Billy Goat Gruff
Those of you old enough to have lived through any part of the Cold War -- or to have suffered through a political conversation with a devout Libertarian -- will be familiar with the oft-repeated mantra that capitalism is the most efficient system on earth, unlike communism, which is grossly inefficient and inherently opposed to the individual's enlightened self-interest. Along these lines, the great Austrian social philosopher Ludwig von Mises once asserted: "Neither economic thinking nor historical experience suggest that any other social system could be as beneficial to the masses as capitalism. The results speak for themselves."
And yet, one wonders if von Mises, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, et al., ever visited Phoenix in the summertime. What I'm learning, as I suffer with everyone else through 100-degree heat, is that the eagerness to earn a buck mysteriously vanishes in some places from about June on within the confines of Maricopa County. Certain restaurants, for example, take a whole month off, scale back their hours, or stop serving on both Sundays and Mondays (a practice not always limited to summer, I'm afraid).
Also, there appears to be, in general, an increase in counterintuitive behavior. I won't even go into all the people you see jaywalking diagonally and slowly across four or more lanes of busy traffic, oftentimes with kiddies in tow, and sometimes in the dark. But the restaurant thing is a great conundrum to me. The part of town I live in seems as busy as ever, and I'm sure some of these folks would like to eat at places other than chains. So what gives? Perhaps Mayor Phil Gordon should shut down Phoenix for the summer. Then we could all move to Orange County, where I can assure you most eateries don't take off for weeks or months at a time.
Forgive me, but I've been frustrated of late with my newest find, a terrific place for tacos called Birrieria El Gordo, in a little strip mall on 27th Avenue, a block north of Indian School. Birrierias are these Mexican joints known for serving goat meat, a fact emphasized by the goat head drawn on the door of Birrieria El Gordo, which, as close as I can surmise, means "the fat man's birrieria," though I think I would find it more amusing if it meant simply "the fat goat." A reader suggested the place to me as having some of the best tacos in the city, with delicious hand-made tortillas and mouth-watering asada, barbacoa, pastor and so on.
What I discovered from my initial two or three visits was that my source was 100-percent correct. The interior is sparse and nondescript, with the sort of tables and chairs you might see in a school cafeteria. There's a TV in one corner, and a few Mexican fabrics here and there, but that's about it. The food, however, is cheap and hearty. Small tacos are as inexpensive as $1.25 a piece, and half a dozen will fill you up, especially if you pile on the fixings from the condiment cart in front of the main counter. This wagon always has several barrels full of fresh limes, chiles, onions, radishes, finely cut cabbage, and two or three different types of salsa, which you're free to load up on.
The asada burritos and tacos I had were magnifico, chock-full of delectable chunks of steak. But I liked the tender, stringy barbacoa (barbecued mutton) better, marinated in a tangy brown sauce, a dollop of which is plopped onto your small flour tortilla. (I tend to prefer flour over corn, though both are fine at El Gordo.) The pastor, too, is delightfully filling, with a slight spiciness, as opposed to, say, asada. Pastor is, in fact, the Mexican spin on Middle Eastern spit-cooked lamb, the difference being that pastor is actually roast pork, and it looks reddish, unlike the brownish-black lamb carved from a Lebanese rotisserie.
I know some of you will squirm over the cabeza and birria tacos, but if you gringos can overcome your squeamishness, you'll find both meats unique and tasty. On the menu, birria is goat, and you can get it in a stew, the birria de chivo that's advertised on the bill of fare as the $6 "especialidad de la casa," or as a mound of gray goat meat on a tortilla. (NB: The word "birria" actually means deformed, gross, or a mess, the "mess" in this case referring to the "birria de chivo" stew, made with goat.) The flavor is somewhat gamy, sort of a cross between duck and lamb, both of which I adore. Now pull out your Spanish dictionary and look up "cabeza," and you'll find it means "head." For our purposes, that's the head of a bull, which has been steamed until all of the muscle, fat and juices have fallen from the skull. The resulting carne is fatty and, to be truthful, a little slimy. It's a texture sure to turn off certain people, much in the same way the tripe in menudo tends to do. Although I personally find great gustatory gratification in tripa as well as cabeza.
I also recommend the cahuamanta con camaron ($8), a seafood soup with shrimp and manta ray (cahuamanta). From what I've read, this is sort of a mock turtle soup, the terrapin here being a now-protected sea turtle for which manta ray is substituted. As the menu advertises, it is indeed "sabrosa" (yummy) and, like the birria de chivo, it comes with a small stack of tortillas.
My only problem so far with El Gordo is the lack of interest those within have shown for having their birrieria written about and photographed (a.k.a. "free advertising"). At first, I chalked this up to a language barrier, as I speak muy poco español. (Translation: My Spanish sucks.) But then I employed first one friend whose Spanish is excellent, and finally another who grew up in Mexico City. Unfortunately, the owner has remained completely indifferent to the prospect of a review that could draw hungry customers to his place of business. Even my Latino pals are at a loss to comprehend this unusual phenomenon.
What I suspect, however, is that peculiar, cross-cultural summer affliction of which I've already spoken. I went by one day to do some follow-up eating, only to find the shop cerrado when it should have been abierto. But the next day, everyone was back to work. Capitalism may be swell, but during a Phoenix July, even the free market takes the occasional, unannounced vay-cay. So phone ahead. And if you find them open, bon appetit - or, as they say in Spanish, buen provecho!
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