Here in our own fair borderland, there are many translated, mistranslated and scrambled versions of "Mexican" cuisine. We have no shortage of excellent restaurantes, cafeterías, taquerías and loncherías. It could take years to determine which one offers up the best fare, and it would be a pointless task. We don't have to pick. Why borrow poverty? One of the many joys of living in Tucson can be found in the vibrant and endless array of excellent eateries that celebrate Mexican cuisine.
Whether the tinkle of the paleta man's bell signals the divine madness of August for you, or perhaps watching a hand-patted tortilla puff upon the flattop of your favorite taquería sets your pulse fluttering, Mexican fare can be savored in endless variations all across town.
It is an odd pleasure, then, to stumble across a tiny café that lays its claim to fame in its Tucson origin. When Debbie Moreno and her brother, Marty, opened the doors to their Hot & Spicy Mexican Café three years ago, they did so with a good deal of pride. Celebrating a fresh home-style approach to Mexican cuisine, their immediate goal was to reproduce the kind of food that they grew up on, mainly food made by their mother's hand.
Aside from the rather uninspired name, the Hot & Spicy Mexican Café, does an admirable job of serving up efficient, hearty and curiously Tucson-style Mexican fare. The hole-in-the-wall-style café does a brisk business. Perhaps it is the no-nonsense efficiency, the clean and vibrant room, or perhaps the location right in the heart of Fourth Avenue, but the venue quietly thrives.
When you place an order at the counter, you'll want to take a moment to sit in the cheerful room and spend a quiet moment, perhaps watching the colorful parade outside the window on Fourth Avenue. Perhaps it is the restaurant's location right across the street from the Food Conspiracy Coop, but there is a conscious effort on behalf of the menu to acknowledge vegans and vegetarians. Call this knowing your audience, but I found it a considerate gesture.
This sensibility extends across the entire menu, including the rather wonderful spinach enchiladas ($4.50), the potato or guacamole taco ($3.50) and the squash burrito ($3.75). The inclusion of vegetables is delightful, and certainly not alien to Mexican cuisine, but it is uncommon for Tucson, and a refreshing discovery.
The menu offers up the usual suspects in the form of enchiladas, tacos, tamales and the ubiquitous and suspiciously gringofied "chimi." But somehow everything takes pride in its simplicity, generous portioning and forthright flavoring.
The chicken mole enchiladas ($6.99) were a solid discovery. While the origins of mole are widely debated, with origin tales stretching back to the Aztecs, there are many different regional variations. The mole served here is velvety and chocolatey. I prefer a bit more complexity in flavor with the liberal use of aromatics and chiles, so this mole seemed a bit thin. Still, the full chocolate flavors worked well with the chicken.
The green corn tamales ($3.99) are made in house and celebrate the best of what corn has to offer: its tender, cakey sweetness. Flecked with bits of green chile, these moist and tender tamales were offset nicely with an order of calabacitas, or what the restaurant simply calls squash. Calabacitas, a traditional dish, tosses together zucchini (or whatever squash is available) with tomatoes and corn to create a delightful, summery dish. Traditionally finished with a bit of milk and cheese, this health-conscious version of calabacitas comes with cheese, but only if you request it. Additionally, I missed the bright sprig of marjoram or cilantro. Still, it was a refreshing alternative from the persistent mighty pinto bean.
The carne seca and tortillas ($8.25) was fairly typical, but it was an ample portion, cooked until tender, savory with tomato and spiked with a bit of chile. The choice of tortillas and the additional order of guacamole turned this plate into a satisfying meal.
The guacamole must have been freshly made since it was still delicately flavored, creamy and seasoned with the right amount of chile, lime and garlic. This and a plate of tortillas can turn the most sticky and unpleasant afternoon into a quiet moment of respite.
And we do take those where we can find them. Whether it is the first moment that a cold rain instead of a hot, dusty rain falls, or the sweet crunch of white corn roasted on coals and squirted with lime, or maybe the idle joy of watching the paleta man slowly work his way up the street, such a small moment of satisfaction can be found here. The friendly service, dedication to plentiful portions and reasonable prices marks the Hot & Spicy Café a worthy destination, a true Tucson original.