Para leer este artículo en español, visite EdibleBajaArizona.com/Pedacitos-de-Mexico
I grew up on the south side of Tucson and my family always knew where to go to get certain foods that reminded them of their days back in Nogales, Sonora. They were reminded not only of the taste of Mexico’s food but also of the feeling of home. I continue to visit these places with friends, family, or by myself. Whenever I walk in, I’m filled with memories of my childhood. The food also now leaves me with a taste of curiosity. Who made this food? How was this food made? Why was it made?
Get to know the people behind the restaurants I consider little pieces of Mexico scattered throughout Tucson.
3501 S. 12th Ave. · 520.670.1248
The first thing you notice when you walk into this small taquería is that the walls are completely covered in old photographs of the Mexican rock ‘n’ roll band Los Apson, which swept through Mexico during the ’60s and ’70s with their mellow music. The name of the band comes from the abbreviated name of the city of Agua Prieta, Sonora, the band’s hometown. Francisco Durazo, whose father played the drums in the band, opened the doors to his business 14 years ago, eager to offer his version of Sonoran food.
The second thing you notice is the huge, sizzling grill. The menu is emblematic of a typical Sonoran barbeque, offering grilled tripe, baby back ribs, and other staples such as caramelos (melted cheese and choice of meat between two corn or flour tortillas), and Sonoran hot dogs. And everything is prepared on that grill, only feet from where you order. A fully stocked salsa bar complements whatever grilled goods you chose.
The restaurant is normally full, especially during the weekend when it closes late. But it hasn’t always been this way. “When you start, it is very difficult,” says Durazo. “You go from one day to another, you have to let yourself be known and wait for the people to approve of you and afterwards maintain a rhythm.” Without a doubt, the community of Tucson has approved of this small taquería, as the restaurant will celebrate its 15th anniversary next year. “It’s really exhausting but when you work hard, do things well and treat people face-to-face, everything will be good,” says Durazo.
304 E. 22nd St. · 520.624.8020
If you haven’t visited the beautiful city of Guadalajara, the closest taste of the regional cuisine is at the small restaurant Birrieria Guadalajara. For more than 34 years, the González Family has offered traditional cuisine from Guadalajara; one of their most famous dishes is the delicious birria, prepared from scratch daily in their open kitchen. This dish comes from the Mexican state of Jalisco and is typically made with beef or lamb, seasoned in a variety of spices and chiles, then slow cooked in its own broth.
Mónica González’s daily routine includes preparing birria, as well as other dishes, such as posole and menudo. In the morning, she and other cooks start by dicing onions, cilantro, and chiles; they check on the meat, often finishing what they started the day before, as many dishes require marinating for at least 24 hours. Everything except for the tortillas, which are bought locally, is made in-house, using fresh and natural ingredients, strictly following her grandmother’s original recipes.
“It began slow,” says Mónica. “When we first opened no one accepted us because we sold tacos with soft shells instead of hard shells. After people tasted our food, they approved happily.” After 34 years in business, they’re supported by old and new customers alike. The open kitchen allows guests to see exactly how their food is prepared and the welcoming space makes you feel as if you’re sitting down at a taquería in Guadalajara enjoying a delicious birria taco.
835 E. 22nd St. · 520.294.2836
Every journey begins with a dream and the will to fulfill it. That’s how Ramón Becerra, owner of Maico Mexican Restaurant, began his journey. He says, “I wanted the American Dream, so we packed the few things that we had and we came.” He arrived in the United States with his family and a few bags in 1974 from Teocuitatlán, a small village in the state of Jalisco. Although they arrived in California, Becerra says the friendly people and climate brought them to Tucson more than 20 years ago. Before opening the restaurant, Becerra had his own music store named Ana’s Records on Tucson’s south side, but he always had a dream of owning his own restaurant.
Eight years ago, he opened Maico, named for the nickname of one of his five children. All the dishes are made from family recipes typical of the state of Jalisco. The complete menu offers everything from ceviche tostadas, tortas, sopes, and chile rellenos. “Everything that we serve are our favorite dishes, and everything is prepared with heart,” says Becerra. “We enter the building with the will to work, we wash our hands, we turn on the stoves, we bless ourselves, and let’s go!”
The first day that they opened the restaurant, they “cried and cried” because no one came. Without paying for any promotion, they have slowly built a reputation for serving delicious Mexican food at reasonable prices—a visit from Andrew Zimmern for the Travel Channel show “Bizarre Foods” helped, too. Becerra concludes with a piece of wisdom: “Life teaches you everything. If you want to do something, do it.” He gets up in a hurry to attend the quickly forming line of customers.
4832 S. 12th Ave. · 520.746.0364
Los Jarritos holds a special place in the hearts of many Tucsonans. For more than 35 years, owner Frances Erunez and her family have been serving up Sonoran-style Mexican food to the community. The walls of the restaurant are covered with awards and photographs of Frances with politicians and celebrities. Throughout the years she has gained fame for being a supporter of causes ranging from child literacy to voter registration as well as involving herself in different community events (she recently spoke at a small-business forum hosted by the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management).
The name of the restaurant comes from where Frances was born—a house-turned-restaurant on Obregón Street in the city of Nogales, Sonora. The name also represents a typical tool used in the Mexican kitchen, a little jar where you can store salsas, juice, or any other condiment. Frances created all the dishes on the menu, including the steak ranchero, chicharrones with red chile (pork rinds in a red chile sauce), tamale plates, and the red and white menudos. “When my children arrived from school, I had dinner prepared for them that was usually very colorful with tomatoes, chiles, and cheese. Everything that we serve originally came from my own kitchen,” she says. Since 1980, she says she has been proud to serve dishes that are prepared from scratch daily, including their famous menudo.
Frances is now retired, but she frequently stops by to make sure everything tastes right and, more importantly, to say hello to her clients, many of whom she considers family. According to Frances, there is a good flow at the restaurant because of how they treat people: “I like to make people happy and bring out the best in them and let them know that yes you can.”
2618 S. Sixth Ave. · 520.623.8775
Pico de gallo means many things. It literally refers to the beak of a rooster, but it can also refer to a salsa made with chopped tomato, onion, and cilantro, or a fruit salad with lime and chile powder. Taquería Pico de Gallo is named for the fruit salad that brims from red plastic cups lined up in a refrigerator behind the cashier. Ignacio Delgado, who is from Nayarit, Mexico, began selling pico de gallo, corn on a cob, and horchata from a cart in front of Pueblo High School along 12th Avenue with his wife and kids. He recalls being asked to leave by the police only to be asked to return by the school administration and sell inside the high school.
They decided to expand their business and opened the restaurant on South Sixth Avenue in 1990, in what used to be a cowboy boot store. (In fact, a room that has a wall covered by mirrors used to be the store’s show room.) Ignacio’s daughter, Diana Delgado, remembers they only sold $8 worth of food on the first day they opened, even though “we prepared 10 dozen corn tortillas waiting for people to arrive, but not even the flies came.”
Today, people come like flies. The business has flourished and they have plans of expanding. “The secret has been to maintain the recipes how they originally began,” says Diana. “Every day we start from scratch, fresh.” You can taste it. The corn tortillas are always made to order, the pickled veggies are flavorful, the meats are perfectly seasoned, and the pico de gallo is freshly cut. ✜
Esteban Camarena is a native Tucsonan and avid traveler. He has worked at several local restaurants including Agustín Kitchen. Follow him on Instagram @estbncam.