Little Places

A round of applause, please, for two dives that serve up mighty Mexican food

Restaurants come and go; the dining business is a high-risk, high-turnover endeavor. And of all the Tucson restaurants that have closed in recent years, the one I miss most (aside from Terra Cotta, where I experienced countless special moments) was a little place called Romi's Mexican Food.

Romi's—which closed a little more than four years ago, if memory serves me right—was a little dive just north of Valencia Road on Sixth Avenue, known largely for its best ever tortilla soup. (See "Tortilla Triumph," Nov. 25, 2004.) Alas, Romi's is gone—but my love for little dive restaurants remains.

In memory of Romi's, I decided to check out a couple of dive Mexican joints about which I'd heard good things. First up: El Rio Bakery, over on Grande Avenue, which, in all fairness, is too nice to really call a "dive."

As a matter of fact, the small dining area at El Rio is beautiful, thanks to a huge mural taking up most of the wall space; it depicts a mountain village and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

El Rio Bakery, which has been around for many a year, sells numerous fresh breads and pastries, of course, but also offers soups, burritos and other Mexican fare. I'd heard the soups are especially tasty, so I went up to the counter and ordered a large albondigas (meatball) soup ($6.89), along with a chorizo-and-egg burrito ($3.69). I was told my food would be out shortly, so I went and sat down; sure enough, my bowl of albondigas arrived in short order.

The bowl of steaming-hot soup was full of carrots, onions, peppers, celery, squash, rice and four rather large meatballs, with a slice of lime on the side. Even though it was during the noon hour (albeit on a Saturday), I had the dining room to myself, and it's a good thing, because I probably committed a few social faux pas as I hungrily scarfed down the soup. It hit the spot; the broth was perfectly seasoned and not too salty, and the meatballs had just enough flavor to complement, and not overwhelm, the rest of the ingredients.

I heard kids talking and laughing as I ate my soup, so it was only a minor surprise when a little girl delivered my burrito. While the burrito was OK, there was not much to it—egg, chorizo and tortilla, with a small plastic cup of salsa to add a little more spice. The chorizo, while fine, was not as good as the chorizo at, say, Mary's Lucky Dollar Market. (More on that later.)

On my way out, I grabbed a pumpkin empanada and a chocolate-chip cookie (50 cents each) to go. While the cookie was enjoyable, the empanada was pure goodness; the crust was flaky and buttery, while the pumpkin filling was delightfully sweet, yet not too sweet.

While El Rio's albondigas didn't make me forget about Romi's tortilla soup, it was delicious and filling; I'll certainly be back for more.

Mary's Lucky Dollar Market may be the least pretentious restaurant in Tucson. Heck, it could be the least pretentious restaurant in the nation, for all I know.

Or, to put it another way: Unlike El Rio, Mary's is a complete dive. Period. No discussion.

The white brick walls and gray metal doors evoke the feeling of a penitentiary. The tables and seating are mismatched. Two framed pieces of art—close together and near the mounted head of some beast that used to have hooves—join a couple of plants and a business-card board to constitute the décor. The food-prep area is open for all the world to see. The place just feels kinda ... dingy.

But the food, especially the chorizo ... holy smokes, it's good.

I was compelled to check out Mary's after Noshing Around dude Adam Borowitz—who first learned about the place from a stranger at the Buffet bar—extolled its virtues, as did Gary Patch and Darren Clark in the last Best of Tucson® issue. So I headed down there one Friday morning for breakfast, and I am glad I did.

I walked in and, not knowing what I was doing, ordered at the counter. (The folks working there apparently come to tables and take orders.) I ordered the chorizo and two eggs breakfast, which is listed as $4 on the menu; the woman at the counter asked me if I wanted everything mixed together, or placed separately on a plate. I said I wanted it all separated. She then charged me $4.75. I have no idea why.

Anyway, I took a seat at a booth and looked at the menu posted on the opposite wall. Mary's offers tacos, flautas and other standard Mexican fare, with chorizo included in a lot of the menu items.

After about a 10-minute wait, the food was delivered, and here's what I saw on the plate: a mound of chorizo (loose, not in sausage form), two eggs (over medium), sliced potatoes, refried beans and a pickled pepper. A plastic bottle containing a thin red sauce was also delivered, along with three napkins.

Each individual element was only OK, but when it mixed together, it was amazing—it wound up being one of the best breakfasts I've ever had. The subtle heat of the chorizo and the sauce melded perfectly with the earthiness of the beans and the egg; the sum was truly greater than the individual parts.

Yes, Mary's is a dive. But go there. You won't regret it.

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