Carolina’s and Comedor Guadalajara – Tex-Mex in Phoenix

I’ve had some great Mexican food in Phoenix, so on my recent visit, I thought I’d press my luck, and looked up the most highly-rated places on the Yelp website. My favorite place (which I won’t name here, to prevent any confusion) ranked with 4.3 stars out of 5, so I was excited to find two other places ranking 4.4 and 4.3.

This is a story of surprise and learning, so please don’t think it’s a negative review in any way.

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My sister and I drove across town from Scottsdale to somewhere south of downtown Phoenix to try Comedor Guadalajara. It’s a big, friendly place that feels as if it’s been there forever. The menu covered a wide range of meat and seafood dishes, and choosing was difficult. We started with ground beef and mashed potato tacos, which was our first surprise. I’ve become a fan of crispy mashed potato tacos in Los Angeles, but somehow, the addition of ground meat made them taste a little more like something my mother might have made (she was not Mexican.) They were good, but didn’t have the toasty, starchy edge I was expecting.

As a main course, I ordered the camarones endiablados, a spicy shrimp dish I’ve had many times in Mexico and Los Angeles. It was nicely presented, with rice and refried beans, and delivered all the chipotle zing that the menu promised… except that it tasted just like barbecue sauce. Leigh ordered chicken enchiladas that were also nicely presented, but in a creamier sauce than expected. Everything was tasty, but we’ve never been served dishes like these in Mexico or Los Angeles. We realized we were eating something similar, but not quite like Mexican food.

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The next day, we went to another famous place. For years, my sister has told me about the buttered tortillas at Carolina’s, which is located just a few blocks from Comedor Guadalajara. They turned out to be large flour tortillas, slathered with butter, and folded into an intense, comfort-food ball that will probably be the subject of dreams and fantasies until the next time I’m in Phoenix.The location, however, was a surprise. Leigh had never actually been to Carolina’s, and the free-for-all of the busy down-scale room turned out to be a lot of fun.

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The menu was surprisingly limited, with burritos, chimichangas (deep-fried burritos, I was told) and enchiladas being the basic fare. I went for the enchiladas, and Leigh had the chorizo and potato burrito. My enchiladas came in a plastic container, and were covered in a deep brown sauce, melted orange cheese and shredded lettuce. Served with refried beans and rice, they were tasty, but again, unlike anything I’ve had in Mexico or Los Angeles. Leigh’s burrito, however, was wonderful! I’m sure I’ll be going back to Carolina’s.

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We spoke with a well-known Mexican chef the following day, asking him just what it was that we had eaten. He was quick to point out (and I agree 100%) that these are good restaurants, but it really isn’t Mexican food, but rather some form of Tex-Mex. Both places have been around for years, and were full of happy diners, so we came away feeling we had learned something valuable.

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Origins of the Burrito

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Years ago, I heard an NPR report on some researchers who were tracing the history of the burrito. Because it has a flour tortilla wrapping, they reasoned, it must come from either Northern Mexico or the U.S. Their conclusion was that it originated somewhere near San Francisco in the 1930s.

About 3 years ago, I got into a discussion on Facebook with a Mexican friend on the same subject, and of course, there was no particular conclusion. The crazy coincidence was that I stepped away from the computer that evening and picked up a novel I was reading, and the main character went to the library to research the origins of the burrito.

Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Cuisine preceding the development of the modern taco, burrito, and enchilada was created by Mesoamerican peoples of Mexico, who used tortillas to wrap foods, with fillings of chili peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, squash, and avocados. The Pueblo people of the Southwestern United States also made tortillas with beans and meat sauce fillings prepared much like the modern burrito we know today.

The precise origin of the modern burrito is not known. It may have originated with vaqueros in northern Mexico in the nineteenth century; farmworkers in the fields of California’s Central Valley, in Fresno and Stockton; or with northern Sonoran miners of the 19th century. In the 1895 Diccionario de Mexicanismos, the burrito was identified as a regional item from Guanajuato and defined as “Tortilla arrollada, con carne u otra cosa dentro, que en Yucatán llamancoçito, y en Cuernavaca y en Mexico, taco” (A rolled tortilla with meat or other ingredients inside, called ‘coçito’ in Yucatán and ‘taco’ in the city of Cuernavaca and in Mexico City).

An often-repeated folk history is that of a man named Juan Méndez who sold tacos in a street stand in the Bella Vista neighborhood of Ciudad Juárez, using a donkey as a transport for himself and the food, during the Mexican Revolution period (1910–1921). To keep the food warm, Méndez wrapped it in large homemade flour tortillas underneath a small tablecloth. As the “food of the burrito” (i.e., “food of the little donkey”) grew in popularity, “burrito” was eventually adopted as the name for these large tacos
Another creation story comes from 1940s Ciudad Juárez, where a street food vendor created the tortilla-wrapped food to sell to poor children at a state-run middle school. The vendor would call the children his burritos, as burro is a colloquial term for dunce or dullard. Eventually, the derogatory or endearing term for the children was transferred to the food they ate.

In 1923, Alejandro Borquez opened the Sonora cafe in Los Angeles, which later changed its name to the El Cholo Spanish Cafe. Burritos first appeared on American restaurant menus at the El Cholo Spanish Cafe during the 1930s.] Burritos were mentioned in the U.S. media for the first time in 1934,] appearing in the Mexican Cookbook, a collection of regional recipes from New Mexico authored by historian Erna Fergusson.