12 September, 2019, 23:38

Where to get your fill of Tucson’s iconic chimichanga (& a word on the origin)

Let the chimi feasting begin.

If you’re a local, you’ve likely had your fair share of chimichangas. If not, let’s change that!

The chimichanga, or chimi, is a deep-fried burrito that begins life as a large flour tortilla — the larger the better. Meat, cheese, beans and/or veggies are placed strategically near the middle and bottom of the tortilla and the sides are carefully folded over the meat creating a tight tubular package. The whole thing is then dropped in a deep fryer and cooked to a golden brown. It’s a cozy, filling slab of Mexican favors all rolled up.

Sauce or no sauce?

There will always be a conflict over whether or not to top your chimi with sauce.

There are the purists who believe that to put any type of sauce on a chimi defeats the purpose of the crispiness that makes chimis so good. But then there is the school of thought that says topping a fried burro with sour cream and guacamole is what makes it a chimi and not just a fried burrito. Add those who have to have their chimi enchilada-style (enchilada sauce and melted cheese) and finding resolution is a recipe for disaster.

A handful of restaurants have a special house sauce which ranges from creamy to spicy chile. Whether or not you use it to top the dish is a personal choice.

Chimichanga at La Cocina (Credit: Chelsey Wade)

Chimichanga at La Cocina (Credit: Chelsey Wade)

The origin of this fried delight

Like many people, I thought I knew the origin of this mainstay of Mexican menus.

Tucsonans know the story of El Charro’s founder Monica Flin who, one night, while cooking in a kitchen filled with kids accidentally dropped a burro in sizzling fat. Her first reaction was to let out a stream of curse words in Spanish but because so many kids were present, shouted out ‘chimichanga.’

Then there’s the Phoenix claim from Macayo’s with a similar accident that involved Woody, the owner, dropping his burro into the deep fryer.

As I dug deeper though, many others made the same claim to ownership with the chimichanga inspiration coming from confused customers, a late-night snack, and even the early Chinese settlers.

Everybody involved believes their version, passionately, so it’s up to you to decide what to believe. Any story about chimichangas in Tucson, however, has to include Gordo’s.

“Do you like Chimichangas, I mean do you really like chimichangas?”

Many Tucsonans immediately know the source of the quote but for those who don’t, “Do you….” was the catchphrase of Diego “Al” Valenzuela who, with his family, ran Gordo’s Mexicateria and Mexicatessan for over 40 years. Al was the face (and driving force) of the place and his ads are legendary.

Gordo’s also claims to be the originator of chimis and while the debate continues, no one can deny that Al was the person who made chimichangas a Tucson signature dish.

Looking for a good chimi?

Numerous places around town offer chimis on the menu; they are not hard to come by. To get you started on a chimi quest, here are several personal favorites that are not to be missed.

El Charro Carne Seca chimi at El Charro Cafe

311 N. COURT AVE. • 7725 N. ORACLE RD. • 6910 E. SUNRISE DR.
Carne seca chimichanga bandera style at El Charro Cafe (Photo courtesy of El Charro Cafe)

Carne seca chimichanga bandera style at El Charro Cafe (Photo courtesy of El Charro Cafe)

The quintessential chimi, El Charro’s carne seca chimi is a wonder to behold. The flank steak is seasoned and then dried on the roof in special cages. Carefully built, perfectly fried, a carne seca chimi from El Charro should be on everybody’s culinary bucket list.

El Charro will have its 100th birthday in 2022 and plans are already in the works to celebrate Tia Monica and her fabulous creation.

For more information, visit elcharrocafe.com.

Red Chile con Carne chimi at El Minuto

354 S. MAIN AVE.

This downtown favorite has been around since 1936 and now a fourth generation of the Shaar family runs the place. The chimis here are huge and packed with your choice of red or green chile, carne seca, chicken, beans, shredded beef, ground beef or chorizo, and egg. My favorite is the red chile but the carne seca is also outstanding.

For more information, visit elminutotucson.com.

Birria chimi at Mi Nidito

1813 S. Fourth Ave.

President Clinton is perhaps the most famous diner – and that includes everyone from David Crosby to Julio Iglesias — at this longtime South Fourth Avenue restaurant, but oddly enough he didn’t have a chimi when he ate there. Instead, he had their world-famous birria in a taco.

The birria here is so good that it’s been featured on several Food Network shows. Skip the Presidential Plate and have it in a chimi instead.

For more information, visit miniditorestaurant.com.

Ground Beef chimi at Casa Molina

6225 E. Speedway Blvd.

The chimis here look a little different than most. Casa Molina’s chimis are long, narrow, and the very definition of crispy. The chimis are modeled after the fried burros that Gilbert Molina Sr., who started the family dynasty in 1947, saw in a bar in Nogales, Mexico. The wife of the owner fed them to her baby calling them chimichangas (which she claimed meant baby in her Native language).

For more information, visit casamolina.com.

Any chimi from Micha’s G & M Restaurant

2908 S. Fourth Ave.

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Lunch time with the homie. #tucson #michas

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Micha’s is known for the size of their chimichangas (and is one of the best chimi stories in town). The date is a little fuzzy, but when sons Gilbert Jr. and Richard were looking for a way to celebrate a new addition they decided to create the world’s biggest chimichanga.

Somehow, they created a chimi 16-feet in length. It took ten people to carry to the parking lot, where they fried it in a huge, specially made metal trough. No one knows if they broke the record but the chimis on the menu are, some say, the biggest in town.

For more information, visit michascatering.com.

Baked Chimis at El Saguarito Mexican Food

3535 E. Fort Lowell Rd.

El Saguarito proves that you don’t have to fry a chimi. Long a proponent of healthy Mexican food, Albert Vasquez has been using canola oil at his restaurant since 1989. No animal fat is used in any of his dishes, including the tortillas, and the chimis are crisped up on the flat top. While he has meat fillings, the veggie with zucchini, beans, corn, tomatoes, cheese, and onions would please most meat lovers.

For more information, visit elsaguarito.com.

Ortega-style chimis at Rosa’s Mexican Food Restaurant

1750 E. Fort Lowell Rd.

Whether you’re one to top your chimichanga with sauce or not, over at Rosa’s you can have the usual enchilada sauce, guacamole, and sour cream or you can opt to have the creamy house green sauce that was created by the Rosa herself back when she opened in 1970 on Speedway.

For more information, visit tucsonmexicanrestaurant.com.

Potato & Egg with Salsa chimi at La Indita

622 N. Fourth Ave.

The roots of the food created at La Indita on Fourth Avenue are found in Michoacan, Mexico where founder Maria Garcia lived. She is a Tarasca Indian and so, while the food here looks familiar, the flavors are decidedly different.

There is a passel of chimis available here but a standout is the Potato & Egg with Salsa chimi. Topped with white and yellow cheeses, this chimi is crispy and creamy all in one bite.

This is the only place I found where you can have your chimis topped with molé if you’re so inclined.

For more information, visit lainditarestauranttucson.com.

Chile Relleno chimi at St. Mary’s Mexican Food

1030 W. St Mary’s Rd.
Tortilla making at St. Mary's Mexican Food (Credit: Brielle Farmer)

Tortilla making at St. Mary’s Mexican Food (Credit: Brielle Farmer)

St. Mary’s claims to be one of the last places in Tucson that still stretches their sobaqueros – giant tortillas – by hand. I spent a morning with the team there as they made the tortillas. It was jaw-dropping. The red chili is a top choice but filling a chimi with a chile relleno is total genius.

For more information, visit stmarysmexicanfood.com.

La Chimichanga at Wisdom’s Café

Wisdom’s Café is located on the Old Nogales Highway in Tumacacori

Two chimis draw the crowds. One is the La Chimichanga, filled to the max with tender shredded turkey in a savory sauce. The chimi is crunchy, tender, slightly spicy, and unlike anything anywhere.

The second chimichanga is the fruit chimi. The full-sized fruit chimis here have various fillings and are dusted with sugar and topped with Wisdom’s outstanding vanilla ice cream. Order one as soon as you sit down.

For more information, visit wisdomscafe.com.

For the complete story on chimichangas, check out Rita Connelly’s book, ‘Arizona Chimichangas’ (History Press – American Palate Series), which is available at Amazon.com or bookstores everywhere.

Rita Connelly is a food writer based in Tucson, Arizona.

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