One of the best-preserved downtown districts in metro Phoenix belongs to the city of Mesa, a town whose heritage includes pioneering Mormon settlers, historic citrus groves and cotton ranchlands, military airfields, and most recently, a thriving performing- and visual-arts scene.
But even the most optimistic city booster would probably admit that downtown Mesa can still be a sleepy place to visit. Yet much like downtown Phoenix, Mesa’s city center comes to full, vivid life whenever a big show rolls into one of the venues at the Mesa Arts Center – and with four performing spaces onsite, there are big shows happening almost every week. It’s on these occasions that the question inevitably arises: Where should you eat before going to catch a show at the MAC?
There are only a handful of spots within easy walking distance to the Mesa Arts Center, and probably the most obvious option for pre-show dinner and drinks is Margaritas Grill, which is situated on the northwest corner of Main and Center streets. The restaurant’s name alone communicates certain expectations – yes, this is the place to ease into the evening with a frosty glass of salt-laced agave firewater. But come here also for the credible combo platters of enchiladas, burritos, rellenos, tacos, and fajitas, served with the restaurant’s frijoles borrachos, which are essentially homemade pinto beans with a sprinkling of salty white cheese.
Margaritas is a pleasant enough spot, with high ceilings, exposed brick pillars, local art on the walls, and salsa music playing at low, slightly crackled volumes over the house speakers. On the menu, you’ll find a very good chile verde burrito, the marinated beef saucy and extra-spicy, which is exactly the way you want your traditional New Mexico-style burrito to be.
Shrimp enchiladas, a house specialty, are also good, the crustaceans nicely grilled and springy and blanketed in a tangy homemade tomatillo sauce that’s one of the best things coming out of the kitchen. The house shredded tacos, available with your choice of well-marinated beef or chicken, are solid as well, the meat cooked down to a soft, stringy muddle and stuffed into homemade tortilla shells, which are delicate and crispy and artfully curled at the edges.
Consider Margaritas, then, a viable spot for straightforward, mainstream Mexican fare. But be warned that only a skeleton crew of servers roams the dining room on any given night, so you’ll want to come early, and bring your patience to dinner.
A few doors down on Main Street, past the old Milano Music Center, there’s Mangos Mexican Café. Mangos has been hanging around on Main Street for so long, it’s easy to take for granted its menu of homespun, no-frills Mexican food.
At Mangos, the thing to order when you’ve grown weary of combo platters, but still need something hearty enough to sustain you through a two-hour show, is the tostada voladora. Its name evokes the Spanish phrase for flying saucer (platillo volador), and the dish is otherworldly in the sense that this might be the biggest, loftiest tostada in town. It looks normal enough at first glance – topped with the usual blend of shredded cheese, diced tomatoes, and a dollop of sour cream – but it’s built on a crispy white flour tortilla that’s smothered in roasted pork chile verde.
Mangos is also a reliable source for homemade tamales, which are usually available in either the green or red chile variety. The red chile is spongy, moist, and laden with savory machaca beef. And there’s also a substantial menu of mostly forgettable seafood dishes, the main exception being the shrimp tacos, which are lightly grilled and nicely flavored by a Tapatio-based salsa.
The best place to enjoy a sit-down dinner near the Mesa Arts Center, though, is probably Nunthaporn’s Thai Cuisine, a small, long shoebox of a restaurant with lots of wood paneling and tufted leather booths, located a short crosswalk away from the campus. The restaurant’s young, nimble staff are dressed in all black, and near the back of the dining room, you can sense the clamor in the kitchen as the staff works to keep pace with incoming orders for pad thai and spicy curries.
The sprawling menu includes a healthy sprinkling of regional northern Thai specialties like larb, a minced meat salad that you can order with either pork or chicken. Try it in the traditional pork variety, a light, salty, and herb-scented snack that also happens to be a citrus-lovers’ dream plate. Every bite of larb, which you can scoop up using fresh, stiff leaves of green cabbage, is steeped in fragrant mint and lime juice.
Also excellent is the Evil Jungle Princess, a coconut curry that’s not nearly as menacing as it sounds. Feathery strips of chicken breast soak up the creamy, slightly sweet sauce. And there’s jungle curry, another northern Thailand specialty, the thin curry served in a boat-shaped tureen that’s been lavished with lemongrass, eggplant, and garlic. If you order it with seafood, it comes with meaty slivers of tilapia, shrimp, bundles of squid, and coin-shaped scallops, all roiled together in an enormously spicy and tasty curry soup.
If you’re just seeking a light, quick meal, the place to go is República Empanada, the hip, pan-Latin restaurant situated a block east of the Mesa Arts Center on Hibbert Avenue. The specialty here, as you may guess, are empanadas, the stuffed and deep-fried turnovers whose ingredients often vary wildly, depending on what part of Latin American you find yourself.
As any República Empanada aficionado will tell you, the only thing wrong with the empanadas here are that they are too small. You can easily demolish one of the kitchen’s ambrosial, airy empanadas in a couple of bites. Come mentally (and financially) prepared to overcome this obstacle, and you’ll leave more than happy with the menu’s appetizing selection of savory and sweet treats.
There are no real duds on the menu — you can’t go wrong with the Boricua, a Puerto Rico-inspired empanada stuffed with ham hock and arroz con gandules (a sofrito rice with pigeon peas). The Cubana is also quite good, a sturdy little pocket of dough stuffed with slow-roasted pork, ham, mozzarella, and a dill pickle. For greater sustenance, order your empanada with the gallo pinto plate, the “spotted Rooster” dish of black beans and rice that’s hearty, filling, and pairs well with pretty much everything on the menu.
No matter what, though, it’s nearly impossible to pass up the restaurant’s dessert empanadas, the best of which is probably the sophisticated Dizzy Fig, an empanada stuffed with Mesa-grown figs wrapped in mozzarella cheese and dabbed with a touch of dulce de leche. Every bite is so deliriously good, it’s enough to make you want to skip the show altogether.
10 West Main Street, Mesa
Shrimp enchiladas $7.25
Chile verde burrito $6.95
Shredded beef tacos $6.75
Cheese enchiladas $6.75
Mango’s Mexican Café
44 West Main Street, Mesa
Red chile pork tamale $4.25
Shrimp taco $5.25
Breaded fish taco $4.75
Tostada voladora $7.95
Nunthaporn’s Thai Cuisine
17 West Main Street, Mesa
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Pork larb $10
Chicken pad thai $10
Jungle curry with seafood $17
Evil jungle princess with chicken $10
204 East First Avenue, Mesa
Gallo pinto $10
Empanada Boricua $3.75
Empanada Cubana $3.75
Dizzy Fig $3.75
Editor's note: The name of Mangos Mexican Cafe was originally misspelled.