Roadside Refreshment

Let us now praise taco stands and neighborhood bars.

The custom of setting up food stands by the side of the road or having local watering holes where a community can meet and unwind is as old as dirt. There is something comfortable and familiar in it for us. It's nourishing for body and soul, a part of our psyche. Hell, it's probably in our DNA.

Tucson is blessed with many such ancestral gathering places in the form of taco stands and neighborhood bars. They are usually family owned and operated, and I have always found friendly people, good food and good prices there. They surely are a path to salvation, enlightenment and eternal brotherhood.

THERE WILL ALWAYS BE people who look at a taco stand and say, "I wouldn't eat there." Just to tweak them, I usually reply, "Yeah, cleanliness is next to godliness, but it's not always next to good eating."

These naysayers, these nattering nabobs of negativism, are unenlightened and uninformed. The stands I've eaten at in Tucson are clean, or clean enough, anyway. White-glove tests aside, I have followed my curiosity and goat-like intestinal fortitude into some of the best eating establishments around, even if they are under trees or on the side of the road, places that fellow taco stand devotees refer to as "nuclear" or "radioactive," or say, "The food there is freakin' great. Takes the top of your head off."

One of the first stands I began frequenting was El Azteca on South 12th Avenue. It's a tiny mobile home up on blocks with a tarp over the dining area. Jesus is your enthusiastic host. The carne asada is very good with lots of fresh parsley, but the specialty of the house is manta ray soup. Manta ray meat is a little dark, but makes an excellent soup. There's a liquor store next door for cold beer--just remember to put it in a cup to avoid trouble with the cops. One night, enjoying my soup, beer and homemade tortilla after hiking Mount Wrightson, I watched the police conduct a very complicated extraction arrest of a carload of teenagers in the parking lot.

There's another place, two actually, in the 4400 block of South Sixth Avenue. Taqueria Ruiz and El Guerro Canelo have occupied a small lot for over four years with a little trailer, an open-air hotdog stand and good food. They are located between the Eternal Living Word Church and the Sixth Avenue Pub. Like most of us, they are somewhere between heaven and hell. The taqueria boasts cabeza, lengua and, most notably, tripas, a rich meat done well here. The condiment bar is outstanding: cucumbers, radishes and jalapeños, homemade salsa and an avocado sauce that is deep and thoughtful. The tables are behind a bus stop where there was a gentleman who found my dining companion quite attractive. Perhaps it was the Level 2 spiritual experience she professed to be having while eating one of the hotdogs con todos.

The name drew me in. Taqueria La Cha Cha is a nickname I use for a particular lost week on the west coast of Mexico. In this context, however, it is a taco stand located on the south side of 22nd Street between Park and Kino. It's a rolling affair, a step van with a kitchen in the back and a screen window on the side. The kitchen is powered by a gas generator, and they set up under a salt cedar. The name actually comes from the owners' daughter. The portions here are generous; the salsa is fresh, homemade and hot; and the seafood soup is good. I am picky about birria, but find that it is good here.

El Buen Sonorense is another rolling affair. It is a family-owned business and has been selling great food in the parking lot of Santa Cruz Church for over 14 years. They put in long hours and are there for lunch as well as a late-night snack. They offer good cabeza, lengua and asada. This is the only place I know of in town to get good brain tacos. The picante and salsa are hot but flavorful. They have cement and tile tables, a step up from La Cha Cha's plastic ghosts. When there isn't construction, you can't beat the Sixth Avenue cruiser show on Friday and Saturday nights.

IN THE SONORAN DESERT, an oasis or good watering hole is deeply appreciated, even revered. There are times when ... oh hell, a man needs a good place to drink, to drop the hurly-burly and commune with his fellow men and women. Amen.

On Main Avenue, between Speedway and Drachman, is the Beau Brummels Club, the best damn neighborhood bar in this town, maybe the universe. I probably think so because it's mine. It's a friendly place whose good camaraderie takes from me the weight of the world. It reminds me that we have more in common with each other than apart, and anybody who says different is damn straight jiving you. I have always had a great time at this bar. Bartenders Faye and Jean are beautiful and charming. The music is funk, R&B, blues or jazz mixes by the bar. Sometimes there is a DJ spinning fast dances early and slow dances late. The beer is cold and the cognacs are healthy. The occasional Q or tailgate parties produce more great plates of soul food than you can shake a fork at.

Our next selection is obscure, but has that great conviviality and communal feel to it. If you go north on Flowing Wells, the street on the east side of Farmer John's on Grant Road, and wind through the industrial district, you will stumble upon, as I did, The Minor League. Sure it has an address, but I'll be damned if I know it or if I could consistently find it, but I've been there several times and on a Friday night the place is rocking with three deep at the bar, and everybody knows each other. There's lots of beer drinking, laughter and shouting. It's a loud, raucous, jumpin' and smoky cube of cinderblock with a blaring jukebox. Everything a good bar should be on Friday night.

Now Tiny's is more of a roadhouse. It's located out west in the 4900 block of Ajo Way and is the kind of place where the waitress calls you "Hon" and it feels right. The last time I was there, we were returning from magical full-moon camping in the Ajo Mountains; I was longing for cold beer and good hot bar food, and got both here. They have a Sunday-afternoon special on Area 51 hot wings, and the patty melts are the best in town. This is now a regular stop on all trips to Rocky Point and destinations southwest.

My other neighborhood bar is El Dorado on Fourth Avenue in South Tucson. It is a like a cool breeze on a hot day, with a bar that is cool and dark. They have good, cold Mexican beer, fresh limes, great service and a great jukebox full of norteño. You can go for hours in this place and not hear any English. It's a pit stop for the many of the wandering southside mariachis, and on Friday and Saturday nights there's always good live music. The food next door at the restaurant, while not a taco stand, is as good as anywhere in town. Especially the cazuela.

OK, brothers and sisters, now that I have encouraged you to feed your arishas and support our local food and beverage artisans, I hope to see you out and about. Shrimp cocktails for everybody. Whose turn is it to buy, anyway?