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Split Personality 

American diner by day and a Mexican restaurant by night, Frank's and Francisco's give new meaning to the 2-for-1 special

It's 10 a.m. on a Saturday as the smell of bacon and eggs fills the air in a small, midtown restaurant. The pace is frantic, and it's noisy inside, but no one seems to care. Every table is occupied as hungry patrons wait to be seated.

The seats and décor are unsophisticated. Seven red, soda-shop chairs line the counter; tables can best be described as functional. The walls are filled with photos of babies, dogs, motorcycles and musicians. Postcards, notes and stickers are also displayed. Look even closer, and you'll find a page from a coloring book and a concert ticket stuck to the wall. No, the place isn't elegant. But it has character.

Welcome to Frank's.

Opened in 1972 by Frank and Elizabeth Basile, Frank's serves some of the best breakfasts in town (so voted by Weekly readers in previous years). Not just another greasy spoon, Frank's boasts the "if you are here before 9 a.m., Monday-Friday special": two eggs, home fries or hash browns and a biscuit, slice of toast or tortilla for a mere $1.50, plus tax.

Cheap, good food aside, there are other reasons for Frank's popularity--namely, its staff. José Erik Sambrano, one of the cooks at Frank's, is known for his lightening-speed.

"He started working for me at 16, more than 10 years ago," says co-owner Mark Smith. "People come and watch him cook. He can do 10 things at once. He's amazing."

A former (and soon to return) waitress named Candace was known as the "food goddess/food bitch," according to Smith.

"She worked here until three years ago. We're going to do a åThe bitch is back' promotion (when she returns). She'd yell at people when they walked in and say, åYou better know what you want.' People loved it. They'd walk in and start smiling. She had that way," says Smith.

It's not unusual for employees at Frank's to be known for their longevity. One of several long-timers is manager Carolina (Carol) Moreno, in her 20th year at the restaurant. Frank's is her "home away from home."

"Twenty years is a long time for one job," says Moreno. "These people are my second family. I've adopted all these young guys. ... I love the owners. They are wonderful people."

She says people enjoy coming to Frank's because servers are caring and concerned about the patrons. It's not uncommon for server and customer to be on a first-name basis.

Says co-owner Deborah Richards, "We have people anywhere from bikers to business men, people in wing tips, people with tattoos. I think the people who come to eat here are the reason Mark and I like it so much. And that's why the employees like it, because there is the interaction with the customers on a regular basis."

Smith and Richards met in 1980 when Smith opened the Eclectic Café. Both are co-owners of Eclectic now, but Richards started out as a waitress there. In 1982, when Smith took over Frank's, Richards became its manager and worked in that capacity until 1987.

Richards moved to Tucson in 1977 from Los Angeles. Smith, however, is a native Tucsonan.

"I went to Catalina High School. I live in the neighborhood, always have," he says.

Come afternoon, something unusual happens in Smith's neighborhood.

Frank's closes down at 2 p.m., and the crew stays until 3 to clean. The restaurant sits quietly for about one hour. Another crew arrives at 4.

A transformation begins at 5.

The smell of sizzling meat, beans and corn tortillas fill the air. The pace is slow and easy; Spanish music fills the air. Everyone, whether they understand the singing or not, seems to enjoy it. There are plenty of open tables.

The seats and décor are unsophisticated. Seven red, soda-shop chairs line the counter; tables can best be described as functional. The walls are filled with photos of babies, dogs, motorcycles and musicians. Postcards, notes and stickers are also displayed. Look even closer and you'll find a page from a coloring book and a concert ticket stuck to the wall. No, the place isn't elegant. But it has character.

Welcome to Francisco's.

Opened in September 2002, Francisco's is named after Francisco Cervantes, the chef at the Eclectic Café. (A weird coincidence to have both namesakes so similar.) "He did the menu here and got it all started," says Richards.

But the idea of opening a Mexican restaurant was Smith's brainchild.

"(In July 2000), when I was in Michoacan, I stayed with Francisco Cervantes' family. When I was there, I ate like a king. He brought the concept of Michoacan food to my attention.

"It seemed sensible to open a Mexican restaurant. The demographics in Tucson have changed. This neighborhood is more Hispanic. This is really the kind of place you would find in South Tucson. So the concept was to bring this up to midtown. ... I'm always amazed at how people love the concept of Frank's by day and Francisco's by night. It happened to work out really well," says Smith.

While Frank's is a long-standing popular eatery, Francisco's is still struggling to gain its share of the marketplace. But its small, loyal following believes the restaurant is one of Tucson's best-kept secrets.

"Every town needs to have a Francisco's," says Gordon, one of its loyal customers. "We are fortunate in Tucson to have a Francisco's. ... The service is very efficient and fast. Everything is great for the palate. ... You must compliment Mark Smith. I think it's wonderful for this to happen in the middle of town where people don't find good Mexican food. ... I can eat here every night."

Indeed. Gordon and wife Eileen have eaten at Francisco's almost every week since January 2003. They missed only three weeks due to Gordon's travel out of town.

For those looking for a shorter commute, Francisco's offers authentic Mexican food without traveling across the border.

"The food is definitely straight out of Mexico," says manager Peter Peterson. "Everything is made from fresh ingredients and is made in house except for the flour tortillas. The people who are new to Francisco's oftentimes are not familiar with regional Mexican food. La Parrilla Suiza is not what they are getting here, so I try to explain it to them as best I can.

"From my experience, most of the Mexican restaurants (in Tucson) cater more to an American palate. Foods are more bland and not done in a traditional style. ... If you had a sit-down dinner with a Mexican family in their environment, that's pretty much exactly what you are getting here. For the atmosphere, the food and the price, you can't go wrong," he says.

Even though there are fewer customers at Francisco's than Frank's, Peterson also comments on the diversity of patrons.

"We have every ethnicity Tucson has to offer, every income bracket ... from high school kids to senior citizens."

Perhaps the diversity of the customers at the two restaurants is a reflection of its owners.

"It's not so much of a stretch (to have two different restaurants in one) because we are comfortable in them. They reflect facts of our personality. We are open; we embrace diversity," says Richards.

Diverse customers, different menus, day and night hours: Frank's and Francisco's--two sides of a egg that always lands sunny-side up.

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