No matter how hard I try, I still have problems convincing people that great feasting in Phoenix can be found if one is willing to overlook the exterior of a building. This is especially true of dingy strip malls that havenâ€™t seen a coat of paint since the Nixon administration. I plead with people to try places like Da Vang or Ninettaâ€™s or Classic Italian Pizza even though the exterior is less than beautiful. I throw out clichÃ©s like â€œNever judge a book by its coverâ€ but that usually falls on deaf ears.
If ever there was a candidate for not basing the restaurant on the exterior, El Nopalito wins the contest hands down. Located in a decaying and ugly strip mall just south of Thomas Road on 24th Street, El Nopalito is a tiny dive pushing out great feasts from the kitchen.
I have had El Nopalito on my radar for quite some time, but only recently got around to dropping in. I wanted some place new to add to my rotation of Mexican food haunts, so I decided to take a chance on El Nopalito and hope for the best.
Arriving at the tail end of a busy lunch hour, I was hard-pressed to find parking because the laundymat next door was packed to the rafters and parking was scarce. I did finally snag a spot and entered the restaurant. About 10 tables dotted the floor and I was directed to take a seat anywhere. I chose a table along the side of the wall and was immediately handed a menu and told someone would be right with me.
Only a few seconds passed and a very shy and quiet waitress arrived with chips, two kinds of sauce and a glass of water. She asked me for my drink order and I asked for a Diet Coke ($1.25 per can). â€œIt only comes in a can,â€ she stated. â€œIs that okay?â€ Yup, it was. She retreated to the kitchen and I looked over the vast menu which was incredibly in depth for this small place.
While trying to decide what I wanted, I munched on the chips. The plastic basket contained a hefty serving of the thin corn triangles that were very crunchy and not at all oily. I would have preferred them a bit warmer, but they had a great corn taste and I was happy with them. The sauces were also a hit. The fiery red sauce had chipotle overtones and the green tomatillo sauce had a slightly sweet edge that hit the back of the tongue. While I preferred the red, both were excellent.
Upon return with my soda, I placed my order with the waitress. I really wanted a variety of items, so I based my selections on price, which would prove to be a bad strategy. So, not knowing what to expect, I ordered three tacos ($0.99 each), one with chicken, one Al Pastor, and one Adobada. I also ordered something called the Pambazos ($2.75) and to start things off, a Cheese Cheese ($3.25).
After placing my order, I was a bit surprised that at 2 PM in the afternoon, a steady stream of customers were arriving and filling up some of the tables. The interior was a mix of Mexican touches and ads for beer all on green tinted walls. While perfectly comfortable, the interior did have a dark feel to it because of the paint job. Even on a brilliantly sunny Phoenix day, the place seemed less than bright.
My Cheese Crisp arrived and I was slightly disappointed because it looked more like a quesadilla. However, upon further inspection, it seemed more like a cheese crisp with a tortilla top. Okay, I know, it’s splitting hairs, but a quesadilla is folded over and this had a second tortilla on top. The flour tortilla had been heated and then topped with cheese and then another flour tortilla was placed on top and then grilled until hot. The product was rather crisp with lots of melted cheese and plenty of taste. Adding some of the sour cream that was served with it and then drizzling each piece with the red sauce, I was thoroughly happy with this starter, even thought I was expecting something else.
Next to arrive at the table were my tacos. The only difference amongst the three was the meat filling. All were constructed with a fresh corn tortilla covered with the requested meat and then topped with cilantro and chopped onions. I took a little bit of the meat from each taco to see how they were before dressing them with the sauces. All were moist and juicy with plenty of flavor, from the smoky al pastor to the creamy chicken, the fillings were fantastic. In order to see which sauce would pair best with the tacos, I added each sauce to one half of the taco. In the final analysis, these tacos would have been perfectly fine without the sauces, but the al bastor and the adobada (both pork based) were naturals for the red sauce and the chicken was over the top in taste with the green sauce.
After requesting another can of Diet Coke, my waitress returned with my Diet Coke and my Pambazos. Great Hoogly Moogly! This thing was huge. It was, in essence, a sandwich that could only be tamed with a knife and fork. The thick (and I mean thick) bread had its exterior treated with chile power and then grilled. The bread was then split in half. Lettuce, cheese and a squeeze of lime were the fillings. The bread was hot while the lettuce was cool and the cheese salty and smooth. This would easily have been lunch all by itself and I struggled to finish even half of it. I thought the combination of flavors was excellent. There wasnâ€™t much to this as there was only bread, cheese and lettuce, but it certainly was full of taste and would qualify as a â€œpoor manâ€™s lunch.â€ For $2.75 and its massive size, you could have the sandwich, chips and sauce and a Diet Coke for under $5.00.
I was beyond stuffed by the time I finished and I laughed when the waitress asked if I wanted something more to eat. She left the bill on the table and the total for this huge lunch was $12.99. It was a steal considering the excellence of the food and the quantity. I had no complaints about my meal at all (well, okay, the cheese crisp thing, but I am a purist on that issue) and loved the homeyness of the place. Service was efficient, albeit reserved, but everything was brought out quickly and my waitress would check in on me regarding the Diet Coke situation throughout the meal.
The only downside I discovered was that there were a bazillion other things on the menu I wanted to try and no room for them. There were all sorts of items that I had never heard of nor tried and was curious as to what they were or how filling they would be. I knew I would have to return again and again.
I exited El Nopalito and headed for the car and then pulled back out onto 24th Street and headed north to Indian School and then east to Arcadia. I then suddenly remembered that I had been at one of the dingiest strip malls in central Phoenix with sagging trim and flaking paint, but I didnâ€™t care.
El Nopalito was one of the best finds for outstanding Mexican food in Phoenix.
Who cares about the exterior?
2831 North 24th Street
Phoenix, AZ 85008
Hours: Monday through Friday â€“ 9 AM to 9 PM; Saturday â€“ 8:30 AM to 10 PM; Sunday â€“ 8:30 AM to 9 PM.
Notes: Park on the side of the building.
Alcohol: Beer only.