Hours: Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Atmosphere: Unpretentious and casual; perfect for the family.
Price range: $1.50 kid's platter to $6.75 special dinners.
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express. Personal checks accepted.
Special facilities: Highchairs and booster seats, wheelchair accessible, free parking, catering, carryout, grocery supplies and vegetarian dishes.
To the eye, it's a bland, almost boring restaurant of 120 seats, with blond unfinished wood on the walls, burlap bags hanging haphazardly, and too much lighting. The place conjures up images of a warehouse or at least an American Legion Post up in Maine by the Canadian border: wooden, obvious and dull.
But once you get past the visual messages and surrender to the tastes, textures and forms of the kitchen, the Tortilla Factory can charm the socks right off the hungry diner.
So it seemed recently when our two children, a neighbor and my wife and I stalked in seriously in need of nourishment. Friends recommended the place but had not bothered to give us much information on the food. Nor did the menu, which beyond listing the fare gave scarcely a clue of the hidden delights in this clean house.
Happily, a chatty waitress was filled to overflowing with the lore, fact and promise of the Tortilla Factory, and what she lacked in alacrity was more than made up for by enthusiasm and an unceasing desire to please her customers.
The essential fact is that the Tortilla Factory is an expression of Mexican cuisine as practiced in southern Arizona. The owners, in fact, once worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs there, and when they opened up this restaurant five years ago, the recipes and menu selections came directly from their experiences in Arizona.
Frankly, it takes a bit of getting used to for those of us familiar with the homogenized East Coast version of Mexican food. The menudo, for example, never appeared on any menu we've seen here or on trips to Texas or Mexico. Yet this marvelous soup ($1.75) is a stirring creation of tripe and vegetables in a savory broth.
But probably the biggest difference in the Arizona Indian-Mexican vision of eating is in the cooking. The Tortilla Factory uses light cottonseed oil in place of the heavy vegetable oils found in practically every restaurant we've been in. The oil carries flavors differently. It is light and leaves so little residue when it cooks that one can prepare thinner, more delicately crafted things with it.
The first thing I noticed about this cooking was the little tostados appetizers waiting for us when we came to the table. They were light and thin, very different from the thick crunchy ones we're used to. Obviously the oil here allows the cook to grind his flour much finer and roll the sheets of dough thinner. Very nice.
There are other surprises at the Tortilla Factory. Many of the specialties include large portions of finely shredded meats--pork primarily, with beef and chicken, too--cooked in vegetables and spices. The chimichanga ($4.75), for example, is a pungently spiced shredded pork burrito deep-fried and served over rice, beans and guacamole--an incredible amount of food for the price and very interesting to the palate.
Kids get a break at the Factory, which had children's dinners in the $1.50 to $1.75 range. The cheese enchilada was more than enough for the 4-year-old, while big sister's adult portion of chicken enchilada ($4.50) was very acceptable and so big that half of it went home in a "bolsa para sobras"--doggie bag.
We found the food at the Tortilla Factory challenging and interesting, a bargain at the prices asked, with ice-cold beer and a lovely fruity sangria. On the dark side, some of the dishes were not hot enough and had to be sent back to the kitchen. Yet our family voted overwhelmingly on the ride home to make the Tortilla Factory a permanent addition to our family collection of restaurants.
The bill for our party of four, including soft drinks, wine, beer, tax and tip, came to $52.19.