Atypical Taqueria

Papa Locos—adjacent to a Rita Ranch gas station—is a delightful Mexican-food find

Papa Locos Tacos and Burgers' location—tucked behind a gas station/minimart/barber shop—is a bit off-putting, but don't let that fool you: The food here is good, really good, and the vibe is a cut above that of your neighborhood mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall.

The restaurant has all the trappings of the typical taqueria: counter service, a menu hanging on the wall above that counter, a salsa table, Tejano music, etc. However, the food is served on Fiestaware, and the cutlery is the real thing—no Styrofoam plates or sporks here. Those touches, as small as they may seem, tell me a lot: The people at Papa Locos care. Thankfully, that care carries over into the food they serve.

The room is small, with maybe a dozen tables and booths, and more outside. The walls have a mishmash of items on them. There are two huge photos of food; one shows a bunch of vegetables, and the other depicts piles of spices that seemed more Indian than Mexican. There are more photos, serapes, sombreros, copper pots and a couple of what-nots. As for that salsa table, it offered four varieties: a pico de gallo; a thick, dark red salsa; a lighter red salsa; and a green salsa. There was a mess of pickled slaw that was good enough to eat on its own. Limes were also available; everything looked and tasted fresh.

We ordered the red chile enchiladas with carnitas ($7.69); a Gordo's chimichanga with carne asada, enchilada-style ($7 plus $1.50 for enchilada style); the chicken enchilocos with guacamole on the side (two for $4.65); a Loco double burger with cheese and onion rings ($8.79); and two Loco tacos with a hamburger patty inside ($1.89 each). With most of the entrées, a choice of meats includes ground beef, chicken or pork. With the chimichanga, enchiladas and enchiritos, customers have a choice of either green or red sauce, or half and half. We opted for the half and half.

The staff truly seemed to be into their product. They were friendly and upbeat; they joked around with customers.

The carnitas in the enchiladas were superb with thick, juicy chunks of pork in a red sauce. The carnitas were topped with a rich, flavorful enchilada sauce and squiggles of crema. This dish came with refried beans that were both creamy and thick without being dry. There was also some decent Spanish rice.

The chimi was appropriately huge and crispy, and both sauces were just spicy enough. The meat resembled ground beef and not the charred carne asada we often eat around here, but it was flavorful nonetheless. Beans and rice were also stuffed into the chimi, but there weren't too much of either.

We had to try the enchilocos. First, corn tortillas are filled with a choice of meat. The ends are pinched; then they're deep-fried (they resemble little calzones) and topped with enchilada sauce and a big squiggle of crema. There was plenty of shredded white-meat chicken inside, and some pieces had browned edges. I'm assuming that means the chicken is roasted, not boiled—a big plus. They were unique and tasty.

We also liked the Loco tacos. The thin burger patty was seasoned perfectly, and the shell was crisp. By nature, these types of tacos are greasy, but that is part of what makes this style of taco so good—and Papa Locos didn't disappoint. The guac on the side was definitely fresh: Chunky, with pieces of tomato and some unmashed avocado, the guac was refreshing and cool. I certainly could've eaten more.

There are several burgers on the menu. The Loco comes with lettuce, onions, pickles, mayo, mustard and tomato, all of which came together in a nice, gooey way. The onion rings had an egg batter. They were hot and crisp, and the onion flavor rang true.

Papa Locos also offers a few breakfast burros ($6.29 to $7.99) which we didn't get to try.

One of the best parts of doing this job is discovering really good restaurants—and Papa Locos is a really good restaurant. This isn't pure Sonoran cooking (there's a healthy dose of youthful American thrown in), but it is certainly authentic, whatever its inspiration. Everything we tried had been prepared with care and good ingredients. The service was top-notch. And on both visits, there was a steady stream of customers.

The only thing that was disappointing? Papa Locos Tacos and Burgers is so damn far from my home.