It’s unlikely there’s an official record for the most relocations of a local restaurant, but a top contender might be Downtown Tempe’s Restaurant Mexico. Over the years, the restaurant has existed at multiple sites, all within a half-mile radius of one another, moving each time as the surrounding neighborhood has changed. The restaurant originated on Mill Avenue and then moved to the former Arches shopping center on University Drive before returning in 2007 to Mill, this time to a restaurant-dense block just south of the Mill Avenue / 3rd Street light rail station.
The newest site has updated decor, but is also simple and reassuringly familiar to those who have eaten at the restaurant for years. A long, narrow dining room extends back from a cashier and host station. Up front, in the waiting area, clippings on the wall depict the restaurant’s history and various awards throughout its several decades of operation. In the dining room, high ceilings, wood tables, brick, and tile create a sense of minimalist openness and activity. There is also a small covered patio with ceiling fans in the back of the restaurant. Bike racks are outside along Mill Avenue.
|exterior from Mill|
All meals begin with crisp chips and a red salsa. The salsa may be a surprise to anyone seeking a thick, spicy dip. Instead, it’s thin and, like most food at Restaurant Mexico, on the mild side. Still, it has its own charm, and bottles of Tapatio hot sauce are placed at each table for anyone seeking a little more heat. Chunky but equally mild guacamole is an alternative dip. Mix in some of the salsa or the bottled hot sauce to give it a little more zip. The heartiest starter is Angel’s nachos, which mixes chips with carne asada, pico de gallo, beans, and cheese.
|corner bike racks|
For the most part, Restaurant Mexico does not serve the Sonoran cuisine found in many Phoenix-area restaurants. Instead, the food reflects a slightly different style from Jalisco. There is less emphasis on melted yellow cheese and more frequent use of corn tortillas, which are favored over their more familiar flour counterparts in the quesadillas. Similarly, small thick corn tortillas are fried to a crispy state in the sopes and topped with beans and the customer’s choice of avocado or meat. Enchiladas with a similar array of fillings are best enjoyed with the green tomatillo sauce.
Still, there are some familiar touches for anyone who is used to border food. Burritos wrap combinations of meats, avocado, beans, and cheese in flour tortillas. An upgrade for a dollar yields an enchilada style burrito smothered in red sauce. Chimichangas add a layer of fried indulgence. The refried beans are pleasantly soupy, and the rice, included automatically with most combinations and specials, is a good version of the usual Mexican restaurant preparation; it’s soft, airy, and thankfully not oversalted.
On weekdays, the daily special, which follows a fixed schedule, is a good starting point for exploring Restaurant Mexico. On some days, it’s a popular menu item such as bistek ranchero, a stew of beef simmered with bell peppers, onions, and a tomato-based sauce, offered at a slightly reduced price. Other days, the special is a dish not found on the usual menu. Possibilities include chicken mole, with a choice of light or dark meat, and chicken pipian, a dish similar to mole but with a lighter sauce based on roasted, ground pumpkin seeds. All specials come with rice, beans, and tortillas.
Despite Jalisco’s coastal location, there’s no seafood at Restaurant Mexico. Instead, the menu emphasizes chicken, either shredded or whole as in the mole; pork, a favorite in the tacos sauves; and, most often, beef, which appears grilled as carne asada, finely minced as picadillo, blended with eggs as machaca, and breaded as milanesa. The #10 combination, two beef tacos in corn tortillas, is as good an introduction as any to the restaurant’s way with red meat. Tender, lean, shredded beef sits in freshly fried tortillas with shredded iceberg lettuce and crumbled white cotija cheese.
In terms of meatless choices, Restaurant Mexico offers the usual cheese enchiladas and bean burritos, but there are some more interesting items on the menu named for the former employees who invented them. Whole pinto beans are the base of the Clare enchiladas, where they join guacamole rolled inside corn tortillas. A Clare burro and a Chris tostada, featuring the same guacamole and whole bean combination, are available as well. This tostada, unlike the others on the menu, is made with a flour tortilla and is therefore bigger than most. One with rice is a meal in itself.
Restaurant Mexico does not have a full bar, but bottled beer, both domestic and Mexican, and margaritas are available. Non-alcoholic beverage choices include sodas, horchata, and iced tea, which is unsweetened but features a cinnamon flavor with just a little kick. The sole dessert offered is a soothing flan. The kitchen is quick enough to enable the restaurant to serve as viable choice for quick workday lunches or pre-event dinners.
Despite its changes of venue over the years, Restaurant Mexico has succeed over the long term by focusing on what it does right and not changing much at all. Now that it’s back on Mill, the restaurant is definitely not flashy or even particularly innovative compared to some of its neighbors. That doesn’t seem to matter much to the steady clientele, many of whom have followed Restaurant Mexico from site to site. The result is a sort of a reliable old friend, one that is not necessarily the trendiest or hippest around, but reassuring to run into even if after a few years of separation.
433 S. Mill Ave., Tempe AZ 85281
Mill Avenue / Third Street Station