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Nov 13, 2008 11:15 AM

Tucson Mexican

...Or searching for the elusive perfect green chile chicken enchilada.

After eating around Tucson for over three years now, and sampling the carbo-dairy heavy Sonoran fare indicative of the area, I've come to the conclusion that the Mexican in Tucson is a hit or miss proposition -- with an emphasis on miss.

Granted, I am comparing what I am eating to two years spent eating around New Mexico, which was gastronomic bliss, and taste is a subjective thing anyway, but...

Mi Nidito was trumpeted as a local favorite. It's a tiny and dark but pleasant space downtown, the walls are covered with photos of visiting dignitaries, like Bill Clinton, and the plates are affordable and portions are generous. But the house salsa is bland and lacking in heat and the chicken enchiladas were dry and over salted.

El Minuto's enchiladas were inedible. The tortilla was so over cooked it tasted like cracker, and the chicken was a bit fishy. Rice was reheated and tasted like it was made at the beginning of the century. Beans lacked flavor. The margaritas were icy and huge, though made with the typical electric green mix. The live mariachi was utterly fantastic.

El Charro, serving up Tucsonans since the 20s, boasts friendly staff, good people watching, lively decor, and hints of bygone southwestern hospitality. The food is served hot and made to order. Portions are gigantic. Wish the taste lived up to the presentation, because if they could pull that off it would be my favorite restaurant in town, but then I also had the bad but unmistakable MSG headache after I ate there.

El Molino, another local favorite, the place on Speedway with the bull statue out front, packed to the gills on weekend nights, can claim indifferent staff (at least when I went), soapy tasting salsa, grimy tables, and mess-on-a-plate Mexican.

La Fuente has been around since the 50s. Waitstaff makes fresh guacamole at your table for tips. The guacamole has no taste. I added their salsa to it and it was better. Enchiladas are super bland but pack a big punch. You'll be filled for days.

Don't mean to be mean, but I call's it as I saw it, and it's good to bear in mind that with repeat visits I may have had a better experience (I am a big believer in the "off night").

El Sur. I was a regular at the yellow painted cinderblock abode in midtown -- until the chef left. This place was everything one wanted: clean, excellent staff who treat guests like family, icy cold beers and Mexican Coke (yummy...the kind you remember made with REAL SUGAR) , salty, tangy margaritas, and a menu of delicious, fresh, savory specials: like spicy, earthy, grilled carnitas with warmed homemade flour or corn tortillas, and biftek picado, little piece of grilled, marinated beef in a pico de gallo salsa, fresh tomatoes, green peppers (jalapeno), onions, cilantro, lime juice, with tortillas and beans and rice. And there are sublime green chile chicken enchiladas. The salsa verde is subtle yet also yields many different flavors to the palate with a nice slow heat. Chicken is tender and enchiladas do not drown under the standard thick blanket of cheese as they do at...

La Parilla Suissa. This place almost makes it. The staff are on the verge of warm and friendly, their shrimp dishes are a treat and the enchiladas are almost great; they make them in the suave style, with cheese and sourcream sauce over green chile, and the chicken tastes poached and it's very pleasant and surprising when the green chicken enchiladas, with delicious secret recipe beans and a pilaf of rice, succeed, but they have only 2/5 times, and the prices are too high to justify repeat visits. My husband and I went about five times, and after three we wondered why we kept going.

Let me stop and say that my husband and I used to wait tables and we come in with automatic sympathy towards anyone who works in a restaurant; it's punishing work. We over tip and do not send orders back, unless someone's immediate health is compromised by uncooked or unsanitary food. We also have simple tastes, preferring fresh ingredients prepared in a minimum of steps to fuss.

Cafe Poca Cosa. Ate at the second and the new location.The first location was a lunch counter serving downtown suits and a blue collar set. Second location was in an outpost at a cross section, with smoky glass windows looking out onto the fading glories of downtown Tucson. Wood floors, a daily changing menu scratched on chalkboards, casual style made homey by displays of local artwork, and food to DIE for. Taste sensations exploding, fresh produce and dazzling sauces hinting of smoke, heat, chocolate, spice, fruit, land and sea. Grilled meat perfection. The chef, an artist, looking to Mexico City's heritage, cultural richness, access to exotic flavors for her palette -- and our palate. Higher than average prices (i.e. $60 for 2, including chef's plates, appetizer, drinks) well worth the extraordinary experience. The kind of food that leaves a memory long after the last bite. I did not have enchiladas; I had whatever the chef wished to make for me and the result was unforgettable and almost made me forget about enchiladas! Then the restaurant moved to the new space, a gleaming lobby spot of glass and metal amid office buildings, and the food was simply not as good.

Last weekend, we went to Rosa's. A favorite of local celebrity chef Janos Wilder, it is a pleasing, rosy place, of the friendliest staff you'll meet in Tucson, some of the best salsa you'll ever have, and convenient to the university and Foothills area, the people watching is good too. The green chile chicken enchiladas are like a comfort food, warm, cheesy, mild, tasty, salty, and unfortunately, a little forgettable. We asked our most excellent host to make them hot and he said, "Are you sure?" Oh, yes, we replied. and I had visions of the time I ate green chile stew at Duran's in downtown Albuquerque, a little lunch counter in a drugstore, and the food was so hot, my head started to spin, and my vision seemed clearer for the rest of the day.

But hot at Rosa's is not hot. It is merely warmer.

Where was that kick in the pants green chile chicken enchilada?

Well, for months I avoided it: that tiny ramshackle place off 22nd and Kolb. How could it be good? it advertised itself as New Mexican Mexican food. No one ever seemed to be eating there. I didn't meet anyone who ever ate there either. Finally, after accepting failure in my green chile chicken enchilada odyssey, decided to give Poco and Mom's a try. Poco and Mom's, for real? Well, all right.

To Be Continued....

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  1. Love this post! Your assessments are spot-on, and I can't wait to read the rest. Thanks.

    1. You are way too picky, I was born and raised in Tucson. Unfortunatly I live in a cold, windy town way up north, a virtual culinary disaster area' Tucsonans can thank their lucky stars they have so much divirsity in eating establishments. I come "home" three times a year to get my head straight and enjoy "bueno comidas". My first stop is El Molinito on 22nd & Craycroft, been eating there since they opened over 30yrs ago, best salsa, best carne seca (the stuff at El Charro is really "seca" and tasteless, I see people lined up outside waiting, god knows why). Molinas Midway off speedway on Belvedere, nothings changed at all, excellent. And I know this is a different catagory but Lucky Wishbone is a treasure, Tucsonans are so lucky, hopefully we will be able to "snowbird it" down there in a couple of years.

      1 Reply
      1. re: mrbigshotno.1

        I'm in a similar situation as you, born and raised in Tucson but now live in the northern midwest and the food in my city just plain sucks. The thing I miss most about Tucson, pretty much the only thing I miss about Tucson is the food. The last time I was there was Christmas 2007. I might be going down there again this june thank god.

      2. I recommend El Torreo - located at 3rd Ave and 26th St on the outskirts of South Tucson. Any Mexican place that features a giant sailfish and velvet paintings is the real thing, as far as I'm concerned. Anyway, try the "La Bandera" - three enchilada's - green, red and white -for the Mexican flag. Yum! They also have a pretty fair turkey mole. Great place to drink beer and bs with friends over a cheese crisp.
        I also recommend the Mosiac Cafe, at Silverbell and Grant - great breakfast - tortillas made fresh - great soups, and El Indio, on South Sixth Ave - another great mole! And tortillas at St Mary's, 'natch!

        1. I'm looking forward to reading your continuing post!
          We'll be in Tucson for a conference in January and I'm making lists on the places we've gotta try.


          1. La Fuente should have been closed years ago, Rosa's has been off it's game since Rosa left the kitchen, and El Charro is a case of over expansion, however, I must agree with MrBigshot,,, you come across as way too picky.

            I second shotsie's recomendation of The Mosaic Cafe and also recommend El Mazon del Cobre on First Ave betwen Glenn and Ft. Lowell for their excellent seafood dishes.

            5 Replies
            1. re: dragonchowmein

              13 out of 16 breakfasts at Mosaic weren't very good, but we keep going back to watch the tortilla lady do her thing.

              Don't bother with the non-seafood dishes at El Mazon.

              BTW: has anyone been to Guadalajara Grill since their move down the street?

              1. re: Claudette

                I went to GG for lunch on Monday. The place looks great and the servers wear T-shorts that, on the back, say "Patio Coming Soon". All great, but for the food, which was so-so. I had beef fajitas. The meat was pretty good, but the green peppers overwhelmed the dish and the beans were lukewarm at best.

                I think El Mezon is generally better than GG. That said, the GG patio was always wonderful and I should have had fish at lunch.

                1. re: lawyerbriefs

                  I've never liked the food at GG, except for the tableside salsa, but my husband makes us go because he loves their mariachi (which makes me wonder why I married him, but that's another story). Thanks for the advance warning on the new place, which I'm sure he'll drag us to the next time we're in town.

                  1. re: Claudette

                    The overall package at GG is definitely better than the foods, and the patio makes a big difference. For the right occasion--we had dinner there the night before my 50th birthday bash, with lots of out of town guests--it's really the right choice!

                    1. re: lawyerbriefs

                      Happy B'day! Where did you go for the big celebration? I always enjoy your posts.