La Olmeca

In South Phoenix, the shopping center known as South Plaza has stood for decades at Southern and Central avenues as a legacy to late 20th Century design and land use. It’s an L-shaped complex with an iconic sign visible from Central Avenue. In addition to its retail tenants, South Plaza has also been a venue for car shows that celebrate cruising culture. With that heritage, recent proposals for redevelopment have drawn controversy. One current South Plaza tenant, La Olmeca, is decidedly less contentious with its menu of Mexican food.

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Tacos mi Ranchito

A sometimes exaggerated and romanticized version of cowboy culture is often part of the draw for tourists visiting Arizona, and many Western movies were filmed in the Grand Canyon State during the genre’s heyday. Underlying the stereotype of the American cowboy, however, there’s an earlier tradition of Mexican cattle wrangling embodied in the idea of the vaquero, a skilled horseman adept at managing a herd of cows with a lasso. Today, a South Phoenix restaurant known as Tacos mi Ranchito recalls vaquero life through its decor and its beef-oriented menu.

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El Zaguan

In Spanish, a zaguan is a passage that typically leads from a building’s entrance to an interior courtyard or central patio. On Adams Street in the downtown Phoenix business district, the small storefronts lack that architectural feature, but that has not stopped one new restaurant there from using the word to create the sort of welcoming atmosphere that might be associated with walking through an actual zaguan. El Zaguan has joined the small restaurant row on Adams, catering to populations of workers returning to offices, as well as those who never left.

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Tacos Calafia

In Tijuana, a calafia is a small bus, part of a transit system that is less formal than the fixed bus and rail routes in most of the United States. Just across the border from San Diego, Tijuana is sometimes stereotyped as just a place for a quick tourist trip to Mexico. In actuality, it’s the sixth largest metropolitan area in the country and a place with its own distinctive street life and culture. Tacos Calafia celebrates the food of Tijuana in its menu and the city itself in its decor. Its location on 7th Street just south of Roosevelt brings some Tijuana to downtown Phoenix.

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El Nuevo Taquito

Sometimes the use of the word new will persist long after something is no longer so new. Cities like New York and New Orleans are centuries old, but still new in comparison to the European places they were named for. It’s the same in Spanish. For example, the state of Nuevo Leon in Mexico was created in the 1500s. Turning from Mexican geography to Mexican food, El Nuevo Taquito has been in business in South Phoenix since the 1980s, making it no longer nuevo at all by restaurant standards, but still a worthwhile destination for a whole lot more than just taquitos.

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Taco Boys

How far is the average diner willing to walk for a really good taco? It depends on a lot of factors, including ability, weather, and the character of the neighborhood. Half a mile is generally considered the upper limit of walking distance around a transit station, assuming a favorable environment. At the east end of Phoenix’s Roosevelt Row, Taco Boys has been offering carne asada and other Mexican specialties good enough to justify a half-mile trek from the Roosevelt/Central light rail station.

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El Snappy

The Rio Salado, long neglected as an industrial zone separating South Phoenix from the rest of the city, has gotten a lot more love and attention in recent years. The development of the Audubon Center and a network of multi-use paths through the riverbed has motivated interest in birding, bicycling, and walking in a natural riparian setting. With any outdoor activity, there’s often a need for sustenance before or after in an environment where there’s no dress code and no pretense. El Snappy fulfills that need with its hearty and well-crafted Mexican food.

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Maskadores Taco Shop

Over the past year, masks have been transformed from a Halloween novelty to both an everyday accessory and a source of contention. The question of whether masks are needed restaurants when not seated remains unresolved as of today with conflicting dictates and guidance dependent on vaccination. Regardless, restaurants can legally maintain their own dress codes for customers to follow. At Maskadores Taco Shop, a local chain, masks of another type are far less controversial, having always been an integral part of the theme and decor.

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Tortas Paquime

Tortas, the hearty sandwiches of Mexico, are typically found in small, independently operated restaurants. So far, there’s been no “Torta Bell” to standardize these street foods and sell them from drive-thru windows under a national brand. That’s probably a positive, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t room for innovation in the torta experience. Tortas Paquime is a small local brand of torta restaurants with a handful of locations throughout Phoenix, one of which happens to be just a quarter mile north of the planned Baseline/Central Station on the South Central Extension.

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Blanco Cocina + Cantina

When downtown Phoenix has seen developments with ambitious names like “CityScape” and “The Arizona Center,” it’s hard to get excited about something with the more modest moniker of “Block 23.” All it takes is a little awareness of local history, though, to understand the importance of the redevelopment of this site, named for the numbered system of parcels used when the city was first developed. Block 23 has been home to city hall, a fire station, the Fox Theater, and a JCPenney store before sitting vacant, underutilized as surface parking, for several decades.

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Comedor Guadalajara

The second largest metropolitan area in Mexico and the capital of the western state of Jalisco, Guadalajara is big, busy, and beautiful with its art and architecture. It’s fitting therefore that a restaurant in Phoenix named for the Mexican city has similar qualities. From the outside, Comedor Guadalajara looks to be a basic beige box. On the inside, it’s a different story. The restaurant has three cavernous dining rooms, bustling even when operating at reduced capacity during the pandemic and decorated with beaded sombreros and colorful prints on the walls.

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El Pollo Supremo

There are plenty of restaurants that make an effort to please everyone. Sometimes, that means accommodating reasonable requests for modifications to a dish. It can also mean adding a token entree outside a place’s usual niche in order to override the veto of one member of a group considering a meal there.Those are all understandable steps to take, but it’s easy to get carried away with excessively long menus mired in mediocrity. That’s why it’s refreshing that places like El Pollo Supremo carry on with tightly focused menus that don’t try too hard.

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