For native Tucsonans, it’s a story nearly as old as time itself. Or, at least as old as the year 1999, when on an average sleepy Thursday afternoon, a local Mexican eatery received a call from none other than the United States Secret Service. The message was clear and succinct. The Chief of State, then-President Bill Clinton, was in town and would be visiting the establishment shortly. They had twenty minutes to prepare.
The restaurant, Mi Nidito, frantically prepared for this unexpected visit and, within the hour, the head of the state arrived, accompanied by federal bodyguards and an appetite. Not knowing what to order, President Clinton simply informed the kitchen that he was “very hungry.”
The staff compiled an executive-sized meal that would later become known as the President’s Plate, an impromptu sampler plate of some of their most beloved menu items. And just like that, located in the heart of South Tucson, the legend of Mi Nidito was written in parchment and signed with presidential ink.
This historic location was founded in 1952 by Yolanda and Ernesto Lopez, and after nearly 70 years, remains under the management and care of the Lopez family to this day.
The old tale goes that Yolanda wanted to open a restaurant while Ernesto was determined to start a tortilla factory instead (while we lament not knowing a world where Mi Nidito tortillas exist, we all can rejoice that Yolanda came out on top!). Current owner and fellow member of the Lopez family dynasty, Jimmy Lopez, has been working within his family’s restaurant since 1971.
Their menu, composed of tried-and-true recipes from Grandma Lopez, is famous for its straightforward approach to Sonoran-inspired Mexican dishes.
Take the previously mentioned President’s Plate, for example. It’s a superb sampler of some of their most famous menu options: a birria taco, chicken enchilada, beef tamale, bean tostada, and chile relleno. From the simultaneous crispiness and gooeyness of the chile relleno to the tender and tasty birria to the savory beef tamale with perfectly prepared masa, each dish in this gargantuan spread brings unique flavor and texture to the meal.
Aside from these dishes, Mi Nidito has also garnered widespread acclaim for their margaritas, flautas, chimichangas, as well as their generous portion sizes.
As much as they appreciate their White House-inspired fame, owner Jimmy Lopez truly revels in the legacy that they’d established long before that fateful day. True to Mi Nidito’s name (which in Spanish translates to ‘my little nest’), this restaurant has long served as a special haven for the South Tucson community.
“We have guests and customers that have been coming to us for 20, 30 years,” Lopez remembers. “It’s amazing to see different generations of the same families that we’ve known for so long, some of them even since the '50s.”
This tradition of longstanding loyalty even transcends the patrons. “We have employees who have been working with us for decades. We have waitresses who have been with us for 30 years. Our house manager has been working for us for over 40 years,” Lopez says.
There’s an atmosphere around Mi Nidito that inspires more than just the occasional visit for some well-fried chile rellenos or a tasty margarita.
It’s not just the kind of place people visit simply because it was featured on the Food Network (but yes, that happened). It’s also the kind of place that would briefly go viral when a would-be robber was pummeled with a chair from behind and mobbed by both employees and customers alike (yes, that happened, too).
Mi Nidito is a place that thrives on the familial vibe given off by its employees while being echoed and reciprocated by its loyal customer fanbase. Regardless of how highly you rank it on your top choices for the best Mexican restaurants in town, Mi Nidito has paved a path for countless Tucson restaurants.
Mi Nidito holds a one-of-a-kind legacy in our city and the Old Pueblo is certainly better for it.
Mi Nidito is located at 1813 S. Fourth Ave. Operating hours are from 11 a.m. - 10:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays and from 11 a.m. - 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
For more information, call (520) 622-5081 or visit miniditorestaurant.com.