Moving into a location that has previously housed popular restaurants isn’t always the easiest task. The southeast corner of Grant Road is an interesting plot. There’s some food around, sure, but there are also books, antiques, hardware, and a car wash, meaning the anchor of who to actually visit can vary. This is not a discouragement at all. This is an introduction to a new restaurant that, as word gets out, could be that anchor.
Ajuua opened up rather quietly in September 2022 with a slight dither as to what it actually was. Because what does ajuua mean anyway? Perhaps it’s a family name or maybe an object of some historic significance.
There is an image of a brightly painted sugar skull on the side — could be an art gallery. A pilates studio? No, because it definitely says “Mexican Restaurant” under the name.
Walking into Ajuua is akin to walking into a quiet casita where the environment is most welcoming.
There is nothing overdone or a passive understatement of décor and seating setups. It’s just nice. Natural light beams in from a corner window and Tejano music plays at a reasonable volume from a small television, giving the room a feeling that, yes, you are indeed visiting a Mexican restaurant (as advertised on the signage outside).
The menu is pleasant and familiar; street tacos, burritos, enchiladas, stuff that you would most likely expect and anticipate from an eatery featuring images of Frida Kahlo on its walls.
But then there’s breakfast. Chilaquiles, huevos rancheros, chorizo, and chicharrons in salsa verde. This changes things a bit. Of course, many defined and refined Mexican restaurants in our fair town serve delicious breakfasts but not all of them do so with hotcakes, waffles, and French toast.
Sometimes you’re not feeling a pollo burrito at lunch or dinner. Occasionally you need scrambled eggs and machaca. Sometimes a restaurant comes along and does things right. It looks as if Ajuua is doing such things.
If you hang out long enough you will find that Ajuua keeps it all within the family. Owners Maria and Ramon Avitia hail from the Sinaloan cities of Costa Rica and Culiacan respectively and have called Tucson home for almost 30 years.
Although, during those years the two have traveled back and forth between Mexico and Southern Arizona for various reasons. None of it was restaurant-related because until a few short months ago, they hadn’t been in the industry. However, Maria and Ramon are big-time cooks, growing up with parents and grandparents that were also big-time cooks. So, the skills to play the plancha like a sinfonía runs in the blood.
Sons and daughters man the front, wash the dishes, prep the food, and sometimes cook alongside mama and papa — adding a new wholesomeness to the place.
As you settle in and place your order, hand-cut chips, and fresh homemade salsa makes their way to your table and tongue. It’s a perfectly tasty way to get everything ready for what is about to come.
Ajuua has a plentiful seafood section on its menu and I highly recommend their Campechana Ajuua. Not just your average seafood cocktail, their namesake version invites octopus, shrimp, scallops, ceviche, and abulón (AKA abalone) into the mix.
It’s served in a heaving heavy goblet any hungry seafarin’ desperado would consider a vessel. Be it ship or cup, the spice, crunch, and use of ocean morsels are some of the best I’ve had in a landlocked burg.
This makes me even more excited to sample their menudo, which is only available on Saturday and Sunday. Now, that is what I consider a breakfast of champions — a steamy bowl of spicy menudo enjoyed on their back patio to usher in the weekend. Si por favor!
Why I love where I live is because tacos and burritos are my straight-up weakness. It doesn’t matter if they arrive via a rusty cart on the side of the road or at a multi-starred bistro, a good taco or burrito is just that.
Wet burritos are sometimes a useful tactic when the interior is dry and subpar, but here at Ajuua, that coating, although lovely, doesn’t really need to be utilized. I am so glad it is, though. Everything wrapped tight in a fresh tortilla is so juicy and delicious that the “wetness” addition only adds more addictiveness to a hearty and well-balanced dish.
In 2023, owning and operating a Mexican eatery without birria is akin to owning and operating a winery without grapes. Birria is just so hot right now — so hot!
The birria tacos that made their way to the table did not disappoint. Ajuua even considers their tacos as a side dish. Feel free to order some taco appetizers to make a plate of flavors all inspired by Maria and Ramon’s home quarters of Sinaloa.
Next time I go back I am getting the ribeye steak. Having observed it being cooked for another patron, the size was not only eye-popping but the secret blend of seasoning being carefully pinched over the prime cut made me insanely curious.
This all occurred as I tucked into the Camarones Culichi. Look, if there is seafood to be had, and Maria and Ramon’s son Jason telling me I need to try more seafood, I am going to try more seafood.
The Camarones Culichi is a bevy of meaty Gulf shrimp bathed in a fiery green salsa. The potency and focus of the flavors and textures astound on such an elementary plane. Those who doubt the validity of ocean-harvested glory fare served in the desert can clam up for a jiff and let it all sink in.
Plus, it is so nice to look at. All of those deep greens and pinks. Sort of like an ‘80s prom with a glam metal theme but for your mouth and without the hairspray.
Seafood. Anchor. There’s the connection.
The Avitia family is sailing us all into a delectable territory and we all just need to buy a ticket and enjoy the ride. That location may have harbored a fleet of other concepts but with food, this honest and true, it's most likely Ajuua has found a longtime port of call.
Before leaving, I had to ask what Ajuua means, who it is, or what it was.
“Celebration,” said Jason. “It’s like yelling hooray! Where my mom and dad come from in Sinaloa, it’s a way of expressing joy.”
Now that makes sense and is something we can all get on board about.
Ajuua Mexican Restaurant is open 9 a.m. - 9 p.m. on Monday - Saturday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. on Sunday, and located at 2310 N. Country Club Rd. For more information, call (520) 323-4268 and follow Ajuua on Facebook.
Mark Whittaker began his journalism career in San Francisco around 1997. It was for a small Northern California music magazine...