Old Familiar

Good old Los Olivos

Mmmmm. Cheese crisp.

Be honest. There’s probably a restaurant in your regular rotation that you never mention to your food-obsessed friends because liking it might weaken your credibility. It’s not the least bit trendy and that’s exactly what you like about it. It’s also reliable, comfortable and close to home. It’s your go-to, your standby, your old familiar.

In my former North Phoenix neighborhood (a restaurant wasteland), that place was Spinato’s, where my family ordered their thin-crust pizza (topped with our special combo of meatball, green olive and banana peppers with extra sauce) nearly once a week.

Now that I live in Scottsdale again, I’ve happily slipped back into making regular visits to Los Olivos Mexican Patio, which has been tops on my list for Mexican food (the old school kind) for as long as I can remember. In fact, this was the first Mexican restaurant my mother and I visited when we first moved to Scottsdale  and the West’s Most Western Town actually lived up to its name.

Nowadays, a good buddy and I meet there at least twice a month to talk, drink beer and split a cheese crisp, which ranks among the best in town. Okay, IS the best in town.

I love a good cheese crisp with all my heart, but they seem to be harder and harder to come by these days. Why is that? Maybe because the Trend Police have ordained that we must worship only that which is authentic and Mexican food made north of the border doesn’t count. So, like nachos, cheese crisps are now disdained as concoctions made strictly for gringos. What a pity! And I beg to differ. In my not-so-humble opinion, Arizona has its own brand of Mexican food, and some of it’s terrific. It deserves a respected place in the pantheon.

As its name suggests, a cheese crisp should be crispy on the bottom (there’s nothing worse than a cheese limp) and — just as important — sizzling hot and gooey on top, thanks to a generous melt of cheese, which is usually of the orange variety. At Los Olivos, it’s an orange and white mixture, which I’m guessing is mild cheddar and Monterey Jack, nice and stringy.

If my pal and I draw the not-quite-together young waitress who seems to work the tiny, narrow room we favor (even though the acoustics are ridiculous), odds are 50-50 as to whether our cheese crisp is still going to be bubbling-hot from the broiler when we get it. But if we draw any of the veteran mamacitas who’ve been working at Los Olivos since time began, that cheese crisp will be perfect every time: the bottom browned, crisp and almost pastry-like in its flakiness, the cheese looping and drooping as the slices are pulled apart.

What makes this cheese crisp so special, aside from its prerequisite crispiness? Two things: the flour tortilla and the hot sauce, served in a tapered bottle, not a bowl. The sauce is bright red, garlicky, redolent with oregano and plenty hot. Brought to the table first thing with warm, thin, crispy corn chips and a milder, chunkier salsa (good but not in the same league) it’s nearly impossible to leave alone.

Now, about that ethereal flour tortilla, made in-house and bearing the black spots of the griddle: it’s one of the best in town. Maybe not better than Carolina’s but very, very close behind. Thin and pliant, it leaves a trace of greasy residue on the fingers and makes a foldable mop for steak picado (another  favorite of mine). Zora Valenzuela has been cranking out flour tortillas for Los Olivos for over 40 years, and I’m here to tell you, she’s got it down.

Critics generally don’t re-review restaurants that have been around since the earth was flat, so it’s not likely you’re going to read a professional’s opinion of Los Olivos any time soon. And God knows you can’t trust most Yelpers, who are inclined to say things like, “I’m generally not a fan of Mexican food, so this may be an unfair review but oh well.” Yeah. Oh well.

Whether you can trust me on this score is also up for debate, and here’s why. When you’ve loved a person, place or thing for a long, long time, you probably can’t view it objectively anymore. Case in point: many years ago, I asked a longtime boyfriend, “Is that girl prettier than I am?” His reply was “I don’t know. I can’t see you anymore.” Maybe it was his clever way of dodging the truth, but it was an answer I happily accepted. It suggested that his love for me had made him blind to this particular asset or that particular flaw. It is exactly this way for me with Los Olivos. I’ve loved it for so long that I just can’t see it anymore.

P.S. My old standbys are the cheese crisp, cheese enchilada with sour cream, green corn tamale and steak picado. I seldom vary, and this, too, is a great treat for me: eating the same thing every single time, which is a no-no in my line of work.

Los Olivos History —-

Although the physical space has grown considerably since I was a kid (there was no blue room — or at least it wasn’t enclosed — and no great big dining room/lounge back then), Los Olivos feels pretty much the same as it always did — kind of creaky and dim, funky and comfortable. It’s one of the things I like so much about it.

The original building, which was constructed somewhere around 1920, is adobe and in its first incarnation was a pool hall. When the Scottsdale Civic Center was built, there was some talk of tearing it down to make way for the parking lot, which, of course, is standard operating procedure here in the Valley. But Barry Goldwater saved Los Olivos from the idiots. Or at least that’s the way the story goes and I believe it.

The Corral family has owned Los Olivos from the get-go and they’re smart enough to stick with a winning formula. It’s been spruced up a little here and a little there over time — new booths to replace the dumpy ripped ones, shiny silver mirrors and walls that have been painted with cactus and knock-offs of famous Diego Rivera paintings. But somehow, it all manages to look ancient and lived in. Best design feature: the grimacing head that sits atop the restaurant like a Mayan gargoyle.