Sopas With a Smile

Leo's Mexican Restaurant is worth finding for its tasty Sonoran cuisine

It struck me during our dinner at Leo's Mexican Restaurant that everybody seemed to know one another.

The friendly staff was greeting regulars, and many of the patrons stopped at a table or two on their way in and out to chat with other guests. That tells me a lot: This is the kind of joint that attract regulars (a total plus), and Leo's can claim to be a warm and friendly family place--a neighborhood restaurant, with no exaggerating or marketing mumbo jumbo involved.

This neighborhood feel is especially interesting considering the neighborhood Leo's is in: On one side is a Circle K, and on the other side is an adult-entertainment nightclub. And since Leo's itself is tucked well off Speedway Boulevard, one might wonder how all these people ever found Leo's.

The secret? It's the food.

Here, you'll find good old-fashioned Sonoran cooking: nothing fancy; no big surprises. From the bowl of crispy tortilla chips served with every meal to the hot-out-of-the-fryer sopapillas for dessert, Leo's gives diners what they expect when they want Sonoran food.

We started with some of those warm chips and a salsa with a heat that hit the old taste buds with a pop. Thankfully, that heat was nicely balanced by schooners of practically perfect house margaritas ($4.25). Sticking with tradition, we also opted for a cheese crisp with green chiles ($7.75).

There was no skimping with the chiles; the cheesy delight was covered with quarter-sized chunks of mild Anaheims. The tortilla snapped, and the cheese pulled away like it's supposed to. The crisp and margaritas alone would've made a great meal (but if you want to save room, the crisps come in half-sizes).

John ordered one of the many combo plates: a chile relleno, carne seca, beans, rice and two flour tortillas ($9.75). I indulged in one of my passions and ordered the chicken mole enchiladas ($9.25).

Our bowl of chips emptied, but without asking, our server replenished them. The place was packed, and he was kept running, as were the other servers. It could've been chaos--there were several large parties, and one couple next to us lingered over sodas, making seating a bit of a pinch--but a friendly calm persevered.

The combo plate turned out to be fantastic. The relleno took up a good portion of the plate, a mild chile that had been wrapped in a light, fluffy batter and was then delicately fried. The healthy portion of carne seca held a great texture that comes from long, slow drying, followed by the right amount of reconstitution with beef juices and seasonings. Making real carne seca is tricky, but the kitchen had a good handle on the proper preparation.

The beans and rice were are done up in the traditional way, resulting in creamy frijoles and spicy rice, with every grain standing on its own.

The mole enchiladas were packed with poached, tender, shredded chicken (breast meat). The mole was dark with chocolate, slightly sweet yet still rich and savory. As I ate, the sauce and chicken blended together, creating a most wonderful combination of flavors and texture.

I couldn't remember the last time I had sopapillas, so that's what we ordered for dessert. Leo's version brought back memories of some of the best: Six puffs of sizzling-hot fried dough were served with a big dose of honey for dipping. We packed two to take home for breakfast the next morning. They didn't lose anything in the process.

Sombreros can be found hanging throughout Leo's, along with an assortment of prints, ribbons of garlic and other south-of-the-border trinkets. In addition to the main dining room, there is also a small bar area in back, and off to one side, there's another good-sized room which on that evening held a rather large private party. Mexican music played in the background. It was all very cozy and casual.

During our Saturday lunch, we were the only people in the restaurant, yet service was still tops. We each ordered a Mexican beer ($3.25), served with frosted mugs and two slices of lime. The server noticed something in the glass after he'd poured my beer and immediately replaced both the glass and the bottle.

John ordered one of the lunch specials, sopas de carne ($5.75), and I ordered the old standby of cheese enchiladas that came with rice and beans ($7.25). For good measure, I added one beef taco ($1.30). The enchiladas are part of Leo's extensive list of vegetarian plates.

The sopas were fried cornmeal cakes topped with spicy ground beef, lettuce, cheese and tomatoes. Full of a mix of flavors--mild, sweet corn; a hint of fire in the beef; creamy yellow cheese--these little cakes were a great change of pace. The textures, too, played a big part in the experience: crunch from the cakes; moist and tender meat; smooth, mild cheese. Delicious!

The enchiladas also pleased. I measure mine against the ones I used to eat at a place called the Mexico Inn. I worked there as a server and must've had the cheese enchiladas several times a week (heck, sometimes several times a day). Leo's enchiladas are definitely as good. The sauce was smoky and rich, and there was that indescribable texture that is essential to authentic enchiladas. It comes from the chile paste/powder that is the base of the sauce.

I enjoyed the taco as well. The hard shell was filled with juicy, spiced ground beef. Cheese and lettuce topped the whole thing off. I should've ordered two of them.

We will most certainly return to Leo's. We may never be regulars, but we know we'll be treated as such while we enjoy all that great Sonoran food.

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