Small but Mighty

By Valerie Vinyard

Tiny restaurants exude an automatic charm.

Mestizos, a new Mexican café on St. Mary’s Road and Grande Avenue, is no exception.

The entire space is about 1,200 square feet. The restaurant’s four wood tables include an eight-seat community table, two tables for four and one for two. It possesses a charm that tends to elude larger spaces.

Six sizable square windows with black curtain trim offer views of St. Mary’s Road. White walls and one black-and-white tile wall lend a clean, polished look. It’s a brighter and more modern look from the location’s previous restaurant, Manna from Heaven, a fry bread spot. There’s also a patio out back that has eight tables that seat another 20 diners.

Made-to-order food and drinks come on black metal camp plates or in generous-sized metal mugs. While listening to boleros in the background, munch on chips and an addictive house-made salsa that has a subtle heat.

You’ll see either co-owner Julio Garcia or his mother, Patricia Valle, waiting tables, explaining dishes and offering friendly, helpful service.

“I like small places,” Garcia says. “You can serve people better, you can talk to people better.”

Garcia, 34, owns the restaurant with his sister, 32-year-old Patricia Gomez. They opened Mestizos on November 3. Garcia was thinking of naming it Latinos, but his sister came up with Mestizos. Garcia says the word means “a man of mixed race, especially of Spanish and indigenous descent.”

He sees himself in the name, too, describing himself as “90% Mexican because he lived in Mexico, but he was born here.” That’s also why they chose to decorate the restaurant in black and white.

He sees Mestizos as “a place where people can come and relax and enjoy good food. I want them to be more happy than when they came in.”

Garcia, who was born in Los Angeles but grew up in Nogales, Sonora, has over 10 years in the restaurant business, including stints as a server and manager at Mariscos Chihuahua and Casa Valencia on Valencia Road.

“We like food,” Garcia says. “We like Mexican food a lot.”

Some of the food at Mestizos isn’t found on many—if any—other Mexican restaurants’ menus around Tucson. Food prices range from $3 to $14.

On my first visit, I tried the Molletes ($5). A smoky black bean spread was slathered on two slabs of pillowy soft bolillo bread and topped with a generous amount of queso fresco and sprigs of cilantro. On Wednesdays, the dish is half-priced. I’ve never seen it featured on other menus, and it’s become my go-to starter.

“We wanted to bring the Mexican culture but in a different way than a traditional Mexican restaurant or a traditional Mexican food truck,” Garcia says.

Another special takes place on Mondays, when Mestizos features two-for-one fish tacos. For a mere $4.35 (including tax), diners will be delighted by two corn tortillas layered with melted cheese and full of chunks of gently fried swai. A side of pico de gallo, chopped lettuce and tomato and a scoop of white rice complete the dish. It’s tough to find a fresher, more delicious dish for the price.

The menu is also comprised of soups, including Siete del Mares ($14), and a variety of tacos ($3-$4). Garcia said the ahogado taco, a grilled shrimp taco with yellow peppers and onion, is a customer favorite, as are the restaurant’s vegan options. Tacos can be served on corn tortillas or Mestizos style, which resembles an empanada.

“We make it with love,” says Garcia, noting they go food shopping every day. “We put all the right ingredients, the freshest ingredients.”

For dessert, there’s Mexican cookie cake ($4), which is made with layers of galletas Maria. It has a cheesecake texture and contains a mix of Mexican sweet creams. There’s also flan ($4) for those seeking a more traditional dish.

When your bill comes, you’ll be treated to a tasty piece of tamarind or coconut candy. And remember, the restaurant is cash only.

“We’re not a fast-food restaurant,” Garcia says. “We’re a good food restaurant.”

Corina Ontiveros was dining at Mestizos one afternoon with her two daughters, 17-year-old Alexis and 10-year-old Elis.

“We love the food, the service,” says Ontiveros, who has eaten at Mestizos a few times. “The people are really terrific here.”

Ontiveros recommended the “delicious” blue corn quesadilla ($4). She’s also a fan of the picadillo taco, because it has “the right combination of spices.”

She works and lives nearby, but she also likes the price point.

“It costs about the same as a meal you’d get at a fast food restaurant,” she says. “But the food is so much better.”