Over the last couple of decades, Mexican food has flowed across the continent, but Mexican cuisine has followed hesitantly. Americans have become accustomed to a lot of burrito for a buck, so our southern neighbor's serious cooking, which can be as complicated and delectable - and expensive - as Mediterranean cuisine, has struggled to find an American welcome.
"It can be smashingly good, as good as anything on the planet," says Howard Seftel, restaurant critic for the Arizona Republic. But, according to Seftel, Mexican cuisine doesn't always get the recognition it deserves. "The problem is that high-end Mexican tends to morph into 'Southwestern' so restaurants can charge more for it."
In Phoenix, however, a handful of highly regarded restaurants are winning converts with authentic regional Mexican dishes such as puerco enrollado, a roulade of pork stuffed with fresh spinach and raisins; and pato en tamarindo, duck breast with tamarind and chipotle chili sauce. Most eschew chips and salsa, take more care with presentation than the average Mexican restaurant, and strive to educate their customers.
"A lot of people think Mexican food is burritos and chimichangas," says Arturo Rodriguez, owner-chef of Así es la Vida (Spanish for "Such is Life," its former name), a restaurant specializing in central and southern Mexican cuisine. "Real Mexican food is a little more complicated, but people love it."