powdered variety. It’s harder to find cups with a little grit texture from the rice and the almonds, blended up with vanilla and hand-strained, or ones where the rice is soaked in milk for a creamier end-product.
At Ta’Carbon, you could try these more authentic versions, as well as a Sonoran variety that switches out rice for its earthier cousin, barley. With that good touch of sweetness, you’d be doing yourself a favor by complimenting out some of the super-savory flavors— and the accompanying salsas—coming off an all-charcoal grill producing carne asada, head meat, even shrimp, from a place that’s mission statement reads: “Our philosophy is to make you the best carne asada in the United States.”
The no-frills menu is satisfyingly simple: Choose a taco, burrito or plate, then choose a protein. While it’s being grilled to perfection, load up on condiments such as diced onions, cilantro, Mexican limes, marinated carrots and salsas.
Families pack into this place—especially weekends—to enjoy big, family-style meals, where each plate averages four to five tacos each.
5834 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix
And then, of course, there’s the matter of settling on the best west-side Sonoran hot dogs, those devilishly good, bacon-wrapped franks topped with beans, diced tomato and onion, mayo, guacamole salsa and cotija cheese—all before you even get to add condiments like salsas, ketchup (please don’t) or mustard.
The El Caprichoso hot dog cart takes the experience an extra step by toasting those big, soft and steamy bolillo buns on the grill, adding yet another layer of texture to this already impressive dog. There is likely no better Sonoran dog in Phoenix, which means that, unless our Tucson neighbors want to duke this one out, there’s likely no better Sonoran dog in the world.
SW Corner of 35th Avenue and Thomas Road, Phoenix
Sets up in the parking lot around 6 p.m.
This is part of a series of guest posts from our friends at Bite Magazine that explore the food and drink scene of Greater Phoenix.