Ask anyone who's lived or spent time near downtown Mesa if they know the bright-pink Mexican food restaurant with the old-school neon cocktail sign, and most likely, the answer is yes. That's because the family-operated eatery El Charro Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge has been at the Country Club Drive spot since 1958 (though it was originally located at 416 West Main Street when it opened in the 1940s). El Charro is known for plush red booths, classic memorabilia, neon beer signs, and strong takes on simple Mexican-American classics: chips and salsa, enchiladas, and margaritas. Since 2017, El Charro had sat vacant, a sign at the entrance reading "CLOSED FOR VACATION OPEN AFTER LABOR DAY." Then, on May 5 — Cinco de Mayo 2021 — the eatery reopened, offering just takeout. Eva Munoz Orta, the daughter of previous owner Fred Munoz, who died in 2012, has taken the reins — and customers can dine in now, too.
The perfect downtown taqueria doesn't exi — wait, it does. At Taco Boy's, two generations of the Cornejo family have been throwing whole sacks of lump charcoal onto the Santa Maria grill for two years, giving slips of ruby beef next-level char and supreme tenderness. The taqueria pulls massive crowds into its modest, brightly painted space. Friday nights, it's pretty much standing room only. Just about everything you can order here is very good, from simple grilled chicken all the way to a salty, crispy tripa and a cabeza with about 30,000 leagues of flavor. Taco Boy's cradles meats on masterful flour tortillas driven up from Sonora. Though the taqueria bustles in the heart of downtown, you feel as if you might be feasting at a rollicking backyard grill-out.
COVID-19 may have prevented live music shows from happening at downtown venue Crescent Ballroom for most of 2021, but its in-house restaurant Cocina 10 was open for takeout. Temporary pandemic relief was something we sought out wherever we could — at Crescent, it was found by diving into a plate of crunch-tastic I-10 Nachos. These feature a heaping portion of tortilla chips topped with cheddar and Oaxaca cheese, refried beans, cilantro, pico de gallo, sour cream, and more cheese (that's cotija sprinkled atop the crispy, savory tower). In addition to being an addictively delicious platter, it has a perfect chips-to-toppings ratio, so you're not left wishing you had more chips or fixins. Vegans, no worries, you're covered, too: The chips in that version are loaded with a thick and creamy vegan cheese and bean dip, guacamole, cilantro, pico de gallo, and vegan jalapeno crema.
Though the Maskadores micro-chain has grown to several locations, quality hasn't dipped at all. It remains a fun blue space adorned with heroic images of lucha libre wrestlers donning their iconic masks. The quick-serve, vaguely fast-casual Mexican restaurant brings it on a whole lot of plates, but none better than its enchiladas. An order comes with two tight, crispy corn tortillas — not the usual enchilada tubes but half-moons, utterly maximizing surface area for the enchilada sauce (red or green) smothering and seeping to the far edge of the plate. With rice and an unbelievably soulful side scoop of pinto beans, these enchiladas make for a supremely satisfying gut-busting lunch.
By the time we order a chimichanga, we've already come to terms with the fact that we're about to eat a deep-fried burrito topped with a bunch of stuff, all of which will come on a platter with even more food. Since we've committed to this calorie-laden feast, we may as well go big or go home, which is why we like Rosita's Place when it's time for a cheat meal. You'll never forget the first time a Rosita's chimi is slid in front of you: it's massive, topped with dollops of guacamole and sour cream and sprinkled with cheese. Fillings include chicken, machaca, or beans, which you'll find when you bust through the crispy exterior. Add in a side of rice and beans, and you've got a sublime plate of Mexican cuisine.
Another year, another win for Rito's, one of our most reliable, humble, great Mexican classics. Whether green chile beef or red chile beef, whether shredded chicken or beautiful refried pinto beans, whether deep-fried into a chimichanga or sauce-drowned into an enchilada-style burro, you cannot go wrong with a burrito from any of the Rito's locations. A fragrant, lightly toasted flour tortilla wraps the saucy package like a rough sail. In its package, it looks about as big as a football. You can add rice and cheese to the middle, but would you add new brushstrokes to a Picasso? These deeply comforting burros are perfect as-is.
Breakfast burrito is kind of a misnomer, because we'll eat an egg-stuffed burrito from El Norteño any time we can get one. We like it with chorizo, or sometimes bacon; add potatoes and cheese and you're still well under $10 for something that will leave you full and happy. Each component is well-executed, from the moist (but not runny eggs) to the crisp bacon to the soft potatoes. The red sauce that comes on the side adds a pleasant kick, but you don't need it to enjoy the burrito. Make sure you've planned a place to eat your burrito; there's not a whole lot in the way of seating at El Norteño. And don't forget to stop by the ATM; it's cash-only. Once you've got the logistics handled, though, you're well on your way to breakfast burrito bliss.
We recommend you bring a big appetite to Dick's Hideaway. Small portions aren't really a thing here, and that most certainly includes the relleno platter, one of the most satisfying plates in town. The fried peppers are stuffed with your choice of pork, cheese, smoked turkey, beef, or duck. (We love the decadent richness of the duck, but there's not a bad option.) The peppers are topped with red chile sauce or green chile sauce, or you can get it Christmas style (that's both sauces, for the uninitiated). Add in heaping piles of Mexican rice and pinto beans, and a giant tortilla, and you've got a traditional New Mexican plate that sings with flavor and leaves you very, very full.
The quality of a tamale really rises and falls on the masa dough; we've had plenty of dry, mealy, tasteless tamales that made us less-than-appreciative of this traditional dish. That's not the case at The Tamale Store, where the goods never fail to delight. The selection of fresh tamales changes a little from day to day, but our favorites include the mildly spicy pork red chile and the creamy green corn with cream cheese. All the tamales are lard- and gluten-free, and there are a number of vegan options, too, such as the hearty Southwest veggie, which comes stuffed with spinach, mushrooms, corn, and salsa. If your favorite variety is unavailable fresh when you stop by, make sure to grab some packages from the freezer case in the mercado section, where you can also find Tamale Store-branded salsas and other goodies.
This self-professed king of the torta lives up to its name. Since 2001, Los Reyes has been slinging a wide array of tortas that stray minimally from their Mexican origins. This isn't a place where you'll see progressive garnishes or newfangled ingredients that "improve" on the classics. Here, tortas tend to be about 25 percent soft bollilo roll, 75 percent fillings. Layers upon layers of tender, paper-thin bistec are heaped between bread. Many tortas have a warm, gooey layer of melted mozzarella. One unites chorizo, pork, and Spanish omelet — and that's before we even get to the avocado, tomato, and chipotle sauce. Sandwiches are about ratios, and the ratios on these tortas, whether spotlighting breaded chicken or onions and jalapeños, are flawless.