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.
23: Red chile at Elmer's Tacos
There are plenty of old-school neighborhood taco shops in metro Phoenix, but few are as beloved as Elmer's Tacos.
This counter-service gem is a purveyor of saucy, cheesy Mexican-American comfort food, a decidedly unfashionable genre that rarely gets the kind of attention or adulation lavished onto more trendy taco parlors. At Elmer's, you get the sense of a kitchen that's powered by home-style recipes that have remained more or less untouched by time. There is an old-fashioned quality about Elmer's that proves irresistible.
Founder Elmer Cuen, a native of Sonora, opened the restaurant on Arizona Avenue in 1974, settling into a standalone space across the street from Chandler High School. For decades, Cuen was a charming and friendly presence behind the counter, befriending generations of Chandler students and other neighborhood regulars.
Cuen passed away in 2015, but his legacy has been well-preserved by daughter Lisa Cuen-Rodriguez, who continues to operate the restaurant with the same level of cordiality. Moreover, many of the dishes created by Cuen remain hallmarks of the restaurant's menu.
Some of the signature treats at Elmer's include fry bread, burritos, and "strips" — freshly-fried tortilla chips served with the restaurant's homemade hot sauce and some shredded cheese. There's also chili cones — the "cones" are fashioned out of flour tortillas, which are shaped roughly into the size and shape of a classic wafer ice cream cone and stuffed with your choice of red or green chile, machaca, or beans and cheese.
Few dishes are more emblematic of Elmer's, though, than the restaurant's savory red chile and stingingly spicy green chile. Can't decide which one to order? The staff at Elmer's is generous with the free samples, so you can taste them both before placing your order.
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The red chile, though, is arguably the most irresistible of the two. Tender, spongy, shredded beef is suffused with a creamy, faintly spicy red chile sauce. The sauce is so rich and flavorful, the beef seems almost beside the point. You can order the red chile in a burrito, combo platter, tostada, or several other delicious configurations. It's a solid dish that tastes as good today as 20 years ago. And how many restaurants can say that?
Elmer's Tacos, 355 North Arizona Avenue, Chandler, 480-963-6763; Monday through Saturday 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sundays 8 a.m. to 9 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