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North Side Story 

Maria Bonita is a solid and tasty entry in the quest for good Mexican food.

It is an ongoing search for all new Tucsonans: the quest for good, authentic, "make you want to slap your mama" Mexican food. (Sorry, Mom.) To the south, the streets are crowded with favorite Mexican restaurants and taquerias. In the north, Tucson is dotted here and there with subtle competition.

Tucked in the corner of Placita del Norte on North Oracle Road sits Maria Bonita Mexican Restaurant, a new addition to the north side competitors. Owned by Maria and Mario Gonzales, Maria Bonita opened its doors nearly four months ago in a space previously occupied by Pirate's Cove seafood restaurant.

In that event, upon entering her doors, I wasn't surprised to find a bit of seafood restaurant décor still lingering among the brightly painted walls decorated with plastic fruit and chile peppers. After being shown to our table by a gracious hostess, she was quick to return with the first test of a good Mexican restaurant--the salsa. The spicy, smoky puree passed with flying colors--we hoped a good indication of things to come.

The restaurant's menu boasts a variety of appetizers ranging from $2.50- $11.50. Featured is an assortment of cheese crisps, queso fundido, guacamole and my personal favorite, toritos. These are served as six delicate yellow peppers filled with tiny shrimp, and wrapped in bacon, served on a bed of rice. This spicy little snack is definitely a two-margarita appetizer.

The soup selection at Maria Bonita was the largest I've seen among neighboring Mexican restaurants. It ranged from tortilla soup--light and brothy with an abundance of tortilla strips and avocados so warm they melt in your mouth--to a traditional hangover cure, menudo. For those of you who aren't familiar with this delicacy, menudo is a hearty soup made with chile, hominy and tripe. Tripe is the lining of a cow's stomach, which nobody seems to have a problem with here. If you haven't tried this soup before, Maria Bonita is definitely the place to get a taste of the real deal, though not recommended for the faint-hearted. If you can get past the Fear Factor scenes dancing in your head, there is really nothing a little cilantro and fresh lime can't fix. Right?

Our meals were served promptly along with the soups. No time for chatting between courses here. When the food arrived, I noticed that unlike many other Mexican restaurants, the portion size was modest--just enough to fill you up, not enough to take home. However there was one exception, the chicken topopo salad. Becoming more and more popular in Tucson, this salad literally means volcano, and is named so because of its resemblance to one. A crisp fried tortilla shell is piled high with shredded lettuce, tomato, onion, savory-shredded chicken, black olives and sour cream.

The carne asada arrived, accompanied by roasted chile peppers and green onions with flour tortillas, beans and rice. The rice was the second test, another measure of authenticity that won our taste buds. The arroz was cooked to perfection, light and fluffy, with hint of tomato and spice. Not as much could be said for the meat itself. Although deliciously seasoned, it was just too tough to enjoy.

Luckily, the menu also included 15 different combination plates to choose from. We opted for the taco, tamale, enchilada plate. The deep-fried taco brought to mind that of a fast food restaurant. The tamale was fat with masa (corn meal) and shredded beef, but not big on flavor. What saved the plate was the enchilada, a flour tortilla stuffed with cheese and smothered with an enchilada chile sauce. It was the one item on the plate that I really wished there were more of.

I feel that when ordering, one must always try any dish named after the restaurant or its owners. If this dish is good enough to put your name on it, it's got to be great. Consequently, a successful third test--the Camarones a la Maria Bonita--were a hit. Six large shrimp wrapped in bacon then lightly breaded and fried served over that wonderful rice. Not too little, not too much. As always, there is room for dessert.

If you are like me, you know what is for dessert before the appetizers arrive. As soon as I laid eyes on the menu it was decided we must try the tres leches cake (three milks) and the traditional caramel custard, flan. They arrived within minutes of ordering and were eaten within minutes after that. The cake was cold, sweet and moist, iced with a sweetened cream. After much discussion, the server was kind enough to bring us the mysterious "three milks" from the kitchen: sweetened-condensed, evaporated and whole. The flan was also a treat, perfectly molded and dripping with caramel sauce--our server assured us it was made fresh that day.

And so our meal was complete. There were no surprises when the server brought our bill. Most of the menu was moderately priced. Dinners ranged from $6.50 to $14.95. The menu also included an a la carte selection as well as a child's menu. Maria Bonita serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, with lunch specials ($2.75-$5.50) during the week. The restaurant also features live mariachi music on Friday and Saturday nights, and advertises its catering services for all occasions.

In your pursuit of Tucson's finest Mexican establishments, I suggest you stop in and check it out. With a little more time and practice, Maria Bonita is sure to find its niche, and give any competition a run for their money.

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