Before Mexican food went mainstream, mom-and-pop eateries provided south-of-the-border fare in Arizona.
Descendants of the restaurants’ original madres and padres still run some of these places, beloved by longstanding patrons as well as by new generations of foodies seeking traditional home-style cooking.
El Charro Café, Tucson
The daughter of a French stonemason who worked on Tucson’s St. Augustine Cathedral, Monica Flin opened El Charro Café in 1922, and her family has built upon her legacy and her recipes.
The restaurant claims to have created the chimichanga and the topopo salad – a tostada topped with greens, cheese, beans and fruit. El Charro is perhaps best known for its carne seca; marinated beef sun-dried on the premises and used in burritos, tacos, enchiladas and more.
Mi Nidito, South Tucson
With a name that translates to “my little nest” because of the original restaurant’s diminutive size, Mi Nidito has expanded a great deal since its 1952 debut; but the Lopez family has kept its ambience cozy and personal.
Mi Nidito is popular with politicos, including President Bill Clinton – whose personal order of a bean tostada, birria taco, chile relleno, chicken enchilada and beef tamale has been commemorated as the “President’s Plate.”
Wisdom's Café, Tumacacori
The rodeo arena that Howard Wisdom built behind the café that he and his wife Petra opened in 1944 no longer sees any cowboy action, but this restaurant near Tumacacori National Historic Park still has plenty of local color.
Fruit burritos are Wisdom’s Café’s house specialty, and most dishes, from the tortilla soup to the quesadillas, use turkey rather than chicken as their poultry of choice.
Casa Mañana, Safford
In business since 1951 and the oldest owned-and-operated restaurant in the Gila Valley, Casa Mañana features several of the area’s unique dishes along with more characteristic Sonoran fare.
The popular housemade red chile pork tamales, for example, share menu space with chalacas – deep-fried corn masa bowls heaped with red or green meat stew and beans, cheese and salad.
Note: Casa Mañana is part of a collection of restaurants in North Central Arizona known as the Salsa Trail.
The restaurants on Arizona’s Salsa Trail are family-owned and loaded with character.
Sample their respective specialties at the 2012 Salsa Fest (Safford, September 28–29), where fun events include a jalapeño-eating competition and Chihuahua races.
Garcia’s Las Avenidas, Phoenix
Starting out in 1956 with a takeout counter and a few picnic tables, Olivia and Julio Garcia gradually opened (and sold) several Phoenix-area restaurants. They did keep one in the family however, Garcia’s Las Avenidas.
Longtime customers know to order the pollo fundido – chicken in a deep-fried tortilla smothered with jalapeño cream cheese and cheddar, and the appetizer sampler that includes mini-chimichangas among other Mexican favorites.
Los Olivos Patio, Scottsdale
Part of a family who arrived in Scottsdale in 1919 and whose home became a neighborhood social hub, Alvaro and Elena Corral formalized the hospitality by debuting Los Olivos Patio in 1948.
The chiles used in the piquant red sauces are still ground by stone, and such traditional recipes as sour cream enchiladas and housemade chorizo with eggs are as popular as they were decades ago.
Matta’s Mexican Grill, Mesa
When they opened their original Mesa restaurant in 1953, Manuel and MaryLou Matta turned to the recipes of generations of West Texans on both sides of the family.
Highlighting that ranching culture, Matta’s menu features such specialties as the chile relleno, stuffed with chopped beef and cheese, then dipped in batter and deep-fried. There’s also the steak picado – sliced rib eye sautéed with onions and jalapeño chile salsa.
Joe and Aggie's Cafe, Holbrook
A Route 66 classic, this diner even got a shout out in the credits of the Pixar film Cars. It was founded in 1943 then sold in 1945 to Joe and Aggie Montano, who have kept it in the family ever since.
The down-home menu at Joe and Aggie’s Cafe includes breakfast enchiladas (of the cheese variety and blanketed with an egg, and red or green chiles) as well as Navajo tacos with toppings piled on puffy fry bread, rather than on a tortilla.
(updated August 2012)