The word “tacazo” can mean so many things when used casually in Mexican Spanish. A long list of possible English meanings includes “wadding, padding, stud, stopper, peg, cue, ramrod, rod used to pack or clean a firearm, popgun, toy gun, bite, nibble, mess, predicament, obstruction.” Last but not least, “tacazo” can be a variant for a much better known word, “taco.” With that in mind, a South Phoenix restaurant known as El Tacazo focuses on tacos and other Mexican favorites, but it meets other definitions by being a good place for a bit or a nibble.
El Tacazo is found in a sleepy shopping center at the southeast corner of Roeser and Central, across from the light rail station currently under construction at that intersection as part of the South Central extension. The restaurant is in a yellow standalone building with an entrance facing Central. Unfortunately, bike racks are uncommon in this part of town, and this retail plaza is no exception to that pattern. No matter how customers arrive here, some caution is warranted when passing by a drive-thru lane that wraps around the restaurant to reach a pickup window.
The dining room is sparse and seldom busy. At least half the orders the kitchen fulfills seem to come via the drive-thru operation. Customers order at the counter and then find a seat at any of the tables around the room. A few bits of decor provide a little bit of levity and color. A wall hanging that looks like artificial turf is accentuated with a neon sign telling onlookers to “try my taco,” and a few potted plants and a surfboard suggest a tropical beach theme. Other than those details, the room looks like a repurposed fast food operation designed for easy cleaning.
The menu is provided on overhead reader boards above the counter and comprises mostly numbered combination plates, the kind seen at countless Mexican restaurants around Phoenix. Most of these complete meals feature an entree that includes a choice of one of the listed meats, as well as side servings of rice and refried beans. A small bag of jalapenos and spicy carrots can be added to any of the combo meals for fifty cents more. Additional items featured as specials that change every few weeks are indicated on a whiteboard near the counter.
An obvious place to begin is with the #1 combination of two tacazos with rice and beans. In this context, the restaurant’s namesake dish is simply a larger format of taco with a choice of filling on corn tortillas. Street-size tacos are found in the #3 combination in which a smaller tortilla diameter is offset by three tacos rather than two tacazos. In each case, possible meats include carne asada, al pastor pork, pollo asado, tongue, cabeza, barbacoa, and tripe. Carnitas have not been available during recent visits despite being listed on the restaurant’s menu.
Regardless of the size ordered, the tacos are simply adorned with diced onion and minced cilantro and some pico de gallo on the larger tacazos. A red salsa of medium intensity is provided to add a flavor boost as desired. The tortillas used in both sizes come from La Sonorense Tortilla Factory, which is just a block to the south along Central Avenue. The accompanying rice and beans are consistent classics, whether paired with tacos or some of the other entrees such as enchiladas in red or green sauce, burritos, tamales, or torta sandwiches.
The tortas at El Tacazo are made with locally sourced teleras, also from La Sonorense, and gently toasting them adds a bit of structure to what is most definitely a two-handed sandwich incorporating not only a generous quantity of meat, but also lettuce, tomato, and avocado crema. While the tortas and tacos are primarily land-based in their protein choices, shrimp is an option in dishes like camarones rancheros with a tangy tomato sauce, as well as tostadas, a hearty soup, and a shrimp cocktail for those who prefer their crustaceans cold and marinated.
An occasional special is caldo de res with pieces of beef chuck in a flavorful broth with corn on the cob, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and squash. This is a hearty meal in a bowl, especially when the provided corn or flour tortillas are taken into account. A lighter special available at many times is a chicken fajita bowl. It begins with a base of rice and is topped with grilled poultry, peppers, and onions. It has the essence of a familiar fajitas platter but in a more manageable size without beans, tortillas, and some of the other heavier accompaniments.
Choosing a slightly smaller entree sometimes has the benefit of leaving extra room for dessert. There’s none listed on the menu, but a charmingly retro sign with the phrase “flan-tastico!” on it suggests a possibility that is confirmed by the image of a woman holding a serving of flan. Sure enough, flan is available, and it’s an admirable version of the ubiquitous Mexican dessert. A puck of smooth custard is enveloped in a light coating of cajeta, a thick caramel sauce that adds a bit of complexity and nuance to an otherwise straightforward and simple sweet.
A liquid dessert is sometimes also available during the winter in the form of champurrado, a silky, viscous drink made with a corn base and flavored with cinnamon. Other beverages include both fountain and bottled sodas, as well as bottled beer. Because this is a casual, counter-service operation, there are no margaritas or cocktails, however. Like so many words in so many languages, “tacazo” can assume a myriad of meanings. In this case, the connotation is entirely positive in describing tacos, big and small, and other Mexican dishes in South Phoenix.
5239 S. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85040