Citizen Staff Writer
Story by TOM STAUFFER and DINA L. DOOLEN
NOGALES, SON. – They make visitors feel pretty special here.
Walk by a shop, pharmacy or cafe, and barkers shower you with friendly greetings:
“You made it! We’ve been waiting for you!”
“Free tequila today!”
Our personal favorite: “We got a lot of good junk – I mean – stuff!”
They really don’t need to try as hard as they do at the scores of restaurants in the main shopping district along and between avenidas Obregón and Adolfo Lopez Mateos, but we weren’t complaining.
We stopped short of sampling the fare of the numerous street vendors, but we ate our way up, down and around the main drag of Obregón one recent weekday. At every stop, service was exceedingly prompt and friendly, prices were low, low, low and the food, which varies considerably from door to door, was consistently fresh, abundant and delicious.
Perhaps only pharmacies are as ubiquitous as places to eat in this city of 150,000 to 300,000 (depending on the official source), about an hour’s drive south of Tucson on Interstate 19.
For some, half the fun of the trip is self-discovery: ducking in and out of cafes, sizing up the fare, menus and customers, and deciding just how adventurous you want to be.
Others stick with just eateries that have earned the seal of approval from their trusted sources.
Whoever you are, we offer, over the next three pages, a cheat sheet of places locals and regular visitors consistently lauded. Most are within easy walking distance of the main shopping district, which is about the size of the downtown Tucson loop of Congress Street and Broadway between Hotel Congress and the federal courthouse.
From the posh, celebrity-attracting surroundings at Elvira’s and La Roca to the modest but equally popular Leo’s, the city is full of great eateries that will have you well-stuffed by the time you head back across the border with your curios and assorted junk – we mean – stuff.
Crossing the border
• You don’t need a passport to reenter the U.S., yet. New requirements take effect next year. You do need a valid government-issued I.D.
• Weekends, you may spend up to an hour waiting to reenter the U.S. Weekday waits are much shorter. (We took a couple minutes getting through at 5:15 p.m. on a Thursday.)
• Professional guides due south of the international border crossing at Grand Avenue, which becomes Avenida Adolfo Lopez Mateos, can take you to a specific destination for a buck or two.
• If you’re headed to La Roca Restaurant Bar, DON’T go by cab, which will take you on a long loop south then back north on Avenida Ruiz Cortinez. Instead, take Calle Campillo east across avenidas Adolfo Lopez Mateos and P. Elias Calles, the railroad tracks, then Cortinez directly to its intersection with Calle Elias, a little to the south.
• Unless you have to, don’t drive across the border. Park at any of several lots in Nogales, Ariz., – most charge $4 a day – and walk across.
• If you must drive, be aware that lots of street work is going on at the south end of the main shopping district. Traffic creeps along, even on weekday off hours, especially around the plazas. Finding parking in the area can be difficult.
• You don’t need to exchange currency. Even if the menu is in pesos, restaurants accept dollars and give change in dollars, though some coins may be pesos. Some menus list prices in dollars.
• The exchange rate is about 11 pesos (10.899) per dollar.
Taste of THE Border
ELVIRA’S RESTAURANT BAR 1 Calle Obregón, 011-52-631-312-4773 or (520) 980-5140
Details: Open since 1927; excellent food and service and beautiful indoor and outdoor dining. A waiter will bring free shots of silky-smooth Arrette brand blanco tequila to your table with complimentary salsa and chips before you even sit down. Plus, the margaritas are made from real juice – no mix. Accepts major credit cards.
LA ROCA RESTAURANT BAR 91 Calle Elias, 011-52-631-312-0760, larocarestaurant.com
Details: Open since 1972; knowledgeable, top-shelf, tuxedoed servers; huge menu and great interior. Accepts major credit cards. See our fine dining review, Page 8.
LA HACIENDA EL CABALLO ROJO 142 Calle Obregón
Details: For those reluctant to get too authentic and rustic, this restaurant on the first floor of the former El Cid Hotel (the sign still is on the building) offers a look and menu not unlike American restaurants, with lots of steak, chicken and shrimp. Locals simply call it “Caballo Rojo,” the red horse.
CAFE AJIJIC 182 Calle Obregón, 011-52-631-312-5074
Details: Named after the town of Ajijic (pronounced Ah-hee-HEEK’) near the central Mexico city of Guadalajara this eatery is expansive and attractive and has an streetside patio; it serves Jalisco-style fare and a variety of coffee and espresso drinks. House specialities include Sabana Ajijic, steak with melted cheese and chipotle.
LEO’S CAFE Southwest corner of Obregón and Calle Campillo, 011-52-631-312-2000 and 011-52-631-312-2201
Details: Yes, it’s obvious they cut up old tortillas and fry them for their chips and salsa. It doesn’t matter; they’re excellent. Citizen border reporter Claudine LoMonaco raves about the salsa (left). So do we. This inexpensive eatery also serves fish tacos ($1 each) and Coke in old-style bottles.
OLGA’S RESTAURANT BAR On Avenida Juarez, just north of Campillo
Details: Not to be confused with the eatery up the street at Hotel Olga or “Olga’s” a block or so away. A friendly, modest place serving an excellent, generous acadero cheese-filled quesadilla, small triangles circling refried beans topped with queso fresco. Two employees – a snazzily attired waiter and an apron-clad cook – bickered over who would get to wait on us. Both basically did. Bully for us.
PANCHO’S MALL RESTAURANT CAFE AND BAR Northeast corner of Obregón and Campillo, catty-cornered from Leo’s
Details: It looks as if it probably does a lot more business selling booze to American college kids than food to day shoppers – plus it’s open till 3 a.m. Milanesa ($7.95), thin breaded steak, is one of its specialties.
“OLGA’S” On Calle Ochoa between Obregón and Avenida Adolfo Lopez Mateos
Details: This tiny, family-run eatery is a favorite of Citizen Business Editor and former border reporter Gabriella Rico.
HIT THE ROAD
These restaurants aren’t within walking distance of the international border, but locals highly recommend them if you’re driving or taking a cab. All are on the way to the brand-spankin’ new (opened in August) Nogales Mall, a couple of miles south of the border, near the intersection of boulevards El Greco and Luis Donaldo Colosio.
EL MARCOS 26 Boulevard El Greco, 011-52-631-313-8080
LAS HERRADURAS RESTAURANT 110-A Boulevard Ignacio De La Torre, 011-52-631-313-7513
LAS BRASAS RESTAURANT 101 Maclovio Herrera, 011-52-631-313-5754
RESTAURANT MEXICO LINDO 1907 Avenida Adolfo Ruiz Cortinez, 011-52-631-313-7755
ALSO KEEP IN MIND
• The city has lots of Chinese restaurants. Locals said to try Restaurante Tai Wah, 323 San Martin.
• Like Cafe Ajijic, Mulatto’s Cafe on Calle Aquirre just west of Avenida Adolfo Lopez Mateos serves espresso drinks.
• Give in to the allure of the panaderías, or bakeries, whose front windows often double as their display cases with everything from empanadas (filled pastries) to pan dulces (sweet breads).
• If you’re taking a cab to Nogales Mall, the fare should come to about $7, but not exceed $10.
• You don’t have to speak Spanish.
• Sonora’s health department regularly inspects restaurants. Plus, most restaurants serve bottled, purified water.
• At 3,675 feet elevation, it’s a bit cooler there.
Note: Phone numbers included when available; addresses included when apparent from street – most aren’t
1. Olga’s Restaurant Bar
2. Elvira’s Restaurant Bar
3. Pancho’s Mall Restaurant Cafe Bar
4. Leo’s Cafe
5. La Hacienda el Caballo Rojo
6. Cafe Ajijic
7. La Roca Restaurant Bar
8. Restaurant Tai Wah
9. Restaurants and vendors on Plaza between calles Campillo and Pierson
11. Vendors in plaza at Calle Diaz and Avenida Adolfo Lopez Mateos
12. Vendors in plaza at Calle Torres and avenidas Obregón and Lopez Mateos
13. To Restaurant Mexico Lindo, El Marcos, Las Herraduras Restaurant and Nogales Mall (all near boulevards El Greco and Luis Donaldo Colosio)