Taco the Town
I'm happy to report that the west side of Phoenix can add another gem to its list of outstanding ethnic eateries. It's called El Coqueto, a tiny half-dozen-table cafe in a tiny strip mall at 35th Avenue and Glendale.
What a difference time makes. When I was growing up, that part of town was as white as could be. My grandparents lived in the very neighborhood that now houses El Coqueto, and all we had were transplanted Midwesterners with their Midwestern-style restaurants. It was Mayberry -- quaint, but boring. Today, it's a wonderful, vibrant, breathing Little Mexico, with cafes cranking out regional specialties.
I take my mom with me, to show her how exciting her formerly sleepy stomping grounds have become. She takes her first bite of El Coqueto's flauta, and announces that maybe it's time to move back.
Indeed. Here is a flauta done properly, just like everything I discover on the ambitious menu. Translated as "flute," a flauta is a corn tortilla rolled around a savory filling, then fried. When crafted with great care, it's a decadent little thing, crunchy and juicy and just gently introduced to the boiling oil. It's fried so exquisitely, in fact, it must be consumed immediately before the vegetable topping makes it soggy. Sometimes the flauta comes fat with chicken, sometimes pork, very often beef, and, when we're lucky, it's spiked with potato. There's potato in Coqueto's flauta, soft chunks mixed in with the seasoned carne desebrada (shredded beef), all buried under a pretty salad of shredded iceberg, cucumber, radish, marinated onion and carrot, and sprinkles of queso.
A Spanish dictionary defines "coqueto" as "dressing table," but an alternate definition is "flirtatious, natty and stylish." The second definition makes better sense, given the cafe's two logos: illustrations of a dapper caballero, and a feminine-looking raspado winking at us.
Raspados are one of Coqueto's signatures. They're giant snow cones, the shaved ice drenched with natural flavors like vanilla, strawberry, plum, tamarind (Indian date), peach, pineapple, coconut, pecan, banana and lemon. We can get them plain, swirled with condensed milk, or topped with ice cream. I'm especially intrigued with the chile flavor, a deep red juice that's tart, sour, salty and vibrant with squeezes of fresh lime.
A raspado is an excellent way to start a meal. Nursing one gives diners something to do while waiting for their food. This from-scratch fare can take more than half an hour to emerge from the kitchen, and sizzling sounds of cooking and aromas of grilled meat can be torture. In its one failing, Coqueto doesn't send out complimentary chips and salsa, and $2.50 is way too much to pay for a basket of commercial corn rounds and unremarkable sauce (two dips come: a thickish fiery blend, and a thin broth that reminds me of room temperature minestrone soup). I could eat the starter of homemade guacamole by the bucket -- the chunky jewel is studded with chopped tomato, onion and cilantro -- but at $3.99, it's also a steep investment for a small serving.
Better to save our pesos for main dishes, all brilliantly flavored and remarkably inexpensive. I always leave stuffed, and rarely part with more than a 20 for a complete meal for two.
Folks familiar with the cooking style of Rocky Point will be in heaven here. Recipes are lighter than typical Sonoran fare, with the milder white corn used in tortillas, smooth crema instead of thick sour cream, gentler Mexican white cheeses like crumbly queso fresco, and loads of fresh vegetables, like the salad that tops our flautas. I've got to rave about the tamales, so plump and fluffy and generously stuffed with meat under a touch of daringly tart sauce. Green chile chicken enchiladas put the U.S. version to shame, draped with pale yellow cheese and rich creamy sauce.
A chimichanga is, of course, deep-fried, but so quickly that it's just crisp, with no grease. It's small, about the size of a big cigar, but packed with moist shredded beef or chicken and potato. Tacos are dainty, served either as dorado (in a whispery thin hard shell) or street style, on small soft corn tortillas presented open-faced with grilled chopped meat, white onion and cilantro. And, to my delight, on the side is the traditional platter of garnish, the sliced radish, cucumber, marinated onion and lime. This gordita is no Taco Bell thing, either, but a tea-saucer-size spongy masa slathered with refried beans, shredded meat, iceberg lettuce and potato.
Coqueto's chefs are experts on simple -- a charming torta, the thick griddled sandwich packed with crispy-edged carnitas, iceberg, tomato, avocado and crema; or a satisfying quesadilla, oozing with gooey tangy cheese, plus meat if we so choose. The chefs are also pros with the more complex recipes, like their impressive renditions of white and red menudo, and pozole (pork hominy soup).
As mom and I spoon forkfuls of silky flan custard, marveling at the grace of the thin, not-too-sweet caramel it swims in, a neighboring table of diners wraps up their meal. One gentleman, who's wrestled his way through a massive combo platter of a chimichanga, a taco dorado, a flauta, rice, beans and salad, slumps in his seat. His head rolls back, his eyes close, his mouth drops open, and his arms fall limp at his side.
He says something in Spanish. No translation necessary for me -- I'd recognize that universal body language as a sign of contentment anywhere.
La Casa Loca, 1957 West Dunlap, 602-870-7774. Lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
I'm not at all happy to report that the west side is also home to a restaurant so weak it doesn't belong anywhere in the Valley. This is La Casa Loca, just down the way from El Coqueto on 19th Avenue. I was breathless to get to this place, inspired by knowing it was a reincarnation of one of my most beloved Mexican restaurants, La Cucaracha, originally in downtown Phoenix. La Cucaracha was one of my growing-up-years of eating, a landmark since 1946 (no! I was not alive then!), and a true hot spot in the '80s. La Cucaracha was the place to hang and mingle. We all knew the waitresses, and when the restaurant closed in 1996, locals bemoaned the demise of yet another Phoenix institution.
I was so happy to see La Cucaracha resurrected that I raced there without calling ahead to make sure it was open. It wasn't. I picked the one night of the week the place is shuttered. Call it blind luck, because once I did eat at La Casa Loca, I wished I hadn't.
I have to admit that La Cucaracha's style has not changed as much as my palate. Two decades ago, it was almost impossible to find good Mexican food in Phoenix. Today that's changed. I'm spoiled, which is what spoils La Casa Loca for me.
La Casa Loca has the same owners and cooks and pretty much the same menu as its original. But now, I couldn't be dragged here even with the promise of unlimited amounts of the cafe's 99-cent margaritas.
Here is the bill of fare: There are tacos, burros, tostadas, fajitas and chimichangas. But we also have the choice of an all-we-can-eat fish fry, pizza, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, BLTs and French fries.
And consider the ingredients: that horrid neon orange cheese, pools of oil, crumbled hamburger as a stuffing and topping, and so much salt that I literally can't eat many of the dishes I get stuck with. And is this salsa or tomato paste?
A chicken chimi sums up this disaster in one bite. The thing is the size of a gopher, slopped with runny guacamole, sour cream and cheese, filled with dark meat and a few sprinkles of green chiles alongside cafeteria-style rice and beans. Ground beef enchiladas are more hideous, abused with mealy, Hamburger Helper-quality insides wet with sour cream. There's no taste to a shredded beef tamale, and green chile is nothing more than Crockpot stew beef with no spice to speak of. Even a taco is frightening, so grossly fried it leaves a slick on my plate, and the hamburger inside sticks together in chewy lumps.
La Cucaracha, La Casa Loca -- either way, I don't see the return of a legend.
I'll make a new tradition with El Coqueto.
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