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El Portal is just a little place south of the tracks, a Mexican eatery known for its good soups and straightforward Sonoran fare. But step inside, and you realize why it's known for a lot more than its food.
Last week, on a random visit, we sat down while just a table away, former state senator and current Arizona Rock Products Association lobbyist Rusty Bowers was munching chips and salsa with mayoral hopeful Phil Gordon. We weren't close enough to hear what the two local power brokers were talking about, but after Gordon stopped by for a friendly chat and a check fell out of his shirt pocket, we sort of got the idea.
Gordon said he was happy to get Bowers' support in his campaign, which is looking like a juggernaut. But wasn't it a little unusual that he'd be transacting that kind of business in the barrio?
No way, said the former city councilman, who resigned to run for mayor. El Portal is the place to be seen for the Valley's honchos. "It's a hub of political activity," Gordon said, pointing out the other movers and shakers in the room, including public servants working for the city, county and state. "It's an eclectic mix. Democrats and Republicans. Hispanic and Anglo," he said. "It's my campaign headquarters south. And the food is good."
That mix of politics and food was exactly what county supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox and her husband Earl had in mind when they rescued the place from decrepitude four years ago.
Wilcox is without question the most powerful Latina in the state. But it turns out the woman also knows how to serve a mean lunch.
"We wanted to serve the food we grew up with, and everyone grew up with caldo," says the supervisor, who is able to get away from the downtown county fortress long enough to be a regular lunchtime fixture at her restaurant. She can be seen on nearly any weekday, greeting folks and sitting down to share a few minutes with them. "It's a great tool," she says. "I find out what's going on. What people are feeling. And they'll tell you, I serve tables and take care of people."
It also makes her accessible. And as long as she was visiting our table, we couldn't help asking: What was she thinking when she stood up behind Bishop Thomas O'Brien at his press conference June 2 announcing that, in effect, County Attorney Rick Romley could go stuff himself, despite O'Brien's signing a statement that he'd knowingly moved pedophile priests around the diocese? "It wasn't the man. It was the church. I was there for my faith," Wilcox says. "If people didn't like it, I didn't hear from them," she says, looking visibly relieved that her stand that day didn't come back to burn her.
Her customers, she says, come to El Portal as much for the information pipeline as the meals. "It's comfort food," she says, describing the signature soups, which she re-created from the ones she ate in her youth, stews that were rich even in lean times when all they could scare up was caldo de queso. "There was always a potato, a little cheese and half of an onion," she remembers.
Becoming one of the best caldo makers in town was no easy task. "We were lucky to get Chelo," Earl Wilcox says, referring to the soup jefa in the kitchen, Chelo Ochoa. "I tried for years to get her. She's a legend in the barrio for her cooking. Especially her soups. All the guys would go to The Gold Spot for her chicken soup in the old days. That place is somewhere near center court of America West Arena now."
Located on the corner of Second Avenue and Grant Street, El Portal has a long history in the Grant Park Barrio. "What a name for a Mexican barrio," Mary Rose says jokingly. But that's exactly what it was in 1945 when a couple of returning soldiers gave Mercedes Zapien, their mother, some money and told her to open a restaurant that could feed the hundreds of veteranos belonging to the American Legion Post next door. Years later, it remained a hotbed in the largely Mexican community. "It was right up there with the Calderon," a popular Mexican dance hall, explains Earl. "It was also my first job. I washed dishes and cleaned tables. On weekends I would have to come back at one in the morning after the dances ended next door." Menudo was a hot item after military-style imbibing and dancing. "Here I am. Eleven years old. One time I overslept and I got fired. I was seven minutes late. Man, I walked home crying."
But the place remained in his thoughts after he grew up, and he bugged the descendants of the original owner to let him buy it. Eventually they did, and a lot of work ensued to change it from what it had turned into. "It became more of a bar. It just didn't go. We bought the place and stripped it," Earl says.
Now it's as much a place to swap inside info with local bigwigs as it is to get a burrito. "Jake Flake, he just loves the food," says Earl about the Legislature's speaker pro tempore. "He cleans his plate – he scrapes it!"