16 September, 2019, 21:01

Our Short List of the Best Mexican Drive-Thru

Tucson is home to a constant ebb and flow of Mexican drive-thru establishments. The 14 listed below should be enough to get you started.

Imagine the following scenario.

It’s Wednesday evening. You’re driving home from work with a mad craving for Mexican food. You’re too beat to cook, and too bushed to sit down and order from a menu. How, pray tell, will you feed your famished self?

Fortunately, you’re in Tucson, home to hundreds of drive-through Mexican options – many of which are open 24 hours a day. In fact, there are so many choices that it can be difficult to select which one deserves your loyalty (and we do become loyal).

In no particular order, here’s an abbreviated guide to help you navigate our Mexican drive-through Wonderland.

1. Nico’s

View all Tucson Nico’s locations on Google Maps

Carnitas Torta at Nico's Taco Shop (Credit: Theresa Delaney)

Carnitas Torta at Nico’s Taco Shop (Credit: Theresa Delaney)

Founded in San Diego, this sizable chain of drive-throughs has multiple Tucson-area locations. Branches are independently owned and go by at least four names. Nico’s, as we call it regardless, is a local favorite. It’s known for giant, inexpensive meat-based burritos and flavorful rolled tacos. The grated cheddar on top of the dishes isn’t always all the way melted, which makes it more fun somehow. Not all locations are open 24 hours, but some are; not all locations offer vegan options, but some do.

2. Viva Burrito/Viva Burrito Co.

Multiple Locations

Another chain with franchise branches going by assorted, similar names, Viva has about eight locations scattered throughout the Tucson metropolis. Drive-throughs are open all night, so you can be the darling of after hours when you drop by the party with a dozen tamales and several half-pints each of guacamole, rice, and beans. The red salsa alone is a dance party in your mouth.

3. Los Betos

Multiple Locations

Los Betos is another regional favorite, with locations all over town (usually near a Viva, two chains that are in direct competition with one another). Many Los Betos drive-throughs are open 24/7. Some have 99-cent tacos, and they all serve burritos the size of a zucchini. Their salsa is watery, which is not a bad thing, because both the red and the green are delicious as all get-out. Most dishes are topped with a lot of shredded iceberg lettuce, so you can pretend you’re eating a healthy salad to counterbalance said enormous late-night burrito.

4. Paco’s

5563 E. Grant Road
Chorizo breakfast burrito at Paco's Mexican Food (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Chorizo breakfast burrito at Paco’s Mexican Food (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Paco’s has counter service and a sizeable dining room, but those in the know tend to prefer the drive through. Sometimes the line of cars spills out onto Grant, not unlike an overstuffed chimichanga. Paco’s food tastes fresh, because it is. They open at 6 a.m. (7 on Saturdays, closed Sundays) and serve the whole menu until 10 p.m. Favorites include the guacamole and the Chile Bandido burrito (a chile relleno in a burrito topped with enchilada sauce). The tortas are some of the best in town, especially the machaca and egg option.

Follow Paco’s on Facebook.

5. La Fresita

1450 W. Saint Mary’s Road
Assorted tacos at La Fresita West (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Assorted tacos at La Fresita West (Credit: Jackie Tran)

The friendly family who owns the little strawberry of Barrio Hollywood serves up delicious food and aguas frescas. They could rightfully rename their taqueria “La Fresh-ita.” Their corn tortillas are fresh. Their salsa is fresh (do request extra red!). Their juices are fresh. They also serve some fun Yucatan-inspired items rarely available throughout the city, like elote and spinach tamales, al pastor dishes, calabacitas, and peppered fish burritos. Plus they cook up daily specials. Prepare to consume mass calories, and not regret it one bit. They’re open from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Follow La Fresita on Facebook.

6. Filiberto’s Mexican Food

Multiple Locations

Of the thirty-some-odd Filiberto’s restaurants, most are in the Phoenix metro area, but they’re scattered throughout the rest of Arizona, as well as New Mexico and California. The Tucson-area locations all have drive-throughs but are only open 24 hours on some days of the week. Prices are higher than most quick service Mexican joints. For example, the beloved California burrito, with french fries, pico, carne asada, cheese, and guacamole costs $9. Or, get the spicy grilled shrimp taco with cabbage, pico, and tartar sauce for $4. It’s Taco Tuesdays that people drive through for, though. Beef or chicken tacos are only 99 cents each.

More info at filibertos.com.

7. El Potosino

1400 W. Prince Road 7865 E. Speedway Blvd.

It’s open. It’s delicious. And it is super inexpensive. El Potosino brings typical Mexican fast fare, but the menu is also sprinkled with relative rarities such as machaca, and bacon quesadillas. The 99-cent menu features sundry tacos, tostadas, burritos, chips and guacamole, and more. Plus, they switch the menu up weekly with their Monday Daily Special.

8. Riliberto’s

4352 E. Speedway Blvd.

Riliberto’s has locations throughout Arizona, one in Las Vegas, and one in India. That’s right, they’re serving mutton chimichangas and paneer super nachos in Chandigarh. Tucson’s Riliberto’s, which is their newest branch, makes distinctly Sonoran-inspired food using five-generations-old recipes. They have a $1.49 week-daily special, ranging from junior cheese quesadillas on Mondays to bean tostadas on Fridays.

Visit rilibertos.com for more info.

9. El Beto

32 N. Campbell Ave. 2100 W. Grant Road #120

To add to the confusion about who the heck Beto is, there’re also these El Betos – one on Campbell and one on Grant. The one on Campbell is open 24 hours a day and the one on Grant closes at midnight. At both locations, the breakfast burrito is where it’s at. That thing seems like it’s filled with half a dozen scrambled eggs, which are actually fluffy. Burritos here aren’t just girthy: they’re lonnnnnnnng too.

Keep track of which Beto is which by following El Beto on Facebook.

10. BK Tacos

2680 N. First Ave.
Carne asada tacos at BK Tacos on 12th Avenue (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Carne asada tacos at BK Tacos on 12th Avenue (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Of the two BK Tacos locations, only the northern one has a drive-through. BK’s, as it’s known, is famous for its carne asada and award-winning Sonoran Dogs. However, they also serve a huge selection of caldos (soups), burros, parillas (mixed grills) and even burgers. Pro tip: their bean tacos go perfectly with their house red salsa, a smoky, spicy, thick concoction that complements both their flour and corn tortillas. Drive-through hours are 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.

Visit bktacos.com.

11. Salsa Verde

210 N. Pantano Road
Lorenza at Salsa Verde (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Lorenza at Salsa Verde (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Almost everything this East Side restaurant serves is homemade, from salsa and tortillas through aguas frescas and dessert. Prices are a little higher than a typical quick-service eatery, but they reflect the love that goes into the food. Plus they have options like chicken mole and pork pibil, which might not exist through any other local drive-through window. House specialties percherones (tall burritos stuffed with exciting options, and bacon-wrappable!) and machetes (big, stuffed masa tortillas) are standouts.

Keep up with Salsa Verde on Facebook.

12. Don Nato’s

45 W. Valencia Road

Don Nato’s is tiny but the burritos are not. Nor are the tortas, which are way too big to eat at one sitting, and which are two for $10. Street tacos are only $1. The pollo asado variety is the running favorite. You can have them from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day except Monday, when the restaurant is closed. It’s pretty close to the 19, so you can exit, drive through, and jump back on within a few minutes, tacos in tow.

Keep up with Don Nato’s on Facebook.

13. Coronado’s Mexican Food

7115 E. 22nd Street

Combos are particularly filling at this best Mexican drive-thru. It closes before the bars do, though, with opening hours from 6 a.m. to 12:45 a.m. (and until 1:45 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays). The red salsa is pretty fiery – try it on the carnitas burrito or the super nachos.

14. El Güero Canelo

5802 E. 22nd Street
(Credit: Flickr/alykat)

(flickr/alykat)

The East Tucson location of this beloved favorite has been working on their new drive-thru. The Sonoran dogs have been known to inspire bards. Writing home about the carne asada will make faraway folks jealous.

For more information, visit elguerocanelo.com.

Have a best Mexican drive-thru that we missed? Let us know.

Angela Orlando is an anthropologist who owns Wandering Writers Workshops — retreats that take writers around the world. She’s into all things plant- and animal- and food-related, especially when cheese is somehow involved. She throws pottery and eats from her own handmade plates.

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