It's no secret that Phoenix is thick with Sonoran-style Mexican restaurants, bastions of machaca dinners, deep-fried chimichangas, and thin, pillowy flour tortillas often melded together with bright orange cheese. The cheese crisp, served on a round aluminum platter like a pizza, is the hallmark of old school Arizona-Sonora Mexican food, the kind of group-friendly appetizer you'll find at Mexican mom-and-pop restaurants where combo platters are ordered by the number and dessert often means fried ice cream or a sopaipilla doused in honey.
Sonoran-style Mexican food is all around, which makes the hunt for regional Mexican cooking all the more challenging. The food from the Distrito Federal, the metropolitan area encompassing Mexico City, is particularly scarce throughout the Southwest. You'll find Valley mainstays like El Nopalito in Phoenix and El Tlacoyo in Tempe, but it's still rare to stumble across standard D.F.-style street snacks like huaraches or pambazo sandwiches.
Thank goodness, then, for places like Machete Azteca, a counter service West Valley restaurant that specializes in D.F.-style antojitos, caldos, and barbacoa. This is the brick-and-mortar offshoot of Machete Azteca's food stand in Desert Sky Mall's Mercado de Los Cielos. In recent years, the mall's bustling indoor Mexican swap meet, jammed with vendors hawking everything from cell phones to wedding dresses, has spawned a popular mercado-style food court, where the food selection runs the gamut from chile-dusted mangos to elaborately garnished platters of oysters and mojarra. On the weekends, the mercado plays host to live music, fashion shows, and scores of hungry families, and there's rarely an empty table in sight.
You won't, thankfully, have to fight for a table at Machete Azteca's stand-alone location near 67th Avenue and Indian School Road. The restaurant, which has been open for about six months, is located in the faded shell of what used to be a Pizza Hut, crammed ungracefully between a gas station and strip mall. Slipping into the restaurant's traffic-choked entrance often involves some kind of illegal maneuver, but once you're in, the smell of grilled meats beckons and there's not much to do but settle into the sparsely decorated dining room, which is furnished with slightly shabby booths that are light enough to slide around and reconfigure to accommodate larger parties.
Depending on the time you come, there might be banda music bleating from the house speakers, or on more subdued weekend mornings, maybe a Televisa game show playing on one of multiple wall-mounted flatscreens. Never mind the distractions, though, because the main attraction here is the restaurant's expansive menu of namesake machetes. If cheese crisps are emblematic of the Valley's unpretentious Arizona-Sonoran fare, then you might think of the machete as the cheese crisp's larger, slightly more exotic big city counterpart. These sturdy quesadillas are about two feet long and hand-molded to approximate the size and shape of — what else? — a machete. They're thickly built on homemade corn tortillas, folded over like tacos and stuffed with goopy, cheese-smothered fillings like chicarrón prensado (rendered and pressed pork skins), sesos (cow or pig brains, depending on what is available) and buttery, wilted flor de calabaza (squash blossoms).
There are more than a dozen different machete varieties on the menu, most of which are pretty irresistible. You'll want to sample a machete stuffed with the elusive huitlacoche, the inky-black corn fungus that has been a culinary staple in Mexico since pre-Colombian times but still is hard to find on most Mexican food menus. Sometimes called the truffle of Mexico, the huitlacoche resembles something like a black bean and white corn mush. Its flavor is earthy and slightly sweet, and complemented with a hefty amount of salty white cheese, the final product is something more subtle and intriguing than your average restaurant quesadilla.
Another good option is the machete stuffed with peluche, a meat lover's quesadilla made with chopped beef and juicy rounds of sausage. Or, if you've ever wondered what a Philly cheesesteak might look like as a quesadilla, order your machete with alambre de res. The grilled, thinly sliced beef is mixed with chopped bits of bacon and sautéed onions and peppers, the whole messy parrillada lubricated and glued together with enough cheese to make everything coalesce into a salty, savory whole.
This being a Mexico City-style restaurant, there are, of course, huaraches, the long, thin flatbreads smeared with creamy beans and cheese and generously piled with toppings like spicy Mexican chorizo, carne asada, and alambre hawaiiano, which is essentially regular alambre with the addition of small chunks of grilled pineapple. Many of the grilled meats on the menu are also available as platillos, combo platter meals complete with the requisite beans and rice.
Alongside the machetes and huaraches, the kitchen also offers homestyle caldos, or stews, including a good caldo de pancita. The stew is full of hunks of tender, mild tripe in a savory, beefy broth that's so good, it seems designed to entice even the staunchest menudo hater in your life.
Tacos are inescapable in Phoenix (and just about everywhere else), so it's no shock to find Machete has a short menu that includes classics like carne asada and al pastor. For a favorite Mexico City street taco, go for the suadero, a thin, smooth beef cut fried just long enough to give the shredded meat a juicy, delicate crisp. Topped with cilantro and onions, plus a spritz of lime, the blistery, meaty nubs are cradled on two small homemade corn tortillas — a tasty snack that's on par with what you'll find at some of the city's best taquerias.
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Texcoco, a municipality on the outskirts of the Mexican capital, is famous for its barbacoa de borrego, a traditional pit-roasted lamb barbecue that's highly regional and hard to find north of the border. But you'll find a version of Texcoco-style barbacoa at Machete Azteca — if only on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Order it con consommé, which here means served in a broth fashioned from lamb drippings, guajillo chiles, garbanzo beans, and rice. It's an intensely flavored savory broth, and the lamb itself is so moist and fall-apart tender that you can easily wrap the meaty tendrils around your fork. The barbacoa, which also is sold to go by the pound, seems to be about as popular as menudo as a post-hangover cure, which means the kitchen may have already run out if you place your order late on a Sunday afternoon.
Still, it's worth rising early on a weekend for a heaping plate of rich, gelatinous barbacoa at Machete Azteca. Service is casual, friendly, and consistently fast, and most items on the menu are priced south of $10. And while there's not a single Sonoran-style cheese crisp in sight, you certainly won't go hungry for a quesadilla estilo D.F., or much anything else, at Machete Azteca.
6709 West Indian School Road
Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; 9:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday
Machete con huitlacoche $7.99
Huarache de alambre Hawaiiano $9.99
Caldo de pancita $7.49
Texcoco-style barbacoa with consommé $7.50