Chimi Eat World

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

But no matter — I was blind to the world as soon as I had my barbacoa chimichanga in front of me. Considering all the variations I'd eaten by this point, I was pleased to try a dish that stood out from the others. The lightly fried burrito was filled with shredded, barbecue-flavored beef, spooned with thick, spicy cream cheese and green chile sauce, and finished with melted cheese. It was accompanied by a few slices of ripe avocado, shredded lettuce, and a side of refried beans in a tiny tortilla-shell bowl.

By the time I made it to back to Phoenix the following day, I was starting to feel like a fried, overstuffed burrito myself, and the last place I wanted to be was another Mexican restaurant. Still, they don't call it work for nothing, so I headed back to El Bravo. Good choice. The place is such a cheerful, homey neighborhood spot, and as soon as I sat down and saw the colorful mural of adorably chubby mariachis, I had to smile. Sure, I may end up looking like them pretty soon, but they did look content.

Once my handsome chimi platter showed up — the shredded beef and cheese-filled chimi was completely covered in smooth red enchilada sauce, embellished with the usual toppings as well as chopped scallions — I was surprised to feel as hungry as if I hadn't just eaten a chimi a day for the previous week.

At her Tucson restaurant El Charro, Carlotta Flores serves up picture-perfect chimis, allegedly invented by her great-aunt, Monica Flin.
Jackie Mercandetti
At her Tucson restaurant El Charro, Carlotta Flores serves up picture-perfect chimis, allegedly invented by her great-aunt, Monica Flin.

Trust me, that's saying a lot.

Clearly it wasn't much of a stretch for someone to come up with the chimichanga. With toasted and pan-fried burritos already in circulation, the deep-fried treatment — whether accidental or intentional — was probably inevitable.

Now there's just that little question of who did it first, and where the whimsical name came from. Theories abound.

On the Chowhound message board, one poster says it was created by Chinese immigrants in Sonora and Sinaloa who worked on the railroads around the turn of the 20th century. I've also seen mentions of the chimi having been invented in 1929 at El Charrito, a restaurant in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua.

Meanwhile, in the Arizona Highways Heritage Cookbook, Louise DeWald notes, "Lucy Mesa claimed she invented it in a Nogales restaurant, La Frontera. Club 21 said they put it on the menu first." That happened in the late '40s, according to Club 21 founder George Jacob's 1999 interview with Sunset magazine.

Another Tucson eatery, Micha's, has taken credit for it as well, as has Phoenix's Mi Ranchito. According to that story, in 1945, then-owner Alex Moreno fried a stale bean burrito that he'd brought back from his mother's house in Tucson. Eventually, it made its way onto the menu as the "golden burrito."

In yet another legend, the dish was devised in the '40s in a Nogales bar called The Chimi Chango, although the burros there were supposedly baked, not fried.

Some have said that "chimi chango" means toasted monkey, a reference to the golden surface of a fried burro. Others have said the original word is chivichanga, a perhaps dirty-minded reference to something involving a goat (chivi) and a female monkey (changa). The story behind the Club 21's chimi is that a customer exclaimed "¡Qué chango!" when Jacob served him a fried burro; the name evolved into chimichanga, and was allegedly added to the menu by 1954.

According to Carlotta Flores, whose great-aunt Monica Flin founded El Charro, the word means "thingamajig." When Flin accidentally dropped a burro in the deep fryer, as the story goes, she shouted "¡Chimichanga!" instead of blurting out an expletive in front of her niece's young children.

Chef Carlos Manriquez, who grew up in Mexico and has traveled extensively, says that's the most logical explanation as to the origin of the word.

"In Mexico, we say 'chingado," he says. When pressed to explain the definition, he chuckles. "Well, it has many meanings. It could mean, 'Screw you,' or whatever."

The details of all of these stories have faded over the decades, but at least we've narrowed down the birth of the chimi to sometime in the last century.

If the two most popular tales are to be believed, it's a much more recent creation, dating back to sometime in the 1950s.

Phoenix restaurateur Woody Johnson, who opened Valle del Sol in the early '40s, Woody's El Nido in 1946, and Macayo's in 1952, supposedly invented the chimichanga by accident, when he was experimenting with new recipes.

His 33-year-old grandson, Reed, who grew up in the business and is now Macayo's director of operations, says nobody in the family can pinpoint the specific date of when the chimichanga was created or added to the menu. (The Macayo's menu notes that Woody Johnson "invented the chimichanga over 50 years ago.") As far as Reed Johnson knows, the dish never went by any other name.

But though he says that his grandfather (who passed away in 1999) insisted he'd never heard of the chimichanga before coming up with it himself, Johnson also refrains from denying El Charro's claim.

"We're not trying to fight with them," he says.

And besides, the family-owned Macayo's chain is doing just fine, with 18 locations in Arizona and Nevada, as well as its own chile farm and canning facilities.

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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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