Monday, April 28, 2008

Guadalajara Grill - Tucson, No Mas Taco Bell

I had planned on posting a grilled strip steak recipe today, but some loyal members of Crabby Nation pointed out that I'd promised a review of a Tucson Mexican restaurant. Well, my public has spoken, so here we go...

For many of the last seven years the Crabby family has spent a week vacationing in the Scottsdale area. During that time we've watched both Phoenix and Scottsdale explode before our eyes. There is a vibrancy and energy in Phoenix that simply does not exist in the upper mid-west. The downside of all this growth has been the So-cal-ification of Arizona. With each passing year, Phoenix feels
less and less like its own city and more and more like an L.A. ex-burb.

If Phoenix is Los Angeles, then Scottsdale is Beverly Hills, an enclave of wealth, beauty and entitlement. It is a city of million dollar starter homes, $3 million dollar second homes with $250,000 Bentleys, all tended and maintained by fashionably pilloried illegals. The women are trophy wives, buffed and polished to a high sheen, with any flaws or signs of age quickly exercised or surgically excised. Parts too small are inflated, parts too big are suctioned. These women, when they die, will not so much be embalmed as they will be recycled.

I love it.

If Scottsdale is the movie star and Phoenix her slightly older, not quite as pretty sister, then Tucson is the hard living, little talked about but much sighed over cousin. Where Scottsdale is organic produce, spas and designer clothes, Tucson is bodegas, taquerias and tattoo parlors. Scottsdale is green and groomed, Tucson, sere and hardscrabble. Unlike Scottsdale, Tucson is original, forthright and without affectation.

It was with that background that we visited Guadalajara Grill, 1730 E. Prince Rd, Tucson, 520.323.1022. When we travel I spend a lot of time on the internet trolling for the best places to eat, Guadalajara Grill kept coming up. Close to the University of Arizona campus it sits in a somewhat threadbare but safe neighborhood. Don't let the surroundings put you off, it is a place well worth the visit.

Whereas Binkley's dances on the chef's knife edge of pretentiousness (and occasionally falls over), GGrill is a straightforward and clear presentation of Mexican cooking. Salsas are prepared fresh table-side, to your heat preference. Tortillas are handmade on-premises.

The quesadilla appetizer was a delicate blend of Mexican cheeses, onions and chiles with just the right amount of heat. CrabCake2 had Carnitas and Skirt Steak Fajitas, that have nothing to do with the fajitas you get at Chiles. The pork and beef were ridiculously tender and perfectly seasoned.

The high point of the evening was the main course which SSSal and I shared, Molcajete Ultimo. A Molcajete is a Mexican mortar bowl made out of volcanic basalt rock. Our meal consisted of shrimp, beef, sliced chicken, onions and peppers sauteed and then served simmering in a tomato-chicken based broth. The molcajete had been heated in a hot oven and the broth stayed simmering for five minutes after the meal had been served, and remained warm for at least 25 minutes.

While the bowl is only the serving vessel, it succeeds in keeping everything warm while you serve yourself. The meats were succulent and the simmering sauce a great balance of spicy heat and delicate tomato flavor. SSSal and I finished the meal by trying to sop up all the broth using our remaining flour tortillas. If you've only ever had Mexican food of the Chipotle's, Qdoba ilk, then you need to make an effort to find true Mexican cooking and experience what you should be eating. You'll never eat Taco Bell again.

Dinner for three with a margarita, agua and a cerveza came to $40 with tip. This does not include the tip for the salsa lady or the money I slipped to the strolling Mariachi Band that sang at our table. When they asked me what I wanted to hear, (not wanting to look terribly caucasian I skipped over La Bamba), I asked for Besame Mucho (translated lyrics below).

There you have it, Guadalajara Grill. If you're ever in Tucson, check it out. Also, if you have great or poor restaurant experiences you'd like to share with the rest of Crab Nation, feel free to post those experiences in the comments section.

Next Time: Balsamic and Mustard Grilled Strip Steak.


Besame Mucho
(1940), written at the age of 15 by Consuelo Velazquez

English Translation (It just doesn't sound as romantic in English - even Sinatra sang it in Spanish)

Kiss me, kiss me a lot,
As if tonight was
the last time.

Kiss me, kiss me a lot,
Because I fear to lose you,
To lose you again.

I want to have you very close
To see myself in your eyes,
To see you next to me,

Think that perhaps tomorrow
I already will be far,
very far from you.

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