El Merendero is one of those places you should take visitors to get a feel for Mexican food—Tucson style. The décor is simple, the servers are friendly, portions are huge, and the menu is filled with an array of good, solid choices. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served seven days a week, and the food can hold its own against the other choices available on South 12th Avenue.
We did breakfast and lunch and stuck with traditional favorites (or at least our favorites). If we should return for dinner, one of the seafood choices would certainly be an option.
Chips come to the table with two sauces and a bowl of limes. One sauce is chunky and mild (although every now and then a bit of heat popped up). The other sauce had been blended smooth and was decidedly hotter and more piquant. There wasn't a clear favorite.
The dining space is divided into two rooms: a small, square room in the back and a long, narrow space in the front. Booths line the windowed walls in the front room. The color scheme is tones of brown, and the circle patterns in the upholstery are repeated in the few pieces of art on the walls in the back room; nothing fancy, by any means, but certainly comfortable and clean. In its earliest incarnation El Merendero was an A&W drive-in, and if you use your imagination you can see the bones of earlier times. El Merendero means an open-air café, and I guess that's what a drive-in is, in some ways.
We found the place to be nearly empty when we stopped in for breakfast on a rainy midmorning. Customers arrived in dribs and drabs, and as far as we could tell there was only one server.
As you'd expect, there's a breakfast burro ($3.99) on the menu. It comes with beans and eggs, and additional ingredients range from potatoes and cheese (99 cents) to ham, chorizo, sausage and carne seca (50 cents each). We decided to go with huevos rancheros ($6.50) and scrambled eggs with carne seca ($6.50). Coffee ($1.99) and a large orange juice ($1.99) completed our order.
It took some time for the food to arrive, but we chalked that up to everything being prepped to order.
These were breakfasts for hungry people: creamy refried beans, hash brown potatoes, a tortilla with the scrambled eggs and hefty portions of both entrees.
The scrambled eggs were fluffy and cooked through without being dry. The beef added a nice texture and deep flavor. The beans were smooth and full of all those flavors that make refries so damn good; strips of the warm, flour tortilla were all they needed. The potatoes could've been crisper, but there was so much other food they were almost unnecessary.
The huevos rancheros—fried corn tortillas topped with well-cooked over-easy eggs and a tomato ranchero sauce rich with chiles—were most satisfying. All those textures and flavors came together well, especially with a dollop of the beans included.
Our lunch choices were the three-taco special ($3.99 on Mondays) and a chile relleno ($8.99). Beans and rice accompanied both plates.
The tacos—like everything else at El Merendero—were good sized and packed with tender, shredded beef, lots of lettuce and white farmer's cheese. This was the very definition of a beef taco.
The chile relleno had some of the same ranchero sauce as the eggs, but here it took on a more substantial role. The chile was filled with hot, melted jack cheese. Its stem peeked out from the light, eggy batter (which meant a fresh chile rather than the canned ones that so many places use). Again, this was a fine example of what a dish is supposed to be. I'd order it again in a heartbeat.
El Merendero is in many ways the kind of restaurant I ate at when I came to Tucson many years ago. It's small and homey, with well-prepared food and large portions. You really can't go wrong.