Just a few blocks from historic downtown Glendale, antique cars rolled by as kids chased a chihuahua down the street. Ladies carried bags of clothing into the Coin Less Laundry. And, in between the liquor stores and Latino barber shops, a strip mall bustled with restaurants offering a stunning assortment of regional cuisines that rival those found in the open-air markets of Mexico.
To experience the sheer diversity of the Valley’s Mexican food scene, I spent several days working my way through the stretch of Glendale Avenue, from 64th to 66th avenues, packed with two dozen small stores. I savored pork al pastor fresh from the spinning trompo, dug my chips into a limey bowl of shrimp aguachile, watched the steam rise off a bowl of goat meat birria and ripped into an array of homemade corn tortillas fresh from the basket.
Mexico has one of the world’s most eclectic cuisines with 32 different states that still cook indigenous recipes, eat the fruit from desert cactus and pluck a stunning variety of fish from thousands of miles of coastline. This strip mall offers a unique opportunity to move beyond Sonora and see what the rest of the country has to offer.
To arrange this guide, I started at the eastern-most end of the strip mall at the colorful Mexican meat market Carniceria El Toro Charolais, and worked my way west to the homey Michoacán diner Mama Lupitas.
However, it’s easily walkable, so there’s no need to visit the spots in this order, or even in a single visit.
Carniceria El Toro Charolais
This Mexican butcher shop is filled with pastoral farm murals depicting stately white cattle, called Charolais. Originally from France, they’re now a popular breed in Northern Mexico, which is known for cattle ranching. Inside Carniceria El Toro Charolais you’ll find dry goods, like crinkly coyota cookies brought up from Hermosillo, and a large range of flour tortillas made in Tucson, Phoenix and all over Sonora.
The market has a couple tables over by the 12-packs of soda, where I sat down to a potent bowl of slow-cooked barbacoa beef that I ordered from the deli. I piled on onions and cilantro and squeezed a lime into the oily broth, which left its orange sheen on the sides of the white bowl. I was not expecting it to be as good as it was, or as filling. But I was so sated that I had to cut my food crawl short and come back the next day.
Regional specialty: Sonora and Northern Mexico
Don’t miss: Beef barbacoa, $7.99 a pound
Details: 6402 W. Glendale Ave., Suite 1, Glendale. 623-930-0508, facebook.com/Carniceria-el-Toro-Charolais-362906857837087.
I was first drawn to this Mexico City-style bakery while reporting on the symbolic bone-shaped bread of Dia de los Muertos. Panadería Cristal has one of the Valley’s most interesting pastry cases packed with churros, tricolored polvorones cookies, sugar-dusted slices of bread and sweet croissant-shaped cuernitos. But, on my most recent visit, I was there for the savory street snacks.
Panadería Cristal also has a full kitchen that cranks out dishes I’ve only seen on the streets of Mexico City. One of them is the tlacoyo, a small football shaped corn masa cake that’s stuffed with a thin layer of refried beans and finished with a light red or green sauce. In Mexico’s capital you might see them made with blue corn, but here they’re basically a smaller version of the huarache, which takes its name and shape from a sandal.
The store also sells regular huaraches, topped with chunky cubes of al pastor pork from the flattop and a criss-cross of crema and queso fresco. In addition, I saw several tables filling up with cocido de res, a Mexican comfort soup that features a clear broth packed with fresh veggies and a corn on the cob. It’s on my list to try on my next visit.
Regional specialty: Mexico City
Don’t miss: Huaraches, $12
Details: 6402 W. Glendale Ave., Glendale. 623-931-1057, facebook.com/Panader%C3%ADa-Cristal-106583667570045/?ref=page_internal.
Neveria Los Cuates
The strip mall has two Mexican ice cream shops, and Neveria Los Cuates is the one to hit up for Thrifty ice cream. The shop serves 20 flavors of the nostalgic sweet that’s popular throughout Mexico, especially when scooped using the iconic stainless steel scoop that shapes the Thrifty into a cylinder.
I ordered mine in an obispo — essentially a raspados snow cone with two layers of ice cream — with coconut ice cream and strawberry syrup and a cute little cherry on top.
The shop also sells the loaded bags of Tostitos and other chips called Tostilocos and spicy, fresh fruit snacks like chile loaded pepihuate with peanuts.
If you want to go all out, get the sandia loca or a piña loca, which are whole watermelons and pineapples stuffed with fruit and vegetables, spicy tamarind candies and pickled plum chamoy sauce.
Regional specialty: Northern Mexico/Southwestern United States
Don’t miss: Obispo, $5.50
Details: 6502 W. Glendale Ave., Glendale. 623-444-8996, facebook.com/Neveria-Los-Cuates-863285947039554.
Super Tacos Los Cuais
If you’re in it for the tacos, look no further than this quirky cash-only joint that’s decorated head to toe with Humpty Dumpty cartoons. The exterior window has an egg man with a backwards baseball cap shaving pork from a spit of al pastor.
I’ve found a few spots throughout the Valley that take the time to serve achiote glazed pork from an actual spit, and Super Tacos Los Cuais is the best I’ve had. That’s because the pork makes an extra stop on the flattop where it gets crisped up before it goes onto a superb handmade corn tortilla. (I could see the ball of masa in the open kitchen.)
The taco is finished with a whisper of pineapple, which was so delicious that it made my lunch partner declare it the “best taco” she’d ever had.
Super Tacos Los Cuais primarily serves the food of Jalisco, including the iconic dish birria de chivo, or braised goat. The owners are from a colonial pueblo called Lagos de Moreno, which is known as the “Athens of Jalisco” because it’s home to so many writers and poets.
The birria here is gentler, yet gamier than the bold beef birrias of Tijuana and Northern Mexico. The meat itself is shredded rather finely and the subtle broth benefited from a couple squeezes of lime and handful of raw onions.
A sleeper hit, if you like offal: The restaurant also does carnitas, and their cachete de puerco or pork cheeks are super fatty and perfect with a hit of housemade chile oil.
Regional specialty: Jalisco
Don’t miss: Tacos de al pastor, $3, cash only
Details: 6522 W. Glendale Ave., suite 14, Glendale. 623-847-9935, facebook.com/LosCuais.
My server at this colorful mariscos joint was so friendly that after he delivered my Mexican Coke, he sat down at the table and started talking me up. When I asked him how long he’s lived in Glendale, he told me that he doesn’t. He lives in the coastal state of Sinaloa and was just there to visit his family, who run the restaurant and were all eating together at a table in the back.
The menu at Mariscos Fily is rather simple, and focuses on raw dishes like seafood cocktails, campechanas and tostada towers of scallops and sea snails.
Whenever I hear Sinaloa I think aguachile, a spicy shrimp dish that’s similar to a ceviche, but less cooked. Mariscos Fily will serve you an aguachile negro that’s doused in soy sauce, but after seeing the picture outside, I had to order the aguachile verde.
Raw butterflied shrimp arrived submerged in a tangy lime sauce that’s blended with vibrant green chilies and cilantro. The bubbly green moat was studded with fresh cucumbers and red onions, which gave it a little kick.
I regretted accidentally ordering the large size, but not really. I layered each shrimp onto a hot tortilla chip along with a hit of mayo, habanero hot sauce and avocado that I scooped out of the peel myself. The generous portion was so big, I almost asked my new friend if he wanted to share.
Regional specialty: Sinaloa
Don’t miss: Aguachile grande, $32.67
Details: 6530 W. Glendale Ave., Glendale. 623-505-3224, facebook.com/Mariscos-Fili-105872364709844.
Edible adventure:A taco tour of Calle 16 in Phoenix
La Michoacana Phoenix
The Central Mexican state of Michoacán is known for two things: slow-braised carnitas served from copper pots and ice cream. The latter has much to do with the popular chain of paleta and ice cream chops called La Michoacana, which due to loose licensing practices have proliferated across Mexico and The United States. (The Valley has more than a dozen paleta shops with Michoacana in the name, including La Michoacana Premium, La Michoacana Plus and Paletas La Michoakana.) This Glendale spot is one of three stores owned by the same family and it offers a tantalizing selection of fruit and candy popsicles.
The freezer case was like a pop art masterpiece of splashy colors. There were paletas made with tropical fruits like mamay, guanabana and kiwi; cotton candy paletas with a purple nebula swirl; paletas with strawberry flavored Mexican snack cakes; paletas crowned with a Ferrero Rocher. I was drawn to the tricolored tropical, which looked like Carmen Miranda’s hat with cross sections of a kiwi, mango and strawberry between layers of frozen juice. I also couldn’t resist the lure of the chocobanana, a frozen banana covered with chocolate shell and nuts and placed on a stick.
Regional specialty: Michoacán
Don’t miss: Paleta tropical, $2.65
Details: 6530 W. Glendale Ave. suite 112, Glendale. 623-473-8488, facebook.com/La-Michoacana-Phoenix-in-Glendale-111729517070763.
This homey Michoacán-style diner serves a rare selection of regional dishes from Michoacán. You’ll find them on the specials menu in between more familiar fare like carne asada and fajitas.
The modest morisqueta from Apatzingán is a regional version of Moros y Cristianos, a rice and beans dish found throughout Latin America. Enchiladas are also done in a distinct regional style: homemade corn tortillas are folded and dipped in a roasted chile sauce, stuffed with cheese and crisped on the flattop. You’ll find them tucked underneath a torrent of salad and striking pink pickled onions. The whole dish is topped with a big slab of juicy skirt steak carne asada.
If I had to choose, I’d make the return trip for the costillas de puerco, or short ribs, served in an insanely tangy green salsa made from roasted tomatillo. The dish arrives with a warm basket of fluffy white corn tortillas, lovingly made here by hand.
I could have spent the entire afternoon sitting at that yellow table making my own pork rib tacos and maybe next time, that’s just what I’ll do.
Regional specialty: Michoacán
Don’t miss: Costillas de puerco, $12.95
Details: 6550 W. Glendale Ave., suite 14, Glendale. 623-915-9531, facebook.com/mamalupitas.
Burro time:These Chihuahua-style burritos on Grand Avenue are the best