Search Party

I had a disaster on my hands. In just hours, guests would begin arriving at my holiday party, and here I was, driving around in circles in a dilapidated south Phoenix neighborhood looking for a small woman holding a big bundle of food.

My food, that is. The food I'd asked her to cook for me. But as night began to deepen in the neighborhood below South Mountain, I couldn't remember where I'd run into Amelia just days before.

I discovered the small woman from Jalisco when I had been out searching for something else -- what, I have no idea. But that's my m.o., to get in my van and drive until something grabs my attention, then I know what it was I had been looking for. On this particular warm and sunny winter day, my search had led me to the area near 51st Avenue and Baseline, where houses give way to cotton fields. At a busy intersection, I saw a sign reading "Best Arizona Beef Jerky," and I knew immediately I had to stop. I'm a sucker for good jerky, and I had to test the sign's claim.

But as soon as I got out of the van, I was met by a beautiful woman from the central part of Mexico. Recently widowed, Amelia now makes a living selling tamales on street corners. She wore a homemade apron under a tan sweater, and she asked, smiling, "¿Quieres comprar tamales?" My face-wide smile was response enough, and sent her off to fetch a dozen. They hit the spot. In fact, the entire dozen hit the spot.

Her cooking was so good, I asked her to prepare 80 picadillo y papa gorditas (corn fritters stuffed with meat and potato), a spot of rice and a pot of chorizo and cheese beans for my Christmas party, all for $150. Such a deal, I thought, as I drove away polishing off the rest of the tamales.

"I live on Montezuma Street," she had told me. But she couldn't tell me the nearest major cross street. And now, as I drove around and around at the appointed time, hopelessly lost in her neighborhod, I wondered how a person could live in a place for years and not know the major streets nearby! "I will wait at the corner for you," she had said, but I had no idea what corner she was talking about.

I slammed on my brakes when I saw her. There she was, wearing her homemade apron and tan sweater, her hair almost all white. Her smile showed a sign of relief as she greeted me. I quickly loaded up my goods and was off to my party.

As I drove off, I was overcome with the wonderful aroma of gorditas, beans and fresh salsa, and I pulled a warm gordita out of the container. As I ate this simple treasure, I smiled and knew that, once again, I had found what I was looking for.

Silvana Salcido Esparza is a local chef and restaurant owner.


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