If you've lived in the Valley long enough, you know your next great Mexican meal could come from just about anywhere.
From numerous stands and food trucks dotting the city's streets to hot-food counters inside supermercados to the countless fast-casual joints and restaurants in neighborhoods everywhere, the journey of finding good, affordable Mexican eats starts with simply getting in the car.
And for those in Mesa, Taquitos Jalisco might just be a place to pull over.
Taquitos Jalisco: Easy Familiarity and Robust Flavor in Mesa
437 South Gilbert Road, Mesa
Hours: 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday
Birria de chivo: $6.45
Ranchero steak: $7.99
Camarones a la diabla: $10
The small eatery has been quietly serving locals for nearly 15 years, starting when owner Benito Juarez decided to stop working in Mexican restaurants across the Valley to open a place of his own.
Despite its strip-mall location and counter-service ordering system, there's an easy familiarity here, as if Juarez had added a restaurant-grade kitchen to his dining room at home. Ceiling fans in a small, orange and white room lazily spin over the restaurant's regulars — men in white Ts and work boots, denim-clad 20-somethings, and families with little ones toting their favorite toys. Most of them are sharing the news of the day or half-watching the large TV in the corner as they dig into their plates. Even uniformed employees from nearby Mexican restaurants pay a visit now and then, chatting with an affable counter gal before walking to the cooler, popping the cap off a Mexican soda, and finding a seat in the usually bustling room at one of the restaurant's plastic-topped tables.
The restaurant's main source of light comes from the menu above the counter. Its huge, glowing selection of around 50 dishes, nearly half with photos and all less than $10, could almost be read from outside the door. The offerings consist of familiar Mexican street foods and meals served with rice and refried beans sprinkled with mozzarella cheese. And because Juarez hails from Mexico's western state of Jalisco, there are a few seafood offerings as well as the goat meat stew birria.
Make no mistake; these are standard dishes served up fast and friendly. Not everything hits the mark, but there are enough good eats here for a quick, satisfying, and wallet-friendly meal that pretty much sums up what Taquitos Jalisco is all about.
Of the proteins that can be packed into or atop tostadas, burritos, quesadillas, and the like, there are three to note: juicy, slow-simmered lengua (tongue), succulent pork, and tender pieces of chicken with crispy skin (in that order). For a hearty snack or a light meal, skip the tiny street tacos and ask for your favorite to be piled atop a sope or two. The crunchy discs of fried masa with beans, crumbled cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and thick slices of avocado are served alongside a good-size dollop of Mexican crema to add as you please. Adding a squirt or two of Juarez's very good salsas — a spicy, smoky red and a lively tomatillo contained in ketchup and mustard bottles at the table — almost goes without saying.
If you prefer your stuffed peppers on the cheesy side, the chile relleno here should suffice. After its packing of mozzarella cheese, the lightly battered and deep-fried roasted pepper is slathered in a rich red, spicy tomatillo and habanero pepper sauce with notes of oregano and garlic. Juarez uses the same satisfying sauce for his birria, where it mixes with tender pieces of boneless goat meat for a hearty stew with a kick.
And for carnivores seeking a still-meaty but milder entrée, Juarez serves up a good version of bistec ranchero, in which small pieces of sautéed beef are cooked in a lightly seasoned, chicken-based stock along with onions, tomatoes, and jalapeños for a kind of Mexican version of a down-home country stew. For those whose favorite ranchero recipe includes potatoes, Juarez will add them by request.
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On the seafood side, the dishes here probably aren't going to have you abandoning your favorite mariscos hangout anytime soon, but a few are gratifying nonetheless.
Skip the uninspired Seven Seas Soup for a glass goblet full of shrimp and octopus in a tomato broth with avocado, salsa, cilantro, cucumber, and onions. You'll need to add a fair amount of Tapatio or extra salsa for more flavor, but once that's done, it's all spicy refreshment with saltine crackers from there. Not needing any additional help with the heat is the aptly named Shrimp in a Very Hot Sauce, or camarones a la diabla. Featuring sautéed shrimp and onions in a thick sauce of habanero peppers, morita chiles, garlic, and ketchup, one hell-hot bite of the spicy-sweet dish is enough to have you cutting the heat by piling the mixture, along with some rice, into warm and flavorful flour tortillas dotted with char.
Those same tortillas, along with thick slices of avocado, cucumbers, and generous squirts of lime, also make for stellar do-it-yourself fish tacos by way of the pescado frito, a fried whole fish whose flaky white meat is nearly as good as its crispy skin. Perfect for those who aren't squeamish about bones or, moreover, food that looks back at you, the only thing missing from this dish is a frosty beer which, unfortunately, is not available.
For dessert, head to Frutilandia, the cheery sweet and snack shop next door. Along with favorites like Mexican candy, fruit shakes, and ice cream, there are also colorful exotic drinks like the Diablito, a spicy and sweet concoction of tamarind shaved ice, fruits, and squishy tamarind candies. The place is as good a find as Taquitos Jalisco, and chances are you'll see some of its regulars there as well.