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Charbroiled Bliss 

A reader leads us to a tiny spot featuring Sonoran food with huge flavors

Years ago, I wrote a story about a Popeye's outlet that briefly occupied a corner of Campbell Avenue and Broadway Boulevard. A chicken franchise out of New Orleans, Popeye's served the best fried chicken outside of your grandma's kitchen, not to mention fine gumbo. (I have not had the chance to check out the Popeye's now on 22nd Street.) The place didn't do a lot of business. When I talked to the owner, he sadly explained that "Tucson is a tough town to sell chicken in."

Why? Two words: Mexican food.

If you want something good, cheap and filling in Southern Arizona, your first three thoughts are "cheese crisp," "taco" and "enchilada." Upland Sonoran and coastal cooking offers any number of cheap, convenient and deeply good ways to fill a belly--witness the burrito-ization of America. And Tucson has the best Sonoran restaurants in the world. You can hardly throw a rock in this town without hitting Mexican food worth eating.

Which brings me to Taquito Mio, a tiny storefront in the easternmost archipelago of Crossroads Festival (northeast corner at Swan and Grant roads) where you'd be unlikely even to think of flinging that rock. It's beyond Bed, Bath and Beyond, beyond the drive back to the theater, beyond even the Outback Steakhouse. Tucked in between an Alphagraphics with a winking sign and Jenny Craig, it could be anything. What it is, is an incredibly cheap, very good taqueria with five tables, ESPN always on and fast, friendly help.

My thanks to alert reader Josh Harrison, who turned off on his way to the Quizno's two doors down, was blown away by a quesadilla and e-mailed us here at the Weekly's Incoming Restaurant Alert Desk. (Motto: Looking for Something to Eat, 24/7.)

Working from his tip, I stopped by Taquito Mio one dark, cold night to pick up dinner. Two young guys behind the counter and one customer were all sort of watching the game. When I ordered, carne instantly hit the grill, filling the clean, bright little space with the blissful smell of seared, marinated beef. In five minutes, I had my two chicken enchiladas, fajita combination and plain quesadilla (all for $16.32, including tax) and was on my way home, mouth watering.

It tasted as good as it smelled. Ed habitually orders fajitas, and he liked these. A lot. They featured tangy, slightly chewy marinated beef--hey, chewing is actually kind of fun--cooked up with crisp, fresh, greaseless peppers and onion, plus rice, tasty beans, homemade guacamole and four tiny, hand-stretched flour tortillas: These had it going on. The chicken in the enchiladas was moist and thoughtfully seasoned, with the dense Hatch chile sauce superb and the cheese nicely melted. The petite quesadilla was, as advertised, ace. (Servings at Taquito Mio are reasonable, which is to say rather small by death-by-sour-cream-Mexican-restaurant standards. Really, you're better off without that sea of oily queso and heap of pale, shredded iceberg lettuce.) Admittedly, making a quesadilla isn't rocket science, but it's not often you happen across tortillas as good as the ones at Taquito Mio.

The next night, to mix it up, I ordered two enchiladas al pastor (marinated pork with pineapple), a charbroiled pescado burrito and a charbroiled shrimp taco--total damage: $14.49. Then I went nuts and added flan ($3.50). The big color picture over the register was calling to me.

"Save room for dessert," it read. "Try our flan." What could I do?

The second meal was even better than the first. The charbroiled mahi-mahi burrito with shredded cabbage? Fantastic. (Nothing is more disappointing than a Mexican fish-food item that turns out to be deep-fat fried. If I wanted fishsticks--and I emphatically do not--I'd get them at Safeway.) This was delicately seasoned, seared and moist.

Enchiladas al pastor? Yum. There are many nice things to do with a pig, but this is one of the best.

And the dainty shrimp taco on two fresh little corn tortillas? Fragrant, sweet, toothsome and gone in an instant. The camarones had been marinated in chile and garlic sauce and grilled until just done.

My impulse purchase--the beckoning flan--was also lovely, with an ideal consistency. The essential pleasure of flan is its texture, the ravishing collapse of each spoonful on the tongue, like ice cream melting but without the change of temperature. This was perfect.

It's almost startling to find such beautifully prepared, authentic food in such an obscure, unpretentious place--and at Swan and Grant, of all places. More startling, though, is the fact that it isn't mobbed. Although, to be honest, Taquito Mio is at heart a lunch and takeout joint: There's no alcohol, and although the room is bright and welcoming, it's not long on atmosphere. Which is probably just a wordy way of saying that it's a taqueria--a really first-rate one.

Good catch, Josh.

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