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Phoenix eatery's traditional fare, signature items thrill senses.

   My best friend is the president of the top commercial real estate brokerage in a large Western city. 
  The only thing he likes better than closing a tricky deal is a fabulous meal.  So when he comes to town, we head for Carolina's Mexican Food, and I give him my take on the real estate market here in Phoenix.
 
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   The restaurant was founded in 1968 by namesake Carolina Valenzuela, who still presides over the kitchen.   It was first at 105 W. Hilton Ave. and later at 1519 E. Mohave St.   Since 1986, it has been at 1202 E. Mohave in a building that also has housed a coin-operated laundry and a grocery store.
   The character of the neighborhood is etched on the building's cinder-block facade.   The restaurant's skin has been pockmarked by bullets and its windows and doors outfitted with heavy metal security bars.
   It's around noon when we arrive, and a small lot at the side of the restaurant is already full.   We join other vehicles on the street, where my friend's rented Cadillac seems out of place among the Mercedes-Benzes and BMW's.
   As we approach the entrance, I notice reward posters taped up between the bullet holes in Carolina's front window:  $1,000 for information leading to the arrest of a murder suspect and an unspecified amount offered for the recovery of Chori, a lost Rottweiler.
   In its neighborhood, Carolina's is a source of both sustenance and social interaction.   Inside, scrape of crepe paper cling to the ceiling, remnants of a recent birthday party or community celebration.
   The interior of Carolina's is austere.   There is a small room at the entrance where orders are placed and takeout customers wait for their numbers to be called.   Above the order counter is a large, painted menu, where prices hang on hooks to accommodate inflation.   Many of the numbers are missing, however, having been blown off by the opening and closing of the front door.
   No one is bothered by Carolina's vague pricing.   People just order what they want with the understanding that their tab, including a large, refillable drink, likely won't exceed $5.
   When the restaurant isn't crowded, I like to linger near the counter because of the excellent view it affords of the kitchen.   It's a busy place.   In the center is a large table where workers pick through a pile of meat, preparing the pieces for transformation into Carolina's delicious chiles verdes and rojos, its mouthwatering machaca and spicy chorizo for which the restaurant has become famous.
   Near the weekend, the workers are busy preparing ingredients for another signature item, Carolina's restorative menudo, which is available in quantities for takeout Saturdays and Sundays only.
 (Carolina's is closed Mondays)
   But, Carolina's is best known for its flour tortilla ------- a large, delicately thin and slightly chewy affair that makes the most elegant wrap for the restaurant's divine burro.
   The tortillas, which are available by the dozen for takeout, are churned out by a crew of workers who stand before a bank of hot griddles, deftly flipping the paper thin rounds of dough and piling them up for packaging. 
   Beyond the waiting area is a large, open dining room area with a worn, painted concrete floor.   Like many things in the barrio, Carolina's tables and chairs have had previous owners.   There are red and yellow laminate booths that are reminiscent of Subway; tables with attached swiveling seats that have the characteristics of McDonald's and purple, oval-backed banquet chairs that must have come out of a Valley hotel or resort.
   The walls are white and decorated primarily with dozens of "Best of Phoenix" and "Az Best" awards garnered by the restaurant over the years.

   A recent addition is framed write-up from the January edition of Sunset magazine, featuring a picture of Carolina.
   The menu offers a traditional sampling of tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, tamales, burros and various combinations thereof.
   The corn tortillas used for the tacos, enchiladas and tostadas are from an outside supplier, and while first-rate, they pale in comparison to the magnificent flour ones made in-house.
   I am particularly partial to the soft-shell machaca taco.   It's a simple affair with a warm corn tortilla wrapped around a generous portion of the subtly spiced shredded beef filling.   It's a perfect starter before tackling the main course --- one of Carolina's incredible burros wrapped in a homemade flour tortilla.
   The plain bean burro is majestic; the green chile burro, marvelous; the red chile burro, legendary; but the Oaxaca special with beans, chorizo, potatoes and cheese is pure heaven.
   The rich, piquant flavor of the chorizo is enhanced by the cheese and potatoes and tempered by the beans and the chewy tortilla wrap.
   Carolina's burros can be ordered enchilada-style with red or green sauce, lettuce and cheese, or deep-fried like a chimichanga.
   As my Oaxaca special shrinks, I find myself taking smaller and smaller bites to make this great culinary experience last as long as possible.
   Finally, we're finished.   We dump the tissue, plastic foam and cardboard remains of our meals into the waste can, leave the tray on top and pause at the order counter for a dozen tortillas to go.   I steal a parting glance into the kitchen and wave goodbye, and we depart.

Reprinted from an Az. Business Gazette article:May 1, 1997, written by Malcolm Cross. grnlogo.gif (6211 bytes)

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