McDowell Road, in that sleepy stretch east of downtown Phoenix, has long been a reliable source for good, home-style Mexican food. There’s La Barquita, with its molcajete dinners for two, a pile of grilled meats, nopales, and fresh herbs that’s hearty enough to stretch into a light dinner for four. There’s Rosita’s Place, with its $3 beer specials and menu of saucy, cheesy Sonoran plates, whose recipes appear to be more or less blissfully unchanged since 1964. And now, there’s a new prime spot for Mexican food on McDowell: Tacos Chiwas, situated just west of the State Route 51 overpass, whose funny-sounding name evokes the sprawling northern border state of Chihuahua, the biggest state in the Mexican union, famous for its rugged deserts and mountains, and worshipped by some as the birthplace of the burrito.
The small, counter-service restaurant, like many low-key Valley gems, is pretty unremarkable from the outside. The restaurant occupies a standalone building, most recently home to a barbecue joint, with bars on the windows and the squat, compact design of a ’60s-era Dairy Queen. (Most likely recall it as a DQ.) But step inside, and the atmosphere is cozy and genial, with only a handful of wooden tables and booths, and a well-stocked, refrigerated salsa bar tucked neatly into the corner.
A couple of oversize chalkboard menus hang over the counter, where the restaurant’s streamlined menu of tacos, burritos, gorditas, quesadillas, and montados is cataloged in neat, chalky print.
You put in your order at the counter, and the food is delivered to your table; most dishes are economical in both size and price, so there’s little stopping you from ordering a bit of everything. Your food will arrive on a Styrofoam plate, or perhaps wrapped in tinfoil, but don’t be fooled by the fast-food presentation: This is top-notch Mexican food, made with slow-simmered meats and freshly pressed corn tortillas, and seasoned to near perfection.
There are tacos, of course, which are available in at least seven varieties, including a very credible carne asada, al pastor, and pollo. The taco meats here are dependably juicy, often brightened with lime and toppings like pickled red onions. Lengua (tongue) and tripas (tripe) tacos, in particular, are more reliably delicious than what you’ll find at most neighborhood taquerias. Tripas, especially, are excellent. When prepared less carefully, these beefy intestines can easily turn rubbery or gummy; at Tacos Chiwas, the twisty nubs are lightly fried and given a clean, crisp edge. But if you’re only going to get one taco, make it the signature taco chiwas, which delivers a harmonious melding of beef, ham, and stretchy queso asadero, its appeal amplified by the deep flavor and fire of roasted Hatch chiles and jalapeños, which lurk under the layers of melted cheese.
Burritos, meanwhile, are not the grotesque, overstuffed monstrosities of your average late-night Mexican drive-thru. The Tacos Chiwas burrito is a rare species: a long, skinny home-style burrito made with fillings like deshebrada, a marinated, slow-cooked shredded beef that’s available in both a red or green sauce. Try the deshebrada roja, a ruddy, drippy, two-napkin kind of burrito. It’s not overly spicy or assertive, but reverberates with the sweet, smoky flavors of roasted guajillos, onion, and garlic. There’s something especially lovely about the texture of the meat, cooked so long it’s become a soft, fine, flavorful muddle by the time it’s spooned into your tortilla.
And if you come early enough to catch the breakfast menu (served 10 a.m. to noon daily), the kitchen makes a decent chorizo-and-egg burrito. The chorizo here is not at all spicy or vinegary, but rather more subtle and beefy, and whisked into a fluffy, eggy scramble.
Homemade gorditas are not particularly easy to find on menus around metro Phoenix — more than likely, you’ll run into the thick, sturdy sope, whose masa base is often more heavy and doughy than flavorful. Thank goodness, then, for the gorditas at Tacos Chiwas, elegant and finely shaped pockets of flour-based dough stuffed with your choice of deshebrada, rajas (a medley of chile strips wrapped in melted cheese), or perhaps, Mexican-style picadillo, a sort of ground beef, carrot, and potato hash. The picadillo here is very good: hearty and fragrant. But it’s the fresh, softly griddled gordita itself that is the more notable triumph.
Quesadillas are quite good, thickly built on flour tortillas and generously lavished with the mildly salty and irresistible queso asadero. There are also montadas, which are essentially quesadillas stuffed with your choice of either carne asada or al pastor. But whether a gordita or a montada is your pleasure of choice, be sure to order it with a cup of the house bean soup, which just might be the most essential item on the Tacos Chiwas menu. The frijoles charros are whole pinto beans that have been simmered with salty nubs of ham and slices of hot dogs. The hearty soup is so rich, hearty, and velvety, it may permanently reverse your stance on the humble bean soup.
Desserts change at Tacos Chiwas, but options may include jamoncillo de leche, a deliriously sweet, fudge-like dulce de leche served in a small ice-cream cone. On occasion, you may also find a candied apple, covered in a lovely and tart tamarind paste, suitable for an aficionado of those chile-laced Mexican dulces de tamarindo. If you’re not keen on dessert, you can appease your sweet tooth with a fresh-made agua fresca. Options include a fragrant hibiscus-scented agua de jamaica, and an excellent house-made horchata that may bring to mind a sweet, frothy rice pudding.
No matter what you order, by the time you reach your final course at Tacos Chiwas, you will have certainly detected an obsession with fresh ingredients, made-to-order preparation, and impeccably precise seasoning. It makes good sense, once you learn that the restaurant is the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Armando Hernandez and Nadia Holguin. Hernandez formerly worked as a manager at chef Chris Bianco’s Pane Bianco, and Holguin is a classically trained chef. Together, the duo appear to possess the depth of knowledge and passion to bring traditional Chihuahuan fare to full, vivid life.
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Score one more for McDowell Road.
1923 East McDowell Road
Hours: Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sundays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Taco Chiwas $2.50
Deshebrada rojo burrito $5
Frijoles charros $2
Gordita de picadillo $3