Chimi Eat World

As legend has it, the chimichanga was invented in Tucson in the 1950s, when the owner of a Mexican restaurant accidentally dropped a leftover burrito into the deep fryer.

Or, it was invented in Phoenix, around the same time, when an enterprising restaurateur was experimenting with new recipe ideas.

Or, it originated in northern Mexico a few decades earlier, the creation of either rancheros or Chinese immigrants.

Or, who knows? There could be some truth to any of the above. What makes the history (or lack thereof) of the chimichanga so fascinating are the varying and overlapping theories about how this guilty pleasure dish has become as ubiquitous as tacos and tamales. It's one of the biggest mysteries in Mexican cuisine. Or, to be more specific, in Arizona-Sonoran cuisine.

At the very least, consider the chimi a regional contribution to the all-American fried food phenomenon. These days, people will fry anything — Twinkies, Snickers, Oreos, ice cream, even Coca-Cola. But those are all novelties compared with the chimi, which is considered a staple at many Mexican eateries in the U.S. The funny thing is, if you venture too far beyond the border, you'll be hard-pressed to find it on any menu in Mexico.

Stop reading right now if you're expecting an answer to this conundrum (or, for that matter, if you're really hungry). I certainly didn't find any conclusive proof of who first plunked a fat, stuffed tortilla into a vat of boiling-hot oil, and who decided to eat it, smothered in sauce, blanketed in melted cheese, heaped with gobs of guacamole and sour cream — or, perhaps, completely unadorned.

If you want to find out where to find a good chimi, though, read on. My investigation might not be resolved, but it sure made for tasty research.

The chimichanga gets a bad rap.

People derisively call it "Americanized Mexican food," or mistakenly think of it as Tex-Mex.

But neither designation is fair.

"For sure, the chimichanga is an Arizona invention, regardless of who claims it, and it is very unusual," says Professor Carlos G. Vélez-Ibáñez, chair of Arizona State University's Department of Transborder Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies. "You really have to scamper all over the other Southwestern states for a chimichanga."

It may not be as popular in Sonora, the northwestern Mexican state situated due south of Arizona, or even considered a classic Sonoran dish, but it does fit in with Sonoran culinary traditions. And don't forget — before 1848, Arizona was part of Mexico, in any case.

So what exactly is Sonoran food, anyway? In these parts, where Oaxacan or Mexico City-style dishes get attention for their uncommon flavors and preparations, Sonoran food is Mexican food — think tamales, tacos, and enchiladas, salsas brimming with chiles and tomatoes, plenty of rice and pinto beans, and meats cooked al carbon, broiled with charcoal or mesquite wood.

"If pressed to choose the culinary element that ties together diverse northern Mexico, I'd have to say it is fire: smoky hot flavors," writes Rick Bayless in his book Authentic Mexican Regional Cooking. "Northern flavors are forthright, frontier flavors — just the kind to wrap in a warm flour tortilla."

Beef, especially, is a big part of Sonoran food culture, thanks to the longtime predominance of cattle ranching in these parts.

Chef Carlos Manriquez of local restaurants Mucho Gusto Taqueria, Atlas Bistro, and Twisted was raised in Mexicali, a border town on the Baja California Peninsula. He admits that he still envisions cowboys when he thinks of Sonora.

"Sonoran people are considered in Mexico very macho — machos on horseback," he says.

But the region is even more famous for its huge, paper-thin flour tortillas.

Chef Juan Martinez, an instructor at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, explains, "If you go into Mexico, mostly you're going to get a corn tortilla. The actual flour tortilla is a Mexican staple, but you'd have to specifically request it."

With some flour tortillas as big as 18 inches across, it's no wonder burritos became popular in the Southwest.

In his book El Norte: The Cuisine of Northern Mexico, author James W. Peyton writes, "Although they are enjoyed throughout the north, burritos are most often found in the state of Sonora, and chimichangas, their fried cousins, are found almost nowhere else."

Lorraine Othon, who co-owns El Bravo Mexican Food with her 78-year-old mother, Carmen Tafoya, says her great-grandparents were living here when Arizona was still a territory. Back then, they went back and forth to Mexico a lot, and her great-grandfather worked on the railroads and in the mines.

"They put everything on a burro — rice, beans, meat — to make it transportable," says Othon. "Then, they'd heat it up on a cast-iron grill to make it toasty."

The flour tortillas, she adds, are mostly found in Sonora and Sinaloa.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig