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My friend is visiting from Hawaii, the year-round paradise of Maui. He wants to embrace Arizona despite its bright full sunlight, he's insisting, with a special emphasis on checking out all my favorite Mexican hole-in-the-wall restaurants. (Maui is beautiful, but simple, satisfying Sonoran cuisine has yet to make it to the island.)
I offer my firm warnings that the best holes-in-the-wall tend to be less than comfortable in the summer, air conditioning not being a priority. Lunch is the only time, too; dinner usually isn't offered at family-run joints like these. But he doesn't care, he swears, heat means nothing to him.
And so we set out. And so, over three 110-degree days, we both learn some very valuable things.
602-253-0458. Hours: Breakfast and lunch, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday
One: Heat does mean something to him.
Two: I really should have paid attention when, a month ago, my car's gearshift started acting up.
Three: Mi Casita is a terrific little hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant that's even more delicious in the summer, thanks to an important extra -- air conditioning. The south Phoenix shop has been existing quietly for seven years, overlooked, I think, largely because of the fact that it's located half a block from the wildly popular Carolina's Mexican Food. Overlook it no more, I say.
On Day One, my friend is bouncing like a happy child, eager to try Rito's, a dynamite takeout-only hideaway on 14th Street south of Roosevelt. I offer my firm warning that the green chile here is seriously spicy. Really, very spicy. He scoffs. Our orders come up, and we retire to the patio -- no air conditioning, no evap cooling, no misters, just the lacy shade of a giant tree and the absurd half-moon of escape offered by a brilliant purple Zuka Juice umbrella.
After a few bites of chile beef, his eyes are watering. Soon, his skin is as sticky as wet paint, rivulets of sweat trailing down his cheeks. He strongly denies any discomfort but is strangely silent as we get back in my 200-degree black RAV4, growing a bit pale as I struggle to move the gearshift from park to drive (it's been sticking lately, I explain, and I've been meaning to have it looked at).
On Day Two, he's rested, rehydrated and ready to reenter the fight. I take him to Carolina's on 12th Street and Mohave, a landmark of fresh Sonoran fare since 1968 (different locations, same recipes). Over those 34 years, though, not a penny has been put into ambience. The coarse stucco box is always and forever chipped concrete floors and barracks-style seating; the only source of cooling is weakly churning ceiling fans stirring nothing but the sole soft touch -- lace curtains.
My friend shies from the green chile, choosing a quite mild combination of a beef enchilada, a machaca tostada with juicy chile-spiked beef, a moist red beef tamale, soupy beans and light-as-air rice. Yet, within minutes, I see that he's wilting again. His face is an interesting ruby blush, and he's squirming a little as the realization sets in that, when it's this hot, just breathing is an effort.
He almost loses it when, after we get into the kiln that is my car, the gear flatly refuses to shift from park. "I've got it under control," I explain. "It's just a pump the brake thing' until it unlocks." The silence is deafening as we wait in a soup of our sweat. Minutes later, the gear lets loose and we're free.
Day Three. He walks slowly toward my car, its black body glinting like a coffin in the high-noon sun. It looks like he's lost weight; he admits he was talked into hiking the new Pinnacle Peak trail at 5:30 the night before. It was beautiful, he mumbles, he'd never known that rocks could shimmer like water or that saguaros could ripple like flags in the wind.
That's it. I decide I've got to save him from himself. While we were stuck in the parking lot at Carolina's, I'd noticed a restaurant just down the street I hadn't seen before. It had a definite summertime look, in clown colors of shrieking yellow and green. It was a converted home, down to its skinny door with a brass knocker, carport and side yard littered with trees. It was a sit-down place, and it had air conditioning.
So on this day, we venture to Mi Casita and I swear, I think he is about to cry. The place is a salvation of darkness, humming with coolers and floor fans. It's dingy enough to qualify as a hole-in-the-wall, with rental-style event tables topped with plastic-covered serapes, a few serapes over the barred windows, industrial carpeting, and a Harpo Marx horn mounted on the wall to summon service. It's chilled, so quiet, so blissfully chilled. In best hole-in-the-wall spirit, too, we could work our way through the entire menu without spending more than five bucks for an entire meal. And after the food arrives, it's heaven.
Regina de la Fuente is the owner, and she hovers over us like a concerned mama. No worries; we love her home cooking, uncomplicated and fresh, prepared however we want it. ("Onions in your chimichanga?" she asks. "Some people don't like onions.")
Onions or no, the chimi is perfect, fried just to golden. It's slender with gentle green chile and cheese, capped with handcrafted guacamole and sour cream, and sided by smoky, deep-flavored refried beans and fluffy rice. We savor the obese red beef enchilada, gorged with cheese in a robust, deeply metallic sauce. For just $2.50, de la Fuente sends out a delightful, filling plate of red chile, rice and beans ladled on a homemade, just-off-the-griddle flour tortilla. Fluffy, tender masa makes for tasty red and green tamales, while a chorizo-egg burro is full-flavored but mild enough for my Hawaiian buddy.
And my island friend is able to experience a torta, a Mexican sandwich that can be difficult to find around the Valley. To discover one this good is a celebration -- the thick, grilled bread sprawling with beefy-rich carne asada, crema, tomato and iceberg.
Great gulps of ice-cold water, sips of soda, dips of crunchy tortilla chips in thin, medium-heat salsa -- he is smiling again, our first lunch without him leaving full lobster-red in the face.
Though we don't actually leave right away. This time, after at least 10 minutes of "pumping the brake," I realize I've finally done it. This car isn't moving. We're parked in the shade (another major bonus for Mi Casita), but my friend is in meltdown. A team of firefighters pulls up next to us, arriving for takeout. They try to help, but no luck. So I go back inside and plead with de La Fuente to borrow her phone.
Phone? She laughs. After my first visit, she already considers me family. She sends me next door, where her clan owns Homer's Christian Auto Care. Damien de la Fuente runs over and, without chastising me for ignoring my car's longtime pleas for help, fixes my "dealer part-only" gears enough to get me home. No charge, but he strongly suggests I get to my dealership soon.
And so we learn. My friend believes me when I say, in Arizona, summer is sizzling and should not be taunted by trying to eat without A/C. I believe my car when it sends polite distress signals, and I promise not to abuse it again. And I believe, yes I believe, that I am blessed to have another excellent little hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant to add to my list of haunts. This one, year-round.