Topopo salad

Accompanied by a frozen margarita, the topopo salad comes presented as a mound of chopped chicken shreds, piles of marinated lettuce, peas, beans, and carrots, and is surrounded by columns of cheese, avocado slices and tomatoes.

Lori Mervin/The Explorer

Mexican food is a defining part of Tucson culture. Various recipes have been developing here for hundreds of years and it arguably exists as a dominant food genre for restaurants. My family and I have been going to a little place on 4th Avenue since I was a little girl, and it continues to be a local favorite. If you haven’t heard of Mi Nidito, you probably shouldn’t consider yourself a true Tucsonan.

Serving Mexican food since 1952, Mi Nidito has expanded from a single dining room into a full-fledged restaurant. Just like its size, its popularity has also increased over the years, and an important thing to know before venturing out to South Tucson is that Mi Nidito does not accept reservations, and there is always a line. Always. However, a typical thing to do during the 25-or-so minute wait is to grab a margarita along with the masses. I recommend the frozen, tangy, tamarindo flavor, which is described as “the fruit of Mexico.”

Once seated, you will find yourself enmeshed in a somewhat cheesy display of fake palm trees, festive murals, elaborate floral decorations and bright, striped booths. Nonetheless, the décor actually works in this space, and at this point you will probably be too focused on the chips and salsa to really notice it.

The menu is divided into countless categories—appetizers, tacos, burros, tostadas, enchiladas, tamales, flautas, soups, chimichangas, salads and combination plates—giving the diner plenty of options. If coming with a large party, start with a tostada. It can be prepared a number of ways and ranges in price from $2.95 (butter only) to $10.95 (cheese with carne seca, which means dried beef).

Navigating the rest of the menu really depends on your hunger level. On a most recent visit, my guests and I came in the middle of the day with ravenous appetites. We ordered with the intent on not being able to eat for the remainder of the day.

My aunt ordered the chicken topopo salad, which is similar to a bean tostada except there are more ingredients and no beans. It arrives in the form of a miniature mound—a round tortilla base is stacked with finely chopped chicken shreds, piles of marinated lettuce, peas, beans, and carrots, and is surrounded by columns of cheese, avocado slices and tomatoes. For only $7.65, the topopo salad is a great choice especially for a lighter Mexican food treat.

My mom opted for the flautas ($7.95), which are two enormous fried corn tortillas that are stuffed with shredded beef or chicken and topped with sour cream and guacamole. This dish is notable because of its diverse textures—a crunchy exterior with a warm, soft center, coated with a creamy, velvety finish. Flautas are oftentimes referred to as taquitos, but the key difference is that while taquitos tend to be slender, Mi Nidito’s flautas are muy grande, and can keep you full for an entire day.

The flat enchiladas are my personal favorite; never in my life have I found enchiladas prepared this way. The dish is a simple concoction of corn masa, which is shaped into flat discs, fried, and topped with a red chile sauce and layers of melted cheese. Three come in an order, but I’m never able to finish two. Even so, this never prevents me from ordering a side of refried beans. They are also a must have on every trip, as they are topped with freshly grated Mexican cheese.

These three dishes are more than enough for three people, however, we also ordered a chile relleno. Voted “Best Chile Relleno” by Tucson Weekly, I’ve been intending to give it a try for quite some time. Mi Nidito’s interpretation consists of a large poblano pepper filled with cheese, and a lightly battered exterior. The pepper is then fried and served. This is a decadent treat, one that I will order again.

Mi Nidito has catered to many famous guests over the years including former President Bill Clinton. On the menu in his honor exists the exact combination he sampled during his visit. While Mi Nidito is clearly proud to have served a long list of distinguished guests over the years, it really is an understated, family owned operation that contains arguably the best Mexican food in town.

Mi Nidito

1813 S. 4th Avenue, 622-5081

Rating: ★★★★

Recommended Dishes: Flat Enchiladas, Chile Relleno, Flautas, Tostadas

Price Range: Appetizers, $2.95 to $10.95; Tacos $4.95 to $6.75; Burros, $5.90 to $7.75; Enchiladas, $6.95 to $7.75; Chimichangas, $5.95 to $8.95; Combination Plates, $8.50 to $12.75

What the stars mean: Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s response to the food, ambience, and service. Prices are taken into consideration.

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