Wednesday, May 30, 2007

El Nopalito - Phoenix

Back when I was still in Dallas, one of my coworkers introduced us to "the taco place". It was a little taco shop off of Northwest Highway in a rather scary area. We never went alone, even at lunch. The interior was shabby, English was not spoken, and everything was a dollar. We'd go there once every month or so. I'd usually order six or seven carnitas with onions and cilantro, plus an orange soda and a pile of lime wedges. The corn tortillas were maybe four or five inches in diameter. They had bottles of red and green salsa on the tables. They were nothing special, but tasted great.
Since moving to Phoenix, I hadn't been to a good divey taco place. Granted there are tons of them around, but I usually stick to my Asian foods. I'd seen El Nopalito mentioned in various posts on Chowhound and after Seth's recent review, I decided to give it a try. Tara had to work Saturday, so I headed down for a late lunch. It's on the southeast corner of Thomas and 24th Street. There was plenty of parking when I got there.
Once inside, there were plenty of empty tables. I took a seat at a six-top so I could have room to read my magazine and not be too crowded. The interior is definitely nothing special, but about what you expect from a divey place. A waitress dropped off a menu and I ordered an iced tea. Another server dropped off the chips and two kinds of salsa with my iced tea. There was a red and green salsa. The green was definitely too spicy for me. The red had a nice smoky flavor, but eventually it's spiciness built and I had the chips plain.
I ordered a bowl of tortilla soup, and three tacos: Al Pastor, Carnitas, and Pollo. I waited for a few minutes, reading my Motor Trend and chips, before my food arrived. The soup was good. There was an avocado slice floating in it but I didn't see any cheese. Lifting the spoon revealed that the cheese had sunk to the bottom. It also proved to have a velcro-like attraction to the bottom of the spoon. Anytime I tried to get a spoonful, a huge chunk of cheese attached itself. I ended up doing what I prefer, and just drank straight from the bowl. I'm not exactly Mr. Manners sometimes, but it got the job done.
The tacos were really good, too. A plate held three small open-face tacos with some small lime wedges on the side. I squeezed a little lime juice on them. The Al Pastor was ok. I liked it, but it didn't jump out at me. The Carnitas was good too, with a nice flavor. My favorite was the Pollo. The chicken meat was cooked or marinated in a reddish sauce and it had a great flavor. I wish the corn tortillas themselves had been a bit thicker, as they tended to tear easily.
After I'd finished the tacos, I downed the last of the soup. As I did, one of the waitresses came by and asked if I wanted anything else. At the time, I wasn't sure which tacos were which, so I tried to describe what turned out to be the Pollo. Unfortunately, Spanish is my fourth language after French and German, and I ended up getting two more Al Pastor. Not what I wanted, but I still enjoyed them.
That would have been the end of the review. However, on Sunday I had the bright idea of getting dim sum at Golden Buddha. We didn't get there until about 1:45pm. They stop serving dim sum at 3pm, so I thought we had enough time. Unfortunately, they'd had a busy day and none of the good stuff was left. I don't count fried chicken knees (and what the hell ARE chicken knees?) as good stuff. We were only able to get some shrimp spring rolls and a couple pot stickers. Literally everything else we normally get was gone. We bagged it and Tara was amenable to trying the tacos, so we headed to El Nopalito.
Since Tara isn't much for spicy, she let me order. I ordered four Pollo, since they were good and I figured she'd enjoy them. I also got two Al Pastor. I then got an Adobada and one the waitress suggessted that began with an "L". I also ordered a chicken chimichanga, since it had intrigued me the previous day.
The chimichanga was very disappointing. I was hoping it would be the same chicken as the tacos, but it wasn't. I found it rather bland and only ate about half. Tara enjoyed the Pollo tacos and wasn't keen on the Al Pastor. I tried the "L" one (sorry, I'm blanking on it's true name) and it was very good. The winner was the Adobada, though. It had great flavor and Tara said that it was her favorite as well. My next visit will definitely consist of a large number of those.
The damage for the first visit was about $13. The second visit came to about $20. The tacos are all 99 cents, so they just invite experimentation. I know I'll be back and can't wait.

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