This is a lesson in thinking like a local.
I had two recommendations for Mexican spots to eat in the Phoenix area: Rosita's Place and Aunt Chilada's. Both sounded appealing, but by the time I arrived, after a week in Texas, I was already weary of refried beans, rice and tortillas. So I procrastinated. I had salads, ballpark burgers, bagels, yogurt.
Suddenly, it was my last night in town! After chatting and chatting with a friend on the phone, it was 8:30 p.m., and I had procrastinated long enough. So I hightailed it to my car, mapped out the route to Aunt Chilada's, and started driving. The Phoenix area is a lot like Hampton Roads in that it's spread out, so in any direction, one city (Tempe, Mesa, Phoenix, etc.) seems to blend right into the next.
I finally got to Aunt Chilada's, a half-hour away. It looked promising — people sitting outside on the patio, a little pond on the way end, lots of parking. But the woman at the entrance seemed surprised to see me. "Lemme check," she said, "but I think our kitchen is closed." Closed? "Yes, it closes at 9." She scuttled off to check and came back to inform me, yes, closed.
It was 9:10.
I went back to my car. I thought, well, I shall just take my dining dollars to Rosita's! But, hmm, let me call this time.
They stopped serving at 9:30.
As my friend Lauren soon tells me — this is an area of retirees. They go to bed early.
Obviously, that didn't even occur to me.
So ... I remembered that on the drive in, I passed a bunch of chain restaurants. One was Chuy's, which I also saw in Austin.
Sure enough, it was open and half-filled with young people. A few little groups were smoking in the front area, where giant windows were open. It felt like a Mexican cafe in a college town. And the kitchen was open until 11. "Help yourself to chips," the waitress said, pointing to a massive tub of them beside the salsa.
And, honestly, everything was surprisingly tasty and above average. I ordered the mahi tacos — a heaping pile that came with shredded cabbage, beans and rice — and an iced tea. The baja sauce on the side wasn't hot at all, just deliciously creamy and vaguely horseradish-y. The beans were flavorful and formed, not a glob of mush. The cabbage gave everything a nice crunch.
And I did appreciate the total: less than $10!