May 2, 2014 Update: The restaurant formerly known as Tacos Atoyac has been renamed Restaurant Atoyac Estilo Oaxaca. The menu is unchanged.
In the indigenous Mexican language Nahuatl, the word “atoyac” describes a place by running water. Tacos Atoyac, a Mexican restaurant located on Glendale Avenue in Phoenix, isn’t particularly close to water. Even the nearest canals are about three miles away. It is, however, just across the street from the future 19th Avenue / Glendale light rail station, so expect a sort of river of rail to flow by the restaurant in the years to come. Water or not, this is a decidedly casual place that stands out among the numerous Mexican restaurants throughout the metropolitan area.
What makes Tacos Atoyac distinctive is its emphasis on the food of Oaxaca, a state in southwestern Mexico. That’s in contrast to the Sonoran style at so many places throughout Arizona. Sonoran food can be delicious, but a restaurant like Tacos Atoyac allows a refreshing difference in focus. Expect liberal use of vegetables and crumbled white cheese instead of melted yellow shreds, to name just a few prominent differences. Likewise, every order comes with a trio of salsas, but no chips. The fiery red, moderate green, and slightly spicy guacamole are all designed to accentuate the main dishes.
The restaurant is found in a well-worn strip mall that is also home to a tire store and a smoke shop. There’s no official bike rack, but the posts outside the entrance work well as improvised security. Inside, Tacos Atoyac is a fast-casual operation. One of the co-owners is usually at the counter taking orders, bantering with staff and customers alike, and delivering orders to tables as they are prepared. The menu is on reader boards overhead, as well as postcards at the counter. If there are daily specials, those will be announced at the counter as well.
|improvised bike rack|
The menu isn’t structured into fixed categories such as appetizers and entrees, so it’s best just to order whatever mix of small and large items is appealing. Some foods are clearly meant to be shared. Most notable among them is the tlayuda, similar to the familiar cheese crisp but with more interesting and abundant toppings. The basic model is smeared with pureed black beans and then covered with avocado, tomato, cabbage, grilled onions and jalapeños, and crumbled cheese over toasted tortilla. The result is a generous meal for one, or a shareable starter for an entire table.
While the tlayuda is a big plate that can be divided among many, the motote is an equally unique item that is much smaller. Order one for a little taste or a few to share. The dish combines tightly packed potato and chorizo into a small cylinder that is then topped with cheese, cabbage, and a little bit of white sauce. On its own, it’s a mild snack, although it’s easily perked up with one of the salsas. In a similar vein, the memelitas are small, oblong discs of masa in either plain or meat-adorned versions. Like the motote, they work as shared appetizers if ordered in quantity.
Of course, any restaurant with the word “tacos” in its name has to feature its namesake food, and do a good job with them. At Tacos Atoyac, tacos are sold individually for just a dollar or two, depending on the filling chosen from various cuts and preparations of meat. Pork al pastor, pollo (chicken), carne asada (beef), and chorizo are the most familiar fillings, but offal tacos filled with lengua (tongue), cabeza (head), and tripa (tripe) are also available. At the higher end of the price spectrum are fish and shrimp tacos with generous servings of seafood and a mild white sauce.
|platillo de carne asada y nopal|
Those same fillings are available rolled into burritos. There are no combo plates per se, but it’s easy to order rice or refried beans for a small fee in order to create a full meal. For larger appetites, the platillo de carne asada y nopal combines an abundance of grilled beef with a prickly pear cactus paddle. Nopal has a taste and texture somewhere between avocado and bell pepper, as well as nutritional benefits that rival both of those vegetables. It’s something desert dwellers should eat more often, and Tacos Atoyac provides an easy way to become familiar with the ingredient.
Other entrees may appear among the daily specials. On one recent visit, a plate full of grilled fish was offered with fluffy rice and mixed vegetables on the side. The simple, clean flavors and lighter preparation were a welcome counterpoint to the stereotype that all Mexican food must be heavy and saturated with cheese. Likewise, a large salad augmented with either beef or chicken provides a filling but not overbearing means of sampling Oaxacan flavors. For those who want to head in the complete opposite direction, a Oaxacan hot dog or a torta milanesa are substantial sandwiches.
The menu suggests that there might be a daily aqua fresca, but on multiple visits, the only choice available has been horchata. Fortunately, it’s a vibrant version of the rice-based drink topped with chopped pecans. There are also canned sodas and bottled Mexican Coke, but no beer or cocktails. For dessert, the one and only option is churros, ridged prisms of freshly fried dough oozing just a little cajeta, thick syrup fashioned from caramelized milk. At Tacos Atoyac, the serving is a single long churro cut into two pieces for easy sharing.
To be sure, there’s not a lot of atmosphere here. The single occupant restroom involves a sneaky step, and the patio functions mostly as an overflow dining area and not as a destination in itself given the uninspiring view of Glendale Avenue traffic and the big supermarket across the street. Nevertheless, the main draw here is the food, which is both a new experience for most local diners’ tastebuds and remarkably economical. There’s no body of water at 19th Avenue and Glendale, but there’s plenty of Oaxacan food to enjoy at Tacos Atoyac. Tacos Atoyac 1830 W. Glendale Ave., Phoenix AZ 85021 (602) 864-2746