Tacos and burritos will always be reliable standbys, but when it comes to Mexican fast food that Phoenix does really well, tortas are my hands-down favorite option for a quick, cheap bite.
What's not to love about the scrumptious Mexican sandwiches? When they're made right, tortas are one of life's simplest pleasures — stuffed with any number of tasty fillings, and big enough to fuel you through the craziest, most stressful day. And like I said, they're cheap. Next to the illustrious Vietnamese banh mi (another fave), tortas are just about the best bang for the buck in town.
A few months ago, I discovered another destination for a decent torta, called Tortas Paquime. Yes, I have to admit, I'd been selfishly keeping this one to myself for a while, waiting for just the right time to tell you about it.
Tortas Paquime, 2541 East McDowell Road (and two additional locations)
Torta a la plancha: $4.85
Papas nachos: $3.55
602-244-1188, web link
Hours: Daily, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Well, here's good timing for you. The day the shit really hit the fan with the economy, I already knew the perfect place to write about. You can stuff your face at Tortas Paquime for next to nothing; almost every item on the menu is under five bucks.
Another plus? There are three locations of this cute, cheerful joint, so you can indulge more often. I frequent the one on McDowell Road, because it's convenient to downtown (just east of the 51), but there are two other locations, on West Indian School.
What first caught my eye about Tortas Paquime were the colorful paintings on the windows — giant sundaes and ice cream cones and popsicles. That's right, one more bonus about this restaurant is that it's a Mexican sweet shop as well.
Inside, it's bright and clean, with crayon-blue tables, shiny tile floors, and a hand-painted mural of a quaint village surrounded by green, grassy hills. There's a counter along one side, with a large bilingual menu up on the wall. The employees here speak minimal English, but that's never kept me from having a great lunch — these people are very friendly, and they are patient with my creative attempts at ordering in Spanish.
The tortas a la plancha — that is, grilled sandwiches — are quite good, with soft, flour-ybolillo rolls, a generous amount of meat, and plenty of extras. Order yours con todo, and it'll be heaped with thick slices of ripe avocado, pickled jalapeño, tomato, and lettuce, with a slick of mayo. The lone vegetarian choice, the torta de aguacate, is all of that minus the meat, with some mustard.
Moist, tangy cochinita pibil is my top pick, although the namesake torta Paquime, a sliced pork loin sandwich available hot or cold, makes for another good piggy fix. I'm not fond of the deep-fried colita de pavo, a greasy turkey sammy, but thankfully the milanesa de pollo, breaded chicken cutlet, is much lighter. Carne asada is tender and flavorful, though nothing out of the ordinary. A better bet is the spicy desebrada con rajas, juicy shredded beef with green chiles.
Although I haven't tried them yet, I should mention that Tortas Paquime has two breakfast tortas — one with bacon and eggs, the other with chorizo and eggs. And on the three-item kids menu, there's a junior ham and cheese torta for the little ones.
Besides the sandwiches, there's plenty more savory stuff, including flautas, tostadas, and quesadillas. Papas nachos is a pile of crispy seasoned waffle fries, topped with gooey nacho cheese and more of those pickled jalapeños, while elotes is a warm, soupy mix of corn, cheese, mayo, lime juice, and chili powder, served in a styrofoam cup with a plastic spoon. A dessert-like shade of pale pink, it looks surreal and is an acquired taste (rich creaminess balanced by zingy citrus), but I would definitely eat this again. It hooks me in the same way those chile-mango popsicles do.
Behind the counter, there's an assortment of Mexican potato and corn chips, but for something truly novel, try the paquitostitos. This is a bag full of tortilla chips split open and jazzed up with pickled pork rinds, shredded cabbage, diced tomato and cucumber, crema, cotija, avocado, red chile sauce, and fresh lime. I almost never eat convenience snacks, but this is on a whole different level.
As much as I love stopping by Tortas Paquime for a casual meal, it's a fun pit stop any time of the day, especially if you have a sweet tooth. There's a fridge full of Jarritos and other Mexican sodas, a variety of paletas (Mexican popsicles and creamsicles that are so good you'll ditch the Good Humor man after you try them), awesome raspados (ice cones) in fruit flavors, and even diablitos, which are basically spicy-sweet raspados made with tamarind, lime, chile powder, and saladitos (salty dried plums). Again, this is a taste that's fun to acquire, an exhilarating contrast between sugar, pucker, and fire.
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If that sounds too out-there for you, they have straight-up ice cream in a dozen flavors, from strawberry to Smurf-blue chicle (bubblegum), available in a cone, sundae, or banana split. Tortas Paquime also has really good aguas frescas. I'm partial to the frutas, a banana-tinged blend, as well as the horchata.
After stuffing myself with a torta, I'm usually thinking nap, not dessert, but here, I don't mind making room for a creamy flan casero or a cup of rice pudding. Heck, the fresas con crema (strawberries with cream) seems justifiably healthy, and so does escamochas, granola with mixed fruits and cream. (In any case, they're delish.)
And then there's the pastelito tres leches — nothing innocent about this decadent "three milks" confection, a moist white cake soaked in sweet cream, layered with strawberry cream, and topped with whipped cream and a fat strawberry. It tastes like pure heaven, and for about three dollars, is an incredible portion. Last time I stopped in, four of us nibbled on it until we were ready to burst.
I mean that in a good way, of course.