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Sep 18, 2009 10:37 AM

Tucson - Mexican restaurant?

Our kids have just moved to Tucson, and they're still trying to find a GREAT Mexican restaurant. One that was recommended (can't remember the name) was notable for its carne seca, and it was probably one of the worst meals any of us has eaten. Meat was way too salty, and the other dinner choices were mediocre, at best. We lived in Mexico for a few years, so we're not unfamiliar with the cooking. The sort of Tex-Mex fare in Tucson is a favorite of ours. I hope to learn of some places recommended by Chowhound readers. Thank you!

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  1. Sonoran is the prevalent type of Mexican fare in Tucson. You probably ate at "El Charro" way overrated, way over media saturated. I suggest you start at the southern end of S. 4th ave. at a great place calle "MIchas" and work your way north to 22nd st., over a dozen places on that strech of road. My personal favorites besides Michas is El Molinito on 22nd west side of Craycroft. Laruas, Broadway east of Campbell. Molina's Midway on Belvedere block south of Speedway. These places have been in business 30-40 years. There are tons of other places/holes in the wall/taco trucks etc. that may have a single item that blows all others away. The best Mexican food in Tucson is a very hotly debated topic as you will probably see after my post here. I'm surprised I was the first. Good luck and have fun.

    7 Replies
    1. re: mrbigshotno.1

      Thank you SO much! Yes, it was El Charro - just not good at all. I will send the kids your restaurant list and tell them to check them all out, so that the next time we visit them, they'll be able to take us to a really good place!

      1. re: mrbigshotno.1

        I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head, however, my favorite is still El Minuto on Main. The service is fast, the waiters are charming but most of all, the food is delicious. I have never had a bad meal there. I happen to like menudo and they have the absolute best! Cafe Poca Cosa has delicious food but you shouldn't go there expecting Mexican food. I have never understood why El Charro is written up in magazines when their food, I think, is awful. The carne seca is good but that's it!

        1. re: francelle

          You said it all. Especially El Charro. I think they made a deal with the devil (almost literally) when they went into partnership with Bob McMahon. You do that, you're dead to me. I'm told that the new east side Nimbus has the old menu, but I'm very skeptical since they made a deal with the same devil. The guy is a heartless greedy mercenary.

          1. re: EWSflash

            El Charro is one of the oldest and best restaurants in Tucson, The Devil you refer to has one of the best Steak Houses I have ever experienced and if you travel anywhere in the world especially if you are serving our country you will experience from any AirForce service personel along with the most sofisticated and wonderful group of men and woman that support Tucson that Mr. McMahon is one of the most generous and gracious people you will ever have the honor to meet. You must own a restauant that can't compete.

            El Charro Cafe
            311 N Court Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701

            1. re: jellybeany

              He treats our military people well? Good for him. Everybody should.

              1. re: jellybeany

                Nope, no restauranteurs in my family or circle, just a bunch of shitty meals at his restaurants over the years.

                1. re: jellybeany

                  The original downtown El charro, i've never had a bad meal at, the others, I definitely have. I'm sorry that El Charro sold out to McMahon, aka MaMahon per your spelling.

          2. Here are some of my favorites:

            Little Cafe Poca Cosa (open Mon-Fri for breakfast and lunch only)
            Tacqueria Pico de Gallo
            El Guero Canelo (great Sonoran-style hot dogs)
            Tucson Tamale Company (not a typical Mexican restaurant, but they have great tamales)
            Tacqueria Juanitos
            El Sur

            4 Replies
            1. re: wolive

              While at El Guero Canelo, don't miss the carne asada tacos.

              1. re: wolive

                This really is a "your mileage will vary" question but we love La Indita on 4th. Their menu shows its Michoacan Tarascan Indian heritage and I love the "green sauce."

                  1. re: hans

                    Have they come back up? I heard they took a major dip for a while, and we've avoided it since.

                1. Alas, I have eaten my way around town and nothing compares to the real Mexico. Sonoran-American-mess on a plate: no subtlety, no savory, too much of the carb, grease, cheese, not enough sauce, meat, or bean, and it sucks. I've been accused of being a snob, and I just don't care. I became a cook at home because I can't get out what I want. Exceptions are Cafe Cosa Poca, but it's pricey, and uneven, and it's also Mexican City Food, not Sonoran, and then there's my favorite taco truck that zips up from Acapulco but only on rare occasions, and El Guero Canelo for fat burros -- if you're in the mood. I've eaten at the vaunted El Molinito and I just can't understand why people continue to extol its praises. If you like dipping a stale, over-salted chip in red colored salted, smoke water, hey, who is to argue? Or dry, ancient, lukewarm flatulent-producing pintos hugging deflated crusty enchiladas, then it's the place for you.

                  El Sur USED to be fab, but somewhere down the line they started using the MSG, liberally, and the wonderfully caramelized, fragrant onions offered table-side, now smell and taste like something you might find on the floor of a monkey cage at the zoo.

                  My advice is, if you can't afford regular pilgrimages to Cafe Poca Cosa, is to get yourself some good Southwestern-Mexican cookbooks and spend time shopping for the fresh stuff at Food City and try cooking your favorites at home. You can buy fresh tortillas at places like La Mesa at Broadway and Pantano and go to Hatch Chile fest in New Mexico with a cooler and buy twenty pounds of roasted chiles for your freezer and have a ball making wonderful, authentic stuff at home, rather than relying on Tucson Mexican.

                  My opinion only.

                  Among others, I have eaten at:

                  El Minuto
                  El Charro (all locations)
                  Old Pueblo Grill
                  El Molinito
                  Mi Nidito
                  Los Betos
                  El Guerro Canelo
                  Cafe Poca Cosa
                  El Sur
                  Poco and Moms
                  Rosa's Mexican

                  Poco and Mom's is New Mexican cuisine. Also used to be grand, made to order, fresh, savory, wondrous food. Now, not since they expanded hours and I also believe the owners divorced, and they have resorted to the bloody MSG!

                  I get a tell-tale MSG headache, which is how I know.

                  I wish Tucson would try harder. Missed opportunities abound in becoming a foodie town.

                  But a P.S. Cilatro's Cafe on the Southeast side is Columbian, and I know it's not quite what you're looking for, but it's wonderful. Especially, the stews and soups and grilled chicken dishes.

                  Disclaimer: haven't tried some of the places mentioned here, like La Indita, but will with the hope that it challenges my snotty attitude.

                  Food City
                  2124 E Mcdowell Rd, Phoenix, AZ

                  El Guero Canelo
                  5201 S 12th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85706

                  Cafe Poca Cosa
                  110 E Pennington St, Tucson, AZ 85701

                  435 E 400 S, Salt Lake City, UT 84111

                  La Indita
                  622 N 4th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85705

                  El Sur Restaurant
                  5602 E 22nd St, Tucson, AZ 85711

                  El Minuto Cafe
                  354 S Main Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701

                  Mi Nidito Cafe
                  1813 S 4th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85713

                  17 Replies
                  1. re: jillita

                    LOL!!! As my husband would say, "Why don't you tell us what you really think?" Thanks for the post!

                    1. re: jillita

                      What a great post! Thank you so much. I am a DC hound heading to Tucson today. I was reading on the SFO board recently that if you want truly great mole fly to Tucson and go to Cafe Poca Cosa, so I plan on eating there tonight.

                      I really would love to find some great tacos or a pozoleria. Any ideas?

                      1. re: sekelmaan

                        Be sure to order the Plato at Poca Cosa so you get a sampling. Otherwise, it's a huge plate of just one mole. BTW: they have the best margaritas, IMHO.

                        Have fun in Tucson - you'll love the weather.

                        1. re: Claudette

                          We went last night. I was not very impressed with Cafe Poca Cosa. I had the chicken mole negro and thought it was quite bland. It had a good sweetness and a hint of spice, but it did not have the complexity of mole negro's I have had in the past with layers and layers of flavours from the dozens of seeds, nuts and spices that go in to that kind of mole. Also, I don't think dried out chicken breast is appropriate. Gimme a thight or a leg! Something with some bone in it. We thought the portions were way too large covered in not very Mexican mix of greens and a way too sour red wine vinagrette. I would say this restaurant is not very authentic, but elevated for trendy american palates.

                          When I got here and found out that 4th street is on the North side of town I was confused. It would seem to me that all the really good and authentic Mexican restaurants would be on the south side of town in the areas where the poplation is largely Mexican/Latino. That is where I am going to try to head today to find a restaurant where you have to order in Spanish. Ahhh yeah!

                          1. re: sekelmaan

                            Too bad you didn't enjoy it; that's why I suggested the Plato - at least one of the three would have been a home run for you. She has over a hundred recipes, it is said, and I can't remember having any mole repeated, but then we only dine there a couple times a year. Once we had a yellow almond mole over a fish, and it was divine.

                            1. re: sekelmaan

                              Sorry Cafe Poca Cosa was not up to par. I have talked to friends and neighbors many of whom agree that the cafe has not been the same since they moved to the new digs. This is a deep shame. I had one of the most memorable meals of my life there, ordering the chef's plate. so complex, earthy, tangy, bitter, sweet, everything you could want, the raw and the cooked, the simmered, the seared. Was just a beautiful eating experience. So much care and love in every bite. I hope they can improve and restore it to the way it was.

                                1. re: jillita


                                  I revisited Cafe Poca Cosa and had the worst experience yet (see link above).

                                  I will definitely try El Indio.

                                  Went to the Ft. Lowell El Guero Canelo and had a giant and most excellent mas mucho carne asada burro. Cheap, full salsa bar, family crowd, outstanding service, the perfect companion food to a big hike.

                                  Perfection green sauce, to be had there, by the way.

                                  Unfortunately, the Mexican Coke we can get at certain Tucson restaurants now uses high fructose corn syrup. I buy Blue Sky Cola at Sunflower. This cola is made with sugar and tastes like the Pepsi we remember growing up in the 70s. Nothing like the sugar and pepper bite in a real cola. I wish coke would introduce a sugar version again. Alas, it gets harder and harder to find food without the poisonous HFCS.

                                2. re: sekelmaan

                                  4th breaks at downtown. You want the 4th that is south of 22nd. (I believe Pico de Gallo is on 6th and 29th, but I dare say it's the best Mexican restaurant in town.)

                                  4th north of broadway is more of an arts district. Maya Quetzal is okay Guatamalan food, but I'd honestly head over to Main Gate for chow most days. (No Mexican really, but Vila Thai is good, as is an Afghani restaurant hidden in there. It used to be much better before they moved, though.)

                                  1. re: ibsulon

                                    The majority of STREETS in Tucson go east and west. The majority of AVENUES in Tucson go north and south. Stone Avenue divides east and west, Broadway divides north and south. There are numbered STREETS and AVENUES. You want SOUTH 4th Avenue for the majority of the really good and old Mexican restaurants. For the most part these are along 4th avenue from 22nd Street to the Freeway (I-10) -- (by really good I mean Sonoran mexican food, not Tex-Mex).

                                    Maya Questzal on North 4th Ave is a Guatemalan restaurant (The Quetzal is a beautiful bird and the monetary unit of Guatemala.

                                    North 4th Ave, north of the underpass to University Blve (1st St.) is a fun shopping, dining and dining experience in Tucson, especially on the weekends.

                                    There are many fine Sonoran mexican food restaurants in Tucson.

                                    Much like the expression that one man's trash is another's gold, so is mexican food. Having lived here for about 50 years, I find that people who grew up in Arizona really enjoy the local restaurants and will lead you to the old reliable & usually family-run restaurants. Others will lead you to the first or second place they ever tried in town -- that could be the chain restaurant "On the border." Some may like "La Parilla Suiza", a chain out of Mexico City with locations in Mexico City and Guadalajara as well as Tucson. They serve consistently good, Mexico City style food but I think they are pricey.

                                    If you like Tex-Mex you may not find it in Tucson, but remember, Mexican food, just like Italian food, is regional. I don't remember eating soft tacos in the 50s and 60s, but they are everywhere today. Fish tacos were not common. Sometimes tacos were "caseros" with a patty of meat or some other meat or chile, peas, potatoes, lettuce or cabbage and white queso cotija -- usually not yellow cheese.

                                    There are times that you may think you are ordering something that you are familiar with and you may receive something different. Chalupas are prepared at Taco Bell, tostadas (essentially a chalupa) are served in most Tucson mexican restaurants.

                                    Soooo, when you eat in almost any of the great Mexican restaurants in Tucson,, expect them to vary much like the difference between your mother's sloppy joes are not the same as your friend's mother's sloppy joes. But they are both probably good.

                                    A rose, is a rose, is a rose, but in Tucson a Chalupa may be a Tostada. Try it, you'll like it.

                                    1. re: tucdan

                                      OMG! I remember the caseros, although I didn't know they had a name other than taco! The lettuce filling had to have peas and/or sliced radishes. I still make them like that and friends call them "real tacos". And they had to have the white Mexican cheese!

                                      1. re: francelle

                                        That's the way they used to make them at the old "La Suprema" on 22nd & 4th, 40 some odd years ago.

                                        1. re: mrbigshotno.1

                                          Hey, mrbigshotno.1---you remember that place...? They had a restaurant [of sorts] next door in the same building...on the corner way back then- CAZADORES.
                                          I have several of their sombrero-shaped ceramic ashtrays...assorted colors... in my permanent collection...!

                                          1. re: nohurry

                                            Yep, my mom would only buy tortillas from there and I had chili con queso at Cazadores for the first time back like around 1970 or so, the real thing, not this cheese sauce jive they pass out now in most places. Days gone by..........

                                            1. re: mrbigshotno.1

                                              What exactly do you call "chile con queso"? The first time I saw that on a menu, it turned out to be caldo de queso and I have loved it ever since. That was at the old, old El Charro downtown when Monica Flynn was alive. I'm enjoying your conversation with nohurry

                                      2. re: tucdan

                                        Thank you for pointing that out, it may totally change a visitor's vision!

                                    2. re: sekelmaan

                                      This is an old thread, but to clarfy, fourth STREET runs east-west and is indeed on the north side of town- and residential the whole way. 4th AVENUE runs north-south and the good stuff is indeed south of 22nd street-which also runs east-west.

                              1. Forgot I also ate at Michas and was similarly disappointed. I think it really boils down to whether you like Sonoran or not. I really don't. Having lived in New Mexico I suppose did spoil me. Also, having real Mexico Mexican did as well.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: jillita

                                  I ate at Micha's once- food wasn't too bad but it bothers me when I go to a resto on the south side of Tucson and the only Mexicans in the place are working there, none of the customers are Hispanic, it bothers me. It's turista food. We've eaten at Rigo's, and it was always really good. I don't remember if it was on south 4th or south 6th, but it's worth seeking out.

                                2. The last two times I've been in Tucson, I've eaten at El Indio Mexican Restaurant, 3355 South 6th Avenue, Tucson, AZ just south of interstate 10 on the east side of the street. I'm a Los Angeles hound who has eaten Mexican food all over the Southwest and in Mexico, (not to mention a lot of the world - if you're in Jakarta or Hong Kong, don't bother). The first time at El Indio I had the chili verde with pork, which I thought was excellent. The second time the chili colorado with beef, which was also excellent. The flour tortillas were housemade and very fresh, the salsa and chips were good. The place is cheap. I haven't found much good Mexican food in Tucson - I do not like Cafe Poca Cosa, that seems to be a favorite with a lot of people, and I am not much of a fan of the ubiquitous Sonoran hot dog - but I will happily return to El Indio whenever I am in town.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: estone888

                                    Somewhere down there where the two freeways meet near a high school is a place called Taco Apson. I think it is a great taqueria and have gone there everytime I have been in Tucson. Great little hole in a wall taqueria.