At this neighborhood favorite, the burros are the real workhorses.
Tucked off the main drags of St. Mary’s and I-10 in the middle of Dunbar Springs, among crumbling adobes, sunburnt stucco, and jerry-built front porches, Anita Street Market is well worth putting your Google Maps to use.
The name is a bit of a misnomer — you’ll actually find it on the corner of Anita Avenue and Lord Street (look for the murals) — but it’s hard to hold that against them.
First experiences matter, especially when they leave a lingering sweetness
The dank, delicious funkiness of refried beans hangs thick in the air of this neighborhood favorite.
The interior is simple yet spectacularly adorned with calendars of great saints, images of Aztec gods, and a small radio behind the counter playing 1600 AM.
Customers neatly arrange themselves along the perimeter of the interior wall and out onto the sidewalk.
If there is anything fussy about the market, it is only those impatient diners who, like myself, are too occupied reading and re-reading the menu to make small talk with their fellow guests.
A sizable order worth trying
It was three o’clock and I hadn’t eaten lunch yet, so my dining companion and I decided on a variety of choices. We ordered tamales (one red, one green), a carne asada caramelo, ceviche, and totopos, sides of beans and rice, and a birria burro to round out the order. It took all of my strength not to add any of their pastries or empanadas to my check.
Go for the burros
While tacos have taken center stage as the world’s street food of choice, the Tucson I know has always been a burrito town. And true to this food’s humble namesake, the burros at Anita Street Market are the real workhorses here.
Compact, sturdy, and a best friend for those who need a comforting cinder block in their stomachs, the burros showcase a world of subtle flavors inside a not-too-powdery flour tortilla that falls on the right side of chewiness.
The real showstopper
The Birria burro was my meal’s showstopper. Filled with slow-cooked shredded beef that has drunk its fill of a brothy red sauce, you’ll be lucky if you can make it to the end without the tortilla disintegrating in your hands.
And if your tortilla does happen to survive until the last bite, you can be sure it will leave long traces of the aforementioned red broth dripping down your fingers and chin. Stuffed, fat, and juicy… it’s exquisite.
Make sure to raid the refrigerator for sides, sauces, and snacks
I gave my burro temporary breaks in the action to nosh on a bag of homemade totopos and a side of ceviche — they can be found in Anita Street Market’s amply supplied refrigerator along with homemade salsas and chorizo, bottles of Coca-Cola, Fanta, Jarritos, and the other usual suspects.
The shrimp, jicama, onion, cucumber, and tomato carry a nice, even heat that comes on slowly and gradually builds to a cool burn.
People watching is where it’s at
Were it not for the quality of the meal, the people-watching on the dine-in patio may have been my favorite part.
On this particular Saturday, I found the usual Tucson mix — hipsters jockeying for elbow room with snowbirds and abuelitas.
Next door, the neighborhood kids were shooting hoops and the clanging of their bricks paired perfectly with the passing cars (I caught Beastie Boys and Tejano coming through open windows).
The tortilla that keeps you wanting more
But back to the food — I mentioned Anita Street Market’s tortillas. Let me say, they are among my favorite in the city. They will leave flour on your fingertips and on the corners of your mouth.
They are chewy, stretchy, and faintly transparent when held up to light. Delicious on their own, they are generous performers who elevate the entirety of your meal, making burritos sublime and our side of beans and rice a delicacy in itself.
It’s no wonder living-legend Ruth Reichl raved about them following her stopover in Tucson.
And if you’re looking for something slightly different, their gordita tortillas are made with cottage cheese. During my visit, there were none to be found — they had long sold out — just a standing wait for made-to-order packs by the dozen to emerge still-steaming from the kitchen.
I’ll certainly be back — no doubt on the hunt for the gordita tortillas. In a place as familiar, humble, and welcoming as Anita Street Market, I wonder if any of us are ever really first timers.