I moved to the Valley last February from Austin, Texas -- a land of magical tacos, a taco Narnia.
The tacos, which I dream about nearly every night, were stuffed with tender steak or white-meat chicken. They were marinated in flavorful sauces, with names like suiza, chipotle, ancho, pasilla, borracho, mole and ranchero. And all were served hot in fresh corn tortillas made right there in the dining room.
My assumption, my downfall, was having high expectations about Phoenix. I figured that since Arizona was so close to both New Mexico and Mexico, the tacos here would be marvelous.
It seems to me that most Valley Mexican restaurants are tailored to the middle-of-the-road suburban gringo: not too spicy, not too sophisticated, few (if any) grilled entrees, large portions and, above all, completely Taco Bell-homogenized -- every dish assembled from 12 tubs of ingredients in the kitchen.
The tacos, for instance, are typically dry chicken nuggets or cheap shredded beef in a flour tortilla that tears apart, with iceberg lettuce and Cheddar cheese -- made just like the cafeteria did in sixth grade.
So I set out to find a decent downtown lunch taco. I've grown accustomed to swallowing my complaints along with the Valley's Mexican mediocrity, but not anymore. I've got my pen. I've got my pad. And I'm ready to bitch.
Two things, though. My search for a decent downtown lunch taco did not include chain restaurants. And it also didn't include every non-chain taco joint in the downtown area, just the ones that were a fairly close drive and that I'd heard about from friends or co-workers.
My search did include several longtime hole-in-the-wall favorites of downtown workers. Small places that are as close to authentic as you're likely to find in the Valley. Most have iron bars on the windows, as well as on the doors. There's usually a jukebox playing conjunto (Los Mismos! Les Tucanes! Los Tigres del Norte!). And special orders? No comprende!
Adrian's, 2334 East McDowell
I checked out Adrian's after most of the lunch crowd had departed, and was put immediately at unease. Drawing more than a few stares from the restaurant's grumpy patrons, all that was missing from my tense entry was for the juke to halt with a scratch of the record needle.
The tacos à la carte at Adrian's were $1.50 and platters were $6.50. And my waitress was abrupt and indifferent -- just how I like it.
The shredded pork and shredded beef barbecue tacos were blandly similar. I also tried the ranchero steak taco, which was prepared similar to beef stew. In fact, there were a couple stewed potatoes on my plate, making me suspect this was beef stew left over from the previous night's soup.
I left disappointed.
Rosita's Place, 2310 East McDowell
If McDowell Road is the Vegas Strip of cheap tacos, Rosita's has the tightest slots in town. With its two rooms and hardwood tables, Rosita's is comparatively high-class, and has marginally higher prices.
Just when I was beginning to suspect Rosita's was too upscale for my taste, a matronly server approached my table to conduct an interrogation.
"Menu?!" she barked.
Yes -- iced tea. Please don't hurt me.
And away she went.
I was getting excited, thinking I was in the hands of some sort of taco-slinging dominatrix. When the chips and salsa arrived ($1), the chips were fresh and warm, though a little oily.
My tacos, one sautéed beef and one shredded chicken (both were about $2.50 each, combo plates ran around $5.80), were served with fresh guacamole.
Rosita's tacos come bare-bones -- just the meat and tortilla. The beef had a peppery, beef jerky quality and could have been a bit more tender, while the chicken, though mostly white meat and served in ample quantity, was unseasoned and, as the food critics say, uninspiring.
Not bad, but a truly great downtown taco still eluded me.
Carolina's Mexican Food, 1202 East Mohave
If the LCM street gang was a corporation, Carolina's would be its commissary. It has that sparse, white-wall, drafty cafeteria feel and sports some LCM graffiti nearby.
There's no table service at Carolina's; customers order at a counter. Many locals get to-go orders of Carolina's handmade tamales or fresh flour tortillas.
My group ran the taco gamut: soft and hard, chicken, machaca (tough, pot-roast-style shredded beef) and pork.
The tacos were simple, quick-wrapped affairs with Cheddar cheese and lettuce, and could have benefited from a stronger marinade or seasoning. Each came with a tiny container of hot sauce, but it was insufficient to spice up the meal. The chicken taco in particular was soggy, the best being the shredded beef in the deep-fried shell.
Carolina's does earn points for being very inexpensive (tacos run $1.30 each) and efficient (my party of three ate and left in 12 minutes). But with all the seats taken and would-be diners eyeing our seats, we weren't eager to stay.
Tacos de Juarez, 1017 North Seventh Street
I was despondent. Ready to quit. I had to ask myself: Did I really want to write a review where I not-so-systematically bash every beloved Mexican food joint in downtown Phoenix?
The answer, of course, is yes.
But I also wanted to find a terrific taco.
Tacos de Juarez is another Phoenix institution that only looks like a well-kept secret because of an unassuming exterior that more resembles a Rocky Point insurance office than a restaurant.
But inside, it's surprisingly large, well-lighted and has a vaulted ceiling. It also has the requisite juke, the iron bars and the plastic table covers. Next to the register there's a cooler of Mexico-bottled Coca-Cola, rumored to be a sweeter blend than the stateside formula.
Joe Arpaio's posse has been spotted eating here, and, indeed, the chairs are very sturdy.
I ordered the No. 14 (two soft chicken tacos), while my editor had the No. 17 (deep-fried beef taco and enchilada). They were served with rice and beans and only $4.95 each, the best price I've found for a combination plate. And Tacos de Juarez's Spanish rice has a cotton-candy quality that alone makes it worth the trip.
The double-wrapped corn-tortilla tacos were not exponentially superior to their downtown competition, but they do have a spicy edge. The carne asada tacos are nicely marinated chunks of steak, while the shredded chicken soft tacos are particularly tasty and served with two radish slices for you to stare at and decide whether they will add to or subtract from the experience.
Finished and leaving nothing on my plate, I realized I had my winner: Tacos de Juarez, my hard-earned respect goes out to you.
Now don't get me started on Valley enchiladas . . .
Contact James Hibberd at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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