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It takes the chips and dip at Carbajal's Mexican Food to cheer me up. They're spectacular, crispy light, warm, and sprinkled with lots of salt (salt is my vice; bring it on, I say), and the chunky salsa purée is flamed with chiles. Every visit, I eat two entire baskets all by myself.
Carbajal's has been on the far east edge of Mesa for almost 10 years, and has nothing to do with the famous local boxer of the same name (I know, I thought the same thing). This is the creation of Marina Carbajal, a native of Las Cruces, New Mexico, who brought her family recipes to Arizona and now runs the shop with her nephew waiting tables.
Mesa was a ghost town when she first set up business in the sprawling, mostly empty shopping center she occupies, Carbajal tells me. But she'd been looking for a place to eat her favorite homemade foods, and couldn't find any. The risk has paid off -- business booms at the petite, five red-tile topped table/five booth cafe -- and check out Carbajal's flashy black Corvette parked conspicuously in the loading zone out front.
Carne asada combo: $5.75
Fajita torta: $3.99
Carbajal's, 7340 East Main, Mesa. 480-807-0887. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Green chile beef combo: $7.75
Machaca combo: $7.75
The food here almost takes my mind off my Costa Brava loss. The cute little bottles of Coronitas help, with five of the seven-ounce beers for a package price of $8. And the service keeps the nostalgia flowing, with its completely careless, impossibly cheerful approach. It's loud, with thumping Selena-style music, animated conversation at the bar, and guests lit up on periodic complimentary shots of "Hot Sex" liqueur.
Carbajal's loses some hole-in-the-wall points for its pricing, a little more serious of an investment at $7.75 to $9.50 for combination plates. Yet these are awfully, awfully good standard Sonoran favorites -- tostadas, tacos (incredible beauties, with juicy rich shredded beef layered in lacy thin shells), enchiladas and burros. Green chile beef is superb, cloaked in oceans of thick grayish gravy, just the way I like it. Red chile beef is spicy enough to keep me happy without scaring off my more timid dining companion. And I actually take my leftover scrapings of enchilada sauce home, to savor the robust blend with more chips.
Costa Brava had sublime machaca. The shredded beef was blended with vibrant spices, tossed with scrambled egg, onion and tomato, then wrapped in tears of warm flour tortillas. Carbajal's nails the delicious dish head-on. I slather tortillas with soupy-soft refried beans draped in lots of yellow and white cheese, tumble in some tomato-spiked rice, and feast.
And what better way to soothe a sad soul than soup? Carbajal's versions work magic, be it topnotch menudo, bobbing with soft tripe and al dente hominy mixed with chopped red onion, minced cilantro or lemon, or exquisite albóndigas, a kiddy-pool-size portion of rich tomato broth, rice, carrot, potato, white onion, squash and highly herbed meatballs.
Nothing on the menus at Don Marco or Carbajal's is anything cutting edge. They're all just everyday Sonoran staples, crafted with the quality and love only a family kitchen can bring. And that's just fine with me. At the moment, I don't need any shocks concerning my Mexican food. I've had more than enough of those lately.