El Norteño is the kind of place that serves burros and chimichangas that test the capacity of your stomach. Styrofoam plates and containers come with larger-than-life versions of whatever you’ve ordered, and, yes, the outsize gorditas are also heaped with guacamole and sour cream and rained with cheese. Lunch becomes an event, a test, a trial.
I’m almost always up for this kind of challenge.
The ramshackle restaurant stands on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Roosevelt Street, a few blocks from Margaret T. Hance Park. Dilapidation is the place’s aesthetic. The nook where you order is about the size of a matchbox. An outsize menu features all the Mexican-American yellow cheese classics, and doesn’t crack $10 for a single item (although a curious-looking Mexican pizza gets close). The service is quick and kind. You anxiously await your food in a caged table area out back, or by the restaurant’s window to the outdoor pavement. (There is no inside seating. The bathroom situation is dodgy.)
Soon, your number is called. Soon, you lay your eyes on your red plastic tray(s).
The food, in addition to being plentiful, fills the same niche as dozens of other metro Phoenix places. It’s the kind of place where you almost know the menu before seeing it. You know the core, the burros and the chiles, the agua frescas and the horchata, the churros and the flan. But on the edges there may be an unknown or two, pleasant surprises that separate this spot from others.
I was happy to find Sonoran-style enchiladas on the menu. I was even happier to find them on my tray.
Sonoran enchiladas aren’t the filled tubes of most enchiladas. Sonoran enchiladas are flat. They look like medium-sized pancakes in a stack of two with chicken or beef inside, the discs smothered with a red sea of enchilada sauce. The sauce has a dark chile spirit and full-throated, mounting heat that stalks closer and closer as you eat. The cornmeal discs have rusticity and a granular grit that feels spartan, rough, a much better match for the harshness of the desert than conventional enchiladas, all smooth tortillas and silken sauce, sour cream and lush guacamole.
Chimichangas bring that smoothness. A monster dollop of sour cream that looks like a half-melted scoop of vanilla gelato gives the burrito added height. Together with sides of refried beans and rice, this is a fried burro prime for boxing the saucy remnants and topping them the next morning with yolky eggs.
Tacos are interesting at El Norteño. Hard, crisp-fried shells have a pleasant thinness and welcome crunch. But the chicken lacked the personality you expect. Don't worry. Hot sauce saves the day.
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Gorditas provide an unlikely highlight at El Norteño. I added them at the end as an afterthought, a side to enjoy with the other three dishes. (I had two friends with me.) Gorditas occupy marginal real estate on the menu. You wouldn’t really think to order them after eyeballing the laundry list of burro permutations, because how could gorditas be as good if relegated to only three kinds? But they were good. For $4.50, you get two. Each is a crunchy puck of maseca filled with red chile, green chile, or ground beef. The red chile packs deep pepper flavor. All the good stuff on top cools the heat. There is the same rugged vibe of the Sonoran enchiladas.
The Gamez family owns El Norteño, and has since 1981. Guacamole is made every morning. The hot sauce recipe is so secret that some kitchen employees don’t know the ingredients. If you’re ever downtown, hungry, and looking for strong Mexican that will obliterate your hunger for at least six hours, consider this staple and the humble gordita.
El Norteño. 1002 Seventh Avenue; 602-254-4629.
Monday to Saturday 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.