More cuisines should be judged by their traditional soups and stews, particularly when the weather calls for foods to chase away chills.
In the mood for something hearty yet slightly spicy, I recently revisited one of the valley's more authentic Mexican restaurants, Soco's in Phoenix. Among the tacos, burritos and enchiladas are several classic dishes that go over particularly well in a drizzle.
Dining out with(the Mail Tribune
Located at 102 S. Main St., Phoenix, Socoís Authentic Mexican Restaurant is open from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday through Friday. Call 541-535-8446.
Chili verde and chili Colorado are served as full entrees with rice and beans ($8 to $8.25), while the house special menudo, a spicy tripe soup, comes a la carte for $8.50. I was a day too late for green pozole, a meaty soup with hominy kernels, offered Thursdays for $8. But tortilla soup was listed among the day's specials for just $3.50.
The price was a bargain for this dish, which didn't just put a Latin spin on standard chicken soup. Its thick, flavorful, tomatoey broth was packed with large chunks of chicken, enough crispy corn-tortilla strips in the bottom of the bowl to scoop some up with every bite, as well as a substantial topping of diced avocado.
Both the soup's temperature and spice could have been turned up a notch, but both Soco's menu and clientele suggest a bid to balance Mexican tradition with more mainstream appeal.
The soup assumed some zing from one of the lime wedges that accompanied my beef-tongue taco. After seeing the soup's size, which I figured would be more like a cup for the cost, I was relieved to have requested just one taco ($2) with a side of rice and beans ($2).
The tongue ("lengua") was perhaps the most tender version I've tried locally and also diced somewhat larger than typical with a few pieces of fat still clinging to it that may put off fussier diners. The portion of meat mixed with white onion and cilantro, however, was so generous that the two pillowy corn tortillas almost couldn't contain it.
My co-worker's pork chimichanga ($8.50) also was larger than he anticipated and not greasy, considering its baptism by deep-fryer. It was served under the ubiquitous mound of shredded lettuce, sour cream and guacamole.
For the few Americanized items on offer — fajita-taco salad and nachos, for example — Soco's prepares some you'd be hard-pressed to find almost anywhere else locally. "Machaca," dried and spiced beef that is reconstituted and tenderized, sounds like something of an acquired taste. But begging to be tried are the ceviche tostada, marinated, raw seafood on a fried tortilla, and the "sincronizada," which layers flour tortillas and fillings into a type of Mexican sandwich (not to be confused with a quesadilla, which also is available).
The diverse menu also includes huevos rancheros, chilies rellenos, taquitos, tamales and tortas, or meaty sandwiches on a Mexican-style roll. Most items are priced in the $7-to-$8 range, with Sunday's special carnitas topping the list at $15.
Playing no small part in its credibility is Soco's hands-on food preparation in a spotless kitchen fully visible from the counter where customers order. Plates don't arrive blazing-hot from a microwave, as they do at so many Mexican eateries. And the application of sauces and cheese is judicious.
Such conscientiousness means meals take a bit longer to materialize than newcomers may expect. Complimentary, homemade chips and salsa make the wait tolerable, however, particularly with a glass of the housemade horchata, a sweetened blend of rice and almonds seasoned with cinnamon. Soco's also stocks a self-serve refrigerator case with bottled Mexican sodas and beers, as well as some domestic brews, single-serving bottles of wine and assorted juices and teas.
Soco's somewhat sparse decor, massive menu boards and use of plastic trays to transport orders from the counter to dining room makes for a decidedly casual, almost cafeterialike, ambiance. Takeout is encouraged with menu listings for rice and beans by the pint or quart, large bags of chips, pints of salsa and tamales by the dozen.
Soco's is at 102 S. Main St., Phoenix. The restauant is open from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday through Friday. Call 541-535-8446.
— Sarah Lemon