« Courtesy of Maya | Main | Well, *That* Was Unexpected... »

April 25, 2011

Tacos Atoyac

Taco Dorado de Res Dominic Armato

We're waaaaaay overdue for a hole-in-the-wall joint, but the good news is that I've had the pleasure of frequenting a pretty darn good one over the past couple of weeks. With thanks to Erica O'Neil for her post on molotes over at Chow Bella, I've had the pleasure of hitting a relatively new little taqueria a few times over the past couple of weeks, one that's unusually good and, offering a number of Oaxacan items, is a welcome change of pace.

Tacos Campechano, Al Pastor & LenguaDominic Armato

Frankly, as holes-in-the-wall go, Tacos Atoyac is so approachable that I almost wish they'd grunge the place up a little (...joke). Though small and situated next to a shady-looking head shop, it's bright, clean, and above all, spartan, with little more than white paint, corrugated steel and bare tables within. It's run by a couple of fellows, one of whom hails from Oaxaca, who got tired of the grind working in mainstream kitchens and figured they'd open their own place and go make some tacos. Of course, there's quite a bit more than tacos, and Dan (who holds down the front while his business partner runs the kitchen during service) is an exceptionally friendly chap who's all too happy to tell you all about them. So you order a couple of items, grab a bottle of something frosty from the giant tub of ice next to the register, pay with little more than pocket change, have a seat, and in a few minutes Dan walks out of the kitchen with something fresh and hot and usually really, really tasty.

Fish TacoDominic Armato

Tacos are what ostensibly got these fellows to bolt their previous environs, so tacos seem like a pretty good place to start. The regular menu offers carne asada, al pastor, lengua, chorizo and cabeza, with others rotating in and out on a specials board to the side. One downside, though I imagine it helps keep them absurdly cheap ($1 apiece), is that all of the meats are of the stewed or griddled variety. There's no grill for the asada and no trompo for the al pastor... bummer. But even with this handicap, the flavors all pop, the tortillas are pliant and sizzled up right and the salsas, though very simple, are fresh and well-balanced. I'm especially fond of the lengua, which is a succulent, moist and stewy concoction that has a big, full flavor and ought to make converts of the variety meat averse. Likewise the off-menu (recommended by Dan) Campechano, which is simply a combination of Atoyac's pungent (not to mention iridescent) chorizo and carne asada. Much as I adore chorizo, I've often found a taco that holds nothing but to be overkill. No such issue here, and though it may seem like a sort of gratuitous heaping of meat upon meat, it's a widely-known combination and with good reason. They complement each other well.

Torta MilanesaDominic Armato

Other taco variants include, firstly, tacos dorados, filled with beef or chicken, rolled, deep fried and smothered in earthy black beans, a handful of crisp lettuce, shot of crema and a sprinkling of queso fresco. No matter how well-prepared, tacos dorados have always kind of felt like bar food to me, and while Atoyac's don't quite liberate me from that prejudice, they're done with a great deal of care, crunchy and well-seasoned and fun to eat. Give me a few beers and I'd probably order a dozen of these. Another taco is one of my favorite things to emerge from this kitchen, a Lenten special that really, really needs to be a regular menu item. The Baja style fish taco is fabulous, a griddled flour tortilla wrapped around a searingly hot and dangerously crispy piece of fish along with shredded cabbage, a few slivers of onion and spicy crema. The fish is swai, an Asian catfish that isn't sold under that name here since domestic catfish farmers aren't too keen on the competition. It's a step above tilapia, avoiding its muddy flavor, and while swai won't be mistaken for a premium fish, it's hard to argue with price performance. These tacos are executed so well I wish they were made with a premium fish, but the fellas are wringing an awful lot of flavor out of that $1.50, so I'm finding it hard to complain. If you go and they're still on the specials board, order one and then tell Dan they need to be on the regular menu. I don't want them to disappear and I need some backup here.

MolotesDominic Armato

I'm a sucker for a good torta milanesa, and while I've still yet to find anything that's half the sandwich as my beloved cemita milanesa from Cemitas Puebla, this one's as good as any I've had in Phoenix so far, and better than most. At a whopping five bucks, it's one of the more expensive items on the menu, and it's bordering on gutbuster portions, a thick slab of beef that's breaded and fried to a deep golden color, hot and crisp and pleasantly chewy. Put that on some fluffy, freshly toasted pan telera, add a few vegetables, some beans, a little cheese, and perhaps most importantly, a fried egg with a giant, runny yolk, and you've got a pretty darn good sandwich. For me, it needs just a little heat and acid to make it complete, and while my preference would be for something a little more aggressively spicy and pungent, a little bit of the house salsa does the trick. I'll be getting this one again.

Memelita Carne AsadaDominic Armato

Of course, this is a Oaxacan joint, so there are some offerings that may strike some as less familiar, too. The aforementioned molotes are a nice choice, a Oaxacan holiday food that's available year-round here. A thin disc of masa is stuffed with a potato and chorizo mixture, fashioned into a kind of torpedo shape, deep fried, and then given the same beans/lettuce/crema/queso treatment as the tacos dorados. Despite the inclusion of chorizo, these fellows are actually quite mellow, a kind of pleasantly warm and starchy package with a nice, crisp crust. The memelitas are another pick-your-masa variant, here a thick disk with crimped edges, spread with beans and queso fresco and topped with the meat of your choice along with a touch of onion and cilantro. This thing's got some body, and it has the added benefit of combining the almost crunchy griddled masa of the underside with the lighter and moister top, cooked only by radiant heat from underneath.

Tamale RajasDominic Armato

The only disappointment so far has been the tamales, which came with high expectations when I learned that the tamale masa arrives weekly via their Oaxacan masa connection (apparently the local stuff doesn't meet their standards... yikes). I tried the two that were available that day, a gentle but fully-flavored shredded beef, and the tamale rajas, a spicy chicken concoction with chunks of vegetables. The flavors on both were lovely, but the tamales were dense and cool, as though they needed more time in the steamer. That warm, filling fluffiness (poor word choice... more an issue of temperature and steam than anything) was sadly absent. Given the attention to detail with every other dish I've tried, I wonder if this wasn't an aberration that happened to escape the kitchen by accident. I'll certainly be trying them again, if for no other reason than I love saying "Oaxacan Masa Connection" (which, incidentally, I claim as my band name... Latin-influenced prog, I'm thinking).

It's a taqueria. But it's a Oaxacan taqueria run by a couple of guys who are unusually committed to making great food. It's unusually tasty, it's friendly, it's dirt cheap, it brings a little bit of regional sass that's tough to come by... I'm not sure what isn't to like, here. If it were in my 'hood, I'd be there all the time. But even having to truck across town to get there, I expect it'll be a semi-regular stop for me. They've only been open for a couple of months, and they deserve the support. Get over there and throw some business in their direction so they can stick around, because Tacos Atoyac is a nice little addition to the scene.

Tacos Atoyac
1830 W. Glendale Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85021
Mon - Thu10:00 AM - 9:00 PM
Fri - Sat10:00 AM - 10:00 PM


One dollar tacos! Amazing.
Those molotes sound delicious. I think the Mexican place in Bmore, Mi Viejo Pueblito had it on the menu before the chef left. Never got to try those.

Dom, I'm jealous that you have access to what seem to be authentic-type tamales. My experience with "authentic" tamales is that they are non-fluffy and delicious. The ones in the picture look more or less identical to those I've had in Mexico City and with some in-laws. And yes they are denser than other ones I've had here.

Although I like the spicy hot pork variety myself. Yum!

Maybe if they were hotter you'd enjoy them more. Maybe it's a regional thing as far as the fluffiness goes. Others may have more to add.

Ally... very well could be. Mexico's a big place. I'd be surprised if that's how they were intended, though, based in no small part on the temperature. I mean, we're talking relative levels of fluffy, here. I've had them in the DF as well, and while they were a good deal denser than the piece of junk ones you get in a lot of places, they certainly weren't like this. And again, of course, the DF is a long way from Oaxaca.

I really should just get back there and ask.

You know you and I share love of cheap Mexican. Some of my favorite food memories are of the hole in the wall place that I would race to with my "Senior Lunch Pass" in high school for stewed chicken tacos. (The location is now a Wal-Mart.) That this place in Phoenix does a San Diego/Baja staple like fish tacos well makes me extremely jealous. I'll have to start emailing you pictures of good Vietnamese and Korean to return the favor. ;)

Hey, no worries about pasta and polenta, looking at my response it wasn't very diplomatic either, were even now! Before including that part in my blog I googled and realised polenta was probably not pasta but I pushed my luck. Cookies are nice, even if its not pasta:) I knew someone would question it! 'He's' blog is interesting, quite different approach and writing style. Q1 report - I was anticipating financials.

Ah! Prices! Beautiful beautiful prices!

$1.00? Wow.

I agree with ally. Tamales are not supposed to be "fluffy". Tamales are evil and delicious and the masa should be dense and about 50% wetter than fresh spackling.

Okay, okay... "fluffy" may have been a poor choice of word. :-)

Hmm. Typically, Oaxacan or "Costeño" tamales are a lot denser and less fluffy than the standard tamales. However, they are also wrapped in banana leaves instead of the corn husks. Your photo shows a corn husk wrapped one, I wonder if these guys make a sort of hybrid, with the non-fluffy dough but inside a corn husk.
At any rate, I have to say your post made this expatriated Mexican drool with envy.

Solange... yeah, it's definitely not the same as the banana leaf variety. And... uh... that's not a corn husk. It does seem a shame to ship in masa from Oaxaca and then wrap it in plastic :-/ Which I'd be more inclined to beat them up over if everything else weren't so darn good.

Wow, seriously that is a fake corn husk? That IS low. :)

Now, these are real Mexican tacos! But I like them better if the pita is a little thicker.

The comments to this entry are closed.