Heady Eats

This southside tavern offers a fine, unpretentious alternative to fast food

The Big Hat is first and foremost a neighborhood tavern. At this southside bar, you'll find all the trappings that go into making a good neighborhood spot: beer signs aplenty, a pool table, a baseball game on TV, calendars with scantily clad beauties, simple but delicious bar food and enough ice-cold beer to quench a thirst on a hot summer day. It's the kind of place you'd stop by after work for some friendly talk and down time, the kind of place to hang out and relax. It's a family-run bar where mom and pop are working the kitchen and the rest of the family is filling in elsewhere with fast, friendly service.

The Big Hat is hard to miss as you drive down Nogales Highway. A white van with a hand-painted sign of a big, white hat is parked out front (there's another sign outside calling the place The Dakota from a previous incarnation; don't let it confuse you). The sign on the van advertises a kitchen and a cocina, portending both American and Mexican fare.

As we pulled in, an older man who was cooking chicken on a large grill in the front parking lot greeted us. The aroma was heavenly, but regrettably, that particular food wasn't going to be ready for lunch.

The Big Hat is small. The front room holds a half-dozen tiny tables. The bar room is only a little larger with a pool table and about 12 stools. And there is a small covered patio out a side door. The décor is totally tavern.

The menu is small, but that's OK, because the food is all quite good, and the beer is very, very cold. We sat at the bar instead of a table, since that's where everyone else in the place was hanging out. John ordered his fave: a cheeseburger basket with fries ($3.75). I went with a choice from the cocina side--a burro with green chiles, rice and beans ($3). As an afterthought, I ordered six chicken wings (50 cents each). We enjoyed the beers, which were so cold that there was ice dripping off the sides of the bottles. The coasters, under the beers, were hand-crocheted in brightly colored yarn.

There's something about food served up in baskets; the basket seems to somehow elevate the experience. John's burger patty was delicious and juicy; the bun was soft. (We all like soft buns, don't we?) The fries were sizzling hot and oh so good!

My burro--also served in a basket--was so big that there was no way to eat it out of hand; I had to use the plastic utensils. The beef was tender and lightly seasoned. The beans and rice blended in nicely, making every bite even better. Instead of the usual corn tortilla chips, there were flour tortilla chips fried crispy. And the salsa was so fresh, it sang.

The wings were pretty bland and could've used a few more minutes under the broiler. Indeed, as leftovers later that night, the flavor and texture were greatly improved after a bit of time in my toaster oven. Yet all in all, we had a great lunch!

Our dinner at the Big Hat was equally as good. We asked about the daily specials, and after the bartender checked with the kitchen, we were told, there wasn't anything special that night.

Because we were doing research, John had to order something besides the burger, so he went with the shrimp basket ($5.50). I, again, opted for Mexican, choosing three carne asada tacos ($3.75). The bartender apologized, saying there were only corn tortillas available that night. Corn would've been my choice anyway, so that didn't matter.

John's shrimp basket was practically the most expensive item on the menu. And while it wasn't anything out of the ordinary, the portion was larger (12 pieces) than other places known for their shrimp baskets. Again, the fries were great (and the beer ice cold).

The tacos came with limes and salsa, of course, but there was a side of onions and cilantro to top off the tacos--I opted out of those. The meat in my tacos was fantastic! Made tender by a flavorful marinade and spicy seasoning, the meat was then grilled asada style, making the chunks of beef juicy with a nice char. The tortillas tended to fall apart as I ate, but to my taste, tacos are supposed to be a little messy. I should've gotten a side of beans to top it all off.

The Big Hat has been around for many years. Its location was often a stop on the way home from Nogales for neighboring families back when there was no Interstate 19. Like taverns found back East and all over the Midwest, the Big Hat offers a place to socialize and relax for nearby residents. Families would still be welcome, I'm sure. And for a quick bite and a cold beer, it's more than OK.

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