Double Take

La Piñata Carries On Its Tradition of Solid Arizona-Sonoran Fare in Shiny New Digs

Things rarely stay the same in the restaurant industry. Whether it be a remodel, a menu overhaul, or a new executive chef, sometimes time and transitions mean we want to give a restaurant a second look. A Double Take, unlike a full review, revisits restaurants to check in and check out how things have changed.

If you grew up dining around Central Phoenix in the 1970s or 1980s, there’s a good chance you have memories of eating at La Piñata, the Sonoran-style Mexican restaurant famous for its steady output of cheese crisps and its iconic vintage neon sign, featuring a zippy yellow arrow pointing to the building.

“Steady” is a good word to describe La Piñata, because it’s hard to find another place around town that has been so consistent in delivering reliably tasty Sonoran Mexican fare for so long. Since 1970, the restaurant has been a proud bearer of the Arizona-Sonora Mexican food tradition, where meals are measured in combo platters and the plates streaming out of the kitchen are so hot your server dons oven mitts and pot holders and recites that old school Mexican restaurant chant: “Hot plate! Hot plate!”

La Piñata is still owned and operated by Peter Bugarin and Roseann Schulz, who opened the restaurant back when there were only a handful of sit-down Mexican dining rooms scattered around town. In those days, La Piñata was the ticket if you wanted a restaurant where you could get enchilada plates blanketed in bubbling layers of ranchero sauce and orange cheese, served alongside a comida americana menu of burgers and fries.

The restaurant has remained a touchstone in a dining scene that is nearly unrecognizable from what it looked like 40-something years ago. It’s one of those rare Phoenix establishments where the platter of mini-chimis, flautas, and green corn tamales you snacked on in the ‘70s are roughly equivalent to the ones you can parcel out today among your grown children and grandkids. And with longevity comes the glow of nostalgia. Ask some old-timers about La Piñata and you’re likely to evoke warm memories of first dates, big family dinners on Sundays, and the first time someone tasted hard-shell tacos stuffed with machaca, the dried, intensely flavored shredded pork or beef that is a hallmark of northern Mexican cooking. 

But not even La Piñata is immune from change. The restaurant’s original location on 19th Avenue and Osborn Road was shuttered last fall after the aging building proved too difficult to maintain. Its iconic neon sign went dim in October, but not before its loyal clientele papered the old lobby with notes filled with reminiscences and good wishes.

In what may be one of the smoothest transitions in local dining history, La Piñata quickly reopened a few weeks later in the former digs of another Phoenix landmark, Mary Coyle Ol' Fashioned Ice Cream, near Seventh Avenue and Camelback Road. The new La Piñata looks considerably different. Gone is the cavernous space with big old school leather booths and framed folk art. The new space, which was designed by Julie Bonneville of J. Bonneville Designs, is fresh, modern, and inviting, with tufted booths, communal tables, hardwood floors, and an outdoor patio space outfitted with chic drapery and a fireplace. There is even a smaller replica of its beloved neon sign out front (the old sign was deemed too big by current City of Phoenix building code). 

The centerpiece of the new La Pinata is a hand-painted mural by Karen Bennett that depicts a pair of cowboys attempting to lasso an overgrown piñata, which is riding on a wooden cart like a Trojan horse. It’s a wonderful painting, a kind of hip take on the quintessential kitsch of old school Mexican restaurants that seems designed to herald La Piñata into the 21st century.

But while the surroundings have changed, the menu has remained faithful to its Arizona-Sonoran roots. If you are partial to the classic cheese crisp, you’ll find a slightly oily rendition here, a flour tortilla topped with cheddar cheese melted to an unnatural glossy sheen. At just under $7, the cheese crisp is simple and tasty, but priced a little too high for what you get.

You’re better off with the Mary Lou, another house specialty quesadilla. It's essentially a large folded cheese crisp stuffed with cubes of beef smothered in a red chile sauce. It’s filling enough to make a meal, and it’s a good way to sample the kitchen’s irresistibly good red chile sauce, which is mildly spicy and thick as gravy.

The house specialty entree, of course, is the deep-fried, crackly skinned wonder known as a chimichanga. The chimichanga, at its heart, is the gastronomical equivalent of a Mexican telenovela, which is to say cheesy, over-the-top, and totally devoid of nutritional value. The dish is indigenous to Arizona, and popular legend goes that it was invented at Tucson’s El Charro back in the ‘50s, when a line cook accidentally knocked a bean burrito into vat of boiling lard.

Other Arizona restaurants, including Macayos, lay claim to inventing the chimichanga. La Piñata only claims to be the first restaurant to top the deep-fried burrito with sour cream, tomatoes, onions, cheese, and guacamole. They call this version “The Mexican version of the Banana Split,” a slightly confusing name that may at first invoke visions of churros smothered under ice cream.

When it arrives on your very hot plate, the chimi is barely discernible under layers of half-melted cheese, sauce, and handfuls of chopped green onions. It's a sturdy dish that comes with your choice of filling; the chicken leans to being dry, but the green or red chile beef are nearly always moist and dripping in sauce. Just don't let it sit around for too long, because it can quickly degenerate into a soggy, molten heap. 

Another quintessential Sonoran dish is the hard-shell taco stuffed with dried, shredded beef machaca, topped with lettuce and cheese. At La Piñata, the tacos are reliably good, but the machaca is not distinctive enough to make these stand out from the crowd. If you swing by during the busy lunch rush, a more interesting option is the oddly named "There's a Taco in My Burro" special. It's essentially a loosely rolled, oversize burrito with your choice of ground beef, chicken, or machaca served with all the fresh toppings (lettuce, pico) that you would normally find in a taco. For $2 more, you can have it with the kitchen's special spicy dry machaca, which delivers a smoky, beefy flavor boost. 

Of course, you'll want to leave room for one of the house desserts, especially the homemade sopapillas. The puffy balls of fried dough are remarkably light and airy, gently dusted with a shimmering blend of cinnamon and sugar. You'll get a plastic bottle of local honey to drizzle onto the dessert. 

Once you lift the veil of nostalgia, La Piñata is not unlike many other Sonoran-styled restaurants that have mushroomed across metro Phoenix. Service can be brusque and inattentive during its busiest hours, and it's in those times when the margaritas tend to be watered down and you may have to wave at the bartender a few times before finally getting the check. But the food remains solidly, cheesily Sonoran at La Piñata, where the neon keeps burning bright and you always know exactly what you're getting.

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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.