From Starter To Star

Elevated from just a snack or appetizer, The Quesadillas makes their namesake a culinary contender

It was a text from a chef friend that sent me driving to a small taqueria across the street from the Tucson Medical Center a while back. He said that he had just eaten some of the best stripped-down Mexican street food in some time and, coming from him, I had to see and taste for myself.

Simply called The Quesadillas, the restaurant's straightforward menu reflected the confined space that was filled with people happily scrunched together and frantically devouring all things wrapped in tortillas. The name of the place made me roll my eyes a bit because, c'mon...The Quesadillas? Why not just call yourself The Tacos or El Burrito? Further inspection of the menu nixed the burrito title seeing as they do not serve them. Huh. Okay "The Quesadillas," let's see what you got.

Well, darn it, my snarkiness just got put to shame because everything I ordered was sublime. It was just the freshness of the components, the way the meat was seasoned and cooked, the inventive salsas from the salsa bar to accentuate the forthright approach to genuine Mexican food. The carne asada quesadilla ($6.50) is loaded with the gloriously grilled meat and accompanied by just a hint of melted cheese. Sure, I added a bit of green and red salsa but honestly, it really didn't need it. The carne asada was juicy enough and with help from that cheese and what I hoped was a homemade tortilla, I felt as if I was on the streets in Hermosillo, battling the heat with a much-needed cerveza and delicious midafternoon snack. And that's what most people consider quesadillas to be, just a snack. But chef and owner Marcos Barragan wanted to change our perspective on what he considers the best option on a menu.

"I like quesadillas because they are always the last thing you see, or maybe they are at the bottom of a menu," Barragan conveys with a big smile and excitement in his voice. "In bars and restaurants, they are usually just a cheap appetizer. But they are my favorite. Now I want to bring the quesadillas up and make them more than just a snack or appetizer."

What I enjoyed about the shrimp quesadilla ($7.25) was the thoughtful approach to the dish using fresh gulf shrimp, lightly seasoned and surrounded by sharp melty cheese. And yes, they hand make their tortillas fresh every day. That's really all you need. Why muck it up with gloppy creams or other proteins to throw off the delicate flavor and texture of the few ingredients used? But if you do want to get a little messy, then give the veggie quesadilla ($5.85) a cruise around the block. This one is almost heavy with rustic cuts of zucchini, mushrooms and corn spilling out, inviting you to try to force the fillings back in as you balance it—or do what I did, just use the basket paper as a vessel and suck them up like some kind of starved animal. The food is really that good here. And, hopefully, you have more public eating couth than I do.

"I only use mesquite wood for the meats," informs Barragan, "and there is no salt in my salsas. I just want the mesquite to come through and have the simple ingredients speak for themselves. I grow my own vegetables for my salsas, tacos and quesadillas and never use chemicals. You can taste the freshness because of how I treat my garden."

Marcos, a former engineer in Mexico, uses a very clever and old school way of warding the bugs away from his crops: eucalyptus. Apparently the smell and oils from the pungent tree keeps the insects at bay and provides much-needed shade for the tomatoes and peppers that he grows. That ingenuity and integrity shines apparent in every bite because each one is special yet gloriously facile. Marcos and The Quesadillas just get to the point—and that point is good people want to eat good food, without excess.

The selection of tacos also reflect this attitude in consideration of the product. The rib eye ($3) was a smoky and meaty delight while the Jaas style ($3) is a product of Marcos' home city and has a mild chile flavor to it. If you are in a hot dog mood, The Quesadillas serves up two sizes, regular ($3.25) and jumbo ($4.25), and to add onto the expansive salsa bar, they provide a "build your own hot dog" area, so feel free to go crazy with the myriad of toppings. But, as mentioned earlier, just don't expect to find burritos on the menu any time soon.

"For me," Barragan declares, "burritos are not real Mexican food. Tucson is nothing but burritos! You want a burrito, plenty of places to go to. But when you want authentic food from Hermosillo, you come see me and you come to The Quesadillas."

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