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What kind of south-of-the-border traveler are you? Do you get on an airplane and head to a fancy resort? Do you stay where the drinking water is pure, the swimming pool is heated, the flies have been banned, all major credit cards are accepted and the employees speak faultless English?
Or do you scorn the package tour? Before your trip, do you get a vaccination, pesos and Mexican car insurance? Do you like to drive on secondary roads, stopping at off-the-beaten-path towns and villages, soaking up local color and bravely using your high-school Spanish to make conversation? Do you enjoy a little risk and adventure?
Answer the question honestly. Because your Valley Mexican-restaurant happiness may depend on it.
2831 N. 24th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85008
Region: East Phoenix
Tequila's Mexican Restaurant, 4175 North Goldwater, Scottsdale, 425-1200. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Juan tons $6.50
Stacked enchiladas $8.95
Pork picado $10.50
Tequila shrimp $16.95
Two Mexican enterprises have recently opened their doors, each catering to a very well-defined taste, and each doing what it does quite well. At Tequila's, you'll have the full gringo experience--safe, predictable fare, served in a casual, upscale setting. You can take even your most skittish winter visitors from Milwaukee there with perfect confidence.
El Nopalito, however, will probably send them into culture shock. That's because this strip-center storefront is not your typical, pile-of-nachos, combination-plate Mexican restaurant. Instead, this place features an array of unusual dishes, served to home-country diners in a very Basic Ethnic Restaurant setting. If your Midwestern relatives are comfortable eating Mexican food only while looking at other gringo faces, they'd better bring along mirrors when they come here.
El Nopalito's proprietors haven't wasted much precious capital furnishing the room. The tables are covered with green oilcloth, protected by glass. The television is tuned to the Spanish-language station. A serape, sombrero and Mexican peasant dress are tacked to one wall. The opposite wall is lined with jazz posters, left over from the days when Centro Cafe & Bakery occupied this location. Beverage machines dispensing horchata and tamarindo sit on the counter, next to a sign advising customers that they must pay for their meals in cash.
Most of the resources and energy seem to have gone into the kitchen. El Nopalito serves food that doesn't look anything like the familiar Sonoran Mexican fare we get in this town. Many of these dishes, like the owners themselves, hail from central Mexico. Most of them are delicious. And none of them will throw your budget out of whack.
There are really only two menu items that are "starters" in the traditional sense. Chicken soup is one, a rich broth stocked with lots of shredded, white-meat chicken. The addition of a few veggies, a dash of chipotle and a squeeze of lime would have boosted it even further. The disappointing Mexican-style shrimp cocktail comes in a wonderful tomato sauce, thick and just a bit sweet, seasoned with onion and cilantro, and fleshed out with chunks of avocado. But the shrimp themselves are too small, and too few. At $8.99, it's the most expensive dish on the menu, and probably the only one here that simply isn't worth the cost.
To find what El Nopalito does best, head to the menu section entitled "Antojitos Mexicanos." In Spanish, they're "little whims," snacklike foods that conclusively prove that all Mexican recipes don't call for a bucket of cheese or sauce.
The gordita de chicharron isn't for wimps. It's a plump masa patty, split and stuffed with fried pork, then crisply fried and garnished with onions and cilantro. The combination of taste and texture is irresistible. This is the kind of dish that makes me wish I lived in a world without annual checkups.
So does the sarape. It's a big corn tortilla, robustly topped with a mound of beef, smoky ham, salty chorizo, onions, peppers and cheese. If your taste buds have been sleeping, the sarape will wake them up.
Huarache is a Mexico City favorite, an oval masa cake colorfully spread with two salsas: On one half there's a zingy red chile sauce, on the other a sprightly green one. It's all yummily topped with crumbled Mexican white cheese and onions.
Alambre con queso is another offbeat treat. An oversize soft corn tortilla is covered with lots of tender grilled, charred beef, onions, peppers and cheese. Though the alambre con queso is a tad greasy, you won't care once you start eating your way through it. The lipsmacking sopes also merit consideration. They're small, somewhat fat tortillas, crisped up on the griddle and lined with either chicken or shredded beef, then gilded with lettuce, onions and cheese. It's what pizza might have been like had it been invented by Mexicans.
The other parts of the menu are just about as fetching. Chilaquiles, sort of a tortilla casserole, is a homey, south-of-the-border dish that doesn't show up on enough Valley restaurant menus. The version here features just-right, slightly chewy tortilla pieces in a mild sauce, heartily topped with scrambled eggs and cheese. Enchiladas Suizas, meanwhile, certainly isn't your typical what's-in-this enchilada platter. Rolled corn tortillas are stuffed with generous amounts of white-meat chicken and coated with a bubbly layer of melted Chihuahua cheese.
The more familiar dishes exhibit high quality. Adobada, chile-marinated barbecued pork, is wonderfully fragrant and flavorful. Try it in either taco or burrito form. Carnitas, luscious crispy shredded pork, will give you an animal-protein high. Even the chile relleno is distinctive. El Nopalito employs a sharp poblano chile, not the milder Anaheim variety most places use.