The Rio Salado, long neglected as an industrial zone separating South Phoenix from the rest of the city, has gotten a lot more love and attention in recent years. The development of the Audubon Center and a network of multi-use paths through the riverbed has motivated interest in birding, bicycling, and walking in a natural riparian setting. With any outdoor activity, there’s often a need for sustenance before or after in an environment where there’s no dress code and no pretense. El Snappy fulfills that need with its hearty and well-crafted Mexican food.
El Snappy has been around for a long time, so it already draws a steady clientele from those who work nearby, including at least a few customers involved in the construction of the South Central light rail extension, which will pass by El Snappy’s location at Central Avenue and Elwood Street. The nearest station is planned for a location three blocks to the north at Pioneer Street, right by the Audubon Center. The modest building with its hand-painted lettering proclaiming its identity fits right in with the industrial look and feel of the surrounding blocks.
Inside, the setup is cozy and a bit cramped. A single row of six four-person booths is adjacent to the windows, and another row of three two-person booths is next to the counter. The decor is limited to a few sombreros on the wall and some paintings and plants that add a bit of cheer to the tight space. The service model is somewhat fluid. At busy times, it’s best to approach the counter and order there. When the pace is slower, staff will sometimes bring menus to the table. El Snappy is a cash-only establishment, a rare holdout in the age of contactless payments
The printed menus are small and well-worn, but they include ample variety in their coverage of Mexican food, American-style breakfasts, and even a little sushi. Before devoting too much time to reading the menu, though, it’s always a good idea to check the whiteboard at the counter for the daily special, which is almost always something not found on the regular menu. Recent offerings have included platters of carne adovada or fried chicken, along with soups filled with meatballs made from shrimp or pinto beans with a bit of beef, bacon, and even sliced hot dog.
A small basket of chips and a mild-to-medium salsa are provided at no cost, although sometimes it’s necessary to ask for them. The entrees included big platters in which items like enchiladas or shrimp rancheros are served not only with the expected rice and beans, but also a little bit of green salad, some calabacitas for yet more vegetable content, and even a serving of pasta salad. Some platters go even further with a side of chilaquiles in which some of the same chips served before a meal are presented soaked in sauce and accessorized with cotija cheese.
It should be noted that this bounty is paired with a level of value that might seem implausible at first glance. The enchiladas, filled with tender tinga or shredded beef, are currently priced at $5 for two or $6 for three, inclusive of all the extras on the plate. As the supple house-made tortillas will attest, the low prices are not the result of low ingredient quality. On the contrary, the tiny kitchen behind the counter is consistently operating at a high level of excellence, even if the food can sometimes take a little longer to arrive at the table during busier times of the day.
While big combination meals are an easy introduction to El Snappy’s menu, there are other avenues of exploration found only on the a la carte section. Tortas, huaraches, flautas, mulitas, quesadillas, sopes, gorditas, and, of course, tacos and burritos are all priced at just a few dollars each and served with a choice of meat filling. Add a few sides in terms of rice, beans, or crinkle cut fries and any of them can become a meal. A house hot sauce is available on request, and bottles of popular brands found in supermarkets are also found at each table.
The back page of El Snappy’s menu reveals one last category that somehow fits into the kitchen’s repertoire: a small selection of Sonoran sushi. This Mexican adaptation of the Japanese favorite involves rolls constructed of rice, cream cheese, and cooked meats that are then fried to give them a crunchy exterior. The Mar y Tierra roll combines beef and shrimp into a sushi surf-and-turf entree. With its eight pieces of deep-fried indulgence, this is a meal in itself. Other sushi rolls are fashioned from shrimp tempura, spicy chicken, and imitation crab meat.
Since El Snappy opens as early as 7 AM, there’s a morning component to the menu. Some American breakfast items like pancakes and French toast coexist with Mexican fare such as huevos rancheros or eggs with chorizo. In terms of beverages, there are two choices: Some coolers in front of the counter are full of bottled and canned sodas and waters, and a whiteboard overhead lists multiple flavors of aguas frescas that are available. The choices lean heavily towards tropical fruits, including pineapple, mango, passion fruit, guava, and even soursop.
These drinks can serve as liquid desserts since there are no solid sweets on the menu. Each guest’s check is presented with a little candy, however. Often, it’s something like an aptly named Hi-Chew, which gives the customer’s jaw a workout while exuding a tropical fruit flavor not unlike those found in the frescas. Whether an appetite is gained via hard work in construction, auto repair, or any of the other trades found nearby or via walking or cycling the Rio Salado trail network, El Snappy’s big platters and low prices are a successful path to satisfying that hunger.
3520 S. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85040
Pioneer/Central Station (under construction)