A peek in Carolina’s Mexican Food kitchen at breakfast will reveal a platoon of women dedicated to the tortilla making process. They make that many daily. In fact, in the mornings the kitchen is quite populated since basically everything they serve is made in house. The only exception may be the soft drinks.
Immediately after booking my trip to Phoenix I started planning meals. Top of the list?? A hole in the wall, outstanding Mexican place. Some poking around on the internet (and in particular Chowhound) turned up Carolina’s.
Pronounced Care-O-LEEN-az this Phoenix institution has been serving up their crepe like flour tortillas since 1968. In fact, if you count selling food out of the back of their car, Carolina and Manuel Valenzuela got started in the business back in the 50’s. They’ve both since joined the great fiesta in the sky sadly but have left a strong legacy. Their kids and grandkids now operate the restaurant and catering ends of the business. If you take into account Carolina’s mom was the first employee it’s basically a 4th generation now.
The current flagship restaurant has been at it’s original location since 1986 having moved twice previously. Once to make room for the near by Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. Business always flourished through the moves, family crisis and economic hard times. The reasonably priced and rather large menu has meant that the neighbours could always get a good meal without breaking the bank.
Inside the restaurant it’s rather lunar. The building once housed a coin-op laundry and has all the pleasing esthetics you’d expect from one. The once painted floor now shows the bare concrete. The tables are a mishmash of old Burger King, 80’s burger joint and flea market food court. Not to worry though, this place is clean but if you really don’t like the divey appearance or sketchy neighbourhood, it does full take out as well.
So not only did Carolina’s fit my Mexican dive restaurant criteria but several people hailed it as having the best machaca Phoenix has to offer.
Originally made from dried beef or pork that’s been rehydrated and pounded until tender machaca is a staple in north central Mexico. These days it’s more like the beef version of carnitas. Slow, slow cooked until ridiculously tender and shredded. The beef is then returned to it’s juices and stewed until the desired consistency has been achieved.
Anyway, let’s have a look at the goods. I’ve had both lunch and breakfast and I’m pretty sure you could throw a dart, blindfolded at the menu board and hit a homerun. It’s that good.
The tortillas were as good as advertised. Paper thin with a delicate yet sturdy feel and very good taste.
The salsa could easily be confused for ketchup. Served in little paper condiment cups from a red pump action (ketchup) dispenser. That’s where the similarity ends though. This sauce is salty, garlicky and spicy. A perfect compliment to the entrées.
The tamale was very tasty but not the best I’ve had. First of all, it seemed to be pretty sloppily made. Simply unwrapping it saw the filling spill out. It seemed they didn’t use enough dough to fully encase the meat. Now that said, having a too much meat to dough ratio is far better than the other way around. And as usual, taste trumps all. The red beef stuffing was quite good.
The chorizo, egg, beans and potato breakfast burrito was terrific. A little heavy on the potato which meant the beans were a little over shadowed but that could just be a personal taste issue. The chorizo is fantastic in spite of having very little heat.
The machaca is everything it’s cracked up to be. Juicy, flavourful and very tender. I copied a standard order from a fellow Chowhounder which was a “Red machaca burro, foot long, enchilada style. Don’t skimp on the brown sauce.” Again the tortilla was great. The “Brown sauce” is really red enchilada sauce and was certainly better than any other I’ve had. It had it’s usual chili flavour but fortified with a brown beef gravy component. It was very interesting and incredibly addictive.Chorizo, tamales, tortillas and salsa are all available for sale as well.
So if you’re ever in Phoenix and on the prowl for some great Mexican food head to the hood and check out Carolina’s.
You can find Carolina’s (south) at 1202 E. Mohave St. in Phoenix, Arizona.
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There are also north Phoenix and Peoria locations as well.
You can find them on the web or like them on facebook