Chimi Challenge: Macayo's vs. El Molino

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Everybody tells the same story about how the chimichanga was invented: somebody accidentally dropped a meat-filled burrito into a fryer. And according to the publicity machine for Macayo's Mexican Kitchen, that somebody was its founder Woody Johnson, who opened his first restaurant here in Phoenix in 1946 and made serendipitous chimi magic . . . when? No one gives a date. Wouldn't someone remember?

See also: --Chimichangas as Arizona's State Food? Five Foods to Put Up Against the Chimi -- Macayo's and Others Make Deep-Fried Push for Chimichanga as State Food I don't buy that story for a minute -- not from Macayo's or any other Mexican restaurant in Arizona (El Charro in Tucson also lays claim to the chimi's invention). And I'll tell you why.

Diana Kennedy -- the "Julia Child of Mexican Cuisine" who spent 45 years traveling through Mexico researching history, ingredients and technique -- the due-diligent person who spoke to grandmas all over the country and recorded their recipes, mentions "chivichangas" in one (if not more) of her nine cookbooks. So chimis aren't quite as gringo as people think.

What's so incredibly novel about deep-frying a burrito anyway? You think it took hundreds of years and a cook in the US to figure that out? The chimi was probably born in the cattle country of Sonora, where beef and flour tortillas are staples -- just as beef and white bread rule in the American Midwest.

But I digress. We are here today to determine who makes the better chimichanga -- Macayo's or El Molino -- two of the longest operating Mexican restaurants in Phoenix.

In This Corner: Macayo's Mexican Kitchen

The Setup: Woody and Victoria Johnson opened their first Mexican restaurant, Woody's El Nido, on McDowell Road in 1946. Three years later, they opened Little Woody's, and a year after that, the first Macayo's -- the great big one on Central Avenue. Now Woody and Victoria's children -- Sharisse, Gary and Stephen -- run the company, which includes 14 locations in metro Phoenix and three in Las Vegas.

The Good: One of the most important features of a good chimichanga is its crispy exterior. Done right, the flour tortilla becomes flaky and almost pastry-like. Macayo's does a decent job on this score.

The Bad: First of all, how can the Mexican restaurant that says it invented the chimichanga not have a machaca chimichanga on the menu? If you specialize in chimis, if you freaking INVENTED the chimi, then own the chimi. The only choices here are shredded beef, chicken and carnitas. On the other hand, chimis should automatically come with sour cream and guacamole. Those are defining features of the chimichanga and customers shouldn't have to pay extra for them, as they must at Macayo's.

The Questionable: In a perfect world (okay, my perfect world) chimichangas are served without sauce because it's the crispy crunchy outside that makes a chimi a chimi. Macayo's automatically ladles mild, tomato-based relleno sauce over its chimis instead of making sauce optional. Additionally, the tender beef (so soft you don't really need teeth) is tasty enough but too reminiscent of roast beef. Meanwhile, although the guacamole has visible chunks of avocado, it lacks flavor -- as in salt, cilantro, lime or something/anything else.

In the Other Corner: El Molino Mexican Cafe

The Setup: Richie Carbajal now runs the restaurant his grandparents Joe and Rosa founded in an old adobe on Jefferson back in 1937. At the time, the place was as much market as restaurant, selling masa, corn husks and spices to home cooks. Famous for its tamales (and swamped with orders come Christmas), El Molino thrived for 40+ years, and when both the old neighborhood and building started going, Richie opened a second location in Scottsdale. The original closed in the early 90's.

The Good: They're not afraid of the fryer at El Molino, and chimis emerge with a lovely golden-brown crunch. They're served dry unless sauce is requested, topped with generous amounts of good guacamole and sour cream. Although I normally order the machaca chimi at El Molino, I ordered red chile beef so that the comparison would be apples to apples. El Molino's meat is a bit stringier than Macayo's, but it's also a lot more flavorful -- so redolent with chile you'll feel an afterglow for about 10 minutes. As a side note: fluffy rice and creamy refrieds are excellent (way better than those at Macayo's).

The Bad: Nothing bad here, although the chimi's exterior is softened by the enchilada sauce I've requested for the sake of comparison -- and the fact that the chimi is zapped for a second in the microwave (??!!??). Just order it dry and that won't happen.

The Questionable: Don't really get the microwave.

The Verdict: Although Macayo's makes a decent chimichanga, it's too gringo-ized to be memorable. The food is expensive and tastes like the kitchen is going for the lowest common denominator: pantywaist tourists who are scared to death of chiles. El Molino puts heart and soul into their chimis, bringing them back to the Mexican roots they surely have.

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