I've long considered Sonoran-style Mexican food as snoozingly dull, a deadly collection of belly-busting burros, tamales, enchiladas, tacos, chimichangas. But visits to several combination-plate parlors have begun to work away at my south-of-the-border cynicism. In fact, El Bravo has almost turned me into a fan. Without question, this is some of the best Mexican food in the Valley.
At first glance, it doesn't hold out much promise. This unprepossessing place sports the familiar laminated-wood, beer-signs-on-the-wall, ethnic-shack look. Piatas hang from the ceiling, and Mexican music blares from the speakers. The "Order Here" window is festively decorated with bad checks and an inexplicable picture of Rose Mofford. The only decor touch worth more than a two-second look is the 3-D poster. After much staring and eye-rubbing, I got the picture: It's a dinosaur.
And after a few bites of El Bravo's fare, I also got the picture. The burros here are magnificent, fresh-tasting, edible works of art that reach the summit of tortilla achievement. The machaca burro, in particular, should have its own gallery. A beautiful tortilla comes tightly wrapped around bits of tender shredded beef, eggs, onions and jalapeos, creating a flavor explosion intense enough to roll the eyes back into your head.
Don't be deterred by the order taker. On two different occasions, he tried to talk me out of ordering it, claiming the burro was too spicy for my delicate gringo sensibilities. It's not.
He used the same line, too, when I went for the model stuffed with chorizo, egg and potatoes. Again, connoisseurs shouldn't be swayed. This burro beauty is also a joy forever, enhanced with a pinch of unexpected cinnamon. Once the burros raised my expectations, I suspected I was setting myself up for future disappointment. No way, I figured, could the rest of the menu be as good. Way. This place sends out one winner after the other. Take the chicken-and-sour-cream enchilada. This handsome creature doesn't look or taste anything at all like the flabby, gloopy-gloppy messes most joints dish out. The chicken here seems like it was just cooked up--no dried-out edges and no dried-out taste. Jalapeo and green onion add to the enchilada's charms.
The chimichanga is the most massive item here, and, at $5, it's also the most expensive la carte choice. It's glorious, a freshly fried burro enfolding beef or chicken, brightly covered with guacamole, sour cream, tomatoes and cilantro. Even better, I thought, is the hefty red beef popover. It's kind of like a Navajo taco, slathered with lots of tender beef and a zippy red chile sauce that will leave a pleasant tingle on your tongue. The regular tacos are no slouches, either. The pork taco goes light on the lettuce and heavy on the easy-to-chew meat, freshened with cheese and tomatoes. Tamales are also first-rate, pleasingly moist with a just-made-up flavor. The ones fashioned from green corn reach high levels of achievement. Chicken flautas, drizzled with a subtle green sauce, combine taste and a right-out-of-the-fryer crunch. And, like just about everything else, the rice and beans maintain the high level of quality. The only mediocre dish I sampled was the chile relleno. It's not bad, but unlike the burros and red beef popover, this eggy, cheese-draped green chile is instantly forgettable. To my astonishment, this place even serves some tempting sweets. The chocolate chimi could be called a Mexican s'more: fried dough stuffed with heavy chocolate and marshmallow cream. The honey-drenched sopaipillas will also send you home with a smile. It's clear that El Bravo goes way beyond the routine Mexican-food motions. I'm ready to go back.
Blue Burrito Grille, 3118 East Camelback, Phoenix, 955-9596. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m to 11 p.m., seven days a week.
Blue Burrito Grille perfectly executes what seems to be a highly profitable concept: luring in the tony Camelback Corridor crowd to eat taco-stand grub. What's the secret? First, the looks. There's nothing Third World about the decor. The place is divided into two areas. The "Order Here" line is in the bar section, where you can sit on tall bar chairs and nurse a high-powered, high-value, $2.95 frozen margarita while you wait for your order to be filled. Then carry your food into the dining room. It's neat and spiffy, with pretty tile tables and comfy, padded Mexican chairs. Pink walls are lined with gallery-type, Mexican-themed art, all eye-catchingly lighted with recessed neon-blue lighting. And put out your cigarette--the proprietors know their clientele wants its Mexican food in a smoke-free environment. Second, the prices. Almost everything is in the $3-to-$4 range. If you come here with a ten-spot and don't drink, you'll leave with a full belly and change. Third, the health-conscious menu. To attract neighborhood fitness worshipers, the savvy operators have put little hearts next to many of the dishes, which indicate that less than 30 percent of the plate's calories come from fat. And the place prominently trumpets that the kitchen cooks with canola oil, and bans lard and MSG. Finally, the food. You get ample portions of tasty, fresh-tasting fare that doesn't sink to your stomach like an anvil. Anything made with the fragrant blue corn tortillas is right on target. The blue corn chicken enchiladas come stuffed with lots of chicken, and earn their heart logo by taking it very easy on the cheese. On the heartless side of the menu, the blue corn flautas feature three crunchy specimens decorated with sour cream, guacamole and cheese. The grilled soft blue corn taco filled with marinated skirt steak is a good way to get a dose of tender animal protein for only two bucks. The machaca burro isn't in El Bravo's class, but it's genuinely satisfying. There's not a bit of fat on the shredded beef, but the flavorful marinade keeps it plenty juicy. And this hefty model should take care of most normal appetites. The hard-shell, ground-beef taco, seasoned with cumin, also gets high flavor marks. And don't pass on the rich, homemade, no-lard beans, good enough to fool a Mexican villager. Some of the items, though, aren't quite so distinguished. Lightly fried chimichangas are routine, and the overpriced fish taco needs some perking up. The green corn tamales come bathed in a spunky salsa verde, but it couldn't rescue dry tamales that tasted as if they had been sitting around since the NAFTA vote. Blue Burrito Grille is a fun, nonthreatening spot for gringos to eat uncomplicated Mexican food without emptying their wallets or compromising too many nutritional convictions. At 32nd Street and Camelback, those are the ingredients for success.
La Cucaracha, 998 East Indian School, Phoenix, 274-8312. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10:30 p.m.
From the outside, La Cucaracha doesn't look very warm and inviting. It's a hulking mass of windowless concrete that could have been designed by the same firm that built the German fortifications in Normandy. Open the doors, though, and you'll see an airy, coffee-shop-type room of brick, wood and black vinyl booths that's much spiffier than the restaurant's name--"cockroach" in English--would suggest. There's no confusing La Cucaracha with the Blue Burrito Grille. You won't see any signs announcing "No lard" or "No smoking" here.
And while you won't confuse the quality of Sonoran specialties here with what you get at El Bravo, La Cucaracha does dish out cheap and dependably filling fare. On both my visits, chips were hot and crunchy, a good sign. But don't bother blowing your money on them in green nachos form. You'll be paying $4.45 for some melted cheese and a few desultory strips of green chile. Spend your pesos instead on the lovely green corn tamale, fresh and moist, flecked with pieces of corn and slathered in a zippy green chile sauce. This is a solid dish. Or squelch your appetite with the just-right, three-way burrito, a hefty tortilla package filled with tender beef and beans and green and red chile sauces. Hungry gringos will find the steak picado combo platter reliable. At $7.95, it's the most expensive item here, and it features lots of beef, rice and cheese-drenched beans that won't be carrying a healthy-heart logo anytime soon.
The green chile enchilada looks like every other enchilada in town, covered with cheese and a bucketful of mild green chile sauce. But the model here at least had freshness going for it. Not so the chicken taco. The chicken chunks taste like they've been on the shelf for a while, dried out and chewy around the edges. Compared to sizzling, hot-off-the-griddle tacos you get at taquerias like Guedo's and Rosa's--well, there's no comparison. The chile relleno is nothing to get excited about, either, so undistinguished I had a hard time remembering what it was even while I was eating it.
La Cucaracha is no Mexican dining adventure. But when you're in the mood for just the low-cost basics, that's probably recommendation enough.