For Tucsonans of a certain age, the word “Crossroads” evokes one or both of two things. It could be Eric Clapton on guitar (you’re welcome for the earworm). Or it might be childhood days spent in the historic restaurant in South Tucson that’s still rockin’ out classic Sonoran-style food every single day.
The first question everyone who hasn’t been to Crossroads Restaurant for a while asks is whether the drive-in is still operational. Nope. Matter of fact, a lot has changed since Crossroads opened its doors in 1936. For example, it was originally an American-style restaurant serving mostly hamburgers. Framed photos hung throughout the eatery chronicle its long history, as does a giant interior wall mural.
Nowadays, you can expect quintessential examples of Sonoran-style cuisine from owner Aracely Gonzalez and her family. Gonzalez’s in-laws acquired the restaurant in 2001, and she took it over in 2003, keeping South Tucson’s oldest woman-operated restaurant fresh for 16 years, so far.
Gonzalez grew up cooking with her grandmother in Caborca, Sonora, Mexico and noted that the highest compliment she ever gets from a guest is that her food tastes like their own abuela’s.
She and her kitchen team make just about everything from scratch in-house, down to the enchilada sauce.
“Nothing’s from a powder, a can, or a jar,” she said. The very basics of a Sonoran-style eatery, Gonzalez explained, are that “you have to have good salsa, beans, and tortillas.” That, they do.
Name a contemporary Sonoran dish and it’s probably on the menu. Plus, there’s a full bar.
Every regular has their favorite item, from the nopalitos to the carne seca to the flat enchiladas. Vegetarians are also provided an extensive selection, most of which can be made vegan, like the new Zucchini Fajitas.
If it's seafood you're after, Crossroads offers an especially vast menu of fresh seafood, including ceviches, campechana, oysters, and pargo frito — the kitchen’s special preparation of whole fried red snapper.
With such a generous menu, Crossroads isn’t famous for any singular dish, except maybe Gonzalez’s salsa, which has taken first place at the Southern Arizona Arts and Cultural Alliance (SAACA)-sponsored annual Salsa, Tequila and Taco challenge in previous years, according to Gonzalez. But Gonzalez and her family don’t just stick with the blue-ribbon tried-and-true; they enjoy changing things up.
Crossroads’ stellar buffet changes daily. Available from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., it offers rotational breakfast and lunch standards like chilaquiles, huevos rancheros, quesadillas, mini chimichangas, menudo, birria, beans and rice, along with, as of two years ago, their pork pozole.
“It was so popular on the menu that we wanted more people to enjoy it,” Gonzalez said of the rich soup.
The Sunday buffet features bottomless chiles rellenos - an option that is perhaps unique among local Mexican restaurants due to the labor involved in making them in such quantity, and the difficulty of keeping them from sogging up in a chafing dish.
“Every day the buffet features different things,” Gonzalez said. “We don’t want regulars to get bored.”
They don’t. Customers line up for it, especially on weekend mornings, just as they have for decades.
At only 16 years old, Gonzalez’s son Cesar manages the buffet. Young Cesar is already committed to keeping his family restaurant simultaneously traditional and innovative, his mother noted. Gonzalez said that she senses that of her four children, each of whom grew up in the kitchen from infancy, Cesar is probably the most inclined to take over the business.
Crossroads should be equally recognized for their happy hour. From 3 to 6 p.m. every day except Saturdays, they pour Sauza margaritas for only $3 and 12-ounce draft beers for $1.50.
As an international business-majoring college graduate who’s lived in big cities in Mexico, Canada, and the US, Gonzalez realizes that her incredibly inexpensive happy hour might operate at a loss. But there’s a method to her madness, and she’s certainly savvy to consumer trends. That’s why four years ago she diversified Crossroads’ reach, evolving it from merely a lively sit-down bar and family restaurant by adding an ever-expanding catering component.
“Catering events give us exposure that we otherwise wouldn’t get, and draw people to the brick-and-mortar,” Gonzalez said. “That’s why we’re ramping that up.” They cater to large and small groups from corporate luncheons to backyard weddings.
They’ve also begun delivering through DoorDash, which generates a slew of to-go orders, representing a whole new system of prioritization that can at first throw a rod in a kitchen’s tight rhythm.
“But everybody’s doing delivery now, so we have to keep current,” Gonzalez said.
Whether you eat in the quaintly decorated, tiled, vintage Crossroads restaurant, listening to the seemingly ever-present live mariachi band, or opt to stay home and beckon delivery instead, several menu items stand out for consideration.
Crossroads’ deep bowl of Posole is served either with a buttery, soft, toasted pan billote or with the flour tortillas that Gonzalez imports from Sonora. (She just can’t find the flavor and texture that she prefers here in Tucson, she said, and for what it’s worth, they are mighty delicious. And huge.) The meaty pozole is made with three cuts of pork: rib, shoulder, and neckbone in a savory broth with just enough hominy to thicken and flavor the stew.
Lengua Ranchera — fear not the tongue; it doesn’t taste like it’s tasting you back! Plentiful diced lean beef is served ranchero style with onions, tomatoes, and peppers. It’s relatively common to find lengua tacos and sometimes even burros in this neck of the woods, but the sauteed entree preparation appears to be unique among Tucson restaurants.
“People from Boston, all over, come to Crossroads just for the lengua,” Gonzalez noted.
Another dish unavailable anywhere else is Chiles Crossroads: two giant Anaheim chiles stuffed with shrimp all wrapped in bacon and garnished with cheese. The use of roasted Anaheims adds complexity to Gonzalez’s take on chiles toreados, which in Sonora are typically made with jalapeños.
At the request of customers from around the country, and well aware of the need to stay en trend, Gonzalez added a Sonoran Hot Dog three years ago. “Ever since the UNESCO [designation], people have been asking for them,” she noted. She added that Crossroads is part of Tucson 23, so it’s expected that they have a Sonoran dog.
Not to say that the vegetarian Tacos Aztecas is entirely healthy, but it's definitely not greasy. These are potato tacos, deep-fried and yet surprisingly light served with rice and beans.
The rice, as a side, has become a contentious topic. After catering for a while, Gonzalez thought the rice looked a little sad and started garnishing it with dots of green beans, carrots, and peas that she scatters on top - a traditional Sonoran preparation of Mexican rice.
“Half the people love it, and half the people push it off to the side in a little pile. I mean, it’s only a little bit of vegetables,” she laughed.
You can decide for yourself which side of the rice debate you’re on at Crossroads.
Crossroads Restaurant is located at 2602 S. Fourth Ave. They’re open Sunday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday until midnight.
For more information, visit crossroadsfinemexican.com.