Chaco's Café doesn't feel like a restaurant located in metro Tucson; instead, it feels like a Mexican joint somewhere in small-town Arizona.
The vibe is decidedly casual; all of the servers wear attire like T-shirts and jeans, and they banter like they've known each other for years. The tables are covered in red checkered vinyl tablecloths that have not been replaced for a while. The place seems clean, even if some of the chairs are noticeably stained. The yellowish walls are covered with various signs (including an unlit "flash cash pawn" neon sign) and numerous handwritten sayings. Barely audible country music adds a little ambiance. Water and soda are served in large, plastic 7-Up cups. They sell baseball caps; you can choose from a surprisingly decent selection hanging up near the cash register, where it almost takes an act of Congress to get a receipt for your meal. Whenever someone orders a cheeseburger, a server rings a little bell, presumably to let fellow customers know someone has ordered off the "for the gringos" section of the menu.
And the eats are decent at their worst, and pretty darned good at their best.
I discovered Chaco's because I frequent Mama Louisa's Italian Restaurant, which sits just south of the building that houses what was one of the most interesting combinations of eateries in all of Southern Arizona: Chaco's is in the middle of the building; Mabuhay Filipino Food Store is to the left; and to the right, until it closed a few months ago, was the Tudor Rose English Tea Room.
Garrett and I decided to stop in for lunch one day, and were charmed by Chaco's right away. The place was busy without being packed; I imagine that this place is popular among those who work at the nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. We decided to split the large quesadilla ($3.99) with steak (add $1.99); Garrett decided to try the combo plate with two carne asada tacos ($8.25). I asked the server what she thought the best thing on the menu was, and she said—without hesitation—to get the carne asada chimichanga ($8.50), enchilada style (add $1); since both the quesadilla and Garrett's tacos featured steak, I decided to instead get the chicken chimi ($6.75, plus that extra dollar to make it enchilada style).
Chips were delivered right away (and, at one point, refilled without us having to ask) along with a red sauce in a plastic squeeze bottle. We were also directed to the salsa bar, where there were other dips: a pico de gallo; a green, smooth avocado salsa; a green tomatillo salsa; and a reddish-brown, slightly smoky salsa.
As we waited for our food, we pondered the various sayings that had been handwritten on the walls. Hug children after you discipline them. Strive for excellence, not perfection. Some people don't seem to grasp why they were given two ears and only one tongue. Garrett even found an erroneously repeated word in one: Measure people by the size of their hearts, not by the size of their bank bank (sic) accounts.
The food arrived, all at once, and we dug in. The large quesadilla was yummy, divided into four pieces with cheese, grilled steak and small bits of tomato and onion. Similar steak was found in Garrett's carne asada tacos—the meat had good flavor and a nice char—which he enjoyed, although the rice and beans that came with both of our plates were fairly average. My quesadilla was large and packed with moist, shredded chicken and a veggie mix that included corn and carrots. The enchilada sauce on top was tasty without being too bitter. It wasn't the best chimi I've eaten, but it was better than average.
We returned several days later for breakfast. The place wasn't quite as hopping at 9 a.m. as it was during the noon hour several days before, but there were still plenty of customers present. I ordered the huevos rancheros plate ($6.50), and Garrett got the Mexican omelette ($6.75).
I also ordered a pint of albondigas (meatball soup, $4.99) to go. Chaco's also offers red menudo, white menudo and cosido (vegetable beef soup) by the pint ($4.99), quart ($6.90) or gallon ($24.99); on Saturday, a gallon of menudo is only $17. You'll pay an extra $1 for gallon containers.
Both of our breakfasts were enjoyable, if not revelatory. The huevos were cooked perfectly to order (over easy), and it was fun mixing and matching the sauce, beans, eggs, fried tortilla and fresh corn tortillas. Garrett's omelette—with tomatoes, onions, cilantro and jalapeños—was also prepared nicely; Garrett raided the salsa bar and varied the salsa mixture with each bite.
The only problem with our breakfast visit was my fault: I put down my albondigas to-go on the counter next to the cash register as I paid the bill—and that's where it stayed as I walked out and drove away.
So I can't vouch for the soup at Chaco's Café. However, based on everything else I experienced there, I suspect it's pretty good stuff.