Review: Carolina's Mexican Food - Phoenix
- Seth Chadwick
I have hit a comfortable rut as of late. I am involved in the same work battles. I am cruising along with my family and J. just fine and everything seems okay, if not boring at times.
This is why a phone call I recently received from Madge sort of caught me off guard. Now, there isn't anything I wouldn't do for Madge because she is just one of those rare, wonderful friends that you just relish, even when life is lobbing lemons at you. So, my ears perked up at the tone of Madge's voice when she called.
Madge said she needed to see me. Had to see me. She said that I am the only person that could say the right things and calm her down. I could tell from the sound of her voice she was in a near state of panic. This couldn't be good because I hadn't heard much from Madge since our "check out Boris weekend." I figured that she and Boris were hitting it off but good.
I got Madge calmed down enough to suggest that we meet for lunch. I know that one of Madge's favorite comfort foods is Mexican cuisine, so I suggested we have lunch at Carolina's. This would work out for both of us because Madge would get a shoulder to cry on and I would get to review a restaurant I had never been to before.
I picked Madge up and got her into the Sethmobile and headed to 12th Street and Mohave Street in Phoenix. I knew exactly where we were going because my grandmother lived many, many years on Mohave, just down the street from the original Food City.
As we approached the airport, Madge was filling me in on all the details of her distress. It was, indeed, an issue with Boris. I prepared to hear the worst. I was thinking he was already married or had important body parts missing or something horrible. Madge was quick to tell me that I was wrong. She stated in no uncertain terms that Boris had given her something that put her in a panic. I told her that no matter what, I would be there for her. She revealed to me that Boris had given her...
. a hickey.
Now, I know that this was tantamount to the end of the universe for Madge, but I couldn't help myself from tweaking Madge a bit. She showed me the offending body mark and I told her that the curling iron defense was classic. I also said that at least she confirmed he wasn't a vampire or Goth. I also told her that the mark should make her feel young again because I remember the last time I gave a hickey to anyone was when I was 13.
See? I know all the right things to say.
We slowly approached Carolina's and we could see the sign lingering above the street. Our next issue was finding parking. Carolina's is a very busy place and we ended up parking somewhat illegally but at least out of the flow of traffic. We noticed people parking on 12th Street, across the street from Carolina's and just about anywhere else they could find room.
We walked into Carolina's and I was, again, caught a bit off guard. What I never considered is that Carolina's is a place where you place a quick order, grab a seat in a non-descript, fast-food like dining room and eat quickly and return to your routine.
We got in line with the other hungry Phoenicians and reviewed the menu that was posted above the ordering station. Madge was convinced that everyone in the place was zeroing in on her hickey. The menu was very comprehensive and what I noticed was how inexpensive the place was. Plate combos for under $6.00 really makes me happy.
By the time we got to the counter (about 5 minutes), we had decided on our order. Madge adores Chorizo and couldn't keep herself from ordering it. She decided to have the Chorizo with Potatoes combo ($4.35) which included rice and beans. I went with my old standby and opted for the Beef Enchilada Combo Plate ($5.15) which featured a beef enchilada, a taco, a tostada, rice and beans. We also ordered two sodas ($1.25 each). With tax, our order was $12.21.
We grabbed our drink cups and headed to the fountain machine for Diet Cokes and to grab a table. The dining room is exceptionally spartan. The bare concrete floor is old, but clean and a dozen or so tables are situated throughout. We grabbed one of the few tables that didn't have the seats bolted to the floor, which was much more comfortable than the booths or the other tables. We filled our cups and grabbed a few paper cups of hot sauce.
We waited for our number to be called and I talked to Madge about how her hickey was barely noticable and told her it could be covered with a bit of makeup. I also said she could say it was the formation of an age spot. Again, I know just the right things to say.
Our number was called and I got our order. As I approached the pick up area, I noticed how much take out business this place does. There were at least two dozen orders in bags waiting to be picked up. I got our tray and headed back to Madge. On said tray were two styrofoam food service trays with the three compartments and the self-locking lid. They were heavy.
Madge opened her Chorizo and Potatoes and inhaled deeply. I knew this would cheer her up. The chorizo was fried and piled on top of a nice serving of fried potatoes. Rice and beans were in the two smaller compartments and a large serving of lettuce sat next to the chorizo and spuds. A tortilla was rolled up and sat atop the rice.
I opened my container and found a handsome looking taco, loaded with lots of cheese and lettuce and a tostada sitting adjacent. Hiding below these two items were the rice and beans and the beef enchilada. Madge and I dove into our meals.
My taco was excellent. The shell was crisp and not greasy. The meat was nicely seasoned and a bit garlicky which was a great asset. Thankfully, the cooks at Carolina's thoroughly dried the lettuce before using it as garnish. It was cold and crisp. The cheese was cold and plentiful as well. It was a outstanding taco.
The tostada was similar. The shell was great and what I likes most about it was that the tostada was not bogged down by the beans. There was a thin coating of refried beans across the top of the shell and then lettuce and cheese wrapped up the dish. It was crisp, light, and tasty. Carolina's nailed it flawlessly.
The rice and beans were good. There was nothing super special about them, but I will note that the rice was fluffy and the beans smooth - attributes that make me pleased.
Last to try was the beef enchilada. This was very good. There were small chunks of beef in the tortilla instead of ground beef and that was a pleasant surprise. The sauce was tangy with a scant bit of heat to give it some punch. Another success story.
Madge clearly had forgotten about her body image issue as she chowed down on the chorizo and potatoes. "Fantastic," she uttered when I requested some comments. She said the chorizo was some of the best she has had and the potatoes were a perfect suitor to the spicy meat. Like me, she said the rice and beans were good, but nothing stellar. Madge did, however, have one minor complaint and that was the amount of lettuce. It was equal to the amount of chorizo and potatoes. Madge said she would have liked to have more chorizo and potatoes and less rice, even if it meant upping the price a bit.
The major standout, however, was the tortilla. Carolina's sign outside states they have the best tortillas in Phoenix. I think they may be right. The tortilla was fresh, hot, thin and light. It wasn't overly doughy and had been perfectly cooked. I really enjoyed it and could only imagine how excellent a cheese crisp made with these tortillas would be. Heaven sent, to be sure.
The only disappointment I had was the hot sauce. It was clearly there for heat and the taste was fairly run of the mill. It wasn't bad, but simply there. I would have preferred a thicker sauce and a bit more garlic or other herbs or even a salsa to go with it.
We finished our meals in about 10-15 minutes. As I said, the place is very busy with lots of traffic, so the table turnover rate is fierce and the dining room is not conducive for heart-to-heart talks about anything - hickeys or otherwise.
We got into the car and I suggested to Madge that we hit the outlet mall at Anthem to cheer her up a bit. She consented and we spent the day buying luggage and cologne and other goodies. It was nice to see Madge unwind from her distress.
I dropped Madge off at home and she thanked me for the chat. She said she may have been overreacting and gave me a hug and a kiss before stepping out of the car. She asked again if the hickey was minor.
"Madge," I said, "It isn't any bigger than a silver dollar." I took Madge's stunned silence that she appreciated my parting words.
See? I know all the right things to say.
Carolina's Mexican Food
1202 East Mohave Street
Phoenix, AZ 85034
Notes: Closed Sundays. They have a second location at 2126 East Cactus Road in Phoenix.
I've become a semi-fan of Carolina's (original location) after initial skepticism, in particular the bean and potato burro and the cheese enchilada. I was amused when I took a friend there for lunch recently to see that they had added a "taco salad." The posted picture of the new item didn't show evidence of lettuce, but my friend, theoretically on a diet, ordered it. If there was any lettuce the so-called salad, I didn't notice it. Carolina's is not a place to even pretend to be on a diet!
Next time I have a problem in my world, I'll call you so that we can head to Carolina's for some killer food and straight talk. Wait...I don't know your number.
Love Carolina's. It's pure comfort food that reminds me of my childhood. In my world growing up you could make a meal out of a pot of fresh beans and tortillas, and many times we did.
No, no, no. The thing to do at Carolina's is pick a burro -- whatever your preference, doesn't matter -- and order it 'foot-long, enchilada style.' Now *that* is a divine meal, for like $5. I agree that the enchilada plate is the best benchmark for a Mexican place -- as in, if they can't get that right, don't bother ordering anything more complicated -- but at Carolina's it's crazy to order anything that doesn't include their flour tortillas and their amazing brown sauce.
And then, if you're really not caring about your waistline right that minute, tack on ' . . , deep-fried,' to the end of your order. You wouldn't think those tortillas get any better, but frying them is a worthwhile indulgence.
Oh -- and order a dozen tortillas to take home. Then put them in the trunk, so they actually make it there. In the seat next to you, you'll eat one or two while sitting in traffic.
Let me start by saying that I love Seth's reviews which I usually read even though I almost never get up to Phoenix.
But I make it a rule never to judge a Mexican restaurant based on a combo. Around here (Yuma) we call combos "gringo plates" or "snowbird platters." They are usually sold to non-Mexicans who know little about Mexican food. Hence, in many of the more authentic places, the combos are the worst things on the menu. If no one has given me advice beforehand, I usually try to see what is unique about the menu and order that. Or I will pick an item (green chili is my favorite for this) that is done in many different styles at different places and try it. And if I am in the mood for enchiladas, I will order an enchilada plate - not just one in a combo.
Anyway, just my 2 cents worth - well actually this morning, the advice is free.
You know, that is good advice. It is probably the worst barometer of a place's worthiness. Thanks, Ed.
I may sometimes default to the gringo plate because I have an embarrassing weakness for cheese enchiladas. May not be haute cuisine, but satisfies a craving, for me. So I'm always a little bit on the lookout for a place that does what I affectionately call 'trash Mexican' well.
Thanks for the input.
I use the combo standard because the items are pretty basic. If the beans on a tostada are horrible, I tend to suspect there are problems in the kitchen.
For myself, it has been a good standard because if my combo meal has been bad, inevitably, the meal of my dining companion has been bad as well.
That being said, I do go back to those places and try other items. Trust me, if the combo plate was good and the rest of the food bad, I would update here and on my blog.
But good input and I thank you for providing a different perspective so people can hear a variety of opinions.
themis, your advice is 100% right on. I don't know what popped this old thread back onto the top of the list, but I am glad it did. I think I know what I am having for dinner.
My personal fave, is the Machaca Burro, enchilada style,
A real treat, is a tortilla with butter (and I mean, dripping with butter). Dump a little salsa on that, and you have a little piece of heaven in your hand.
I have said it before, but I would literally bathe in a tub of their salsa if I could. I usually grab an extra container of that to pour on my eggs the next morning.
Carolina's is an institution, and I don't expect that to change.
Seth, Love your reviews! Carolina's has awsome red and green chili as well - we get pints of each with flour tortillas and roll our own at home. That's IF we have any tortillas left after smearing them with butter,warming them and gobbling as fast as we can!
I am a big fan of Carolina's. I love their tacos! I drive from N Peoria just to eat here sometimes! My husband had a chimichunga and said it was very very good for $5.50 for the size of it most places charge over $8.00.