During the contentious 2016 presidential campaign, one of the more memorable phrases was the warning that immigration from Mexico might result in “taco trucks on every corner.” Of course, not everyone thought that would necessarily be a bad outcome. In Downtown Phoenix, we’re a long way from ubiquitous taco trucks, but one taco “joint,” specifically Willie’s Taco Joint, is thriving at the corner of Third Street and Jefferson — not in a truck but instead in a retail space on the ground level of a parking garage situated just behind the eastbound light rail platform.
Willie’s isn’t the easiest place to spot. The taco shop is hidden behind the Third Street / Jefferson light rail station, but can be spotted behind a metal tower, one of the “Station Beacons” designed by artist Cliff Garten. For those using the westbound train, the Third Street / Washington station is just a block to the north. Phoenix has not yet attained the goal of having bike racks on every corner, but one is conveniently found right outside the restaurant’s patio.
As its name might suggest, Willie’s isn’t a thoroughly Mexican establishment along the lines of those envisioned in the notorious “every corner” wording. Instead, the restaurant mixes some authentic Mexican traditions with some others that are unabashedly Americanized, targeting a broad audience of sports fans, concert goers, convention attendees, and downtown workers. The location — across the street from both the basketball arena and the Phoenix Convention Center and just a block from Chase Field — makes it a pre and post-event hotspot.
Willie’s is an informal place where specials are written on surfboards and orders are taken at the counter. There’s a bar at the center of everything, colorful murals on the walls, and a beach atmosphere with both indoor and outdoor seating. Before finding a place to sit, customers receive a numbered placard, stop to pick up disposable utensils and napkins, and then make a trip to the salsa bar. Willie’s routinely offers six different salsas with occasional additions. The mild, red salsa fresca is the default choice that comes with an a-la-carte order of a bowl of chips.
The pico de gallo is also a safe choice for those concerned about heat, the salsa verde and chile de arbol add a bit of tang and fire, and the jalapeno avocado and mango habanero both start with smooth, sweet tastes followed by an afternburn. All come in small vessels for consumption on site but are also available for purchase in larger to-go containers.The chunky guacamole, which is not part of the salsa bar, is available to order both in an unadorned version and in an enhanced appetizer in which the creamy avocado dip is studded with shrimp.
Willie’s namesake dish, tacos, can be approached two ways: Mexican or American. The restaurant offers four meats — chicken, carne asada, carnitas, and braised beef. Customers can choose any of those proteins, select corn or flour tortillas, and then opt for either a traditional format topped with onions, cilantro, radish, and lime or a north-of-the-border preparation with shredded lettuce diced tomatoes, and cheddar cheese. The tacos are moderately sized. Three will satisfy most appetites. One or two will work if paired with a side of rice and beans.
Beyond the basic build-your-own tacos, Willie’s offers about half a dozen specialty tacos featuring additional ingredients and inventive flavor combinations. The restaurant’s signature taco is the Green Butcher in which tender, lean green chile pork is encased in a green chile tortilla with onion, queso fresco, cilantro, and cabbage (also green). The more indulgent pork belly tacos combine rich meat with pineapple and arugula. At the other end of the spectrum, the Flaco Frijole taco is a hearty meatless choice with black beans, corn, and avocado.
The Gringo and the Sloppy Jose may be distant from Mexican traditions, but they could be comfort food for anyone who grew up with “taco night” defined by crunchy, hard shells and a packet of spice mix. Both include lettuce and cheddar inside fried corn tortillas. The Gringo comes with either chicken or beef, while the sloppy one incorporates a mix of ground beef and chorizo. Willie’s also serves two types of fish tacos. The Maui Wowie features grilled mahi-mahi in a blue corn tortilla, while the Baja “En-Syd-Nada” contains fried fish with cabbage and crema.
While tacos occupy most of the menu, there are also enchiladas, rolled tacos, burritos, burrito bowls, and a big taco salad. The burritos can be as simple as beans and cheese or as complex as the Big Fatty, which mixes both carne asada and carnitas, or the Del Mar y Tierra, where shrimp and beef coexist side-by-side. In keeping with the beach theme, a California burrito full of carne asada and French fries is also offered. In the morning, breakfast burritos, tacos, and enchiladas — all with eggs as a key ingredient — are served, along with Cartel coffee.
Willie’s has a full bar with an emphasis on beer, margaritas, and vodka drinks. It’s not the type of place to order wine, and there’s no dessert on the menu. That’s okay not only because the tacos are filling, but also because Willie’s may often be one of several stops during a night out, leaving plenty of opportunity for something sweet at another venue. For better or worse, we’re not even close to having taco trucks on every corner in Downtown Phoenix, but at Third Street and Jefferson, one corner is full of tacos due to a single well-placed taco joint.
333 E. Jefferson St., Phoenix AZ 85004