Although it’s the largest Mexican state in terms of land area, Chihuahua doesn’t quite touch Arizona. There are about 17 miles of New Mexico that separate the southeastern corner of Arizona from the nearly neighboring state south of the border. For that reason, Sonoran influence is felt more readily in Phoenix. Nevertheless, Chihuahua’s distinctiveness, including its food culture, should not be ignored. Tacos Chiwas, owned and operated by a married pair of restaurant partners with origins in Chihuahua, brings some of those traditions to Arizona.
Although Tacos Chiwas originated in central Phoenix, its most accessible location via light rail is on Main Street in downtown Mesa. The storefront it occupies is almost exactly halfway between the stations at Country Club / Main and Center / Main in an area where vintage shops and longstanding independent businesses are being joined by new restaurants of many types. Bike racks are found all along Main Street in this walkable area. Tacos Chiwas has a bright overhead sign hanging over its entrance and dining patio, so it’s hard to miss on the south side of Main.
The interior has colorful decor reflecting the themes of the restaurant. A wall-sized map of Mexico highlights the location of Chihuahua in that country’s northern interior. Another wall features a large ristra full of dried chiles, and a neon sign in back proclaims, “Tacos make me happy.” A small bar occupies center stage, but all ordering occurs at the counter, where another mural displays the restaurant’s menu. Specials, many of which have persisted long enough to become de facto parts of the permanent menu, are highlighted on a small chalkboard.
As the restaurant’s name would suggest, the emphasis is on tacos with ten different fillings offered. Some are familiar: carne asada, pastor, and pollo, for example. Some of the more creative items to put on the supple house-made tortillas include meatless calabacitas, a mixture of squash, corn, onion, and cheese, and the restaurant’s signature tacos chiwas, which involve a mix of diced beef and smoky cubes of ham with Anaheim chilies and asadero cheese. Another favorite is the barbacoa, which is generously spiced and slightly tangy in its approach.
The tacos are ordered individually, currently for less than three dollars each, with the exception of the shrimp option, which is a bit more due to ingredient cost. They’re not tiny street tacos but not oversized either. The corn tortillas used as their base are made by the restaurant itself and have a depth of flavor that’s worth exploring on its own terms. Two or three of these tacos with a side of esquites, grilled corn with cheese and a dusting of spice, or frijoles charros, beans in a soup seasoned with a bit of meat and minced cilantro, should be adequate for most appetites.
Another option is gorditas, made with flour instead of the more customary corn masa.These stuffed creations have their own unique array of fillings distinct from the tacos. Deshebrada, shredded beef simmered in either red or green chile sauce, is the star here, as is picadillo, ground beef with minced carrots, celery, and potato blended in. The vegetarian option here is rajas, a mix of roasted mild Anaheim and poblano peppers. The gorditas are a bit larger than the tacos, making a pair of them or even just one with a side often sufficient for a meal.
Fillings drawn from both the tacos and gorditas sections of the menu find their way into burritos. The picadillo filling in particular seems to respond well to being wrapped tightly in one of the large flour tortillas, which are also made by the restaurant itself. Quesadillas are offered in a plain version with only cheese or with a choice of chicken or beef inside. The folded tortillas acquire an appreciable char from the time spent on the griddle. These items benefit greatly from any of the house salsas, including the fiery red, the tangy green, or the smooth avocado.
One item not involving tortillas at all is a vibrant Mexican salad in which a base of romaine is topped with radishes, cucumber, corn, and cherry tomatoes and dressed with a lime vinaigrette. It’s fine on its own as a light meal, but it can also be accessorized with shrimp, beef, or chicken. In terms of desserts, Tacos Chiwas routinely offers flan, sometimes also identified on the menu as cheesecake. The version served here lands somewhere between the two, with a texture that is firmer than a traditional custard-like flan and augmented with berries and powdered sugar.
A unique dessert also found at Tacos Chiwas is a tres leches carrot cake, an innovation first created at the Mesa location. It blends a traditional carrot cake base with a topping of cream cheese frosting and cateja, a sauce of goat’s milk and caramel. Pecans and strawberries add additional dimensions of flavor and texture on top. More filling than the flan, this is a dessert best shared by at least two people. Another Mesa first now being replicated at the other Tacos Chiwas locations is a liquor license and a bar. Offerings include craft beer and margaritas.
Those drinks come in multiple flavors like spicy cucumber, guava, or mango, allowing the bar to exercise a level of creativity similar to what the kitchen manages with tacos. Having established itself in downtown Mesa, as well as currently two other locations in the metro area, the next step for Tacos Chiwas appears to be a restaurant with an expanded menu in an apartment complex to be built four light rail stops to the west in Tempe. Once that arrives, even more Chihuahuan cooking will be available nearby. Until then, there are ample tacos to be enjoyed on Main Street.
127 W. Main St., Mesa AZ 85201