I must thank Brian Inderlunas — the first person to nominate and vote La Tolteca in Phoenix for Arizona’s favorite breakfast spot. I thank you and my stomach thanks you.
Hmmm, where to begin…okay, I’ll start with this. Walking into La Tolteca felt like walking right back into my childhood…into the panadería where I was first introduced to cochitos (Mexican Molasses Pigs)…into the carnicería where my grandmother would pick up a full pig’s head to make her homemade menudo. But, this was Phoenix! Not San Marcos, Texas. Still, it felt like home.
Prior to my arrival, I called the restaurant to make arrangements. The lady helping said to ask for Veronica when I arrived so I did just that. Veronica was not at all what I expected. She was…um, younger. For an operation this successful, I was expecting someone in their 60s or better. I assumed she was La Tolteca’s General Manager. And, she did her job really well.
She offered me a quiet place to sit, away from the front counter where the actual ordering took place. She gave me the menu, recommended that I try the chilaquiles (also recommended by Brian!) and said that she’d help me out in any way. I thought the owners must have instructed her to be on her “A” game. I felt down right special.
I ran around the restaurant like a tourist taking photos of the vibrant décor. It was like an explosion of color all throughout the restaurant – every inch of their wall space covered with viñetas of Mexican life. Piñatas and brightly colored banners hung from above.
After ogling the wall murals, I moved from photographer to videographer and set up for my interview with Veronica…the General Manager, I mean, the OWNER of La Tolteca. Yep, owner. I was so embarrassed when I found out that I had mistaken Veronica as the general manager and not the owner of this fabulous establishment. Note to self: do your homework.
She was very gracious about the whole thing. I admitted that she looked too young and she agreed. But, Veronica Cardenas is indeed a veteran at really great Mexican food. After doing some research, I learned that Veronica’s family owned a restaurant in Mexico, so her love of serving good Mexican food runs deep. She was approached six years ago by the former owners who had an expanding chain, but had grown too far too fast. They came to her for help…and help came in a BIG way. What was once a small restaurant became a restaurant, grocery store, carnicería (meat market), tortillería (where they make homemade tortillas) and panadería (bakery)….and, a wildly popular destination for authentic Mexican food in Phoenix.
All the food is made from scratch. Every day. They do use lard so if you’re opposed to it, get over it and indulge anyway. It’s worth it.
I took some video of the place and then Veronica approached me with not one but two of their signature chilaquiles dishes. One was the original and the other made with green chiles. Back in Texas, my grandmother would make a Mexican egg dish called “migas” for breakfast. Migas are eggs, tortillas and onions all scrambled together…de-lish. La Tolteca’s chilaquiles are like Migas’ big, bad ass brother. First, the tortillas have already been deep fried before being added to the dish, then they add shredded chicken that’s stewed with either the original red pepper chile or the green chile sauce. So, now you have deep fried strips of tortilla, insanely flavorful shredded chicken topped with fresco cheese (similar to ricotta), Mexican sour cream, avocado and a fried egg. I know. How dare they, right?
While they are the same dish, the two different chiles offer two different experiences – both definitely worth trying. The yolk from the egg along with the sour cream and cheese neutralize any of the heat (which there is) in the shredded chicken, but preserves every ounce of flavor. And, let’s not forget the crunch of the tortillas. It’s brilliant, really.
I ate as much as I could. Veronica took me on a tour through the grocery store which had anything from fresh produce to religious candles. I saw the masa being made for the tortillas. Not sure how many tortillas they make in a day, but at the rate they were going I’d suspect it’s in the thousands.
Veronica surprised me with a generous parting gift…a bag of cochitos. What a class act.
If you’re in Phoenix or pretty much anywhere, La Tolteca is a must.
They are located at 1205 East Van Buren Street in Phoenix. For more information, please call 602-253-1511 or visit their Web site at http://www.latoltecamex.com. You can also find them on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/LaTolteca.