It's great being the first one in your circle to discover something: the horseshoe jewelry fad, chunky-heeled boots, or a new Vietnamese restaurant. Makes you feel like a trendsetter. By the same token, when something becomes so popular that everyone's doing it already, I'm far less compelled to indulge. (Tart yogurt and skinny jeans come to mind.) That's the only excuse I can claim for my previous inexperience with America's Taco Shop, a popular carne asada restaurant that opened late last year in Phoenix's Coronado district. Eventually, I gave in to the hype — and I'm glad I did.
America's is tucked into a cute little converted bungalow in the restaurant row that's emerged on Seventh Street north of McDowell, between Coronado Café and MacAlpine's. It's so small that you'd easily miss it if it weren't for the house's bright red and orange paint job and the large orange sign advertising the "Best Carne Asada in Town." Clearly, Sinaloa-born America Corrales Bortin, who owns the taco shop with her husband, Terry, inherited some of the Mexican color sensibility. Personally, I think Phoenix's sea of beige could take a cue from her.
Inside, the house retains such original features as a small brick fireplace and hardwood floors, but the décor is pure Baja surf shack. We're talking Corona bottle-cap art and wooden seagulls, saved from being overly kitschy by a homey wall display of America and Terry's personal photos. There's plenty of space for the line that inevitably forms for America's order-at-the-counter grub, but tables are in short supply. On our first visit, my dining party was relegated to the outside patio. The small porch and adjacent walled patio are well shaded, but even in the cooler September weather we longed for air-conditioning.
The menu is as small as the dining area: just eight items plus sides, with carne asada as the only meat choice for tacos, burros and quesadillas. No chicken. No carnitas. Not even ground beef. The lack of choices is unusual for a taco eatery, but I can't complain. What America does, she does well.
There's a reason the carne asada here scored our Best of Phoenix nod this year. The lean beef is tender and juicy, with savory flavor in every bite. It's also perfectly spiced, just enough to bring out the natural flavors of the roasted meat without being overly complex. And America is bountiful with her meat. The carne asada burrito was dominated by flayed chunks of marinated steak, with only a little room to spare for the creamy guac, pico de gallo, and caramelized onions. One of my dining companions wisely remarked, "The only thing that could possibly make this better is cheese."
Enter America's quesadilla de carne asada: meat, lettuce, caramelized onions, guac, and melted Monterey Jack in a soft flour tortilla. Clearly, my friend was right, because it was heaven on the tongue. The golden onions were browned just to the point of releasing the natural sugars, and the guac added a subtle grassy flavor. The entire concoction was glued together with a buttery layer of high-quality white cheese, without a drop of the orange grease that mars cheddar versions. The same goes for the popular Vampiro, which was basically the same meat-and-veggie mix served on a grilled tostada. It was delicious.
Jamaica (huh-MY-ih-kuh) agua fresca, made from dried hibiscus flowers, was a refreshing accompaniment to the heady meat dishes. America's version was darker and more intense than the others I've sampled locally, but extremely satisfying. Topped with a splash of tequila it became America's margarita — a smooth, slightly tart cocktail that resembles sangria.
Next, we tried the torta, a Mexican sandwich of lettuce, tomato and roasted meat. The thick white bread was toasted flawlessly, so it remained soft on the inside. Biting through the crisp, flaky bread, my mouth enveloped another heaping pile of carne asada. Add tangy mayo and guac, and you have one stellar sandwich. Sliced jalapeños provided a kick, though even with their addition the sandwich wasn't overly spicy. Of course, you can always up those Scoville units with extra jalapeños or a splash of the hot sauce provided on each table.
For an order-at-the-counter place, America's has excellent service. The staff comes around regularly to deliver food, ask whether you're enjoying it, and bus the tables. When I was fumbling in my purse for an elusive quarter at the register, the cashier grabbed one from the tip bucket to help us out. "Shh, don't tell anyone," she said with a furtive grin. I made sure to throw in an extra dollar on our next visit.
Our luck continued when we scored the last order of ceviche on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Because the freshness of the shrimp is so crucial, and America's doesn't have a walk-in cooler, ceviche is usually only offered on Fridays and Saturdays. "Oh, they have ceviche today!" the lady behind me exclaimed, only to be told they just ran out. We felt her envious stare as we dug into the aromatic bowl of tomatoes, diced cucumber, onions, and cilantro teeming with fresh-from-the-ocean bits of diced shrimp. There wasn't a hint of the fishy aftertaste we've almost come to expect from seafood served in the desert. The onions and tomatoes were a strong base, the shrimp and diced cucumber providing the slightly sweet, less acidic contrast needed to balance out the dish. Definitely delicious enough to entice us back on a Friday.
On the other hand, America's guacamole was unanimously our least favorite item. It was clearly mashed by hand, and the ingredients were very fresh, but the texture didn't take full advantage of the avocado's earthy flavor and natural creaminess. It's as with peanut butter, where some folks prefer creamy over chunky or vice-versa. I'm a "creamy" girl, and America's guac is anything but. Crammed with broad chunks of diced tomato and onion, one small dollop practically weighs a chip down to the breaking point. The chips were better paired with a side of America's lard-free beans, which were as rich and creamy as a thick soup.
The lone dessert, America's homemade flan, was solid if not a standout. There was just a trace of egg flavor (my flan pet peeve) in the first bite, after which the gelatinous dessert dissolved in a velvety heap on the tongue. For a sweet ending I preferred the horchata, which tasted like gourmet rice pudding in a glass, or America's corn. Slathered with cream and rolled in cotija cheese, this is not your typical State Fair corn-on-the-cob. The corn arrived juicy and piping hot. I confess my poor neighbors were squirted a few times as my teeth raked through the savory layer of cotija and cream to the plump, sweet white kernels below. I cleaned the cob so thoroughly that I was obliged to go back and purchase another ear for the road.
In fact, looking around at the crowds that packed both indoor and outdoor seating areas on every one of my visits, I'd be surprised if there was much food left on anyone's plate. It's all good to the last bite.