Los Olivos Mexican Patio
7328 E. Second Street, Scottsdale
Second location: 15544 N. Pima Road, Scottsdale,
It’s become fashionable, in recent years, to put down old school AZ-Mex restaurants — the kind of places that make a burrito the size of your arm and drape just about everything in a melt of gooey cheddar cheese. But I’ve lived here most of my life, and I was weaned on sour cream enchiladas and hard shell tacos. So you’re not ever going to hear me complaining about Mexican food the way it’s been served in this state for the past 60 years. There’s tradition in these dishes too, and our long-running AZ-Mex restaurants deserve the same respect as the trendy spots offering authentic regional specialties from south of the border.
So let me step off my soapbox and tell you about a restaurant I’ve been visiting since I was a kid. It’s Los Olivos in Old Town Scottsdale, named for the olive trees Winfield Scott (the founder of Scottsdale) planted in the late 1800’s. Although the place has been expanded and updated a bit over the years, it’s still dim and creaky and atmospheric, and it’s still owned and operated by the descendents of Tomas and Cecilia Corral, who built the original adobe building in the 20s. Their son Alvaro opened a restaurant on the site in 1948.
The interior is a cozy web of connecting rooms and somewhere in there — I think it’s part of the super-narrow, low-ceilinged dining alcove I favor — are the walls of the original adobe building, which was used as a pool hall and also a gathering place for church services back in the day.
How do I love this historic old place? Let me count the ways, starting with house-made flour tortillas, cranked out by Dora Valenzuela for nearly 30 years. They’re ultra-thin, soft and wonderfully pliable and they make a great mop for the steak picado, one of my favorite dishes on the menu. Think of it as a thick, tomato-based stew, offering up chunks of tender beef, onion and peppers, slow-cooked with cumin and jalapeños. Depending on the day, it can be reasonably mild or leave your tongue glowing. Sided with fluffy Mexican-style rice and creamy, cheese-topped refrieds, it’s always comfortus maximus for me.
My other go-to is a combo plate containing a sour cream enchilada (topped with a generous dollop of sour cream and positively oozing with cheese) and glistening green corn tamale that’s all sweetness and fluff.
I drop in for the dirt-cheap happy hour at the bar at least twice a month, ordering a Mexican beer and a cheese crisp, which, I swear, is the best in the state, thanks to Dora and her amazing tortillas. Topped with plenty of cheese (probably a mix of cheddar and Monterey Jack), the cheese crisps come out of the broiler so crisp and flaky they almost resemble pastry dough. Fantastic!
I also love the mini beef tacos, six to an order, served in hard shells with a generous sprinkle of lettuce, tomato and grated cheese. At happy hour, they’re just five dollars.
The menu is huge, offering everything from albondigas soup and shrimp al mojo de ajo to nachos and a burger (for the tourists who show up in droves this time of year). Expect to pay about $12-$15 for an entrée. Not cheap, but you’re in the heart of Scottsdale, after all. And I’m guessing you won’t leave dissatisfied or remotely hungry. I never do.