best friend is the president of the top
commercial real estate brokerage in a large
The only thing he likes better than
closing a tricky deal is a fabulous
meal. So when he comes to town, we
head for Carolina's Mexican Food, and I give him
my take on the real estate market here in
The restaurant was founded in 1968
by namesake Carolina Valenzuela, who still
presides over the kitchen. It was
first at 105 W. Hilton Ave. and later at 1519 E.
Mohave St. Since 1986, it has been at
1202 E. Mohave in a building that also has housed
a coin-operated laundry and a grocery store.
The character of the
neighborhood is etched on the building's
cinder-block facade. The
restaurant's skin has been pockmarked by bullets
and its windows and doors outfitted with heavy
metal security bars.
It's around noon when we
arrive, and a small lot at the side of the
restaurant is already full. We join
other vehicles on the street, where my friend's
rented Cadillac seems out of place among the
Mercedes-Benzes and BMW's.
As we approach the entrance, I
notice reward posters taped up between the bullet
holes in Carolina's front window: $1,000
for information leading to the arrest of a murder
suspect and an unspecified amount offered for the
recovery of Chori, a lost Rottweiler.
In its neighborhood, Carolina's
is a source of both sustenance and social
interaction. Inside, scrape of crepe
paper cling to the ceiling, remnants of a recent
birthday party or community celebration.
The interior of Carolina's is
austere. There is a small room at the
entrance where orders are placed and takeout
customers wait for their numbers to be called.
Above the order counter is a large,
painted menu, where prices hang on hooks to
accommodate inflation. Many of the
numbers are missing, however, having been blown
off by the opening and closing of the front door.
No one is bothered by
Carolina's vague pricing. People just
order what they want with the understanding that
their tab, including a large, refillable drink,
likely won't exceed $5.
When the restaurant isn't
crowded, I like to linger near the counter
because of the excellent view it affords of the
kitchen. It's a busy place.
In the center is a large table where
workers pick through a pile of meat, preparing
the pieces for transformation into Carolina's
delicious chiles verdes and rojos, its
mouthwatering machaca and spicy chorizo for which
the restaurant has become famous.
Near the weekend, the workers
are busy preparing ingredients for another
signature item, Carolina's restorative menudo,
which is available in quantities for takeout
Saturdays and Sundays only.
(Carolina's is closed Mondays)
But, Carolina's is best known
for its flour tortilla ------- a large,
delicately thin and slightly chewy affair that
makes the most elegant wrap for the restaurant's
The tortillas, which are
available by the dozen for takeout, are churned
out by a crew of workers who stand before a bank
of hot griddles, deftly flipping the paper thin
rounds of dough and piling them up for
Beyond the waiting area is a
large, open dining room area with a worn, painted
concrete floor. Like many things in
the barrio, Carolina's tables and chairs have had
previous owners. There are red and
yellow laminate booths that are reminiscent of
Subway; tables with attached swiveling seats that
have the characteristics of McDonald's and
purple, oval-backed banquet chairs that must have
come out of a Valley hotel or resort.
The walls are white and
decorated primarily with dozens of "Best of
Phoenix" and "Az Best" awards
garnered by the restaurant over the years.
A recent addition is framed
write-up from the January edition of Sunset magazine,
featuring a picture of Carolina.
The menu offers a traditional
sampling of tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, tamales,
burros and various combinations thereof.
The corn tortillas used for the
tacos, enchiladas and tostadas are from an
outside supplier, and while first-rate, they pale
in comparison to the magnificent flour ones made
I am particularly partial to
the soft-shell machaca taco. It's a
simple affair with a warm corn tortilla wrapped
around a generous portion of the subtly spiced
shredded beef filling. It's a perfect
starter before tackling the main course --- one
of Carolina's incredible burros wrapped in a
homemade flour tortilla.
The plain bean burro is
majestic; the green chile burro, marvelous; the
red chile burro, legendary; but the Oaxaca
special with beans, chorizo, potatoes and cheese
is pure heaven.
The rich, piquant flavor of the
chorizo is enhanced by the cheese and potatoes
and tempered by the beans and the chewy tortilla
Carolina's burros can be
ordered enchilada-style with red or green sauce,
lettuce and cheese, or deep-fried like a
As my Oaxaca special shrinks, I
find myself taking smaller and smaller bites to
make this great culinary experience last as long
Finally, we're finished.
We dump the tissue, plastic foam and
cardboard remains of our meals into the waste
can, leave the tray on top and pause at the order
counter for a dozen tortillas to go.
I steal a parting glance into the
kitchen and wave goodbye, and we depart.
|Reprinted from an
Az. Business Gazette article:May 1, 1997,
written by Malcolm Cross.