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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,


                        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.

                    2. Hope I'm not too late. My wife is also a vegetarian and we have been eating Mexican food in the valley for a while now. To get the best mexican food you are going to have to come to old town Scottsdale. It will be a bit colder here but you should check out Frank and Lupes (www.frankandlupes.com) and sit on their patio. Great atmosphere and without even trying you forget your in Scottsdale. The pink taco is another place with some great food. Their chips and salsa tastes wonderful. Chips are very thick and hearty, not thin and sorry like most places. Pink Taco is located across from Fashion Square mall by the "waterfront." If you don't have the time for a sit down or need something late night after a few cocktails goto Los Betos on Hayden road, north of thomas on the east side. Consider the Texas Burrito.
                      We, the locals and I, like to eat good mex food for a good mex price (goto mexico and see if a taco costs you $12) these are some of the places where prices are resonable and the food is good. Last but not least, on Sunday goto old town, head south on Scottsdale road past Indian School turn left on 1st St. and down towards the 4 way stop sign is a little 6 table bar and grill called Karsens Grill. Go sit at the bar, order the Special for the night, Machaca Burrito, and tell TR the bartender that your wife needs a vegetarian friendly burrito. TR is one of the best service bartenders in the state, your drink will be full, your food hot, and you'll always be entertained, just tell him your visiting from out of town.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: wfry

                        Pink Taco is EXACTLY the kind of restaurant I was talking about in the earlier post. All sizzle, no steak, populated by $30,000-a-year millionaires who only pay attention to style and scene. Frank & Lupe's isn't much better; of the Old Town Mexican places, only Old Town Tortilla Factory ranks lower. Frank & Lupe have been resting on their tourist trap laurels for quite some time.

                        1. re: JK Grence the Cosmic Jester

                          Speaking of resting on their laurels, you have to through Los Olivos into the mix. That place is dismal.

                      2. In a naive attempt to take this thread in a more positive direction. I'm going to mention The Mission, a new restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale in the space formerly occupied by Union Wine Bar. I have not been there, but the reviews I've read on various sites have been generally positive. It's apparently a Scottsdale-safe version of Mexican food but with some good things going on in the kitchen. Here's a review published this week:


                        Here's a recent Chowhound thread about it:


                        Another new place is Blanco. It's from Fox Restaurant Concepts, which means some people will hate it automatically. I'm trying to keep an open mind.


                        Again, I have no personal experience with either place, but I think it's better to mention them than to go off topic without helping our visitors.

                        It's clear that authentic, hole-in-the-wall Mexican requires a trip into other parts of the Phoenix Metro Area, but the choices above might be good enough for Scottsdale visitors not looking for a long drive.

                        9 Replies
                        1. re: silverbear

                          Just tried FoxRC's True Food and was very impressed. Our waiter was knowledgeable and really friendly. Its a minor point but The Mission was having their typical opening night jitters, only it lasted a wee bit too long. Word on the street was that they were working very proactively to fix those problems.
                          Pepin is a name that escaped me in my last post. Great place across from AZ88. Really authentic spanish food, not mexican, but spanish. Lots of seafood and paella, plus my wife is a vegetarian and they gave her a whole different menu. We loved it and on certain nights they have live music.

                          7363 E Scottsdale Mall, Scottsdale, AZ 85251

                          1. re: wfry

                            I would have to say avoid the paella at Pepín. I had it there the first time I went and there was no socarrat at all. If it doesn't have the socarrat, it's just saffron rice with seafood. The sangría was mediocre, I can make much better at home without even trying. And honestly, if you can't do a knockout version of either of those, you barely deserve to call yourself a Spanish restaurant. The tapas were edible, the flamenco dancers were fun, but that's about it.

                            1. re: JK Grence the Cosmic Jester

                              is there anything in scottsdale that you like?

                              1. re: wfry

                                He likes Sweet Republic Ice Cream, right JK?!?

                                1. re: ejs1492

                                  LOVE Sweet Republic. The ice cream there stands head and shoulders above all of the other ice cream, frozen yogurt, and gelato places in town. It's a true treat. There's a great Thai place up on 92nd and Via Linda, Swaddee, that I don't get to go to nearly enough; they're one of the few in the metro area who are unapologetic about ramping up the heat level. Also Redendo's Pizza is great if I'm up that way, and I've been told Andreoli's is some of the best Italian in town. Los Sombreros in the south is fantastic. PF Chang's was fantastic back when Paul Fleming ran it and there was just the one where Anthropologie is now, but it dissolved into a shell of its former self years ago. I've been meaning to hit Dozo over on Camelback and Miller. When guests ask at work about sushi places I send them there instead of Ra or Stingray, both of which stink. Many who have been have come back raving. Digestif on the south side of the canal is utterly fantastic. And I can't forget about the yogurt at either location of Ice Tango, either.

                                  The problem with the Scottsdale dining scene is that there's just too many people who don't care about finding really good food, from the tasteless tourists who mob the Old Town area to the yuppies who think great atmosphere begets great food. Since the demand isn't very high, the supply isn't either, leaving us with places like Stingray and Pink Taco.

                                  1. re: JK Grence the Cosmic Jester

                                    Thanks for the suggestions. I will have to try them out.

                                    1. re: JK Grence the Cosmic Jester

                                      As both a chowhound and a pround North Scottsdale resident, I'd have to say that JK's comments are mostly valid, in my opinion. However, there are also places that do have a "scene" and also have chow-worthy food. Bottom line: the two aren't mutually exclusive. Having said that, however, I refuse to eat at places that dish-out attitude to me. I'll take my money elsewhere.

                                      A couple of "non-scene" North Scottsdale suggestions to add to JK's list:

                                      1. Pars Persian Cuisine - not sure why this never gets a mention here, but I love their koobideh kebob, maust moosier (yogurt dip with shallots) and the owner's are incredibly pleasant.

                                      2. Guiseppe - on the SW corner of Scottsdale & Thunderbird. Again, family owned, warm atmosphere, great food. Cash only.

                                      3. Hiro Sushi - it's the best I've found and it attracts a large Japanese population, which I view as a positive sign.

                                      Place links below.


                                      Pars Persian Cuisine
                                      11144 N Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd, Scottsdale, AZ 85259

                                      1. re: ejs1492

                                        Oops. Forgot some links.

                                        Hiro Sushi
                                        9393 N 90th St, Scottsdale, AZ 85258

                                        13610 N Scottsdale Rd, Scottsdale, AZ 85254

                                        1. re: ejs1492

                                          "there are also places that do have a "scene" and also have chow-worthy food. Bottom line: the two aren't mutually exclusive."

                                          I agree completely, and really blame the press (food and otherwise) for their focus on "scene over substance." In general, it's too bad that THEY don't get it. OTOH, becasue they do not, the non-foodie masses head to wherever, in hopes of seeing some celeb eating. Yeah, just what most of us wish to avoid.

                                          Glad to hear about some good food places. Up that way, we have enjoyed Mosaic, but that is not fodder for this thread.


                            2. Tradiciones! It's 30+ minutes away, but worth it, plus you can walk off your meal in the market next door to see the tortillas being made, all the pastries, chile wall, asaderos, and more... I have taken 2 sets of holiday visitors here so far this year and everyone loved it. Thanks to all on this board who have recommended it, was a total hit. Though I thought the cilantro margarita was disappointing- I was imagining more cilantro, blended into the drink, not just a few sprigs.

                              1602 E Roosevelt St, Phoenix, AZ 85006