In the indigenous Mexican language Nahuatl, the word “atoyac” describes a place by running water. Restaurant Atoyac Estilo Oaxaca, 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 another type of transport corridor, the 19th Avenue / Glendale light rail station. With or without water, this is a decidedly authentic and casual place that stands out among the numerous Mexican restaurants throughout the metropolitan area.
What makes Atoyac distinctive is stated overtly in the restaurant’s full name: an 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 duo of red and green salsas, but no basket of chips.
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.The menu is on display on board next to and above the counter. Daily specials, often discounts on specific tacos on certain days of the week are announced on a board near the door. Customers place their orders at the counter and take a seat in the compact dining room. Staff then bring the food to the table as it is prepared.
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 a toasted tortilla smeared with pureed black beans and then covered with avocado, tomato, cabbage, grilled onions and jalapeños, and crumbled cheese. Meat toppings are also possible for a small additional charge.
While the tlayuda is a big plate that can be divided among many, the molotes are an equally unique item in a smaller format. Served in an order of two, they combine tightly packed potato and chorizo into small cylinders that are then topped with cheese, cabbage, and a little bit of white sauce. Despite the presence of chorizo, the flavor is mild but 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 molotes, they work as shared appetizers if ordered in quantity.
The restaurant was originally known as Tacos Atoyac, so it’s no surprise that tacos are a crucial part of the menu. tacos are sold individually for just two or three dolars, 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.
Those same fillings are available rolled into burritos or in a two-taco combination augmented with rice, beans, and a bit of salad. For larger appetites, the platillo de carne asada y nopal combines an abundance of griddled beef with pieces of 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.
Chicken with a mole sauce is another hearty plate with rice, beans, tortillas, and grilled onions and jalapeños on the side. An occasional special of grilled fish with rice and mixed vegetables is a lighter preparation and a welcome counterpoint to the stereotype that Mexican food must be heavy and saturated with cheese. Likewise, a big salad of lettuce, cucumbers, queso fresco, and pico de gallo is augmented with a choice of meat. For those who want to head in the opposite direction, a Oaxacan hot dog or a torta milanesa are substantial sandwiches.
There are rotating flavors of aquas frescas, vibrant fruit-flavored drinks, and horchata is seemingly always available. It’s a vibrant version of the rice-based drink topped with bits of cantaloupe and 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 cylinders 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 some local diners’ taste buds and remarkably economical. There’s no body of water at or even near 19th Avenue and Glendale, but there’s plenty of Oaxacan flavor to enjoy at Restaurant Atoyac.
1830 W. Glendale Ave., Phoenix AZ 85021
19th Avenue / Glendale Avenue Station