The molcajete, the Mexican version of the mortar and pestle, isn't particularly rare. For thousands of years, the three-legged round bowl, made from a single piece of rough, gray volcanic rock, has been used for making guacamole and salsas and for grinding spices.
But at La Barquita, a Mexican restaurant in Central Phoenix, the molcajete is as much a cooking device as it is a serving vessel for its signature dish, Molcajete a la Mexicana. In this unique creation, large slices of lightly seasoned carne asada, chunks of tender chicken breast, tangy housemade chorizo, grilled cactus and onions, and chunks of ranchero cheese are piled high in the age-old tool — steaming and soaking in an aromatic and smoky sauce of grilled tomatoes, toasted Serrano chiles, spices, and garlic.
Topped with a tiny Mexican flag, the bold-flavored and colorful concoction (also available in shrimp and seafood versions) is like a Mexican stew on steroids. The must-order dish is one that demands to be manhandled, torn into with the appetite of a bear, and devoured as if it were one's last meal before heading into battle.
"The idea came from my aunt, who was a wonderful cook," says La Barquita owner Jose Garcia. "In the beginning, I wanted to use authentic molcajetes, but the health department wouldn't allow it. Lots of people have their own ideas on how to eat it — with a fork, with their hands, inside tortillas. The important part is that they feel as if they are at home."
Home, as well as family, is important to Garcia. Originally from La Barca, in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, Garcia moved to Los Angeles in 1984 with a few of his uncles, who started several restaurants in the area. It was in these eateries that Garcia prepared dishes using family recipes and developed an understanding of the restaurant industry. One hell-hot summer visit to the Valley led Garcia to vow he'd never return. But Phoenicians eating in his family's L.A. restaurants begged for one back home, and Garcia eventually obliged in 2005.
He found a small building for sale on East McDowell Road and called it La Barquita ("the little boat") a term of endearment for his hometown.
In the seven years it's been open, La Barquita has developed a reputation as a neighborhood hangout. Its mostly Mexican clientele appreciates the affordable, authentic food of southern Mexico — more richly seasoned than flat-out spicy — plus a few good ol' American classics.
There are working men lunching on cocido de res, a colorful, meal-in-a-bowl soup swimming with chunks of carrots, potatoes, beef shank, and half an ear of corn; little ones happily munching away on cheeseburgers and fries; and families who pack the place on the weekends for breakfast. Some enjoy zesty chilaquiles made with triangles of homemade fried corn tortillas topped with a tangy tomatillo sauce and sprinkled with ranchero cheese, while others dive into the "Big Combo," a classic American breakfast of eggs, ham, and Garcia's popular pancakes.
For first-timers, navigating La Barquita's vast menu (all six pages of it) may seem daunting — and it is. But that's where Garcia's helpful servers come in. Simply ask one of them for a few favorite dishes, and she'll point you in the right direction. And tacos? "Sure," a server told me on one of my visits, "we have tacos. And they are good. But they are just tacos."
I got what she was saying: Why get a taco, as you can at any of the countless Mexican places along McDowell, when you can fall in love with the food Garcia is so fond of, the standout dishes made from family recipes passed down for generations?
There is, of course, the mighty Molcajete a la Mexicana, but there's more. A hearty plato de carnitas features a half-pound of pork chunks slow-cooked until they are wonderfully tender, then broiled for crispiness. And the very good chiles rellenos are stuffed with queso fresco and topped with a rich and mildly spicy tomato sauce spiced up with onions, garlic, and pasilla chiles.
Then there's the deliciously complex mole. Garcia uses his aunt's labor-intensive recipe, featuring more than 20 ingredients along with a few modifications of his own, like cilantro, honey, chicken stock, and pasilla negro chiles. The result is a rich, dark, and luscious sauce blanketing pieces of tender chicken and worth sopping up with tortillas until the last drops have vanished.
The stellar bírria, a savory goat stew originating from Jalisco, also sets La Barquita apart from the many nearby Mexican places. And it's the dish that hits closest to home for Garcia.
As a boy in La Barca, Garcia remembers helping his grandfather, who had a bírria stand at a local market, make the dish from start to finish. He learned which goats to buy, how to slaughter them, and how to roast the meat in the family's mud-brick oven. At La Barquita, Garcia still makes his bírria from his grandfather's recipe (save for the original oven) combining pieces of the chopped roasted meat, some still attached to rib bones and joints, with a tomato-chile sauce loaded with herbs. You can eat it with a fork, but the tender chunks of goat are even better in corn tortillas. Squeeze some fresh lime on your goat meat taco before dipping each bite into the mildly spicy and aromatic broth to experience one of La Barquita's best dishes.
Garcia even manages to elevate the staples of Mexican cuisine. His homemade tortillas are wonderfully light and soft. His beans are mashed by hand after being boiled and fried with spices and California chiles. The result is a lovely creamy texture so different from the usual side of bland frijoles found seemingly everywhere else. And his addictive salsa is smoky and slightly sweet, thanks to grilled tomatillos. It took all I had not to fill up on the pre-meal chips and salsa.
And for other standards on the menu, like the burrito, Garcia has had to interpret them using his own style.
"I've never visited Sonora or Chihuahua, and I never had a burrito until I came to America," Garcia says. "The closest thing was what my mom would make when we were kids. She'd take tortillas, fill them, and squish them while stretching their ends to look like donkey ears."
The bars on the windows and row of empty flowerpots outside may make one think the small building called La Barquita is cold and uninviting. But inside, the mishmash of tables and chairs, brightly painted walls of fuchsia and yellow, and din of activity mixed with televisions tuned to Spanish-language stations make it feel like a neighborhood joint you could get familiar with. The décor seems to matter little to Garcia, who says his primary goal is to show Americans what authentic Mexican food tastes like, perhaps even opening a second location in an Anglo-centric area of the Valley.
"Maybe in Goodyear," he says. "That's where I live."