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Scottsdale/Phoenix, AZ -- Good, Authentic Mexican?

I'm visiting Scottsdale next week with my parents, and I'm looking for good, authentic Mexican places where we can go for some tasty food.

As for price, that's not a huge issue. Ideally, it would be reasonably priced by local standards ($10-15 for an entree?), but if there's a great place that's worth a splurge, I'd love to hear about that too.

As far as decor, we're not picky. We definitely don't want to go to some overpriced, touristy spot and are perfectly happy to go to a totally nondescript place, as long as it's clean and worth the trip. Eating outside, however, is always nice.

We're staying at the Scottsdale Villa Mirage (you can see it on a map here: http://is.gd/cDML ), so bonus points for places that are in the vicinity. But we'll have a car and are definitely willing to travel in the vicinity of 20-30 minutes.

I realize the cuisine is generally heavy on the meat, but we'll have a vegetarian with us. I assume you can go anywhere and get something without meat, but if that's an issue anywhere, please let me know.

Finally, I'll just mention that we really, really like chips and salsa.

Thanks in advance!

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  1. There's not a whole lot near your hotel in terms of authentic Mexican. North Scottsdale is not known for its barrios and Hispanic tradition.

    Staying within a 20-30 minute travel time, I think your best bets are in northeast Phoenix. Two places come to mind:

    Carolina's, a Phoenix institution, has a second location in northeast Phoenix (The original location is in south Phoenix near the airport.)

    Plaza Grill is a newer place getting good reviews. Despite the generic hotel coffee shop name, it is indeed a Mexican restaurant.

    -----
    Carolina's Mexican North
    2126 E Cactus Rd Ste 100, Phoenix, AZ 85022

    Plaza Grill
    14620 N Cave Creek Road 1, Phoenix, AZ

    1. One thing that will make things even more difficult is that the more authentic the Mexican in these parts, the less vegetarian it is. The fat of choice is lard, and if a places uses it, it will be in the flour tortillas and refried beans. Cheese enchiladas with rice should be safe.

      2 Replies
      1. re: JK Grence the Cosmic Jester

        Good point. I believe Carolina's uses lard in both the flour tortillas and the beans. Also, sometimes the rice in Mexican restaurants is made with chicken broth. Meatless Mexican is easy to find; vegetarian Mexican is another story.

        1. re: silverbear

          The information about the lard is extremely helpful. That hadn't even occurred to me. Thanks so much.

      2. Try the Barrio Cafe, their website has a menu you can download and see what your options are. www.barriocafe.com

        1. One of the most authentic places for Mexican food in the Valley is El Nopalito at 24th Street and Thomas in Central Phoenix. It is a very small, family run place in a crappy strip mall, but the food is excellent.

          There should be some options for vegetarians, but as noted above, lard is king in Mexican cooking.

          -----
          El Nopalito
          2831 N 24th St, Phoenix, AZ 85008

          7 Replies
          1. re: Seth Chadwick

            I am a vegetarian, and having tried to eat at El Nopalito, I can attest to the fact that they use lard in everything. Even the chips are cooked in lard; they have absolutely NO vegetarian options. I have been told by meat-eaters, however, that the food is good.

            1. re: tarathemis

              I doubt very much that they use lard in everything, especially the chips. You obviously never have worked in a restaurant or fried anything in a large volume. I do not know of anyone who uses lard for deep frying due to its instability at high temperatures (Smoke Point). Most places that fry a lot use high temp oils so they do not have to replace it as often. Lard also smells and the worst problem is it will solidify when cold. So at the end of the day when you turn the gas down on the fryer, it will get hard which most fryers will have problems with.

              The way you make it sound is that a vegetarian could not even get a soda in this place.

            2. re: Seth Chadwick

              I just tried this place a few months ago and couldn't even swallow the food, I would never go back...

              1. re: drewb123

                We were there just last month and had a great meal. Al pastor tacos, al pastor chimi, and I forget what Tara's sister had. The waitstaff was very friendly and helpful. Perhaps you went to a different restaurant. There is a place called Tacos El Nopalito in Glendale. Not the same place.

                -----
                El Nopalito
                2831 N 24th St, Phoenix, AZ 85008

                1. re: Firenza00

                  i am there about twice a month. it's always great. last time i had slightly dry chicken in the mole enchiladas, but the sauce cures all wrongs. i love their salty salsa.

                  what did you eat?

                  1. re: azhotdish

                    add me to the list of fans, i love their food. the machaca is stellar, the prices are great and the people who run el nopalito couldn't be nicer.

                    1. re: azhotdish

                      I had what seth chadwick reccomended, some big ol thing seriously can't remember and my other half had tacos blech!! sorry, maybe it was too authentic, I am a huge fan of los compadres on 7th ave though.

              2. I'm also visiting Scottsdale soon--coming in January and staying at the Fairmont Princess. I'm also interested in Mexican restaurants and my wife is vegetarian (though she eats seafood and dairy). Price is no issue, but we want an authentic experience--we want to eat where the locals like to eat and not in a hotel. We only have one or two nights to go out to dinner because I'm visiting for work--what's our best bet in Scottsdale? Thanks!

                7 Replies
                1. re: bmoskowitz

                  Everything said above applies to the Fairmont. It's also in north Scottsdale, close to the OP's hotel.

                  1. re: silverbear

                    Thanks, Silverbear. Do you have any other suggestions for a memorable meal in Scottsdale? Doesn't have to be Mexican, just good. Thanks.

                  2. re: bmoskowitz

                    In the area where you are staying, "authentic" and "where the locals like to eat" are mutually exclusive. The archetype north Scottsdale locals are Los Angeles transplants who put a premium on predictability and style over substance; think $50,000 showpiece kitchens where the most frequently used appliance is the phone for making reservations. If it's expensive and served in luxe surroundings, they're all over it like white on rice no matter what the food is like. Unlike other parts of the country, hotel restaurants around here are frequently your best bet; the locals eat at them all the time. Alas, there just aren't any great Mexican restaurants within striking distance of the Princess. The only Mexican places I can think of anywhere close are Cantina Laredo, Arriba, and Garduño's. Of them, if you made me pick one I'd go to Arriba (Cantina Laredo is the Cheesecake Factory of Mexican, and the one time I had Garduño's I was gazing out the window longingly at the Chipotle across the street), but Arriba still gets a resounding "Meh" from me. The three I most frequently recommend are Barrio Cafe, Los Sombreros, and Tradiciones; all three are about half an hour's drive from your hotel. I'm pretty sure all three have vegetarian offerings, but call ahead wherever you end up just to make sure; lard is everywhere in Mexican cooking.

                    1. re: JK Grence the Cosmic Jester

                      Pretty good characterization of the Scottsdale achetype there. The other thing affecting the Mexican food scene here is our location. You'd think the presence of the Mexican border so nearby would portend well for Mexican restaurants, but the cuisine of north Mexico differs somewhat from that of the rest of the country. I think Los Sombreros, which has a more interesting menu than most, is an outstanding choice that isn't too far for you -- the others require venturing into Phoenix.

                      1. re: zencker

                        Distance isn't as much of a factor unless you're going by taxi, in which case you're paying an arm and a leg for one versus just an arm for the other. Los Sombreros is 13 miles straight down Scottsdale Road, while Barrio Cafe is 20 miles that's almost all freeway, with Tradiciones another 2 miles down the road from Barrio. The time spent driving works out almost identical according to Google.

                      2. re: JK Grence the Cosmic Jester

                        Wow! What an apt description. I may well "borrow" some parts of this post, 'cause it tells it, like it is.

                        Thanks for the laugh, plus the future references,

                        Hunt

                        1. re: Bill Hunt

                          Ok, I'm a San Francisco transplant by way of Detroit (born and raised). I live in north scottsdale (7 years) and I can tell you that there are plenty of the described Snottsdalers out there, but those type of people are also living in ritzy communities all over the valley.

                          However, I will stand up for the rest of us who actually work for a living, are not retired or trust-funded (even though that would be nice), that we know what good and bad and authentic are for food - whether it is Mexican or otherwise.

                          As to the heart of the matter, the best bets for authentic mexican are way outside Scottsdale. But let's be clear, Barrio Cafe isn't it. It may be authentic, but the place is terrible. I don't get the hype on that and never will. I've had better Mexican all over the valley, at home, and with Mexican friends of mine in their homes. Barrio Cafe is never a recommendation from me, the same way I would never recommend Pizzeria Bianco. Both overrated, overhyped, and overcooked.