This story is for all the adventurous (some say insane) people out there who never judge a restaurant by its outside — or inside, for that matter.
I’m talking about diving headfirst one word as adv. into hole-in-the-wall Mexican joints, a different dingy one each day for seven days straight.
A week of tacos, tamales, burritos and quesadillas at unkempt, no-frills places. Can a gringo’s gut handle such a daring diet? I hope so, but I’m packing a Costco-sized bottle of Tums just for funzies.
7:45 P.M. TUESDAY
I eased into this foolish foray with a familiar face, Susie’s Mexican Café & Lounge in Tempe. Since discovering its lunch deals about five years ago, I’ve stopped in half a dozen times for the three carne asada tacos with beans and rice. The cream-colored stucco restaurant is flanked on the west by a weed-infested dirt lot and on the east by a Mexican pottery shop. A high-rent district it ain’t.
When I walked in for my first sundown visit, I stood on the well-worn “Bienvenidos” throw carpet and heard a soft voice say, “¿Dós?” quickly followed by, “Two?” My husband and I took a seat in one of the many duct-tape-patched, aqua vinyl booths and dug into our warm chips, hot sauce and chunky salsa. Ordering was a little tricky, but everything came out right — three different tacos, a tamale and a machaca beef combo plate, all for just $14.22 with tax. If you’re a beans-and-rice mixer, Susie’s will have you licking your plate clean.
Hole-in-the-wall cred: Duct tape on almost every booth, gold plastic cafeteria cups.
Last three health reports: Five major violations on Feb. 4, 2004; one on July 27 and two on Dec. 30.
Details: 2405 E. University Drive, Tempe, (480) 966-7091.
12:45 P.M. WEDNESDAY
When I asked a co-worker if he wanted to join me for lunch at “that Mexican place on the corner of Country Club (Drive) and Main Street that looks like a gas station,” he said, “Good luck with that.” The canary yellow shell of a building that houses Salsita doesn’t exactly scream “clean, quality food served here!”
I snagged the last of 10 parking spots (people do eat here!) and walked into the long, narrow building. It took about five minutes for one of the busy Hispanic employees to take a new order. While waiting, I paced the 20-odd-foot counter, eyeing the vats of food (grill-marked onion bulbs and jalapeño peppers, carne asada, pork, beans, rice, shrimp, etc.) and trying to figure out what was the freshest.
I asked for a carnitas burrito. I got a shake of the head. I walked the meats again and pointed to what turned out to be al pastor (marinated pork).
Moments later I was handed a Styrofoam plate with a burro and side of shredded lettuce with a big spoonful of sour cream. Bright orange grease and green guacamole spilled out with each bite, messy but tasty. The tender meat was marinated with pineapple chunks, giving it a pleasant, sweet flavor. After my last delightful bite, I laughed at myself for feeling uncomfortably nervous at the start. Then I felt something on my knee. It was an ant.
Hole-in-the-wall cred: Plastic utensils, dirty floor (with a quick glance, I noticed a cucumber slice, straw wrapper, used and unused paper napkins and salt packets), past life as a gas station.
Last three health reports: Five on Oct. 14, 2004; four on Jan. 12 and four on April 19.
Details: 311 W. Main St., Mesa, (480) 610-1234.
After hitting Nacho’s at closing time, I headed east on Main Street hoping to stumble on a hole. Less than three miles later, I pulled up to a rickety Ramiro’s — easily the most unsightly stop yet. The place makes Filiberto’s look like fine dining. Anyway, I thought eating here was just plain dumb and not worth the risk, but my husband argued that it was, without a doubt, a hole in the wall and that I shouldn’t be such a sissy.
It was hotter inside the small shack of a building than it was outside. Can’t afford AC, bad sign. I played it safe by going deep-fry style — three rolled tacos with beans and rice, although the tacos were topped with the temperamental twosome of sour cream and guacamole. Luckily, they were cold. After ordering, we plopped down at a cafeteria-style table next to — shocker! — an actual hole in the wall. A big one, easily a two-fister. Keeping one eye on the restaurant’s innards, I ate about half my combo plate but found my husband’s carne asada burrito much more inviting. Thankfully, nothing ever crawled out of the wall and we didn’t have to break open the Tums.
Hole-in-the-wall cred: A hole in the wall.
Last three health reports: Four on June 8, 2004; five on Dec. 7 and three on May 5.
Details: 9525 E. Main St., Mesa, (480) 380-6567.
11:45 A.M. FRIDAY
I live off Power Road, so I’ve passed Nacho’s many, many times, and as much as I love Mexican food I never wanted anything to do with the place. So it was with little eagerness that I walked into this Dollar Store neighbor and took a seat at one of the many blue-green, paisley-ish booths. Unlike Susie’s, these guys were cool with just leaving rips and tears in the vinyl seating. Who needs duct tape patches?!
Despite a decent lunch crowd, this place was dreadful. I had a ground beef taco with blah beans and rice, and my husband had a chicken and beef tamale — both of which were smothered in sauce and tasted so similar I forced him to prove he could tell a difference by giving him a blind taste test. He proved me wrong, but he was crying for some Imodium the second we left the dark building. Definitely the low point in my seven-day spree.
Hole-in-the-wall cred: Torn seats, a handwritten “No public restrooms” sign in the one and only window, a once-shaded light bulb hanging in the open (think interrogation room).
Last three health reports: Three on Oct. 27, 2004; one on Feb. 17 and four on May 16.
Details: 6869 E. Main St., Mesa, (480) 985-6371.
Elmer’s Tacos was hopping! The woman at the counter was all business but friendly and fluent in English, which made me wonder whether it was hole-worthy. My concerns dissipated when I noticed the windows were all barred, the floor was filled with food and the ceiling had some sort of water damage.
I had lunch at Elmer’s once in the early ’00s and wasn’t impressed, but can they make a breakfast burro! I filled mine with egg, bacon, potato, cheese and onion and loved every morsel. The tastiest, least worrisome outing so far.
Hole-in-the-wall cred: Weathered building, paper plates, barred windows.
Last three health reports: Two on June 30, 2004; two on Dec. 13 and two on March 22.
Details: 55 N. Arizona Ave., Chandler, (480) 963-6763.
Five days in and the thought of a warm tortilla wrapped around succulent shreds of pork doesn’t even get my mouth watering anymore. It’s a sad day. I need a truly Mexican experience — Guadalupe to the rescue!
The honeydew-hued Del Yaqui Restaurant sits inside a walled, colorful marketplace near the center of this small, dusty, Hispanic town. I was shocked to see 30 customers — easily the most company I had during the week — enjoying the delicious homemade eats and upbeat Spanish jukebox tunes.
When I asked if they had chips and salsa, the unfriendly woman behind the counter said, “We have to make it.”
Minutes later, I was crunching on a delicious, hot-but-not-greasy plate of chips with a small side of smoky, spicy salsa. While waiting in line, someone’s quesadilla wooed me so I ordered the carne asada version and was wowed. It, too, was somehow grease-free despite all the white cheese. I’ve already raved about it to a ’dilla-lovin’ co-worker, and I can see myself stopping by once a month for this tortilla treat.
Hole-in-the-wall cred: Dirt parking lot, order number is shouted out in Spanish, it’s in Guadalupe.
Last three health reports: One on Sept. 1, 2004; three on Dec. 28 and two on March 21.
Details: 9201 S. Avenida del Yaqui, Guadalupe, (480) 839-8170.
1 P.M. MONDAY
I blindly picked this fun-to-say place entirely by name — what’s not to love about El Taco Loco? After passing Higley Road’s white-picket-fenced neighborhoods, I hit Williams Field Road, where a speck of heritage clings to a patch of dirt on the southwest corner. The pink building houses a Mexican grocery store, Latin music shop and restaurant with a Yosemite Sam-style, chili-pepper-toting mascot on the rooftop sign.
After a week of skipping and hopping across bean-and-rice-dotted floors, it was sweet to step on to spotless saltillo tile. The cozy dining room had a green thumb in the house; healthy vines and plants were scattered about.
The staff didn’t say one word to me and I was one of two diners, but my carne asada taco and pork tamale were tasty and delivered to my table on real plates with real silverware. Not so crazy after all.
Hole-in-the-wall cred: Handwash sink is visible from dining room, bars on the windows.
Last three health reports: One on March 30, 2004; three on Sept. 27 and two on Dec. 1.
Details: 16751 E. Williams Field Road (just west of Higley Road), on unincorporated county land, so no city — trw (480) 988-9372.