Downtown Mesa has become a center for public art in recent years. The blocks on and around Main Street have been occupied at various times by colorful pianos for anyone to play, DIY prototypes on a large scale, giant inflatable figures in prominent places, and recurring art festivals. With all that art around, it’s helpful to have a place to eat, especially one with a central location and sidewalk patio. While a few new restaurants have arrived to offer expanded choices, one of Mesa’s downtown diehards continues to be Mango’s Mexican Cafe.
The restaurant occupies space next to the much larger Milano’s music store, a landmark known to countless students in band or orchestra. Mangos is just a block west of the Center / Main light rail station, and bike racks are found every block or so along Main Street. The location also puts the restaurant just a block from both the Mesa Arts Center and the Arizona Museum of Natural History, which recently added its own bit of public art, a dinosaur bursting out of its facade. The i.d.e.a. Museum is slightly farther away, but still within walking distance.
It’s a fast-casual place, so study one of the laminated menus for a few minutes, place an order at the counter, take a numbered placard, and then choose a table where the staff will find you and deliver your food, usually just a few minutes later. It’s a tight space, so your chair may brush up against your neighbor’s, and the restroom is accessible only via a walk through the cramped, busy kitchen. The compact interior is augmented with additional seating on a shaded sidewalk patio. On nice days, that’s probably the better option for diners wanting a little more room.
The all-day menu features a small breakfast section and a much larger array of burritos, tortas, tamales, enchiladas, and tacos. Most are offered both a la carte or as part of combination plates with rice and refried beans. Meats for these items include shredded beef, carne asada, chile verde, pollo asado, and a newer option, al pastor pork. There are of course meatless options such as a veggie burrito stuffed with generous portions of avocado, pico de gallo, queso fresco, rice, and beans encased in a flour tortilla that stretches to accommodate it all.
Most of the food at Mangos is firmly rooted in familiar Arizona / Sonora border favorites with plenty of sauce and melted cheese on the plate. Nevertheless, tortas, Mexico City-style sandwiches, provide a different option. The menu offers ham, chicken, beef, and veggie versions. In each one, the roll is split and then spends a little time on the griddle before being anointed with mayonnaise and mustard and then finally stuffed with meat, avocado, queso fresco, and tomato. Some sliced jalapeno usually makes it presence known as well.
One facet of the Mangos menu is easy to overlook:the seafood section on the back. Missing it would be a shame because it’s one of the restaurant’s strengths. The items labeled as just “fish” rely on white flesh that’s breaded and fried. A lighter touch is found in the tilapia tacos, in which the mild fish is grilled and blackened. For the myriad shrimp dishes, including tacos, tostadas, enchiladas, burritos, and even a chile relleno, the kitchen dusts the crustaceans with a spice mix prior to grilling. The result is flavorful prawns that hold up well when paired with various sauces.
A different speciality is the tostada voladora, which takes the typical crisp tortilla topped with lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, and sour cream to another level via the addition of green chile. The printed menus are supplemented by items hand written on a board above the counter. These always seem to be the tilapia tacos, a carne asada plate, and steak fajitas. All are quite good, so there’s no real reason to complain about the lack of rotation among the “specials,” all of which seem to have become unofficial additions to the restaurant’s permanent menu.
As at many restaurants, chips and salsa are no longer free. They can be ordered for a few dollars with a mild red salsa provided by default. The guacamole is a worthy add-on for a few dollars more with chunks of fresh tomato enlivening the creamy avocado. Since Mangos is a family-owned and operated establishment, the same personnel tend to be on duty every visit. They’re amicable people and patient with questions about the menu. Don’t be surprised, however, if they start cleaning up and getting ready to close toward the end of dinner hours.
Mangos does not have a liquor license but instead offers a wide selection of fountain drinks, bottled beverages from Mexico, and a rotating selection of aguas frescas. In fact, one of these concoctions may be the only way to enjoy the restaurant’s namesake fruit since mangoes do not otherwise appear on the menu. Other flavors can include the likes of cantaloupe, watermelon, and pineapple. Desserts are indicated on the chalkboard. Usually, churros are available, as is the flan, a generous portion of supple custard topped with a layer of caramel.
With its family atmosphere, familiar food, and early hours, Mangos in many ways exemplifies the classic version of Downtown Mesa. That identity has been transformed recently not only by the arrival of light rail and multilevel apartment developments, but also with new events and venues that emphasize contemporary popular culture and public art. Still, even people dressed in Batman costumes or biker attire, both common sites on Main Street, can enjoy a good burrito or taco combo plate. Mangos continues to offer that option even as the choices around it expand.
44 W. Main St., Mesa AZ 85201