In Tijuana, a calafia is a small bus, part of a transit system that is less formal than the fixed bus and rail routes in most of the United States. Just across the border from San Diego, Tijuana is sometimes stereotyped as just a place for a quick tourist trip to Mexico. In actuality, it’s the sixth largest metropolitan area in the country and a place with its own distinctive street life and culture. Tacos Calafia celebrates the food of Tijuana in its menu and the city itself in its decor. Its location on 7th Street just south of Roosevelt brings some Tijuana to downtown Phoenix.
Tacos Calafia originated in the western suburbs of Phoenix with locations in places like Peoria and Surprise. It has recently grown to include a location a half mile from the Roosevelt/Central light rail station. If that seems a little far to walk, particularly in hot weather, Tacos Calafia also has two big bike racks prominently placed outside its door for those who might prefer to ride there. The restaurant occupies an historic building that was once home to an A.J. Bayless store, a grocery with a legacy of the AJ’s Fine Foods and Bashas brands that persist today.
For a taqueria, Calafia’s downtown location feels cavernous. The high ceilings of the old market give the space an open, airy feel. Aside from the reddish brown bricks that reflect the structure’s heritage, the predominant color is a sort of golden yellow seen in many of the tables and interior walls. Big murals illustrate two themes: One celebrates tacos with an image of a trompo, the vertical spit used to cook pork al pastor. Another is all about Tijuana with images of soccer, luche libre, street signs, a “zonkey” (donkey painted like a zebra), and, of course, calafias.
At the center of the room is a counter where customers order. A big menu appears on boards overhead, and an open kitchen with its own trompo is visible in back. Customers place an order and are given an order number to listen for. When the digits are called in both English and Spanish, diners go to a separate counter on the right to pick up their food. The staff handing over the food will usually ask if a complimentary plate of grilled onions and jalapeño is desired. If that item is not offered for any reason, it’s a good idea to ask for this value-added accessory.
The tacos can be filled with two kinds of beef, carne asada and cabeza; pollo asado; and al pastor pork. The carne has a nice char, the cabeza is exceedingly tender, and the chicken and pork are both well seasoned. The meatless option is nopales, or cactus paddles, a vegetable somewhat similar to diced green pepper in appearance but with a tangier taste. The nopales function not only as a vegetarian alternative, but also as a good way to add some variety to a plate full of multiple tacos by having some vegetables alternating with the grilled meats.
Any of these make suitable fillings not only for tacos, but also for vampiros, which are crisp little tostadas, and mulitas, essentially meat and cheese sandwiched between small tortillas. These items are slightly more filling than the tacos, with two generally making a filling meal. For a larger format, Tacos Calafia offers quesadillas filled with melted white cheese, taco-nachos in which meat or nopales is served over crisp chips with the usual melted orange cheese, and burritos with beans added to the chosen filling, all of it wrapped inside a large flour tortilla.
The pinto beans here are de la olla style, meaning whole, rather than refried, and served in a soup. By themselves, they’re a good side dish to pair with a trio of tacos or a duo of vampiros to create a satisfying meal. They can be accessorized with shredded white cheese for a small additional charge or taken all the way to the level of frijoles preparados, in which the legumes benefit from the addition of not only cheese, but also onion, cilantro, and any of the taco meats. The beans come in only one size, even though a big bowl of them could be a meal in itself.
Tacos Calafia outsources its desserts to La Michoachana, a Glendale producer of paletas and other frozen treats. A freezer case next to the counter is stocked with tropical flavors like mango and coconut and paleta classics such as walnuts and strawberries with cream. For a blend of sweet, salty, and spicy flavors, a cup of La Michoachana’s mangohelada dessert blends creamy mango ice cream with chunks of fresh mango, chamoy, and a dusting of chili seasoning. To drink, Calafia serves horchata and aquas frescas, as well as fountain sodas and bottled water.
Although there isn’t a full bar, there is a liquor license that allows for the restaurant to serve bottled beers and margaritas in plastic cups. It’s an informal setup that matches the restaurant’s casual taqueria feel. In Phoenix, there are no colorful calafias to bring customers right to the door of the restaurant named for them. Instead, we have light rail, the 7th street bus, and bicycles. Via any of those means, the Tacos Calafia location where Downtown meets the Garfield neighborhood offers a convenient venue for tacos and other tastes of Tijuana.
825 N. 7th St. #102, Phoenix AZ 85006