How I arrive at La Mexicana in El Mirage is an imprecise process. "It's behind the Circle K," my tipster has told me. This is my only clue. I do not know the address. Fortunately, El Mirage is not a big place. Fortunately, I know where the town is, having spent a lot of time in neighboring Sun City. Fortunately, I have a full tank of gas.
You don't have to go to the far ends of the Valley to find a place to eat Mexican food. I certainly didn't intend to. But this is precisely what a dining accomplice and I do during a recent quest to find Mexican restaurants which are, shall we say, "undiscovered" by media types.
I am pleased with what I find. La Mexicana is a simple, low-key restaurant. The floors are Mexican tile. The walls are brick. The decorative touches come primarily from pinatas, black grillwork, crepe paper flowers, serapes and sombreros hung here and there.
Service is attentive and comfortably relaxed. Of course, this may have something to do with the fact that we are the only ones dining at 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon. The skeletal waitstaff hangs out near the front counter, chatting amiably about last night's events, speculating about this night's. We are not ignored, but neither are we smothered with unwanted attention. My only complaint? Our waitress never checks back with us to see if everything is okay. Luckily, her confidence is warranted. "These plates are very hot," she says, as she carefully slips them onto the table. The food before me is unusually impressive. My mouth involuntarily waters at the sight of steam rising off the cheese-laden plate. Ignoring all healthwise admonitions to avoid fats and eat lower on the food chain, I dig right in.
Enchiladas are La Mexicana's specialty. The two versions I try are wonderful. Cheese enchiladas feature thick corn tortillas wrapped around slightly sour long horn Cheddar, sparked with chopped white onion. A ground beef enchilada is like a cheeseburger in another form: The beef is tender--not gritty--and flavorful. Equally pleasant is a green corn tamale bathed in a creamy white sauce. Actually, I could probably do without the sauce, but the tamale is very good. Somewhere between dense and fluffy, sweet and spicy, it is filled with mellow cheese, yellow corn and a generous strip of green chile.
I'm surprised to discover how much I like the rice at La Mexicana. Red in color, each grain is distinct. Refried beans are standard but good. They are dark, almost purple in color, and mashed to a paste.
In fact, the only item I'm disappointed with is a guacamole tostada. The guacamole itself is very nice--lemony and just a little spicy. Unfortunately, you must probe under a lot of shredded lettuce and grated orange cheese to find it. Did I mention how good La Mexicana's salsa is? My dining accomplice and I go through two glass cruets of it, what with chips and the rest of our meal. Chunky with canned tomato, green onion, green chile and cilantro, this mildly spicy salsa's first rate. I like the way La Mexicana gives each of us a little dish in which to pour the salsa for chip dipping.
El Mirage probably seems far to go for a great enchilada. Regardless, next time you're driving to Wickenburg or visiting folks in Sun City, keep it in mind. I know I will.
A staffer at New Times suggests I give Filito's in Guadalupe a try. I've driven past this Avenida del Yaqui restaurant several times, but always thought it was a bakery. Well, Filito's is a bakery. Next door, it is also an ice cream dispensary, takeout Mexican food stand and serve-yourself sit-down restaurant. You can sit inside or outside at Filito's. Outdoor picnic tables are a nice way to go, especially during this delicious spring weather. Indoor booths and tables are a good option when it's too hot or cold to do anything else. Either way, there's no table service. Even inside, you order, pay for and pick up your food at the arched window. In the spirit of things, I ask for a rag to wipe off my own table. I have gone too far. "Oh no, I'll come do it," the girl behind the counter informs me.
Filito's is a popular place. Cars crawl down Avenida del Yaqui, obeying the speed limits. The Ronaldo and Elena Sanchez Activity Center is located directly across the street. People walk up and down the avenida. Some stop for a midafternoon ice cream, some for something more substantial. We, of course, are ordering more than the usual amount of food for two people. But the young girl behind the counter doesn't blink an eye. She loads two trays full of food and calls us when it's ready. There is little doubt it's for us. Though a "No Loitering" sign is tacked up inside the dining area, we are the only ones here at the moment. Tiny pay TVs at two booths sit blank screened and silent.
You certainly can't beat the prices at Filito's. Our total bill for nine food items plus two large root beers comes to less than $15. Not that I'd recommend everything I sample. On this particular Saturday, the chorizo is dry; a cheese enchilada is overly greasy. The refrieds and rice are generous but ordinary; the cold chips are expensive at $1.25. One reason to come to Filito's is for the tamales, which come wrapped in cornhusks and folded in steamy wax paper. I like both the red-beef and green corn versions. The former are subtly spicy and compact. The latter feature slightly more fluffy masa sprinkled through with tender white corn kernels and red and green chile strips. The green corn tamale at Filito's is sweeter than those I've had at Josie's Mexican Food on the west side, but not as sweet as, say, El Molino's.
Another reason to come is for the chili beans. Served with a hot flour tortilla, these whole pintos are darkened with spicy red beef chili. They are an interesting substitution for refrieds. They are also hearty enough to satisfy a smaller appetite.
Semantics: What Valley residents are used to calling "burros" are called "burritos" here. (Yes, yes, I know this is their designation in California and elsewhere.) Filito's burritos are tinier than your usual Arizona burro. Still, the flour tortillas that enfold them are pliable and fresh. I especially like the nopalito burrito. The tender cactus strips are mixed into the same red chili as mentioned above--a tasty combination.
Hot sauce here is the thick tomatoey variety. Request it when you order. The room inside Filito's is plain. A signed, framed photograph of local boxing champ Michael Carbajal is one of the few decorations. It seems most appropriate: Like Michael, Filito's is small, but a winner.
La Mexicana Restaurant, 12245 Santa Fe, El Mirage, 583-8253. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Saturday; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday; closed Monday.
Filito's, 8400 South Avenida del Yaqui, Guadalupe, 839-5814. Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday.
la mexicana Ignoring all healthwise admonitions to avoid fats and eat lower on the food chain, I dig right in.
Enchiladas are La Mexicana's specialty. The two versions I try are wonderful.
I ask for a rag to wipe off my own table. "Oh no, I'll come do it," the girl behind the counter informs me.
One reason to come to Filito's is for the tamales, which come wrapped in cornhusks and folded in steamy wax paper.