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Dining

[The Mexican Food Issue]

10 must-eat Mexican meals

Journey to Mexico without leaving Las Vegas

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The mission was simple: Find 10 dishes that debunk the silly old claim that there’s no great Mexican food in Las Vegas. We went all out, trying new taco shops, hunting through holes in walls, returning to old faves, asking cooks and friends and family and strangers where we could eat the best of the best. In the end, we found so much soulful, satisfying food, we couldn’t even remember why anyone would have claimed otherwise. Fried tripe tacos at Taqueria el Palenque or hangover-killing menudo at El Cordobes. Simple, spicy caldo de res at Mariana’s markets or a refined take on chilaquiles at Mundo. And on, and on ... Turns out, Las Vegas has amazing Mexican food, and this culinary quest could go on forever. In no particular order, here are 10 of our favorite local dishes … so far.

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      Molcajete de combinación at Los Molcajetes

      It arrives at the table still bubbling, a three-legged, volcanic stone vessel overflowing with chicken, beef, shrimp, nopal, radish, green onion and half an avocado in a zingy red sauce. A peppy little cocktail umbrella juts out of a chunk of cheese, as if to acknowledge the ridiculousness of this massive cauldron of Mexican goodness. And it’s fun to eat, too—a make-your-own-taco treasure hunt to top warm tortillas with the choicest bits of meat and accents of lime and chili. Wash it all down with a Negra Modelo (beers are $1 on Wednesday) and browse the wares of vendors hawking CDs and DVDs in the North Las Vegas dining room. Or devote your full attention to the molcajete—it deserves it. $20.99. 1553 N. Eastern Ave., 633-7595. –Sarah Feldberg

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      Baja ceviche at Border Grill

      You might be surprised to discover celebrity chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken still travel to different parts of Mexico regularly and diligently to conduct crucial culinary research. This popular, classic ceviche—blending fresh lime juice, red onion, jalapeño and cilantro with seasonal fish, shrimp and crisp vegetables—is the product of one such mission. Served on a crunchy tostada with cilantro aioli, it’s a simple treasure, backed by a lot of thought and energy. $15. Mandalay Bay, 632-7403. –Brock Radke

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      Tacos adobadas at Tacos El Gordo

      Local chefs, discriminating taco lovers and hungry late-night partiers all agree: This is the best two dollars you’ll spend in Las Vegas. All the tacos at Tijuana legend Tacos El Gordo are stellar, but the spicy-sweet, red-tinted, juicy roasted pork known as adobada is the taco by which all others are measured. Griddled corn tortillas are bursting with meat, so much so that they’re difficult to fold into chomp-able form, topped with onions and cilantro, cool avocado sauce and a few shards of pineapple. So good, you feel like you’re stealing. $2. 3049 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 641-8228; 1724 E. Charleston Blvd., 251-8226. –BR

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      Pambazo torta at Los Antojos

      It sounds counterintuitive—potatoes on a sandwich? But one bite of Los Antojos’ pambazo and eyebrows raise, mouth chews intently, brain does a somersault of realization: Man, this is good. Because this sandwich is more than the sum of its humble parts. Together, its elements explode with flavor and texture, from the pillowy-soft bread grilled to a crunch and just barely greasy from an adobo-sauce bath, to the snap of freshness from iceberg lettuce, punctuations of salty cotija cheese and dense potato cooked with chorizo, the warm, smoky bassline of this well-tuned bite. Potatoes on a sandwich? Yes, absolutely. $4.99. 2520 S. Eastern Ave., 457-3505. –SF

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      Birria de Chivo at the Original Lindo Michoacan

      Meaty dishes are the specialty at the long-popular, family-friendly Lindo, satisfying stuff like sticky-sweet carnitas a la Coca-Cola and carne a la Tampiqueña, steak covered with green chilies. Switch it up and go for the goat. Birria de chivo is a big bowl of rich red broth, slightly sour and utterly herbaceous, loaded with chunks of juicy goat meat cooked forever in beer, chilies and spices. If you like, construct tacos with warm corn tortillas, cilantro, onion and lime, or just attack spoon-style. This is comfort food at its best, with a rightly funky edge. $18.95. 2655 E. Desert Inn Road, 735-6828. –BR

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      Torta de puerco at Desnudo Tacos

      Desnudo Tacos might be operated by a pair of affable gringos, but they’re gringos who assemble an outstanding take on a traditional Mexican sandwich. The torta de puerco is a symphony of swine, layering pork belly carnitas and lime-braised pork shoulder on a crispy roll with quesadilla cheese, house-made pickled vegetables and lettuce slaw. Putting pig on a pedestal: just the way it should be. $7. 3240 S. Arville St., 982-6435. –Jim Begley

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      Chili Verde Burrito at Phat Phrank's

      Chile verde is a highlight of New Mexican cuisine, and no local kitchen prepares the iconic dish better than native New Mexican Frank Miranda. Get Phat Phrank’s version swaddled in a tortilla with rice, beans and cheese, a burrito that highlights the bright, powerful flavors of the green chili rather than obscuring them. Packing more than a hint of heat and plenty of tender meat, this recipe stands tall among its burrito peers. $6.59. 4850 W. Sunset Road, 247-6528. –JB

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      Enchiladas mole at Las Cazuelas

      Las Cazuelas is one of the rare local restaurants that focuses on one regional Mexican cuisine, and since Puebla is the birthplace of rich, deeply flavorful mole Poblano, that’s what you should eat here. This true mom-and-pop kitchen takes its time perfecting the sauce during a two-day process, resulting in a mole much less sweet and more balanced than most. Each bite of these tender, savory chicken enchiladas is saturated with nutty notes of sesame, chocolate and bittersweet, slightly fruity dried chilies. $7. 9711 S. Eastern Ave., 837-0204. –BR

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      Quesotacos at Leticia’s Mexican Cocina

      This might not be the most authentic dish on this list, but it is among the tastiest. Combining the strengths of quesadillas and tacos, Leticia’s stuffs tortillas with Oaxacan cheese and your choice of protein (shrimp, chicken, carne asada, carnitas and more), oozing golden-brown cheesy treasure similar to queso fundido crust. A wonderful mess, the quesotaco is as close to a Mexican grilled cheese as you’re going to get. $15.98. 7585 Norman Rockwell Lane, 445-7722. –JB

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      Carnitas cuartel at Viva Zapata’s

      This North Las Vegas stop might look like a run-of-the-mill Mexican joint, but a hidden gem among the standard quesadillas and flautas are the tender, delicious carnitas cuartel, a Michoacan-style take on slow-cooked pork. Oranges in the marinade lend a hint of citrus to a complex sauce that makes these carnitas such standouts, served with all the fixings. It’s a memorable plate, one worth tracking down. $15.95. 3826 E. Craig Road, 643-8888. –JB

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