By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2002 Gourmet Magazine
There used to be a roadside tourist attraction out West that had a sign warning visitors, “Prepare to Be Amazed.” That’s what we’d say to anyone coming to eat at Tucson’s Taqueria Pico de Gallo for the first time. Technically speaking, this small gem is not in Tucson at all. It’s in the culinary heart of the city, South Tucson, a municipality surrounded by Tucson but legally and culturally separate. In this part of town, shabby buildings are decked with brilliant painted tiles, streets hum with lowriders cruising in their chopped-roof custom caruchas, and a dozen different restaurants serve Mexican food that most gringos never know. The great places to eat range from comfortable dining rooms such as Mi Nidito (President Clinton’s visit is immortalized on the house souvenir calendar), where you wait an hour for a table on weekend evenings, to a changing cast of street-corner lunch trucks with makeshift picnic tables.
The unusually elevated food consciousness of Tucsonans is characterized by an abiding loyalty to one or another of these establishments. Dilettantes go from place to place, but most partisan supporters maintain unwavering allegiance to their joint of choice. Frequenters of the big, bright restaurant known as El Torero come for unequaled wafer-thin tortilla crisps and fabulous flounder Veracruz. Once addicted to the pargo frito (fried red snapper) at the relatively plush Las Cazuelitas, it can be a wrenching decision to opt for a visit to the dining room of Mariscos Chihuahua, even though the camarones endiablados (shrimp in hot sauce) at the latter are spectacular. If you simply love to eat the carne asada tacos in the booths of Rigo’s or Guillermo’s Double L, why would you skip eating there just to try the same meal—dandy though it may be—at the card tables outside the parked truck on 22nd Street known as Taqueria La Cha Cha?
As for us, we enjoy a fairly monogamous relationship with Taqueria Pico de Gallo. We would feel unfaithful (not to mention unfulfilled) if we came to South Tucson and did not put ourselves at a table crowded with Pico’s ceviche tostadas, plenty of tacos de barbacoa, a cool “cocktail” of marinated pulpo(octopus), a bowl of albóndigas de camarón (shrimp-ball soup), and red plastic party cups filled with the city’s best horchata (cinnamon-flavored sweetened rice milk).
Pico de Gallo has a permanent address and a splendid menu, but it is not among the luxe South Tucson destinations. A tiny, tidy taqueria that has grown into several small rooms by expanding into a neighboring space and enclosing its porch, it remains self-service and lowkey. Study the day’s menu posted on the wall, discuss things you don’t understand with Adam Delgado, son of proprietors Ignacio and Antonia (he explained to us that the purple beverage in the vat next to the horchata was wild-berry lemonade and that the day’s special taco, cahuamanta, was manta ray), place your order, and pay. When the food is ready, one of the staff will summon you so that you can carry your plates to a bare-topped table. Everything except soup comes on disposable dishware with plastic utensils.
The Delgados serve a repertoire of Sonoran-style dishes, including tacos of spiced beef and fried fish, burros and quesadillas, and tamales by the dozen. Coctel de elote is always on the menu: A large Styrofoam cup is filled with an extraordinary stew of warm corn kernels, drifts of soft melted cheese, hot chili sauce, and lime. Spoon it up like soup; it is corn-sweet and lime-zesty. Their rarest offering may be the Coca-Cola brought up from Mexican bottling plants, a beverage one Coke aficionado described to us as “the echt Cola, reminiscent of summer 1956.”
And then there is the restaurant’s namesake, marshaled in red plastic cups in a refrigerated case at the counter. Here, the “beak of the rooster” is a salty chili powder mix, which is sprinkled on top of a gorgeous bouquet of giant chunks of watermelon, coconut, pineapple, mango, and even some jicama, the whole shebang stuck with four or five long wooden picks for fetching the pieces you want. The red-hot spice elicits the fruits’ sweetness and packs its own lip-tingling punch. It is a heady culinary collision like nothing else we’ve ever eaten.
Despite such exotica, the most compelling thing to eat at Pico de Gallo is that fundamental foodstuff, a soft corn tortilla. Look to your left into the kitchen as you place your order and you will see a big white mound of masa. When you order three tacos—filled, let’s say, with birria, cabeza, and chicharrón—the cook pinches off a piece to make the tortillas. One morning, Diana Ugalde, daughter of Ignacio and Antonia Delgado, shows us how it’s done as we stand in the kitchen eating warm corn tortillas filled with a hash of fried potatoes and chorizo (this is not on the menu, but you can request it).
Diana briskly kneads a small ball of moistened cornmeal between her palms, then squishes it flat in a tortilla press. She tosses it onto the hot griddle. “There is a secret,” she tells us. “It must be done in three flips.”
How do you know when to flip it?
“When it sticks to your fingers,” she answers, showing us how a partially cooked tortilla lifts up from the griddle ever so slightly when pressed with a gentle hand. “After the third flip, it puffs up,” she says, picking the finished corn disk off the griddle, quickly smearing it with a dab of butter that melts instantly, and offering it to us almost too hot to hold … but not too hot to savor.