Chimi Eat World

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

You'd think fried burritos would be the same wherever you go, but there are so many variations — certainly enough to give you cravings for distinctly different chimis served up at different places. Mucho Gusto offers them "dry" or "wet" (smothered in bright red pepper sauce). I dove into a wet one, and was impressed by the presentation; it was covered in cotija cheese crumbles and a zigzag of crema, served with a small bowl of refried beans and a fluffy pile of fragrant, buttery rice studded with carrots, celery, and corn.

The unsauced part of the chimi was appealingly crisp, with layers of fresh buttery tortilla under the toasty exterior. As for the filling, it was like the Mexican version of a calzone, with thick gobs of creamy melted cheese that oozed out as soon as I cut it. The machaca, filled with soft bits of onion, was juicy as well.

As soon as I managed to clear the decks at the office, Tucson was next on my chimi itinerary, with the legendary El Charro Café up first.

Jackie Mercandetti
Reed Johnson, grandson of Macayo’s founder Woody Johnson, says the family’s chimi recipe is more than 50 years old.
Jennifer, Angela, and Josephine Hernandez of Carolina's make chimichangas from the best tortillas in town.
Jackie Mercandetti
Jennifer, Angela, and Josephine Hernandez of Carolina's make chimichangas from the best tortillas in town.

Talk about charm. Although the late-19th-century building, located in Tucson's quaint El Presidio District and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is not the original El Charro location, it has an even deeper history — as the original family home of Jules Flin, whose daughter, Monica, founded the restaurant. After she inherited the house, she moved her business there in 1968.

It still retains the warmth of an old Arizona home, with framed black-and-white family photos, sturdy carved-wood mirrors and shelves, and a gorgeous antique woven blanket on display. There are also plenty of sombreros, paintings of the Virgin of Guadalupe, ceramics, and vintage El Charro calendars depicting old-fashioned beauties.

At El Charro, it's possible to have a three-course meal of chimichangas, although I doubt anyone would be crazy enough to do it — except me. I started off with an appetizer plate of mini-chimis with a variety of savory fillings, served with creamy ranch dip and chunky pico de gallo. I didn't really need any sauces, though. The extremely light, crisp surface reminded me of a good spring roll, and despite their dunking in the deep fryer, I could still taste that these chimis were made with very good tortillas.

For my main-dish chimi, I went with the house specialty, carne seca — angus beef marinated in garlic, lime juice, and seasonings, sun-dried for 24 hours (you can see the triangular drying cage suspended high above El Charro's outdoor patio), shredded, and grilled with bits of onion, tomato, and green chile. It had a distinctive, tangy flavor and unique, almost fluffy, texture. The chimi itself was served "elegante," covered in enchilada sauce, with a queso melt, guacamole, sour cream, and beans.

I could eat only a couple of the bite-sized, fruit-filled dessert chimichangas, which were dusted with a fine coating of cinnamon and sugar.

Later, I hit up another legendary Tucson eatery, Mi Nidito, on the recommendation of a friend who used to live in the area, which is basically a barrio in the south part of town. He recalled hearing that the restaurant claimed to have perfected the chimichanga, if not come up with it first. Mi Nidito has been around since 1952, so I suppose anything's possible.

The people at Mi Nidito were incredibly friendly, greeting me by name when my table was ready, and thanking me by name when I left. Looking at dozens and dozens of framed photos on the walls near the front register, this welcoming atmosphere has struck the right chord with a lot of famous folks, including President Clinton.

Mi Nidito also took the prize for most ornate décor. From my vantage point at a table in the back room, beneath a big palm tree, the place looked like a jungle of kitsch, with fake flowers and vines hanging off everything, leafy murals, ornamental tiles, and neon beer signs on the walls, shelves full of rooster and parrot figurines, and booths upholstered in striped Mexican blankets. The mix of customers included jolly old ladies, burly young Hispanic guys who looked like U of A football players, and a gaggle of yuppies slurping down frozen margaritas.

Among nine different chimichanga fillings, there was birria (spiced shredded beef), bean, and carne seca. Enchilada sauce was an option, too, although I went for a crunchy chimi filled with green chile. My side of sour cream resembled a big bowl of ice cream.

I didn't keep a ruler in my purse, but Mi Nidito's chimi was probably the biggest one I encountered on my grand tour. It was definitely the simplest. It didn't come with rice and beans, just a pile of plain shredded lettuce. On top, there was a generous layer of cotija crumbles. As for the texture, the tortilla was fried to a sturdy crunch, while the mild beef filling, speckled with bits of green chile and tomato, was juicy and flavorful enough to hold its own.

Finally, I stopped by Club 21, whose founder, George Jacob, was another alleged inventor of the chimichanga. Bent bamboo seats, wood ceiling beams, and hanging sombreros gave this restaurant a rustic touch; there was also a shady brick patio out front, with round concrete tables, a stone water fountain, and large potted palms. It's nothing fancy, but it's certainly a classier establishment than the no-tell motels along the nearby street called Miracle Mile, which lies north of downtown. The dinner rush hadn't started yet, and my only company was a table of quiet grannies across the room, so it was hard to get a sense of the clientele.

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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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