Regional Beauty

The flavors of central Mexico come alive at Benny’s

The bustling city of San Luis Potosi, in the similarly named region around midpoint Mexico, is usually outshined by its more popular neighbors such as Guadalajara, Monterrey and Mexico City, but hopefully things are about to change.

Irma Palomo was born and raised in San Luis Potosi, where she has lived for most of her life but has called Tucson home for the past couple of years. Originally having a background in business administration, Irma is now the manager and driving force in the kitchen of Benny's, a Mexican food concept restaurant in the building that used to house Fiorito's Italian on Grant Road. But the restaurant isn't called Irma's, even though she runs the place with a wide smile and warm casualness.

"Benny is actually my brother," says Irma as she collects freshly made tortillas on the pass line in the kitchen. "He is still back in Mexico. This is really his place, but ... I guess I run it now."

It seems that the restaurant business is more than just a family affair. Irma's husband owns one of the Nico's Tacos here in Tucson and because of the success of his enterprise, they were able to afford the location on Grant they now call home. It's a good thing too, for all of us who love real Mexican cuisine, that a region such as San Luis Potosi has finally arrived in the Old Pueblo and all of its colors and vibrancy attached to it. We've become quite acquainted, if not totally comfortable with, the foods and flavors of Sonora, Oaxaca or even Sinaloa, so a welcome transplant from a fairly unfamiliar territory is always an intriguing procurement.

A fairly obvious regional aspect of Irma's food is that she, and it, really enjoy and thrive on being rustic. The homemade salsa might be, at a glance, loose but it is brimming with fresh chunks of tomato, chiles and onion forming a piercing bite with each scoop on the house-made chips. It is a recipe brought down to her from generations of family cooks past.

"Where I come from, it is all about the corn," Irma says while assembling a massive chimichanga before dipping it in the fryer and dousing it in her secret-recipe enchilada red sauce. "Corn is everything. Even our flour tortillas are made with corn. So that is one thing that we bring from my hometown. And everything we make here is fresh. Some dishes might take some time because we are definitely not fast food."

The wait will always be worth it and patience is what the staff Benny's seems to pride themselves on. Irma, along with her brother and husband, purchased the property more than two years ago and it has taken that long to get everything up to code and up to the standards that they want to bring to their customers. Piece by piece, they built their dream until just about two months ago they opened to little or no fanfare. Other than some music coming from the flatscreen TV on the wall tuned to a Tejano channel, the restaurant is rather quiet. But word of mouth spreads quickly in this city and before long, Benny's will be a food sojourn for those looking to experience familiar flavors done in a slightly unfamiliar style.

Benny's is open for breakfast and serves up chicharron en salsa verde, a local favorite back in San Luis Potosi, which are literally pork rinds served with a green salsa alongside eggs, potatoes, beans and choice of meat. The soups served on the weekends do the word "hearty" an injustice. The menudo is spicy and gargantuan. The pozole is brimming with thick cut chicken swimming alongside toothsome hominy. Both will cure anything that ails you. It will be the tortas, though, that will impress even the biggest eater and fan of the delectable sandwich. The take on the Cubano is ingenious: melting cheese inside the thinly sliced ham, then folding it over thick slabs of perfectly seasoned carnitas gives each bite a rich and savory attribute.

The signature dish, one that is a distinct specialty of the family's hometown, is the enchiladas potosinas. This is something you will definitely not find on any other menu across town. They might be called enchiladas but they appear, and even taste, like empanadas. Made with a corn masa infused with red chile, they are stuffed with cheese, then pan fried, giving them an almost crispy taco flavor but completely individual in both taste and texture. Topped with fresh tomatoes and ripe avocado, the enchiladas potosinas will give local food pilgrims something to chat about and upload onto social media because of their crimson hue and pure deliciousness.

Blink and you may just have passed Benny's as it is rather non-descript and almost hidden with its austere exterior, but know that inside a new and exciting eating experience awaits. Irma and her family just wouldn't have it any other way.