December 20, 2014 update: La Tolteca was heavily damaged in a fire early this morning. It is unclear when and if the restaurant will reopen.
It’s been nearly a decade since Morgan Spurlock’s film “Super Size Me” dramatized one man’s experience with excessive portions. Around the same time, McDonald’s, the focus of the movie, started to de-emphasize the phrase “super size.” Nevertheless, the wording endures with many variants. Locally, La Tolteca has sometimes advertised itself as the home of the “three-pound super burrito,” but it’s really so much more. Sure, one can indulge in an over-the-top monster of a meal here, but it’s equally feasible to eat more moderately and even enjoy a little shopping on the side.
|half chicken combo|
The restaurant is about a quarter mile north of the 12th Street / Washington (westbound) and 12th Street / Jefferson (eastbound) light rail stations, with the best walking route being directly along 12th Street. Unfortunately, customers who use the bike lanes on 12th Street are not rewarded with any sort of rack, and the opportunities to improvise with nearby posts or fences are limited. For that reason, it’s not uncommon to see someone bring a bicycle inside and park it against a wall. Also, the windows make it possible to keep a bike in view while it’s locked to a tree on the sidewalk.
The business is a Mexican bakery, restaurant, and a small grocery all in one. The panaderia counter is strategically placed between the entrance and the dining room. Every day the bakery features a variety of cookies, cakes, and, of course, corn and flour tortillas for sale. Plain sugar cookies with chocolate sprinkles will delight most children, but adult tastes may veer toward the corn-based corico cookies in a toroidal shape like a donut. Also try a cochito, a molasses-flavored cookie shaped like a little pig, or one of the empanadas with fillings like pineapple or cream.
|corico and cochito|
The grocery portion of La Tolteca has been partially eclipsed in recent years by the nearby Pro’s Ranch Ranch Market, resulting in the elimination of the fresh produce and meat departments. Still, it’s still worth exploring.There are spices and packaged ingredients, along with a small area devoted to specialty cookware, including washboards, presumably more for making menudo than washing clothes. The two adjacent dining rooms are lively ones with floors of saltillo tile and colorful murals on each of the walls.
The restaurant portion of La Tolteca involves ordering at a counter and waiting for one’s number to be called before returning to pick up the food. The menu is broad, incorporating everything from typical border favorites such as burritos full to interior Mexican foods like tortas and sopes. Fillings for these items can include straightforward options — beef, chicken, pork, beans — or offal such as tripa (tripe), lengua (tongue), or cabeza (head). A dozen-and-a-half of these choics are configured as numbered combination platters with rice and beans on the side.
Seafood is not a major area of emphasis here, but what’s offered works well. Fish (species undesignated) appears with cabbage, queso fresco, and guacamole in burritos or tacos. Shrimp not only serve as an ingredient for tacos and burritos, but also take center stage in the caldo de camarones, a big bowl full of tomato-based broth and huge crustaceans with heads, shells, and tails still on. The caldo, which is also available with chicken, also contains big chunks of carrots, potato, and zucchini. A serving of corn or flour tortillas on the side works for soaking up broth.
|caldo de camarones|
Among its meatless options, La Tolteca features less common dishes such as cactus tostadas and potato tacos. The former is crisp, flat tortilla with copious strips of cactus pad on top. The texture and taste is reminiscent of bell peppers, but with slightly more tang. like many items, it’s topped with crema, as opposed to sour cream, and crumbled cotija cheese. The potato taco is appealing with a gently yielding texture and nutty flavor; however, there’s not all that much potato inside. What’s there there can be overwhelmed by the crema and cheese on top.
These items are mild, but La Tolteca knows how to turn on the heat when necessary. The mole is a dark poblano version applied to a half chicken. It has just enough assertive heat to smolder without overpowering the mix of myriad flavors such as chocolate and cinnamon and the sesame seeds that accentuate the dish. Chilaquiles are also spicy with salsa covering crisp tortilla strips combined with pulled chicken or shredded beef. Crumbled white cheese and generous slices of avocado enrich this meal, which is available all day despite being associated with breakfast.
Even more spice is found at the salsa bar, which always includes several options. Most are on the mild side, but the habanero version is predictably fiery. The bar also has minced cilantro, chopped onions, and “zanahorias en escabeche,” a mix of pickled carrots and generous cauliflower florets. A few trips to the salsa bar here will more than offset any lack of greenery in the entrees. Extinguish the heat with horchata or an aqua fresca. The flavors vary but often include pina (pineapple), melon (cantaloupe), jamaica (hibiscus), tamarindo (tamarind), and sandia (watermelon).
Service is minimal after the order is fulfilled, but the counter staff are typically friendly and always bilingual in English and Spanish, allowing La Tolteca to serve a broad clientele of neighborhood residents and downtown workers. La Tolteca also has a catering business with many of its favorites available in quantity. Of course, you don’t have to order a whole pan of enchiladas or even a three-pound super burrito to enjoy the flavors of La Tolteca. Super size it or not, a meal at La Tolteca is usually worth the calories and the trip to Van Buren.
1205 E. Van Buren St., Phoenix AZ 85006