As residents of San Diego, when we hear someone say they “ate at the best Mexican restaurant” in some state in the middle of the country, or even in the middle of California, we nod and smile, but we sometimes have our doubts about how good that Mexican food could have really been. With our close proximity to the Mexican border, we know what good Mexican food tastes like. We’ve also learned from our travels that while indeed there are some really good Mexican restaurants around the country, Mexican food is one of those ethnic foods that somehow loses its traditional and authentic flavors the farther away it is made from its homeland, and therefore there are a lot of bad Mexican restaurants. On a recent weekend trip to Yuma, a city also close to the Mexican-American border, we decided to take on the challenge of finding the best Mexican restaurants in Yuma. We ate at four and, while all were good, three of them made our list. These three Yuma Mexican restaurants are completely different from each other and special in their own ways.
El Buen Taquito
We drove from San Diego to Yuma on a Friday night after work. Since it’s only a two-and-a-half-hour drive, I always forget about that pesky time change. We arrived in town at 9:30 at night and El Buen Taquito is one of the few places open until 10:00. As we pulled into the parking lot, we were surprised to see that more than half the tables were filled and there was a line for takeaway orders.
El Buen Taquito started as a taco truck, but now has a storefront . . . sort of. It’s more of a taco truck with covered patio dining. The food is still cooked in the truck, but now there are waitresses to seat you and take your order. Metal café tables and chairs are on the patio, some under the roof and others in the open under umbrellas.
There are four items on the menu: flautas, tacos dorado (“folded” tacos), tostadas, and sopes. You can also order a cup of consommé. There are sodas, but also drink coolers filled with horchata and natural pineapple water.
While the menu is simple, they make these four items exceptionally well. I’m always amazed by how good a potato taco can be, and potato flautas are just as good, soft on the inside and super crunchy on the outside, with just the right ratio of potato and tortilla. The tacos and tostadas are also delightfully crunchy and the sopes are the perfect chewy texture. What puts these items over the top are the toppings of crunchy lettuce, tomato, a generous amount of queso fresco, and the surprising pop of flavor from the pickled cabbage. Add a squeeze of lemon and the vinegary salsa with a kick, and you’ve got a tasty and inexpensive meal.
The Chile Pepper and Mr. G’s
The Chile Pepper and Mr. G’s are a two-for-one as, even though they’re across town from each other, they have the same owners and the same menu. On our first visit to Yuma we stopped at The Chile Pepper because our friends who used to live in Yuma told us The Chile Pepper had THE BEST BEAN AND CHEESE BURRITOS EVER!
The Chile Pepper was opened in Yuma in 1954 by Juan and Bessie Gutierrez. In 1960, they opened La Casa Gutierrez, which has since closed, in their grandmother’s home. In 1963, they expanded again with Mr. G Drive-In. The restaurants are still owned by the Gutierrez family. The restaurants are fast food type restaurants where you stand in line, order your food, and pick it up when you’re number is called.
If you’re staying in or near downtown Yuma, The Chile Pepper is a bit of a drive and out of the way. Mr. G’s has the same menu and is much closer to Yuma’s historic downtown. Both restaurants have a big menu, but the bean and cheese burrito is a well-known staple of Yuma. Some say they can tell the difference between the burrito from The Chile Pepper and Mr. G’s, but they’re made from the same recipe of Grandma Gutierrez and if a difference can be told, it probably isn’t by the average tourist.
Duron’s El Zarape Grill
When you drive up to Duron’s El Zarape Grill and see the bright green stucco exterior, it just looks like the kind of Mexican restaurant you want to visit. Duron’s El Zarape Grill is a super casual Mexican eatery, but it is a sit-down restaurant with a full bar.
Duron’s El Zarape Grill opened in October 2012 and is family owned and run. Pancho Duron inherited his cooking skills from his mother Rosalia Ochoa, who grew up in the Sonoran region of Mexico. The menu features Sonoran cuisine and they proudly advertise that they use Certified Angus Beef and local produce.
The menu includes Mexican restaurant standards like burritos, tacos, and enchiladas, but Duron’s El Zarape Grill’s specialties are seafood, like shrimp and pulpo, and steak. I ordered the Arrachera Sonorense, which is a skirt steak with a cheese-stuffed California chili, charro beans, and grilled onions. The dish was very fresh, the steak was perfectly cooked without gristle or chewiness, and those beans! The charro beans were soupy and had flavor and heat. As Romeo knows I rarely finish a meal, he was greedily eyeing my beans the entire time, mentally willing me not to finish them so he could have the rest. Rome’s dish of carnitas and buche was also superb. We can’t wait to return to Yuma to try more Mexican restaurants to see if we can add to our list of the best Mexican restaurants in Yuma, but we’ll have a hard time as we’ll just want to return to these three great Mexican restaurants.