Welcome to 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.
7: Machaca and flour tortillas at Carolina's
Among certain circles, admitting you eat and enjoy the food from Carolina's has become deeply uncool. Perhaps no other locally popular cuisine is scrutinized as deeply and consistently as Mexican food, and for self-declared Mexican food experts, Carolina's fails so many of the frequently invoked litmus tests. The tacos are missing the requisite scattering of cilantro and chopped white onions. The tortilla of choice is flour, and tacos are delivered in crunchy shells. Oh, the humanity! As if the breadth and diversity and border-defying twists of Mexican cooking can be boiled down to a handful of rules.
The old-school, Mexican-American fare at Carolina's is authentic in its very own south-central Phoenix kind of way. The menu appears to not have changed in decades; the dining room at the original Mohave Street location feels defiantly shabby, as if someone decided that renovations are for chumps. The wait times are longer than you might expect for a counter-service joint. The service is consistently inconsistent.
And yet, the people keep coming. There's always a line. The parking lot is a hub of traffic at lunchtime. Maybe they come for the hot flour tortillas, stuffed into steamy plastic bags, big enough almost to substitute for a pillowcase, in a pinch. They are gloriously thin and stretchy, and you suspect that the magic of lard had something to do in their construction.
Carolina's is one of the few places around town where "Butter Tortilla" is on the menu. If you grew up with a tia or abuelita or someone else in the family with a talent for making flour tortillas from scratch, the ability to order a butter-smeared flour tortilla might feel like coming home.
There are hokey-sounding combo plates like the "Zarape Special" – three beef flautas draped with sour cream and guacamole – reminiscent of the type of plates found on many '70s-era Mexican restaurant menus across the Southwest. So, you won't be coming here for exciting new riffs on Mexican cuisine, or to catch the latest wave in taco trends. You come for the tortillas, and because it's where you've gone for decades, and because you love Carolina's with the kind of devotion reserved usually for blood kin. And if we are to chart the history of Mexican cooking in Phoenix, Carolina's is a notable mark on that timeline, documenting the way we ate Mexican food in Phoenix at a certain point in time, and a sort of repository of the red enchilada sauce school of local cooking.
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Everyone has their own Carolina's favorite, but it's worth giving the breakfast burritos a shout-out. The machaca and egg burrito, upgraded with refried beans and potatoes, will keep you going until early afternoon. But might we recommend the machaca plate? It's Number 5 on the combo menu, and you can pick the red or green sauce. There is something quintessential about the red sauce. It's a thick, creamy, oniony red sauce, and it nearly smothers the life out of the soft beefy, shredded bundles of meat. It's so saucy, in fact, it gives you the perfect excuse to tear into one of those hot flour tortillas, which is kind of the Carolina's version of a napkin.
The Carolina's empire keeps growing, with a new location opening in Avondale at the start of this year, and another new location projected to open in Mesa soon. But there's something about the original south-central location on Mohave Street. Maybe it's the sound of the door slapping shut every time someone comes in or out. Maybe it's the motley customer base – you are likely to run into everyone from local hospital personnel, downtown office workers, and construction workers in orange vests and helmets, everybody brought together briefly out of a love for Carolina's. Everyone comes to break bread – or rather, rip tortilla – together, and no matter how inauthentic you think Carolina's is, you simply can't fake that kind of devotion.
The Essentials so far:
50: Tequila Sunrise at the Arizona Biltmore.
49: "Dragon" Dumpling Burger at Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour.
48: Dizzy Fig Empanada at Republica Empanada.
47: Linguine Carbonara at Avanti.
46: The Food Court at Mercado de los Cielos.
45: Chicken Feta Salad at George’s Kitchen.
44: Spinach & Cheese Chimi Burro at Mi Patio Mexican Restaurant.
43: Dinner at Rustler's Rooste.
42: Gyro Omelet at Mel's Diner.
41: Zipps Wings at Zipps Sports Grill.
40: Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa.
39: Asian Nachos at Moto.
38: Olive Oil Tasting at Queen Creek Olive Oil Mill.
37: Baby Back Ribs at Don & Charlie's.
36: Limoncello at Cibo.
35: Chili Salt Chicken Wings at Asian Café Express.
34: Smoked Prime Rib at Texaz.
33: Steak Salad at Feeney's.
32: Tasting Menu at Kai Restaurant.
31: Toffee Banofi Sundae at Sweet Republic.
30: Big Jim at Welcome Diner.
29: Sonoran Hot Dog at El Caprichoso.
28: Sashimi at Nobuo at Teeter House.
27: Oysters at Casey Moore's Oyster House.
26: Spring rolls at Da Vang.
25: Bruschetta and wine at Postino.
24: Hot green chili fry bread at Fry Bread House.
23: The Big One at The Chuckbox.
22: Cahuamanta Stew at Cahuamanta El Yaqui.
21: Dim Sum at Great Wall Cuisine.
20: Fried chicken at The Horny Toad.
19: George & Dragon’s Famous Fish & Chips.
18: Macaron Ice Cream Sandwiches at Pho 43rd Express.
17: Cerreta Candy Co. Factory Tour & Candy Sampling in Downtown Glendale.
16: Steak Dinner at The Stockyards.
15: Margarita + Guacamole del Barrio at Barrio Cafe.
14: BBQ Plate at Joe's Real BBQ.
13: Fried Chicken & Pork Chops from Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe.
12: Breakfast Burrito at Yucca Tap Room.
11: Mesquite Chocolate Chip Cookies at Super Chunk.
10: Doro Wat at Cafe Lalibela.
9: Lunch at Middle Eastern Bakery & Deli.
8: The Chef's Counter at Posh.