Jorge Cota and Meliza Miranda had no plans to open a Mexican restaurant with a reduced menu and a small staff amid a pandemic.
I didn’t expect to find myself sitting cross-legged in the back of an SUV with the tailgate up, repositioning and styling takeaways while collecting photos and tasting notes.
But here we are, at opposite ends of the same parking lot in Peoria, socially distant and trying to do our job.
Cota and Miranda marked the “virtual grand opening” of Mochilero Kitchen on April 8. It’s hard not to feel like the sibling team – like others who have launched restaurants in the past two months – have been denied the birthday celebration they should have had. It’s a small sacrifice in the grand scheme of things, but hopefully they end up getting the opening fanfare and the chance to do their best.
In the meantime, hordes of crouching Phoenicians who have long abandoned themselves to home breakfast meat and cereals seem, from my anecdotal observations, to be turning more and more to take-out as the exhaustion of the kitchen sets in.
All this to say that if you are looking for something in Peoria, against all odds, there is a new address to discover.
What to expect on the taco menu
The table service being closed, Mochilero has adopted the new restaurant format of our time. A few clicks on the restaurant’s website trigger an email and a confirmation SMS with the ETA of your order. You can go in and pick it up or park at the restaurant for a safe deposit.
Originally billed as regional Mexican cuisine featuring dishes from across the country, a scaled-down (and understandably) launch offers Mochilero something of a familiar take-out menu – a handful of main ingredients wrapped, folded, or mixed in. a handful of formats, skipping the lard and vegetable oil from your local taquero in favor of more suburban favorites like organic rice oil and extra virgin olive oil.
Tacos, as you might expect, are the most direct line to Mochilero’s work.
The chicken pibil – boneless, skinless breast cubed mixed with a very tame achiote sauce – isn’t the strongest of the bunch, but the grated short rib makes a strong and robust base for the minced cabbage and melon radish. water, and carnitas mixed with salsa verde and fresh the orange has gnarled, caramelized edges.
The shrimp diablo taco features three plump specimens buried in shredded cabbage and a relish of pickled corn and chopped shishito peppers. And those looking for even more crunch should enjoy papa brava crujiente taco – a Yukon Golds puree folded into a crisp, golden fried shell.
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Don’t skip the campechana
The same ingredients are found in different models.
Protein can play a supporting role, wrapped in tasty enchiladas on a single bed of white rice and black beans or tossed into a bowl with a handful of romaine and a dusting of cotija.
Burritos – less Sonora, more San Francisco – are big foil-wrapped whoppers loaded with rice and beans, but here the veg gets the same time. I trim pieces of roasted sweet potato, shredded cabbage, and minced shishitos while working from start to finish.
My favorite dish on the menu, to my surprise, is campechana. It’s all shrimp – no seafood mix – and it’s a rather sweet and ketchupy variety, but on a hot Phoenix afternoon in the back of an open car it’s brilliant. and frosty and contains a nice kick of spice.
“We are all doing our best”
As I put away a dirty crate of dishes and pull myself out with a squeak and scowl from part of the car built for groceries and bags of books, the gravity of how much I miss restaurants begins to set in.
My main work is based on the first world of problems: figuring out which of the multitude of ways we could feed ourselves is the most delicious and the most entertaining. It hardly makes the list of important things, even when the world hasn’t been turned upside down. Yet I am unable to suppress a sense of loss, not for the food itself, but for the community, the spirit, the hospitality, and the art that feel so much further than six feet away.
Right now we’re all doing our best just to manage.
Sooner, later I can not say. But I look forward to the time when we have the chance to do so much more than that again.
Details: 6791 W. Happy Valley Road, Peoria. 623-440-5588, mochilerokitchen.com.
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