Tacos come in many shapes: tubes, half-moons, full circles of varying size. They can be fried, steamed, built on tortillas flipped a few times on the hot comal (grill). Their fillings run the range of imagination and the gamut from soupy to solid, and occupy shells hard or soft of many colors. Under a tricolored canopy in Mesa, in the parking lot of a car battery shop wedged into the T-bone of Broadway Road and Pomeroy, a family-owned truck specializes in tacos drowned.
These tacos are submerged in dark red broth. Shaped like cigars, the tight, fried tortillas just breach the surface.
The mastermind behind these taquitos, Alma Kerby, spent more than 10 years developing the recipe. At first, she was working ever closer toward satisfying her family’s memories, tapping into one of the foods that her father, Ruben Ontiveros, now in his 80s, introduced to his family when they visited his hometown of El Paso, Texas.
This food was the signature, red-broth-smothered taquito of Chico’s Tacos, a far-west Texas mainstay dating to the 1950s. “The tacos are original from El Paso, Texas, the drowning tacos, the ahogadas,” Alma says. “If you’re from El Paso, you know Chico’s Tacos. The majority of El Pasoans love Chico’s Tacos.”
At first, Alma targeted the tacos they remembered, even as time seemed to dim the flavors they experienced when revisiting and eating at Chico’s again. Over the years, though, Alma pushed her drowned tacos beyond memory, adding her own touches and modest flairs.
“I worked on it, worked on it, worked on it till I got it to where I liked it,” Alma says.
You can taste the current version at her truck in Mesa, which started as a Sonoran dog stand in late 2017. They grew, and got a bigger stand to sell tacos. Then they grew again, moving into today’s full-on truck where, just beyond, at picnic tables on gray stones, in the balmy din of boombox music, a steady stream of customers eat Sonoran hot dogs, grilled burritos, guac-topped tacos, sail-like quesadillas, and drowned tacos — most sipping agua frescas in the summer, atole in the winter.
All of the food at The Drowning Taco is Sonoran. All, that is, but for its namesake.
Alma, who owns The Drowning Taco with her husband, Lance Kerby, calls her remix of the Chico’s taco “taquitos ahogada.” This is a soldering of the sauce-drenched torta ahogada and the taquito, a grafting of elements from Guadalajara and El Paso and metro Phoenix.
The drowned tacos hit the picnic table piping hot, at three or six to an oblong bowl.
Thin like soup, charged with jalapeño, the tomato-based broth rises to just below the crests of the taquitos. They are tightly lined in the crimson sauce, tortillas rolled around rich ground beef, fried, and pressed together like fingers. cheddar cheese snowed on the tight wands melts in the broth, hangs, suspended between liquid and solid, a delirious spice-infused goop that you can eat with your spoon even when the tacos are gone.
Seeing these tacos, your mind might move to enchiladas. But Alma’s tacos are different, featuring rolls thin and crisp rather than wide and pillowy, and broth lighter than the enchilada sauce's velvet blanket.
As you eat through these drowned taquitos, cars and trucks trundling on Broadway behind, red-green-white canopy shifting and lucent in the sun, the broth’s warmth and chile heat spread through you. The beef has gentle richness. The fried tortillas have snap at odds with the broth, which logic says should have softened them.
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The Drowning Taco is worth visiting for more than drowned tacos. The Sonoran hot dogs here are good, and so lavishly topped that chorizo and beans spill forward as you bite, removing the toasted hot dog below. And you can get them topped with carne asada if you want. Breakfast burritos are popular in the a.m. Tacos are small but sidekicked with bright, creamy, nicely balanced red salsa, and the price is right at $1.75 per.
In a metro area with many taco shapes, colors, and fillings, Alma’s taquitos ahogadas glommed with melting cheddar are a nice wrinkle.
The Drowning Taco. 264 East Broadway Road, Mesa; 602-697-9574.
Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; closed Sunday.