Over the years, Mexican cuisine exploded throughout the Phoenix Metro area and the surrounding East and West Valley, proliferating and evolving new flavors.
According to Phoenix chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, Mexican food can vary depending on the region and state from which it hails, which also creates opportunities for innovation. Chef Silvana, who opened Barrio Café in 2002, says the options for Mexican flavors in Phoenix weren’t always this numerous.
“If I take you out to eat right now here in Phoenix, and we go, let’s say 20 years ago. We would be eating crispy tacos, some yellow cheese, some sour cream, some fried chimichangas perhaps. Today, it’s not that,” she says.
Nowadays, for instance, you have restaurants like El Rancho serving traditional cuisine from the coastal region of Sinaloa. There, you can enjoy the manta ray soup complete with cabbage, onion, cilantro, salsa, and shredded beef gordita.
“How elegant is this?” Chef Silvana muses. “This salsa was made only for a few dishes. This one was made only for others. They didn’t just generalize and make one salsa for all the dishes. They care enough, how elegant and culinary.”
In a strip mall off of Bethany Home Road, Oaxaca Restaurant brings the unique spices and food of the southwestern Mexican state of the same name. Sampling the tlayuda there is a must, which is made with a large, thin, and crunchy tortilla topped with refried beans, cabbage, avocado, meat, Oaxaca cheese, and salsa. The Oaxaca cheese known as “quesillo” can easily be shredded with your hands, as Chef Silvana demonstrated to reporters from AZFamily.
Another hot ticket is the Oaxaca mole tamale wrapped in a banana leaf instead of a corn husk. “Very herbaceous and also very moist. It’s subtle, rich. It’s absolutely delicious,” says Chef Silvana.
An example of how Arizona has reimagined Mexican flavors can be found at the Scottsdale restaurant Call Her Martina, which features Northern Mexican cuisine with a cosmopolitan blend. Private Tijuana chef Yesenia Ríos designed the menu with a fusion of Mediterranean flavors, and Chef Alfonso Moreno leads the kitchen. Together with co-owner Elisa Moreno, they create unique and unforgettable dishes, such as pulpo al grill, which combines a Venetian recipe of risotto al Nero di Seppia (black squid ink risotto) and curls of grilled octopus tentacles.
The restaurant’s theme is an homage to film actress María Félix and the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, la Época de Oro, which happened around World War II. Félix, a prominent starlet during this era, hailed from Sonora, born specifically in the pueblo of Álamos, Mexico’s northernmost colonial city. The gothic restaurant honors both Félix and Sonora with a blend of international flavors and staples from the region. Félix’s vintage portrait hangs in the restaurant with pride, a tribute to “La Doña.”
In Chandler, Modern Margarita returns to North Phoenix after a several year hiatus to serve traditional Mexican dishes. Next time you’re there sampling the tacos, try them with a giant margarita served in a fish bowl and combined with Red Bull, kiwi syrups and rhubarb liqueur.
For Tex-Mex and breakfast tacos, it is hard to beat Torchy’s Tacos located on Camelback Road in the city of Phoenix.
If you’re craving quesabirria and al pastor freshly shaved off the spit, look no further than Taqueria Factory, owned by the Garfio family in Chandler.
The list of delectable dishes from fantastic Mexican restaurants is almost too vast to chronicle, all thanks to chefs like Silvana and Alphonso who have introduced the cuisine to the Valley. “We’re everywhere,” says Chef Silvana. “So there’s no excuse for eating that mediocre Mexican food.”