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A Change of Peso

What kind of south-of-the-border traveler are you? Do you get on an airplane and head to a fancy resort? Do you stay where the drinking water is pure, the swimming pool is heated, the flies have been banned, all major credit cards are accepted and the employees speak faultless English?

Or do you scorn the package tour? Before your trip, do you get a vaccination, pesos and Mexican car insurance? Do you like to drive on secondary roads, stopping at off-the-beaten-path towns and villages, soaking up local color and bravely using your high-school Spanish to make conversation? Do you enjoy a little risk and adventure?

Answer the question honestly. Because your Valley Mexican-restaurant happiness may depend on it.


El Nopalito / Tequila's

El Nopalito, 2831 North 24th Street, Phoenix, 522-2043. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Gordita de chicharron $2.50
Huarache $3.00
Sarape $6.99

Tequila's Mexican Restaurant, 4175 North Goldwater, Scottsdale, 425-1200. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Juan tons $6.50
Stacked enchiladas $8.95
Pork picado $10.50
Tequila shrimp $16.95

Two Mexican enterprises have recently opened their doors, each catering to a very well-defined taste, and each doing what it does quite well. At Tequila's, you'll have the full gringo experience--safe, predictable fare, served in a casual, upscale setting. You can take even your most skittish winter visitors from Milwaukee there with perfect confidence.

El Nopalito, however, will probably send them into culture shock. That's because this strip-center storefront is not your typical, pile-of-nachos, combination-plate Mexican restaurant. Instead, this place features an array of unusual dishes, served to home-country diners in a very Basic Ethnic Restaurant setting. If your Midwestern relatives are comfortable eating Mexican food only while looking at other gringo faces, they'd better bring along mirrors when they come here.

El Nopalito's proprietors haven't wasted much precious capital furnishing the room. The tables are covered with green oilcloth, protected by glass. The television is tuned to the Spanish-language station. A serape, sombrero and Mexican peasant dress are tacked to one wall. The opposite wall is lined with jazz posters, left over from the days when Centro Cafe & Bakery occupied this location. Beverage machines dispensing horchata and tamarindo sit on the counter, next to a sign advising customers that they must pay for their meals in cash.

Most of the resources and energy seem to have gone into the kitchen. El Nopalito serves food that doesn't look anything like the familiar Sonoran Mexican fare we get in this town. Many of these dishes, like the owners themselves, hail from central Mexico. Most of them are delicious. And none of them will throw your budget out of whack.

There are really only two menu items that are "starters" in the traditional sense. Chicken soup is one, a rich broth stocked with lots of shredded, white-meat chicken. The addition of a few veggies, a dash of chipotle and a squeeze of lime would have boosted it even further. The disappointing Mexican-style shrimp cocktail comes in a wonderful tomato sauce, thick and just a bit sweet, seasoned with onion and cilantro, and fleshed out with chunks of avocado. But the shrimp themselves are too small, and too few. At $8.99, it's the most expensive dish on the menu, and probably the only one here that simply isn't worth the cost.

To find what El Nopalito does best, head to the menu section entitled "Antojitos Mexicanos." In Spanish, they're "little whims," snacklike foods that conclusively prove that all Mexican recipes don't call for a bucket of cheese or sauce.

The gordita de chicharron isn't for wimps. It's a plump masa patty, split and stuffed with fried pork, then crisply fried and garnished with onions and cilantro. The combination of taste and texture is irresistible. This is the kind of dish that makes me wish I lived in a world without annual checkups.

So does the sarape. It's a big corn tortilla, robustly topped with a mound of beef, smoky ham, salty chorizo, onions, peppers and cheese. If your taste buds have been sleeping, the sarape will wake them up.

Huarache is a Mexico City favorite, an oval masa cake colorfully spread with two salsas: On one half there's a zingy red chile sauce, on the other a sprightly green one. It's all yummily topped with crumbled Mexican white cheese and onions.

Alambre con queso is another offbeat treat. An oversize soft corn tortilla is covered with lots of tender grilled, charred beef, onions, peppers and cheese. Though the alambre con queso is a tad greasy, you won't care once you start eating your way through it. The lipsmacking sopes also merit consideration. They're small, somewhat fat tortillas, crisped up on the griddle and lined with either chicken or shredded beef, then gilded with lettuce, onions and cheese. It's what pizza might have been like had it been invented by Mexicans.

The other parts of the menu are just about as fetching. Chilaquiles, sort of a tortilla casserole, is a homey, south-of-the-border dish that doesn't show up on enough Valley restaurant menus. The version here features just-right, slightly chewy tortilla pieces in a mild sauce, heartily topped with scrambled eggs and cheese. Enchiladas Suizas, meanwhile, certainly isn't your typical what's-in-this enchilada platter. Rolled corn tortillas are stuffed with generous amounts of white-meat chicken and coated with a bubbly layer of melted Chihuahua cheese.

The more familiar dishes exhibit high quality. Adobada, chile-marinated barbecued pork, is wonderfully fragrant and flavorful. Try it in either taco or burrito form. Carnitas, luscious crispy shredded pork, will give you an animal-protein high. Even the chile relleno is distinctive. El Nopalito employs a sharp poblano chile, not the milder Anaheim variety most places use.

Sandwiches also receive care. Pambozo is grilled bread crammed with chiles, cheese, onions, potatoes and sour cream. The torta Cubana layers breaded, fried beef, pounded millimeter-thin, a slice of ham, cheese, tomato, avocado and onion. I'm especially partial to the torta filled with zesty chorizo and eggs.

Seafood isn't in the same class as the rest of the fare. Camarones a la Diabla bring 10 devilishly spicy shrimp, while camarones empanizados bring the same number of freshly battered crustaceans. Both platters are okay, but that's about as much enthusiasm as I can muster.

There's no reason to linger for dessert. Flan is innocuous; the chocolate cake tastes old and dried out; and my server sniffed one day's rice pudding, and advised me to take a pass.

El Nopalito delivers an authentic taste of Mexico, without making you go through customs. All you need to enjoy it is about 10 bucks and an open mind.

If you're the type who doesn't want to get any closer to Mexico than Old Town San Diego, you'll find Tequila's very reassuring. Everyone speaks English. Your fellow diners hail from Scottsdale. The room is sleek and shiny, decorated with Diego Rivera posters and recessed glass display cases highlighting a miniature adobe village. A young, good-looking crowd hangs around the bar. And, best of all, you'll be relieved to discover that the nonthreatening menu contains no surprises.

Well, perhaps there is one surprise: The gringo offerings are unexpectedly tasty. This kitchen may not have much of an imagination, but occasionally it flashes real cooking skills.

Don't look for those skills in the lackluster chips and forgettable salsas, which have no spunk. But you will find talent on display in several starters. Take, for instance, the "Juan Tons," crispy, deep-fried munchies filled with spinach and cream cheese, served with a smashing, sweet-tart chipotle dipping sauce accented with orange and honey. An ancient Aztec recipe? Hardly. But I bet Cortez and his men would have liked it.

I bet they also would have enjoyed the scrumptious shrimp and crab quesadilla, generously stuffed with seafood and cheese. It's almost 10 bucks, but as I wolfed it down, I couldn't work up much indignation over the cost. Albondigas soup is another starter option that presses the right buttons. A few meatballs and assorted veggies come swimming in a bowl so big you may wonder why Tequila's doesn't issue you a bathing suit. While the soup doesn't have much ethnic flair, it has real charm on a cool winter evening.

If you prefer your starter in pure liquid form, don't pass up the frozen Ultimate Margarita. Fashioned from Cuervo 1800 and Cointreau, it's a sure-fire way to enhance your mood.

Several main dishes make a nice impression, as well. Maybe my expectations were pitched too low, but the pork picado is way better than I dared hope. Tender chunks of pork are sauteed with tomatoes, onion, garlic and just enough jalapeno to get your out-of-town visitors' attention. Like most of the entrees here, the platter comes with salty rice and outstanding refried beans. (If you prefer, you can get first-rate pinto or black beans instead.) I also had a good time with the pollo Azteca, grilled chicken breast teamed with sauteed onions and peppers, topped with Jack cheese and a mild ranchero sauce. The $9.95 tag is another plus. And I had no complaints about the stacked enchiladas: vigorously seasoned ground beef spread between three corn tortilla layers, all buried under an avalanche of cheese and sour cream, then moistened by a multidimensional red sauce.

There's nothing special, however, about the machaca chimichanga. Yes, it's hot and crisp, but I couldn't remember anything else about it five minutes later. That's how I felt about the green corn tamale, chicken enchilada and chile relleno, too.

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Two dishes have promising concepts, but don't follow through on the execution. Tequila shrimp features five large, meaty critters, butterflied and lined with a cheesy, citrusy, tequila-tinged filling. Unfortunately, everything gets thickly battered and fried, and the flavors are lost. I say forget the batter, glaze the shrimp with tequila and set it all under the broiler.

The kitchen also isn't getting all it can out of the fajitas. Everyone loves hearing the hissing sound the sizzling ingredients make on a cast-iron skillet. Tequila's, though, dispenses with the sizzle, putting everything on a big plate. If you're going gringo, go gringo all the way.

Go elsewhere for dessert. The sopaipilla tastes like a biscuit, and the likes of fried ice cream and flan aren't going to interest even provincial Midwestern silo dwellers.

Tequila's doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: a Mexican restaurant for Scottsdalians and tourists who won't venture south of Thomas, let alone south of the border. For those folks, it's right on target.

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