THOUGH TUCSON MAY once have laid claim to a corner of the market in Mexican food, the south-of-the-border trend has migrated to much of the rest of the country. Even far away and seasonably chilly cities like Chicago lay claim to outstanding Mexican fare, as does every corner of California and Texas, New York and Washington, D.C. Still, the sheer number of competitors gives us locals an edge; and because of their numbers and diversity, you'd be hard-pressed to designate any one of our fine Mexican eateries "the best." Ask a dozen Tucsonans where to eat the finest plate of Mexican food, and you'll likely receive as many different responses.
While South Fourth Avenue has long been a staple for reliable Mexican restaurants, many other worthy enterprises have emerged around town throughout the years. One of the most notable is Casa Molina on East Speedway, near Wilmot Road. Restaurants with the Molina name are scattered throughout the city (all of them run by different members of the same clan), but this particular East Speedway venue has been the most consistent -- both in quality and popularity -- over the last few decades. And it remains a trusty standby when visitors are in town.
The Molina family emigrated from Mexico sometime around 1909, and set up a small homestead and ranch on what was then the eastern outskirts of town (coincidentally, the family holdings were not far from the present restaurant location). Eventually, the family opened a gas station at the corner of Speedway and Wilmot that served as a last outpost for those hardy souls scaling the heights of Mt. Lemmon. Over time, most of the land was sold, the family holdings consolidated, and a small restaurant opened -- still considered a business far removed from mainstream Tucson.
Today, the restaurant seats a hundred or more, and the intersection where it's located is one of the busiest in town. And that town itself has a northeastern sprawl to be reckoned with. The only mainstay in this burgeoning sea of change has been Molina's hospitality, and the steaming plates flying out of the kitchen. Using the same recipes handed down by past generations of cooks, Casa Molina continues to serve up some of the tastiest Mexican food anywhere.
Not that everyone will be overjoyed. Connoisseurs will have tasted better versions of various dishes at other restaurants, or even in their own kitchens. They'll sneer at the Americanized inclusion of deep-fried shrimp and hamburgers on the menu. They'll pronounce the pepper quotient too mild for their native palates. But even with such quibbling criticisms, it's impossible to deny Casa Molina's broad-based appeal. If not everyone is ecstatic, it's a sure thing that no one will be turned off, either.
Seating at the Speedway restaurant can take one of four turns: a cozy little room off the main entrance; a larger, circular dining room at the rear of the restaurant; a few raucous tables tucked beside the tiny bar; or a tiled, enclosed patio with misters and a fountain in the center. Out here, small children can generally get up and move around without becoming too much of a nuisance to anyone. In fact, if there's one restaurant in town where children are warmly welcomed, it's Casa Molina. All the servers are pleasantly and genuinely indulgent with the little people, tirelessly working to keep them happy while they simultaneously try to ensure the parents also enjoy their meals. It's an impressive performance and one of the reasons the restaurant has inspired so much return business.
Although complimentary chips and salsa (smooth, flavorfully seasoned and with a definite bite) are presented along with the menus, no meal here would be complete without a cheese crisp, or as they're known at the restaurant, tostada de harina. We order one with mild green chiles ($9.60) and are rewarded with a 16-inch disk of crispy flour tortilla topped with melted yellow cheese and several slivers of chile. Either this indulgent appetizer or a Mexican pizza of carne seca, cheese, chiles, tomatoes and onions ($15.15) would make a cozy meal for two, especially if accompanied by a frosty pitcher of beer.
Seasoned veterans of the restaurant tend to steer away from the combination dinners ($12 to $18), as typically they're more food than can reasonably be ingested in a single sitting. A la carte items provide more than enough food for the average appetite, but for those having trouble making up their mind, the combinations certainly ensure you won't go hungry.
We experiment with a few of the numbered platters and nibble on chile relleno, cheese enchiladas, a beef taco and refried beans. The chile relleno is satisfactory but far from a knockout, with too much egg-batter and not enough spice. The cheese enchiladas, however, are excellent -- thoroughly hot and stringy, and topped with a dark, complex red chile sauce with all the pizzazz that walked off the relleno's plate. The frijoles refritos are satisfactory, especially with a spoonful of salsa tossed in for good measure, and a soft flour tortilla for the whole.
Later we try the beef fajitas ($9.95), an enormous platter unself-consciously heaped with strips of beef, red and green bell peppers, tomatoes and onion, accompanied by fat dollops of sour cream, guacamole and salsa ranchera (chunks of vegetables as opposed to a subtle purée). A vast flour tortilla stands at the ready. The meat is just okay -- slightly chewy, though with a pleasing grilled flavor -- but the mountain of tender-crisp vegetables and the selection of condiments are extraordinary, making these fajitas some of the finest we've sampled.
Chimichangas (roughly translated to "thingamajig" in español) are one of the most popular Mexican food items at any restaurant, and Casa Molina is no exception. Again, the kitchen is never stingy on the portions. Diners interested in diversifying their tastes might consider sharing one of these and ordering a side dish, as opposed to facing one solo. My preferred mode is to order one of these delicacies "enchilada-style" ($2 extra), which means the deep fried burro is topped at the last minute with a ladle of that densely flavored enchilada sauce, sprinkled with grated yellow cheese and broiled until bubbling hot.
I try this technique with the carne seca chimichanga ($8.25) and find that despite my formidable hunger, I only eat about half before my "stuffed" alarm begins to sound off. Casa Molina's carne seca is a savory blend of shredded beef seasoned with lime juice, chile, garlic, pepper and salt, and it lends itself well to any number of dishes -- especially when mixed with the red chile salsa.
Perhaps because of the number of young families that dine there, Casa Molina offers an impressive selection of desserts. The sopaipillas ($3.50) are the most fun: deep-fried, triangular pastry puffs served warm with a pitcher of amber honey. Either pour a little honey on a plate for dipping, or bite off a corner of the pastry and pour the sweet nectar into the hollow interior. Either way, they're roundly delicious and entertaining for the kids.
We tried the flan ($2.95) and almendrado ($2.50) as well, but found that these failed to attain the flavorful heights set by the sopaipillas. The egg custard flan was tasty but unexceptional, and the Mexican flag-colored meringue called "almendrado" imparted none of the almond-like character for which it's named. Stick with the sopaipillas.
One last note: If opinions on Mexican food are passionately subjective in this town, there's almost an equal debate when it comes to discussing the relative merits of margaritas. Casa Molina has been praised and maligned in the same breath for these lime-and-tequila cocktails, which strike many as the strongest and most astringent in the city. Whether you think this is good or bad for a margarita will determine your ultimate judgment on their quality. Myself, I think they're grand (just watch out for that headache the next morning).
All in all, I wouldn't hesitate to go back to Casa Molina. Nor would I feel apologetic about taking out of town guests there to dine. Though far from being the final outpost these days, it's nonetheless a worthy destination.