Cafe Reviews

Blown Away

I'm in mourning. My favorite Mexican restaurant in the world has closed. It blew up, actually. Earlier this month, Costa Brava was flattened by a gas explosion. So what if the cafe is an almost five-hour drive away, in Rocky Point, Mexico? I've been known to make the journey for as little as a 24-hour drop-in, just to snack on Costa Brava's incomparable enchiladas (ladled in delightfully sour chile sauce) and chimichangas (a trio of cigar-fat crispy shells gorged with the most lusciously spiced, juicy carne). It's been a favorite of my entire family for more than 30 years; my aunt and uncle drove almost 10 hours round trip in one day not so long ago, just so they could have lunch at the beloved Brava.

But now, it's gone. A large propane tank near the kitchen went up in a violent blast one recent Tuesday evening, just at happy hour. The force leveled the restaurant and bar, set the vehicles in the parking lot on fire, and blew out all of the windows and doors in the adjacent hotel and in the shops across the street. Miraculously, no one was killed, though almost two dozen victims suffered extremely severe burns. I feel like I've lost a best friend.

In my sorrow, I'm craving Mexican comfort food. Nothing fancy, just some hole-in-the-wall Sonoran-style grub like they had at Costa Brava, the good homemade stuff served by pleasant folks like my pals did in Rocky Point. I need a place where I can sit quietly, enjoy a lovingly prepared, inexpensive meal, and raise a gentle toast to my wounded buddies across the border. It takes some doing -- and some driving -- to find these places, leading me out to Glendale for Don Marco, and to Mesa for Carbajal's.

Don Marco Mexican Food is no Costa Brava (though, in my 25 years of living in the Valley, I must admit I've only found one place that even comes close -- the amazing Acapulco Bay at 68th Street and Thomas). Still, it's a choice little cafe, open just five months in a run-down strip mall in Glendale, and I find great relief in the kind, personal attention of the owners. Joe Ramirez is host and chef, cooking his traditional family recipes alongside his wife, Lupe, and son Joe Jr. The tiny clutch of less than three dozen seats brings a warm embrace; the place is a sparkling clean white and teal, and lively mariachi music thumps happily in the background while the cooks work busily in a kitchen separated from us by a plastic shower curtain. Nothing costs more than $5.99, and that's for a generous platter of satisfying chicken or steak fajitas, fluffy orange-tinged rice, creamy beans sprinkled with white cheese crumbles, lettuce and sour cream. Most of the dishes fill me up for less than four bucks (a 32-ounce bowl of posole brimming with tooth-tender pork chunks, crisp hominy, white onion, lime, cilantro and cabbage is only $3.95).

Honestly, how does this restaurant make any profit charging just $3.49 for an enormous signature "Don Marcodilla"? The fluffy thick corn tortilla round knocks the edges of its plate, bloated with melted jack cheese, onion and cilantro, folded like a quesadilla and carefully griddled. Ramirez recommends carne asada for my meat filling, but shrugs when I opt for lots of tender green chile pork instead. It'll be messy, he says, smiling, but I can have my dinner any way I want.

It can't be smart economics, either, to send out two tamales when I order just one, yet Ramirez clucks that today's batch of red chile beef bundles turned out a little small (they look full-size to me, but I'm not dumb enough to argue). I partner mine with a chimi -- not Costa Brava's delicate gems, but a hefty model that's satisfying in its own right, rolled with anything from chicken to beef tongue, cheese, rice and beans.

Don Marco's carne asada deserves a starring role on any plate, paired simply with rice and beans and flour or corn tortillas. Ramirez isn't sharing what those secret spices are in his beef, but it's a recipe I'd be willing to research. The meat is marvelous, grilled just a bit chewy, as it should be, tasting lightly of smoke, and peppery hot.

Other specialties remind me of past, happy meals in my Rocky Point beachfront town -- like the quesadilla, tangy with Mexican cheese (no gringo Cheddar here), and chunks of dark-meat chicken. The thigh meat -- uncommon in U.S. restaurants these days, though typically tastier and juicier than breast meat -- shows up again in a fajita torta. The Mexican sandwich is so big I have to eat it with a knife and fork, cutting cross-sections of dense bun-like bread, avocado, onion, grilled green pepper strips, lettuce, tomato, beans and mayonnaise. A huarache is even more interesting, the fat oval of masa resembling somewhat its namesake (a sandal) capped with mayonnaise, beans, carne, lettuce, tomato and sour cream.

When I'd called my mother to tell her about Costa Brava's demise, she'd wailed: "What about the chips?" They, too, are gone, reduced to dust; such an injustice for the addictive dish of warm corn chips doused with a thick, creamy vegetable sauce and crumbles of salty white cheese. In its one failing, Don Marco doesn't do justice to the appetizer. My baskets of bland corn chips taste bagged, and the pico de gallo is too watery and under-spiced.

It takes the chips and dip at Carbajal's Mexican Food to cheer me up. They're spectacular, crispy light, warm, and sprinkled with lots of salt (salt is my vice; bring it on, I say), and the chunky salsa purée is flamed with chiles. Every visit, I eat two entire baskets all by myself.

Carbajal's has been on the far east edge of Mesa for almost 10 years, and has nothing to do with the famous local boxer of the same name (I know, I thought the same thing). This is the creation of Marina Carbajal, a native of Las Cruces, New Mexico, who brought her family recipes to Arizona and now runs the shop with her nephew waiting tables.

Mesa was a ghost town when she first set up business in the sprawling, mostly empty shopping center she occupies, Carbajal tells me. But she'd been looking for a place to eat her favorite homemade foods, and couldn't find any. The risk has paid off -- business booms at the petite, five red-tile topped table/five booth cafe -- and check out Carbajal's flashy black Corvette parked conspicuously in the loading zone out front.

The food here almost takes my mind off my Costa Brava loss. The cute little bottles of Coronitas help, with five of the seven-ounce beers for a package price of $8. And the service keeps the nostalgia flowing, with its completely careless, impossibly cheerful approach. It's loud, with thumping Selena-style music, animated conversation at the bar, and guests lit up on periodic complimentary shots of "Hot Sex" liqueur.

Carbajal's loses some hole-in-the-wall points for its pricing, a little more serious of an investment at $7.75 to $9.50 for combination plates. Yet these are awfully, awfully good standard Sonoran favorites -- tostadas, tacos (incredible beauties, with juicy rich shredded beef layered in lacy thin shells), enchiladas and burros. Green chile beef is superb, cloaked in oceans of thick grayish gravy, just the way I like it. Red chile beef is spicy enough to keep me happy without scaring off my more timid dining companion. And I actually take my leftover scrapings of enchilada sauce home, to savor the robust blend with more chips.

Costa Brava had sublime machaca. The shredded beef was blended with vibrant spices, tossed with scrambled egg, onion and tomato, then wrapped in tears of warm flour tortillas. Carbajal's nails the delicious dish head-on. I slather tortillas with soupy-soft refried beans draped in lots of yellow and white cheese, tumble in some tomato-spiked rice, and feast.

And what better way to soothe a sad soul than soup? Carbajal's versions work magic, be it topnotch menudo, bobbing with soft tripe and al dente hominy mixed with chopped red onion, minced cilantro or lemon, or exquisite albóndigas, a kiddy-pool-size portion of rich tomato broth, rice, carrot, potato, white onion, squash and highly herbed meatballs.

Nothing on the menus at Don Marco or Carbajal's is anything cutting edge. They're all just everyday Sonoran staples, crafted with the quality and love only a family kitchen can bring. And that's just fine with me. At the moment, I don't need any shocks concerning my Mexican food. I've had more than enough of those lately.