Gustavo Arellano, the brilliant writer behind the Ask A Mexican column (and even better book by that title) was remarkably quick with a disarming retort that diffused controversy with humor. One example is when a reader–perhaps hoping to ingratiate himself to Arellano–wrote Ask A Mexican: “I don’t go to many Mexican restaurants—not because of the stereotypes but because the food is usually watered down to fit the taste buds of gabachos. In a future column, Arellano provided a response appropriate to the point.”Your sad story is one experienced by many Mexicans who travel through the parts of this country that wabs have just begun to colonize, but it’s not unique to us: New Yorkers always bemoan the quality of bagels everywhere outside of Brooklyn, and San Franciscans simply won’t eat burritos not folded in their famed Mission District. I will argue, however, that Mexican cuisine is more whitewashed than others.”
Boy could we relate! During our travels over my Air Force career, we encountered a phalanx of inauthentic “Mexican restaurants” comparable to Taco Bell, an eatery we wouldn’t frequent if you put a gun to our heads. That was to be expected in such states as Mississippi, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Connecticut but certainly not Arizona. Right? Afters retiring from the Air Force, I began working for Intel where my job required frequent business trips to Chandler and Ocotillo in the Phoenix area. Well-intentioned colleagues must have thought “He’s New Mexican so he probably wants to eat Mexican food.” They would take me to mostly Arizona-based Mexican chain restaurants. One in particular was so bad my Intel colleagues in New Mexico all referred to it as “Mocoso’s,” a derogatory term for a snot-nosed punk or brat.
How bad was Mocoso’s? First, the salsa had to have been made in New York City. “New York City! Somebody get a rope.” That salsa was anemic with no more piquancy than a bell pepper. Second, Mocoso’s was solely responsible for years I spent bad-mouthing Arizona’s sacrosanct chimichanga, a dish the restaurant claims to have invented in 1946. The crunchy encasement for desiccated chicken was a cross between puff pastry and a Chinese egg roll wrapper. Mocoso’s is a paragon of gauche, an exemplar of every conceivable stereotype of a Mexican restaurant there is. New Mexican colleagues even complained that the margaritas were too watered down to make the food more palatable.
According to The Roving Decanter, a blogger who explores America’s regional wines and food “The most distinctive marker of Arizonan cuisine is Sonoran-style Mexican food, an approach to border cooking that differs from Tex-Mex, New Mexican, or Baja styles and is seldom found outside of Arizona.” Rover adds that “This tendency toward hearty simplicity is typical of the Sonoran style—fresh, quality ingredients without a lot of fuss or refinement. Many Sonoran-style restaurants in Arizona have only a tomato-based hot sauce as a condiment although some are adding salsa bars to give customers more choice.” Okay, so the salsa isn’t made in New York City (though there are several New Mexicans who will argue the salsa at Mocoso’s certainly is).
According to the Roving Decanter, “Unlike much of the rest of Mexico where corn is king, Sonora is a wheat-growing region. Thus, although they use corn tortillas for a variety of dishes, the flour tortilla gets special attention. Sonoran-style flour tortillas are stretched paper thin and cooked on a griddle producing small blisters that give them a smoky flavor. ” Sonora is also known for its “vast cattle ranches and thus the emphasis is on beef—especially machaca, carne asada, and al carbon. In Sonoran-style Arizona restaurants (where burritos are called burros), machaca burros are ubiquitous and not restricted to breakfast and mixed with egg, but are found throughout the menu and may contain nothing but shredded beef and perhaps some pinto beans.” The only other Mexican restaurant my Intel colleagues took me to was a Sonoran staple not too far from the Chandler plant. It was called Guedo’s Tacos, but most people called it “Guido’s.” Guedo’s, since relocated to Gilbert, was authentic and delicious, albeit not nearly as exciting as New Mexican restaurants with their more lively flavors.
We didn’t really begin to appreciate the Phoenix area’s phalanx of Mexican restaurants until we started venturing out to those eateries in which featured fare had its genesis in states other than Sonora. Now, Sonoran cuisine is well and good. It’s orders of magnitude better than anything at Mocoso’s, but (other than Sonoran hot dogs), it lacks the excitement we craved (me especially as I was weaned on incendiary chile). In restaurants such as the legendary Barrio Cafe helmed by the talented Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, we found the culinary excitement and variety we craved. The Barrio Cafe is the equal of New Mexico’s best and proof to us that Arizona is not the vast Mexican food wasteland we had feared it might be. Since discovering the Barrio Cafe we’ve made it a point to explore restaurants such as Cocina Madrigal which Yelpers rated the number one restaurant in the country for 2022.
Likely assuming it was a Catholic church, my mom would be happy one of the restaurants we visited is called La Santisima, a term bestowed upon the Blessed Virgin Mary. She and the other “church ladies” of Peñasco would not be thrilled to see a depiction of La Virgen De Guadalupe as a skeletal figure. The restaurant is replete with art celebrating El Dia De Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Moreso than for the Virgin Mary, the restaurant seems to celebrate the Santa Muerte, also known as Santisima Muerte, is the beloved goddess of death whose origins date back to the pre-Hispanic period of Mexico. Skeletal figures in lavish raiment are depicted in the finery in which they may have been attired to go to a dance. Dollar bills are pinned onto the costume of the skeletal figure atop the salsa bar. Perhaps it’s as an offering or in gratitude for nearly twenty salsas.
Though we were familiar with La Santisima, it wasn’t until Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and its “mayor of Flavortown” host Guy Fieri came calling that we decided we had to visit. Immigrant chef Christina Guzman prepared traditional family recipes which included the nogada taco which is festooned in red, white and green that’s very significant in Mexican culture. Though I’ve long been a fan of chile rellenos en nogada, it had never dawned on me that its superb ingredients could be nestled inside a warm corn tortilla and made into a taco. It’s not solely the colors of the Mexican flag that make this taco stand out, it’s the richness and incredible complexity of the dish that makes it irresistible. Fieri declared “this is like a Mexican Thanksgiving in a taco.” Fieri was also blown away by the mole negro taco, an Oxacan specialty blending spices, chiles, nuts and chocolate into a rich and flavorful sauce mixed with shredded chicken and served on warm taco shells. Fieri called it “one of the best moles ever…like a Mexican mole Disneyland.”
With more than twenty unique salsas from which to choose, you might think I’d make so many trips to the unique salsa bar that I’d run out of dollar bills to offer the skeletal goddess of the salsa. On my first run, I selected three, all three of which I thought my Kim would like: fresas (strawberry) salsa, guacamole salsa and chipotle salsa. Alas, all three were too piquant for her. The most surprising salsa and the only one for which I made a return trip was the fresas salsa. I’ve had mango salsa, pineapple salsa and pear salsa, but never before a strawberry-based salsa. It was superb…as in one of the best salsas I’ve ever had superb. It was so good I didn’t bother to sample the peanut salsa or the pecan salsa. The guacamole and chipotle salsas were quite good, too.
Over the years we’ve had horchata dozens of times at dozens of Mexican restaurants. It’s consistently good though nowadays much of it is made from a mix. La Santisima’s version of horchata is made from a unique recipe that includes fresas (strawberries) and cantaloupe both chopped small and pecans. On a 70-degree plus Phoenix day (December 22nd mind you) it didn’t take long to down the entire goblet and begin the process of fishing out the strawberries, cantaloupe and pecans from their icy glass bottom. A second horchata was similarly dispatched. Discretion got the better of avarice and I stopped at two so as to leave room for our entrees. This horchata alone makes a trip to La Santisima a must.
One of my very favorite Mexican dishes is the legendary chile relleno en nogada (literally a roasted poblano stuffed with a picadillo made of pork, nuts, fruits, veggies and hamburger meat covered with a creamy walnut sauce and sprinkled with pomegranates and parsley). Chile Relleno en Nogada is a very festive dish which commemorates Mexican Independence Day (September 16 NOT Cinco De Mayo). La Santisima makes this dish available available in taco form (the way Guy Fieri enjoyed it), as a burrito or as a cazuela (in a bowl). Fearing neither a taco or burrito would be enough for me, I ordered the cazuela and could barely finish it (some credit goes to the two goblets of horchata). The cazuela en nogada was a magnificent melange of textures and flavors. If there’s one dish which exemplifies the vast diversity of Mexican cuisine, this might very well be it.
For only the first time I can remember, I actually ordered what Guy Fieri ordered. In addition to the cazuela en nogada, I had a mole negro taco (a legendary blend of spices, chiles, nuts and chocolate made into a rich and flavorful sauce, mixed with chicken and toasted cheese). This was one of the very best tacos I can remember ever having. It’s certainly the antithesis of the carne asada tacos so prominent in Sonoran taquerias. Fieri’s assessment on the quality of the mole was spot-on. It was absolutely wonderful.
Our server Elvia was absolutely delightful. Her mirthful laughter, radiant smile and amiable personality filled the room. She made our visit a joy. So did some of the very best Mexican food we’ve experienced in the Southwest.
4117 N 16th St
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LATEST VISIT: 22 December 2022
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Mole Negro Taco, Chile Relleno En Nogada Cazuela, Burrito Al Pastor,