Chimi Eat World

Arizona's deepest-fried mystery is smothered in cheese, guacamole and sour cream

Both family-owned eateries (and burgeoning chains) claim to have invented the dish back in the 1950s, and neither has come up with enough evidence to truly discredit the other. It's been more than five decades since the alleged dawn of the chimi, and the two culinary pioneers in question have both passed away, leaving it to younger generations to keep the chimichanga stories alive.

Of course, Macayo's and El Charro were at the top of my must-visit list.

I started with Macayo's, if only because it's so close by, dodging the potholes and pylons of midtown light-rail construction for a weekday lunch at the iconic original location on Central Avenue. It's a crazy, multicolored pyramid building that you really can't miss along that stretch of sleek skyscrapers and low-slung strip malls.

Smothered with love: The chimichanga at Mucho Gusto Taqueria comes "wet" or "dry," with plenty of cotija cheese.
Jackie Mercandetti
Smothered with love: The chimichanga at Mucho Gusto Taqueria comes "wet" or "dry," with plenty of cotija cheese.
Lorraine Othon, co-owner of El Bravo, says the grilled burrito, precursor to the chimichanga, was portable food back when Arizona was still a territory.
Jackie Mercandetti
Lorraine Othon, co-owner of El Bravo, says the grilled burrito, precursor to the chimichanga, was portable food back when Arizona was still a territory.

Inside, the atmosphere is just as psychedelic, with bubblegum pink and lime green booths, trompe l'oeil wall murals depicting shelves of pottery and windows that open up to a Magritte-worthy blue sky, and bright, busy carpeting that could've been designed by Peter Max. A pitcher of margaritas would've made it even more interesting, but I was there by myself, and everyone else in the dining room gave off a no-nonsense, lunching-with-coworkers vibe. I behaved and ordered an iced tea instead.

Chimichangas at Macayo's come in both regular and extra-large versions, as well as mini-chimi appetizers. I ordered a regular chicken chimi with the works — and what the kitchen sent out was so huge and decadent that I could hardly imagine what the oversize one looks like.

Centered in the middle of a big oval platter, with refried beans on one side and lettuce, diced tomatoes, and rice on the other, the chimi was topped with scoops of sour cream and chunky guacamole, sprinkled liberally with grated jack cheese, and slathered in mild, smooth relleno sauce, except for the folded, deep-golden ends, which were still crisp. The inner folds of the tortilla were still soft and doughy, and at the middle was a thin layer of meaty, peppery chicken chunks.

It was a beautiful sight, but as soon as I dug in, it turned into a sloppy heap of beans mixed with sauce mixed with lettuce and pieces of tortilla. There was just no way to eat that chimi gracefully, and I didn't even try. The messiness may have added to its appeal, actually.

On day two of what was quickly becoming an all-chimichanga diet, I decided to see how Carolina's Mexican Food in south Phoenix would stack up. As far as I know, Carolina's has never staked a claim on the creation of the chimi, but since its incredible handmade flour tortillas are truly the best in town — as decades' worth of framed Best of Phoenix awards on its walls point out — it was only logical that they'd do a fine version. Not to mention, I'm already a big fan of Carolina's machaca.

It's an understatement to call this place understated. Honestly, the whitewashed, cinderblock building at Mohave and 12th Street strikes me as kind of dingy. Not dirty, mind you (it's in good standing with the county health inspectors), but simply well-loved, from worn-away layers of color on the cement floors, to a mishmash of seating, including faux woodgrain tables with built-in swivel chairs, their chipped coats of red and brown paint giving way to white and bright yellow underneath.

That's not to say I don't love the place — after all, it's the original Carolina's, founded in 1968 by Carolina Valenzuela. It's basically a landmark, an institution, and I go there often. From the looks of the business-casual crowd waiting in line at the counter, so does half of downtown.

The upside to the, um, shabby-chic décor is that the chimichangas, served in a Styrofoam container on a brown plastic tray, are a steal. At most restaurants, you'll pay well over ten bucks for your deep-fried burrito, but here, the chimis cost half that.

Sauce is not an option at Carolina's. Either get a bare-naked chimi, or have it with guac, sour cream, and cheese. I opted for the latter, which came with the obligatory shredded iceberg lettuce and chopped tomatoes. Here, the tortilla was fried to a light brownish color, and the surface was almost flaky, like a croissant. Around the ends, the tortilla had a rich flavor and crunchiness of a cracker. Inside, super-thin layers of tender tortilla gave way to a generous amount of machaca. It was delicious, and I had to hold back on eating the whole thing.

The next day, I headed to Mucho Gusto in Tempe, curious to see what kind of spin chef Carlos Manriquez would put on the classic dish. Turns out, he'd recently given up his share of the business, although the menu hasn't changed. He'd told me he didn't feature chimichangas when the restaurant first opened but eventually succumbed to customer demand.

(Good luck getting him to eat one, though. "I know how much oil is in them," he'd told me.)

Chilling on the outdoor patio, surrounded by a more collegiate, T-shirt clad Tempe clientele, Mucho Gusto was as mellow as Carolina's was bustling. Janis Joplin wailed on the sound system, the sun gave a warm glow to the pale pink stucco walls, and I settled in to another machaca chimichanga.

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Seriously? This was the worst cover story EVER! There are so many important pressing issues, jeeze! Newtimes, food writing does not belong on the front cover, I thought you all had a section for that. Maybe next week you guys can do a big story on Chop Suey?

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