There are many shops in Phoenix that cook tacos and a select few other specialties. Some are worth your time and money, and some aren’t. Tacos Culichi, a casual Mexican eatery recently opened by a used-car lot on 30th Street and McDowell Road, falls into the first group.
And given the backstory, that may come as a surprise.
Dean Le, owner of Tacos Culichi, is 25. He has no prior restaurant experience. Just three years ago, he earned his degree from Arizona State University, where he studied supply chain management and health sciences.
It was much earlier in his education, at the Phoenix elementary school formerly known as Orangedale, that Le met a kid named Adan Pulido. Today, the two are great friends. Le was born in California and moved to Arizona when he was three; Pulido was born in Culiacán, Mexico, in the state of Sinaloa. When Le settled on a concept — simple Mexican food in a polished setting — he called on Pulido to handle the cooking.
“I settled on Mexican food because one of my best childhood friends is Mexican,” Le says. “He’s the one who actually inspired me with all of his recipes.”
Pulido and his staff prepare familiar Mexican dishes with a Culiacán accent. The fiery red salsa that appears in squeeze bottles on tables is made in the style of his city, Pulido says, peppers and charring method and all. So is the shrimp ceviche, which piles atop one of the restaurant’s crispy yellow corn tortillas. (Culiacán is some 20 miles from the Gulf of California, its sea air, and its seafood.)
Tacos Culichi is clean, from newness or from habit. It has been constructed and furnished on the modern and spare side, with TVs showing sports and a fluorescent gleam on a smooth, rich wooden floor. Tables are of a soft, gray wood. Chairs are metallic and lean.
One of the features you may notice, depending on your angle and your eye, is that past the ordering counter, on the floor of the back kitchen, lie gunnysacks of charcoal. These briquettes are food for the grill. “Almost all of our meat is cooked over mesquite charcoal,” Le says.
The carne asada that comes off is chopped to bits, almost as others might chop onions. "We in Culiacán like to use the butcher knife and chop it really thin,” Pulido says of steak off the grill, “so people are really able to eat it much nicer than having to chew through long, bigger pieces."
At Tacos Culichi, options go beyond steak and tacos. You choose from tacos, tostadas, quesadillas, burritos, mulas (a tortilla sandwich of meat and melted cheese), vampiros (strongly associated with Sinaloa), Sinaloan dogs, and birria. Meats you can add to the first five items in this list include carne asada, al pastor, birria, and cabeza.
Fish? Not unless you’re getting a ceviche tostada, with its tight avocado fan, for an extra $1.
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Chicken? Not at this small establishment.
"Prior to opening, I went to 20 to 40 places in the surrounding areas,” Le says. “All taco shops and Mexican restaurants. I just wanted to figure out what I wanted for my place specifically. I decided I wanted something more modern, but not something too upscale.”
Le works by day at Honeywell, and has since graduation three years ago. Thanks to a cohesive design vision and an old friendship, he has an interesting restaurant that stands out from the masses of Mexican eateries spread through the general neighborhood. With a nod to Culiacán and with family recipes from its namesake coastal Mexican city, Tacos Culichi is plating solid food on McDowell.
Tacos Culichi. 3004 East McDowell Road; 602-368-4518.
Sunday to Wednesday 10 a.m. to 10 pm.; closed Thursday; Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.