Elvira’s Restaurant has deep roots in Mexico—86 years deep.
Long before the upscale Mexican restaurant took up residence right at the entrance of the Village of Tubac, Elvira’s was a fixture on Avenida Obregon, just steps south of the border in Nogales, Sonora.
Elvira’s has come a long way since third-generation owner and chef Ruben Monroy’s grandmother Elvira launched the food-to-go eatery in 1927. Back then, it had to be food-to-go because the original room was so small. Elvira’s saw five expansions across the decades—Monroy’s father had fueled Elvira’s popularity with free tequila—and in 1990 Monroy took over Elvira’s from his parents. When he did, the cuisine was local Sonoran, but Monroy remodeled the Nogales restaurant and broadened the menu across Mexico, modernizing Elvira’s into a popular stop for the Hollywood set with the turn of the millennium seeing the likes of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. “ABC and CNN came to interview me,” Monroy says.
Good times collapsed with the 2008 economic recession. Americans made up some 90 percent-plus of Elvira’s business in Nogales. Fun trips across the border dried up, critically compounded with new U.S. requirements for passports to cross into Sonora.
“Then the violence was a third factor. [So] we decided to close. My main idea was to go to Puerto Vallarta,” Monroy says. He closed the Nogales restaurant in 2008 and took a year off to travel Mexico: Jalisco, Mexico City, Sinaloa. “I was seeing what was new. I wanted to get away from the business. Just do nothing. I got a lot of ideas,” he says.
Monroy moved Elvira’s 21 miles north of the border to Tubac in August of 2009. A friend owned the La Entrada of Tubac Center and coaxed Monroy into establishing a U.S. beachhead in Tubac. “I had to be wise. [In Tubac, U.S. citizens] don’t have to cross the border. Here, you are more original. It’s been a good decision. When I came here, I realized Elvira’s had a big following,” Monroy says.
Far too often, Mexican food gets lost in translation across the border. Not at Elvira’s, where you get upscale, south-of-the-border Mexican. The dinner menu has no enchiladas, no tostadas, no chimichangas. Here it’s more about tenderloin or rib-eye prepared with chiles not typically found north of the border.
Mole is a primary pillar on Elvira’s menu. Monroy explained that mole is a Mayan word for a mixture of spices, precisely as curry is an Indian mixture of spices. His mole negro boasts 34 ingredients, among them several chiles, cacao, star anise, cinnamon and avocado leaf. “It’s the most difficult mole and the most famous one,” he says. “Mole made us what we are. When you go to Mexico City, the upscale restaurants have mole. It’s the way you dignify the dish.”
Seafood is the most robust pillar of Elvira’s menu, followed by meats and a special category called molcajetes, where you can choose tongue, flank steak, or shrimp and your choice comes to you in a lava mortar heated to 180 degrees.
All the shrimp on the Elvira’s menu comes from Mexican waters. Although ahi tuna and Chilean sea bass also grace the menu, the main attraction at Elvira’s is the unlikely flounder, which thrives in the Sea of Cortez and shines in Monroy’s kitchen. He prepares it with a salsa fresca with cilantro, tomatoes, red onion, and lime on a mango/pineapple bed.
The flounder may be tasty, but Monroy’s favorite menu item, the Filet San Mateo, doesn’t come from the sea. “We grill a nopal leaf. On top of that, we put the filet. Many Americans don’t know you’re supposed to eat the cactus,” Monroy says. A sauce crafted with imported guajillo, morita, ancho, arbol, and mulatol chiles covers the filet. Monroy sweetens it with a drizzle of honey. What the menu doesn’t mention is the tiny shaving of piloncillo—an intense burnt sugar.
At Elvira’s, “comes with rice” does not mean a plain scoop of rice, nor the American Mexican tradition of rice soaked in tomato sauce. Monroy starts with long-grain rice, accents it with a scattering of wild rice, and mixes in some finely diced tomato, cilantro, and Anaheim chile. “We lift it a little,” says Monroy, who trained at the Instituto Ambrosia, Mexico’s culinary institute. What’s the one thing above all else that he learned at the institute? He answers instantly: “Discipline. That’s very important. Once you know that, everything comes from there.”
Monroy is a chef first, master of the menu and ingredients, but when Elvira’s relocated, he took charge of all the interior design. (He went to design school in Guadalajara straight out of high school before veering back to the family restaurant.) “[In Tubac], the décor is more modern,” he says. “In Nogales, it was very conservative.”
What Monroy calls “modern” includes the nearly 2,000 glass raindrops dangling from Elvira’s ceiling, an idea which came from a restaurant in Puerto Vallarta that had maybe a half dozen glass drops in one corner. Monroy himself installed all of the 2,000 raindrops on 60-pound fishing line.
The raindrops fill most of the ceiling, but one of the restaurant’s rooms features a few querubines (baby angels) among an overhead field of about 60 red hearts. Another room has a corner of three-dimensional estrellas (stars). Three large blower masks—rain deities from Guerrero—line one wall. Closer to the floor, Monroy and his long-time manager Ricky Garcia went at it with a large palette of colors to paint dozens of small circles. “I wanted to add some colors, so the room comes to life,” Monroy says. “I call it funky Mexican. It is what it is. It reflects my food. My food is funky, too.”
Although, for now, you’ll have to dip into Santa Cruz County to savor Elvira’s cuisine, Monroy says, “In two years, I’m looking to be in Tucson.” ✜
Elvira’s Restaurant. 2221 E. Frontage Road, Builing A-101. Tubac. 520.398.9421. ElvirasRestaurant.com.
Teya Vitu is a freelance writer who has eaten at more than 250 restaurants in Baja Arizona.