Cafe Reviews

Downtown Phoenix's Taqueria El Chino Offers a Capitol Thrill

During lunchtime recently at Taqueria El Chino near downtown Phoenix, a small group of office workers sporting lanyard badges from the nearby Capitol Mall clustered around the restaurant's small takeout counter, where burritos, tortas, and tacos emerged from the open kitchen with almost conveyor belt-like efficiency. As the lunch hour neared its peak, more workers trickled in, and more pocketbook-size burritos, wrapped neatly in paper sleeves and tinfoil, streamed out. The steady lunch crowd wasn't a happy coincidence for the restaurant, it quickly became clear — these were regulars, back for more of the good stuff.

For first-timers, the appeal of becoming a lunchtime regular at Taqueria El Chino may not be readily apparent. The restaurant's modest dining room, wedged inside the faded stucco building that once was Capitol Sports Lounge on Van Buren, is homey enough, with its bright yellow walls and old-fashioned wooden tables. But the room still bears the dank, windowless mood of what it used to be, a dusty neighborhood tavern, and a lack of good central air conditioning means the room can get stuffy and downright uncomfortable on hot days.

But the less-than-dazzling first impression all but evaporated on a recent visit after I tasted the restaurant's bichi de cahuamanta. Bichi is the naked broth of caldo de cahuamanta, a classic northern Mexico seafood soup typically made with manta ray, shrimp, and veggies. (Side note: The dish traditionally featured sea turtle meat. But, since gaining endangered species protection in the early 1990s, the meat is no longer used in this or other dishes.)

The murky seafood broth, delivered in a Styrofoam cup, was the color of burnt-orange. Thankfully, it tasted a lot better than it looked, rippling with a briny, marvelously complex flavor. The broth, so simple at first sight, spoke of hours of low-temperature, stovetop cooking, its shrimp, skate, carrots, celery, tomatoes, oregano, garlic, and red chiles sweating it out together in an oversize pot.

I enjoyed the cup of bichi (sometimes spelled vichy, the word is apparently derived from the Yaqui word for naked) with a side of cahuamanta tacos, which is pretty much the only way to enjoy bichi. The tacos were stuffed with plump, flavorful shrimp, moist chunks of skate, and slivers of fragrant stewed tomatoes. Savory and herb-scented, these tacos were far and away more flavorful than the scores of lackluster breaded fish concoctions that clog the menus at so many taquerias.

It should be noted that cahuamanta is new to Taqueria El Chino, an outlier on a menu centered around no-frills, red-meat-heavy Sonoran street grub like tacos, tortas, quesadillas, and burritos. While you'll find classic sides like beans and rice, there are no numbered combo platters here. True to the culinary traditions of northern Mexico cuisine, it's really all about the meat at Taqueria El Chino. And there's plenty of it, including beef, pork, turkey ,and chicken breast, slow-cooked and delivered in an assortment of delicious configurations. You can have your meat smothered in a thick salsa verde or a spicy salsa roja; braised in a rich barbacoa sauce; or slow-cooked with minimum seasoning and served au jus. Or you can have it cradled inside a taco, wrapped inside a chewy flour tortilla, heaped onto an oversized telera roll, or folded into a quesadilla bubbling with melted Chihuahua cheese.

The kitchen slow cooks meats for a minimum of 12 hours, I'm told by Rafael Ung, Taqueria El Chino's owner and gregarious host, and the proof is in every bite. Take the restaurant's cachete and cabeza tacos. The natural fattiness of the head meat, coupled with skillful, slow-cooked preparation, delivered tender, moist bites of flavorful shredded beef. Trickles of juice puddled onto our paper boat trays, and we marveled at how the corn tortillas never split or tore.

Tacos, like most everything else at Taqueria El Chino, are delivered unadorned — just tortilla (corn or flour, your choice) and meat. You can dress them up at the salsa bar, which is stocked with the usual suspects (shredded cabbage, chopped onions, cilantro) and four homemade salsas, including a silky, mint green guacamole salsa that adds a cool, creamy tang to spicier meats. There's also a real palate burner, the famous salsa roja (a warning label affixed to the salsa bar cautions: "very, very, very hot").

For burrito orders, the restaurant follows a slightly unusual protocol. Place your order at the counter and watch the chef spread out the massive flour tortilla on a round aluminum tray, ladling and layering your choice of fillings. The burrito is returned, un-rolled, so you can top it with your choice of salsa and condiments. Then return the tray to the chef, who "finishes it off" by rolling and wrapping it in aluminum foil. If this all seems too complicated, take heart: An instructional poster tacked above the salsa bar demonstrates the process.

My favorite burrito was the green chile, which featured cubed beef swimming in a thick, green chile sauce that achieved a nice balance between savory and spicy. At $8.25, the carne asada burrito, described as the house specialty, is the most expensive thing on the menu, and also one of the least exciting options. My tortilla bulged with juicy strips of rib eye (the kitchen is not stingy with the meat) kissed with a pleasing hint of mesquite. But it was a case of too much of a good thing, and I missed the rich, drippy sauciness of the other meats.

Still, plate after plate, it became increasingly clear that nothing is a fluke at Taqueria El Chino. Every bite we consumed was seasoned and simmered and stewed to achieve exacting standards of flavor and texture. Even the chicken breast, notorious for turning dry, was moist, peppery, and juicy inside our quesadilla.

It might seem that service would not be much of a talking point at a mom-and-pop place with simple counter service. But it's impossible not to note how genial and attentive the staff is at Taqueria El Chino. So much so, in fact, it can provoke an amusing ballet of confusion. On one visit, we observed a bewildered-looking diner pondering his half-completed order of tacos. He approached the counter to inquire after his missing tacos. His next two tacos, the kitchen assured, were on their way. If you order more than a couple tacos at a time, it turns out, the kitchen will parcel them out individually to ensure everything is cooked to order and the meat is piping hot. This taco supply chain may befuddle first-time diners, but it does ensure a steady flow of hot-off-the-grill meats.

Taqueria El Chino, which has been open for more than a year in Phoenix, is part of a family-owned taco chain based in Hermosillo, Sonora. Natives of Hermosillo may recognize the El Chino name; Ung's brother, Lamberto, owns and operates eight locations in that city. The restaurant's name is a playful nod to the family's Chinese lineage. Ung's grandfather immigrated from China to Sonora, where he worked on the railroads, and the well-worn nickname has been passed down with each generation.

Also passed down, it's clear, are finely tuned family recipes, making Taqueria El Chino feel as welcoming and homespun as your abuelita's kitchen. That is, if your abuelita had the kitchen space (and the patience) to slow-cook four different types of meats for 12 hours, hand-roll burritos with surgical precision, and deliver off-the-grill tacos at steady intervals. But, hopefully, your abuelita doesn't charge you by the taco.

Taqueria El Chino
1803 West Van Buren
Hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily

Caldo de cahuamanta $4.50
Chile verde beef burrito $6.25
Carne asada burrito $8.25
Cachete taco $2.50

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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.