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 newest locations bring a little taste of Tijuana to both downtown Phoenix and downtown Tempe.
Tacos Calafia originated in the western suburbs of Phoenix with locations in places like Peoria and Surprise. In 2021, it grew to include a location on Seventh Street half a mile east of the Roosevelt/Central light rail station, and 2022 brought the addition of a downtown Tempe location just a block south of the Mill Avenue / Third Street light rail station. This location, open later than most due to its Mill Avenue address, is also on the route of the Tempe Streetcar. Bike racks are prominently placed near the entrances of restaurant’s urban locations in Phoenix and Tempe.
The downtown Phoenix space is quite large for a Taqueria. The historic building used to house the A.J. Bayless grocery store, and its high ceilings create a cavernous feel. The Tempe restaurant’s space is more compact and was inherited from another taqueria that moved just a few doors down the street. In both locations, the predominant color is a sort of golden yellow seen in many of the tables and interior walls. Murals illustrate the twin themes of tacos and Tijuana. In Tempe, a shaded patio augments the interior seating in the smaller dining room.
In each Tacos Calafia restaurant, there is a counter where customers place their orders. A menu appears on boards overhead, and an open kitchen with a trompo is visible in back. Customers select and pay for their food and are then given a number to listen for while they choose their seats. When the digits are called, sometimes in both English and Spanish, diners go to a separate counter by the kitchen to pick up their food. At the pickup counter, a complimentary plate of grilled onions and jalapeños is available as an accessory worth adding to any order.
The four meats and one vegetarian taco filling all come with minimal ornamentation, so the grilled items are one way to boost the flavor profile of whatever has been ordered. The other method is a stop at the salsa bar. Big tubs there are filled with fresh radishes, creamy guacamole, minced cilantro, diced onions, and three salsas: a mild verde, a light red medium, and an incendiary red one. All of these condiments can be ladled directly onto tacos and other foods fresh from the kitchen or used to fill tiny to-go containers provided at the salsa bar.
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, nachos in which meat or nopales is served over crisp chips with the usual topping of 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 aguas 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 restaurants to serve bottled beers and margaritas in plastic cups. It’s an informal setup that matches the small chain’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 Tempe streetcar, buses, and bicycles. Reached via any of those modes, the Tacos Calafia locations in downtown Phoenix and downtown Tempe offer a convenient venue for tacos and other tastes of Tijuana.
825 N. 7th St. #102, Phoenix AZ 85006
414 S. Mill Ave. #115, Tempe AZ 85281