Armando Hernandez of Tacos Chiwas on Making Good Tacos, Not Just Cheap Ones

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The 2016 edition of New Times' Best of Phoenix is out now, featuring a series of "as told to" profiles that explore how our city's proximity to Mexico makes it better.

I’ve always worked in restaurants. I mean, it’s a family business. My uncles have always had restaurants in Chihuahua, where I’m from. So even when I was in school, I worked in restaurants here in Phoenix. When I was 16, I worked at Applebee’s. The Pointe South Mountain. Most recently, I was chefing for Chris Bianco. The restaurant always calls my name.

So I met my wife, and we had the idea of opening our own restaurant. We wanted to do something based on what we’re used to eating, more of a Chihuahua-style cuisine. Here in Phoenix, that doesn’t really exist, and I’ve been here 22 years — I’ve looked for it. It’s always Sonoran or different styles than we’re used to. 

We’re a family-owned restaurant. I work the front of the house, my wife works the back. We’re cooking with recipes that have been passed down through generations. It’s food we eat at home, like deshebrada roja, which is shredded beef with red sauce. And chile con gardo, which is the type of chile we use for our red burritos. Picadillo is such a simple dish — ground beef, carrots, potatoes. We grew up eating it; it’s a cheap alternative to a great meat source and it’s really good. Cheese is important. In Chihuahua, there is a lot of Mennonite culture, and they make cheese.

Handmade tortillas are very important to me. It’s the basis of everything in our restaurant, and we make them as you order them, which makes a huge difference. In Arizona, most people make them with corn. We always use flour. That comes from watching our grandparents making tortillas. My grandma was always making them in the morning, and it’s a smell I still remember.

There’s a trend in tacos now. People love them, because they’re a simple dish, and they’re delicious. But there’s not a lot of focus on making good tacos, instead of cheap ones. That’s a big divide. If you make a carne asada taco with the right meat, cooked at the right temp, people are like, “Wow! Tacos can be something better.”

I never think of our tacos as gourmet. It’s the opposite. We take them back to the basics. We don’t do anything fancy. We make street tacos. Cilantro and onions. But the quality is in the marinade, the tortilla. It’s taking a simple food and perfecting it, as opposed to reinventing it. If a food is already good, all you have to do is make it really well and care about what you’re serving, and that’s the best way to go. Sometimes food just needs to be left alone to be a good version of what it already is. — As told to Robrt Pela

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