Tex-Mex is a popular regional cuisine known for its use of savory grilled meats, ground beef and red and green chile. In Phoenix, where Sonoran-style Mexican food dominates, Tex-Mex treats such as fajitas and chile con carne still manage to fly off the menu as diners savor the slow-roasted flavors and zest of these classic Southwestern dishes.
Z'Tejas Grill, a regional chain that specializes in signature Southwestern dishes, tops our list for its perfect marriage of substance and style. Quality ingredients and stylish ambiance come together for the best in modern Tex-Mex eating.
Over at Sierra Bonita Grill, you won't find kitschy decor on the walls, but you will find authentic and delicious Southwestern cuisine that captures the spirit of cowboy cooking and Tex-Mex flavors.
If you're seeking the ultimate in Tex-Mex comfort food, head to Fajitas, a family-friendly restaurant known for its signature fajita platters, featuring marinated strips of beef and grilled onions, served with a side of cheddar cheese, pico de gallo and sour cream.
If you're craving that other favorite Southwestern comfort food, The Tamale Store in north Phoenix offers freshly made, moist and irresistible tamales by the dozen, including their popular Tex-Mex tamale, made with ground beef and Monterrey jack cheese.
Offering a well-rounded menu of Southwestern fare, Canyon Cafe (formerly known as Sam's Cafe) is a great introduction to the region for non-natives. Chicken-fried tuna, Sedona spring rolls, chicken pasta cooked with tequila, and steaks are all items provided on the extensive menu. Diners may choose to enjoy their meals in the authentic decor of the dining room or outside on the refreshing patio. Not sure what to order? If you're a cheese-lover, try the Black and Bleu Quesadilla, a crispy flour tortilla stuffed sliced fire-grilled fajita steak sliced and served with red onion marmalade and Monterey Jack & Bleu cheese, tomatillo-avocado salsa, chipotle mayonnaise and the house Margarita slaw. Sandwiches and salad are also available for those seeking lighter fare. (6022523545)
The Original Carolina's Mexican Food
This South Phoenix institution has been dishing out some of the best home-style Mexican food for decades. Don't be fooled by the humble exterior and lackluster dining area: the food is hot, tasty, and top-notch. Tacos, burros, flautas, chimichangas, tostadas, and tamales: all your favorites are here, made to order. As if that wasn't enough, you can eat well here with the spare change in your pocket. Perfect for a quick and affordable meal on the go, Carolina's continues to draw regulars craving down-home, no-nonsense Mexican food. Great for a quick breakfast, lunch or dinner. Don't forget to sample the famous tortillas. (602-252-1503)
Blue Adobe Grille
Dishes prominently influenced by New Mexico traditions are the main feature of this establishment. Owners Paul Bigelow and Jose Leyva present Arizona locals with an inexpensive way to enjoy top-quality Southwestern fare. Most popular are well-priced combination plates like the Tres Santa Fe, which offers three choices from a long list of mouthwatering items (tenderloin rellenos, chicken burros, shrimp enchiladas and pork tamales). Or try the Tex-Mex delight known as the chimichanga, with your choice of chicken or shredded beef, caramelized onions, jack and cheddar cheese, placed in a large folded tortilla, folded, then deep fried to create a light crispy texture, then topped off with adobo sour cream. For dessert, sopaipillas are an excellent way to bring dinner to a delightful close. (480-962-1000)
This southwestern gastropub is tucked away inside a historic midtown church. The ambiance here is irresistible: wood beam ceilings and colorful stained glass windows lend the dining room warmth and southwestern charm, and the bar features an incredible array of top shelf drinks. The gastropub menu (not surprisingly) focuses on gourmet tacos, which are infused here with a gourmet farm-to-table sensibility. The restaurant sources many of its ingredients from local farmers, creating fresh flavors that beat out drive-thru fare any day. The bar boasts a huge selection of fine tequilas, making this one of the best spots in town to enjoy a high-end tequila flight. ((602) 264-4143)
The Tamale Store
This award-winning restaurant specializes in everyone's favorite Mexican comfort food staple: tamales. Soft, moist and stuffed with delicious meats, veggies and cheeses, there are almost as many ways to make tamales as there is to enjoy them. At the Tamale Store in north Phoenix, tamales come in infinite arrays of deliciousness. Classic incarnations include Beef Red Chile, Pork Green Chile, Pork Red Chile, as well as specialty tamales such as Chicken Chipotle, Chicken Green Chile, Chicken Mole, and the Tex Mex, made with ground beef and Monterrey jack cheese. Vegetarian and vegan options are available as well, as well as mouth-watering dessert tamales. ((602) 435-2604)
Fajitas, a Sizzlin' Celebration
Fajitas, those sizzling hotplates brimming with marinated meats and veggies (served with a side of cheddar cheese, pico de gallo and sour cream, of course), is the focal point at this north-central Phoenix restaurant. The restaurant uses an exclusive house blend of seasonings for an out-of-this world rub, and meats are slowly grilled over mesquite charcoal for that delicious wood-smoked flavor. The menu extends beyond fajitas to include traditional Mexican, Tex-Mex and other southwestern fare, including burritos, enchiladas, quesadilas and seafood dishes. Recipes contain no lard or animal fat and the house chips are fried in high quality 100% Canola oil. ((602) 870-4030)
Sierra Bonita Grill
This central Phoenix bar and grill is named after the historic Sierra Bonita Ranch in Southeastern Arizona. The restaurant offers an authentic Southwestern culinary experience, dishing out menu favorites such as their house Cowboy Stew, made from braised beef, hominy, carrots, onions and chiles in a rich beef broth, then garnished with crispy sweet potato strips and served with a warmed flour tortilla (fried egg on top is optional). For a hearty take on traditional Tex-Mex cooking, try the smoked Red or Green Chile Pork Roast, a smoked pork roast served with charro beans, roasted tomato rice, salsa fresca and a warmed flour tortilla. (602-264-0700)
Tonto Bar and Grill
Just north of Phoenix in the quaint Western hamlet of Cave Creek, you'll find Tonto Bar & Grill, an award-winning restaurant specializing in authentic Southwestern cuisine. The Tonto frequently makes the list of the top restaurants in the state, and for good reason: the restaurant is distinguished for using only all-natural meats, sustainable seafood, and incorporating many native Arizona products as possible into the elegant menu. Salads, sandwiches, burgers, pasta, and fish- and meat entrees stand out for their creativity and gourmet ingredients. The elegant dining room looks out over lush desert and a perennially green golf course, making this the perfect destination for a special lunch or dinner. ((480) 488-0698)
An interior of mellow wood and Texas limestone defines the casual atmosphere of this privately-owned regional chain. Dishes come from a variety of backgrounds but share a common Southwestern flair. Signature items include voodoo blackened tuna and miso-glazed grilled salmon. You can also choose from chorizo-stuffed pork tenderloin, wild mushroom enchiladas, and herb-grilled chicken. An array of appetizers, salads, and sandwiches satisfies lighter appetites. For dessert, give ancho chile fudge pie a try; the chile's delicate heat intensifies the rush of chocolate. In the evenings, the bar serves terrific margaritas and plays host to stylish professionals. A good introduction to Tex-Mex and Southwestern cuisine. (480-377-1170)
Rustic yet casually upscale, Dick's Hideaway is the kind of place locals take out-of-towners for an authentic taste of traditional Southwest flavors. Lunch, breakfast and dinner is served at this small local gem, where the smell of slow-roasted pork greets the steady stream of diners at all hours of day. The Southwest-inspired botanas (appetizers) menu makes a great starting point . Try the roasted garlic plate, served with roasted peppers and green chiles bubbling over with flavor, or the tomatillo toast, grilled chicken and ham served over toast and smothered in green chile peppers, tomatillo salsa and cheddar cheese. Although you can get great burgers, salads and past at Dick's, the Santa Fe Trail menu is the real star of the show. For a little taste of everything, try the New Mexican Platter, featuring a red chile pork tamale, cheese relleno, chicken burro, rice and beans�all simmered in your choice of green or red sauce. But if you want to eat like a local, try the Carne Adovada, a house favorite featuring smoked pork roast simmered in red chile and served with rice, beans and a tortilla. Not to be missed for a true taste of the southwest. ((602) 265-5886)
About Patricia Escarcega
Patricia Escarcega has lived in the Arizona desert since she was a teenager. She works as a writer and editor in Phoenix with her four dogs and two cats.
She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and is working on a novel about growing up in the 1990s.
Read more about Patricia Escarcega here.