The abundance of Sonoran-style Mexican food in the Valley is so great, it almost is taken for granted. For most of us, it's like chicken soup when we're unwell, an obvious go-to.
Oddly enough, it was the familiarity of chicken soup that led to a spot serving less commonly found Mexican food in the Valley: comida oaxaqueña – Oaxacan food, from the state of Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico. Less cheese- and sauce-intensive than Arizona-Sonoran fare, the cuisine's focus is on vegetables and a multitude of seasonings. And at Tacos Atoyac, a bare-bones taco shop in a weathered shopping strip on Phoenix's west side, Oaxacan eats are served up street-style, fast and flavorful and at prices that easily could lead you to make a habit of eating there.
The story goes that, a few years ago, Oaxacan Pablo Lopez made soon-to-be partner and Chilean-born Dan Maldonado the most amazing bowl of chicken soup he'd ever had at Phoenix's Moon Valley Country Club, where Maldonado was working as a sous chef and Lopez as a dishwasher. Lopez's skills and a boost from Maldonado got Lopez kicked up to line cook, and the two became friends. After Maldonado did a stint as executive chef at Arrowhead Country Club, took a run at his own restaurant in Park City, Utah, and made the second of two gigs at Roy's Hawaiian Fusion Restaurant, he reconnected with Lopez in December 2010.
Lopez wanted to open a Oaxacan restaurant. Maldonado was inspired by Lopez's homestyle cooking and wanted to learn more. A month later, they started their own place and named it after the region in Oaxaca that Lopez is from.
Most of Tacos Atoyac's food on its small but solid menu comes from Lopez's mother's recipes, which, as is customary to the cuisine, make use of several different types of seasonings to create depths of flavor — like the restaurant's rich and heavenly mole. The renowned dish, which features a list of spices that could fill a page or more, takes as long as a day and half to make. Tacos Atoyac's — which includes sesame seeds, peanuts, and chocolate — is served only on Fridays and Saturdays, and is so popular that latecomers may be disappointed to find themselves mole-less, at least for the day.
Like the mole, almost everything at Tacos Atoyac is made in-house. Local purveyors JP Meats and Pro's Ranch Market supply meats and daily-made tortillas, while masa for the restaurant's tamales, queso oaxaca, and several spices are imported from Mexico. The cross-utilization of ingredients in dishes — from street tacos to burros to tasty molotes, stuffed with potato and chorizo and wrapped in thick masa and fried until they resemble bite-size golden cocoons — translate to dirt-cheap prices, with the most expensive menu item being $8 and the least being the small but satisfying street tacos, served at a buck apiece.
And at Tacos Atoyac, the tacos are a great place to start.
There are several places in the Valley to try fish tacos, but when it comes to tacos de pescado, purists who may lament their lack of flavor or abundance of breading will not be referring to Maldonado's creation. Eight years in the making, his may be the best in town, with lightly battered fish, a tangy guacamole salsa, and crispy lettuce atop a flour tortilla. And at $1.50 apiece, it's easy to double or triple the order.
That is, if you're not busy deciding on a few of the street-taco offerings in doubled-up corn tortillas filled with carne asada, al pastor, lengua (tongue), chorizo, tripa (tripe), or cabeza (head), accompanied by a small paper tray containing limes, long slices of jalapeños, and wedges of charred onion to add as you please. Skip the carne asada and chicken and order up the tender lengua (tongue), the chorizo, or the exceptional spicy and luscious pineapple-marinated pork al pastor.
Because it is almost a given that you will enjoy the near-buttery goodness of the pork al pastor (one of Maldonado's favorites), Tacos Atoyac also has it available packed into a scrumptious burro and as a choice of meat available on yet another standout dish: the tlayuda.
Originating in Oaxaca as a popular antojito (snack food), this traditional dish, best likened to a Mexican pizza, features a dinner-plate-sized crunchy tortilla slathered with a bean spread and topped with the whims of whatever a restaurant or street vendor may deem fit. The tlayuda at Tacos Atoyac stays close to the classic version, and the accompanying freshly made salsas do the trick for additional flavor. The dish is loaded with tomato, lettuce, slices of jalapeño and avocado, onion, Mexican cheeses, and a choice of meat (again, go with the al pastor) atop a crackling tortilla crust. You would not be faulted for attempting to tear off the biggest piece when sharing with friends. Or, given the tlayuda's low price of $8, politely requesting they get one of their own.
If what you're craving is more Mexican hot dog than Mexican pizza, then Maldonado's rendition of the Oaxacan hot dog — traditionally topped with mole and sesame seeds — should do nicely. Although the flavor of his Oaxacan dog may be less intense than its Sonoran counterpart, it's just as delicious, featuring jalapeños, onion, tomato and avocado slices, large pieces of crispy bacon, and zigzags of Mexican sour cream heaped atop a hot dog nestled into a soft bun coated with bean spread.
Elsewhere on the menu is the torta milanesa, whose top-notch combination of ham, egg, and avocado would be improved with a better roll. And there are tamales, cheese and epazote (a pungent herb native to southern Mexico) quesadillas, and memiltas (crispy corn-dough tartlets filled with meat and cheese) that are not nearly as flavorful as the aforementioned favorites but still find a way to satisfy.
That may be why, although Tacos Atoyac is just a year old, the small, spartan room is usually thick and noisily alive with a melting pot of families, friends, and regulars. Sitting at the eatery's handful of tables and biting into solid shrimp burros stuffed with rice and whole sweet shrimp, or intently focused on slurping up the bits of pecan and cantaloupe left from a heavenly sweet cup of homemade Mexican horchata, the packed room is reinforcement that Maldonado and Lopez's concept is working like gangbusters.
The two-man team is almost always on hand. While Lopez muscles trays of tamales or a hefty pot of steaming mole in the kitchen, Maldonado plays the role of gracious host and server, switching with rapid-fire flair between English and Spanish, welcoming customers and assisting first-timers' ums and ahs with suggestions of the day's best dishes.
None of which, unfortunately, include Lopez's chicken soup, but most of which are just as comforting.