Sonoran Enchiladas and Machaca from South Phoenix's Favorite Old-School Mexican Restaurant

A classic Phoenix combo plate.
A classic Phoenix combo plate. Patricia Escarcega
Welcome to the 2018 edition of The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.

3: Sonoran enchiladas and machaca from Poncho's Mexican Food

When it comes to classic Mexican restaurants in Phoenix, it doesn't get much more old school than south Phoenix's Poncho's Mexican Food.

The family-owned restaurant has been around since 1972, starting out as a small mom-and-pop take-out joint in front of the home of owners Isabel and Eusevio “Poncho” Vasquez. Eventually, the demand for the Vasquez's Sonoran-style Mexican cooking inspired the family to expand the business into the family's home.

Poncho's has been renovated extensively over the years, but the hacienda-inspired decor has never changed, and the restaurant is still operated by members of the Vasquez clan. If you take a close look around, you can imagine what the space was like before the family's bedrooms and living room were converted into what are now various dining areas and a spacious bar.

click to enlarge The Sonoran-style enchilada from Poncho's Mexican Food in Phoenix. - PATRICIA ESCARCEGA
The Sonoran-style enchilada from Poncho's Mexican Food in Phoenix.
Patricia Escarcega
Poncho's remains an incredibly popular neighborhood destination, and it's not unusual to have to wait for a table, even on a week night. Some history buffs are even willing to wait for a table to open up in the room where President Bill Clinton famously enjoyed a spread of tostadas, chimichangas, tacos, and green corn tamales. A small mural commemorates the table where the presidential party sat during the President's visit to south Phoenix in July of 1999.

Even if you don't get to sit at the Clinton table, you can still request "La Fiesta Chiquita President's Choice," essentially a Mexican canapé sampler of mini-tostadas and crispy chimichangas.

Or try instead Poncho's take on a true regional Arizona-Sonora borderland specialty: Sonoran enchiladas, a dish that's been documented in Tucson and Phoenix Mexican restaurants for at least a century: The fried masa patties are bathed in the restaurant's homemade enchilada sauce and garnished with chopped white onions and black olives. Their soft crispness and corn sweetness is a nice contrast to the savoriness of the oregano-spiked red enchilada sauce. Sonoran enchiladas are kind of a rare restaurant find these days, but they've never left the menu at Poncho's.

Other classics include the cheese-slicked El Crudo Burrito, a burro bulging with tender, tomatillo-spiked machaca shredded beef. Poncho's dry, earthy, and gently spicy machaca has been a delicious and immutable part of Phoenix's Mexican food scene for more than 40 years. Today, Poncho's continues to shine as a modern-day neighborhood restaurant and hang-out spot, but also as one of our most classic and beloved repositories of old-fashioned Arizona-Sonora comfort food cooking.

Poncho's Mexican Food, 7202 South Central Avenue; 602-276-2437.
Sunday to Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.

The Essentials So Far:
50: Soul food platter at Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles
49: The Bear at Short Leash Hot Dogs + Rollover Doughnuts
48: Grilled squid and other specialties at Andreoli Italian Grocer
47: I-10 Nachos at Cocina 10
46: Coffee made from ROC2 beans
45: The Haturo Sub Sandwich at Cheese 'n Stuff
44: Zookz at Zookz
43: Jade Red Chicken at Chino Bandido
42: Tasting menu at Quiessence at The Farm
41: Single-origin Papua New Guinea Bar at Zak's Chocolate
40: Green chile at Casa Reynoso
39: Brûlée burger from Paradise Valley Burger Company
38: Hand-pulled noodles from China Magic Noodle House
37: Carne adovada sliders at Dick's Hideaway
36: Crispy Pig Ear and Amaro cocktails from Crudo
35: Chile-laced specialties from Cafe Ga Hyang
34: Martinis at AZ88
33: Nooner at Duck & Decanter
32: Eggs Maximilian at Harlow's Cafe
31: Beef Tacos from Asadero Norte De Sonora
30: Orange Blossom from Huss Brewing Company
29: Rye bread from Yasha From Russia
28: Scotch Beef and Mashed Potatoes from Tarbell's
27: Griddled Corn Cakes and Ramona Farms Super Food Salad at Phoenix City Grille
26: Soup from Reathrey Sekong
25: Lamb tongue sandwich at Haji Baba
24: The Special at Grand Avenue Pizza Company
23: Red chile at Elmer's Tacos
22: Marranitos at La Purisima Bakery
21: Kronuts from Karl's Bakery
20: Beef pies at Chou's Kitchen
19: Bavarian pretzels & schnitzel at Haus Murphy's
18: Red chili burro and sopapillas from Los Dos Molinos
17: Camelback Soda at The Sugar Bowl
16: Brisket Sandwich at Chelsea's Kitchen
15: Taco Hazz from Ta'Carbon
14: Barnone at Agritopia
13: The Jazzy from Emerson Fry Bread
12: Flour Tortillas from La Sonorense Tortilla Factory
11: Peach picking at Schnepf Farms
10: The Purple Fusion at Snoh Shaved Ice
9: Sours from Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company
8: Umi No Sachi at Hana Japanese Eatery
7: Carne Asada Tacos from Taquería Los Yaquis
6: Tasting Menu from Different Pointe of View
5: Sausage from Schreiner's Fine Sausage
4: The Chop & Chick from Matt's Big Breakfast
3: Sonoran enchiladas and machaca from Poncho's Mexican Food
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.