“What’s your favorite Sonoran-style Mexican restaurant?” is a question I get asked sometimes when people find out that I spend most of my free time (and gas money) driving around metro Phoenix in pursuit of things like terrific carne asada and the finest machaca con huevo breakfast platters north of Casa Grande.
In classic deer-meets-headlights fashion, my brain cells clam up, freezing under the weight of that impossible question.
There are so many distinguished spots around metro Phoenix hewing to the long, rich Arizona-Sonoran Mexican food tradition, it’s hard to only name one.
Sonora, our sister state to the south, a place we are connected to both geographically and culturally, is a vast place. When we talk about Sonoran-style food in Phoenix, we usually talk about things like stretchy and ambrosial tortillas de harina; mesquite-grilled carne asada, chopped up and squeezed into infinite configurations of tacos and quesadillas; and modern cross-cultural classics like the bacon-wrapped Sonoran dog.
That’s just scratching the surface, though — Sonora is so much more than cattle country and hot dogs. When we talk about Sonoran food, we must also talk about cahuamanta, the ultra-flavorful manta ray and shrimp stew enjoyed around northern Mexico. We must talk about the glory of the region’s mariscos, the sort of beachy dishes you might eat around the port city of Guaymas, or nearby towns like San Carlos. We must talk about spicy seafood cocktails, served in vessels like hollowed-out coconuts and festooned with colorful umbrellas, and heaving, gravity-defying tostadas, piled high with lime-sluiced shrimp and fresh avocado.
We must talk about places like Cahuamanta El Yaqui, located near 35th Avenue and McDowell Road, a restaurant where the menu proudly proclaims its devotion to the “Southern Sonoran” cooking of Ciudad Obregón. The restaurant’s owner, Adan Lopez, hails from a suburb of that big city, which is nestled in the Yaqui River Valley and only about 80 miles from Guaymas. This explains why even the guacamole at Cahuamanta El Yaqui is flecked with shrimp.
Cahuamanta El Yaqui is a hole in the wall, if by hole in the wall, you mean a small, modest-looking restaurant that feels like you’re eating at a Mexican relative’s house. The restaurant is easy to miss, set back from the road, with not much in the way of curb appeal. Nobody seems to come for that, anyway. On weekend afternoons, the nondescript dining room, crammed with tables covered in clear plastic tablecloths, is filled with families and huddles of men watching the latest Mexican liga fútbol match on TV. Every once in a while, a line starts to form out the front door, but there always seems to be a small army of servers standing by, ready to dispatch orders and clear out tickets.
Cahuamanta El Yaqui has been around for about three years, and the feeling you get sitting in the dining room is that the kitchen is as efficient as any well-oiled machine.
If you are inclined to begin meals with some guacamole, you probably shouldn’t skip the one at Cahuamanta. It comes in a long, white plastic dish, shaped appropriately enough like a boat, served with some hot, thick tortilla chips on the side. It’s a very fresh and well-balanced guacamole. There are two basic variations: with shrimp, or with shrimp and octopus (pulpo). Both are pretty great, but there’s something especially pleasing about squeezing your quarter of fresh lime over the cilantro-scented guacamole and spooning up the soft tendrils of pulpo and shrimp.
The menu at Cahuamanta El Yaqui stretches across four laminated pages, but you probably should not overlook the house specialty: cahuamanta stew, which some regulars order to go in oversize Styrofoam cups (you can also get other very good caldos to-go, including a rich, garlicky birria stew).
There are many very good bowls of cahuamanta made in Phoenix, but this might be one of the best. The soft hunks of stingray have a sort of rich, porky quality, and the scarlet-colored broth is neither aggressively fishy or spicy. There is a lovely balance of flavor in every sip — garlic, tomato, and sea salt converging into a comforting sort of Sonoran bouillabaisse. The stew is steamy and fragrant, and even more so if you add a scattering of cilantro and chopped onion.
If you are not a stew person, there are also cahuamanta tacos, bursting with nuggets of stingray and shrimp pleasantly suffused with the salty and mildly spicy broth.
Tacos, not surprisingly, are plentiful, and there does not seem to be a bad one on the menu: the carne asada is smoke-tinged and deeply flavorful; cabeza (cow head meat) is so tender it’s nearly creamy; marlin tacos come generously heaped with thick, dewy slivers of the well-seasoned fish; and chicharrón tacos offer the same sort of chewy, chunky and deeply fatty flavor as Southern pork cracklins.
Perhaps the taco order most likely to give you a quick hit of instant gratification is the plate of tacos gobernadores, folded-over tacos stuffed full of buttery, cooked shrimp and anointed with what seems to be fistfuls of melted Oaxacan cheese. They are wonderful.
There is also a specialty taco, the Macho, an unapologetically norteño kind of taco. It’s built on a small flour tortilla, layered with roasted green chiles and topped with chopped, bubbling bits of carne asada, all of it melded together with Monterey jack cheese. It is classic Arizona-Sonoran fare, and a whole lot of happiness and flavor condensed into a few messy bites.
Seafood tostadas are another specialty at Cahuamanta El Yaqui, made with ingredients like scallops (listed on the menu as a cayo tostada), pulpo, and shrimp. The scallop tostada is furnished with slices of cucumber, thin, oversize rings of red onion, and chopped tomatoes, which have been cooked softly, ceviche-style, with lime. The tostada is a little spicy, but hits all the right notes if you are partial to Mexican-style seafood cocktails.
If you are especially fond of mariscos, though, order a tostada embarazada. It comes piled about six inches high, a hulking, head-turning “pregnant” tostada flush with mayonnaise and lime juice (you can order it without mayonnaise, if you prefer) and stacked with aguachile (mildly spicy, lime-cooked shrimp), twisty scraps of squid, and plenty of chopped pulpo.
Someone will bring along a short stack of plain tostadas to the table, which you can use to scoop off the first few layers of food, and to slowly dismantle the tangy, creamy pyramid of seafood.
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There is no dessert menu at Cahuamanta El Yaqui, but perhaps the ideal foil for a tall plate of citrus-sluiced seafood is the house cebada. The delicious barley drink, served alongside horchata in many Sonoran-style restaurants, has a thick, chocolate-like richness. It’s a sort of a high-fiber milkshake, and works fine as a palate cleanser between courses. It’s hard to stick to just one order at Cahuamanta El Yaqui.
Sonoran cooking is just starting to get the wider audience and attention it deserves — it was only a couple of years ago, for instance, that the first Sonoran-bred taquero participated in LA’s massive Tacolandia festival. But it’s right here in our backyard, at places like Cahuamanta El Yaqui, a restaurant that will hopefully spring to mind the next time someone asks you about great Sonoran-style Mexican food in Phoenix.
Cahuamanta El Yaqui
3549 West McDowell Road
Hours: open daily 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Guacamole de camarón y pulpo $14
Tostada embarazada $15
Macho taco $3.50
Caldo de cahuamanta $10.50