Carolina’s Mexican Food
Address: 1450 S. Country Club Drive, Mesa, AZ 85210. Number: 480-912-3420. Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Sundays.
When I was a kid waiting in a long line usually came with a big payoff that made the wait well worth it.
Roller coasters at Cedar Pointe in Sandusky, Ohio, pictures with Santa Claus at the mall and waiting for the gates to open at a sporting event.
It never felt as long as it actually was because the anticipation of the event seemingly made the time go faster.
It has changed a bit as an adult.
Waiting for anything now – traffic on the 101, lines at Disneyland, the express line at Safeway (15 items people!) – is enough to make this 46-year-old press-pass-wearing (it allows me to miss game traffic now) man antsy.
So, when I heard there were lines stretching out the door when Carolina’s opened in Mesa (Country Club Club Drive and the U.S. 60) in May, I decided to wait until the lines died down to see why this place has a cult-ish following.
When I did head there – four times over 10 days – I had that little kid anticipation return while perusing the menu in line.
Did it pay off in a big way like the old days?
There was such a build up to the opening, based on the original and iconic restaurant that opened in 1968 in Phoenix before moving to its current location in 1986, I couldn’t wait to finally sit down at Carolina’s and try one of the flour tortillas that are freshly made daily.
Ask anyone in line, at a table or heading out the door with a to-go order and they all mention the flour tortilla.
The texture is the first thing you notice. So light, soft and just the right amount of chewiness. The taste is there but it is more of a vessel for the goodness inside. You want to taste the tortilla but it should be more of an undertone.
We ordered the green chicken burrito and the bean and cheese burrito, and both were very good, but the one issue was the fact that the tortilla was so soft and tender that the contents blew out the bottom as we were eating them.
Maybe it was just bad luck, user error and those two – bought on different days – were the rare occasion and the tortilla usually holds up throughout the dining experience.
It didn’t stop us from sopping up the contents with a fork or chips, but it is a bit of inconvenience especially if you get it to go and plan on eating on the run.
The green burrito was terrific.
The contents reminded me of the goodness and warmth you get with a great homemade chicken soup. It just does the body good. The warmth and earthiness of the chicken is a welcoming taste and will be a must order every time I walk through the doors.
The bean and cheese burro was satisfying but not one of my favorites on any menu.
The flautas, we had both chicken and beefs, were light and tasty and came with a side of sour cream and guac. Sometimes a deep-fried tortilla has that heavy oil taste. Certainly not the case here. It came with chopped lettuce, cheese and tomatoes, which always confuses me because it’s not like you can add it in the small, fried rolled up tacos.
Next up was the machaca hard taco and the chicken soft taco. Machaca is a dried meat with a ton of seasoning, and then rehydrated with tomatoes, onions and more seasoning.
The process works, and then throwing it in a crispy, yet chewy hard taco along with cheese and lettuce, makes it one of those must orders as well. After seeing those around me do it I added the homemade salsa, which is readily available for free, for an even better experience.
The chicken soft taco is solid, and served on a corn tortilla, which is one of the better corn-based tortillas I’ve had. It doesn’t get the hype of the flour tortilla, but it is good as well.
The breakfast burrito – egg, machaca, potato and cheese – hit its mark and starts the day that way you want it with one of those famous tortillas. The potato was the star, and will be the focus on the next a.m. visit.
Each time we went we ordered the chips and salsa. We left with a lot of extra chips and the salsa was good, but one tone. They only have one version of salsa and it has a bit of a kick.
The enchilada sauce is another reason so many people have flocked to the family-owned business, but we left that for the next visit.
Maybe the best thing, other than the tortillas of course, is the price. Everything is priced reasonably and a family of four can get plenty to eat for $25.
Carolina’s largely lived up to the hype and checked off every box you want when entering an authentic Mexican eatery.
The only thing that might be disappointing for anyone who has been to the downtown location is the lack of character and ambiance that can be found at the Phoenix location created by Manuel and Carolina Valenzuela, who started the business in the 1950s when they were selling their food out of a car to field workers.
That might come with time at the Mesa location because the stuff coming out of the kitchen is already up to the standard that was set for so many years at Carolina’s.
Ratings: 4 pierogies out of 5.
(Weighted rankings: 80 percent food, 10 percent price, 10 percent service. Pierogi pays homage to Grandma Skoda, the best and pushiest cook I have ever known).