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Desert Companion

The dish: Taste for the border

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Aquachiles Verde

Motion of the ocean: Aguachile verde at Mariscos Playa Escondida

Street tacos are so ayer. Try huaraches, panuchos, alambres and other lively, lesser-known specialties of Mexico made right here

 

With the explosive growth of the valley’s Hispanic population in the past two decades, options for Mexican food have exploded, too. Sure, you know about tasty street tacos and salsa-smothered enchiladas, but what about huaraches and panuchos? If you’re limiting yourself to tried and true Mexican standards, you’re missing out on the regional specialties begging to be explored on menus around the city.

In Mexico, you’d have to criss-cross the country, from the bucolic beaches of Baja to the cenote-pocked terrain of the Yucatán, to try these specialties in their places of origin. Here, you just might have to hop on the 215 Beltway for a few exits to sample these five restaurants and their signature regional delicacies.

 
Panucho at Frank and Fina’s Cocina

In the Yucatán Peninsula, regional pride rules. Billboards on the freeway declare: This isn’t Mexico, It’s the Yucatán, and the cuisine of the area is distinct, featuring Mayan elements as well as Caribbean, Spanish and African influences. Frank and Fina’s specializes in Yucatecan cooking. One such creation is panuchos, tortillas fried with black beans in between them, then topped with cheese, achiote chicken, lettuce, pickled onions and avocado. Stacked high, it stretches the limits of the average jaw, but the full-bite combination is fantastic. The spice of the chicken couples well with the cheese and avocado, and the tortilla adds texture and crunch.

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There are other Yucatecan specialties on the menu, too, including cochinita pibil, pork slow-roasted in a banana leaf and served with pickled onions. Scoop a bit of both into a tortilla for a deep and vibrant DIY taco. 4175 S. Grand Canyon Drive, 702-579-3017

 

Torta Ahogada at El Birotazo

“Tapatios,” natives of the city of Guadalajara, will feel right at home at El Birotazo. The owners hail from the “City of Roses,” and the walls are adorned with memorabilia from the city’s most popular soccer club, Chivas de Guadalajara. The torta ahogada, or drowned sandwich, is to Guadalajara what the cheesesteak is to Philadelphia. It’s made with pork stuffed into a crunchy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside sour roll called a bolillo. The entire sandwich is then immersed in spicy chile de arbol salsa, and sometimes the inside of the bread is spread with a light coating of refried beans. Swimming in a pool of salsa, the sandwich is served with lime and onions, which are marinated in an even spicier salsa. The original torta ahogada packs a picante punch, perfect for remedying a head cold or a rough hangover, but the heat level can be adjusted upon request. 4262 E. Charleston Blvd., 702-888-0858

 

Ceviche at Mariscos Playa Escondida

Playa Escondida, or “hidden beach,” is an apt name for this seafood restaurant tucked into a corner of a strip mall at East Charleston and Maryland Parkway. The restaurant is small and hard to find, but this is the spot for Mexican-style seafood — particularly those beachside shacks selling the freshest selections, from spicy shrimp cocktails to grilled whole fish.

Try the ceviche, which is fresh fish, shrimp or octopus marinated in lime and spices. The acid in the marinade “cooks” the fish, turning it opaque and firm without the use of heat. One bite into the cool, citrusy concoction layered on top of a crunchy tostada with slices of avocado and some hot sauce, a Corona with lime as accompaniment, and you’ll be transported to Mexico’s Pacific coast. Playa Escondida also offers aguachile, a type of ceviche with pulverized chile, and a bit more kick. The house specialty, shrimp empanadas packed with garlic, cilantro and onions, is also a dish you must not miss. 1203 E. Charleston Blvd., 702-906-1124

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A panucho from Frank & Fina’s Cocina

A panucho from Frank & Fina’s Cocina

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Seafood molcajete from Mariscos Playa Escondida

Seafood molcajete from Mariscos Playa Escondida

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Huarache at Los Antojos

Huarache at Los Antojos

Enchiladas de Mole at Las Cazuelas

Las Cazuelas chef/owner Manuel Avendaño and his wife specialize in the cuisine of their hometown, the colonial city of Puebla. One of Mexico’s iconic recipes, mole poblano, comes from Puebla, and Las Cazuelas mixes up a master version of the dish. Shredded chicken is wrapped in a tortilla and then drenched in the mole poblano sauce and topped with cotija cheese, white onion and sesame seeds. The mole, an elaborate sauce made from chocolate, cinnamon, coriander, garlic and many other spices and ingredients, is superbly balanced, not too thick and heavy with just the right blend of spices to complement the signature flavor of unsweetened chocolate.

Other specialties served up by Avendaño include chanclas, sliced rolls stuffed with shredded chicken and topped with a chipotle sauce, and molletes, an open-faced roll with refried beans and mozzarella cheese served with pico de gallo. 9711 S. Eastern Ave., 702-837-0204

 

Huarache at Los Antojos

The door to Los Antojos reads “Welcome to Mexico City,” and the walls are festooned with various maps of the country’s capital. Owner Adriana Martinez and chef Carmen Tuiz are both from Mexico City, and the menu does everything in the style of the metropolis, including deep-fried quesadillas. One of the Mexico City specialties customers come in for is the huarache, a thick oval tortilla topped with beans, two types of salsa, cheese and your choice of meat, such as carne asada. “Huarache” refers to a type of sandal, and the food got its name because of the oval tortilla’s resemblance to the footwear. It’s cheap, it’s comforting and it’s delicious.

Other specialties you won’t find in every Mexican joint include pambazos, a sub roll in adobo sauce filled with potatoes, cheese and Spanish sausage; alambres, slices of steak grilled with bacon, onions and bell peppers; and cecina adobada, pork steak marinated in adobo sauce with rice and beans. 2520 S. Eastern Ave., 702-457-3505 

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