There are two Mucha Lucha locations in town — in south Tempe and south Scottsdale — both offering roughly the same menu of slow-cooked meats, and both located in tiny, unassuming strip-mall storefronts sporting candy-colored walls and oversize wall portraits of iconic Mexican lucha libre gladiators.
Mucha Lucha operates with the same sort of fast-casual set-up as your local Subway sandwich shop, except that instead of turkey and ham and roast beef behind the plastic sneeze guard, there are metal trays brimming with about a half-dozen chile-laced, stewed meat preparations, most of these approximating some shade of deep orange or burnt red.
The standard order here is a plate of five street tacos, each taco double-layered with two small, warm, corn tortillas. The tortillas are fine, but nothing too special — you come here for the selection of slow-cooked guisos, which are pretty much all wonderful in their own way.
There’s a smoky, rich chicken tinga, fragrant with the deep scent of grilled onions, that even the most chipotle-averse taco-lover can love. There is another red chile chicken option, the tender slivers of chicken simmered in a lovely medium-spicy guajillo chile sauce. There’s a finely shredded beef in a savagely hot red chile sauce, and there is a very good and very spicy chile verde, the soft, spongey hunks of meat hot enough to make your lips go slightly numb.
Eat at Mucha Lucha Taco Shop enough times, and you will no doubt develop a personal fondness for one meat preparation over the others. But it only seems fair to point out that the carnitas are pretty great: The scraps of pork are frizzled to a slight, delicious crisp, and full of rich, garlicky flavor. And there is carne asada, of course, the gnarled, juicy slivers of steak nicely and brightly seasoned and crisped up on the flattop moments before landing on your tortilla.
Condiments and toppings are plentiful, but these lean mostly toward north-of-the-border accoutrements like shredded iceberg lettuce and thick noodles of Monterey Jack cheese. You may wish to preserve the purity of your guisos, insisting on nothing but a few flakes of cilantro and chopped white onions. If that’s the case, you must speak up quickly, before an overeager line cook smothers your taco in shredded white cheese. If there is one flaw in the Mucha Lucha Taco machine, it’s that pretty much every item on the menu is customizable — almost too customizable — and the somewhat harried staff tends to play free and loose with the add-ons as you work your way down the counter and toward the cash register. You’ll have to stay vigilant if you don’t want those gently stewed meats drowned out by lettuce, pico, sour cream, and the like. Or, of course, drown away, if that’s your thing.
There’s more to Mucha Lucha than traditional tacos de guisado, though, although these alone are worth a visit. It would be a mistake to overlook the restaurant’s shrimp tacos, which feature big, nicely butterflied shrimp that have been marinated in a spicy red chile sauce. Once thrown on the flattop, they take on a slightly crisp, crackly finish, and paired with a soft lathering of the house jalapeño cream cheese, a shrimp taco here can be transcendent.
And there are burritos, enormous ones that must be eaten with two hands. You can order a “meat burrito,” which is essentially any combination of meat, beans, rice, and toppings you desire, wrapped and sealed in a buttery, pillowcase-sized flour tortilla.
One of the best burritos is something invented on the fly at the south Scottsdale location, a breakfast burrito called El Jefe, which Mucha Lucha Taco Shop co-owner Fernando Espinoza threw together when a regular customer requested a breakfast burrito fully furnished with carne asada, bacon, chorizo, grilled onions, and something like three or four scrambled eggs. Espinoza makes his own chorizo at the south Scottsdale location, and his handicraft shines through: Nearly every bite pops with notes of salty, savory chorizo, grizzled bits of carne asada and bacon, all nicely lubricated and held together with melted cheese and fluffy egg.
Another house favorite is the Surf & Turf, an oozing, overgrown tube of a burrito, crammed with what seems like unholy amounts of spicy shrimp and griddle-crisped carne asada, plus your choice of stewed pinto beans or black beans, caramelized slivers of bell peppers, and a couple of scoopfuls of rice. It’s not for the burrito purist, who prefers a slim, streamlined type of burrito made simply with simmered meats, or maybe creamy beans laced with molten hot cheese. But it’s very tasty just the same, and just the thing if your goal is to sample half of the menu, all of it conveniently stuffed into the pliable folds of one oversized tortilla.
You can go slightly healthier and order your burrito in a bowl, sans all the carbs, or you can go significantly less healthy and order your burrito as a chimichanga, a deep-fried, crackly bundle filled with your choice of meat, then covered in a glaze of silky red or green sauce. Even better, though, is something called J.J.’s Quesadilla, which is layered with your choice of soft, simmered meats, beans, that wonderful jalapeño cream cheese, and so much melted cheese, it oozes out in glossy drips.
And there’s something called Macho Fries; the south Scottsdale location of Mucha Lucha used to be a Filiberto’s, and the fries are a sort of menu holdover designed to attract customers with a yen for that chain’s carne asada fries. Mucha Lucha’s version of Macho Fries is pretty straightforward, and about as good as starchy Phoenix-style comfort food gets: thick, seasoned fries smothered in melted cheese, with a generous scattering of seasoned, juicy chopped steak.
If you ask Espinoza about the secret to the restaurant’s very good home-style guisos, he will say that he and his partner, Jaime Zarraga, who runs the south Tempe location, make the meat braises from scratch, and that many of the recipes are based on old family recipes.
He will tell you that recipes come to him in his dreams, and that he hopes the menu will eventually grow to incorporate harder-to-find preparations like birria, and an unforgettable pollo enchilado that an old acquaintance once made for him, but which he has so far been unable to replicate.
But even if he doesn’t fine-tune that recipe any time soon, Mucha Lucha is already the place to go for time-tested, richly flavored meat stews, dolloped onto tortillas, designed to make you feel like you’re eating straight out of your abuelita’s dutch oven.
Mucha Lucha Taco Shop
7620 East McKellips Road, Scottsdale
818 West Broadway Road, Tempe
Hours: Monday through Fridays 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Sundays
Street tacos $7.25
Shrimp tacos $8.69
Macho fries $8.99
Surf & Turf burrito $9.99