The Inn Thing

Outstanding Mexican Food On The Northwest Side? You Betcha, At El Mezón del Cobre.

By Rebecca Cook

WHAT COULD POSSIBLY possess me to write about yet another Mexican restaurant? How many ways can one sing the praises of cheese enchiladas, chimichangas and tacos? And isn't it true that once you've eaten in one fine local establishment specializing in south-of-the-border cuisine, you've ostensibly eaten in them all? The answers are as follows: 1) I never was very good at leaving well enough alone. 2) The exact numbers have yet to be determined, but this is a reviewer's greatest, perpetual challenge. (3) Hardly.

So it is that I'm here to tell you of another regional restaurant specializing not only in the standard Mexican fare served in several venues throughout town, but some signature mariscos (i.e., seafood) as well.

Chow Welcome to El Mezón del Cobre (translation: "The Copper Inn"), a tiny restaurant breaking all the rules in glorious fashion on the north side of Tucson. First of all, there's the North First Avenue location: For years, the local wisdom has declared (mostly accurately) that it wasn't possible to get decent Mexican food north of downtown. Although El Mezón would be perfectly at home on South Fourth Avenue, it's steadfastly northwest, suffering no discernible decline in its culinary excellence and ambiance.

Which brings us to its menu, which works magic with all kinds of shrimp variations, assembling even the customary dishes in a most unusual fashion. Regulars whisper of the rarer daily specials with a reverence due holy communion. At El Mezón, it pays to be in the know--rumor has it that personal favorites will be specially prepared if the owners are given adequate advance notice.

Although those craving a simple bean and cheese burrito will find easy satisfaction, it's the seafood that takes center stage at El Mezón. Delightful cocteles of shrimp, oyster and squid are served in a velvety, cold tomato broth spiced with chopped onion, green bell pepper, garlic and fresh lime juice. Extra limes are provided, as is a zippy red-chile sauce called huichol.

The kitchen provides the basics, and then everyone happily shakes and squeezes additional ingredients into the mix until the perfect, individualized concoction is achieved. A very nice feature. One recommended house specialty is the fantasy shrimp: tender, curled darlings stuffed with Mexican white cheese, wrapped in mesquite-smoked bacon, and heated until the cheese is gooey and the bacon sizzling. No fewer than a half-dozen of these large crustaceans are served on a platter with fluffy, mild Spanish rice. Though sufficient fare for a hearty appetite, this combination of cheese, shrimp and bacon is cumulatively rich, making this an ideal dish to share in order to avoid over-glut.

Hot sauce fanatics will discover to their everlasting glee that the piquant huichol makes an additional appearance in another shrimp specialty suitably titled "huichol shrimp." Oooeee! If you're interested in generating your own brand of evaporative cooling, this is definitely an item you'll want to try. Several large shrimp are bathed in that tell-tale burnt orange sauce, with little other adornment to distract from the main event.

Although incredibly hot, the sauce is nevertheless addictive in its flavor, inducing the unwary diner to persevere to the last of the tender shrimp. An icy margarita and a handkerchief to mop your fevered brow should suffice to cool the heat.

Another eye-popping pleasure on El Mezón's table is the fried red snapper. Accustomed as we are to delicate preparations of our fish--in particular, excluding all identifiable body parts--we were slightly taken aback by the appearance of a whole fish barely contained on the platter on which it was served. My skater teen was the beneficiary of this particular delicacy, and was plainly discomfited by the bulging eye staring up at him from the plate.

His younger brother was not helping the matter, being keenly interested in what appeared to him to be some kind of science project. "Look, you can see his teeth," the 7-year-old pointed out. With a scowl, our brave skater fluttered open an extra napkin and circumspectly covered the poor snapper's head, after which he seemed to enjoy the dish very much.

The meat had been sectioned, lightly coated and thoroughly crisped to a striated amber brown. Amazingly, the fish remained moist with this treatment, and was absolutely delicious with a squeeze of fresh lime. Even with the head, I'd order this again in a heartbeat. (I can't speak for the adolescent, however, who might opt next time for the obligatory but more familiar hamburger-and-fries portion of the menu.)

Finally, in the realm of enchiladas, El Mezón is said to know no equal in this town. Instead of the traditional rolled variation we've come to know and love, here the enchilada aspires to three layers of corn tortillas laid flat and covered in turn with shredded chicken, grated cheese, full-bodied guacamole, sour cream, shredded lettuce and chopped tomato. The whole is doused with a sinfully rich and cunningly spiced enchilada sauce, baked until heated through. I was too busy sampling shrimp during my visits, but aficionados of the establishment tell me El Mezón's enchiladas are to die for (cholesterol counts notwithstanding). It's high on my list to explore their intricacies on a future visit.

The only sour note in our experience was a cheese crisp that failed to fulfill the latter part of its moniker. Perhaps the pervasive humidity got to the tortillas that day--they were tough and elastic rather than lightly crunchy. This unpleasant circumstance caused the mixture of yellow and white cheese to separate from the tortilla with every bite, and did nothing to enhance the flavor. Qué lástima.

But all in all, El Mezón is worthy of addition to your list of Tucson's outstanding Mexican restaurants. The tiled cantina atmosphere is a balm during these dog days of summer, and the seafood is first-rate (even when it still has eyes for your approval). Why write about yet another Mexican restaurant? One trip to El Mezón del Cobre will explain it all.

El Mezón del Cobre. 2960 N. First Ave. 791-0977. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Full bar. V, MC, checks. Menu items: $2.75-$16.95. TW

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