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I'm happy to report that the west side of Phoenix can add another gem to its list of outstanding ethnic eateries. It's called El Coqueto, a tiny half-dozen-table cafe in a tiny strip mall at 35th Avenue and Glendale.
What a difference time makes. When I was growing up, that part of town was as white as could be. My grandparents lived in the very neighborhood that now houses El Coqueto, and all we had were transplanted Midwesterners with their Midwestern-style restaurants. It was Mayberry -- quaint, but boring. Today, it's a wonderful, vibrant, breathing Little Mexico, with cafes cranking out regional specialties.
I take my mom with me, to show her how exciting her formerly sleepy stomping grounds have become. She takes her first bite of El Coqueto's flauta, and announces that maybe it's time to move back.
7124 N. 35th Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85051-8312
Region: North Phoenix
602-242-2761. Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, Thursday through Tuesday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Indeed. Here is a flauta done properly, just like everything I discover on the ambitious menu. Translated as "flute," a flauta is a corn tortilla rolled around a savory filling, then fried. When crafted with great care, it's a decadent little thing, crunchy and juicy and just gently introduced to the boiling oil. It's fried so exquisitely, in fact, it must be consumed immediately before the vegetable topping makes it soggy. Sometimes the flauta comes fat with chicken, sometimes pork, very often beef, and, when we're lucky, it's spiked with potato. There's potato in Coqueto's flauta, soft chunks mixed in with the seasoned carne desebrada (shredded beef), all buried under a pretty salad of shredded iceberg, cucumber, radish, marinated onion and carrot, and sprinkles of queso.
A Spanish dictionary defines "coqueto" as "dressing table," but an alternate definition is "flirtatious, natty and stylish." The second definition makes better sense, given the cafe's two logos: illustrations of a dapper caballero, and a feminine-looking raspado winking at us.
Raspados are one of Coqueto's signatures. They're giant snow cones, the shaved ice drenched with natural flavors like vanilla, strawberry, plum, tamarind (Indian date), peach, pineapple, coconut, pecan, banana and lemon. We can get them plain, swirled with condensed milk, or topped with ice cream. I'm especially intrigued with the chile flavor, a deep red juice that's tart, sour, salty and vibrant with squeezes of fresh lime.
A raspado is an excellent way to start a meal. Nursing one gives diners something to do while waiting for their food. This from-scratch fare can take more than half an hour to emerge from the kitchen, and sizzling sounds of cooking and aromas of grilled meat can be torture. In its one failing, Coqueto doesn't send out complimentary chips and salsa, and $2.50 is way too much to pay for a basket of commercial corn rounds and unremarkable sauce (two dips come: a thickish fiery blend, and a thin broth that reminds me of room temperature minestrone soup). I could eat the starter of homemade guacamole by the bucket -- the chunky jewel is studded with chopped tomato, onion and cilantro -- but at $3.99, it's also a steep investment for a small serving.
Better to save our pesos for main dishes, all brilliantly flavored and remarkably inexpensive. I always leave stuffed, and rarely part with more than a 20 for a complete meal for two.
Folks familiar with the cooking style of Rocky Point will be in heaven here. Recipes are lighter than typical Sonoran fare, with the milder white corn used in tortillas, smooth crema instead of thick sour cream, gentler Mexican white cheeses like crumbly queso fresco, and loads of fresh vegetables, like the salad that tops our flautas. I've got to rave about the tamales, so plump and fluffy and generously stuffed with meat under a touch of daringly tart sauce. Green chile chicken enchiladas put the U.S. version to shame, draped with pale yellow cheese and rich creamy sauce.
A chimichanga is, of course, deep-fried, but so quickly that it's just crisp, with no grease. It's small, about the size of a big cigar, but packed with moist shredded beef or chicken and potato. Tacos are dainty, served either as dorado (in a whispery thin hard shell) or street style, on small soft corn tortillas presented open-faced with grilled chopped meat, white onion and cilantro. And, to my delight, on the side is the traditional platter of garnish, the sliced radish, cucumber, marinated onion and lime. This gordita is no Taco Bell thing, either, but a tea-saucer-size spongy masa slathered with refried beans, shredded meat, iceberg lettuce and potato.
Coqueto's chefs are experts on simple -- a charming torta, the thick griddled sandwich packed with crispy-edged carnitas, iceberg, tomato, avocado and crema; or a satisfying quesadilla, oozing with gooey tangy cheese, plus meat if we so choose. The chefs are also pros with the more complex recipes, like their impressive renditions of white and red menudo, and pozole (pork hominy soup).
As mom and I spoon forkfuls of silky flan custard, marveling at the grace of the thin, not-too-sweet caramel it swims in, a neighboring table of diners wraps up their meal. One gentleman, who's wrestled his way through a massive combo platter of a chimichanga, a taco dorado, a flauta, rice, beans and salad, slumps in his seat. His head rolls back, his eyes close, his mouth drops open, and his arms fall limp at his side.