El Merendero (Tucson, AZ)

After concluding my business trip to Tucson, before heading north back to the Phoenix area to catch my flight home, I used this as an opportunity to indulge in another favorite, hitting up a good old-school Mexican cafe. Tucson is a particularly good town to accomplish this; while it has a handful of well-known places (including El Charro, who nominally claims to be the originator of the Mexican-American style deep-fried Chimichanga), if you’re really craving Mexican, head to 12th Avenue in South Tucson. In an approximate 3 mile stretch of 12th Avenue has an outstanding array of Mexican bakeries, taquerias, hot dog stands, and restaurants. And one of the longest existing places on that stretch is El Merendero, which has been in business since 1965.

El Merendero (Spanish for “The Picnic Area”) is about as old-school Mexican as places come in Tucson. It’s a cozy place, with more of the old school “family restaurant” feel than the over-the-top mariachi and sombrero themes you see too often, and the staff is very friendly and focused; I was quickly seated and enjoying some chips and very flavorful salsa while pondering the menu.

Indeed, “family restaurant” is a good way to describe the menu at El Merendero: this is basic classic Mexican fare: quesadillas, tacos, enchiladas, burros (one of the few places I’ve been to that calls them that instead of burritos), and a broad selection of camarónes (shrimp) and fish. They’ve also got a nice selection of higher-end combination plates for dinner, like a tampiqueña (Mexican-style marinated skirt steak), hígado (Mexican-style liver), and Milanesa (thin breaded beef cutlets) that I don’t usually find in more American-oriented Mexican joints. It’s definitely a good selection.

I ended up going with one of my favorite Mexican classics: chile rellenos. Nice, robust and flavorful large green chile peppers, stuffed with queso blanco, lightly battered and deep-fried, and served up smothered in a nice red enchilada sauce with some refried beans and rice. Everything worked well here: the peppers themselves nicely spicy and bold, the breading nice and crisp, and the enchilada sauce richly flavored. The beans were particularly tasty (that usually means I probably don’t want to know how much lard in the dish), and the rice lightly crispy. It’s everything I look for in a good Mexican meal.

Really, while Tucson has a lot of really great Mexican places, I still really like El Merendero, and since they’ve been around almost 60 years, it’s good to see they are still doing well; the place was quite busy by the time I left at 1pm. Definitely worth a visit if you’re in Tucson.

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