Eating the World

Hidden Gem: The Tiny Scottsdale Kitchen With a Huge Chicken Special

A whole Cuernavaca chicken chopped into parts, plus sides.
A whole Cuernavaca chicken chopped into parts, plus sides. Chris Malloy
There are a lot of reasons to like Mercado Y Carniceria Cuernavaca, a tiny bodega in south Scottsdale. It's one of the great places to get Mexican food in this part of town. It's family owned, run since last decade by the Santana family from Morelos, Mexico. It has a drive-thru. It has fragrant white corn tortillas and snowy wheels of queso, a fridge stocked with to-go salsas and a long, long glass case stocked with meats.

That case includes meats fatty and muscled, meats like longaniza, pork chops, and cecina.

The market's shelves are lined with chiltepin and black hot sauce, dry beans and Michelada cups ready but for your lips but for the beer.

Above the plastic-sleeved tortillas that keep fresh in a cooler, you will see, in columns and columns of text, a deep menu: tacos, burritos, shrimp sopa, zucchini flower sopes, weekend red menudo and goat birria specials, plus much more.

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Inside the mercado.
Chris Malloy

But nothing distills the charm of this market like its chicken special, offered Friday through Sunday. You smell it before you even reach the plain front door. A gentle husk of mesquite powers through the other cooking smells, and then the cracks in the walls. The smells emanate from a kitchen in one corner, where hunks of meat sizzle on the flattop, stews simmer, and tortillas cradle a host of proteins.

If you decide on tacos for one visit, maybe carnitas or churros, cecina or huitlacoche, they will augur the quality of the chicken special. Especially chicken tinga, stewed from chicken breasts until they collapse, vibrant with flavor and seasoning.

On Fridays and weekends, you’ll be hard-pressed to order anything but the signature whole-chicken special.

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Tacos feature fragrant, griddle-kissed tortillas and a really nice rust-red salsa.
Chris Malloy
It consists of one chicken, mesquite grilled and chopped, plus red rice, an ample side of frijoles charros, more pico de gallo than you probably need, a unique rust-red salsa, and more tortillas than I can remember, at least eight, hot and fragrant in their crinkled foil.

All this costs $11.99. Add a second chicken, and the price rises just $6.

Chicken comes in a Styrofoam clamshell, cuts splayed and stacked. Their color changes from yellow to deeply charred to rich brown, painted by steel, smoke, and seasoning. The musk of mesquite touches the skin on the light side, coming through with a soft acridity; enough for you to know it’s mesquite, but not in the form of the haymaker that mesquite can be.

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Putting big chain drive-thrus to shame.
Chris Malloy
The chicken is tender, juicy, and you should tear it from the bones. Forks are of no use here.

Let’s talk about that fiery orange-red salsa. Buy a large container to go, and the cashier might try to scare you off, warning of heat.

In a metro area awash in salsa, this one is memorable for a few reasons. Heat is just one. The salsa has a lush creaminess, one that seems to temper the chile de arbol burn. It smolders low in the back of the throat, a healthy medium searing.

But this salsa is just so, so creamy. It's also filled with seeds, dozens of them, and they almost seem to thicken the salsa in their own way. This salsa is made for the richness of chicken skin.

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Zucchini and zucchini flower sope, snowed with cheese.
Chris Malloy
Chile laces the bean soup side in a similarly adroit way. Darkly orange oil slicks the surface, more puddle than mere skim. Slivered green jalapeños, odd tomato, and hot dog slices float between many plump beans. A great dried chile bobs to the surface, its flesh tearing with well roasted, heavily fruity notes, one of the fruitiest spicy peppers you’ll ever enjoy. There’s the soft spell of meat, imparted to the soup by the franks and pork ribbons. The broth also has a soothing, vinegary tang.

Just as this bodega is no mere bodega, this side is no mere side. As you happily eat, you may even dig it as much as the chicken.

Mercado Y Carniceria Cuernavaca.
2931 North 68th Street, Scottsdale; 480-423-5552.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy