Cafe Reviews

Los Jarritos: Mexican Food and a Twist of Twilight Zone

If you order the chile relleno at Los Jarritos and an omelet arrives, do not send it back. And, by all means, avoid any temptation to pick up a fork. Simply lift and place the soft yellow mass, topped with splotches of melted cheddar cheese and bright red salsa, onto the accompanying platter-size tortilla, wrap it up burrito-style, and take a generous bite. The reward comes almost immediately: the rich flavor of roasted Hatch chile, along with egg and cheese, and the sting of the tomatoey salsa. It might be the best chile relleno breakfast burrito you've had — or the only one.

From its food to its setting to its hours, almost nothing in this paradoxical world of the restaurant known as Los Jarritos is what it appears to be. And although "Mexican cuisine" may not be the most accurate way to describe its offerings, and the food itself not the best you've ever had, Los Jarritos is tasty and interesting and cheap as hell. Which is why a visit to this charmingly quirky eatery is one you're likely not to forget.

Plus, "by appointment" dining. But we'll get to that later.

Chances are you've driven by the little block building with stenciled lettering on East Van Buren, tucked nearly under the Hohokam Expressway across from an abandoned building between 44th and 48th streets. Years ago, it was part of a motel. Today, there's no one checking in. The pool's been cemented over and the sign re-envisioned as a mural of Mexican life. The barren complex has been painted in sun-drenched pastels of pink, green, and blue and, some days, a man sells hot dogs under a tent in the corner.

"It used to be a hamburger place where Marty Robbins used to hang out with his friends," Los Jarritos owner Rose ("Rosie" to her regulars) Moreno tells me of her family's restaurant. (Moreno is painfully shy, but when speaking on the subject of the Glendale-born country singer, she becomes animated.) "Van Buren [used to be] the only way through town — that's how Marty Robbins got discovered."

In contrast to its stark exterior, the inside of Moreno's small, seven-table restaurant feels like home — an extraordinarily clean and orderly home. There are floral-pattern curtains over the windows, lace tablecloths, and a faux flower on every table. In the background, faint Mexican music can be heard, and Moreno's mother, who does the cooking and is very short, can sometimes be seen through the opening to the kitchen, the top of her head moving fervently about.

On the question of how she would describe the food served at Los Jarritos, the name a reference to the clay mugs her restaurant once used for serving water (the practice stopped years ago after customers started to use them as ashtrays), Moreno says: "Home-cooked." When I offer up that it could also be described as a mix of Sonoran and Americanized Mexican food made in a Mexican kitchen for a primarily Anglo customer base, she laughs and says my definition is "pretty close." To Moreno, who moved to Phoenix from San Antonio when she was a little girl, it is the food she grew up with, made from family recipes and inspired by relatives living in America and Mexico.

Los Jarritos' menu contains all the usual suspects — tacos, burros, tostadas — along with a few signature creations, with each dish using the restaurant's quirky combination of ingredients and cooking styles. And for its mostly Anglo customers who want something to read while waiting for their orders, Moreno has filled the menu's back page with her favorite jokes and positive affirmations, adding that many of her customers hope she'll use the ones they've sent her. Nothing is over $10, and most combinations are served with rice and beans, both of which are unremarkable.

A robust red chile beef with a nice, even heat is best asked for as a tamale or wrapped as a burro in a homemade flour tortilla and with a trace of melted cheddar cheese, while green chile beef is tastiest in a burro served enchilada-style, topped with a lovely smoky, peppery red sauce along with melted cheddar cheese shavings. And for fans of the fried burrito, both are options for regular and mini-size chimichangas (Moreno calls them "egg rolls") as is chicken, whose tender meat includes lip-smacking pieces of crispy skin.

Sporting the most ways to be enjoyed is the marinated, cooked, and shredded beef known as machaca. It is prepared medio, or medium, in its consistency, nicely seasoned, and can be had with bits of onions, potatoes, eggs, or beans in specialty burros; mixed with potatoes and onions for a hash-like Mexican breakfast (an idea from Moreno's cousin in Mexico); or combined with lettuce, tomatoes, and green onions in a fried tortilla shell as the Jarrito Salad. Topped with a dollop of sour cream and bits of cheddar cheese, it is surprisingly good, with the best bits being the pieces of the shell's bottom where the meat has left its mark.

In the "other" category, skip the tilapia fish tacos and opt instead for a luscious and moist green corn tamale or two, in which bright yellow corn kernels pop with flavor. And if your Americanized-Mexican palate can't resist (and, really, who cares?), order up appetizers of plate-size cheese crisps layered in hot, gooey cheddar and topped with everything from roasted green chile strips to red chile beef to tomatoes and green onions on thin, crunchy, and brown-around-the-edges flour tortillas.

The biggest head-scratcher at Los Jarritos may not be what to eat but when. Breakfast, as well as lunch, starts around 11 a.m. and usually ends at 4 p.m., unless it's slow. Then Moreno and her mom close up early. And if you'd like dinner or a Saturday meal, then it's strictly "by appointment."

Highly recommended, a "by appointment" dining experience at Los Jarritos is like an intimate, all-about-you fest where someone else washes the dishes. Moreno tells me she does one or two a week (a doctor in Scottsdale is a regular) and if time and ingredients allow, mamacita can make just about anything requested. But preparations must be made in advance. The highly organized Moreno requires name, phone number, and guest count, and also asks you to call in your order several hours before your visit (when I was 20 minutes late with mine, my phone rang).

On my nighttime appointment, Moreno unlocked the door and my guests and I (the only visitors that evening) were "shown" to a center table where Los Jarritos' standard paper plate of homemade chips and a bowl of salsa awaited. Not long after Moreno served our drinks and set our silverware from a white towel-lined tray with its contents meticulously arranged like a surgeon's instruments (like I said, she's highly organized), the food we'd requested, including my special-order chilaquiles, began to arrive. True to the food of Los Jarritos, a plate-load of tasty fried tortilla pieces met with a coating of hot melted cheddar cheese with bits of green onion and tomatoes.

They were the best chilaquiles nachos I've ever had — and the only ones.