Chasing a Southwestern food icon.

November 1, 2014

Issue 9: November/December 2014Purveyors
Like all good chimi's, the burro at Macayo's comes smothered in sauce and a generous side of refried beans.

Like all good chimi’s, the burro at Macayo’s comes smothered in sauce and a generous side of refried beans.

At a table draped with red plastic, we eat chips and salsa. Norteño music plays from a radio in the kitchen. Dark-haired waitresses with square jaws crisscross the red and white tiled floor like pieces on a checkers board. A newspaper article mounted to the wall says that La Fiesta Café won first place for Best Mexican Dish at a food show commemorating the centennial of the Mexican Revolution. Is this still Arizona? Maybe I took a wrong turn somewhere in the dark.

In January, I begin my quest for Arizona’s best chimichanga in Douglas, half a mile from Mexico, by ordering a green chile chimi, enchilada style. My wife, Karen, asks about the ground beef tacos, if they’re deep-fried the way her father makes them. When the cheese-crisp appetizer comes, I taste mesquite-wood smoke. “Only in Mexico can you find tortillas as good as this,” I tell her. She knows. She was raised on tortillas from across the border.

My chimichanga fills the plate. Twin ice-cream scoops of sour cream and guacamole mound the bulging tortilla set in chopped lettuce and tomato. The chile is sinus-expanding, the shredded beef dark and moist within its deep-fried shell.

“You’re going to have to develop some kind of point system, you know,” Karen suggests.

“Like a zero-to-five scale? Zero being a numb state of food consciousness?” I lower my voice and announce: “You are barely aware that you are chewing. The flat texture and tastelessness in your mouth may put you to sleep face down in the refried beans.” I make a few notes on my napkin: “Category 5: Orgasmic. One bite and people will ask if you want to be alone with your meal.”

“Very funny,” she says. “You’ll also have to choose one kind—green or red chile, chicken, beef, bean, or carne seca.”

“I’ll stick with green chile. But I’m already biased. How can anything beat Pancho’s?”

I tasted my first chimichanga at Pancho’s on Grant in Tucson when I was 9. Forty-seven years ago and I remember it like it was this morning. Carne seca. Rolled into a thin flour tortilla the size of a sombrero, and covered with a jacket of melted cheese, lettuce, and guacamole. I had to eat it with farm implements.

Liora-K_Purveyors-Chimichangas_Edible–Baja–Ariona_01-04Pancho’s is long gone, but I’ve recently learned that Tucson’s El Charro Café and Phoenix’s Macayo’s Mexican Kitchen are laying claim to inventing the “thingamajig,” the G-rated translation of “chimichanga.” The word is probably an adaptation of a Mexican curse word, one you might hear coming out of a kitchen after someone knocks a heavy bean burro into boiling lard. Which is exactly what the restaurant’s founder, Monica Flin, did at El Charro in the early 1950s, according to her great-niece, Carlotta Flores. Macayo’s president, Sharisse Johnson, however, insists that her late father, Woody Johnson, created it in 1946 when he deep-fried unsold burros to serve the following day.

“I‘m searching for the best chimichanga in Arizona,” I announce the next month as I enter the Tumacácori Restaurant directly across from the historic mission.

“I can help you with that,” says Robert Ziegler, Jr.—his father, Robert Ziegler, opened the restaurant three decades ago. “The brisket is really good. I only use brisket.”

While he prepares my order, we talk chimichanga history. “I remember my first chimichanga when I was a kid growing up in Tucson,” I say. “It was huge, and covered with melted cheese and guacamole.”

“Tell me where—I know all the Mexican restaurants in Tucson.”

“Pancho’s, on Speedway, I think. There was a giant burning candle. It was family-owned, but it’s been gone for years.”

“Oh, yeah, Pancho’s on Grant Road,” he corrects me. “I miss that place.”

Maria brings salsa and chips, and asks what I’d like to drink. When I say Corona, her husband, Robert Sr., rises to his feet and slow-steps to fetch the beer from the cooler.

“How long have you two been together?” I ask the elder Robert.

“Married 30 years,” he says.

“How many?” Maria interjects from the kitchen. “Fifty!”

The two have been running the Greek/Mexican restaurant for half their married lives. Robert Ziegler, a World War II Army veteran, is 90 and still retains a full head of white hair. He was born in Mexico where his dad worked on the railroad during the Depression, and met Maria in Nogales.

“Where my wife is from,” Robert says, pointing to the photographs and paintings of Greek seaports and ruins on the walls.

My chimichanga arrives, covered with crisp lettuce and tomato, Spanish rice, and refried beans on the side. I cut into it with the edge of my fork. The brisket falls apart and spills out of the flaky tortilla along with freshly chopped green chiles. Steam rises and I inhale the tang of backyard summer cilantro. Category 3: Your taste buds come to attention and blood vessels dilate. Every chile on the planet becomes your best friend.

It is the best chimichanga since my childhood.

There's no right way to make a chimi, but one way is to pan fry it.

There’s no right way to make a chimi, but one way is to pan fry it.

“I‘m here for for Woody’s so-called original chimi,” I tell our server, Martín, at Macayo’s restaurant. “You know, El Charro says they invented it.”

He laughs. “My father’s father was eating them in Nogales, Sonora, when he was a kid. He called them ‘chivichangas.’ I laugh every time I hear this story.” He looks like he’s enjoyed a few chivichangas himself.

Plastic macaws fly overhead among pine vigas. Spanish ballads play from hidden speakers. Karen orders a Patrón margarita for me while I look over the menu. It’s a mix of history and recipe, and I fill my journal with notes: The marriage of high-school sweethearts Woody and Victoria Johnson, Macayo’s founders. The opening of the first restaurants in Phoenix and Tucson.

Woody’s story about inventing the chimichanga is familiar: “Legend has it that one day in 1946, Woody Johnson … accidentally dropped a meat-filled burro into a fryer, creating what is now a staple of Mexican restaurants across the Southwest.” This sounds suspiciously like Monica Flin’s claim at El Charro. I thought Johnson’s daughter Sharisse said her late father created it when he began frying up leftover burros to sell the following day … The mystery thickens. Like flan.

Martín takes my camera and snaps a picture of Karen and me with our food. Maybe it’s the Patrón tequila but the Chimichanga de Macayo definitely floats to the top of the deep fryer. It approaches Category 4: You feel your skin expand with your awareness of the greater universe. Just the word “chimichanga” causes you to salivate.

I’ve spent the summer tasting chimichangas across Baja Arizona—15 Mexican food joints with names like Santiago’s and Tacho’s and Café Piedra Roja (Category 1: Grease and ash with a hint of lard.) Just in Tucson, I’ve dined at Casa Molina, El Minuto, Mi Nidito’s, Guillermo’s Double L, and, of course, El Charro, the country’s oldest Mexican restaurant. All have fallen short of my memories of Pancho’s chimichanga. But now I’m hearing rumors about a Globe restaurant having the best green chile in the state and a chimichanga that’s unlike any other.

The chimi at Tumacácori comes topped with lettuce, tomato, and red onion — so it's sort of healthy, right?

The chimi at Tumacácori comes topped with lettuce, tomato, and red onion — so it’s sort of healthy, right?

At La Casita Café’s location in Thatcher, a replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper hangs above a fireplace mantle crowded with ceramic figures of mustachioed and sombreroed Mexicans. “I hope this isn’t our last supper,” I tell Karen when she points out the painting. After mocking the popcorn ceiling and fake wood paneling, I turn over the menu to a picture of vaqueros riding bareback with reins flying. Paso de la Muerte, it reads—passage of death. “Great,” I say.

My resolve is wearing thin. How many chimichangas can one person eat in a year? In Revenge of the Saguaro, Tom Miller writes, “you know your chimichanga is authentic if an hour after eating it, you feel a log gently rolling around in your stomach.”

According to the menu, La Casita got started in Globe in 1947 and still uses Mother Salustia Reynoso’s original recipes. I order the green chile with rice and beans.

I harbor a fantasy that good food should have soul. That it should taste like a poem. There should be stanzas of flavor—smoke and wood, salt and oil, meat and vegetable—that come together to create something greater than the individual parts. A taste that becomes music with rhythm and texture. When asked what part of a poem should be the best, Arizona’s poet laureate Alberto Rios says, “It better be the part I’m reading.” The same can be said for food. The best part better be the part I’m eating.

After my first bite of Mother Reynoso’s chimi, surprising even myself, I tell Karen: “Another Category 4. I’m going to put it in my top three. Up there with El Charro and Macayo’s.” I had expected something greasy, but it tasted freshly baked with a pungent, green-chile Velcro clinging to the tongue.

On a November evening, Karen and I slip into the near-empty town of Globe and pull into Chalo’s Casa de Reynoso. We find a seat at a plastic booth. The Virgin of Guadalupe hangs above us on a wall next to a picture of a bull fighter. I’m reminded of Edward Abbey’s U-Et-Yet? Café.

While Karen considers beef tacos, I order another green chile chimi—this one “spicy.” Globe, they say, is all about Mexican food. The green chile is to die for. In fact, we meet a couple who drove 100 miles from Tucson just for the gollo burro, a flour tortilla filled with green chile pork, beans, cheese, and topped with butter.

“The burro was first created when someone rolled meat inside a tortilla to keep it warm,” our tall, brunette server tells us when I ask about the famous burrito. “Look it up on Google,” she says. “And it’s ‘burro’ not ‘burrito,’” she adds, rolling the r’s perfectly. “A burrito is what you get in California or at Taco Bell.”

Her name is Roberta and she knows her food history. Her dark eyes narrow and she dismisses the chimichanga story I tell her about Macayo’s and El Charro, waving an arm as if shooing a fly. “Chimichangas is nothing new! In Mexico they fry everything! We bake our chimichangas. We don’t want the oil to soak in and change the flavor of the meat.”

Maria Ziegler shows the process behind Tumacácori Restaurant's famous — or infamous — chimichanga.

Maria Ziegler shows the process behind Tumacácori Restaurant’s famous — or infamous — chimichanga.

Did someone accidentally drop a burro into the oven? I ask her about a photograph of Salustia and Pedro Reynoso on the wall. She retrieves and unrolls a poster of Reynoso restaurants. There must be more than a dozen names on it and as many towns—I recognize La Casita in Thatcher.

“We were there just last week!” I say. “I ate my first baked chimichanga there!”

“Salustia started the first restaurant with her three sisters in the 1930s. All of these sprang from these four women,” says Roberta. Roberta’s husband, Gonzalo Anthony Reynoso Jr., “Chalo,” is the third generation. He started his place—the fourth restaurant on the list—in 1969. “Nobody wrote the recipes down. It was all in their heads. If something were to happen to him, this food as we know it would be done. When Sunset Magazine came here, I wouldn’t give the editor the recipes. I couldn’t!”

A sense of place and history and culture you can taste, I think, miming Michael Pollan. As with all things, taste has its complications. A bite of chimichanga comes with layers, each one an echo of something elemental. The tortilla’s wheat to the soil, the green chile’s chlorophyll to sunlight, the pork to the grain the animal fed on—all elements of earth, water, and sun. A recapitulation of the long contract between animals and plants, Pollan says. Between people and the earth.

Could it be that frying in oil masks this recapitulation, this complication of layers? And that the familia Reynoso knew about this generations ago? Could a traditional chimichanga be baked? When my chimi arrives, I smell the sweet tang of green chile and cubed pork in piecrust. This is it. I’m back at Pancho’s in Tucson when I was 9. Mariachis play from the Uno Mas Lounge in a room lighted by the largest known dripping candle. El Charro’s and Macayo’s chimichangas may have risen to the top of the deep fryer, but this one never fell in. Never fell from grace.

Roberta had told us that Mama Salustia had seven children. “She would not raise her children in Mexico. She wanted them brought up in the United States.” Today, those children, and their children, carry on a tradition of Sonoran-style Mexican food that has spread to 17 restaurants in a dozen towns across Arizona. Pick any one of them. From Thatcher to Show Low, Mammoth to Phoenix, the House of Reynoso has the best chimichanga in Arizona, the place of its birth.

Ken Lamberton’s latest book, Dry River: Stories of Life, Death, and Redemption on the Santa Cruz, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 2011. This essay is from his next book, Chasing Arizona: One Man’s Year-Long Obsession with the Grand Canyon State, forthcoming by UA Press in 2015.

Chimichangas UNITE! - Illustration by Steve McMackin

For Arizona’s centennial in 2012, El Charro and Macayo’s began a petition drive to make the chimichanga the state’s 13th official symbol after such icons as the cactus wren (state bird), saguaro blossom (state flower), and bolo tie (state neckwear). The initiative never got much traction in the legislature, although the two restaurants and Citizens for Arizona State Food garnered 3,849 signatures. House Speaker Andy Tobin said the T-bone steak would make a more fitting state food. Sen. Steve Farley thought fry bread would honor the state’s Native American culture. Gov. Jan Brewer told reporters, “We certainly have a long heritage of Mexican food in the state of Arizona and I certainly like chimichangas,” but she was unwilling to immortalize them.

“We didn’t get enough votes for it,” the manager at Macayos told me recently, but more likely the chimichanga never had a chance.

Apparently, the state legislature had better things to do. Several legislators were against the timing of the proposal, saying that spending time voting on an official state food was preposterous, since the state was mired in economic woes.

But a billion-dollar budget shortfall didn’t stop the legislature from adopting our 12th state symbol only a year earlier. To best reflect the history, landscape, and culture of our great state, in May 2011, the legislature selected the Colt .45 Single Action Army Revolver as the official state firearm. The Peacemaker.

What the chimichanga didn’t have was a lobbying force of 40 Republicans, Colt’s Manufacturing Co.—Todd Rathner, a lobbyist employed by Colt, helped write the bill signed by Brewer—and the NRA. Sorry El Charro and Macayo’s. Chimichangas can’t measure up to the world’s right arm. The symbol that embodies Manifest Destiny. Although even Wyatt Earp might disagree, it was Sam Colt, not the chimichanga, who made all yahoos equal.

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