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Taste of Travel: Arizona : The Hot Zone : Tucson spots where careful homage is paid to a cuisine seared with chiles

February 04, 1996|KITTY MORSE | Kitty Morse is a freelance food and travel writer and the author of five cookbooks

TUCSON — No doubt about it, in Tucson they like chiles. From sweet bell peppers and mild New Mexico reds to picante chiltepins and fiery habaneros, chiles are integral to Tucson's gastronomic scene, which is fragrantly influenced by the cuisine of its southern neighbor, the Mexican state of Sonora.

A visit to El Charro Cafe is a wonderful introduction to Sonoran-style cuisine. Set in the heart of the Presidio district, in the old part of Tucson north of the Tucson Convention Center, this quaint establishment has been serving its distinctive specialties since 1922. That was the year that Monica Flin, daughter of a French stonemason, opened her cafe in the black lava rock home built in the 1880s by her father, Jules Le Flein. Today, it's a Tucson landmark, and its brightly decorated walls are covered with hand-painted murals by local artist David Tineo, antique posters and dozens of framed culinary awards. Every square foot of El Charro has been put to good use, from the booth-lined front porch to the basement, which has been transformed into a dining room.

It's easy to appreciate the restaurant's history, but guests patronize El Charro for its authentic, Sonoran-style specialties, including the popular carne seca chalupa ($5), named for chalupas, the small boats that float through Mexico City's Xochimilco gardens, according to Carlota Dunn Flores, Monica's grandniece and one of El Charro's owners. Masa (cornmeal) is fashioned into tiny boat-shaped containers, then baked or fried and heaped with carne seca, an intensely flavored sun-dried beef that is shredded and cooked in a sauce redolent of onions, garlic and dried New Mexico chiles. The delicious creation is topped with a generous amount of shredded lettuce and sprinkled with feta-like Mexican white cheese.

El Charro's salsa, a tongue-tingling blend of chiltepins and spices, adds a piquant touch. Jars of El Charro's salsa are sold at La Tiendita, a colorful gift shop adjoining the restaurant. (A second El Charro Cafe recently opened at the Tucson International Airport.)

A short block away from the Tucson Convention Center, El Minuto Cafe is also a window into the city's Sonoran culinary heritage. Tucked away on the two-block-long Main Street, El Minuto is owned by Rosalva Shaar, whose Syrian-born father-in-law opened the restaurant in 1936. Shaar runs the restaurant with the help of her children.

One of its specialties is Cheese Crisp, a thin crusted, pizza-like appetizer ($4.75) made by deep frying a large flour tortilla, then topping it with varying combinations of Anaheim chiles, diced tomatoes and white Mexican cheese. It is then baked until the cheese melts. El Minuto's salsa is a searing blend of chiltepins, scallions, garlic and oregano, and it is delicious.

*

A couple miles north of El Minuto, just west of Interstate l0, are two of Tucson's best regarded tortilla factories, Tania's Flour Tortillas and Mexican Food and the Grande Tortilla Factory. Both sell excellent Sonoran-style flour tortillas, as well as some dishes.

Tania's Flour Tortillas began in 1975 when Maria Gonzalez started selling her tortillas to support her family. She named the business for her granddaughter, Tania. Maria's daughter and son-in-law, Pat and Rudy Lira, now operate the restaurant out of a gymnasium-size building on Grande Avenue. While half the building is devoted to tortilla making and cooking, the other half is covered with small tables where patrons dine beneath a large, vividly painted mural.

The local press has voted Tania's as serving the best tortillas in Tucson, but tortillas aren't all Tania's sells. By 5:30 a.m., a handful of habitues has already arrived for a breakfast bowl of posole colorado. Aromatic New Mexico chiles add color and a mild, smoky flavor to this delicious and hearty cubed pork and hominy soup ($3.25 for a large bowl). Each serving is garnished with crunchy slivers of green cabbage, diced scallion, fresh cilantro and wedges of lemon.

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