Taco Summer: A South Phoenix Diner Untouched By Time Still Makes Machaca From Scratch
El Horseshoe took its name from the bar that the Avitia family owned before turning their attention to the restaurant in 1994.
In the hunt for the latest trendy restaurants, our spotlight often misses neighborhoods that are home to some of the Valley's best kitchens — including those making metro Phoenix's best tacos. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be guiding you toward the Valley’s tastiest tacos, and the taquerías that serve them. Welcome to Taco Summer.
46: El Horseshoe Restaurant.
Taquería: El Horseshoe Restaurant, 2140 West Buckeye Road
Open Since: 1994
Style: Mexican diner serving homestyle comfort foods, including breakfast all day
Signature Taco: Machaca with vegetables
Since the place opened in 1994, Rickey Sanchez has introduced every friend and acquaintances he has made during his decades living in Phoenix, from family to his high school teacher from 1969, to the El Horseshoe Restaurant. As a regular at the little breakfast and lunch diner that sits next to the I-17, he's very proud of this fact.
Set on an industrial stretch of Buckeye Road that links the Central City and Estrella Park neighborhoods of South Phoenix, on most afternoons it’s just Sanchez. The retiree from the nearby Food City where he worked for, as he recounts, 21 years, seven months, and six days, doesn't mind the sleepy sounds of the hard-working A/C unit and a few forks rapping against emptying plates, the diner is his home-away-from home.
Gone are the days when most of us can walk into a neighborhood diner expecting a home-style, cooked-from-scratch meal, which is what makes El Horseshoe feel utterly untouched by time.
Sanchez sits in the center of the small dining room and orders his special beans (he’s diabetic, so they make him a version without added fat) and a lean pork chop rubbed with the Horseshoe's secret chile seasoning from Angel Avitia Jr., who has run the diner with his mother Rosa and father Angel Sr. since 1994, when Angel Jr. was just a teenager.
Rosa works a mound of masa, hand -forming and rolling out tortillas that will be cooked fresh-to-order. The rustic taco fillings like goats stew, chile con carne, mole-doused beef tongue, and red and green sauces that are also used for chilaquiles, are all made from scratch. She and her husband even soak and blend barley, shipped from Sonora, for a rare, earthy version of horchata called cebada.
Cebada, a cousin of horchata that swaps out rice for barley, is an earthy and sweet drink that goes great with spicy food.
“We were famous for having the best chorizo,” Sanchez tells Angel Jr., referring to his Food City days. “But it doesn’t beat your dad’s.”
However, the most famed of Angel Senior's specialties is his homemade machaca (also referred to as carne seca), which involves air-drying lean cuts of beef in dry desert climates. This cooking technique is common to the cattle ranches of the northern Mexican states, originally used as a method of preserving the beef.
These days, almost all restaurants purchase their machaca beef pre-dried from a factory, but Angel Sr. instead bought his own dehydrators from Mexico and spends several days each week processing his own machaca meat. After being seasoned and left to dry for days, the jerky-like meat is shredded. When it’s ordered, either to be scrambled with eggs or potatoes for a breakfast plate next to beans and a chunk of salty cotija cheese; stuffed into burritos; or tossed with roasted vegetables for a taco filling, the shredded beef is heated in a pan with corn oil to give it enough moisture to bring the beef back to life, but not so much that it loses its signature chewiness.
Machaca con verdura, or machaca with vegetables tacos, is one of the popular ways El Horseshoes serves their specialty.
Left: Rickey Sanchez finishes his meal as Angel Avitia Sr. talks on the phone. Right: Angel Avitia Jr. has four kids who help out at the restaurant on the weekends like he did when he was their age.
The family was not always involved in the restaurant industry, in fact, Angel Sr. used to own apartment buildings in California, according to his son. But when Angel Jr. was a young boy, he was diagnosed with asthma and a doctor in the family recommended that they move to a drier climate. So they moved to Arizona where Angel Sr. took a job in the cabbage fields West of Phoenix.
“My parents… to see where they came from.” Angel Jr. pauses, and smiles. “They came over here legally. They are U.S. citizens and they are so proud of it. My dad, he loves anything to do with work,” Angel Jr. says of his father. “He’s always been a business man.”
Eventually, Angel Sr. saved up enough money to buy a little bar called El Horseshoe, just a few miles from Downtown. “West Buckeye was a really bad area,” Angel Jr. remembers. “But my father put his heart and soul into cleaning it up.”
Rosa Avitia multitasks in the kitchen, preparing freshly pressed and griddled tortillas for every dish.
The diner was just next door to the bar and was called Raul's Cafe. When Angel Sr. sold the bar and purchased the adjacent restaurant in 1994, he took the name with him. Rosa took charge of the kitchen alongside Angel Sr. and Angel Jr. helped his parents run the small shop.
“My mom is really, really traditional. And I don’t want to take that away from her,” Angel Jr. says of his mother's cooking. “She puts her heart and soul into it.”
Angel Jr. wants people to be able to eat at El Horseshoe like they are at their family’s home, he says. He wants them to relax, take a load off, and forget their burdens long enough to enjoy a meal.
Maricopa County Jail, infamously nicknamed Tent City, is just a handful of blocks away from the restaurant. “Ever since Joe Arpaio being so close to here, we have people who stop by to eat and you can just hear the problems that they go though.” But, he says, at the end of the day, “One of the most beautiful things is that people come in here, and they can just sit down and enjoy their food..”
“Food keeps people together,” Sanchez adds. “Especially if it’s good food.”
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