When people from the northeast think of eating in Phoenix, we fantasize about tiny Mexican places with faded signs, little English, not much light, possible health-code violations, and mind-blowing food. This is the kind of place that, in the minds of outsiders, gives Phoenix rich texture that other cities don't have.
These days, I live in metro Phoenix and have one such gem right by my office. A faded sign announces the restaurant: Asadero Norte De Sonora.
Emerging from street parking off of 16th and Monroe streets, you can smell smoking charcoal. Your midday hunger spikes. The sight of a derelict barbershop only adds flavor to everything.
Asadero Norte De Sonora, owned by the Bravo family, is the kind of place where you get way more food than you order. I order tacos. My waitress brings me chips and a soup.
The chips are the shape and size of Trident gum sticks, maybe bigger. The salsa they come with smolders with the deep-red color of very spicy food, and sure enough the stuff could probably sear the enamel off your teeth. Even for me, a heat fiend, this stuff was hot. But there was tang and fruit flavor to stem the chile de arbol rush. I ate the whole cup of salsa in two minutes.
Bean soup came in a cup not much bigger. Once I washed the lava from my mouth with cold horchata, I could taste the smokiness of the charro beans and the soothing goodness of the soup's clear broth. The Bravo fam spikes this soup with pico de gallo and bacon.
The tacos I ordered were cabeza, beef head. Cabeza is one of the few meats at Asadero that is boiled rather than grilled. (Lengua is another.)
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These, like the soup, were on the restrained side. This comes as a surprise after inhaling the musky grill smell and walking past cavernous tins of grilled meat, but a nice surprise.
The beef head meat is mild. The gamey funk of kidneys, intestine, and liver is totally absent. It was some of the more mild beef I've had, and by mild I don't mean flavorless. There was a lot of flavor present, but it was a low current of flavor. It was kind of like the difference between a pungent cheese like bleu and a milder cheese like ricotta. Both can be great — great may just mean quietly great.
Kind of like the restaurant. There are many places like Asadero Norte De Sonora in Phoenix, or places that, if you haven't been in them, have the potential to be. Places that don't get a ton of press. Places that might cook food with the same skill and humility. I look forward to seeing their signs on the road, pulling over, ordering that horchata to mellow the burn, and discovering them.
Asadero Norte De Sonora. 122 North 16th Street; 602-253-4010
Thursday to Tuesday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; closed Wednesday